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Comey Often Thought He Knew Best. That May Have Hurt the F.B.I.

WASHINGTON — As deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, James B. Comey clashed repeatedly with the White House over its interrogation and warrantless wiretapping programs, earning a reputation of fighting for his view of what was right no matter whom he angered.

That same impulse — that he knew best, no matter the consequences — underpinned Mr. Comey’s decisions in 2016 to flout Justice Department norms and update the public on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information. Democrats have said he cost her the presidential election.

Mr. Comey was faulted for those decisions in a highly critical Justice Department report released on Thursday about the F.B.I.’s handling of the Clinton inquiry. By trying to protect the bureau, the department’s inspector general found, Mr. Comey instead damaged the F.B.I.’s reputation.

“Comey chose to deviate from the F.B.I.’s and the department’s established procedures and norms and instead engaged in his own subjective, ad hoc decision making,” the report said. It added, “The decisions negatively impacted the perception of the F.B.I. and the department as fair administrators of justice.”

An official condemnation of Mr. Comey’s go-it-alone approach, the report is bound to shape his legacy, providing grist for both Republicans and Democrats as well as F.B.I. agents who disagreed with how he ran the bureau at a politically perilous time.

Mr. Comey defended his decisions and said the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, had the benefit of hindsight. While Mr. Comey supported the review, he disagreed with its conclusions.

“If a future F.B.I. leadership team ever faces a similar situation — something I pray never happens — it will have the benefit of this important document,” he wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times.

Fired abruptly by President Trump last year as the Russia investigation engulfed the young Trump administration, Mr. Comey has returned to the public spotlight, chastening the president on Twitter and writing a best-seller. Whether he has a third act in another administration or as a publicly elected official is an open question.

In his tour as F.B.I. director, Mr. Comey ultimately served as a major figure in the 2016 election, possibly shaping its outcome even as he sought to navigate the bureau away from the bitter political atmosphere of the campaign.

Mr. Horowitz determined that Mr. Comey should not have announced unilaterally in July of that year that he would not recommend charges against Mrs. Clinton, and he should not


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