Comey has shared them with the media and deposed before the US Senate, laying the ground for an investigation into obstruction of justice. And that could cut the thread of the sword of Damocles which hangs permanently over this presidency — the threat of impeachment.
The merits of Comey’s case need not concern us, for the Americans are firmly seized of the matter. But the courage and conviction of the former FBI director inspires admiration. It flows from the certainty that institutions and the media will shield him from the storm that must come. Trump’s tweet, branding Comey a “leaker” and claiming vindication before political and legal processes hadn’t even engaged gears, is only the distant thunder that heralds it.
But institutions are no stronger than the people who constitute them. Nations in the throes of identity crises show how easy it is for institutions to lose credibility and become irrelevant, if their members are unable to stand up to pressure. They draw their strength from constitutional guarantees and security of tenure, but in extreme situations, these are not fail-safe. The director of the FBI has been given a tenure of a decade precisely to insulate the office from the politics of the day. As we have seen, however, the director can be fired by a hostile administration.
Ultimately, institutional courage derives from founding documents and service protections, but also from institutional networks of trust. Comey approached political authority and the media — which has been under vicious attack from the Trump machine — confident that the gears of the corrective system would engage. In turn, the media has been able to stand up to Trump because it is confident that the justice system will protect its rights under the First Amendment. From afar, this is what we can glean from Comey’s decision to bring the story into the public domain — that institutions do not stand or fall in splendid isolation. If they are to stand, they must stand together.