Alec Nevala-Lee

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Archive for June 8th, 2017

The Comey Files

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About a month ago, for some reason, I decided to write a blog post about James Comey. I was inspired by an article by Nate Silver titled “The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton the Election,” which outlined its case in compelling terms:

Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28. The letter, which said the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into the private email server that Clinton used as secretary of state, upended the news cycle and soon halved Clinton’s lead in the polls, imperiling her position in the Electoral College…At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by three or four percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than one point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.

Silver added that this fact has largely gone unacknowledged by the media: “From almost the moment that Trump won the White House, many mainstream journalists have been in denial about the impact of Comey’s letter…The motivation for this seems fairly clear: If Comey’s letter altered the outcome of the election, the media may have some responsibility for the result.” He concluded:

One can believe that the Comey letter cost Clinton the election without thinking that the media cost her the election—it was an urgent story that any newsroom had to cover. But if the Comey letter had a decisive effect and the story was mishandled by the press…the media needs to grapple with how it approached the story.

Of course, there’s more than one way to read the evidence. Silver’s doppelgänger, Nate Cohn of the New York Times, looked at the data for “the Comey effect” and argued against it:

These polls are consistent with an alternative election narrative in which the Comey letter had no discernible effect on the outcome. In this telling, Mrs. Clinton had a big lead after the third presidential debate…But her advantage dwindled over the following week, as post-debate coverage faded and Republican-leaning voters belatedly and finally decided to back their traditional party’s nontraditional candidate…In such a close election, anything and everything could have plausibly been decisive.

The italics are mine. No matter what you believe about what Comey did, it’s that “anything and everything” that haunts me, at least in terms of what politicians—and the rest of us—can hope to learn from the whole mess. As Nate Silver said at the end of his piece, again with my emphasis:

In normal presidential campaigns, preparing for the debates, staging the conventions and picking a solid running mate are about as high-stakes as decisions get…If I were advising a future candidate on what to learn from 2016, I’d tell him or her to mostly forget about the Comey letter and focus on the factors that were within the control of Clinton and Trump.

When you think about it, this is an extraordinary statement. Comey’s letter may have been decisive, but it isn’t the kind of development that a candidate can anticipate, so the best policy is still to concentrate on the more controllable factors that can cause a race to tighten in the first place.

As far as takeaways are concerned, this one isn’t too bad. It’s basically a reworking of the familiar advice that we should behave as prudently and consistently as we can, independent of luck, which positions us to deal with unforeseen events as they arise. I was preparing to write a post on that subject. Then a lot of other stuff happened, and I dropped it. Now that Comey is back in the news, I’ve been mulling it over again, and it occurs to me that the real case study in behavior here isn’t Clinton or Trump, but Comey himself—and it speaks as much to the limits of this approach as to its benefits. Regardless of how you feel about the consequences of his choices, there’s no doubt, at least in my mind, that he has behaved consistently, making decisions based on his own best judgment and thinking through the alternatives before committing himself to a course of action, however undesirable it might be. This didn’t exactly endear him to Democrats during the election, and afterward, it left him isolated in an administration that placed a premium on other qualities. Comey’s prepared testimony is remarkable, and as Nick Asbury of McSweeney’s points out, it reads weirdly in places like a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, but this is the paragraph that sticks with me the most:

Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.”

Comey adds: “It is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term—honest loyalty—had helped end a very awkward conversation.” And many of his actions over the next few months seem to have been designed to avoid such awkwardness again, to the point where he reportedly asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump.

Comey, in short, was behaving like a man who had arrived at the uncomfortable realization that despite his adherence to a personal code, he was stranded in a world in which it no longer mattered. If he had managed to hang on, he would have endured as the least popular man in Washington, distrusted by Democrats and Republicans alike. Then Trump fired him, which was an unforeseeable event in his life comparable to the havoc that his letter had wreaked on the election. The logic behind the move, to the extent that it had any at all, was expressed by Jared Kushner, a strong advocate of the firing, as the New York Times outlined his alleged reasoning: “It would be a political ‘win’ that would neutralize protesting Democrats because they had called for Mr. Comey’s ouster over his handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.” That isn’t quite how it turned out, and there’s something undeniably funny in how quickly progressives like me rallied behind Comey, like Homer Simpson deciding that he’s been an Isotopes fan all along. Yet this was also when Comey’s strategy finally paid off. It wouldn’t have been as easy for liberals to flip the switch if it hadn’t been obvious that Comey was fundamentally a decent man, regardless of how badly he misjudged the political environment in which his actions would be received. (The evidence suggests that Comey made the same mistake as a lot of other rational actors—he simply thought that Clinton would win the election no matter what he did.) It’s a moment of vindication for the unfashionable virtues of punctuality, personal attention, courage, and thoroughness, which have been trampled into the mud over the last six months, in no small part because of Comey’s letter. If anything undermines Nate Silver’s argument that political candidates should focus on “factors that were within the control of Clinton and Trump,” it’s Trump himself, who has handled countless matters as badly as one could imagine and still fallen backwards into a position of incomprehensible power. If you were to freeze the picture here, you could only conclude that everything you believed about how to act in life was wrong. Maybe it is. But I don’t think so. The story isn’t over yet. And if there’s any lesson that we can take from the Comey affair, it’s that we should all act with an eye on the long game.

Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2017 at 8:27 am

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Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2017 at 7:30 am

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