ST. PETERSBURG, FL -- I debated even writing this. I’m a reporter and my goal is not to defend anyone or take a side. But with everything going on surrounding the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, it got me thinking about this experience. It's one that very few have and sometimes it helps to think of people as just that, people, rather than a job title.
It was a pivotal moment for some of us participating in the Tampa FBI Citizen’s Academy. We were in Washington D.C., visiting FBI headquarters. All day, a group of about 20 of us, walked around and listened to different speakers. Near the middle of the day, we were sitting in a room in chairs with little elbow room, patiently waiting for the next presentation.
Out of nowhere, in pops a tall, slender figure who looked pretty familiar. It was then-FBI Director James Comey. When we got there, we were told, “Hey, we might see him walking by in the hallway somewhere," but to see him come in and have a casual chat with us was captivating.
He greeted us, made a few jokes and addressed, you know, the elephant in the room: the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
He debunked everything we (or at least I) might have thought about him. He entered the room as the intimidating leader of the top law enforcement agency in the country, but soon showed us James Comey. This was a guy who has a wife, kids and a dog who hops up on his bed. A guy who loves spending time with his family and escaping the heavy load of his job when he’s in the comfort of his home. It didn’t take long for us to see him as Comey, instead of Director Comey. We were all taken by his personable and jovial character.
He was upfront about his reaction to the Clinton email investigation, addressing it head on. It was something that had a profound impact on him. He said it had been painful for him because the FBI strives to stay out of politics and doesn't choose sides, especially during a politically charged year like 2016. The agency, he said, looked to stay above partisan bickering and making decisions based on what politicians want.
Comey told us he felt caught in the middle of a divisive election, but he had to make a decision with the investigation. Saying nothing, he believed, was not an option. So, he had to choose between making a bad decision or making a catastrophic decision. He chose what he told us he considered to be the bad one and told Congress the Bureau was reopening the investigation into Clinton because of new evidence.
Comey told us he put the Bureau's best, most skilled agents in charge of the investigation, so he felt confident in the route they were going. He even told us that the investigation wrapped quickly, lasting only about a week, because of extraordinary equipment they have. He repeatedly mentioned it was not an easy decision and said it bothered him that the bureau’s reputation was being questioned.
I could tell everyone in the room was just as fascinated by his explanation as I was. Then, he opened the floor to questions. One person asked the question that was probably on all of our minds: “What you said really explains well what happened. Why aren’t you speaking directly to the American people? They need to hear this as well.”
He told us he was seriously considering that, but said he didn’t know how. Should he release a statement? Should he do an interview with "60 Minutes"? Months later, we now know he said nothing directly to the American people. Instead, a memo to Bureau employees and a recent congressional appearance are how people heard Comey's side. Seemingly, those weren’t the most effective ways for Americans to hear it, but this was a guy who was still trying to stay out of partisan politics and remain the head of an agency that cares about justice, not party affiliation.
The Citizens Academy is a program that gives people an inside look at the FBI with the goal of building a better relationship with the community. The energy coming from Comey was matched by just about every other employee we met. We expected stereotypical, big, bad FBI agents, but instead were met with enthusiastic, funny, intelligent people who enjoyed being a part of what they consider the best organization in the country. FBI agents and employees, from what I saw personally, were really happy under Comey’s leadership. Not only did they say it, but you could also see it and hear it in their voices when talking about the agency.
We’ve all had difficult situations we’ve had to face in life that might not have put us in the best light. The Clinton investigation was perhaps the biggest former Director Comey's had to deal with in his career and, based on what he told us that day so many months ago, this must have been the decision he felt was best for the American people. Time will tell if the people, and others in government, agree with him.