A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

This book starts in a ridiculous tone of voice. If the author is as naive as he makes himself sound in his opening lines, it is not surprising he was unable to cope with Donald Trump. For James Comey begins by running himself down in words which could have been lifted from a Craig Brown parody:

“Who am I to tell others what ethical leadership is? Anyone claiming to write a book about ethical leadership can come across as presumptuous, even sanctimonious. All the more so if that author happens to be someone who was quite memorably and publicly fired from his last job.”

Comey was Director of the FBI until the afternoon of 9 May 2017, when he was addressing staff at his organisation’s Los Angeles branch and happened to notice, on television screens at the back of the room, the words “COMEY RESIGNS”.

He stopped in mid sentence and said: “That’s pretty funny. Somebody put a lot of work into that one.”

But no sooner had he resumed his speech than the message on all three screens, showing three different news stations, changed to “COMEY FIRED”.

The Director retired to a private room and established, with a certain amount of difficulty, that he had indeed been fired, even though the President had repeatedly assured him he was doing an excellent job.

Here is a second reason, as Comey recognises, for approaching his memoir with a degree of scepticism. It could merely be an act of revenge, in which he allows himself to be dragged into an exchange of insults by the President, who with characteristic magnanimity denounced him, as this volume was about to appear, as a “slimeball”.

The book is actually much better than that. It is a pity that Comey’s editors allowed him to clutter it with quite so many references to ethical leadership, so it reads at times like a self-help manual, though one suspects a great deal more of that sort of stuff was removed.

Again and again, the author feels impelled to make grand moral statements, interspersed with reflections on how to be a great leader. These statements are not wrong, but are delivered in such an innocent tone that one cannot help feeling the speaker lacks the subtlety needed to navigate the politics of law.

But for readers on this side of the Atlantic, there is also some value in being shown how explicit, and serious, the Americans like to be about moral questions. That is part of the American tradition. As one walks round the middle of Washington, one finds the very buildings inscribed with uplifting maxims.

And by the end of Comey’s book, he has earned our respect. For here is a lawyer, and public servant, who does not think it is good enough to allow one’s principles to be implicit in one’s behaviour. Comey is an altogether more explicit kind of character.

He is also rather tough. In his view, justice depends on people knowing they must tell the truth or else suffer terrible consequences:

“There was once a time when most people worried about going to hell if they violated an oath taken in the name of God. That divine deterrence has slipped away from our modern cultures. In its place, people must fear going to jail. They must fear their lives being turned upside down. They must fear their pictures splashed on newspapers and websites. People must fear having their name forever associated wth a criminal act if we are to have a nation with the rule of law. Martha Stewart lied, blatantly, in the justice system… She had to be prosecuted.”

Comey was the United States Attorney, or chief federal prosecutor, in Manhattan, responsible for the celebrated case which resulted in Stewart going to jail. He also conducted many successful Mafia prosecutions in New York.

He goes to Washington, and describes the extreme difficulty of remaining independent, devoted to upholding and enforcing the law without fear or favour, in an atmosphere of ferocious and unscrupulous partisanship. Just before the 2016 presidential election, he decides the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails must be reopened because new evidence has come to light, and that he must announce this reopening, or will be accused, after her victory, of favouritism towards her.

It is certainly a hard decision to make, with no course of action which lacks disadvantages. But one cannot help feeling his determination to avoid looking partisan led him into a course of action which handed an unfair advantage to Trump.

Fiat justitia ruat caelum – let justice be done though the heavens fall – is the Comey way, The heavens do not fall, but Trump wins the election.

Comey, though a registered Republican, was appointed Director of the FBI by Barack Obama, and had by then served just over three years of his ten-year term. He is interesting on Obama, who in his experience observes all the constitutional proprieties and is exceptionally good at listening to what other people are saying.

He is fascinating on Trump, to whom the last quarter of this 280-page book is devoted. He meets him for the first time in early January 2017, in Trump Tower, where along with other intelligence leaders, he has to brief the President elect about Russian actions during the presidential election, and to warn him of unsubstantiated but already widely circulated allegations that Trump was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, because on a visit to Moscow in 2013 he had been filmed watching prostitutes urinating on a hotel bed in the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton which had been used by the Obamas on their visit there.

He finds at once that Trump is determined to dissolve the distinction between intelligence gathering and politics:

“As I was sitting there, the strangest image filled my mind. I kept pushing it away because it seemed too odd and too dramatic, but it kept coming back: I thought of New York mafia social clubs, an image from my days as a Manhattan federal prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Café Giardino. I couldn’t shake the picture. And looking back, it wasn’t as odd and dramatic as I thought it was at the time.

“The Italian Mafia, as noted earlier, called itself La Cosa Nostra – ‘this thing of ours’ – and always drew a line between someone who was a ‘friend of yours’, meaning someone outside the family, and someone who was a ‘friend of ours’, meaning an official member of the family. I sat there thinking, Holy crap, they are trying to make each of us an ‘amica nostra’  – friend of ours. To draw us in. As crazy as it sounds, I suddenly had the feeling that, in the blink of an eye, the president-elect was trying to make us all part of the same family and that Team Trump had made it a ‘thing of ours’.”

He is deeply embarrassed by Trump, and has no idea how to deal with him, but is on his guard, and soon resolves to write contemporary accounts of their conversations, which he shares with senior colleagues at the FBI.

On 27 January 2017, Trump invites Comey to dinner at the White House. To Comey’s dismay, it is just the two of them:

“The head of the FBI could not be put into the position of meeting and chatting privately with the President of the United States – especially after an election like 2016. The very notion would compromise the Bureau’s hard-won integrity and independence. My fear was that Trump expected exactly that.”

Trump says he has heard great things about Comey, but asks if he wants to keep his job, and observes that he could “make a change at FBI” if he wanted to. Comey interprets this as “an effort to establish a patronage relationship”.

Comey says he certainly wants to go on doing the job, and will be “reliable”, not in the sense of supporting a particular side, but because he can be counted on to tell the President the truth. He argues that it is in the President’s best interest for the FBI and the Department of Justice to be seen to be independent of the White House, especially when, as often happens, prominent members of a presidential administration are under investigation.

Trump is not pleased by this reply. He says: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”

Comey remains silent. He is reminded of “Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony”:

“I was determined not to give the President any hint of assent to this demand, so I gave silence instead… I stared again at the soft white pouches under his expressionless blue eyes.”

As Comey cannot resist adding, “Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty.” Later in the meal, when Trump renews his demand for loyalty, Comey says: “You will always get honesty from me.” Trump replies, after a pause: “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.”

With that uneasy compromise, the meal ends. But Trump has not got the submission he wants, and a few months later, “in a blizzard of awful behaviour”, he fires Comey.

Comey’s contemporaneous accounts of these conversations are in the public domain, and he has been interviewed by Robert Mueller, who was Director of  the FBI from 2001-13 and is now the Special Counsel charged with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign. As Comey writes:

“I don’t know whether the Special Counsel will find criminal wrongdoing by the President or others who have not been charged as of this writing. One of the pivotal questions I presume that Bob Mueller is investigating is whether or not in urging me to back the FBI off our investigation of his National Security Adviser and in firing me, President Trump was attempting to obstruct justice, which is a federal crime.”

Comey has written an impressive book about the incompatibility of the values epitomised since the start of the Republic by George Washington – “restraint and integrity and balance and transparency and truth” – with Trump’s unethical leadership.