The Vices of A Higher Loyalty

My, but Trump-fired former FBI Director James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is a bitchy book. His widely quoted description of Donald Trump’s looks on page 218, culled from Comey’s impressions from his very first meeting with the then-President-elect, is right out of Mean Girls:

His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coiffed blond hair, which on close inspection looked to be all his. I remember wondering how long it must take him in the morning to get that done. As he extended his hand, I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.

Meow! The North Shore High tone continues through one of Comey’s next encounters with Trump, with the just-inaugurated President trying to give Comey a hug (page 232) at a White House reception to honor law-enforcement chiefs:

I tightened the right side of my body, calling on years of side planks and dumbbell rows. He was not going to get a hug without being a whole lot stronger than he looked. He wasn’t. I thwarted the hug….

Because if there’s one thing steelier than Comey’s abs, it’s his virtue.

And do we ever get a load of Comey’s virtue in A Higher Loyalty. “I understand the impulse that any book written about one’s life experience can be an exercise in vanity, which is why I long resisted the idea of writing a book of my own,” he informs us in an “author’s note” prefacing this memoir. But “long” was not to last so very long, since it has been less than a year since May 9, 2017, when Comey learned (he says) from a television chiron that he had been canned. The man who actually did the firing was Comey’s immediate boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, but it was clear that Trump was annoyed at a steady stream of leaks from within the FBI to journalists about supposed collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government to sway Election 2016 in Trump’s favor.

One of the leakers, it emerged, was Comey himself, who, shortly after his firing, turned over to a Columbia Law School professor friend, Dan Richman, four memos he had written describing, among other things, a February 14, 2017 conversation with Trump in which the new President allegedly urged Comey to “let it go” regarding Michael Flynn, who had briefly served as Trump’s national security advisor and was under investigation as a possible conduit between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

The plan was for Richman to turn over the four memos to reporters, which he did, in order to force the appointment of a special counsel, which did occur. This weekend it was reported that Comey made redactions to one of these memos to protect classified information, and that others in the group may have become classified in the time since he leaked them. Ironically, the Department of Justice is now investigating to determine if Comey mishandled secret information, which is not unlike the FBI’s investigation, under his watch, of Hillary Clinton for the same thing. What a tangled web we weave.

We already know he knows about the “exercise in vanity” implications of penning a self-justifying account of himself so quickly — but these must be set aside because, as he writes, “we are experiencing a dangerous time in our country, with a political environment in which basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded.”

In this alarmist vein, Comey defines his life story as a moral contest to the death between “ethical leaders” (himself, at least aspirationally, and a few others whom he admires, such as Barack Obama, who appointed him FBI director in 2013) and the forces of “lying” and “bullying,” chiefly represented by Trump (he’s incensed, for example, that Trump puffed up his inauguration-audience figures), but also by the politically ambitious (and eventual Trump-supporting) Rudolph Giuliani, for whom Comey worked as a federal prosecutor when Giuliani served as U.S. attorney in Manhattan during the 1980s, and certain terrorism-hardliners in the George W. Bush administration, where he served two years as deputy attorney general.

From 2001 through 2003 Comey occupied Giuliani’s U.S. attorney slot in New York City, where his main claim to fame was sending Martha Stewart to federal prison over a hasty stock sale — not for insider trading but for the process crime of fibbing to federal investigators — “Martha Stewart lied,” Comey huffs — using the same tut-tutting language with which he later describes Flynn, who was also indicted only for lying, about a perfectly legal meeting with Russian officials after Trump’s election.

Comey loves to place himself at the center of cosmic drama, larding his narrative with epigraphs from Thomas Jefferson, Thomas More, the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, and the midcentury theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. On a limo ride to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers in the winter of 2017 he grandiosely blurts out what he admits is a “mangled” (and rendered hilariously gender-correct) quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “People abed in England tonight will wish they were here.” Ah, the Bard.

Under Giuliani, Comey had worked to indict and convict some Mafia capi — and one of the literary conceits he repeatedly employs in A Higher Loyalty is to analogize Trump over and over to a  Mob chieftain. Remember that reception for law-enforcement heads in which only Comey’s killer lats prevented a hug from the Donald? Comey interprets that (on page 233) as Trump “symbolically” seeming “to be asking leaders of the law enforcement and national security agencies … to come forward and kiss the great man’s ring.” And the meeting about Flynn that he leaked? That was Trump’s effort to exact from Comey adherence to “some warped code of loyalty” that involved “lying about things, large and small.” Earlier, Trump had invited Comey to a one-on-one dinner at the White House in which Trump had reiterated to Comey: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”

To some, that statement might seem evidence of a concern on Trump’s part about keeping on, as a Republican President, the appointee of a Democratic President — not to mention the issue of the leaks. To Comey it was “an effort to establish a patronage relationship.” “Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty,” he pronounces.

Uriah Heep, call your office. But behind this carefully constructed virtue-signaling show another dynamic seems to be at work, revealing that Comey got where he was by doing what he was told. As a growing boy and later throughout his teen-age years in suburban New Jersey, Comey relates, he was a perennial target of school bullies, despite his large size (he’s 6 foot 8). The physical abuse he endured from his schoolmates was intense and inexcusable — but bullies, like animal predators, have a cull-the-herd instinct to go after the weak.

A Higher Loyalty indeed begins with an incident in 1977 involving the 16-year-old James Comey and a younger brother who were victims of a gunpoint home invasion while their parents were out. It was the younger brother who wriggled an escape for the two boys from a basement cubbyhole where the gunman had locked them. And it was James Comey himself who ran back into the house with his brother and slammed the door behind them, leaving outside and at the gunman’s mercy the wife and mother of a next-door neighbor who had come to their rescue — “a move that makes me cringe with guilt even decades later.” (Fortunately, the police arrived, the gunman ran off, and no one was harmed.) It’s not fair to fault a teenager for fearing an armed adult or a gang of goon classmates, but you have to ask whether those incidents didn’t suggest that Comey is unusually susceptible to being pushed around by other people.

There is, for example, Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s ordering Comey in 2015, as the FBI probed whether to bring criminal charges against Clinton for using her private server to transmit classified State Department material over the internet, to use the word “matter” instead of “investigation.” “It was probably a mistake that I didn’t challenge this harder,” Comey confesses on page 170. But he went along with it, and he went along further in July 2016 when he decided to characterize Clinton’s conduct as “extremely careless” rather than “grossly negligent,” thus avoiding the issue of prosecuting her during an election year. In his book Comey, who says he didn’t believe that Clinton’s criminal intent could be proved, calls this semantic sleight-of-hand a demonstration of “what higher loyalty—to the institutions of justice—looks like.”

Further mental contortions ensued in late October, when Comey announced that the FBI was looking into previously undisclosed Clinton e-mails that had wound up on the laptop of former Representative Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) — him of the sexts to a 15 year-old — and then, two days before the November 8 election announced that the e-mails had revealed nothing new and pronounced the case closed.

This whole episode — which enraged liberals, including Clinton herself, who blamed Comey for helping to deep-six her shot at the presidency — Comey cites as another example of his principled high-mindedness. “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls.”

Why such solicitude about post-election perceptions is supposed to be part of an FBI chief’s job description is beyond me. It should be noted that, as Comey admits, his feminist wife, Patrice, was a staunch Clinton partisan who took the couple’s daughters to the “pussy hat” march in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration and told ABC just the other day that she had been “devastated” by Trump’s victory.

As I said, A Higher Loyalty is a bitchy book, and nowhere is Comey’s true nature — in contrast to the nature he would like to present — so evident as in his handling of the Russian collusion issue, both in the book and in the self-serving and deliberately leaked memos, whose contents, incidentally, we only know because House Republicans forced their release.

Russian collusion was the subject of that pre-inaugural meeting in which Trump revealed his “orange” face to Comey for the first time, and the specific topic was the “Steele dossier” then floating around the media and its salacious narrative that included Russian prostitutes urinating on Obama’s onetime hotel bed in Moscow at Trump’s behest. Comey never told Trump what he surely knew: that the dossier consisted of un-FBI-verified material prepared and paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee — or, even worse — that it had formed the basis of a FISA warrant to surveil Flynn, a warrant that the FBI repeated renewed even after concluding that the dossier was junk, leading to Flynn’s virtual entrapment in a Martha Stewart-style process crime and inevitable financial and career ruin.

The next day, January 7, 2017, Comey sent the first of his memos to various FBI underlings, including Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who has since been fired and referred to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution for allegedly lying under oath about leaking. On January 10, CNN reported the contents of Comey’s meeting with Trump, and Buzzfeed, at last able to hang the Steele dossier on a news hook, published the dossier.

Comey here seems quite uninterested in these multiple wounds to the integrity of the organization he claims to have headed so proudly. Instead he regales his readers with hints that the prostitute story must have been true—because after all, Trump told him at their dinner in the White House that there might be a “one percent chance” that First Lady Melania Trump might believe it. “In what kind of marriage, to what kind of man, does a spouse conclude there is only a 99 percent chance her husband didn’t do that?,” asks the sanctimonious Comey.

Inside the stockpile of smarm that is A Higher Loyalty are some genuinely affecting incidents. In 1995, the Comeys lost a newborn son to a deadly neonatal strep infection, and Comey’s story of his other young children’s holding the infant in their arms to croon their good-byes to him after his removal from the ventilator that kept him barely alive can touch the hardest of hearts. Comey is a man devoted to his family, and it’s inevitable that those who find this account of his stand against Trump to be heroic will locate another job for him that will enable him to support them in comfort. To paraphrase Comey paraphrasing Shakespeare, people abed in England tonight will wish they were there.