James Comey’s legal career spanned the top ranks of the U.S. Department of Justice, from leading the U.S. attorney’s office in New York City to running day-to-day operations as the No. 2 lawyer at Main Justice. Later, he oversaw legal operations at Lockheed Martin Corp. and a prominent hedge fund.
Despite rave reviews from former colleagues, Comey, the president’s reported pick to lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is certain to face a host of questions about his past legal work — from national security decisions at the DOJ to his ties to Wall Street. The White House on May 30 declined to discuss the timing of any announcement about the president’s plans for replacing retiring FBI Director Robert Mueller III.
As deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, Comey famously clashed with the White House over a controversial surveillance program. His role in other decisions could draw questions from Democrats and civil liberties groups. Responding to reports this week about Comey’s possible nomination, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would have questions about his ties to the financial services industry.
Comey left Main Justice as the deputy attorney general in 2005, joining Lockheed Martin as senior vice president and general counsel. More recently, he served as general counsel at hedge fund Bridgewater Associates L.P. in Connecticut. In March, he was appointed to the board of HSBC Holdings PLC.
Earlier this year, Comey joined Columbia Law School as a senior research scholar in national security law. Since 2012, according to Columbia, Comey has been a member of the Defense Legal Policy Board, which provides independent advice to the secretary of defense. Before his nomination as deputy attorney general, Comey spent most of his career as a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia, with a few brief stints in private practice.
Baker & McKenzie partner Paul McNulty, who succeeded Comey as deputy attorney general, said he thought his former colleague would draw a friendly reception on Capitol Hill.
Top Democrats, including Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who knew Comey from his time as a prosecutor, hold him in high regard, McNulty said. Comey “ruffled some feathers” among Republicans while he was at the Justice Department, McNulty said, but he’d be surprised if that proved a serious obstacle to his confirmation.
If Comey is nominated, former Justice Department official Jamie Gorelick, now a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, said she would expect bipartisan scrutiny of his record.
“I think that the temperature of Republicans on what he did in opposing the White House counsel on the national security wiretap matter will be interesting to watch,” she said. Democrats, she said, may want to know about other actions Comey took at the Justice Department. Still, Gorelick expected the Senate to easily confirm Comey. “He is such a strong figure with impeccable law enforcement credentials,” Gorelick said.
As deputy attorney general, Comey clashed with White House lawyers over the Bush administration’s reauthorization of a warrantless surveillance program. Testifying before Congress in 2007, Comey described how he threatened to resign if the administration proceeded over his objections in 2004.
The incident aligned Comey with Mueller, who was FBI director at the time. Comey said then that he believed Mueller was prepared to resign with him, and that Mueller also ordered FBI agents to block any effort to remove Comey while he argued with former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales at the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Comey was serving as acting attorney general as Ashcroft recovered from pancreatitis, and Comey said he “raced” to his bedside after learning White House lawyers planned to visit the ailing official to ask him to overrule Comey’s decision against reauthorizing the program. Ashcroft sided with Comey.
Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the civil liberties and advocacy group, said he’ll look for insights into Comey’s views on government surveillance. Fakhoury wants Comey to address, among other things, the “DOJ’s seeming war on leakers and the methods used to investigate those leaks, including the targeting of journalists that have recently come to light.”
Comey could also face questions about his post-Justice Department experience in the private sector. Besides working at Lockheed and Bridgewater, Comey joined the board of HSBC earlier this year. Grassley said Thursday that if Comey gets the nomination, he would want to know more about his work for Bridgewater, in particular.
“The administration’s efforts to criminally prosecute Wall Street for its part in the economic downturn have been abysmal, and his agency would have to help build the case against some of his colleagues in this lucrative industry,” Grassley said.
Daniel Richman, a Columbia Law School professor who worked with Comey in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, viewed descriptions of Comey as someone tied to Wall Street are silly.
“Government service and public service have been in his blood his entire life,” Richman said, adding that those who know him have been waiting for the time when he would return from the private sector.
Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom partner Patrick Fitzgerald, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, described Comey as “a person with amazing integrity, exceptional judgment and just great leadership skills.” Fitzgerald said that if Comey gets the nod, “the agents who have worked with him will be excited to serve under his leadership.”
Zoe Tillman can be contacted at email@example.com.