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In 2016, as the director of the FBI, James Comey publicly dissected Hillary Clinton’s email server controversy. Later, we learned that Comey was keeping to himself the beginnings of an investigation into Russia’s active interference in the U.S. election and potential connections to the Donald Trump campaign.
It was a perplexing contradiction for someone who said he was apolitical and above the fray.
Now James Comey wants to explain himself. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership is Comey’s story of what he did and why.
From a fact-checking point of view, there isn’t much to debunk. Dates check out, titles are accurate, his recounting of events follows widely reported and accepted benchmarks. (Email us if you spot errors we should fact-check.) That’s in contrast to some of the botched details in journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury account of life in the White House.
And rather than deploy a boatload of factual details, Comey sticks to the big picture outlines of a traditional memoir. His book, for the most part, is an exploration and exhortation of principles that are universal: truth, integrity, order, and protecting those who are weak or struggling.
The book also happens to be — like Fire and Fury — a devastating character study of President Donald Trump, who Comey served until Trump unceremoniously fired him in May 2017. Comey says that Trump tried to coerce Comey’s loyalty like a mafia don, making subtle threats against his job and asking him to back off an investigation of the former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump seems to repel Comey on a visceral level, with Comey describing Trump as a liar, "unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values," with a leadership style that was "transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty."
Trump, however, takes up a small portion of Comey’s book, which shapes up as a fairly traditional memoir of someone who’s spent his entire career in law enforcement, shaped by its values of justice and order. It’s not too stodgy, though, because Comey has had a front-row seat for some of the biggest legal issues of the past 20 years.
Most notably, Comey was one of several attorneys in the George W. Bush administration to push back about the post-9/11 authorization of torture. Comey also dramatically opposed the Bush administration’s attempts — led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney’s counsel David Addington — to reauthorize a surveillance program that lacked sound legal footing.
The surveillance program, called Stellar Wind, led to a 2004 showdown in the hospital room of the ailing attorney general John Ashcroft, whom Comey then served as deputy attorney general. Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales tried to get a weakened Ashcroft to overrule Comey’s stand against the program. Ashcroft refused.
Comey was in the room that night; so was Robert Mueller, then serving as Bush’s FBI director. The glimpses of Mueller are some of the most intriguing of the book. Comey describes him as someone who "cared deeply about the rule of law. His whole life was about doing things the right way." Comey also repeats an anecdote that Mueller was known to have had knee surgery without anesthesia. Instead, Mueller bit on a leather belt.
Mueller is now special counsel investigating Russian interference in 2016 and Trump’s campaign. Comey says that he believes Trump’s actions "while disturbing and violating basic norms of ethical leadership, may fall short of being illegal." Mueller and his team, however, "will get to the truth, whatever that is."
The truth is one of the constant preoccupations of A Higher Loyalty. Comey laments, "We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country, with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused or rewarded."
Comey justifies his public statements about Clinton’s emails during the thick of the campaign as his own way of striving for the highest ethical standards. While the Justice Department and FBI typically don’t comment on investigations when no charges are filed, both agencies have "established exceptions to our no-comment policy, for investigations of extraordinary public interest or where our investigative activity is apparent to the public," Comey writes. The Clinton case fit both of those parameters.
"A world-class FBI team had investigated Hillary Clinton for a year, and all of them — to a person — believed there was no prosecutable case," Comey writes, adding, "The FBI was independent and apolitical, and the American people needed to see that." Later, Comey came forward to make more statements about Clinton’s emails when a laptop was discovered with additional data on it. (The laptop belonged to Clinton aide Huma Abedin; law enforcement confiscated it while investigating her estranged husband Anthony Weiner for sex offenses.)
Meanwhile, how much to publicize Russian meddling in the election was debated by President Barack Obama’s leadership team, not just the FBI. Obama settled on the director of national intelligence and the secretary of homeland security issuing a joint statement. Comey was willing to make public statement himself, he said, but ultimately found it unnecessary. "Adding the FBI’s name would change nothing and be inconsistent with the way we hoped to operate on the eve of an election. … Americans already knew what was happening, so the FBI could reasonably avoid action."
How much were Comey’s actions driven by the wrong assumption that Clinton would win and Trump would lose? His answer: "I have asked myself many times since if I was influenced by that assumption. I don’t know. Certainly not consciously, but I would be a fool to say it couldn’t have had an impact on me."
You may not agree with Comey afterward, but his lengthy explanations are more straightforward and convincing than you might guess, especially compared with Comey’s on-camera interviews, which can be can a bit holier-than-thou and a touch sanctimonious.
One wonders if Comey’s confidence in his own principled judgment ended up not serving him so well in the end. Comey was obsessed with protecting the reputation of the FBI, and he let that trump other principles, like the idea that people who aren’t found to have committed a crime should be left alone without a public castigation from the FBI director. Comey, though, decided that an exception in Clinton’s case was warranted.
It’s unknowable but possible (and some have argued probable) that his decision led to the election of Donald Trump. Trump has now repeatedly lambasted the FBI as being filled with partisans on a politically motivated witch hunt. In the end, like a king in a Greek tragedy, Comey’s actions may have unintentionally undermined the very goals that were so important to him.
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, by James Comey, 2018