27 Apr Non-fiction Book Review of A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
Partly Confessional and Partly Exposé
James Comey’s best-selling memoir, A Higher Loyalty, is partly confessional and partly an exposé of President Donald Trump’s ethics and leadership. His assertion that “Trump is ego driven and untethered to truth,” sparked a comment by Colin Jost on Saturday Night Live. Jost said the book was “co-authored by Captain Obvious.”
From excerpts and interviews I watched prior to reading it, I assumed it would be just another tell-all book. (See blog on Fire and Fury) I expected a rehash of sound bites and clips like the ones flooding the news and late night talk shows since November 8, 2016, when Donald Trump was declared president.
Many of the observations and facts in the book ring familiar. Those relating to the Clinton email investigation and Comey’s interactions with the president, Comey previously detailed in the hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017. However, the opening chapters provide an autobiographical glimpse into Comey’s early life. Those chapters reveal the foundation upon which his moral and ethical beliefs were built.
Despite Arrogance, the Message is Authentic
In the telling of his story, Comey’s writing is redundant and replete with corny humor. He appears a bit sanctimonious and at times arrogant. His arrogance prompted one MSNBC interviewer to comment that “Comey has set himself up as the hero in his own book.”
And, the author acknowledges that “I can be stubborn, prideful, over-confident, and driven by ego.” But despite the revelation of quirks and human frailties, Comey’s message is authentic. He clearly believes that for our country to remain great, our higher loyalty must be to the pillars of democracy and not to partisan interests. Comey’s obvious belief and commitment to that message rings true, as he relates how he has spent his life in service to it.
When President O’bama appointed him to the job in 2013, Comey became the seventh Director of the FBI since 1935. Well-versed in the history of the organization, he was determined not to repeat the culture of the first director. Comey objected to the manner in which J. Edgar Hoover “used an iron hand to drive the agency and strike fear into the hearts of political leaders.”
He had “profiles” on many of them. He dined and drank with presidents and senators, letting them use the FBI when it suited him, and frightening them with the FBI when that suited him.
We Should Demand and Develop Ethical Leaders
In deciding how he would lead the organization, Comey shadowed his predecessor, Robert Mueller. Although he credited Mueller with transforming the FBI after 9/11, he found Mueller too formal and serious. He admired President Obama’s sense of humor. It lacked the “belittling edge” of George W. Bush, who he’d served under as Deputy Attorney General from 2003-2005. Comey thought Bush’s biting wit evidenced insecurity, as opposed to O’Bama’s confidence in being able to laugh at himself
Comey would adopt a more open, relaxed, and personable style of leadership to promote a culture of listening and trust. He started by making small changes. For example, he wore blue shirts instead of white ones that Mueller had worn every day. He removed his coat at staff meetings, and encouraged everyone else to do the same. He rewrote and shortened the mission statement– “to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States,” and he sought diversity in hiring.
I said we were going to paint a picture of what great leadership looks like, find and grow those who could be great, and teach or remove those already in leadership jobs who weren’t getting it done…We would teach that great leaders are people of integrity and decency; confident enough to be humble; both kind and tough; transparent; and aware that we all seek meaning in work. We would also teach them that what they say is important, but what they do is more important, because their people are always watching them. In short, we would demand and develop ethical leaders.
Preserving a Reservoir of Trust
Through the expectations he laid out for all FBI employees and the training he provided for them, Comey attempted to “protect the reservoir of trust and credibility” that makes everyone’s work possible at the agency. He discovered that they’d need that trust when the 2016 election came up and they would be put in the middle of it.
Comey had been exposed to controversial investigations throughout his career. As US Attorney in Manhattan, he’d prosecuted the Martha Stewart case, in which Stewart was found guilty of obstructing justice and lying to investigators about a well-timed stock sale. As Deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush, he’d been involved with the Scooter Libby case. Libby, chief-of-staff to the vice president, was indicted for interfering with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s criminal investigation of the Plame affair, or the CIA leak scandal. And, he had clashed with Vice-President Dick Cheney over the serious legal mistakes Comey thought the Justice Department had made in advising the president and staff regarding surveillance and interrogation of prisoners after 9/11.
If the institution was to continue to be useful to the country and its presidents–including President Bush–the department simply had to fix its errors. To do otherwise, even in the face of angry leaders, would mean the Justice Department had become just another member of the partisan tribe, willing to say what needed to be said to help our side win.
Cheney had defended his warrantless surveillance program, referred to as “Stellar Wind.” He lashed out at Comey, saying “thousands are going to die because of what you are doing.” After Bush was elected for a second term, Comey resigned his position and worked in the private sector until 2013, when O’bama appointed him to the FBI.
The Clinton Emails
In 2015, the FBI opened an investigation into whether Hillary Clinton had mishandled classified information while using her personal email system. For the first few months she was Secretary of State, she had used a personal AT&T Blackberry email address before switching to the Clintonmail.com domain. That, according to Comey, was not in itself an illegal act. However, in emailing other State employees, Clinton and the staff discussed classified topics in the body of dozens of emails. Those could have been a threat to security if the recipients of the messages lacked security clearance.
The first question to be determined was whether classified documents were moved outside of a classified system or whether classified topics were discussed outside of a classified system. If so, they would need to determine what she was thinking when she mishandled the information. In order to prosecute, they would need evidence of intent or proof that Clinton had lied.
They found the answer to the first question to be yes. But, by 2016, they were almost certain there was no prosecutable case. However, with the Democratic Convention only weeks away, they still had not interviewed Hillary Clinton.
To Maximize Public Confidence Without Influencing the Election
Comey saw his dilemma as needing to do everything possible not to influence the political process. He also needed to close the case in a way that “maximized public confidence that the FBI and Justice Department had acted justly.” At the same time, he knew from past experience in dealing with investigations involving partisan interest, that whatever he did, he was “screwed.”
The Clinton interview would take place on July 2. Assuming no new information surfaced in the interim, or that Hillary Clinton was not caught in a lie while under oath, Comey would make a public statement and end the case on July 5. That date fell a little less than three weeks before the Democratic Convention was to begin on July 25.
Comey made the unprecedented and controversial decision to act independently of the Justice Department in making the announcement. He based the decision on classified information that he thought was about to hit the press. It was information that would allow partisans to argue that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had been controlling the FBI investigation, though Comey insisted there were no grounds to that.
Comey’s Justification for Acting Independently
His overriding determination to protect “the reservoir of trust and credibility of the FBI” is evident in his words:
Without it, we are just another partisan player in a polarized world. When we tell a judge or jury or Congress what we saw, or found, or heard, they are not hearing it from a Repbulican or Democrat. They are hearing it from an entity that is separate and apart in American life. The FBI must be an “other” in this country or we are lost…How could I protect the reservoir standing behind an attorney general who appeared politically compromised? The FBI was independent and apolitical, and the American people needed to see that. I knew this was going to suck for me…but I believed–and still believe in hindsight– it was the best thing for the FBI and for the Department of Justice.
Comey was put in another impossible position when the Anthony Weiner texts surfaced on October 27, 2016, twelve days before the election. Weiner’s laptop contained hundreds of thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton’s Blackberry domain. They were emails missing in the initial investigation, that could shed light on whether Clinton mismanaged her emails intentionally or had lied under oath.
To Speak or To Conceal
Comey felt he had two choices–to speak or to conceal. He knew by speaking up that it could influence the election in Donald Trump’s favor. However, he could not in good conscience make the decision based on whose political future it would impact. They finished reviewing the emails November 5, with the decision that none changed their original view of the case.
Convinced the news came too late to exonerate Clinton in time for the election, the Democrats blamed Comey for her defeat. Republicans, who had loudly criticized Comey for closing the case in June 2016, now hailed him for enabling Trump’s win. Comey writes that he agonized over the notion that his actions may have helped to elect Trump.
It was “not because Donald Trump is such a deeply flawed person and leader…but because I have devoted my life to serving institutions I love precisely because they operate independently of the passions of the electoral process.”
Comey goes on to say that 2016 was an election like no other. One of his kids captured the public sentiment when she showed him a tweet. “Comey is such a political hack. I just can’t figure out which party” it said.
The Story of Comey and Trump
Comey reserves the last three chapters of the book to tell the story of his relationship with Donald Trump through the bizarre meetings and phone calls that led to his firing as FBI director. They are the same encounters that he outlined in great detail before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June of 2017.
However, Comey’s opinion that “Trump is unethical, ego driven and untethered to truth and institutional values,” is not contained only in the last three chapters. It is suggested throughout the book in his observations of effective, ethical leadership as well as leadership that is negative and destructive. It requires no stretch of the imagination to understand that Comey identifies himself with the former and Trump with the latter.
Positive Leadership Traits
The positive leadership traits which Comey espouses, he learned from:
- His first boss, Harry Howell. Harry, a grocery store owner near Allendale, who told him to clean up the crates of milk he carelessly spilled, rather than yelling at him.
- Reading Reinhold Niehbur’s theology of our obligation to seek justice in a flawed world.
- Helen Fahey, the U.S. Attorney he served under in Virginia. She was secure enough in her leadership to let him grow despite the gossip that she was “letting Comey take over Richmond”.
- His wife, Patrice, who showed him how to make something good come from suffering when their infant son died from sepsis.
- From President Barach O’bama, who welcomed dialogue and dissenting opinions and had the self-confidence to laugh at himself.
He Made the Office About one Person, Himself
Comey juxtaposes the positive leadership qualities of O’bama with the biting humor of George Bush and the rigidity of Dick Cheney.
He (Cheney) didn’t seem to accept the obvious truth that there was another side. To him, he was right and everyone else was wrong.
Finally, of his former boss, Rudi Giuliani, Comey says he was “a confident and not humble boss, who used publicity to foster his political ambitions–made the office about one person, himself.”
First Encounter with Trump
The first meeting with Trump happened at Trump Tower on January 6. Comey traveled to New York to brief the president-elect on Russian cyber activity related to the elections. He would also share with him privately the contents of the Steele Dossier. That document alleged that the president-elect had been filmed by Russian intelligence as he engaged in unusual sexual activities with prostitutes on a trip to Moscow in 2013.
The tape also allegedly involved the prostitutes urinating on a hotel bed in the presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton, while Trump watched.
At that first meeting, Comey writes that he detected an eerie similarity between Trump and the mob bosses he’d confronted during his tenure as a federal prosecutor. He remembered that the Italian Mafia called itself La Cosa Nostra–“this thing of ours.” He noted that they always made a distinction 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 kept pushing it away because it seemed too odd and dramatic, but it kept coming back…I sat there thinking, Holy crap, they are trying to make each of us an “amica nostra”– a 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.” For my entire career, intelligence was a thing of mine and political spin a thing of yours. Team Trump wanted to change that.
The Private Dinner on January 27
Between January 6, and the day of his dismissal on May 9, Comey continued to resist being drawn into the Trump circle. At the same time, Trump continued to press the FBI director to declare his loyalty. On January 27, when Trump invited Comey to a private dinner between the two of them at the White House, he pressed the issue.
“I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Comey quotes.
“You will always get honesty from me,” Comey said.
“That’s what I want, honest loyalty.”
Comey said, “You will get that from me.”
“Ethical leaders don’t ask for loyalty” Comey writes. He added that he went home and wrote a memo because “I couldn’t trust this person to tell the truth about our conversations.”
The February 14 Briefing
On February 14, Comey attended a scheduled briefing on counterterrorism. He found Trump sitting behind his desk, distracted and disinterested. The desk created a barrier between the president and the participants, with six seats arranged in a semi-circle on the other side.
In contrast, Comey remembered that O’Bama had always come from behind the desk and sat in an easy chair beside the fire, creating a more conversational atmosphere.
When the briefing was over, Trump signaled Comey to remain. He dismissed Attorney General Sessions and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had both asked to remain. With no other witness in the room, Trump talked about General Mike Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor. Flynn had resigned for lying to Mike Pence about the nature of his relationship with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
According to Comey’s memo, Trump said “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flyn go. He’s a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey writes that he did not agree with the president, but simply said that Flyn was a good guy. Afterwards, he wrote another memo.
The Call on March 1
The February 14 meeting was Comey’s last with the president. However, he documents three more times when Trump contacted him by phone before the firing in May.
The first call came on March 1, when Comey was about to fly out to an opioid summit in Richmond. Strangely, the call had no apparent purpose other than a social one. Comey reports that the president just wanted to talk to him to find out how he was doing.
On March 30, Trump called Comey to say that the Russian investigation was a cloud that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. Comey says the president rambled on about his innocence in his involvement with Russia, and the hookers in Moscow.
He pressed Comey to make the cloud go away by concluding the investigation. He stressed that he wanted the director’s statement to him that he was not under investigation made public.
“We need to get that fact out,” he said.
Comey told Trump he’d do what he could. He then followed protocol by reporting the request to Dana Boente, the acting Attorney General after Jeff Session’s recusal of the investigation, and awaited guidance.
The Call on April 11
On April 11, Trump called again and seemed irritated. When he asked for a progress report, Comey told him he’d reported it to the attorney general. Trump said he’d have his people reach out.
Comey told him that would be the proper channel. Trump then said he’d do that “because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know.”
Comey followed up with the attorney general who said he’d not done anything. Comey quotes him as saying, “Oh, God, I was hoping that would just go away.”
The Firing on May 9
On May 9, Comey was in Los Angeles to attend a Diversity Agent Recruiting event. He loved the events because they could reach talented people of color and convince them to make a difference with a career in the FBI.
As was his custom, he was touring the LA offices of the FBI prior to the event, to shake hands with all of the employees. He began addressing a group in a large command center room about a new mission statement, “to protect the American people and to uphold the Constitution of the United States.” Suddenly, he stopped in mid sentence.
On the tv screens along the back wall, large letters were scrolling across the screen. They read, Comey Resigns.
He laughed and said, “That’s pretty funny. Somebody put a lot of work into that one.”
And then the words came up: Comey Fired. At that point, he told the group he was leaving to figure out what was happening. But before leaving he said:
Every one of you is personally responsible for protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution of the United States. We all have different roles, but the same mission. Thank you for doing it well.
Then he shook hands with everybody in the room and left.
The Tweet May 12
On May 12, Trump released his much publicized tweet. It said, “James Comey better hope there are no tapes of our conversation before he starts leaking to the press.”
Comey remembered the meeting in which Trump asked him to drop the investigation of Mike Flynn. He realized that if there were tapes, they would corroborate Trump’s request. That would mean it would no longer be Comey’s word against the president.
He decided as a private citizen to initiate a media story by revealing the president’s February request. He hoped it would prompt the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor who could get the tapes.
Though Comey had been banned from the FBI, he had the unclassified memo at home. He contacted Dan Richman at Columbia Law School. Then, he gave Richman the memo, and asked him to share it with a reporter. It would not be considered a leak because it would be a private citizen sharing information with the press.
DOJ Appoints Robert Mueller
Shortly afterwards, the Department of Justice appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel, to investigate any coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as in related matters.
Comey found some closure when he testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 8. He used his opening statement to say goodbye to the people of the FBI and to deny the lies about the FBI being in disarray.
He must have found additional closure in publishing his story. For the book has become an immediate best seller. It has drawn both positive and negative press regarding his motives for writing it.
Call to a Higher Standard or Weapon in a Partisan Fight?
John Dickerson, co-host of CBS This Morning, made this observation about the impact of the book:
What Comey is “trying to do is he’s making the case for a moral standard at a time when all of those standards are being thrown out by the president — and some people love the fact that those standards are being thrown out — and so he’s trying to make this case while he has fallen short of standards as well.
He’s not totally clean. So the question is, now that he’s got this book out there, will people hear that it’s a call to a higher standard? Will they think this is just more weaponry in a partisan fight? If those standards he’s making a case for get written down as just more weaponry in a partisan fight, then he’s actually net-reduced our belief in those standards that he says should be above politics. So that’s the fight for him: Can he protect those standards from the launch of his own book?”
Lack of Judgement Does Not Disqualify Him From Advocating Standards Above Politics
I hope for the sake of our country that readers will view the book as a call to a higher standard and not as a weapon in a partisan fight. I agree with Dickerson that Comey is not totally clean. Some of his explanations, especially those surrounding the Clinton emails, seem like a futile attempt to rationalize his questionable judgement. They raise more questions than they answer.
However, I don’t think his lack of judgement disqualifies him from writing about and advocating standards that are above politics. Comey staked his career in the FBI on his conviction that patriotic leadership requires nonpartisan decision making. He stubbornly held to his principles, even though his decisions brought unintended consequences in the election of Donald Trump, a man who represented the antithesis of the leadership qualities that Comey admired and attempted to emulate. And though he may have fallen short due to his own human frailty and political circumstances beyond his control, he’s certainly fought the good fight. That’s about all any mortal can do.
Book is Valuable for its Content and Timely Message
As to protecting the standards he believes in from the launch of his own book, I’m pretty sure that’s out of his control.
Though A Higher Loyalty is not a well-crafted book, it is still worth reading for its content and timely message, summarized in the epilogue:
What is happening is not normal. It is not fake news. It is not okay. Whatever your politics, it is wrong to dismiss the damages to the norms and traditions that have guided the presidency and our public life for decades, or in many cases since the republic was founded…I know that there are men and women of good conscience in the United States Congress on both sides of the aisle who understand this. But not enough of them are speaking out. They must ask themselves to what, or to whom, they hold a higher loyalty: to partisan interests or to the pillars democracy?