Saint or Saboteur? James Comey's 'A Higher Loyalty'

20 Apr 2018

By now, we are used to – perhaps even numb to – the unbridled nature of the American news cycle. There was a time when the White House had control over information; positive stories calculated to make the biggest splash, embarrassing statistics plopped quietly into the tide of cable news to cause as few ripples as possible. Under the Trump premiership there is no such strategy, no such restraint. But even by the President’s standards, this cycle would make chaos blush.  


The innings opened with coordinated missile strikes in Syria that caused a standoff with Putin and the UN. Meanwhile, as Ragnarök brewed on one front, peace seemed close at hand on another: the Korean peninsula. At home, House Speaker Paul Ryan then dramatically announced his retirement at a ripe 48-years-old. Of course, ever the glutton, Trump horded the truly melt-your-face-off insanity for his own saga. 


Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was hauled before a Federal hearing after FBI agents raided his office while investigating fraud. Events became farcical – more so than usual - when Stormy Daniels made a cameo in the public gallery. The forced disclosure that Cohen’s unnamed third and final client was Sean Hannity – the most influential Trump supporter in American news media – then sent cable news into a 36-hour-long tailspin. Anchors, normally accustomed to news in the age of Trump, appeared reassuringly breathless. This was genuinely shocking stuff. 


Poor James Comey. Of all the weeks to release a book, he chose this one: some authors do ‘ave ‘em. You could be forgiven for suspecting that, in anticipation of the catastrophically bad headlines surely arising from Comey’s account, a kamikaze-style White House encouraged the flurry of competing negative stories to drown out its release. But that would require strategical faculties that Trump simply does not have. Instead, he tweeted that his ex-FBI director was a “slimeball”, thereby guaranteeing ‘A Higher Loyalty’ would be a bestseller irrespective of the crowded headlines. 


It is, on the face of it, a memoir, charting Comey’s progress from mercilessly bullied teenager to controversial director of the FBI. Bolted on in tandem to this narrative, somewhat clumsily, is an attempt to capture and distill the individual qualities of great leadership that Comey has encountered in his career. In contrast, the sense that Comey is deftly marshaling anecdotes about, for example, his prosecution of the Mafia, to draw damning comparisons with a certain someone in the final chapters is unavoidable – he is, after all, a career prosecutor. Despite this - or perhaps because of is - ‘A Higher Loyalty’ is well written and engaging; in places hilarious, and in others, truly heartbreaking. 


In late October, Comey faced an impossible decision. Informed of tens of thousands of previously unseen Clinton emails, should he announce that he was reopening an investigation into one of the candidates days before the election, or risk appearing to cover up the probe to help Clinton win? In his own words, “Speak or conceal – both terrible options.” Comey knows that his reputation has suffered massively in the wake of his decision to speak. Because if this, the memoir seems at times more like a well constructed legal defence than a mere recollection, designed to present him – not inaccurately – as a man of deep integrity. 


Comey reserves the last chapters for Trump. His testimony to the House Judiciary Committee about interactions with the President was widely reported at the time, and unsurprisingly, the book has no new bombshell meetings to disclose. But Comey is able to evoke the extraordinary sense of trepidation that he felt around Trump, such as the occasions on which the President invited Comey to dinner or cornered him in the Oval Office after briefings – making him feel deeply uncomfortable – all to try to squeeze an oath of loyalty from him. The menace in Trump’s actions, lost in the matter-of-fact Judiciary Committee hearings, is made with impressive clarity.


The political schism in America is so deep and so wide that it is doubtful Comey’s book will change many people’s opinions. For some, Comey will always be a “slimeball” bent on defaming Trump; for others, he is the registered Republican who intentionally torpedoed the Clinton campaign. Ironically, it is this bipartisan mistrust that helps to confirm Comey’s apolitical intentions. Ultimately, Comey will hope that there are still enough readers who can see that, beyond his blunders, when trapped in a battle between bitter political rivals, Comey rejected partisanship - and instead found a higher loyalty.

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