James Comey, the fired FBI Director, likens US President Donald Trump to a New York mafia boss and eviscerates him in his part memoir and part setting-the-record-straight autobiography, A Higher Loyalty. A consummate insider, Comey offers a ringside view of perhaps the most tumultuous and unhinged American presidency. His account comes after the completion of Trump’s first year and close on the heels of Michael Wolff’s wicked and scandalous, Fire and Fury. The former FBI Director’s revelations are cathartic and portray a dissolute and deeply flawed President. And perhaps, in minor measure, seeks redemption for his perceived role in Hillary Clinton’s loss and Trump’s ascendancy.
Comey’s book is pure Americana: it traces an almost mythical journey, where a middle-class choir boy-turned-law-enforcer takes on a bare-knuckled, trash-talking, boorish, real estate mogul in a heroic David-meets-Goliath battle. All themes central to political and public life find themselves as characters in this political thriller. An invocation of the spirit of the Founding Fathers of America; an exhortation and adherence to ethical leadership and family values; theology as a moral force and a clarion call to conduct oneself with humility and decency; and a summon to honour the spirit and letter of the Constitution.
Why this book was written
This book would never have been written had Trump not glibly alluded to the presence of tapes recording conversations between Comey and him. Prior to that, Comey was licking his wounds and preparing for life outside of government. The potential presence of tapes winds up Comey. Questions arose.
Could a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate the hidden tapes? Could the Department of Justice subpoena them as evidence? Comey gathers his nerves, requests his friend, Columbia Law School professor, Dan Richman, to release a memo to the press authored by him in an attempt to communicate his version of events. While doing so, Comey, invoking a higher commandment, quotes Thomas Jefferson: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
Comey’s infuriation with Trump was trigerred by the latter’s pursuit with an objective of leaning favourably on the Russia investigation; of absolving Trump of any wrongdoing, “letting go of Flynn” (Trump’s National Security Advisor), and implicating Clinton instead. And therein lies the rub. Trump cannot lean on an ongoing Federal investigation. This is construed as obstruction of justice and constitutes a criminal offence. And Trump apparently oversteps that code several times. After one particular call, Comey tellingly remarks to a colleague “the President called to say wassup”.
Trump continues to harangue Comey to drop the Russia investigation. The FBI Director holds his ground, which further enrages Trump, who eventually fires Comey during a field visit to a Los Angeles FBI office (he learns of the news from a TV ticker). The humiliating dismissal order commanded Comey never to step on FBI property again.
The firing was a poetic moment. In many ways, Comey’s entire career was a preparation to cultivate a response to Trump’s transgressions. When the highest authority of the land violates a principle, how does one bring the perpetrator to book, even if that person happens to be the President?
Comey censures the incumbent US President in blistering prose throughout the book. Savour the description of the first meeting in Trump Towers: “As I was sitting there, the strangest image filled my mind. I thought of New York Mafia social clubs, an image from my days as a Manhattan federal prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Café Giardino.” Comey alludes to Trump, Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, Mike Flynn and Sean Spicer as the Cosa Nostra. He is convinced that Trump is enacting the Mafia playbook by getting him to become an amica nostra, a friend of Trump and Team.
One moment in Comey’s meeting with Trump was particularly lurid and macabre. It fell on him to communicate to Trump that Putin may possess video recordings of Trump cavorting with Russian hookers in Moscow. Comey realised that a video leak would irreparably damage the American Presidency. Prior to leaving for Trump Towers, Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security warns Comey in a chilling tone: “Please be careful. Be very careful.”
When Obama learnt that Comey was to break the hookers story to Trump, he furrows his brow and looks away into the distance. Even he is unable to allay Comey’s utter discomfort. The book is priceless for this chapter alone, a masterclass in observant writing fused with a sense of history. Comey paints a grim and sombre mood and felt a “strange out-of-the-body-experience” while revealing the dossier’s details to Trump.
How Comey became Comey
So, how did Comey become the conscientious person he appears to be? While his stand-off with Trump is now urban legend, his character-shaping back story is more compelling, each successive chapter of a boy-scout-with-a-spine shaping the man he eventually moulded into.
In their early childhood, Comey and his younger brother were accosted by a notorious serial killer. Comey, held to the barrel of a gun, teams up with a neighbour, calls in the police who launch a man hunt. Character-building is fortified when he discovers philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who enunciated an obligation to seek justice in a flawed world and believed that could be best sought through the instrument of government power.
Comey’s finest boss was Harry Howell – not a president or an attorney general, but a store manager – from whom he learnt about managing teams, nurturing kindness and being made to feel important. His mother, when dying of cancer, pulls out a note that Comey wrote as a child after being admonished. It precociously said: “I am sorry. I will be a great man someday.”
Comey opens himself to scrutiny and confesses to the weaknesses of being “stubborn, prideful, overconfident and driven by ego”. He is acutely aware that “ethical leaders do not run from self-criticism and don’t hide from uncomfortable questions”. He adds, “…(D)oubt, I’ve learned is wisdom. And leaders who never question their judgements are a danger to the organisation and people they lead. In some cases, they are a danger to the nation and the world”.
Reading Comey is like witnessing a pastor urging his flock to discover their moral axis in the service of a greater common good. But I experienced a strange emptiness after I put down the 277-page book. Where are the Indian Comeys and why is there a vacuum in Indian government and civil society? There are stellar individuals rendering outstanding public service, who are often shackled by the perniciousness of the Indian state.
So, the question begs itself: do strong institutions produce patriots, men and women with rectitude, who can withstand the malevolent influence of despots and bullies? Comey’s fortitude was in no small measure aided by the presence of strong and independent institutions. Recall the sketch of Lady Justice, the exemplar of moral agency of the US judicial system, fending off Trump who was metaphorically seen assaulting the Statue of Liberty.
Or, can well-meaning women and men, in the absence of institutional bulwarks, labour against the odds and forge a better nation and civil society? The jury is out on this.
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, James Comey, Flatiron Books.
Venkat Eshwara is Vice President, Development, Ashoka University.