Now his own big decision has Democrats and even some Republicans wondering whether he failed his own test.
The FBI director who prides himself on moral rectitude and a squeaky-clean reputation is being criticized from all sides for lobbing a stink bomb into the center of the presidential race. His disclosure that investigators have found more emails that may — or may not — relate to Democrat Hillary Clinton‘s use of a private email setup as secretary of state has jolted the race and generated far more questions than answers.
This isn’t the first time Comey has found himself in the spotlight for taking a stand on what the 6-foot-8 lawyer saw as the moral high ground.
Perhaps the last previous thing many Americans heard about Comey was the tale of his dramatic rush to the bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in a darkened hospital room in 2004 for a standoff with senior White House officials over federal wiretapping rules. Comey, serving as acting attorney general during Ashcroft’s illness, dashed to the bedside to block Bush administration officials from making an end run to get Ashcroft’s permission to reauthorize a secret no-warrant wiretapping program.
“That night was probably the most difficult night of my professional life,” Comey testified before Congress in 2007.
Perhaps until now.
Former Justice Department officials and lawmakers from both parties are calling Comey’s revelation about Clinton’s emails just 11 days before the election an improper, astonishing and perplexing intrusion into politics in the critical endgame of the 2016 campaign.
WATCH: FBI opens new probe into Clinton emails weeks before the election
It’s an unexpected predicament for the man who has painted ethical decision-making as an easy call.
“There’s right, and there’s wrong, and it ain’t hard to tell the difference,” he once said.
That internal certitude has led the FBI official to freelance his positions at times.
Last year he broke from the White House in suggesting a possible link between police officers’ anxieties about taking actions that could be recorded on viral videos and rising homicide rates in some American cities. The White House distanced itself from those remarks, saying there was no scientific evidence to support a connection, or show that officers were pulling back from their responsibilities.
Comey, a former Republican who is no longer registered with a political party, spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor before serving in the George W. Bush administration. His office brought the case that led to Martha Stewart’s conviction on obstruction of justice and lying to government investigators. As an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, he handled the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 members of the U.S. military.
President Barack Obama, when he nominated Comey for a 10-year-appointment to the FBI job in 2013, cited his willingness to stand up to power “at key moments when it’s mattered most,” referencing the hospital-room standoff.
Aides say Obama’s high opinion of Comey still stands. But the White House is leaving the FBI director dangling, saying it is up to him to defend himself in the face of what spokesman Josh Earnest called “significant criticism from a variety of legal experts, including individuals who served in senior Department of Justice positions in administrations that were led by presidents in both parties.”
Indeed, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a hard-line conservative and House Judiciary Committee member, told Fox News Radio that “this was probably not the right thing for Comey to do, the protocol here, to come out this close to an election. But this whole case has been mishandled, and now it is what it is.”
And former Rep. Joe Walsh, a supporter of Donald Trump, supporter of Donald Trump, tweeted that Comey’s action amounted to an “unconstitutional abuse of government power against our electoral process. Just not right.”
WATCH: Republicans grill FBI Director over Clinton email investigation
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada went a step further and accused Comey of deliberately inserting himself into the race to damage Clinton’s presidential prospects, suggesting the FBI director may have broken the law.
Comey, 56, made his disclosure about the Clinton emails despite admonitions from officials within the Justice Department not to go there. It is longstanding Justice Department protocol to avoid taking investigative action in the run-up to an election that could affect its outcome.
Comey told colleagues that he felt obligated to go public with the information after having previously told Congress over the summer that the investigation into Clinton’s emails had been concluded without prosecution.
Trying to explain his decision, he wrote to FBI employees that it would have been “misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record” despite the “significant risk of being misunderstood.”
Christine Chung, a New York lawyer who worked with Comey when he was the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, described him as ever “determined to do the right thing.”
The criticism he’s faced over the email disclosure, she added, is a “lesson for why good people shouldn’t go to Washington.”