Another one for the “FBI bias” file, although this is about 1/1000th as damning as Peter Strzok’s infamous “we’ll stop it” text. For a simple reason: Comey’s negative impressions of Trump had surely already been formed by late October 2016. He’d spent 16 months watching him on the campaign trail by that point, had surely read tons of news items about him, and no doubt had studied him as a potential superior in the executive branch.
And yet he still sent the letter to Congress late that month announcing that he’d reopened the Emailgate investigation into Hillary Clinton, knowing what that might do to her chances. At the moment of truth, he was willing to risk a Trump presidency in the interest of full transparency about the email probe. He disliked the Republican nominee, but did he dislike him so much that he was out to get him — which is the form of bias we care about in a public servant? If so, how to explain the letter?
What he and the interviewer are arguing about, really, is unconscious bias. Even if Comey resolved to try to treat Trump fairly despite his personal contempt for him, that’s hard to do successfully for the simple reason that one’s biases color one’s perceptions. Look at how the media treats Republicans. They usually maintain a degree of broad neutrality, e.g., making sure to get reaction from the right when they report on something unflattering to the GOP, but we all know the small biases that creep into reporting that the media itself is blind to. You’ll sometimes hear about “ultraconservatives” but never “ultraliberals.” A bad development for the left will be framed in terms of “conservatives pouncing” on it for political advantage instead of reporting on it in a straightforward way. What sort of seemingly minor but potentially important perceptions about Trump were colored in the same unflattering way in Comey’s mind by his prejudices against him? That’s no academic question. The precise wording of what Trump said to him in asking him to go easy on Mike Flynn would be hugely relevant potentially to the obstruction case against Trump. All we have to go on is Comey’s biased memory of it.
But on the other hand, I’m not sure what we want Comey to say here. If he said “I had no personal opinion of Trump one way or another when he was sworn in,” we’d all say “garbage” in unison. Everyone had a personal opinion of Trump. In fact, everyone had an extremely strong personal opinion of Trump. He may be the most polarizing politician in modern American history. If Comey claimed neutrality we’d laugh at his absurd G-man pretenses to perfect objectivity, just as we laugh at the media’s pretenses to the same thing. And it’d be one thing if Trump were otherwise an extremely popular pol during the 2016 campaign, with Comey harboring some strange, inexplicable dislike for him. But Trump had the worst personal favorability ratings of any recent presidential candidate. Last week his job approval hit 45 percent, his highest mark in ages — but when asked if they find him “likable,” Americans split 37/62. This is what Comey was getting at in his unintentionally funny response to the question of whether he had a negative opinion of Trump: “Sure, that’s because I’m a human being.” Most human beings dislike him, including I’m sure some of the people around him in the White House now. What should someone who dislikes him but wants to serve the country and means to behave professionally around him do?