At 9 am Tuesday morning, former FBI director James Comey sat down with The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig to discuss his new book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, his handling of the Clinton email investigation, his firing, and, of course, Bob Mueller, Trump, and Russia. Throughout the interview, Comey tried to stick to the moral high road, but it’s a difficult position for him to maintain. In order to sell himself as the paragon of integrity, everyone else must be liars.
Challenge Dishonesty, but Don’t Risk Your Job
Right out of the gate, Leonnig asks her guest a question that reveals just how much the almighty truth is actually worth. After referring to a section in his book that calls on good people to say something when they see truth in danger, she asked Comey how others could call out impropriety if he, as FBI director, couldn’t correct the president. His answer gives us more insight into the man than just about anything else he has said to date:
“Well it depends on what their job is and what available avenues there are. And in my situation, my judgement was I’m trying to stay in a role for another six years, protect and represent an institution, and so I need to find a way to both build a relationship with the president and make sure that the appropriate distance and conduct lines are abided.”
The part about protecting the FBI is merely an excuse. It seems to be one of his favorites, as he returns to it often. But let’s ignore it for now. Remove Comey’s self-aggrandizement, and what remains is one of the most powerful and disappointingly common reasons to abandon one’s professed principles. He didn’t want to lose his job.
Leaky Memos and the Classification Question
There has been much speculation as to whether any of Comey’s memos were or should have been classified. Leonnig asked about the first memo, and Comey’s answer revealed that it, at least, was in fact classified:
“The first memo was actually done for the benefit of my colleagues, the directors of NSA, CIA, and the DNI, because I was in part recording what had happened in a private session that we had planned for me to have. So that one was less an aid to memoir and more a classified briefing for the others.”
After the first, Comey calls them a sort of personal memo diary. He hoped, he said, that he would never need them. He hoped that the day would never come that President Trump gave a different account of events than what he recorded, but he knew that it might. Of course, as Liberty Nation’s Graham J. Noble wrote, the most impressive thing about Comey’s memos was how disappointingly unimportant they turned out to be.
The Normalization of Lying
Comey wrote that lying had become normalized in political culture. This was, after all, supposedly the reason he kept his memos in the first place. As he told his host, he was referring to both President Trump specifically and the government in general. The normalization of lying occurs when the head of the government lies constantly, and those below either grow numb to it or imitate it.
But Trump lies a lot, and about even small things, according to Comey. In regards to Mueller’s investigation, he claims to be wary of Trump’s constant denials of any wrongdoing. Trump’s continual denial of something that’s being investigated by “some of the best people in the country” seems strange to Comey. But is it? Are only the guilty expected to refute allegations and even rebuke their accusers? And if those doing the digging are the best in the country, how is it they’ve failed to strike gold?
But Comey did stop short of calling the president’s tweets false. When asked if he thought Trump was lying, he replied that it was for Mueller to figure out. When Leonnig pressed, asking “What do you think,” he stood firm: “I think I’ll let Director Mueller figure that out.”
Our Favorite Excuse, Again
“Did you ever consider resigning before you were fired?” asked Leonnig.
“No,” Comey replied. “And in fact, everything that was going on made me more committed to staying to try to protect the institution.”
He later gives protecting the institution and the public’s trust in the FBI as his reason for making the announcement that no charges would be filed against Hillary Clinton despite the fact that she did mishandle classified information. How that act was supposed to protect the FBI is unclear, and it certainly seemed to have the opposite effect.
But it’s easy to see why Comey envisions himself as the FBI’s protector. It’s a striking image: the guardian of a pure and just institution. Yet the image is a husk; the words ring hollow. If the institution were as pure and honest as Comey so often avers, what threat could they face from the president or the Department of Justice? And how could James Comey possibly provide the needed protection?
An illegitimate President?
When asked why he announced on October 28, 2016 that the FBI was reopening the investigation, Comey said that he only saw two choices: one bad and the other catastrophic. He chose the really bad one and announced. It was, apparently, the only way to save the FBI. To conceal, however, would have been disastrous. “If Hillary Clinton is elected president, you have concealed from the American people a hugely material fact,” Comey said. “And she would be, in some lights, an illegitimate president the moment she’s elected.” Had Comey concealed, and Trump still won, then the FBI would have acted to try to help his opponent by concealing the facts.
James Comey: Paragon of Integrity
Despite the pain of being a target for both the left and the right or any involvement the October 28 announcement may have had on the election, Comey feels that they had the right process and made the right decision. “Forget the decisions. Did we have the right process to arrive at sound decisions? And, honestly, we did.”
“He was once seen as a paragon of integrity,” Tim Donner wrote. Though America isn’t buying it, it’s a role he still clings to today. “We have talked a lot about lying,” Leonnig said toward the end of the interview. “Is there anything you feel that you weren’t completely honest about – not in this interview – in the course of this experience: the Clinton investigation and the Trump administration? Is there anything you feel you’ve left out?”
“No,” Comey replied. “Look, as I write in the book, I’ve lied at times in my life. I guess we all do. In some respects, I lie less because I no longer have to go to Capitol Hill and say ‘Senator, it’s good to be with you.’ But, no.”
The Next Big Thing for Jim
So, what does the future hold for James Comey? Beginning in August, Professor Comey will teach a class about leadership and ethics at the College of William & Marry, and then he’ll travel to other universities and lecture about leadership. Ironically, Comey might just be the best choice to teach that class. At the very least, he has plenty of anecdotes to teach what not to do as an ethical leader.
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