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Comey’s fixation on leadership keeps Donald Trump on every page of A Higher Loyalty

In 1958, J. Edgar Hoover published a book and got rich. Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It leads the reader on a Hoover-approved tour of the history of communist ideology and offers tips on how to spot communist agents in their workplace or neighborhood. In the introduction, Hoover presents the book as the fruits of his “extensive and penetrating study,” including his close readings of Marx and Engels (“two perverted minds”). But this is nonsense—Masters of Deceit was entirely ghostwritten by Hoover’s aides. Its origins were also incredibly sleazy. As journalist Tim Weiner documents in his history of the FBI, Enemies, Hoover’s book was published as a business venture by a Texas Oil tycoon, a man who feted Hoover on his lavish estate and made him a risk-free silent partner in an oil drilling enterprise. The bestseller made both men boatloads of money; Hoover maximized his returns by laundering profits through a tax-exempted fund intended for FBI retirees.

Hoover comes up only occasionally in former FBI Director James Comey’s new memoir, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, the book that will make him rich. In those instances, Comey avoids such obviously criminal and venal episodes, instead preferring to present the story of the man who built the FBI as a kind of abstract morality play of personal power politics. “He dined and drank with presidents and senators,” writes Comey, “letting them use the FBI when it suited him, and frightening them with the FBI when that suited him.” In keeping with his book’s heavy-handed theme of leadership, Comey’s biggest gripes with Hoover are about his management style. “Inside the FBI, the director was the absolute center,” Comey explains. “His approach brought tremendous fame, attention, and power to the organization. It also created an environment in which the goal of most agents and supervisors in the FBI was to avoid being noticed by Mr. Hoover. Tell him what he wants to hear, then get on with your work. That mentality was hard to displace, even decades after Hoover’s death.”

Comey traces even the darkest episodes of Hoover’s tenure to such shortcomings of organizational management. Of the FBI’s relentless hounding of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Hoover personally despised, Comey charitably opines that he’s certain Hoover thought he was “doing the right thing.” The issue, as Comey sees it, for both Hoover’s FBI and Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, was that “what they lacked was meaningful testing of their assumptions.” In other words, if only the FBI’s leadership culture had allowed for bottom-up, constructive feedback, someone would doubtless have helped Hoover realize that taping MLK having sex and then trying to blackmail him into suicide was, in fact, bad.

A Higher Loyalty isn’t really about leadership at all. It’s about power and compulsion.

Comey’s organizing theme of leadership is a canny one, and not just because it sets him up for a future of lucrative speaking engagements. Constantly invoking leadership also allows Comey to narrate his encounters with various figures —from a grocery store owner to attorneys general—and then solemnly judge their virtues and faults. It also shows that Comey is keenly aware of why most people will buy his book in the first place: even in the most unrelated chapters, Comey’s fixation on leadership keeps Donald Trump on every page, since he is constantly the implicit point of comparison. And thus the book builds inexorably to their encounter, constantly foreshadowing it, teasing it. Early on, reading about Hoover wining and dining with presidents, the reader knows full well that Comey will be getting his own invitation to a questionable one-on-one dinner at the Trump White House. What kind of leader will he encounter there, and what kind of leader will Comey prove himself to be? Will he accede to Trump’s demands for loyalty, his desire to be the “absolute center,” or will he pledge loyalty to something —wait for it —higher?

Spoiler: Comey is no longer running the FBI. Instead, he has written this book, and nearly all of the encounters with Trump he narrates in it are ones that Comey has already described elsewhere in the past. But like the leadership angle itself, these episodes are at once necessary for the book to exist but also superfluous to it. Because A Higher Loyalty isn’t really about leadership at all. It’s about power, and about compulsion. Not just the compulsion of loyalty or law, but the compulsion of personal ambition, the compulsion of ego, and the compulsion of ideologies and pathologies so powerful they are not even recognized as such. The bits of A Higher Loyalty that are most revealing are ones that don’t even involve Trump at all, and the distressing picture it paints implicates much more than either Trump or Comey or both.

Here is the fundamental through line of the book: James Comey is a True Believer in Truth Itself. “There is a higher loyalty in all of our lives—not to a person, not to a party, not to a group,” he writes. “The higher loyalty is to lasting values, most important the truth.” Loyalty to the truth is, per Comey, the bedrock upon which our democratic institutions rely, and a sine qua non for the rule of law itself. “Without a fundamental commitment to the truth—especially in our public institutions and those who lead them—we are lost. As a legal principle, if people don’t tell the truth, our justice system cannot function and a society based on the rule of law begins to dissolve.”

But truth is also for Comey a deeply personal matter. In an early and harrowing episode, a teenage Comey and his brother are home alone when they are surprised by an armed intruder, a serial rapist who has been terrorizing northern New Jersey. Likely intending to assault Comey’s sister, the man discovers the two boys instead. Staring down the barrel of the man’s gun, Comey pleads for their lives. “I began to speak—to lie, more precisely,” he remembers. “The lies came pouring out. I explained how estranged we were from our parents—hated them, actually—didn’t care what he took from them, and wouldn’t tell anyone he had been there. I lied again and again and again.” The boys eventually manage to flee, but the trauma of nearly dying, commingled with palpable feelings of shame, shapes him forever afterward.  “Believing—knowing, in my mind—that I was going to die, and then surviving, made life seem like a precious, delicate miracle.” His priorities starkly reordered, Comey leaves the experience disdainful of fame, riches, and shallow successes, instead committing himself to “[Helping] the weak, the struggling, the frightened, the bullied. Standing for something. Making a difference. That is true wealth.”

Comey rapidly narrates his subsequent trajectory. As a pre-med college student, he is drawn to a religion class by a course description that prominently features the word death. There he discovers the works of liberal Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who, according to Comey, believed that “justice [could] be best sought through the instruments of government power.”  From there it is a quick hop to law school, and to clerking for a federal justice in Manhattan, where he observes two prosecutors at a Mafia trial. “They stood straight, spoke clearly and candidly,” Comey relates. “They didn’t overstate, they didn’t posture. They seemed to have no other motivation than tackling injustice and telling the truth. I was struck by lightning. ‘This is what I want to do with my life,’ I thought.” Soon enough, Comey becomes a prosecutor himself.

The Mafia looms large in Comey’s book. This is not just because the Mafiosi Comey tries or uses as witnesses yield colorful mob stories (although A Higher Loyalty contains plenty of these). More importantly, they serve as a foil for Comey’s political theology of Truth. As one Mafioso tells Comey, “The Life begins with a lie.”  Whereas the sunshine world of democracy and justice is built upon transparency and loyalty to The Truth, there is no such fixed pole star in the Mafia underworld. Instead, there is only absolute loyalty to the Boss, and deception and greed run rampant. One does not have to be a particularly astute reader to see where all this is going.

Although many readers will likely skip them, the sections on Comey’s tenure as a federal prosecutor, and later as a deputy attorney general, are vital. On more than one occasion, his narratives of dogged evidence-gathering, diligent case-building, and legal deliberation are disrupted by flashes of something else—a kind of jarring righteousness, an ardor that is almost terrifying. In one episode, Comey oversees the infamous ImClone insider trading case against Martha Stewart. For her part, Stewart, who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, emerges looking both guilty and cheap —transparently lying to investigators and clumsily trying to conceal a transaction worth a piddling $45,000. But Comey is so incensed by her lies—and by his own initial temptation to let her off easy rather than face a firestorm of bad publicity—he comes out looking like something else entirely.

Martha Stewart didn’t commit the crime of the century. At first, I found it an annoyance compared to those we were dealing with on a daily basis, cases that had a bigger impact on people’s lives. But something caused me to change my mind. This case was ultimately about something higher, something more important than a rich person trying to sell some stock before it crashed . . . People must fear the consequences of lying in the justice system or the system can’t work. 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 with a criminal act if we are to have a nation with the rule of law. Martha Stewart lied, blatantly, in the justice system. To protect the institution of justice, and reinforce a culture of truth-telling, she had to be prosecuted. I am very confident that, should the circumstance arise, Martha Stewart would not lie to federal investigators again. Unfortunately, many others who crossed my path would continue to commit the same foolish act.

Reading Comey’s reasoning, it is very unclear where his own scruples, his understanding of the requirements of his job, and the claims of his political theological vision of justice begin and end. The reader gets a clue to one of A Higher Loyalty’s running themes: a certain fungibility, a porousness, between Comey’s vindicating his own tempestuous convictions and executing the duties of his office. His invocations of Niebuhr aside, there is a more Puritan vision of doing justice here—something out of Jonathan Edwards, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or even Arthur Miller. On some level, it seems, James Comey viewed trying Martha Stewart as a kind of ritual for maintaining the social order, a sacrifice to an absent God. Stewart had to learn her lesson; other sinners ought to take heed and beware.

Comey’s mission as an avenging angel of Truth leads him to some pretty twisted places. Climbing the ladder to the pinnacle of the Department of Justice, Comey serves for two years as deputy attorney general under George W. Bush. There, deliberating over activities ranging from mass surveillance to legalized torture, Comey’s ceaseless bromides about individual honesty, transparency, and accountability take on a superadded ominousness, and his personal handwringing and agonized deliberations seem increasingly beside the point in the face of his administration of the day-to-day operations of institutionalized security state power.

A Comey theme: articulating his personal misgivings in the mode of a moral Cassandra somehow recuperates his abundant individual and structural complicity. It doesn’t.

Here too we glimpse that, for all his protestations to the contrary, Comey is actually tremendously invested in politics and image management, and a skilled, even devious operator when it comes to both. A credulous reader might thrill at Comey’s relation of his famous and dramatic showdown with Alberto Gonzales at John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside in 2004. Comey’s conduct there—refusing to let the Bush administration renew a particularly noxious and illegal surveillance program, Stellar Wind—is certainly not nothing. But only some readers will be aware that this episode coexisted with Comey’s support for otherwise unprecedented expansions of the surveillance state apparatus, including warrantless wiretapping measures that were no less illegal or invasive.

It’s much the same when it comes to Comey’s approval of the thirteen “enhanced interrogation” measures put to him by the Bush administration and CIA. By this point—April of 2005—Comey has already finalized plans to leave the DOJ, and while he views the techniques themselves as “awful” and describes them in gruesome, disgusted detail, he still feels compelled to note that they are all technically legal. The best he can offer is to counsel that the techniques not be combined in single interrogation sessions (though of course they were) and to write a letter that the torture approval “would come back to haunt him [Gonzales] and the department.”

Here is another running Comey theme: participation in something monstrous, followed by his making a highly constrained, idiosyncratic ethical stand, undertaken in apparent belief that articulating his personal misgivings in the mode of a moral Cassandra somehow recuperates his abundant individual and structural complicity. It doesn’t. Despite his wife’s admonitions not to be “the torture guy,” and his own disgust, Comey winds up being him anyway. Not the only or the worst torture guy perhaps (Comey cannot even bring himself to mention John Yoo by name), but what kind of shitty redemption is that?

All this gets at something key to the book: reading it is an intensely dysphoric experience. Comey will spend pages telegraphing his everyman humanity—his fondness for beer, football, country music, and movie classics—and even demonstrating a certain capacity for deadpan charm. There is self-deprecating humor, tales of amusing office hijinks, and even the occasionally astute and well-turned aphorism about human nature. Some moments—like his grief at the sudden death of a newborn son—are downright raw. And then Comey signs off on disappeared detainees being stripped naked, tied for hours in excruciating stress positions, and thrown against concrete walls. The work of pages gets undone in a single sentence’s reminder of how Comey has made his living (at a meager public salary, he repeatedly reminds the reader). Don’t ever forget, the book reminds you time and again, and despite itself: whatever you may want James Comey to be or represent, at the end of the day, he is a cop.

The real whopper comes during his tenure as Director of the FBI under Barack Obama. In 2015, in the wake of a rash of viral videos of killings by police of black men, and amid ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, James Comey decides he must intervene. Crucially, the other proximate cause is his attendance of the funeral of Wenjian Liu, one of two police officers shot dead by a suicidal black man who proclaimed his act to be retaliation for the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Reflecting on the landscape, Comey writes: “Law enforcement and the black community in America have long been separate parallel lines—closer in some communities, farther apart in others—but now those lines were arcing away from each other everywhere, each video depicting the death of a civilian at the hands of police driving one line away, each killing of a police officer arcing the other line away.”

Reading these lines, where the killing of police officers and the proliferation of viral videos of extrajudicial shootings are presented as mirroring phenomena, one might almost forget that American police kill at a minimum over a thousand civilians a year, or that one in three Americans killed by a stranger is killed by a cop. Meanwhile the number of police killed in the line of duty has been for years at record lows, with the number shot dead in any given year standing in the dozens. For his part, Comey apparently sees a single double murder and national outrage at extrajudicial killings by police as two sides of the same coin, symptoms of a growing cultural “tribalism.” Galvanized to speak out, he thus delivers a speech about race and law enforcement at Georgetown (ever on-brand, he titles it “Hard Truths”). Whatever the speech’s merits, public reaction left Comey disappointed. (“I got to see another demonstration of tribalism in America.”) Enter Barack Obama, who invites Comey for a private conversation at the White House. Comey’s synopsis of Obama’s intervention is cringe-inducing (“A black person—who happened to be president of the United States—helped me see through other eyes.”) but his relation of their conversation is frankly agonizing. Writes Comey:

We talked about the impact on black communities from the extraordinarily high percentage of black men in the criminal justice system, and how poor a job our country has done to prepare those in prison to return to productive lives. Although I agreed that the jailing of so many black men was a tragedy, I also shared how a term he used, “mass incarceration”—to describe what, in his view, was a national epidemic of locking up too many people—struck the ears of those of us who had dedicated much of our lives to trying to reduce crime in minority neighborhoods. To my ears, the term “mass incarceration” conjures an image of World War II Japanese internment camps, where vast numbers of people were herded behind barbed wire. I thought the term was both inaccurate and insulting to a lot of good people in law enforcement who cared deeply about helping people trapped in dangerous neighborhoods. It was inaccurate in the sense that there was nothing “mass” about the incarceration: every defendant was charged individually, represented individually by counsel, convicted by a court individually, sentenced individually, reviewed on appeal individually, and incarcerated. That added up to a lot of people in jail, but there was nothing “mass” about it, I said. And the insulting part, I explained, was the way it cast as illegitimate the efforts by cops, agents, and prosecutors—joined by the black community—to rescue hard-hit neighborhoods.

The sheer depth of absurdity and disingenuousness on display here is hard to overstate. Although a charitable interpreter might also concede some theoretical skepticism vis-à-vis the term “mass incarceration” (“hyper-incarceration” might be more precise), Comey seems less concerned with sociological accuracy than with defending the wounded amour-propre of law enforcement officers as a class. A careful reader might also detect how, in his anaphoric repetition of how the justice system deals with imprisoned Americans “individually,” Comey omits the “trial” step between representation and conviction. That’s because, as Comey of all people should know, approximately ninety-seven percent of federal felony convictions happen as a result of plea bargains, with no trial at all. And there’s nothing “individual” about mandatory minimum sentences either. When you break it down critically, then, it’s clear this is an incredibly weaselly argument for Comey to espouse. But then there’s also the basic fact that Comey is sitting in the Oval Office opposite Barack Obama and feels compelled to argue that talking about how America imprisons black people at five times the rate it does white, and jails more people per capita and in absolute numbers than almost any other country on the planet, is triggering to law enforcement. Obama may be America’s first black president, but that can’t stop Jim Comey from Speaking his Truth as King of Police.

The FBI is—and has always been—the closest thing America has to a Political Police.

All this fades into the background by the time Comey’s book arrives at 2016. The second half of the book—likely the part most people will read—covers material that Comey has largely already divulged in his Senate testimony, interviews, and pre-book-release teasers. Two chapters are dedicated to the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton and Comey’s actions in the run-up to the election. They basically boil down to Comey strenuously arguing that he had no real good options and agonized from one damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t double bind to the next. In quick précis: Comey relates that the FBI’s investigation into the communication and storage of classified material on an insufficiently securitized Clinton email server was nearing an uneventful conclusion when he received word of as-yet-still-classified information casting doubt on the independence of attorney general Loretta Lynch (a narrative Lynch contests).

Writes Comey: “It bothered me that there was classified information that would someday become public—likely decades from now—and be used to attack the integrity of the investigation and, more important, call into question the independence of the FBI.” Troubled by this threat to the perceived impartiality of the American justice system, but reluctant to call for an independent prosecutor to investigate a case he was ready to close without charges, Comey says he chose instead to address the American public directly, which he did early that July. He stands by that choice, writing: “I believed—and still believe, even in hindsight—it was the best thing for the FBI and for the Department of Justice.”

Perhaps so. But amidst all his dark nights of the soul and exhausting meetings with staff, Comey appears to have given considerably less thought to something much more important: the American public’s bandwidth. The nuances of Comey’s July 5 statement—at once condemning Clinton as “extremely careless” while relaying that she had done nothing illegal—simply didn’t translate, and mattered far less than the fact that he was putting himself in front of cameras and issuing a statement in the first place. Comey sees the subsequent furor as more evidence of “tribalism,” and the willful mischaracterization of his statement by partisan politicians who knew better.

Perhaps so, once again. But Comey appears not to have considered that normal Americans would not immediately understand his public statement as the exquisitely calibrated testimony of a career civil servant with a hypertrophied conscience navigating a delicate balance of bureaucratic pressures in a bid to preserve the long-term independence and reputation of the FBI for decades to come. They only saw the Director of the FBI surfacing just months before the election to announce that one of the candidates was involved in some fucked-up shit. At no point does Comey demonstrate that he truly appreciates this. Instead, he appears to spend more time ruminating on which color tie to wear for the announcement, worrying that either red or blue might be taken as sending a coded signal of partisan loyalty (he ultimately settles on gold, a nice foreshadowing of the grotesquerie to come). And then he does it all, all over again, literally days before the ballots opened.

That these interventions—which is what they were—affected the election is undeniable. But Comey stands by them. He did what he felt he had to do, making the best of the options he felt he had before him. The best he can offer in the way of contrition is a masterpiece of exculpatory verbiage: “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls. But I don’t know.”

This is a very convoluted way to say: mistakes (or rather, decisions) were made. Throughout it all, Comey’s priority, he stresses, was to be above “politics,” to protect the FBI’s apolitical role. This is also too precious by half, not just because the FBI is—and has always been—the closest thing America has to a Political Police. But also, Comey’s own words undo him. Nothing could be more political than attempting to game out and preemptively ensure the reputational credibility of his FBI under a putative Clinton administration (which Comey admits to doing). The blunt truth is that Comey wants to have it both ways, to invoke the fundamentally political logic behind political decisions that had monumental political outcomes, while still positioning himself as above the fray. If that strikes you as unsatisfying, or if you’re still frustrated by having to live with the consequences, well, at least you can take comfort in the fact that, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Eighteen, James Comey gets to share his moral witness. You can pay $17.99 for it, or catch him on the lecture circuit.

In any event, we all know what happens next. In its last chapters on Trump A Higher Loyalty switches gears from self-justification to extremely concrete reportage. Almost immediately, Comey senses that his personal future and the fortunes of his beloved FBI may hinge on his keeping an accurate record of events, and his narration of his interactions with the administration, which draw on these notes, reflect an incredible meticulousness. His description of his encounters with Trump are particularly compelling, and distressingly plausible. He gets Trump’s speech patterns perfectly, and reports the flow of his meandering monologues even if they’re barely incoherent. “His method of speaking was like an oral jigsaw puzzle contest, with a shot clock. He would, in rapid-fire sequence, pick up a piece, put it down, pick up an unrelated piece, put it down, return to the original piece, on and on. But it was always him picking up the pieces and putting them down.” And with that speaking come the inevitable lies, “baffling, unnecessary,” mutually incompatible lies, unforced lies, lies for the apparent sake of lying.

Jim Comey fucks America to indulge his fetish for a personal theatrics of the truth, and then Trump duly fucks him and makes a mockery of every institution and value Comey claims to stand for.

Comey is disgusted. Trump is like a miasma of dishonesty, contaminating everyone with his constant dishonesty. Comey is quite astute on this point. He writes: “[Trump’s] assertions about what ‘everyone thinks’ and what is ‘obviously true’ wash over you, unchallenged . . . because he never stops talking. As a result, Trump pulls all those present into a silent circle of assent. With him talking a mile a minute, with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, I could see how easily everyone in the room could become a coconspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions.” All Comey’s foreshadowing about Mafia dons and the corrosive power of dishonesty comes home to roost. However contrived the effect may be, it is still powerful.

The picture of the White House that Comey paints is chilling. Trump is demanding and histrionic, with neither knowledge of nor interest in presidential norms, and similar indifference to the law. No one on staff or among his appointees seems capable of or willing to guide or educate Trump—let alone to check or restrain him. As the administration’s first months unfold, Trump’s demands for “loyalty” intensify and his fixation on Russia and rumors of Russian blackmail grows ever more distressing (of his own accord, Trump broaches the issue of the Steele dossier on no less than four separate occasions). When Comey reports his concerns to attorney general Jeff Sessions, Sessions literally does nothing but stare at his desk. After Sessions recuses himself from all things related to the Russia investigation, the responsible acting deputy AG doesn’t return Comey’s calls. The scene Comey describes is of an erratic, mismanaged, and paralyzed bureaucracy entirely subservient to the brutish directives and whims of one man.

And then, less than four months into Trump’s tenure, Comey is fired. He finds out about it in the middle of a speech addressing five hundred people at an FBI diversity recruiting event in California. Comey only gets an actual letter of termination after a day of confusion and miscommunication: “The reasons for that firing were lies, but the letter was real.” Adding insult to injury, Trump then throws a fit when Comey flies back to Washington on an FBI plane, bans him from ever entering FBI property, and has his personal effects sent home in a box. And ever since, Trump has taken to regularly mocking and threatening Comey on Twitter.

An odd feature of spending several hundred pages with James Comey’s first-person narration, amid events that don’t directly involve Donald Trump, is that you start anticipating Trump’s arrival with a perverse kind of impatience. Part of the feeling is dread—it’s as if you are in some dusty medieval village, awaiting the inevitable arrival of Genghis Khan. But part of the feeling is also weirdly gleeful. The longer you abide with Comey’s unreliable narration, atrocious politics, and studied everyman shtick, the more you feel like he’s actually the protagonist in a some darkly comic novel, un-self-aware yet self-obsessed, fully deserving of getting what’s coming to him. After all, who could be a better nemesis for the pious and self-serious as a straight G-Man in a Jimmy Stewart movie than a sybaritic fraud who believes in nothing and built his brand abusing people on reality TV? The sense of poetic justice grows only more acute after Comey’s intervention in the election: Jim Comey fucks America to indulge his fetish for a personal theatrics of the truth, and then Trump duly fucks him and makes a mockery of every institution and value Comey claims to stand for. There are even some delightful, if cruel, vignettes—one scene, in which Comey tries to hide behind some drapes in order to avoid an embarrassing photo op with Trump, is straight opera buffo.

But, of course, this isn’t a novel. It’s a memoir of a rolling-thunder disaster that’s still ongoing and the full wreckage of which could lead us practically anywhere. These two men—Comey and Trump—may deserve each other, but the real tragedy is how little normal people just trying to get by with their lives deserve either or both of them. But the world isn’t fair and just desert doesn’t matter; they’re what we get. Comey may flatter himself and Trump by elevating their conflict to some sort of classic struggle between mobster and lawman, but this drama feels much less Turner Classic Movies than it does Shitshow 2018. After all, what could be more of this moment than the feeling of being at the mercy of powerful, larger-than-life, and self-involved men, each so invested, in their own ways, in order, power, and control, and whose designs and whims we are constantly asked to decode? Much may separate them, yes, but what they share, ultimately, is that they are exhausting. In a sense, it was always so—one need think only of Hoover, and the presidents with whom he dined.