WASHINGTON ― The White House delivered an arm’s-length rebuke to FBI Director James Comey on Monday, declining to either stand behind or fully condemn his decision to enter the presidential-election fray but noting that he had opened the door to a partisan fracas.
The Department of Justice has great power that comes with great responsibility, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. He was addressing Comey sending a vaguely worded letter to Congress last week in which he announced the FBI had potentially discovered emails that could be related to a prior investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private account.
“I will neither defend nor criticize what Director Comey has decided to communicate to the public about the investigation,” Earnest said, before framing the decision as Comey’s alone and potentially damaging to “our democracy.”
“What I will say is the Department of Justice in our democracy is given expansive authority to conduct investigations,” Earnest said. “The Department of Justice is given subpoena power, they are allowed to compel witnesses to testify, they are able to collect evidence that’s not readily available, they are allowed to empanel a grand jury. Those are substantial authorities.”
“It is important in the mind of the president that those authorities are tempered by adherence to longstanding tradition and practice and norms that limit public discussion of facts that are collected in the context of those investigations,” he said as he spoke from the White House briefing room lectern. “There are a variety of good reasons for that, and the president believes it is important for those norms and traditions and guidelines to be followed.”
Earnest was painstaking with his choice of words. He repeatedly called Comey a man of integrity, stressed that the president had confidence in his stewardship of the FBI, and insisted to reporters that there was no concern that Comey was trying to influence the election.
“He’s in a tough spot,” he said of the torrent of criticism that has come Comey’s way. “He’s the one who will be in a position to defend his actions in the face of significant criticism from a variety of legal experts, including individuals who served in senior Department of Justice positions and administrations of both parties.”
But notably, Earnest was not trying to help lift Comey out of that tough spot. When told that it “certainly” sounded like oblique criticism of the FBI director, Earnest merely replied: “I’m certainly giving voice to longstanding guidelines.”
If anything, Monday’s White House briefing had the distinct taste of an administration telling the FBI director to clean up his own mess ― without, of course, the explicit recommendation to do so. Earnest noted that in breaking with guidelines to avoid getting involved in elections so close to Election Day, the predictable results had occurred.
“We certainly have already seen some of Secretary Clinton’s harshest critics capitalize on this letter, distort its contents, to provoke controversy,” he said, calling it “Exhibit A of how partisans in Congress have sought political advantage through the disclosure of this information. That’s why these guidelines are so important and that’s why adherence to these guidelines have served our democracy for a long time.”
Comey’s letter to Congress, he said, “had the opposite of the intended effect.”