Friday, April 20, 2018

James Comey's "Higher Loyalty"

It is almost the end of his book when former FBI Director James Comey  offers his concluding assessment of the President of the united States: "this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty." Comey predicts that the Trump experience will leave the presidency weaker and other institutions stronger, and that the next president will re-emphasize values. Perhaps. But political systems are seldom significantly self-correcting. Perhaps instead this president (whom Comey may have contributed to putting in office) may leave all institutions weaker and those values Comey would like to see re-emphasized will be gone instead, and our American political culture changed forever for the worse?

These are fair questions - and fairly put to someone whose actions in 2016 may have been one of the factors that helped throw the election to Donald Trump. Just as Ralph Nader may be remembered by history as much or more for helping elect George W. Bush in 2000 than for any contributions to consumer safety, James Comey may be as much or more remembered for the part he may have played in putting Donald Trump in the White House than for his subsequent firing.

Yet, for all the presumed interest in Comey's assessment of President Trump, the book is really about Comey himself, not about the President. He doesn't even get to the saga of the Clinton emails until chapter 10, almost 160 pages into the story. Presumably, we are intended to read and evaluate the Comey-Clinton and Comey-Trump episodes in the light of that larger life-story. Readers will likely decide for themselves how much they really care about that larger life-story and the arc of righteousness it is presumably intended to portray.

Which is not to suggest that the larger life story is devoid of interest by any means! For example, New Yorkers might find especially interesting his account of his time working for Rudy Giuliani in the U.S. Attorney's office and his critique of Giuliani's "imperial style that severely narrowed the circle of people with whom he interacted."

Regarding the Clinton email issue, Comey acknowledges how little there was there! He states, for example, that the case came nowhere near David Petraeus' case "in the volume and classification level of the material mishandled." But the issue with his initial (July) response to the Clinton case was not his obviously correct conclusion but his self-justifying need at the time to amplify that conclusion. All this, of course, stood in stark contrast to his strange view that "there was no good reason for the FBI to speak about the Russians and the election."

What Comey will always be remembered for, of course, was his last-minute intervention, his October Surprise. indeed, one of the lawyers on the team at the time actually asked him directly: "Should you consider that what you are about to do may help elect Donald Trump President?" To that, in his characteristically self-righteous way, he says he responded "but not for a moment can I consider it. ...If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost."

Obviously, it was the institutional interest of the FBI that he feared for. But what about the United States itself and its democratic and constitutional institutions, rule of law, international standing, etc., that might be lost? 

Undoubtedly Comey sincerely means it, when he says: "I hope very much that what we did - what I did - wasn't a deciding factor in the election." And we may never know for sure how much of a deciding factor it really was. (In such a close election, almost by definition every factor may be decisive.) Yet the question remains a legitimate one, whether and to what extent his personal preoccupation with his understanding of his role may in some way have isolated him in his decision-making - confining him in an abstractly legalistic framework isolated from real-world implications.

None of this, of course, diminishes the seriousness of his evaluation of the President's personality and behavior. Unfortunately, however, he clutters that evaluation with gratuitous observations about Trump's physical appearance, which may reflect elite assessments about the importance of appearance, etc. (It should never be forgotten that it was precisely the electorate's eager rejection of certain elitist assessments of what matters that was most certainly "a deciding factor" in the election.) Comey is on more relevant ground when he critiques, for example, Trump's apparent lack of curiosity. Such deficiencies certainly count for more than any failure to meet cultural elite expectations about physical appearance.

Comey's account clearly is more about Comey than about anyone else. It tells us hardly anything we don't already know about President Trump (or candidate Clinton). In our politically polarized culture, each reader will likely interpret those already known data according to his or her tribal loyalty. Comey's misfortune may lie in the degree to which each tribe may be predisposed to fault his account - and with it his larger life-story and its implied arc of righteousness.

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