LONDON – When we look back on the Age of Trump, we’ll remember a vivid chapter from James Comey’s new book. The FBI director is seized by “the strangest feeling” upon meeting the president-elect in the gilded palace he called home. He looks at the Donald and he sees a Mafia don.
Then the newly inaugurated president invites Comey to dine alone with him at the White House, and the initiation ceremony starts. We know what’s coming.
In the opening pages of “A Higher Loyalty,” the young Comey, a federal prosecutor in New York, not yet 30 years old, is being schooled in the traditions of mob rules by Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the highest-ranking American mobster to turn government witness. Comey sums them up: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. Loyalty oaths.”
Quick cut to dinner in the Green Room of the White House. “I need loyalty,” the boss says. “I expect loyalty.”
Under the chandelier, over the shrimp scampi, Comey has an out-of-body experience. “This was surreal,” he writes. “To my mind, the demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony. …I sat inches from the president, staring him directly in the face. The voice inside said, ‘Don’t do anything; don’t you dare move.’ “
Comey has made his move now. The target of Trump hate tweets (“Slimeball!” “His ‘memos’ are self serving and FAKE!”) commands America’s airwaves. He is the subject of bitter opprobrium for Clintonistas convinced that he fatally stabbed their candidate in the back on the eve of the 2016 election, a matter that will be debated until the end of time. He’s getting brickbats for his holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness, a charge to which he cops a guilty plea in his book. He’s winning faint praise and some righteous indignation from the commentariat on both the left and right.
But to me, he’s still coming out of that trance state he fell into in Trump’s company, blinking and looking around in astonishment, an Irish Dante emerging from his hell and purgatory into a blighted and corrupted land.
I know a little bit about Jim Comey from the years I spent reporting and writing about America’s intelligence agencies, and I cannot help but see him as a straight arrow. It’s a telling fact that Comey, a lifelong Republican until recently, made his reputation saying no to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
In two perilous years as deputy attorney general and acting attorney general under Bush, Comey consistently stood for the rule of law, and under great pressure. He confronted the president and the vice president over two of the nation’s deepest secrets: the National Security Agency’s spying on Americans and the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture against suspected terrorists, saying the first was unconstitutional and the second illegal and immoral.
The events of March 2004 encapsulate Comey’s courage. He has become the acting attorney general a few hours earlier. He is opposed to reauthorizing the NSA’s electronic-eavesdropping program. In the White House, Vice President Cheney goes eyeball-to-eyeball with Comey and says: “Thousands of people are going to die because of what you are doing.” But Comey stands firm, face-to-face with Bush. He quotes Martin Luther to the president: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And he adds: “The American people are going to freak out when they find out what we have been doing.” Bush backs down. This was a singular event in the annals of American national security.
Comey was prepared to resign on principle — and how often does that happen in American government? Had he done so, Bush’s presidency likely would have been doomed, as Bush himself suggested in his memoirs.
Now, for the second time, Comey is standing up to a president, saying, in effect, stop in the name of the law. He’s right: this nation cannot endure a leader who misleads multiple times a day, lying for sport and demanding that we believe his lies.
As President Barack Obama’s FBI director, building on the 12 years served by his predecessor, Robert S. Mueller III, Comey worked to rid the bureau of the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover, whom he limns in a few lines: “Hoover used an iron hand to drive the agency and strike fear in the hearts of political leaders. He had ‘personal files’ on many of them, something he let them know. He dined and drank with presidents and senators, letting them use the FBI when it suited him, and frightening them with the FBI when that suited him.”
Like Hoover, Comey sees a threat to America, but it’s orange, not red. Comey’s book provides some hard-won wisdom which future FBI directors might find useful. Do not attempt to rule by fear. Stand up to your superiors when they try to bully you into doing the wrong thing. Write memos, lots of them, especially when you sense the White House may need to be cordoned off with yellow tape as the scene of a crime. Never dine alone with the president of the United States (and if you must, bring a very long spoon).
Comey, God help him, is trying to remind us of some basic principles of right and wrong. He writes that we cannot long endure as a republic if “basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded.” That sounds like a fair description of the Trump administration to date.
The only way out of this morass, for now, depends a great deal on the work of the FBI and Mueller in his role as special prosecutor. Comey will play the part of a star witness against Trump. This book serves as a preview of his likely testimony. It has the unpleasant smell of truth.
Tim Weiner has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for reporting and writing on American intelligence.
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