James Comey, the former director of the FBI, recently published his account of working under the Trump administration in the book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”. It’s the second high-profile book of the workings of the Trump administration – the other being Michael Wolf’s “Fire and Fury”. That was revealing in parts, and Comey’s book is also revealing, though not in the way many reviewers have focused on.
The headlines around the book have focused on Comey’s comments about the size of Trump’s hands, or his thoughts on Trump’s alleged behaviour in a Russian hotel room. More serious reviewers seem to have viewed him either as a Saint if they are left-leaning (see this review or this podcast) or a Sinner if they are right-leaning (see this review or this podcast).
What I found most interesting was what the book says about the American justice system. This is possible as Comey writes not just about his time under the Trump administration, but also his time working as government prosecutor at various levels up to Deputy Attorney General (under George W. Bush) and as government investigator in his role as Director of the FBI (under Obama and Trump).
Higher loyalty to “truth”
The title of the book sets the almost religious tone of the book. Comey writes about the influence of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on his choice of career. According to Comey, Neibuhr “saw evil in the world”, the “obligation to try seek justice in a flawed world” and that “justice could be sought through the instruments of government power”.
Elsewhere, he writes that we don’t “know why bad things happen to good people…the Book of Job rebukes us from even asking that question…but we can survive, even thrive, if we channel that grief into purpose and never allow evil to hold the field. In that mission lies the beauty and genius of our justice system”.
The higher loyalty Comey refers to then are to values like “truth, integrity and respect for others”. He has a particular focus on truth as “without a fundamental commitment to the truth – especially in our public institutions and those who lead them – we are lost. As a legal principle, if people don’t tell the truth, our justice system cannot function and society based on the rule of law begins to dissolve”. Or put more bluntly: “people must fear the consequences of lying in the justice system”
Can’t prove the crime, catch them lying
The centrality of “truth” to the workings of the justice system allows one to see how the US justice system operates. He explains that “we often find a subject will lie to cover up bad behavior, offering us a way to prosecute even where we can’t make a case on the substantive charges that started the case.”
For example, with Hilary Clinton, after having found no evidence of a crime in her using personal email for State Department work, the FBI were going to use “extensive questioning” to see whether she would lie to them. Hilary a lawyer herself came with five lawyers and after a three-hour interview she didn’t lie. So, they weren’t able to charge her anything.
Others are not so lucky. Occasionally, a well-represented person like Martha Stewart could be caught with a lie. But in most instances, Comey relates that it was the poor who aren’t as savvy or couldn’t afford good lawyers that fell afoul of this form of crime.
Hang on, the FBI also lies?
Without irony, Comey writes that even the FBI, which was an “institution devoted to finding the truth was prone to lying”. When Robert Mueller was handing over the role of Director of FBI to Comey, Mueller told Comey he would tell him “what’s really going” after Comey met each division head within the FBI.
Moreover, Comey writes about the FBI’s earlier history, especially under the fifty-year reign of J.Edgar Hoover that lasted until 1972 when he died. Comey writes “Hoover used an iron hand to drive the agency and strike fear into the hearts of political leaders. He had ‘personal files’ on many of them”.
He also writes that “most agents and supervisors…[would] tell him what he wants to hear, then get on with your work. That mentality was to displace, even decades after Hoover’s death”. To put that into context, decades would imply this culture persisted into at least the 1980s and possibly the 1990s according to Comey.
“A dark chapter in the Bureau’s history” was the “FBI’s interaction with the civil rights movement , and Dr King in particular” writes Comey. “The FBI sent King a letter blackmailing him and suggesting he commit suicide”.
It was a case of “how a legitimate counterintelligence mission against Communist infiltration of our government had morphed into an unchecked, vicious campaign of harassment and extra-legal attack on the civil rights leader and others”.
When justice gets personal
Of course, Comey believed that under his stewardship he set the FBI on the right course. In contrast to Mueller, he would “signal a more open style of leadership”, and “demand and develop ethical leaders”. By the end of his tenure, he believed the “FBI will be fine without me…the FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is and always will be independent”.
Yet, when he was sacked and felt this was an injustice , he didn’t have faith in American justice:
“Maybe I could trust that the system could work. But I had trusted the system years earlier on the question of torture [Comey had objected to it on legal grounds as Deputy Attorney General under President Bush] … I wasn’t going to make that mistake again…something was needed that might force them to do the right thing”
He then used the media to force the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate President Trump. He did this by leaking what he perceived to be unclassified memos that described his meetings with Trump, where he felt Trump had directed him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor.
In essence, Comey decided that a strategy of taking notes during important meetings, leaking to the media and triggering the appointment of a Special Prosector was a more fruitful course than to rely on the FBI or DoJ on their own to do justice.
This suggests there are two systems of justice. One for the minority that can afford good lawyers, have connections with the establishment and have a media profile and another for the rest of the public.
The enemy at home
On Trump and Russia, there is really nothing new in the book aside from Comey’s view that Trump’s is “unethical and untethered to truth”, and that “not enough of them [people of good conscience] are speaking out [against Trump]…their silence is complicity”.
But there is another deeper irony. Comey writes that in parallel to the Clinton email investigations, the FBI was also looking into Russian government interference in the US election through three channels:
- Undermining confidence in the American democratic enterprise
- Hurting Hilary Clinton
- Helping Donald Trump.
The irony of course is that Comey’s decision to make public the re-opening of the Clinton email case two weeks before the US elections could well have done all three.
Before that decision, Comey and most pollsters believed Hilary would win the election. When weighing up that decision to go public, Comey was aware that it could tilt the election towards Trump, but decided to go ahead nonetheless.
Moreover, he had the option of pushing the decision up to his boss, the Attorney General Loretta Lynch, especially as “her own prosecutors were seeking a search warrant [to access a new trove of emails]”, but he decided it “would be cowardly and stupid”. As it happened the re-opened investigation ended a few days before the election – again exonerating Hilary from any criminal acts.
Whether it did affect the election is perhaps up for debate. But the two protagonists in the election certainly believed it did. Comey writes that”Hillary Clinton blames me, at least in part for her surprising defeat”, while Trump saw Comey’s interventions as a crucial “plot line” in the elections. Pollsters also later found that the Comey decision to announce the re-opening did sway the election especially in swing states.
Therefore contrary to Comey’s assertion that the FBI should work in a “non-political manner”, it is a deeply political organisation both historically and currently. In fact, Comey’s book provides a timely reminder that the poor behaviour of the FBI and the US justice system at various points across time have likely had a much more detrimental impact on the American Way of Life than an individual like Trump or the interference of foreign countries like the Russia.