This whistleblower spotlight focuses on former FBI Director James Comey, who, in recognition of last year’s Whistleblower Appreciation Day, spoke eloquently of creating a culture of humility in government to “encourage whistleblowers to raise their hands,” and fostering an environment in which whistleblowers are “entitled to be heard . . . [in] an adult conversation.”
Comey led the FBI from September 2013 until he was dismissed in May 2017 after unclassified memoranda he penned regarding his meetings with President Trump became public. Comey, concerned about potential abuses of power, had shared the relevant memoranda with a friend, intending that the friend disclose the memoranda to the press.
The memoranda, drafted during Comey’s brief tenure in the Trump administration, recount Comey’s one-on-one interactions with the President, and reveal Trump’s efforts to convince Comey to halt a federal investigation of Trump’s then National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn. Flynn was under scrutiny at the time for his suspected contact with Russian agents during the Trump transition, and for potentially lying about those contacts to the FBI.
Although the administration initially gave conflicting accounts about the reason for Comey’s firing, President Trump subsequently made clear that he removed Comey from the nation’s top law enforcement position based on Comey’s involvement in pushing forward the investigation into possible links between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
This past June, Comey provided sworn testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which he described how, in February 2017, President Trump—after requesting the Vice-President, the Attorney General, and Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner leave the room—expressed to Comey his hope that Comey would recognize Flynn’s good nature and find a way drop the FBI investigation into Flynn’s suspected wrongdoing. In Comey’s account to the Committee, Trump said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
In his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey also revealed he leaked his memos to the press believing that doing so would likely result in the appointment of a special counsel to lead the Russia investigation. Special counsel Robert Mueller had been appointed not long before Comey’s testimony; his investigation subsumed the original Flynn investigation, as well as several others, and resulted in some vindication for Comey when, late this year, Flynn pled guilty to willfully and knowingly lying to the FBI.
Though some lauded Comey for his whistleblowing, others—including the President—labelled him a “leaker,” publicly questioned his integrity, and cast doubt on the veracity of his account. Unfortunately, like Comey, many whistleblowers not only lose their jobs for shedding light on wrongdoing, but also become the object of smear campaigns aimed at inflicting reputational harm. For his part, Comey took to social media after news of Flynn’s guilty plea became public, quoting scripture: “but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
For speaking truth to power and contributing to greater transparency in government despite significant personal cost, we nominate James Comey for Whistleblower of the Year.
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