The climax of James Comey’s long-awaited book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (Flatiron Books), is a vivid and totally believable account of his infamous one-on-one dinner with Donald Trump. On what was clearly the most important night of his life, the moment when his lifelong study of ethicist and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr comes to fruition, Comey is asked to pledge his loyalty—and he refuses. “Ethical leaders,” Comey writes, “never ask for loyalty;” instead they earn it through “honesty, decency, commitment, and their own sacrifice.” And so in that moment, Trump is revealed as a bad leader and an unethical liar. And by doing the right thing, James Comey becomes, in his own eyes, a true leader.
Many people have observed that we don’t need to slog through 300-plus pages to learn that Trump is an unethical liar; “No shit, Sherlock,” quipped my Nation colleague Annie Shields. And of course, the book says almost nothing about Russian interference in the election, since that’s the subject of an ongoing investigation. But still, it’s good to know that the former head of the FBI sees Trump the way we do.
Lost in the escalating feud between Comey and Trump, however, is perhaps the book’s primary motive, which is to validate Comey’s decision, 11 days before the election, to publicly reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Before Comey gets into those weeds, though, he spends 200 pages on life lessons and ruminations on leadership. He sees his memoir as a self-help book for leaders, and he also wants us to understand his actions on that day in a larger context, as one instance of the kind of leadership he aspires to exemplify. When he took over as head of the FBI (from Robert Mueller), Comey wanted everyone to know that he had “an ambitious goal”: to make the FBI into “the government’s leadership factory.” The bureau would become “the dominant government supplier of America’s corporate leaders”—now there’s a frightening thought! According to Comey, he demonstrated what he meant on his first day as director when he gave a speech to employees while wearing a blue shirt; Mueller had always worn white shirts. That’s just the kind of guy Comey is—shaking things up!
When Comey finally does get to Clinton’s e-mails, he claims that “despite what politicians and pundits may say, there are no written rules about how the FBI should handle investigations as elections draw near.” But that’s not how two former deputy attorneys general, one Democrat and one Republican, put it in The Washington Post. Jamie Gorelick (a Clinton appointee) and Larry Thompson (George W. Bush) write:
Decades ago, the department decided that in the 60-day period before an election, the balance should be struck against even returning indictments involving individuals running for office, as well as against the disclosure of any investigative steps. The reasoning was that, however important it might be for Justice to do its job, and however important it might be for the public to know what Justice knows, because such allegations could not be adjudicated, such actions or disclosures risked undermining the political process. A memorandum reflecting this choice has been issued every four years by multiple attorneys general for a very long time, including in 2016.