Defining moment for Comey in Clinton call

James Comey went from the political frying pan to the fire Tuesday when the FBI chief announced that he would not recommend pressing charges against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family MORE over her use of a private email server while secretary of State.

Comey’s address to the media will long be remembered as one of the most significant news events of the 2016 presidential cycle. An indictment of Clinton would have upended the race, leaving Democrats scrambling to either defend her or seek a new nominee such as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinger Neil Young says that America's presidents haven't done enough address climate change New poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide MORE (I-Vt.) or Vice President Biden.

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Comey and the bureau had been buffered by turbulent political currents while the yearlong probe ran its course. There was no doubt that roughly half the country would take umbrage at whatever decision was arrived at, especially now that Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

Not surprisingly, Comey’s decision not to indict was met with trenchant criticism from Republicans and conservatives.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis Ryan Retirees should say 'no thanks' to Romney's Social Security plan California Governor Newsom and family dress as 2020 Democrats for Halloween DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll MORE (Wis.), the highest-ranking GOP officeholder in the country, issued a statement asserting that the decision not to indict “defies explanation.”

Plenty of other Republicans piled on. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Trump: 'Everybody knows who the whistleblower is' Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-Ky.) tweeted that the decision was “astounding.” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus alleged that “the Obama Administration … were never going to prosecute Clinton’s criminal behavior.” House majority whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said that it was “beyond comprehension” why Clinton would not face criminal charges.

Comey, 55, has plenty of experience in withstanding political pressure. A Republican, he served in former President George W. Bush’s administration as deputy attorney general. But his most famous action during that period was rushing to the hospital room of ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft as part of a last-ditch effort to resist approving a particular spying program run by the National Security Agency.

Comey, who contributed to the Republican presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDonald Trump's 2020 election economic gamble 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary MORE (Ariz.) in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, has also frustrated the Obama administration while in his current role, warning about “gaps” in the screening process for Syrian refugees and linking rising rates of violent crime to the Black Lives Matter movement.

As he strode to the lectern on Tuesday morning, the 6-foot-8-inch Comey was well aware he was igniting another political firestorm three weeks before the Democratic National Convention and four months before the general election.

Comey has had plenty of experience investigating high-profile figures, including lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, former CIA chief David Petraeus and the late Sandy Berger, who served as former President Clinton’s national security adviser.

On top of the basic question of whether Clinton would be indicted, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonPrince Andrew says he regrets staying with Jeffrey Epstein Now for your moment of Zen from the Trump impeachment hearings The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today MORE had added more kindling with his contentious foray onto the private jet of Attorney General Loretta Lynch — technically, Comey’s boss — a little more than a week ago. In the wake of the 30-minute conversation between the former president and the attorney general becoming public, Lynch announced that she would accept whatever course the FBI recommended regarding Hillary Clinton.

Comey was at pains Tuesday to insist that there had been no political pressure placed on the bureau he leads.

At the outset of his statement, he said that he had “not coordinated or reviewed this statement in any way with the Department of Justice or any other part of government. They do not know what I am about to say.”

He closed with an assertion that the FBI had worked in “an entirely apolitical” way. 

“What I can assure the American people is that this investigation was done competently, honestly and independently,” he said. “No outside influence of any kind was brought to bear.”

Some experts argued that Comey had walked the high wire as steadily as could be reasonably expected.

“I think very highly of him. He is an incredibly thoughtful, experienced person. He is the right guy to have. I don’t think he was fazed by the politics,” said Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and a former assistant director of the FBI.

But Hosko also hinted that he himself had been surprised that the harsh criticism Comey leveled at Clinton did not lead to a recommendation to indict.

Referring to Comey’s Tuesday morning remarks, he said, “For the first three-quarters of it, he was crafting an indictment of Hillary Clinton’s actions. … It felt like an indictment.”

While Comey would deny any balancing of political imperatives, it is nonetheless a fact that his decision to not press for indictment was accompanied by several damning findings — most notably that Clinton and her colleagues had been “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Referring to email exchanges that included classified information, Comey also asserted, “There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position … should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”

If those findings provided some welcome ammunition for Clinton’s foes, they also drew protests from some quarters.

Matt Miller, who served as a Department of Justice spokesman during Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderPelosi refers to Sinclair's Rosen as 'Mr. Republican Talking Points' over whistleblower question Krystal Ball: Billionaires panicking over Sanders candidacy Obama celebrates 'great night for our country' after Democrats' victories in Virginia and Kentucky MORE’s tenure as attorney general, told The Hill that he found Comey’s news conference “appalling.” Miller argued that the director’s actions breached a standard practice of only laying out accusations of misdeeds at length if charges are actually going to be brought in court — where they can also potentially be rebutted.

“Jim Comey basically presented himself as the prosecutor and the ultimate judge and jury,” Miller said. “He is out there passing judgments on facts that the FBI has gathered in a way that is really unfair to Secretary Clinton.”

Still, for now Comey will have to get used to most of the indignation coming from the Republican side.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE said that “because of our rigged system that holds the American people to one standard and people like Hillary Clinton to another, it does not look like she will be facing the criminal charges that she deserves.”