James Comey vs. Donald Trump: An indictment in the form of a memoir

James_Comey_official_portrait (1)

Former FBI Director James Comey. Public domain image.

By Steve Sebelius

James Comey is a good lawyer, having received his law degree from the University of Chicago, served as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, then later as U.S. attorney in that same office. He finally rose to deputy attorney general, the No. 2 man in the entire Department of Justice.

We all know how his last job ended — fired as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which news he learned from a TV set in the bureau’s Los Angeles field office that was tuned to CNN.

But more on that in a moment.

Comey’s newly released (and heavily promoted) book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, is built like a good court case. The former prosecutor seeds the text with ideas that he will later call upon to prove to his jury of readers that the president of the United States in an insensate, incurious, narcissistic, insecure, possibly compromised bully more akin to a La Cosa Nostra crime boss than an American president.

Exhibit A: A former victim of schoolhouse bullying, Comey confesses later to becoming the tormentor himself. “In the face of the herd, our tendency is to go quiet and let the group’s brain and soul handle things,” Comey writes. “But by imagining the group has these centers, we abdicate responsibility, which allows groups to be hijacked by the loudest voice, the person who knows how brainless groups really are and uses that to his advantage.”

Sound at all familiar?

Exhibit B: Comey, who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall, admits to tiring of answering the question of whether he’d played basketball in college (he did not) by simply saying yes. He says he was so bothered by his seemingly innocuous lie, he wrote to the friends he had misled and admitted the truth. He didn’t want lying to become a habit and lose the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Those who do, he writes, “surround themselves with other liars. The circle becomes smaller and smaller, with those unwilling to surrender their moral compass pushed out and those willing to tolerate deceit brought closer to the center of power.” 

Exhibit C: Comey defends his prosecutions of Martha Stewart and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (recently pardoned by President Trump) on charges they lied to the FBI about selling stocks and leaking the identity of a once-undercover CIA operative, respectively. “People must fear the consequences of lying in the justice system, or the system can’t work,” he writes, adding later, “I would discover in the coming months that the pressures to bend the rules and to make convenient exceptions to laws when they got in the way of the president’s agenda were tempting.”

Exhibit D: Comey fought the use of torture by the CIA in the wake of Sept. 11, and in doing so, faced off with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff. “They were driven by one of the most powerful and disconcerting forces in human nature — confirmation bias,” he wrote. “Our brains have evolved to crave information consistent with what we already believe. We seek out and focus on facts and arguments that support our beliefs.”

He might as well have been speaking about the American electorate and their absorption of news in 2016.

Exhibit E: When President Barack Obama selected Comey to head the FBI, the president told him: “I don’t want help from the FBI on policy. I need competence and independence. I need to sleep at night knowing the place is well run and the American people protected.”

After Obama had designated Comey as his choice, they had another meeting in the Oval Office, with the White House counsel present. “The president opened the conversation by explaining, ‘Once you are director, we won’t be able to talk like this.’ What he meant was that for more than 40 years, the leaders of our government understood that a president and an FBI director must be at arm’s length,” Comey wrote.

Things would soon change.

Exhibit F: Laughter, which Obama and President George W. Bush did. “Having a balance of confidence and humility is essential to effective leadership. Laughing in a genuine way requires a certain level of confidence,” Comey writes, “because we all look a little silly laughing; that makes us vulnerable, a state insecure people fear.”

Exhibit G: Listening. “To be effective at the FBI, I spent a lot of time listening, something we all struggle to do well. It is hard for leaders to listen well because it requires us to be vulnerable, to risk our superior position,” Comey writes. His exemplar? President Obama. “He was an extraordinary listener, as good as any I’ve seen in leadership. In various meetings with the president, I watched him work hard to draw as many viewpoints into a conversation, frequently disregarding the hierarchy reflected in seating arrangements — principals at the table, lower-ranked folks in chairs against the wall.”

Now, with the exhibits entered into evidence, Comey makes his summation to the jury.

  • Trump, in contrast to Bush and Obama, was self-centered, even after being told Russia had attacked the nation during the 2016 election. “What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be. Nor did they ask about how the United States might prepare itself to meet that threat.”
  • Trump was insecure. At a private dinner attended only by Comey and the president, Trump said he could make a change at the top of the FBI. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told Comey. “This, of course, was not something I could ever conceive of Obama doing, or George W. Bush, for that matter. To my mind, the demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony — with Trump in the role of family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man.’ I did not, and would never.” And later: “Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear — like a Cosa Nostra boss — require personal loyalty.” It was after this dinner that Comey began a practice unique in his government service: writing contemporaneous memos to memorialize his conversations with the president, in the event he needed them later.
  • Trump doesn’t laugh much, if at all, in public. “…but I don’t know of another elected leader who doesn’t laugh with some regularity in public. I suspect his inherent inability to do so is rooted in deep insecurity, his inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others, which, on reflection is really very sad in a leader, and a little scary in a president.”
  • Trump speaks often and unrelentingly, perhaps to avoid disagreement. “As a result, Trump pulls all those present into a silent circle of assent. With him talking a mile a minute, with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, I could see how easily everyone in the room could become a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions.”
  • Trump asked for outcomes to investigations. The president told Comey in a private meeting, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting [former National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” He also repeatedly complained about the “cloud” that the Russia investigation had laid upon his administration, implying that Comey could relieve him of that burden.
  • Trump fired Comey without so much as an email, with Comey out of town visiting the Los Angeles FBI office. And Trump exploded in rage when then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (later also fired after Trump’s public complaints) allowed Comey to return to Washington, D.C., in an FBI jet, although he was no longer the director.
  • Trump lies without apparent conscience. “I see no evidence that a lie ever caused Trump pain, or that he ever recoiled from causing another person pain, which is sad and frightening,” Comey wrote.
  • We’re all to blame: “We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election, and our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”

Comey begins his book by asking the reader a reasonable question: Who the hell is he to deign to talk about ethical leadership? “Anyone claiming to write a book about ethical leadership can come across as presumptuous and even sanctimonious,” he acknowledges.

But in A Higher Loyalty, Comey compares and contrasts his own life, his own experiences and his own ethical compass against that of the president he so briefly and unhappily served. His builds his case painstakingly to prove that Trump is bereft of not just the qualities that Comey strove to develop, not just the qualities that his immediate predecessors possessed, but the qualities that a human being most needs to do the job of president.

How will the jury find? It has two long years to render its verdict.

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