I once overheard someone snarkily characterize former FBI Director James Comey as a “mentally-challenged Boy Scout,” which roughly translates into a backhanded praise for his integrity that in the same breath harshly condemns his judgment. Some might argue that Comey wrote A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership—which is all at once a memoir, a testimonial, and a jeremiad against Trumpworld—in an attempt to prove that statement true.
Poor James Comey: a man with a lifetime of service to the nation in increasingly responsible roles, who frequently stepped in and around and through political boundaries without taint, finds himself now a disgraced outsider vilified by both ends of the political spectrum, for—of course—starkly different reasons. As he made the talk-show rounds coinciding with the book release, and pundits chewed over excerpts that styled Trump as akin to a Mafia Don, Comey was not unexpectedly subjected to every ridiculous calumny from the right, branded a “liar and a leaker,” and preposterously sketched as a clandestine Democratic mole seeking to further the interests of—of all people—Hillary Clinton! The left, on the other hand, welcomed the message but not the messenger, and the author saw himself roundly reviled not only for his outsize ego but for what was seen as embarrassing pot shots at Trump’s physical appearance that would otherwise rouse guffaws with the same audience if uttered by Bill Maher or John Oliver—or just about anyone except James Comey. It seems that Comey has left a lingering bad taste in the mouth of most Democrats, many who hold him at least partially responsible—with perhaps good reason—for the devastating election results. James Comey has found himself as a kind of man without a country.
Any decent autobiography written these days would have to include at least a dose of self-deprecatory remarks (with the exception of something written by Trump himself, of course, a man unfamiliar with authentic self-examination), but in A Higher Loyalty Comey makes a religion out of this tack, sparing the reader absolutely no detail of every case—at least in his formative years—when he failed to measure up to his own ideals. When as a boy, he and his brother are held at gun point by a home invader (who might or might not be an infamous serial rapist targeting their older sister) it is Comey who is paralyzed with fear, while his younger brother urges pursuit of their captor after he flees. In school, Comey—not yet the intimidating 6’8” giant a growth spurt later grants him—is often bullied. The reader waits in vain for that epic moment in fictional narratives when the harried victim finds the courage to confront the bully; in this case that moment never arrives. Later, as he grows stronger and more confident, he brags about his uncertain athletic prowess and finds himself acting abusive to the weaker and less confident of his schoolmates, the classic case of the bullied transformed into the bully. Looking back, he expresses shame at his behavior.
These episodes make painful reading, especially since Comey is not a very good writer. In fact, much of his book reads like it was penned by someone proficient in composing dull FBI reports and legal briefs who has just recently taken a creative writing course. But there is little doubt that these raw confessions of his own shortfalls certainly burnish his reputation for honesty and integrity. Let’s face it: only a true Boy Scout would ever willingly reveal stories like this about his own life.
Comey does find his courage later, in somewhat remarkable circumstances. But first he went on to a distinguished legal career with highlights that included a stint working for the showboating Rudy Giuliani prosecuting the Mafia in high-profile cases, a role as deputy special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee, and as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he served as lead prosecutor for the securities fraud case against Martha Stewart. Comey pauses in the narrative, by the way, to make the point that it was lying to an FBI agent and obstruction of justice that landed Stewart a jail sentence rather than a slap on the wrist, something he urges the reader to dwell upon.
Comey’s moment comes while serving as Deputy Attorney General in the post-911 administration of George W. Bush, with an NSA domestic surveillance program sanctioning warrantless searches code-named “Stellar Wind” that was based upon dubious legal grounds. Comey’s opposition to the program found few friendly ears within the administration. With Bush’s blessing—seemingly anything was permissible in the so-called “War on Terror”—Vice President Dick Cheney led the charge to ride roughshod over concerns of the Justice Department and renew Stellar Wind. At a critical juncture, Attorney General John Ashcroft collapsed with a medical emergency. In a dramatic scene that might have been plucked out of a modern reboot of a Frank Capra flick, Comey rushed to Ashcroft’s hospital bed just in time to intercept White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who arrived to pressure the stricken Ashcroft to sign off on the program’s renewal. Comey’s intervention saved the day and Stellar Wind was not reauthorized.
Comey had another opportunity to make an impact upon policy, this time with his opposition to torture, euphemistically rebranded as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Comey clearly objected on both moral and legal grounds, but was unsuccessful in converting key officials to his point of view. He also found himself even more of an outsider now that Ashcroft had been replaced by Gonzales as the new Attorney General, and he eventually left government service. The reader, impressed by his principled stand, cannot help but be disappointed by his failure to protest louder and to a wider audience. On the other hand, Comey relates both of these episodes with the same kind of “Just the facts, ma’am,” dispassion as Joe Friday on Dragnet, never pausing to pat himself on the back for standing up and voicing his objections—even to the President of the United States—which again underscores his commitment to integrity. It also reminds the reader that in retrospect, Trump had no idea who he was dealing with.
After eight years in the private sector, Comey admits that he was caught by surprise when President Obama nominated him to head the FBI. Privately, he identified as Republican, had served the Bush Administration, and had not voted for Obama. In July 2013, with strong bipartisan support, he was confirmed near-unanimously by the Senate to a full ten-year term as FBI Director. As Comey reveals, he more than once found himself surprisingly humbled by the grace, candor and humility of Obama, even when called into the Oval Office because he was on the opposite side of the President on the issue of police-mandated bodycams, in the wake of a national epidemic of shooting deaths of African Americans by law enforcement. As he tells it, rather than scolding him for his public remarks, Obama calmly tried to persuade him to examine another perspective. It remains understated in the narrative, but there is a clear implication that Comey holds Obama up as the model for Chief Executive, far more favorably than Bush—and certainly Trump. The episode with the bodycams, however, also points to what comes to be a series of misjudgments by Comey when speaking out publicly on issues that the FBI Director should have known would spark controversy. It also suggests an awkward tendency to seek the spotlight precisely at the most inopportune moments.
Most Americans never heard of James Comey until the day that—following a year-long investigation into Hillary Clinton’s alleged improper use of a personal email server while Secretary of State—he took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing an FBI recommendation to the Department of Justice. With the cameras whirring, Comey advised against an indictment, arguing that “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case,” while yet editorializing that Clinton’s behavior was “extremely careless.” Comey’s conclusion—but more specifically his approach, which included what many viewed as gratuitous remarks—sowed further division in an already highly charged and politically polarized environment, and left a cloud over Clinton’s orbit that she could never outpace. That cloud darkened considerably when just a week before the election—in perhaps the most bombshell “October surprise” in American political history—Comey announced that the investigation would be reopened based upon newly uncovered emails on former congressman Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Although Clinton was officially cleared by Comey two days before Election Day, enough damage was done for many analysts—and the candidate herself—to conclude that Comey’s action tipped the scales to deliver a surprise win to Donald Trump. In the book, Comey painstakingly revisits his decision-making process, and pronounces his course of action in each instance—which many would deem at best naïve, and at worst reckless—as the most appropriate alternative under the circumstances. Others might reckon this Boy Scout falling far short of any merit badge for sound judgment.
Only a small slice of A Higher Loyalty is devoted to Comey’s brief tenure with Trump, who treats him as a lackey and demands a loyalty of a different sort. Given Comey’s candor thus far, and the fact that there is nothing substantial to contradict his version of events in any other venue, there is no reason to suspect Comey is being less than honest about what occurred in his private meetings with President Trump, although once more judgement—or lack thereof—is brought into focus. Clearly, Comey—suspicious of the President’s motives and skeptical of his intentions—was deeply uncomfortable sitting down with Trump absent witnesses, yet he went forward on more than one occasion, despite his misgivings. To his credit, he does ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to block further one-on-one interactions. Out of context, Comey’s mob metaphors might seem to verge on hyperbole, but when he describes his specific interactions with the President, it is fully understandable that the man who was once integral to the prosecution of the New York Gambino crime family would note disturbing parallels sitting across the table from a man like Trump, who seems unconcerned with national interests while instead consumed with his own. And the reader cringes as Comey recounts how the President repeatedly brings up—and vehemently denies—unsubstantiated reports that he participated in “water sports” with Moscow hookers.
After much soul-searching, Comey may have given himself a pass for his public actions on the Clinton email investigation, but he hardly rested easy with its implications, confessing in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3, 2017 that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election.” This was apparently a final straw for Trump—already furious that Comey would not commit to drop an investigation into fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, nor publicly absolve Trump of Russian collusion in the election—who dismissed him a week later in a flamboyant move that included the public humiliation of learning that he was fired from TV screens flickering behind his audience while addressing agents at the Los Angeles Field Office. The President then went so far as to chastise Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for daring to permit Comey to fly home on government aircraft. (McCabe himself was also later fired, on the very eve of his retirement.)
Whatever cruel pleasure the President may have derived from his game show orchestration of Comey’s termination must have been short-lived. Trump’s own admission in a televised interview that he fired Comey because he would not let go of the Russia investigation only cemented suspicions of all but the most committed of the President’s disciples that there was in fact a real “there” there, prompting the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, himself a Trump-appointee. A full year of administration attempts to discredit Comey, Mueller and even Rosenstein has failed to derail the investigation, which has proved dogged and leak-proof.
There has been much buzz about Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s freewheeling account of the Trump White House that has been embraced by the left, even though the author has admitted to playing fast and loose with some of his facts. Wolff’s book may be more entertaining and—as has been said of Herodotus—if it’s not all true, it should be. But Comey’s book, which is often dull and is marred by poor writing, is nevertheless the more important read. For all of the many flaws—of both the author and his book—A Higher Loyalty is a testament to an old-fashioned commitment to truth and integrity that, while hardly glamorous, used to be something we Americans cared deeply for. I read it because I wanted to be convinced that Comey was telling the truth. I find myself convinced. Comey no doubt sits waiting for Mueller’s final report to vindicate him. And whether the President likes it or not, much of America waits with him.