Comey’s Book

It’s an autobiography, not an anti-Trump screed. And it’s surprisingly well written.


A Higher Loyalty became available to the general public Tuesday. (Last weekend already, news outlets had started reviewing pre-publication copies.) If you’ve been following the media coverage of the book and are trying to decide whether to read it yourself, there are two things you should know.

  • For somebody whose day jobs have been in a different field, Comey is a surprisingly good writer. I found his book to be a quick and pleasant read; finishing it in time to write this post was not a chore. You might wonder if this means a ghost writer was involved, but I doubt it. The book contains a number of sparkling phrases that I don’t think a ghost would put in somebody else’s mouth.
  • It’s more of an autobiography than the anti-Trump screed the media is making it out to be.

Comey begins by describing the early experiences that he believes led him to choose a career in law enforcement (including a home invasion when he and his little brother expected to be killed). He describes the authority figures who shaped his view of good leadership. (His first job at a grocery figures prominently. When Comey made a foolish mistake that results in spilling many gallons of milk, what his boss wanted to know first is whether he learned anything. Comey said he did, and then the boss simply replied: “Clean it up.”)

His career in public service includes several noteworthy scenes before Trump shows up, like prosecuting Martha Stewart, or the famous showdown in John Ashcroft’s hospital room, where Bush’s White House Counsel (Alberto Gonzales, later attorney general) tried to bully a weakened Ashcroft into re-approving a highly classified surveillance program that Justice Department lawyers had decided was unconstitutional. (Comey, who was deputy attorney general at the time, recounts some amusing stories from his subordinates, who raced to the hospital to support him and Ashcroft without knowing what was going on. One came in such a hurry that he forgot where he parked his car, couldn’t find it afterwards, and couldn’t even explain to his wife what he had been doing when he lost it. “Someday I may be able to tell you,” he said.)

Because he had been a Bush appointee, Comey was surprised that Obama wanted him to be FBI director. He clearly was impressed by his personal interactions with Obama. Obama knew what he was talking about, knew how to listen, and encouraged subordinates to tell him unpleasant truths. He also knew the importance of keeping White House politics away from Justice Department law enforcement. (Just before officially nominating him, Obama invited Comey to the White House for a wide-ranging chat because “Once you’re director, we won’t be able to talk like this.”)

He describes his decisions around the Hillary Clinton email investigation. His conclusions are pretty similar to the ones I outlined a month before he gave his report: Some classified information got mishandled, but without some evidence of criminal intent — which the FBI never found — prosecuting would have been a waste of time.

He justifies his decision to describe the investigation in public, and to re-open it two weeks before the election when new emails turned up. I still don’t agree with his reasoning, but I can at least understand it: Second only to finding the truth about Clinton, his major concern was maintaining the “reservoir of trust” that the public has in the FBI in particular and law enforcement in general. As events played out, his public announcements were unfortunate. (While he doesn’t admit that, he also doesn’t deny it.) But at the time he was also worrying about other scenarios that he thought would have been even more damaging to that trust. Like: What if he said nothing, Clinton got elected, and then the new emails displayed the criminal intent that he hadn’t found in the first batch?

Trump comes off badly in Comey’s descriptions, particularly in contrast to Obama. He talks constantly, and seems to interpret Comey’s inability to get a word in edgewise as agreement. (Here, Comey uncorks a metaphor that I envy as a writer. A Trump monologue is “conversation-as-jigsaw-puzzle, with pieces picked up, then discarded, then returned to”. I will never be able to listen to Trump again without remembering that.) His concerns are all self-centered; he never showed the slightest interest in what Russia’s influence on the election meant for the nation, or what could be done to prevent future interference. He is constantly spinning “a cocoon of alternative reality” (another great metaphor) around himself and his people. His White House reminds Comey of a Mafia family; it runs on loyalty to the leader, rather than respect for truth, the rule of law, and the norms that keep the reality-based parts of the government independent from the politics-based parts.

Comey stops short of claiming Trump obstructed justice by firing him. As with Clinton, Trump’s action is criminal only if he had a corrupt intent, which Comey is not in a position to know. (But Mueller might be.)

Comparing the memos Comey wrote immediately after his conversations with Trump to what he told Congress, what he wrote in the book, and what he has said this week in interviews, it becomes clear that Comey has been giving the same account all along. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. He could have misinterpreted his conversations with Trump as they happened, or perhaps (if you want to cast him in a truly sinister light) he was already plotting against Trump before he was fired. But Comey’s consistency is a marked contrast with Trump, whose stories change from one day to the next, and are often provably false.

Two intertwined themes lie behind all the stories Comey tells: respect for the truth and what good leadership consists of. In Comey’s world the truth is both supremely important and hard to learn, particularly if you’re in charge and rely on other people to be your eyes and ears. Given that situation, a leader’s most important job is to convince his subordinates that s/he really wants to know the truth, and to create an environment where truth-telling is safe.

The book’s title implies some questions: a loyalty to what that is higher than what? And Comey’s answer is: Far above your loyalty to the boss who can fire you, you have to be loyal to the truth, to the nation, and to the principles the nation and its institutions are founded on.

It’s not hard to see why he and Trump didn’t get along.

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Comments

  • GJacq726  On April 23, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Thank you.

  • D Moses  On April 23, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    Comey is lying about his reason for the Clinton press conference and for the October surprise.

    The reason we know this is because we know that Comey was privileged to even more explosive allegations against the Trump organization and its officers. If Comey had only been worried about the FBIs reputation then at the least he would have had to make even disclosure.

    But he was not. He disregarded agency policy and proper decorum for an act that he should have known would irreparably damage the dignity of the FBI. For an act that only had partisan purpose he drug the reputation of the FBI through the dirt. One cannot say that he was afraid of what might come out of the New York office because he took no steps as head of the FBI to reign in the New York office. He looked for no leakers. He looked for no dissent he simply allowed the New York office to run rampant over their duties to the nation and the FBI.
    .
    This might not mean that he is a partisan operator himself. But at the very least it indicates that he was called by a Republican Congress into betraying the trust that the nation had placed in him.

    Note that two wrongs do not make a right. The current Republican assault against Comey is disgusting and his firing was an illegal obstruction of justice. But Comeys explanations do not hold water. And he should be remembered that, for all his bluster about a higher loyalty he did not have it when it mattered.

    • D Moses  On April 23, 2018 at 3:17 pm

      Called=cowed

      Auto dictation failed me

    • Marty  On April 23, 2018 at 4:41 pm

      Have you read his book? If not, then you aren’t really qualified to judge, and should reserve judgement until after reading it.

      In short, the difference is thus: in the case of the Hillary investigation, one could argue that the Attorney General was compromised by an inappropriate meeting with Bill Clinton, and therefore could not be relied upon to be believed should she make the announced. With Trump, this was not the case, therefore standard procedure could be followed. I may not agree with this reasoning, I may think that it represents a mistake, but it isn’t a lie.

      There is a huge difference between disagreeing with someone’s reasoning and accusing them of lying.

      • D Moses  On April 23, 2018 at 10:03 pm

        Bullshit.

        In Comeys own words he was not worried about the Clinton conversation he was worried about being dragged up to congress and accosted by Republicans. (Stephanopolous interview)

        If that wasn’t clear from his own words then the fact that the press conference was scheduled before Clinton has his conversation.

        But even if that were the case then the content of the conference doesn’t make sense. Why did he need to say that Clinton acted inappropriately? Why didn’t he just say that the FBI did not recommend charges?

        How could he be worried about Lynch spiking the charges if he wasn’t going to recommend any?

        Well the answer is that he is lying. He may be lying to himself as well. But he is lying none the less.

        When it came to a Democrat doing something not illegal and minor at that he decided that it was worth interfering in an election and violating FBI protocol in order to “preserve the honor of the FBI”… but then, at the very least, when the majority of advisors of a Republican appear to be agents of a hostile foreign government he won’t say a peep lest the people think he is playing politics? There is no way in which the stated reason can lead to the produced actions.

    • weeklysift  On April 23, 2018 at 5:43 pm

      I don’t want to become a Comey surrogate here, but I think I know what he would say, and he may have even said it already in an interview last week. This case against Clinton was missing one piece: An exchange where somebody said, “You realize this is classified and we’re not set up to discuss it properly here.” and she responded “Oh, screw that.” That would have established intent to break the law.

      Most likely such an exchange, if it existed, would have been early in her term, when she was still doing email on her Blackberry. But those emails hadn’t been recovered. The emails discovered right before the election, though, included a bunch of the Blackberry emails, which they hadn’t been able to go through yet.

      It was literally possible that the day after the election, the FBI would find such an exchange and have enough for an indictment. They had a lot of suspicions about Trump, but they weren’t nearly that close with him.

      • DMoses  On April 23, 2018 at 11:27 pm

        Well… no.

        Because the particulars of the case suggested that a reasonable person would not have known that the details were classified or would have understood that the marks were in reference to a classification scheme because the format of the documents had been modified in such a way that they no longer met the standard form of classification.

        All other classified information in the emails was classified after it was emailed. Which cannot be a crime.

        This was clarified in the Congressional hearing two(?) days later.

    • Anonymous  On April 23, 2018 at 8:55 pm

      Stephen Colbert did a good interview of Comey. They talked about several different topics, one of which was his thinking about how to deal with Clinton & Trump. I recommend it. It was a substantive interview, with the added bonus that Colbert got Comey to laugh. And got me to laugh so hard I had to pause the recording, so that I wouldn’t miss part of it while I was laughing.

  • gerrymackrell  On April 29, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    Haven’t read the book yet, but, having watched both men on TV, it’s difficult not to compare the two characters. One comes across as being an honest to-goodness person in every respect. The other not.

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