Comey’s memoir was not meant to be about Trump, but in light of his firing, the indictment of the president’s administration overshadows the former FBI chief’s plea to make America ethical again.
A little over a year ago, US President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, calling him “crazy, a real nut job”, “a liar and a leaker”, and “a slimeball”. He went on to practically admit that he had wanted Comey to, as the latter discloses, “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigations. NYT described the firing as a “shocking act” that showed “…he considers himself answerable to no one, and has a peculiar notion that law enforcement should serve his political and personal interests”.
The first FBI director to be fired for no apparent reason, Comey was just about four years into a 10-year term. On his part, Comey has come out with a comparatively understated response but more scathing: “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.” Indeed, he described working with Trump as similar to when he had prosecuted the Gambino mafia family early on in his career: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control… The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
As an insider’s account, Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, is the first strong and credible portrait of Trump and his administration, as well as one of its sharpest indictments, especially when seen against the events in the Bush and Obama administrations. Comey had worked with three US presidents, beginning his career in 1987 at the US attorney’s office under Rudy Giuliani. He was deputy attorney general under Bush and was appointed by Obama as FBI director in 2013. Known as an independent, straight-arrow bureaucrat, a defender of the constitution, and strongly committed to the rule of law and order, Comey strove hard to project himself as a person of integrity and champion of justice throughout his career. He inspired legendary loyalty among his staff; Obama called him “a natural leader of unquestioned integrity”.
This memoir is his attempt to portray his lifelong effort to uphold institutional loyalty over expediency and politics, and to make FBI known as an independent, apolitical justice institution. The book was not meant to be about Trump—he occupies only 54 pages of the 277-page book—but sadly, will still be seen as his side of the firing for a long time to come.
Comey writes he chose a career in law enforcement because it was the best way he could help those suffering at the hands of the powerful and the bullies, and to make a difference. The decision was also shaped by personal events—unmitigated bullying in school because of his height (he’s 6 feet 8 inches and was known as the FBI giraffe); a childhood life-altering experience of being held at gunpoint at home by a robber; and his discovery in college of Reinhold Niebuhr, Washington’s favourite theologian and the author of the Serenity Prayer, prompting him to study religion. According to Comey, great leaders are “people of integrity and decency, confident enough to be humble, both kind and tough, transparent, and aware that we all seek meaning in work”. He demanded and sought to develop “ethical leaders”, and his own role models were diverse and inclusive of ordinary people: store manager Harry Howell, then director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, his boss in Virginia Helen Fahey, Martin Luther King and Obama.
All this may feel incongruous to the reader—we are talking of the director of the FBI, after all. Defending the FBI as an honourable and non-partisan organisation could be his responsibility, but does that make him right? Are Comey’s integrity and the FBI’s integrity the same thing? Comey is honest enough to admit to FBI’s dark days under J Edgar Hoover—“how the legitimate counterintelligence mission against Communist infiltration had morphed into an unchecked, vicious campaign of harassment and extralegal attack on the civil rights leader (King) and others” and how it inspired him to add a curriculum on a King speech and FBI overreach in the Quantico training academy. He is similarly candid about himself— how he could be often “stubborn, prideful, overconfident and driven by ego”.
Some of Comey’s observations are intriguing, such as his appreciation of the sense of humour in a leader as valuable because it conveys a sense of vulnerability as well as acknowledgment of others. Comey never saw Trump laugh, only sneer — a sign of his “deep insecurity, his inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humour of others, which, on reflection, is really very sad in a leader, and a little scary in a president”. But he admires Obama’s sense of humour and humility, although he says he found the president a tad underconfident! A diehard Republican, like most FBI staffers, Comey had “developed a great respect” for Obama as a leader and a person by the time of the latter’s departure.
Mainly due to his key roles in the administration of justice, Comey’s memoirs make for a gripping read. The indictment of Martha Stewart for insider trading; Bush administration’s legal battles over surveillance and torture, including a late-night rush to the hospital to avoid the manipulation of his sick boss, AG John Ashcroft, to reauthorise a controversial surveillance programme; the botched-up investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails just before the 2016 elections; and finally, the Russian links to the current US government—Comey’s accounts of these incidents are explosive, yet written with control and understated humour.
Comey justifies the restart of the email investigations against Clinton just 11 days before the elections, due to concerns “about making her an illegitimate president”, especially “in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president”. Previously, FBI had recommended no charges be filed against her, going against the Department of Justice whose responsibility it was to make the announcement.
Going against the FBI protocol, Comey also mentioned the facts of the case—Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling of “very sensitive, highly classified information”. Two days before the elections, he announced that even the new emails were inconclusive. Needless brouhaha over the incidents raises the question: was Comey too concerned with his integrity and commitment to transparency? Readers may also question why Comey, a long-time Republican, decided to not investigate the Russia connections of Trump, despite having the full dossier on how Putin had helped Trump get elected, and which was disclosed at Obama’s final briefing with the security agencies. Was it then a personal judgment, because Trump was not certain to win? Was it simply because, as in the case of Clinton, the criminal intent was not found? The book falls seriously short of clearing that up.
The idea that all of us are equal under the law, and government officials are especially accountable, is honourable. Most Americans pride themselves on their constitution that tries hard to uphold truth above all. Yet, as in most countries, the US law enforcement institutions, established to monitor and investigate abuse of power, have always struggled to work without partisan bias. Comey must have known that trying to keep the FBI independent would land him squarely in the middle of the storm. It did end up with him being hated equally by Clinton and Trump, as had happened with Bush before, and being left with none on his side but the higher moral ground in 2018.
A Higher Loyalty is a traditional, old-fashioned American’s powerful plea to make America ethical again! To reinstate the pillars of democracy that the Trump presidency has so obviously shaken.
To search for leadership that embodies these values, especially the truth. But the book also seems to underplay how difficult the search can be in today’s America, where men like Comey are clearly in a minority.
The author is a freelance writer