As the White House continues to blast his very existence, former FBI director James Comey rides the wave atop The New York Times bestseller list. His book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, is a tell-not-as-much-you’d-really-like-to-know account of his law enforcement career and its abrupt denouement courtesy of the 45th president.
Predictably, Comey did not offer up much of anything new (want more about Roger Stone and Wikileaks? Keep waiting) during his recent conversation with The Washington’s Post’s Carol Leonnig in front of a rapt audience of roughly 200 people at the newspaper’s downtown headquarters. But a former FBI director is hardly going to drop stunning revelations during a public event at one of the country’s top newspapers.
Yet simply observing one of the principal dramatis personae of the Trump Era was worth the price of admission (free). The smooth, controlled, lanky ex-G-man swerved around probing questions and doubled down on his damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t defense of his Hillary Clinton’s email server decision-making.
He did discuss how the bureau wrestled with the rogue president. Asked whether FBI and Justice Department officials could ever have educated Trump on government norms and traditions, Comey responded: Maybe, but likely not. “It’s possible we could have tried to offer more instruction,” said Comey. “But he’s utterly uninterested in you telling him things about how he should do his job.”
As Americans know well by now, what animates Trump is loyalty uber alles. Of his infamous dinner with the allegiance-demanding president, Comey returned again to the issue of educating an unschooled president, emphasizing that Trump is more interested in “a personal, transactional loyalty” than understanding anything about norms of the relationship between of the president, the FBI, and the Justice Department.
Comey’s comments about Rudy Giuliani set the room set the room chuckling as he described how impressed he was as a young prosecutor working for Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
“I loved that my boss was on magazine covers, standing on courtroom steps with his hands on his hips,” Comey said. “It fired me up.” But there was a dark side to Giuliani’s confidence, too: He didn’t have much humility, Comey concluded. “It’s really important for a leader to have that balance.”
Comey saved some of his harshest commentary for Clinton’s email “excesses.” He wasn’t aware, Comey noted, that any of her aides had firmly counseled her against installing the ill-fated email server.
“We didn’t investigate her leadership style,” said Comey, “but [her style] at least raises the prospect that she created a culture around herself as a leader that people wouldn’t tell her when she is full of it; it’s really important as leader to do that.”
As for his take on Trump’s complicity in the swampy dealings consuming his presidency and the cavalcade of problematic associations, from Vladimir Putin to Stormy Daniels, Comey was pure prosecutor: “It’s always struck me as strange when someone always continually denies something—it makes me interested,” he said. “His continual denial of something that’s being investigated by some of the best people in the country is strange.”
The most disturbing aspect of this historical moment for the former FBI director is the erosion of country’s norms around lying. Unlike so many news reporters and pundits who skirt the issue, Comey went straight for the jugular: “The president of the United States lies constantly,” he said, and Americans have become “numb to it,” or worse, “imitate it.”