NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - “Who am I to tell others what ethical leadership is?” With the first line of his much-anticipated memoir, James Comey goes to the heart of his message – but also to the focal point of his many critics. In “A Higher Loyalty,” the ex-FBI director who once prosecuted Martha Stewart and worked at Bridgewater Associates calls U.S. President Donald Trump an unethical liar and a threat to American institutions. Comey’s yarn is riveting, but reveals his flawed mix of principled leadership and sanctimonious showboating.
Partly because of that conflict, anyone hoping for a definitive answer to Comey’s opening question will probably be disappointed. Although he compares the president to a mafia don and includes salacious details about an alleged incident involving Trump and prostitutes in Moscow, the book contains no smoking gun, and little in the way of fresh news.
Like the prosecutor he was earlier in his career, however, Comey is using his book and the associated publicity, which began with a TV interview with ABC on Sunday night, to try to shape the narrative surrounding the president who fired him. His critique of the commander-in-chief – for habitual lies, attacks on law-enforcement agencies, and disrespect for the basic norms of government – is withering.
“Donald Trump’s presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation,” he writes. For good measure, he told ABC that Trump is “morally unfit to be president.” It’s little surprise that the Twitter-savvy president has responded in kind, attacking Comey as an “untruthful slime ball.”
Comey’s principled, perhaps even zealous, side is on display in places. He explains why, as U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, he decided to prosecute Stewart for lying about insider trading even though the loss she avoided with her 2001 stock transaction was almost trivial. “People must fear the consequences of lying in the justice system or the system can’t work,” he says. Yet there’s also the grandstanding: He acknowledges hogging the headlines at his boss’s expense while working as deputy U.S. attorney in Richmond in the mid-1990s.
Politics came crashing in when, as deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, Comey sought to clamp down on torture and a secret domestic surveillance program, both conducted in the name of fighting terrorism. “Thousands of people are going to die because of what you are doing,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told him at one tense White House meeting.
Burned out by the infighting, he left the Department of Justice in 2005 to become the chief lawyer at Lockheed Martin, and later at Bridgewater. Sadly for students of the unusual nature of Ray Dalio’s hedge-fund firm, Comey has little to say about the experience aside from a few lines of praise for the “culture of complete transparency and honesty.”
More striking is the other reason he went private: After nearly two decades of public service, Comey was struggling to make ends meet with an interest-only mortgage and the oldest of his five children approaching college age. That’s hardly reassuring for anyone wondering about the ultimate loyalty of Washington insiders and the influence of money on politics.
The events that would eventually lead to his locking horns with Trump began after President Barack Obama brought Comey back to D.C. as director of the FBI in 2013. Two years later, just as the 2016 presidential campaign was heating up, the bureau was asked to investigate whether Hillary Clinton had mishandled classified information by using a personal email server as secretary of state. He recalls his deputy at the time telling him: “You know you are totally screwed, right?”
He’s persuasive in explaining why the bureau didn’t press charges against Clinton. Prosecutors couldn’t prove she willfully put secret material at risk, and the government doesn’t prosecute people for sloppy behavior. But Comey’s decision to defy precedent and comment publicly on the case, especially in the dying days of the campaign when the FBI briefly reopened it, remains highly questionable – as it would be for any other such investigation. His defense is unlikely to sway his critics. A man who wanted to safeguard the bureau as an institution helped make it seem as politicized as it has ever been.
Comey says he has never met Clinton but that Trump quickly wanted to get close. At a pre-inauguration intelligence briefing at Trump Tower, Comey joined the heads of the CIA and the National Security Agency along with the director of national intelligence to explain their findings that the Russians tried to influence the election.
The only response from the president-elect, he writes, was to ask: “But you found there was no impact on the result, right?” With the intelligence chiefs still at the table, Trump’s aides started discussing how to spin the findings “for maximum political advantage.” Comey says it reminded him of going after La Cosa Nostra kingpins in the 1990s: “I sat there thinking, Holy crap, they are trying to make each of us an ‘amica nostra’ – friend of ours.”
His accounts of ensuing events are riveting, if familiar. Comey claims Trump demanded his loyalty at an unusual private White House dinner one week after the president’s inauguration in January 2017. A few weeks later Comey says the president ordered his staff out of the Oval Office and urged him to drop an investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, which he says could amount to obstruction of justice.
That will be for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to decide – if Trump doesn’t find a way to fire him first. As a potential witness, Comey’s book may make it harder to bring charges. He isn’t counting on Congress impeaching the president, though. He says it’s up to the Americans who elected Trump to rediscover the importance of “truth, integrity, respect, and tolerance.”
He claims to find signs of that already in the activism of young people like the Parkland high-school students leading a movement against gun violence. The mixed feelings left by Comey’s book suggest they may be better champions than he is for a revival in American civics and ethical leadership.
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