With President Donald Trump’s blessing, Republicans are preparing to launch a major counter-offensive against former FBI director James Comey, who is set to embark on a book promotion tour that could make explosive claims about Trump’s conduct, according to CNN.
Comey’s new book is set to drop next week, and it will likely trigger a huge spin war over its revelations. There will be a powerful temptation for neutral observers to proclaim that both parties are being equivalently inconsistent about Comey. But this is wrong, and caving to this temptation will only help bad-faith actors accomplish their goal of obfuscating the true nature and points of disagreement in this debate, which have important public consequences.
CNN reports that the Republican National Committee’s battle plan includes digital ads and a new website that will brand Comey as “Lyin’ Comey.” One key to this line of attack will be Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, about which Republicans will push several claims:
“‘Comey has a long history of misstatements and misconduct,’ including damage caused to the FBI because of ‘bizarre decisions, contradictory statements and acting against Department of Justice and FBI protocol.’”
“‘Comey isn’t credible – just ask Democrats.’ The digital ads will show several Democrats calling for Comey’s resignation after he injected himself into the 2016 presidential race …”
CNN reports that Republicans will argue that Comey overstepped his boundaries – a reference in part to his decision to announce at a July 2016 news conference that he had closed the probe into Clinton while also strongly criticizing her. Republicans, then, will cite Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation, and Democratic criticism of it, as reasons that we should question Comey’s credibility.
But at the time, Republicans themselves repeatedly used Comey’s criticism at that press conference as ammunition against then-candidate Clinton. This includes the Republican National Committee, which ran ads featuring footage of Comey’s presser. Trump himself quoted Comey’s comments to blast Clinton (though he completely misrepresented those comments) as a “disgrace and embarrassment to our country.” The Republican argument, then, is that Comey’s criticism of Clinton – which Republicans and Trump themselves repeatedly cited – is grounds to question his credibility right now.
This display of disingenuous bad-faith nonsense mirrors what we’ve seen right from the top. Trump himself absurdly used Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe as his phony pretext for firing Comey, even though he had wielded Comey’s criticism as campaign ammo. Now he’s going to cite it to delegitimize Comey’s criticism of his own conduct in trying to obstruct and derail the investigation into his and his cronies’ conduct, a good deal of which is a matter of public record at this point.
Republicans will muddy the waters further around this by pointing out that Democrats criticized that Comey conduct then, and by arguing that they are merely making the same argument now that Democrats did. Republicans will say on this basis that if Democrats currently seize on Comey’s criticism of Trump, it’s inconsistent. But there simply isn’t an equivalent inconsistency here. The Democratic argument is that Comey’s conduct toward Clinton was wrong – their argument is still the same on this front – and that Comey’s current testimony about Trump’s conduct has legitimate revelatory value.
We should of course reserve judgment about the second point until we hear what Comey has to say. But there’s nothing inherently contradictory or inconsistent about making those two arguments simultaneously. Both of them can easily coexist as correct. Comey’s current claims very well may have inherent news value for what they tell us about the current president’s conduct – we can evaluate these claims against an existing set of known facts about that conduct – and there’s no reason that critics of Comey’s previous conduct toward Clinton are somehow disqualified from saying so.
Republicans are not simply offering an argument that is the partisan inverse of the Democratic argument. If they were doing that, they’d say something like, “Comey was right when he criticized Clinton, but he’s wrong about Trump.” But they are saying something different, something like this: “Even though we cited Comey’s criticism of Clinton at the time, we’re now saying he was wrong to offer it, which proves his criticism of Trump is not to be believed.”
This is just the old Republican fog machine at work. And it may be effective. But observers who succumb to the seductive idea that there is an equivalence in partisan rhetorical gamesmanship here will just be rewarding the asymmetric disingenuousness and bad faith that suffuses the GOP argument, by helping to spread the confusion – and distraction from potentially legitimate revelations about Trump’s conduct – that it is designed to sow.
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