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How James Comey’s ‘Sgt. Joe Friday’ routine finally wore on Washington

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For most of his public service as a federal prosecutor, James Comey followed a “just the facts ma’am” doctrine that could have just as well been ripped from the scripts of the fictional “ Dragnet" TV detective Sgt. Joe Friday.


When controversy arose, Comey would always ensure Congress or his bosses that he was simply following the facts and the letter of the law and his own interpretation of what he thought was ethically right.


Such was his explanation when Comey in 2004 refused to let himself or a hospital-bed ridden Attorney General John Ashcroft to be hoodwinked by the Bush White House into signing an extension of a warrantless spying program. He offered the same explanation for why he confirmed, then closed, then re-opened and then closed against the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server right in the midst of the 2016 election, a series of events that Mrs. Clinton argued contributed to her stunning election loss to Donald Trump last November.

“I can't consider for a second whose political fortunes will be affected in what way,” Comey said in testimony last week explaining his decision making. “We have to ask ourselves what is the right thing to do and then do that thing.”It turns out that being the chief cop of America demands accurate facts all the time but also a keen political sense. In the end, Comey was judged to have failed at both by many in both parties.

His political tone deafness - and an ironic factual error in his testimony this week about a Clinton aide’s private email - led to Comey’s abrupt firing by

Comey refuses to answer bipartisan questions from senators, saying he's a private citizen

WATCH | In a stunning and unexpected move, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. How exactly did we get here?

President Donald Trump on Tuesday, more than six years before his 10-year term was set to end. It’s a rare moment for the normally independent FBI director to be ushered out the door. Bill Clinton, in 1993, was the only other president to fire his FBI director, who was William Sessions at the time.

It turns out that being the chief cop of America demands accurate facts all the time but also a keen political sense. In the end, Comey was judged to have failed at both by many in both parties.


Comey’s departure leaves a gaping vacuum atop a law enforcement agency dealing with ISIS and al-Qaeda threats, growing hacking attempts and a politically sensitive counterintelligence probe into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election.

Democrats were quick to suggest Trump’s termination was an effort at self preservation, stopping Comey from digging further into any Trump business or political ties to Russia. 

Some even suggested the firing was akin to Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre firing of the special prosecutor Archibald Cox investigating his Watergate crimes.

“Comey should be immediately called to testify in an open hearing about the status of Russia/Trump investigation at the time he was fired,” Sen. Ron Wyden tweeted out Tuesday night. Added Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. in a separate tweet: “Yes, this feels like an Archibald Cox moment, but with far, far broader implications for our country.”


Such claims make for great political theater on cable TV. But in the end, the FBI counterintelligence probe of Russia will almost certainly march forward in the hands of the same career experts that have led it so far.

And before Trump’s decision, it was clear that members of both parties had lost confidence in Comey’s leadership or at least grown tired of his Joe Friday schtick, as evidenced by last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

“You took an enormous gamble. The gamble was that there was something there that would invalidate her candidacy and there wasn't,” Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, snapping at Comey last week for his announcement he had reopened the Clinton email last October.

Whatever the case, Comey’s tenure at FBI will be marked by two truisms. Yes, facts matter and you better get them right. And the FBI director’s job requires a political sense that goes beyond simple calculations of right and wrong.

And for those fans of Joe Friday, the fictional TV detective, here’s another sobering thought. The “just the facts ma’am” quote so widely attributed to the TV detective, in fact, was never uttered by Joe Friday during the 1960s TV series. Instead, it was part of a famous parody of Dragnet, according to Wikipedia.

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