James Comey’s decisions may well have cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election and might yet cost Donald Trump his presidency. Democrats reviled him in 2016, and now Republicans do. These assaults suggest hypocritical selectiveness on the part of his critics. Yet almost everyone who knows him says he is a man of integrity. Could preoccupation with integrity be a character flaw?
Projecting Trump’s feelings about Comey, opinion writer Maureen Dowd comes up with the clever “taller than thou.” It echoes “holier-than-thou,” a mocking phrase for sanctimony, while calling to mind Comey’s imposing height of six feet, eight inches. Dowd wonders how an FBI director could be such a “wimpy careerist.” A strong FBI director would have told Trump to his face that he wouldn’t substitute loyalty to Trump for loyalty to the Constitution. Moreover, she indicates, a strong director would have resigned.
Having worked as a lawyer and manager for an elected officer (Attorney General of the State of New York), I know that confrontational situations inside government have all sides making difficult calculations and compromises in the moment. I sometimes disagreed with the priorities of the small circle in charge of the agency. That is normal. It is also expected that subordinates advocate for their programs but that, in the event their arguments fail, they accept the leadership line and act accordingly. They aren’t asked to be as obedient as soldiers in an army, but they are expected to recognize that they’re hired at the pleasure of the person in charge. After all, as an elected official, that person presumably reflects the will of the people.
For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that Trump did make it clear that he expected personal loyalty from Comey and that he wanted the Michael Flynn investigation dropped. After all, the prevailing view, not challenged by Comey’s Republican examiners, is that he is a truth-teller. Each time Trump made his wishes about loyalty and Flynn known, he caught Comey off-guard.
Based on his opening statement to the Senate Intelligence committee, here’s what Comey did. First, he responded to Trump’s “I need loyalty” with “You will always get honesty from me.” It led to Trump’s formulation, “honest loyalty,” with which Comey concurred. In this diplomatic way, Comey successfully asserted his independence.
Second, he didn’t back down on the Flynn investigation. When Trump trapped him into a one-on-one setting in the Oval Office, he asked that Comey drop the investigation and asserted that Flynn “is a good guy.” Once again the diplomat, Comey latched on to this phrase and agreed that Flynn is a good guy. Critics claim that agreeing even this much compromised Comey. However, in his statement, he elaborates that he’d had a “positive experience” with Flynn in the past. He did not say he would “let this go.” Indeed, the investigation is still active, as it was during Comey’s few remaining days in office. Thus, far from being a “wimpy careerist,” he asserted himself to the extent he needed in order to maintain his independence and authority.
Although Comey hasn’t chosen to articulate it, another factor surely figured into his calculation in how to conduct himself in meetings with Trump. On the one hand, the Trump Administration has encountered obstacles to hiring the best people, as evidenced by the existence of hundreds of vacancies throughout the executive branch. On the other, it is widely reported that Trump makes loyalty a demand in all his hiring decisions. These two factors not only limit the pool of willing applicants, but also ensure that anyone selected will lack the independence required of an FBI Director. Comey must have worried that resigning risked opening the door to a pliant replacement.
Trump’s eventual nominee for FBI Director, Christopher Wray, appears qualified. However, Trump had no choice but to factor good repute into his decision because, having since fired Comey and subjected himself to critical scrutiny, his options were limited. Even so, Wray’s nomination raises some red flags, above all his representation of Chris Christie in the sordid Bridgegate episode, where Governor Christie’s office sought to punish a Democratic mayor. Having initially run the transition team, Christie remains on good terms with Trump, who might well imagine he’ll be able to influence Wray.
What exactly is the intimidation factor in political power? It can be the person occupying the office. Napoleon, head of the world’s most powerful state in his day, was five feet, seven inches, significantly shorter than some of his generals, and yet he intimidated everyone. By contrast, Trump wouldn’t have inspired awe in a man of Comey’s character and accomplishments. The fundamental intimidation factor was the office itself.
Across the cringingly intimate table during the dinner that Trump arranged for just the two of them, Comey would have been looking less at Donald Trump than at the office of the president. In that lonely predicament, as we learn from his testimony, he asked himself how he could best serve that office. His testimony revealed a man wrestling with his obligations and, I suppose, his manhood. Should he have been more assertive? Should he have tendered his resignation?
At that Senate hearing, he laid bare his decision process for Committee members and the rest of the world to see, and we learned he sometimes attacks himself in just the way Dowd does. Take the following exchange from Politico’s transcript of the hearing:
FEINSTEIN: Now, here’s the question, you’re big. You’re strong. I know the oval office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.
++COMEY: It’s a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took in. The only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind — because I could remember every word he said — I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? That’s why I carefully chose the words. … I remember saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” as a way of saying, I’m not agreeing with what you asked me to do. Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance. That’s how Ed [sic] myself. I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I’d do it better.
To a man accustomed to exercising authority, admitting vulnerability must have been painful. I found it laudable. But many of those watching the hearing persuaded themselves they would have told Trump to drop dead and resigned. But would they? And if they had done so, would they have acted wisely? To the first question, I say I doubt it; to the second, I say no. The FBI and the nation needed a man of Comey’s character.
Now, to the 2016 election and Comey’s October announcement that he was reopening the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of her email account. This is not the place to assess the wisdom and legality of Clinton’s actions, except to observe that the FBI was conducting a separate investigation into connections between Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign and never disclosed it before the election.
Earlier, in July, Comey had announced the conclusion of the investigation into Clinton’s email for lack of a prosecutable crime. But on or just before October 26, just thirteen days before the election, a laptop containing Clinton email was discovered. Comey was faced with a dilemma. If he said nothing about the discovery, he risked later accusations of favoring Clinton. If he announced the discovery and stated that it meant reopening that investigation, he risked influencing the election and guaranteed an angry reaction from Democrats. Faced with such a quandary, what would a man of integrity do?
At the hearing, Comey talked about a “duty to correct.” In line with this duty, he felt that having made his public July statement about the investigation being closed, he had an obligation to announce that new evidence required that it be reopened. To a man preoccupied with his own integrity, the logic was compelling.
However, the logic was flawed. Discovery of the device containing Clinton email didn’t constitute new evidence; it only opened up the possibility of new evidence. A determination that the email constituted new and relevant evidence could be made only after it had been examined. If there were any new messages that had a bearing on the original investigation, reopening the case would be called for. On the other hand, if the email consisted of copies of messages already inspected or that had no bearing on the case, then the status of the investigation should have remained the same: closed. This latter scenario proved to be the case, as Comey announced on November 6, two days before the election.
An analogy can be found in our criminal court system. Once a conviction has been obtained, it is next-to-impossible to convince a court to revisit it. The law demands new evidence, not just a rehash of arguments based on the evidence presented at trial. Moreover, the new evidence must be relevant before a judge will hear a motion for a new trial. The mere possibility of new evidence wouldn’t be sufficient.
Believing Comey astute enough to have known this distinction, I speculate that the choices in his mind were not those apparent to the rest of us. Had he decided not to announce the reopening of the Clinton email investigation, either of two outcomes would have emerged. If the laptop had yielded new evidence, he would have been attacked by Republicans. If it contained no new evidence, the world would never have known how he bravely confronted a moral quandary. On the other hand, if he announced the reopening of the investigation, either the announcement would prove premature, thus bringing the ire of Democrats on his head, or new evidence would indeed warrant reopening the investigation. With either outcome, however, the world would see how he had struggled with his conscience. His grave error in judgment in going public thirteen days before the election strongly suggests that his (presumably subconscious) motivation was to bring public attention to his fine moral character.
Comey deserves condemnation for a terrible, probably election-altering, history-transforming error in judgment. But equally, he deserves our respect for his honesty and personal integrity. Like many convinced of Trump’s corruption, I was incensed by Comey’s October surprise and also like many Trump opponents, I respect his sincere efforts to maintain his integrity and authority in the face of a deceitful, unstable president. Only if Comey’s decisions in both situations are recognized as the product of the same character trait can we find consistency.
The Comey paradox will haunt historians, political scientists, philosophers, ethicists and religious thinkers for years and decades to come. There are two reasons why. The obvious one is the impact his decisions had on the 2016 election and might yet have on the Trump presidency. The other is the tragic outcome for a man determined to lead a just life and the harm that resulted when that determination overrode all other considerations. Comey’s integrity guided him through the early months of the Trump presidency, and in allowing himself to be so guided, he performed a great service for his country. Like beauty, integrity is moving to behold. But just as Narcissus became fixated on his image in the pool, we can become fixated on our moral uprightness. As Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation reminds us, an unchecked fixation can do great damage.