Having used both his book, A Higher Loyalty, and his interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos to portray himself the defender of truth, the paragon of integrity, the embodiment of ethical values and principles and as someone guided by a steady moral compass, former FBI Director James Comey has drenched the public discourse with the stink of sanctimony. Not to mention his heavy yammering about leadership, the likely topic he’ll be lecturing on at $60,000 a speech on the stemwinding circuit for the next couple of years.
As a former U.S. attorney, deputy attorney general, corporate attorney, hedge-funder and FBI director, you’d imagine that Comey had viewed himself through life’s mirror often enough to realize that over-dressing himself in the vestments of truth and honor might backfire. But there he goes in the book and interview, posturing like the deacon of justice he obviously thinks he is.
In the Stephanopoulos interview, he drops the word “truth” at least 40 times. “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,” he writes early in his book. “Values—like truth, integrity and respect for others, to name just a few—serve as external reference points for ethical leaders to make decisions.” In describing his own conduct, he can see only a humble Reinhold Niebuhr-quoting man following the path of honor. People who oppose him, such as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, are guilty of acting “dishonorably.” In the book, he even gives himself moral credit for not cutting in line at the FBI cafeteria! If there’s a Nobel Prize for restaurant manners, he should claim it.
We should be willing to spot Comey a few points on the integrity front because his nemesis, President Donald Trump, runs such a deep deficit. As Comey friend and champion Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare told MSNBC today, “The interview and the book more generally gives the country a chance to think hard about which of these two men, you know, tells the truth, and which of these two men they believe.” And it’s not as though Comey is void of self-reflection. He writes, “I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident and driven by ego.”
But the question of what kind of twit Jim Comey is can’t be answered by measuring him in Trump units, which obviously aren’t applicable to him. At one point in the interview while discussing whether Trump should be impeached, Comey says, “I hope not, because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly.” [Emphasis added.]
On what planet are the American people on the hook? Does Comey mean to include the American people who voted against Trump? “People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values,” Reverend Comey continues.
Posturing like an above-it-all gentleman, Comey then spoils the effect in his book with a series of petty—and not very original—rips on Trump’s physicality. “His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles,” Comey writes on meeting him. His hair is “impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his,” his “tie was too long, as it always is,” and Trump’s hands were “average size.”
Comey speaks repeatedly of the importance of “transparency” in his ABC interview and in his book. But as Garrett M. Graff writes in his Rolling Stone review of A Higher Loyalty, Comey frequently goes opaque after raising the topic. “Comey stops well short of the thorough and full-throated explanation of his own actions throughout the 2016 campaign that so many Americans hunger for,” Graff writes. When the memoir recounts the summer-long debate about whether to tell the public in 2016 of the FBI’s Russia investigation, Comey devotes only two pages. “Comey portrays himself and the FBI as all-but passive players in the debate—despite the fact that the DNC hack was an FBI investigation, the bureau a critical player in the discussions,” Graff continues.
Writing in the Washington Post, book critic Carlos Lozada roughs up Comey and scuffs his halo for citing “vague information to imply wrongdoing by the nation’s top law-enforcement official”—President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Loretta Lynch—when “the very nature of the [classified] information” makes it hard for her respond. This is transparency? This is integrity? These are ethical values?
By writing a book and flogging it on the networks, Comey deserves our hardboiled scrutiny. By passing judgment on others, least of all President Trump, he invites ours. What’s perplexing about the Comey media blitz is that you would think that somebody with his familiarity with giving testimony and arguing criminal cases would have a better sense of how his message would go down. When your 304-page book and marathon interviews produce sympathy for Donald Trump—even a dollop of sympathy—you’re doing it wrong.