It is extraordinary that the man who served as FBI director less than a year ago has written a memoir assailing the U.S. president as “untethered to truth.” It’s equally extraordinary that the president’s official (Twitter-based) response has been to dub the former FBI director a “slimeball.” This is not, goes the Trump Era motto, “normal.” Yet with each successive Twitter outburst from @POTUS, it feels increasingly so.
In A Higher Loyalty, James Comey seeks to remind us of the abnormal — of what cannot and should not be tolerated. He’s been battered by both sides of the political aisle since the 2016 election, having both inflamed the Hillary Clinton email scandal and described Trump’s conduct in ways that sparked allegations of obstruction of justice. (Trump fired him in May; Comey revealed soon after that he kept damning memos of their private conversations.) It’s reasonable to suspect that Comey hopes to regain some fans by telling his side of the story.
Loyalty traces Comey’s attraction to moral leadership. The juiciest (read: Trump-related) sections only take up the final third of the book, as Comey first goes to great lengths to recount his past, particularly detailing his work in the Bush II and Obama administrations. He demonstrates wit and humility in his anecdotes; later, he conveys urgency in his ruminations on this moment in time, and he’s not afraid to express reluctance and uncertainty.
This is not the dry law enforcement memoir that such a linear structure would typically beget. Instead, it’s cunningly calculated. Both explicitly and subtly, Comey draws himself as Trump’s polar opposite. His profound regret over fabricating a college basketball career is comically minor in comparison to our “unethical” president’s lies. His corny jokes, peppered throughout, amplify the alarming detail that he’s never seen Trump laugh—“ever.” His agony over how best to serve the country, through decades of hard work, contrasts with Trump’s reckless, selfish bluster.
The good-faith reading of all this is the version Comey himself is selling, most recently on ABC’s 20/20 with George Stephanopoulos: that Trump is not normal, not “morally fit,” not worthy of the same respect and admiration as George W. Bush or Barack Obama — or James Comey. Indeed, Comey is on a bit of a redemption tour here, a reclaiming of his legacy. He pores over each of his most controversial decisions — such as deciding to publicly reveal, days before the election, that a criminal inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s private email server had been reopened — but comes to conclusions certain to satisfy no one but the most willingly forgiving. “Even knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it differently,” he writes in his 2016 wrap-up, “but I can imagine good and principled people in my shoes making different choices about some things.” It’s all too easy to imagine either a Clinton or Trump partisan reading that vague “some things” phrasing and flailing their arms in renewed exasperation. (Full disclosure: This critic certainly did.)
This is Comey’s predicament, in a nutshell. His book is arriving on a boatload of buzz, and thus it cannot exist on its own terms. Whatever one’s opinion of Comey’s conduct during and immediately after the election, the fact that he’s been cast by some as no more reliable than Trump — that the Republican Party’s official stance on the memoir is, rather pathetically, “Lyin’ Comey” — is absurd. But Comey leans into that tension more than expected. His earnest manifesto on leadership informs a climactic righteous screed; he states his fear of being an egomaniac, only to awkwardly wield that insecurity as a weapon against the biggest egomaniac around.
Loyalty is stuffed with colorful soundbites. Comey fights surprisingly well on Trump’s thin-skinned political terrain, but he shrinks in the process, detailing Trump’s hand size (average) and facial hue (orange), and groveling over Democrats who’ve assured him that he’s a good man. Loretta Lynch offers him a solemn hug; Chuck Schumer tearily embraces him; Barack Obama declares his continued faith in him, to which Comey fights back tears. It’s repetitious, maudlin writing, but there is a political purpose to it. Comey says that the criticism which most “gets” to him is that he’s in love with his own virtue. (“I am proud of the fact that I try to do the right thing.”) This is not especially evident in Loyalty. Conversely, it’s his unwillingness to admit he’s playing the game that so frustrates.
It’s the trap of the Trump tell-all. A book like this or Fire and Fury gains attention by engaging the president in insult-to-insult combat. Leaks begin surfacing days before publication, and the conversation is set. Comey’s incendiary comments to Stephanopoulos confirm, at the very least, that he’s not disappointed by what’s been capturing headlines and spurring retweets so far. He’s punching back. Comey’s scathing arguments against Trump could hardly be more compelling, and Loyalty is infinitely more credible than Michael Wolff’s gossipy best-seller. But the point remains: Not even a fundamentally decent, morally upright former FBI Director could resist the appeal of a little Trump gaslighting. B-