FACED WITH an ongoing special counsel investigation, the White House appears to have settled on a novel method of defending President Trump in the court of public opinion: smearing James B. Comey. Three times this past week, Mr. Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused the former FBI director of possible criminal wrongdoing. While leveling such charges in the absence of any evidence would have been inappropriate enough, Ms. Sanders went on each time to hint that the Justice Department should “look at” Mr. Comey’s supposed transgressions — a wink and a nod that borders on a threat to use law enforcement as a political tool against the president’s enemies.
Speaking from the White House lectern, Ms. Sanders suggested that Mr. Comey had violated the law both in giving false testimony before Congress and in sharing with the New York Times a memo documenting the president’s request that the FBI drop its investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. When asked why she believed Mr. Comey’s conduct to have been illegal, Ms. Sanders presented a hodgepodge of legal arguments with little relevance to the former director’s actions.
According to Mr. Comey’s sworn testimony, the memo he provided to the Times did not contain classified information. This rules out his having violated his nondisclosure agreement with the FBI. Yet Ms. Sanders pointed to that agreement along with the Privacy Act, which governs disclosure of personal information contained in government files, such as medical records. There’s nothing to suggest that Mr. Comey’s memo contained any information that would be protected under the statute or that the memo was housed with FBI records. Ms. Sanders stated that the former director prepared the memo on a government computer. But even if that were enough to transform the document into a record covered by the Privacy Act — which is far from clear — there’s no public evidence to support Ms. Sanders’s claim that Mr. Comey used an FBI computer to draft that particular memo.
Ms. Sanders’s strongest argument is that Mr. Comey may have transgressed the terms of his employment agreement with the FBI. But breach of that agreement would not be illegal. And Mr. Comey had already been fired when he passed the memo to the Times.
The legal reasoning behind Ms. Sanders’s attacks on Mr. Comey may be risible, but the White House’s willingness to groundlessly malign an adversary should be taken seriously. It’s one thing for the president’s legal defense team to try to persuade the public and the special counsel that Mr. Comey is not a credible witness. It’s quite another to leverage the power of the presidency against a political adversary and hint at a Justice Department investigation on the basis of paper-thin claims. By now it may be naive to hope that Mr. Trump will come to respect the importance of independent law enforcement. But he would be wise to keep in mind the catastrophe that engulfed his administration when he assaulted that independence by firing Mr. Comey — and abandon this latest attack.