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The Ambivalent Tell-All of James Comey

The former FBI director and would-be Trump truth-teller’s new book, ‘A Higher Loyalty,’ is neither salacious nor particularly profound. Sort of like the man himself.

James Comey Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For any number of reasons, you may hate James Comey.

The rebellious Democrats in our lives — the Clinton loyalists, in particular — regard the former FBI director as the crucial stooge whose reckless communication about the Democratic presidential nominee’s emails ultimately swung the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor. For a few months after the election, Comey was a right-wing folk hero, as crucial to Hillary Clinton’s defeat as Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, and Trump himself. Trump fired Comey in a fit of frustration with the FBI director’s investigation of possible coordination between his presidential campaign and Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton. Now, Trump’s Republicans regard Comey as a sanctimonious turncoat whose dramatic accounts of Trump’s malfeasance have imperiled the president and empowered special counsel Robert Mueller, who now investigates the Russian intrigue that Trump once cited as cause for Comey’s termination. Comey doomed the Clinton campaign. He now threatens to doom the Trump administration, too. Such is the know-nothing centrism that seems to animate Comey’s political sense.

Nearly a year after Trump fired him, Comey has returned to public life as a scandalous author. He’s written a memoir, A Higher Loyalty, released on Tuesday. In the book — which spans Comey’s life and career — the disgruntled FBI director extensively criticizes his nemesis, the president. Trump may be the most embarrassing U.S. president since Abraham Lincoln’s disastrous successor, Andrew Johnson, but Comey’s memoir makes for a mutually unflattering contrast: If Trump is the reckless bully, Comey is the bureaucrat who helped elevate the bully in the first place. The memoir’s title (and the book itself) reveals Comey to be a terminally self-important man, his arrogance obscured by politeness and an aw-shucks demeanor. Comey is a company man, a true believer in institutions, a square. When Comey speaks, he lags and pauses, marshalling certainty, composure, coherence, restraint, and factual command — all rhetorical qualities that Trump not only lacks, but defies.

On Sunday night, ABC News aired George Stephanopoulos’s blockbuster TV interview with Comey, who is making the media rounds to promote his book. In an hour of television that ABC billed as a “prime-time event,” Comey manages to eviscerate Trump without ever seeming spiteful or tactless. He compares Trump to a mob boss, but then stresses that Trump doesn’t seem to have broken anyone’s legs. In the final minutes of the program, Comey spends a moment dispelling the most extreme concerns about Trump’s mental acuity before describing Trump as “morally unfit” to be president. Comey has testified before Congress, and now he has sat for the first big, prime-time TV interview of his career. At the core of Comey’s public performances is a prevailing ambivalence, masquerading as even-handedness. His terminal ambivalence about the Clinton email scandal, which arguably cost Clinton the presidential election, follows a frightful, lifelong logic that Comey describes again and again but never identifies as his guiding principle.

In A Higher Loyalty, Comey presents himself as the archetypal fed, obsessed with truth, rigor, and justice. In the book’s final chapters, which chronicle the first year of Trump’s presidency, Comey warns that he, and his kind, are an endangered species among public servants — especially now that Mueller serves under a daily deathwatch as the president grows angrier and more impatient with his investigation. In a chaotic, post-Trump world, Comey supposedly embodies the rule of law and all the civic faith that sustains such righteous and peaceful order. His posture isn’t altogether undeserved.

In the Trump administration’s first year, Comey did indeed represent a nostalgic, last-ditch attempt to restore an old order. By May 2017, Trump had humiliated countless opponents, and yet Comey stood as the only figure who could hold his own against Trump in a media skirmish. But as Mueller’s investigation has taken shape, subjecting Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen to FBI raids, Comey is no longer a crucial (if still complicated) agent of the so-called resistance. In the present context — a book tour — A Higher Loyalty now reads as Comey’s self-righteous attempt to obscure his own, disastrous judgment as the FBI director who helped ruin a presidential election.

Hillary Clinton settled her score against Trump with the release of a memoir, What Happened, in September. The author Michael Wolff ruptured Trump’s inner circle, which expelled the White House consigliere Steve Bannon after the January release of Fire and Fury. Comey now resumes the tell-all blitz against Trump, but from the perspective of the president’s fiercest post-election opponent in the press. But, try as Comey might, A Higher Loyalty doesn’t absolve the former FBI director of his partial responsibility for Trump’s rise. In fact, A Higher Loyalty reveals a man whose self-importance is strangely unshaken by his catastrophic history of indecision.

In his memoir, Comey chronicles his obsession with credibility. He cultivates his obsession from his early tenure at the Justice Department, through his stewardship of the FBI, to the very act of writing his memoir. “I understand the impulse to think 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 writes in the author’s note. For better and worse, Comey agonizes public perception as a transcendent concern of law enforcement. “The credibility of the Department of Justice is its bedrock,” he writes. “The American people must see the administration of justice as independent of politics, race, class, religion, or any of the many other things that divide humans into tribes. We had to do everything we could to protect the department’s reputation for fairness and impartiality, its reservoir of trust and credibility.” As the FBI director, Comey recognized the bureau’s longest-serving and most notorious leader, J. Edgar Hoover, as a cruel figure who harassed political opponents, including Martin Luther King Jr. In A Higher Loyalty, Comey describes his own leadership as atonement through vigilant self-doubt.

In his characterizations of the three presidents he served — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump — Comey offers the starkest illustrations of his own principles. Under Bush, Comey served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and then later deputy attorney general in the years immediately following 9/11. Overall, Comey paints a rather unflattering portrait of Bush, whom he describes as incurious, “belittling” in subtle ways, and insecure. For Comey, the Bush administration’s secretive deliberations about surveillance and torture served as formative counterexamples to Comey’s ideal governance. “From my perspective, it was simple. The United States Department of Justice had made serious legal mistakes in advising the president and his administration about surveillance and interrogation,” Comey writes. “If the institution was to continue to be useful to the country and its presidents — including President Bush — the department simply had to fix its errors. To do otherwise, even in the face of angry leaders, would mean the Justice Department had become just another member of the partisan tribe, willing to say what needed to be said to help our side win.”

The most glowing figure in Comey’s account is Bush’s successor, Barack Obama. Comey describes him as a righteous but deliberative leader. Under Obama, the policy meetings that Comey attended became far more egalitarian, with the president calling on junior staffers and marginal guests to present their viewpoints. In his memoir’s ninth chapter, Comey recalls Obama inviting him to the Oval Office for a private, candid discussion of the new wave of civil rights activism that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent Ferguson protests in August 2014. Comey describes his hour-long discussion with Obama as equal, respectful, and profoundly illuminating, as he hadn’t fully considered black America’s general skepticism of law enforcement. “When we were done, I was smarter,” he rejoices. Comey describes Obama’s manner as a model for his own ambivalence. Still, most of Comey’s deliberations seem to take place exclusively in his own head.

Comey disdains politics, which he routinely describes as tribalism. Rarely does he regard public uncertainty, or partisan concern, as the legitimate interrogation of democratic government behavior. Instead, Comey regards all manners of scrutiny as partisan riddles that the political class invents for him to solve, personally, through triangulation. Throughout the Justice Department’s investigation of Clinton’s conduct as secretary of state, Comey makes enterprising judgments that have undeniable ramifications for the rest of the country. He never seems to consult a general standard of conduct. The attorney general at the time, Loretta Lynch, whom Comey characterizes as a political operator, gradually backs away from the Clinton email investigation due to a perceived conflict of interest. Lynch leaves Comey to mismanage the October 2016 resurrection of the Clinton email scandal to the point of political crisis.

For Comey, the 2016 election intrigue does not end with Clinton’s defeat; he must investigate claims that Russian operatives used various channels to sabotage the election in Trump’s favor. In Comey’s encounters with Trump, the former FBI director’s ambivalence takes on a more intimate valence. Immediately, Trump tries to extract loyalty and favorable treatment from the him, and Comey famously agonizes over the precise wording of his stressful nonanswers. In his book, Comey meta-agonizes further, once again second-guessing himself to the point of soliloquy. Thankfully, Comey’s obsession with nuance and minutiae led him to take meticulous notes on his conversations with Trump. For the reader, however, Comey’s fussiness renders his judgment inscrutable and, at the key turns, excruciating.

Under Obama and Trump, Comey confronted extraordinary political pressures that would have frustrated any decent public servant. But Comey’s ambivalence is extraordinary — a fundamental fault in his constitution. In his memoir’s fifth chapter, Comey recalls his first Oval Office meeting, during which he sat with Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Tom Ridge, and Bob Mueller for the president’s daily counterterrorism briefing. “In that moment, something hit me,” Comey recalls. “It’s just us. I always thought that in this place there would be somebody better, but it’s just this group of people — including me — trying to figure stuff out. I didn’t mean that as an insult to any of the participants, who were talented people. But we were just people, ordinary people in extraordinary roles in challenging times.” In his three decades of public service, Comey never outgrows his post-9/11 naivety. He sees power and politics all around him, and yet Comey struggles for more than a decade after his first Oval Office meeting to conceive of himself as a political actor with a substantial influence on current events.

Comey does court some internal deliberation before sending his fateful October 28 update to Congress about the agency’s investigation of Hillary Clinton. “Should you consider that what you are about to do may help elect Donald Trump president?” one colleague, a young lawyer, asks him.

“It is a great question,” Comey replies, “but not for a moment can I consider it. Because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost.”

In recounting this exchange, Comey describes the long pause between the lawyer’s question and his answer. To anyone who has watched Comey mug for cameras in the past year, the pause is familiar: It is the brief and endearing rhetorical span in which Comey fuses his legal proficiency and his political naivety into a singular, doe-eyed performance. His steady cadence makes him sound exceptionally cautious in all things. And yet, the pauses compound to reveal James Comey’s astounding lack of confidence and full consideration. It was a great question. Three-hundred pages later, he’s yet to legitimately answer it.