Late one evening in 2004, James Comey hurried into a darkened room in a Washington hospital. His boss, John Ashcroft, then the U.S. attorney-general, was prone in a bed, weakened by severe pancreatitis.
Moments later, two senior White House officials came in. They wanted Mr. Ashcroft to sign off on a warrantless wire-tapping program. In a tense confrontation, Mr. Comey thwarted the attempt to pressure an ailing Mr. Ashcroft.
The dramatic bedside showdown cemented Mr. Comey's reputation as a fearless and fiercely independent public servant. He has described it as "the most difficult night of my professional life." But after the events of recent days, Mr. Comey may have to revise that assessment.
As director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, he is now at the centre of a firestorm unlike any other in his long career. With days remaining before the presidential election, Mr. Comey sprung a surprise on both the voters and the candidates: He informed lawmakers that the FBI planned to review a newly discovered batch of e-mails in connection with the probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a private server while secretary of state.
It's a development with the potential to reshape the race, even though little is known about the e-mails – and, in particular, whether they contain any new or significant evidence.
Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, hailed Mr. Comey's move and cited it as justification for his own inflammatory assertions that Ms. Clinton's behaviour was "criminal." Ms. Clinton's campaign, meanwhile, has launched a withering assault on Mr. Comey and his decision to make such vague information public so close to the election.
To his defenders, Mr. Comey – a 55-year old who has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations – is a straight arrow in a difficult situation. Back in July, he announced that he would not recommend charges in the Clinton inquiry into the mishandling of classified information. He pledged to keep Congress informed if there were further developments.
The letter he sent to lawmakers on Friday is a way to keep that promise, these people said, despite the awful timing and the avalanche of criticism the missive was sure to trigger.
"This is a classic Jim Comey decision," said Thomas DiBiagio, a former federal prosecutor who has known Mr. Comey for more than 20 years. "You can criticize it, but he's made the decision he thinks is right."
That's exactly the problem, said Mr. Comey's critics. While they agreed that Mr. Comey wasn't guided by partisan motives, they questioned his choice to speak out in contravention of long-standing policies surrounding investigations.
By explaining in detail his decision back in July not to charge Ms. Clinton or her aides – and by reprimanding her use of a private server as "extremely careless" – Mr. Comey went "far beyond the bounds of what you're supposed to say," said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman. "Either you bring charges and a person has the ability to respond in court, or you don't bring charges and you shut up. … It's a Pandora's box once you break the rules."
Mr. Comey's move has also exposed the FBI to accusations of hypocrisy. According to several media reports, Mr. Comey was opposed to including the FBI in a joint statement of U.S. intelligence agencies earlier this month that accused Russia of interfering in the presidential election through a series of computer hacking attacks.
His rationale, reports said, was that the statement was too close to the election and risked being seen as partisan. On Monday, Ms. Clinton's campaign excoriated Mr. Comey's choice as "a blatant double standard." On Tuesday, her campaign manager, Robby Mook, called on the FBI to release any information it possessed in its investigation of Russia's role in the election and Mr. Trump's connections to the Russian government.
Mr. Comey's extraordinary role in this campaign is "just one more way in which this presidential election is so different from anything in our recent experience," said Sanford Ungar, a scholar at Georgetown University who wrote a book about the FBI. Not since J. Edgar Hoover – who led the bureau for nearly 40 years and struck fear into lawmakers – has an FBI director drawn attention to himself in the way Mr. Comey has, said Mr. Ungar.
In person, Mr. Comey is hard to miss: the native of Yonkers, N.Y., stands 6-feet 8-inches tall and is known for his charisma and sense of humour. He is no stranger to difficult, high-profile cases. In the early part of his career, he prosecuted members of the Gambino Mafia organization. He later moved to Virginia and led the prosecution of the 1996 terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen.
A lifelong Republican who is no longer registered in either party, Mr. Comey was named the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan by then-president George W. Bush in 2002. In that job, Mr. Comey oversaw cases such as the pursuit of Martha Stewart for insider trading. He also led the inquiry into a controversial pardon by former president Bill Clinton of financier Marc Rich, who was indicted for tax evasion. The probe into Mr. Clinton's behaviour found nothing illegal. In 2003, Mr. Comey was named deputy U.S. attorney-general. The following year, he had his face-off with Bush administration officials in the Washington hospital room.
In 2013, President Barack Obama named Mr. Comey, a father of five, to his position at the FBI. Part of Mr. Comey's appeal was his reputation for independence and non-partisanship. (During his earlier confirmation hearing to become deputy attorney-general, Mr. Comey said, "I don't care about politics, I don't care about expediency. … I care about doing the right thing.")
Now Mr. Comey may have to acquaint himself with another Democratic president: Ms. Clinton. Mr. Comey's 10-year term as FBI director doesn't end until 2023, but Ms. Clinton, if elected, would have the power to replace him. In a normal situation the president and the FBI director meet on a regular basis and work closely on matters of national security.
"You can see it obviously being a challenge," said Mr. Miller, the former Justice Department spokesman, of a future relationship between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Comey. "That's maybe an understatement."