On Thursday, former FBI director James Comey testified before Congress that the president pressured him to end an investigation into one of his cabinet members and top campaign surrogates, Michael Flynn. He flatly called the president's statements "lies, plain and simple." But the move was not only unprecedented for a former head of the FBI, it may have been the key to boosting his and the agency's credibility
"We've never seen anything like this at all," Douglas Charles, an asssociate professor at Penn State and Author of The FBI's Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau's Crusade Against Smut, tells Bustle. "Never has an FBI director or a former FBI director testified against a sitting president and beyond that, outright called him a liar. It's stunning, really."
Charles points out that even through some of the most troubling moments in the FBI's history, it has been a public-relations juggernaut that has kept a reputation for "upstanding scientific investigators who are morally straight up," even at times when the undercover aspects of the agency were anything but. And that reputation long allowed the FBI to remain trusted by the American people. According to a YouGov poll in 2015, 63 percent of Americans trusted the bureau.
But that reputation took a hit in the past few months as controversy over Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation, and his parallel handling of the investigation into the Trump campaign, caused partisan fights over the FBI's role and honesty. By the end of 2016, trust in the FBI had fallen to 32 percent in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. And an ABC/Washington Post poll released just before the testimony found that just 36 percent of Americans trust Comey on the Russia matter — though that is still better than the 21 percent for the president Comey testified against.
However, Comey is fast on his way to rebuilding his and the FBI's reputation — in fact, he may ultimately raise its standing in the American public. And interestingly, he may do that by positioning himself in contrast to one of the FBI's most famous and controversial leaders, J. Edgar Hoover.
"Throughout this process — whether it was the Hillary Clinton email investigation, or the hacking investigation — Director Comey was seized with the importance of defending the FBI's independence," Tim Naftali, an associate professor at New York University who studies intelligence agencies, tells Bustle. "And it's clear to me as a historian of intelligence that he was seeing former director J. Edgar Hoover as a negative example."
Naftali points specifically to a line in Comey's testimony, when discussing his decision to inform the president on Jan. 6 that he was not under investigation, even as he told him of allegations in an unconfirmed dossier. "I was worried very much about being in kind of a J. Edgar Hoover-type situation," Comey said in response to questioning from Maine Sen. Susan Collins. "I didn't want him thinking I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way."
Comey was presumably referring to some of the more controversial tactics of the Hoover era. As FBI Director, Hoover had a habit of using damaging information about politicians to blackmail them. Throughout Comey's tenure as FBI director, he has worked to preserve the reputation of the Bureau, and not let it be seen as the politicized, opaque agency that it was in the wild days of Hoover's tenure.
"Comey took Hoover's past very seriously, perhaps more than any FBI director since Hoover has, and wanted it to be a place of true integrity instead of a place of widespread secret criminal activity, which it was under Hoover."
"I think Director Comey knows his history," says Naftali. "And I think he understands that some people — either historians or people of a certain age —know that the FBI was politicized and forgot its principled, nonpartisan investigative duties during the Hoover era. And he doesn't ever want the FBI to be in that situation again, nor does he want to be personally responsible for it. When you try to figure out why this man operated as he did, you have to keep in mind that he knows the history, when the FBI lost public trust and he didn't want that to happen again."
"I do think that he is very consciously the anti-Hoover and went out of his way to make that point," Betty Medsger, author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, tells Bustle.
She points to how Comey chooses to keep a 1963 memo from Hoover asking for permission to wiretap Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and receiving it from then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Comey has said of that letter and its prominent position on his desk, "I don’t keep that piece of history under the glass on the corner my desk because I’m trying to send some message criticizing Kennedy or criticizing Hoover. It’s bigger than that, actually. I keep it there in that spot to remind me of what we in the FBI are responsible for and what we as humans are capable of, and why it is vital that power be overseen, be constrained, be checked."
Medger says, "Comey took Hoover's past very seriously, perhaps more than any FBI director since Hoover has, and wanted it to be a place of true integrity instead of a place of widespread secret criminal activity, which it was under Hoover."
And that may be paying off, not only in terms of his own legacy but the FBI's future. Whether it's out of his awareness of his predecessor's controversies or his own, as some have called it, "boy scout" attitude, Comey and the testimony he gave this week are huge boosts for the agency from which he was fired.
"Comey is demonstrating that he is above board and he is resisting what is clearly perceived to be improper communications and approaches by the president," says Charles. "So, I think this only strengthens the FBI's image."