Sunday, 22 April 2018

A Higher Loyalty

James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty is the book of the year (at least, so far), and some may think they should read it and wonder whether they can be bothered. Should they?

Sacked FBI Director James Comey’s apologia A Higher Loyalty has made quite a splash, and seems to have got under the President's skin. It is very much a book of its time and place, and books that hit the headlines don’t always hang around afterwards. But this one might have a longer half-life than most. James Comey isn’t Hemingway and I guess wouldn’t claim to be, but he’s a concise, engaging writer with a story to tell. There are also some brief but sharp glimpses of people we think we know  – Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama; all of them really quite vivid. There is also plenty to hold one’s interest before one even gets to Donald Trump (who appears quite late).

But it’s Trump who is the final target of the book. And good though it is, I am intrigued as to exactly why Comey wrote it.

A Higher Loyalty isn’t really an autobiography; rather, it’s a series of morality plays structured round the events of Comey’s life. So we start by hearing of his struggles at school in New Jersey, and how he learns one must call out bullies. He talks about working in a supermarket as a teenager, and the lesson here is what he learned about leadership from his boss. He is a young lawyer in the prosecutor’s office in New York, and this lets him discuss the Mafia dons he helped put behind bars and their morality and code of conduct. He takes his first major post in government, as Deputy Attorney-General in the George W. Bush administration, and we are into the story of illegal surveillance and torture, and how he must demonstrate its illegality.  Then he is FBI Director under Obama, and gives us a glimpse of the latter and of what Comey considers leadership – courtesy, patience and empathy.  Throughout, there is a theme of public service, and of this higher loyalty – to truth, to public service, to the Constitution.

All of this is carefully preparing us for when we get to meet the Orange One, round about page 200. And every life-lesson we’ve read about in the book so far comes alive at this point, showing us exactly why Comey thinks him morally bankrupt, soulless and a danger to democracy.

A Higher Loyalty, in short, is a very neat hatchet job on Trump. But why write it? After all, if Comey’s the copper-bottomed public servant he’d have us believe, he’d take his secrets to the grave. I think there are three possible reasons for doing this. Two do not reflect that well on Comey. The third, however, does.

First, this book could be a self-justification. Comey’s conduct regarding the Clinton email affair, the way he presented the FBI’s conclusions on it in July 2016, and his decision to reopen it that October have made Comey a serious hate figure in some circles. The emphasis Comey puts on this episode supports the theory that this book is an apologia, as does his detailed description of his battles with Dick Cheney and his Chief of Staff, David Addington, over surveillance and torture. As Laurence Dodds put it in a review in the Telegraph (April 16 2018), “James Comey wants you to know that he is a good man. Or at least, that he tries. ...[He] depicts himself as an honest agent in a den of vipers.”

Not everyone is 100% convinced. Carlos Lozada’s review of the book in the Washington Post  (April 14 2018) cites a passage in which Comey refers to information that could have compromised the then Attorney-General, Loretta Lynch; but he does not say what it was. It was almost certainly an email in which Lynch is said to have made improper promises to the Clinton campaign about the investigation; in fact, there are doubts about the email’s veracity, and maybe Comey should not have mentioned it. I also wondered if Comey should have written about the Clinton emails that his team were not able to see (from early in her time as Secretary of State); in so doing he cast fresh doubt on the affair while claiming that he considered it closed. That seems a little disingenuous.

And sometimes Comey is just too sure of his ground. Late in the book Comey comments that: “Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. . . . Those leaders who never think they are wrong, ... are a danger to the organizations and people they lead.” This doesn’t impress Lozada. “Trump,” he says, “is the most severe example of that tendency in this book. But he is not the only one.” In short, if this book is about self-exculpation, it’s not a total success.

Happier times: Comey's appointment is announced (FBI/Wikimedia Commons)
But there’s a possible second motive for writing this, which is to set out his stall regarding his next job. Comey is only 57, and wouldn’t be thinking of retirement. He is currently teaching, but it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t like to jump back in to the fray. He may see himself as a candidate for Attorney-General. He may even dream of being Vice-President. Although not currently registered, he’s historically a Republican. If the Trump presidency ends very badly, as many Americans seem to expect, any Republican candidate in 2020 will need to distance themselves from the disaster – difficult, as many swung round behind Trump when he won the nomination. One way might be to have as their running mate one of Trump’s fiercest critics and worst enemies – and a man who has stated clearly, in this book, that he believes in the rule of law. Still, so far Comey has given no sign he wants high office again. And there is a third explanation; that he has written this book because he is sincerely worried about what Trump may do to the country’s institutions, and wishes to warn people.

 In particular, he believes Trump does not understand, or at least not accept, that certain public officials are not there to serve not him but the broader polity. This is dangerous. Comey’s main example is the way Trump tried to get a pledge of loyalty, as a Mafia boss would; the FBI Director cannot give such a pledge – his duty is to the law. Comey could also, had he wished, said more about the pressure Trump has put on his Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, because the latter has followed the law now and then instead of the President’s wishes.

This isn’t a perfect book. Comey is likely not a perfect person. Democrats won’t be convinced by his explanations of 2016. And while Comey does admit to doubts about his past decisions and conduct (Lozada was too harsh), it’s true he can seem sanctimonious now and then.  Even so, Comey seems sincere. “Politics come and go,” he writes. “Supreme Court justices come and go. But the core of our nation is our commitment to a set of shared values restraint and integrity and balance and truth. If that slides away from us, only a fool would be consoled by a tax cut or a different immigration policy.” 

Exculpation? Extended resume? Maybe, in part; but I’m going with the third explanation . This book is a hatchet job on Trump, to be sure, but it’s not simply personal. Comey, a senior public servant, wrote this book as a statement of values that he holds dear, and a warning that they are under threat. For many, that will be reason to read it.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

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