The cacophony and chaos surrounding the White House have only grown in the 11 months since Donald Trump ordered the firing of James Comey. Like most doxologies, “no collusion, no obstruction” impresses only the faithful. Meanwhile, the president’s legal team stands in disarray as his legal woes mount.
This past week, with court-approved warrants in hand, federal agents raided the office and abodes of Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer. Ominously for Trump, there is no indication that special counsel Robert Mueller is done probing or that exculpation is near. The 2018 midterm elections and the trial of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, loom as storm clouds.
Enter A Higher Loyalty, in which Comey recounts the events that led to his dismissal as FBI director. As to be expected, he is unsparing in his disdain.
Comey portrays Trump as a cataclysmic threat to the nation. As for Trump’s expectation of personal loyalty, he puts Trump on par with a mafia don, writing that Trump’s demand was like a “Cosa Nostra induction ceremony – with Trump in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man’.”
A Higher Loyalty contains little by way of stunning revelation, but offers additional details. It recounts how Trump sought to sway the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser who later pleaded guilty to lying to the bureau. Comey posits that the president’s efforts may have risen to the level of obstruction of justice, but declines to unequivocally state that was in fact the case.
Yet in Comey’s eyes, Trump’s greatest sin was conflating the presidency with himself and, in the process, disregarding constitutional and institutional norms. He brands the president as unethical, “untethered to the truth and institutional values”. Not surprisingly, in a meeting with then chief of staff Reince Priebus, Comey explained the need for separation between the White House and the FBI – only to be rebuffed.
Similarly, Comey expresses his discomfort in socializing with presidents. Although he stood 6ft 8in and like Barack Obama enjoyed playing basketball, Comey believed that two men did not belong on the hardwood together. “FBI directors can’t be that way with presidents,” he writes. “Everybody knows why.”
Trump is not the only person on Comey’s mind. Hillary Clinton and her emails also receive their due. According to Comey, their relationship was strained from the get-go. Comey recalls that as younger prosecutor he was part of the team that in 2001 looked into possible wrongdoing surrounding Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive oil trader. A year later, Comey was tapped to be federal prosecutor for the southern district of New York. In a departure from custom, New York’s junior senator, Hillary Clinton, refused to engage with Comey, something Comey regarded as “odd”.
Unfortunately for Comey and Clinton, their paths would cross again. As Mark Giuliano, then deputy FBI director, told Comey in 2015: “You know you are totally screwed, right?” Comey admits that the task of investigating Clinton’s handling of classified information “sucked” and that it may also have cost Clinton the election.
Candidly, Comey acknowledges that the perceived likelihood of Clinton’s victory may have made reopening the email investigation in late October 2016 that much easier. As Comey frames things: “I had assumed from media polling that Hillary Clinton was going to win. I have asked myself many times since if I was influenced by that assumption. I don’t know.”
A Higher Loyalty is less sparing of attorney general Loretta Lynch and her attempts to steer Comey’s investigation from the shadows while refusing to recuse herself. Comey is particularly critical of Lynch’s effort to recast the investigation as a “matter” instead of acknowledging what it was – an investigation.
Seeing the hand of the Clinton campaign in this kerfuffle over semantics, Comey relented. Looking back, he voices his regrets, writing that the FBI “didn’t do ‘matters’” and “it was misleading to suggest otherwise”.
Comey emerges as a moralist, shaped by religious conviction. A former Sunday school teacher, he sprinkles into the text quotes from Martin Luther and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. For example, in a meeting with President George W Bush concerning Stellar Wind, a deeply contentious government data collection program, Comey, then deputy attorney general, quotes Luther and his speech to Emperor Charles V: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
At the time, Comey was fighting off demands from the president’s counsel and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s staff surrounding the continuation of the data program. Still, Comey is compelled to deny that he is in love with his own righteousness.
After looking flat-footed in the face of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, the White House and its allies have aggressively sought to discredit Comey. The Republican National Committee has rolled out a rebuttal website, Lyin’ Comey. On Friday, Trump responded with a fusillade of frustration, calling Comey a “slime ball”, a leaker and a liar. Synchronously, Trump’s barrage coincided with his pardon of Scooter Libby, Cheney’s chief-of-staff and a leaker, who was convicted of perjury.
On 9 May 2017, Trump fired Comey. He also unleashed a whirlwind from which he has not recovered. Almost a year later, the Republicans appear on the precipice of losing control of the House of Representatives, and even the Senate may change hands. A poll released on Friday shows that a majority of Americans, a robust 69% at that, support the Mueller investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign, an effort first spearheaded by Comey.
Comey may have left the building, but his ghost and Trump’s nightmares remain.