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Carnegie Mellon University

Commentary: Comey testimony shows the importance of truth and honesty

In a highly-anticipated congressional session on June 8, former FBI director James Comey testified about his interactions with President Donald Trump, gave a frank assessment of the president’s character, and discussed some of the reasoning behind Comey’s controversial handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation last year. What he did not do was give a legal opinion on whether the evidence he presented constituted obstruction of justice on the part of President Trump, as Comey believed that this was best left to the special counsel investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

As expected, views of Comey’s testimony split dramatically, as the testimony essentially pits one polarizing figure against another. Many Democrats criticized Comey last year because he announced the reopening of the Clinton email investigation just 11 days before the election, as they believe this announcement cost Clinton the election victory. Many Republicans criticized Comey last year because he did not bring charges against Clinton and some Trump loyalists criticized Comey this year in the wake of his firing.

But regardless of party affiliation or one’s views on Comey’s decisions as FBI director, the hearing displayed full-on Comey’s reputation for honesty and integrity, as well as passion for serving the country and getting justice. His opening statement released the day before and his public testimony also reveal him as a storyteller with an ability to rivet even audiences that did not usually engage in matters related to federal law enforcement.

From the beginning of his term, Comey always felt compelled to fulfill the one of the most essential duties of an FBI director: to protect the FBI’s core political independence and to help fulfill justice. This was on display when he revealed that he started documenting his conversations with President Trump because he was concerned that Trump might lie about the nature of the meetings later on, and said that he was sorry that the American people had to hear the lies put out by the president in the wake of the firing. Comey seemed to have the foresight that he would need the documents one day to defend himself and the FBI–and indeed, they have proven to be essential for the investigation into Russian ties.

For him, the most important motivation as a public servant was not advancing anyone’s political careers, not even his own; it was the truth, because without truth, nothing good can be achieved. The memos were Comey’s way of recording evidence of and eventually calling out abuse of power at the highest levels of the executive branch. He did not hesitate to voice his concern over the president’s shifting explanations for his firing. Even after he was fired, he felt compelled to defend his former institution against what he saw as unfair defamation by the president. Comey was well aware of what pernicious effects lies, especially those from the highest levels of government, could have on the country’s psyche and ultimately democracy itself. Since poisoning the information is one of the surest ways to turn people against one another and make the bad seem good and the good seem bad, getting the truth is the first step in order for there to ever be justice. This is what the memos represent: a truthful portrayal of the head of the executive branch.

Comey’s reputation for integrity shined through in his candor when describing his decision-making processes in both the Clinton and Russia investigations. During questioning from one senator, he revealed that Loretta Lynch, the Obama-era attorney general, had instructed him to refer to the Clinton email investigation as a “matter” instead of an “investigation,” and he said he complied because “this isn’t a hill worth dying on,” but that it “concerned” him and gave him a “queasy” feeling. Besides the reported tarmac meeting between Lynch and former President Bill Clinton, this was a major reason Comey decided to call the July news conference announcing that he would not recommend charges against Clinton, bypassing usual Justice Department protocols.

Despite knowing the unusualness of the procedure and the criticism it would generate, Comey decided that protecting the FBI’s independence from politics and preserving that appearance crucial for public trust in the institution was more important than any heat that he would have to take from other branches of the government or from the public. He also felt obliged to notify Congress and the public in October when the investigation’s status changed because he did not want to give the appearance of hiding anything that could be seen as favoring one political candidate. He always strove to be as transparent as he possibly could be, because he felt that it was crucial to his job leading a politically-neutral institution. True to this reputation, in the testimony, he explained his thinking thoroughly and did not try to hide anything as long as the information was not classified. It seems like his motives for his controversial decisions last year were noble, even if they led to decisions that seemed to be errors of judgment retrospectively, and not sinister as some on both sides of the political divide have claimed.

In one of the most stunning admissions in the hearing, Comey said that he gave his memos relating his conversations with President Trump to a friend and asked the friend to pass it on to the media because he hoped it would trigger the appointment of a special prosecutor. Regardless of whether one thinks it is ethical or not to leak private conversations with the president, the frankness that Comey displayed here is worthy of respect, especially in a time when many politicians are loathe to take responsibility or be transparent about their decision-making if they believe it could stir controversy. Even after he was fired, Comey wanted to make sure the Russian investigation was in good hands– and he used this “leak” for that purpose. He was willing to reveal this in front of millions of viewers, many of whom may not agree with this action, because he felt that he had nothing to hide for himself– he was doing this in order to get justice for an issue that he believed should concern all Americans.

As if to emphasize that he had nothing to hide, when responding to Trump’s tweet that “Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’” of their conversations, Comey exclaimed “Lordy, I hope there are tapes!” For many politicians, tapes are a threat because they are afraid that something bad about them– something that casts doubt on their character or their trust with the public– will be found out. For Comey, tapes are welcome because he is not afraid of what the truth will reveal. When one always strives to do the right thing unselfishly, truth is a friend and not an enemy.

Democracy is a building that rests on a bedrock foundation of truth and transparency. Comey’s testimony reminds us that for any government to function well and do good things for the people, there needs to be someone who is willing to stand up to power, act in accordance with a moral conscience even when it is inconvenient, and be honest and transparent with the citizenry.

In a time when it seems like the morals of many government officials seem to be substandard, Comey’s display of candor and decency is a trait we can all respect and emulate, regardless of which side of the aisle we stand on.

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