James Comey has been on a charm offensive of impressive scale. In the space of a week, the former FBI director spoke to almost every US network and cable channel, and was interviewed in every major national American newspaper. The media blitz was part of a promotional tour for A Higher Loyalty, Comey’s autobiography and the most wildly anticipated Trump book since Michael Wolff’s blockbuster Fire and Fury.
The two books could not be more different, however. Where Wolff wrote with a lascivious eye for bombastic detail – red meat for the news industry – Comey provides a detailed account of his early life and career – one which took him from stacking shelves as a young man in a local grocery to deputy attorney general under George W Bush, then on to director of the FBI. Only in the book’s final third does Comey arrive at his time in the media spotlight in 2016 and 2017; it is therefore a book that most people will likely read back-to-front.
A Higher Loyalty opens with a Ron Howard-esque tease; you can almost hear the record-scratch as the introduction freeze-frames on Comey appearing before the Senate intelligence committee in 2017 before leaping backwards to him as a puppy-fat youth getting wedgies in the schoolyard. “Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up here…”
But his editors are a sassy lot, and as we meander through Comey’s early life and career the sinister shadow of Donald Trump begins to loom. Throwaway lines tease the impending drama: “I fully intended to serve as director of the FBI through the year 2023,” he writes tantalisingly in chapter eight. “What, I wondered, could possibly interfere with that?”
The newsworthy bits, such as they are, come in a rush in the book’s final act: detailed accounts of awkward meetings with Trump; the request for Comey to pledge his personal loyalty, conversations about the dossier alleging that Trump had engaged in urination-play with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room; Trump pressing Comey to end the investigation into Michael Flynn; and the events that led up to Comey’s eventual public firing and the appointment soon after of Bob Mueller as special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. But most of the revelations were already in the public domain, with the details forensically litigated.
The book does not strike the decisive blow to the Trump administration that many had hoped. But Comey has a likeable and easy-going voice, and succeeds in elegantly reconciling the narrative arc of his life story with the theme of the “higher loyalty” to which law enforcement officers should aspire. Once we arrive in 2016 and Comey reaches paydirt, the details are at least juicily readable, if not revelatory.
“His method of speaking was like an oral jigsaw puzzle contest, with a shot clock,” he says of Trump. “He made constant assertions, leaving me wondering whether by my silence I had just agreed with ‘everyone’ that he had the biggest inauguration crowd in history… the barrage of words was almost designed to prevent a genuine two-way dialogue.”
He describes Trump as “slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coiffed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his”.
Central to Comey’s critique of Trump are his early-career experiences prosecuting the Italian mafia in New York. Later, when Trump presses him for an expression of personal loyalty, the knowledge serves him well. “Those leading through fear – like a Cosa Nostra boss – require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty.”
He links a key Trump tic, the way he asks rhetorical questions and takes silence in response for active assent, with the operating practice of the mafiosos: “I sat there thinking, ‘Holy crap, they are trying to make each of us an amica nostra’,” he writes of an early meeting with Trump, using the mafia term for “friend of ours”, meaning one who is complicit in the enterprise.
Less convincing is Comey’s defence of his actions before the 2016 election. His shock announcement, just weeks before election day, that the FBI had re-opened its investigation into Hillary Clinton made him a pariah in the eyes of many Democrats. Clinton has specifically singled out Comey for blame for her loss: “I was on the way to winning until the combination of Jim Comey’s letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off,” she said at a Women for Women event in New York in May 2017.
Comey has long claimed that he had little choice but to announce that the Clinton investigation had been re-opened, but this claim to higher loyalty will do little to silence critics. He says that his two choices were “speak” or “conceal”, “both terrible options”, but his argument that he chose the former over the latter because “the credibility of the institutions of justice was at stake”, is a weak defence of an action that may well have tipped the balance in an election with enormous stakes.
Ultimately, A Higher Loyalty is more manifesto than tell-all. Comey, a meticulous note-taker, is at his most interesting when crafting character studies, but the book gives more space to high-minded arguments for the independence of law enforcement. His is the view of an outsider rather than an insider, with the policeman’s instinct for keeping the dirty business of politics at arms’ length in favour of abstract musings on the mindset of the bully and the qualities of good leadership.
But his exhortation to keep the separation between the FBI and the White House is a necessary counterweight to the degradation of truth and the rule of law that Trump represents.
Early on, Comey self-deprecatingly frames himself as “stubborn, prideful, over confident, and driven by ego”, but the true target of those words is clear. At the end of his story we are left with the tumult of a presidency that embodies all those vices to the point of absurdity.
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership
Macmillan, 290pp, £20
This article appears in the 25 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum