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Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey may be damaged goods in political terms, but there is no indication he is going anywhere — even if Hillary Clinton is elected president.
Mr Comey’s handling over the past 10 days of the renewed investigation of Mrs Clinton’s emails has managed to alienate Democrats and Republicans, leaving influential figures on both sides of Washington’s political chasm convinced that he has bungled a sensitive case.
On Sunday, Mr Comey wrote to key congressional leaders that the bureau had completed its review of newly discovered emails and found no reason to alter its verdict that there were no grounds to prosecute the former secretary of state. Mr Comey had upended the 2016 campaign with his October 28 disclosure of the additional emails.
The unexpected FBI interventions gave official Washington political whiplash. Within minutes on Sunday, partisan fire rained on the FBI boss. Bill Burton, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, tweeted of Mr Comey: “There is bipartisan agreement that he is a catastrophe.”
Republican senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, also criticised the FBI director for “a vague announcement” that left “a growing number of unanswered questions”.
No matter who wins Tuesday’s presidential election, Mr Comey faces twin challenges in the months ahead. He must repair his own reputation, which has been badly dented by political skirmishing over his handling of the email investigation, and restore the bureau’s non-partisan standing.
“The FBI director’s personal reputation is not what it was a year ago,” said Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “A lot of people who had confidence in him last week do not have confidence today.”
If Mr Comey were any other political appointee, and not the nation’s top law enforcement officer, he might well be headed for the exit. But the FBI director enjoys a 10-year assignment, a term of office designed to insulate the job from passing political passions.
Though the president has the legal authority to replace the FBI boss, Mr Obama is unlikely to fire him. Only one FBI director, William Sessions in 1993, has been dismissed before the end of his term.
If Mrs Clinton is elected, she is unlikely to expend scarce political capital to remove Mr Comey. To many Americans, including the millions who doubt Mrs Clinton’s honesty, replacing the FBI director would look like an act of political retribution. The ensuing political firestorm would consume much of her first year in office.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Mrs Clinton’s campaign, welcomed Mr Comey’s decision on Sunday. But he added that the FBI could have determined that there was nothing of interest in the new emails before alerting Congress — and upsetting the presidential race — in the first place.
There is little chance Mr Comey will walk away from a job he routinely describes in reverent terms and vows to see through to its conclusion.
Mr Comey is not a garden variety public servant. At 6’8” tall, he stands out in any crowd. He also stands out in Washington by making a focus of his personal integrity. “Comey’s a Boy Scout,” said one former senior FBI agent.
Last month, Mr Comey dwelled on the subject of leadership in a speech to a conference on George Washington at Mount Vernon, Virginia. In his description of Washington’s virtues, it was possible to catch a glimpse of how he approached consequential decisions.
“It required a centredness, a sense of self that allowed him to be comfortable enough to listen to these people and to learn from them,” Mr Comey said of the nation’s first president. “But at bottom it also required enough confidence to insist that whatever the advice, the decision was his. Whatever final decision was made, it was a testament to his own judgment and his own character.”
Since notifying Congress that FBI agents were investigating newly discovered emails linked to Mrs Clinton’s private server, Mr Comey has been buffeted by a tempest in the bureau’s ranks, as some agents leaked to reporters their demands for more aggressive action.
“It’s been a pretty tough week for the FBI,” said David Gomez, who spent 28 years with the bureau before retiring five years ago.
Both presidential candidates have had tough words for the director. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, said in July that Mr Comey’s decision to recommend no prosecution over Mrs Clinton’s emails was evidence of a “rigged” system.
On Sunday, Mr Trump’s twitter account was silent. But Kellyanne Conway, Mr Trump’s campaign manager, tweeted: “If FBI conclusions remain unchanged, that means she still was reckless & careless, still lied about classified info, lied re: # of devices.”
The FBI director’s challenge would be especially acute in a Clinton administration. He could find himself serving under a president whose White House bid he nearly derailed.
The new president will inherit an FBI that is embroiled in politics to an unusual degree. Since Mr Comey’s first letter to Congress, normally tight-lipped FBI agents have been the source of press reports detailing alleged misdeeds by the Clintons, representing a last-minute publicity offensive that wounded the Democratic candidate.
Disclosing confidential details of an investigation is considered a firing offence in the FBI.
One Fox News report, quoting FBI sources, said an indictment was likely to result from an ongoing investigation on the Clinton Foundation. Fox later retracted the report.
On Friday, John Conyers and Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrats on the House judiciary and oversight and government reform committees, wrote to the Department of Justice inspector-general requesting an investigation of “unauthorised and inaccurate leaks from within the FBI”.
The letter came hours after former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani told Fox that he had learnt of Mr Comey’s October 28 congressional notification days earlier. Mr Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, said he had been tipped off by his contacts among retired agents.
Law enforcement professionals, like members of the US military, generally tilt Republican in their politics. And there is widespread antipathy among FBI agents towards the Clintons and their charitable foundation.
Inside the bureau, many agents regard the Clintons as akin to an organised crime family, said one former agent. “They’re always in the grey area,” this retired agent said.
But others disputed reports that the FBI is almost uniformly pro-Trump.
“That’s not true,” said Mr Gomez. “In Seattle, the agent population is split about 50/50. There are plenty of Clinton supporters in the office and plenty of Trump supporters.”