James Comey is a figure familiar to those who have followed any American political news since 2017, the former FBI Director famously and abruptly fired by Trump. Turns out, Comey was speaking at a diversity event, aimed to recruit Black and Latino Special Agents to serve in the FBI when he saw headlines on the news: “Comey Fired.” He learned his fate from television. How disrespectful and humiliating.
I didn’t know much about Comey prior to reading his political memoir, but Comey has been active, off and on, in public service since the 80s, serving as, among other positions, as part of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, as Assistant U.S. Attorney during the Clinton Administration and as both U.S. Attorney and Deputy Attorney General during the Bush Administration. During his early years, he helped prosecute members of Italian crime families, discussing how he came to realize how being a leader of a mob family is critically different from being an leader of a public institution. While in crime families personal and familial loyalty are the ultimate vow, one which violence, coercion, and even murder are used to test said loyalty in, the type of loyalty which Comey claims to espouse is loyalty not to a person or entity, but to the justice system and institutional values of the United States. I would agree with him, yet his seemingly wavering devotion to this ethical leadership irked me, as throughout the book, he painted himself as a paragon of righteousness. Every decision he made, regardless of how controversial, was right, was ethical and was just. Comey never admits of making a mistake or even admits to the possibility that he may have made one. He writes that no one wants a leader who isn’t sure about something. People want a strong leader who, at the least, has unquestioned confidence in his own ability to make tough decisions during stressful moments. Yes, I agree, I don’t want someone is a position of power to regret making a decision that affected people’s real lives in a negative way, yet I find the chasm between me and Comey to have widened as he never suggests a shortcoming. The paradox was obvious to me; Comey writes we’re all humans and make mistakes. What’s more is that we should be allowed to. Yet in his memoir, he assures readers he’s always done the right thing. Okay, so is Comey human like me?
Comey’s memoir is an important read during this chaotic political time. I appreciate that he did write his book after his firing because it’s important for people to understand who he is and what he stands for, in his own words. The writing is compelling for the most part, especially towards the end of the book when he share intimate details about his meetings with Trump. Throughout his prior dealings with Obama, he reiterates several times how important it is for the President and the FBI Director to never have a buddy-buddy relationship, for there to always be professional distance to ensure there is no influence and that if the President or his associates are to be investigated, the FBI remains a apolitical institution where justice always prevails. For Comey, this meant he would never have lunch with Obama or even play pick-up basketball with him. This was just plain inappropriate. However, just days within Trump’s swearing in, Trump asked Comey to have dinner with him, during which Trump says: “I need your loyalty.” Comey immediately draws parallels to what an Italian crime mob boss would say. Spoiler, pretty much the same thing. Comey describes a numbing horror that dawns upon him. Not only was this dinner unconventional, the President was asking for something completely immoral and unjust. Loyalty? You mean, to lie on his behalf or stymie investigations to render them ineffective or inconclusive? It’s very believable Trump did indeed say those words, probably not just to Comey. And when Comey didn’t do what Trump asked, which was to essentially bury the investigation of Michael Flynn, Comey was fired.
Comey ends his book with saying he chooses to be optimistic, saying that this forest fire will do significant damage in the short term, but will inevitably spurt growth down in the line. Now, I don’t this this metaphor is necessarily helpful- calling Trump a forest fire is to suggest this forest fire was a spontaneous event of sorts. Trump becoming president was spontaneous. People voted for him. There’s nothing about spontaneous about that. Furthermore, forest fires are natural occurrences, part of an ecological cycle that will ensure balance in the land. Trump is not balancing anything. He’s constantly pointing fingers, at the press, at Democrats, at other people. Every week there’s a terrible headline about something Trump or his associates have done clandestinely before or during his presidency. Look at how many Trump associates have been sentenced to prison or are currently under federal investigation. Look how much turnover there is his administration. There’s been no conclusion with his good buddy Shel’s paper buying and suppressing of damning stories about his encounters with adult stars. That story broke years ago yet there’s no resolution. So for me, his positivity doesn’t ring true yet. It’s just gets worse as people become apathetic and think “oh, that’s no big deal” because there’s so much that’s happened it has given the public amnesia.
While I admire and think Comey’s commitment to justice and serving the nation is honorable, I certainly think there are just too few people like him in elected office. At least, that’s how he made me feel. He writes about he was often alone in standing up and making the right decisions as awry political biases and allegiance marred politicians on both sides ability to make other “right” decisions. I understand “right” is relative but I’m sure most of us can agree that when something is wrong, like lying under oath, using a non-secure web domain to communicate classified information, asking to stop an investigation because you know someone is a “good guy.” Wrongdoings should be investigated and punishment should be deftly delivered. Sometimes it feels like a young child knows the difference between right and wrong better than grown-ass adults do.