“You make us better,” James Comey told the Anti-Defamation League in his final public speech as FBI director this week. Judging from the applause in the D.C. conference room, the feeling was mutual.
Mired as Comey was in investigations of the scandals of 2016 (Hillary Clinton’s relationship with her email server) and 2017 (Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia), not a lot of love was lost between the FBI director and either political party.
Democrats called for Comey’s firing last year when he reopened the Clinton case less than two weeks before the election because of emails found on the laptop of former Rep. Anthony Weiner in an unrelated case.
President Trump, who as a candidate repeatedly praised the FBI director, fired Comey on May 9, ostensibly because he treated Clinton unfairly last July — Comey excoriated her for her email habits in a news conference, but recommended against legal action.
The firing has drawn attention for its timing, as Comey was delving into possible ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia.
Among the folks whose business it is to keep Jews safe — like those gathered May 8 in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington for the ADL’s leadership summit — admiration for Comey was fairly unequivocal. To a degree greater than most of his predecessors, he made the Jewish story central to the FBI mission.
For one thing, Comey required all FBI staffers to undergo a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Good people helped to murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all,” he said at a museum dinner in 2015. “That is why I send our agents and our analysts to the museum. I want them to stare at us and realize our capacity for rationalization and moral surrender.”
Comey, already known as a persuasive speaker, was especially adept at understanding what moved Jewish Americans. In his ADL speech this week, he recalled meeting a man who was not far from the scene when a gunman opened fire last June at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“My name is Menachem Green and I’m Jewish,” Comey quoted the man as saying, and went on to say that Green was pleased to tell him that he ran toward the shooting alongside a police officer who he learned was a Muslim.
“We were Jew and Muslim and Christian and white and black and Latino running to help people we didn’t know,” Comey recalled Green saying.
Comey also noted the “Muslim activists who raised over $100,000 to repair Jewish headstones in St. Louis and Philadelphia — that makes us better.”
The now former FBI chief also embraced one of the ADL’s signature issues, improving reporting of hate crimes by local authorities.
“We must do a better job of tracking and reporting hate crime to fully understand what is happening in our country so we can stop it,” he said.
Just a week earlier, Comey was due to receive an award from the Secure Community Network, the security affiliate of the Jewish Federations of North America. Paul Goldenberg, the SCN director, said Comey was to be recognized for his work with the community in tracking down the perpetrator of dozens of bomb hoaxes on JCCs and other Jewish institutions.
“Director Comey put in extraordinary resources and showed tremendous commitment to the American Jewish community,” Goldenberg said, noting that the FBI had deployed agents to Jewish communities across the states.
Comey was on the Hill testifying to the Senate about how he handled the email and Russia scandals and could not personally accept the recognition, so SCN delivered it to a surrogate.
In his testimony, Comey noted one of the FBI triumphs of recent months as a defense of the agency — helping to solve the JCC bomb threats.
“Children frightened, old people frightened, terrifying threats of bombs at Jewish institutions, especially the Jewish community centers — the entire FBI surged in response to that threat,” Comey said in his opening remarks on May 3 to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In March, an Israeli American teen was arrested in Israel on suspicion of calling in more than 100 bomb threats. Last month, the U.S. Justice Department charged the teen, Michael Kadar, with making threatening calls to JCCs in Florida, conveying false information to the police and cyberstalking.
“Working across all programs, all divisions, our technical wizards, using our vital international presence and using our partnerships especially with the Israeli national police, we made that case and the Israelis locked up the person behind those threats and stopped the terrifying plague against the Jewish community centers,” Comey said.
Comey may be gone, but the shock at his departure among Democrats — and some congressional Republicans — means his memory is unlikely to fade anytime soon.
“We must have a special prosecutor,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader in the Senate, said in a statement. Schumer said he told Trump in a phone call that firing Comey was a “very big mistake.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, which is also probing the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, said there was no contradiction between being appalled at Comey’s handling of the Clinton case and at his firing.
Schiff noted that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia investigation because he had met twice with a Russian diplomat during the transition but did not disclose it during his confirmation hearings, had signed off on the firing.
“The decision by a president whose campaign associates are under investigation by the FBI for collusion with Russia to fire the man overseeing that investigation, upon the recommendation of an attorney general who has recused himself from that investigation, raises profound questions about whether the White House is brazenly interfering in a criminal matter,” he said.