What is James Comey’s game? The media must expose the truth together | Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson
‘We now know for certain that there is no evidence that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump, a nonsensical distraction that Trump tweeted after hearing speculation to that effect from a rightwing commentator.’ Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

FBI director James Comey had a very busy July.

He closed a protracted investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. He filed no charges but blasted her conduct as “extremely careless” nonetheless, a lasting wound to her campaign. The public lashing contravened the normal procedure of staying silent on cases that are not prosecuted. Comey’s grandstanding press conference at the time seemed political.

Meanwhile, he confirmed at a congressional hearing yesterday, that in that same month the FBI had opened an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, collusion intended to hurt the Clinton campaign and help Donald Trump. Confirming the existence of an investigation before it has concluded was also unusual and possibly political.

During the campaign, Comey kept silent about this investigation into far graver matters than the endless pursuit of what Bernie Sanders called Clinton’s “damn emails”. Given the contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russians, public acknowledgment of this investigation certainly could have damaged his candidacy. What is known about the Russian meddling has contributed to the historically low approval ratings for a new president.

Here’s the uncomfortable question that hung in the air at yesterday’s hearing: could the FBI director’s disproportionate treatment of the two cases have influenced the outcome of the election every bit as much as any Russian efforts? We will never know.

Comey’s testimony is very likely to be all that the FBI will reveal to the public until the investigation concludes, probably many months from now. Some of his statements were clarifying. We now know for certain that there is no evidence that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump, a nonsensical distraction that Trump tweeted after hearing speculation to that effect from a rightwing commentator. But he refused to answer questions about whether specific Trump associates were being investigated for criminal wrongdoing.

Jeff Sessions has recused himself from a role in the Russia investigation because the attorney general outrageously concealed his own contacts with the Russian ambassador. Sessions was one of the first lawmakers to endorse Trump and met with the ambassador twice during the GOP convention, also in July. His grossly misleading concealment of the meetings at his conformation hearing has stained the authority of any justice department investigation. The FBI is part of the department.

The congressional intelligence committees is also investigating the Russian hacking and contacts with the Trump campaign. But it’s doubtful given partisan rancor in Washington that these supposedly bipartisan panels can ever be above the political fray.

That leaves the press as the public’s best hope of getting to the bottom of the Russia matter. Reporters don’t have subpoena power, but the great investigative reporting that’s been done on the story already, by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Pro Publica, a non-profit organisation devoted to investigative journalism, and other newspapers, including this one, gives me hope.

Many of the answers to what really went on during the campaign reside in Russia, a notoriously difficult and dangerous terrain for journalists. Unfortunately, many news organizations have cut or eliminated their Moscow bureaus over the past decade as newspaper advertising collapsed and newsrooms were slashed.

The first amendment protects a free press for exactly this type of situation, to be a check against the abuse of centralized power and to hold the government accountable. I can think of no matter more worthy of concerted press inquiry than the possible subverting of the democratic process by a foreign power to aid an American presidential candidate.

The gravity of the matter calls for a change in the behavior of the press. Reputable news organizations that have committed resources to original reporting on the Russia story should not compete with one another, they should cooperate and pool information.

I worry that the profusion of news stories, some focused on small developments, creates a confusing din for the public. Multiple stories in so many different publications also create the impression that the media are ganging up on Trump, which isn’t the case.

Stories could be jointly reported and published. This would not be the first time the news media formed a consortium to investigate wrongdoing or delve into very complex matters. The murder of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles in 1976 by a car bomb, an incident connected to the Mafia, was one such case. After the deadlocked 2000 election, news organizations tried to work together on a reliable recount of the Florida vote and overseas ballots. Consortiums combed through WikiLeaks dumps, the Snowden documents and the Panama Papers, all to the benefit of public disclosure.

Surely, the president will call this fake news. But an authoritative, scrupulously factual investigation by a collective of great news organizations could actually be the best antidote. If we can solve the Russia-Trump puzzle, trust in the news media might begin tracking up once again.

Democracy does die in darkness, as the Washington Post’s new motto says. The truth is more important now than ever, as the New York Times new ad says. Now is the time to prove it.

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