Was the FBI Director Just Fired for Not Understanding Email?

Some people are alleging misconduct. Others, just stupidity.

Getty Images / Zach Gibson

Late Tuesday afternoon the Trump White House, on the advice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, fired FBI director James Comey. The move comes as an explicit response to Comey’s testimony to Congress earlier this week.

The consensus seems to be that the FBI director was fired because he genuinely didn’t know, or at least didn’t acknowledge, the difference between a forwarded email, and a hard drive back-up. America’s federal police force was either run by someone who tried to use it to prosecute personal and political grudges, or by someone so ignorant of technology they couldn’t properly send along an anti-Hillary chain email.

What, at the end of the day, is the more depressing possibility?

Why should we be surprised that the outgoing generation of American power-brokers doesn’t know a thing about technology? The examples are well-known and numerous: Jeb, Hillary, Donald, to name three. The exception is like, Ted Cruz. Comey’s just the latest to show he has no idea what he’s doing; his secret Twitter account should have confirmed it.

The details of just how the emails moved, and why, are complicated and still somewhat unknown. In his testimony, Comey said that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had forwarded thousands of emails to her then-husband, former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, but soon after Pro Publica began reporting that this idea was demonstrably false. Its investigation turned up multiple sources claiming that very few emails were actually forwarded to Weiner, and that the majority ended up on his device thanks to a “backup of personal electronic devices,” a passive safety measure against losing email.

The FBI issued Tuesday a correction (below) of the testimony Comey gave on May 3 before the Senate. The correction was released to the media directly before the unceremonious sacking of the Bureau’s director, who reportedly learned of the news as it flashed on TV’s in the FBI’s LA office as he was giving a speech.

Comey unilaterally chose on October 28 to send a letter to Congress on the topic of the email investigation, toward the end of the 2016 Presidential race. This action is widely believed to have swung the race at least slightly toward the candidacy of Donald Trump — a claim Clinton made recently — and the White House unexpectedly chose to keep Comey in place as head of the FBI.

Now, that loyalty seems to have run out. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein claimed that Comey has shown a consistent “refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.”

Trump sent this remarkable letter to Comey to formalize the firing, and even managed to squeeze a little self-congratulation into the middle paragraph while he was at it:

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”

The New York Times is leading the charge in comparing this situation to the famous Watergate scandal, when Nixon was impeached for firing judges who were heading an investigation into his White House. The idea is that Trump is trying to similarly knock off the de-facto head of an investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian government. Others are taking it to be a more typical Trumpian bid to shove self-aggrandizing references into the government’s every nook and cranny.

If you think Trump wouldn’t brag on somebody’s pink slip, just remember when he turned an apology for Holocaust insensitivity into a chance to talk about having won the election several months before.

The most pressing question then becomes just how one of the most powerful people in the nation could have made such an elementary mistake as mixing up emails with backups. It’s possible that Comey actually might not understand the issue — dealing with Boomers who have been in power for decades, it really is possible — but let’s remember that he also came around on the issue of encryption, so he’s not beyond digging into complex technical topics.

It’s possible that the backup software used by Abedin used email as its mode of file transfer, thus making the transfer to Weiner’s computer both a backup and an email. This might explain Comey’s alleged stubbornness in sticking to the claim, but as mentioned, Comey has a history of bulling forward with respect to Clinton’s emails, often in seemingly inexplicable contexts.

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