Smoke Signals from the Swamp: Comey on Comey in ‘A Higher Loyalty’
Many of the high-priced cable TV pundits taking shots at James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty” (Flatiron Books, 2018) are confused, as is Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who thinks he had a responsibility to stay silent until Mueller is done. But Comey no longer works for us. A private citizen with First Amendment rights, he has chosen to tell his story. And because he’s a Yonkers boy, he has chosen to fight back rather than allow others to trash his name and years of public service. Collins, who has often chosen to surrender conscience to political expediency, snidely suggests Comey is just after the big bucks — unlike her fellow Republican service-first Cabinet members, I presume.
Many, hoping for the extended mea culpa/abject apology they’re convinced they deserve for the Comey/Hillary Clinton email conundrum are annoyed he’s offered instead a more comprehensive memoir. Critical reviews of “A Higher Loyalty” are easy to find. Instead, I’m going to offer some excerpts many critics have neglected — reminiscences that reveal why James Comey has become the man he is, providing perspective about why he responded the way he did to the Clinton email investigation and the improper demands of Donald Trump. And, yes, I have come to appreciate the flawed, three-dimensional man. And, yes, I’m partial to somebody who is condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike.
James Comey begins with: “Who am I to tell others what ethical leadership is? Anyone claiming to write a book about ethical leadership can come across as presumptuous, even sanctimonious. All the more so if that author happens to be someone who was quite memorably and publicly fired from his last job.”
Many of his critics never acknowledge these words. From both sides of the aisle they seem determined to brand him sanctimonious. Corey Lewandoski, the former Trump campaign manager, told MSNBC that James Comey presented himself as “beyond reproach” and has “a messiah complex.” Jennifer Palmieri, the former communications director for the Clinton campaign writes: “’A Higher Loyalty’ shows him to be a thoughtful person, generous boss and a colleague who — despite being prone to bouts of self-absorption—seems able to laugh at himself.” Then, of course, blames not herself for the dreadful lack of any believable communications campaign strategy, and certainly not her candidate, but Comey for their defeat: “I do believe that if it were not for Comey’s letter, Clinton would have won.” (Emphasis added.)
Certainly, occasional vanity accompanies the attempt to tell one’s story, a task made more complicated in a time when “lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded.” Nevertheless, while “no perfect leader is available to offer those lessons … it falls to the rest of us who care about such things to drive the conversation and challenge ourselves and our leaders to do better.”
Comey admits: “All people have flaws and I have many … I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego … There are plenty of moments I look back on and wish I had done things differently, and a few that I am downright embarrassed by … The important thing is that we learn from them and hopefully do better … Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. And the older I get, the less I know for certain.”
Here’s his revelatory description of one particular ride he took: “It was February 2017, and I was in the back row of a fully armored black FBI Suburban … on the way to yet another classified congressional briefing on the 2016 Russian election interference … Appearing in front of members of Congress was difficult on a good day, and usually disheartening. Nearly everyone appeared to take a side and seemed to listen only to find the nuggets that fit their desired spin. They would argue with each other through you …” (Emphasis added.)
Few of us see the world through bulletproof glass; few of us know the pressure of having to please politicians beyond pleasing “in a capital city, and a country, torn by partisan conflict, [where] the FBI’s separateness was both alien and confusing, and constantly tested.”
Comey, a surprisingly accomplished story-teller, describes his fellow passenger, Greg Brower, the FBI’s new head of congressional affairs: “a fifty-three-year-old Nevadan with salt-and-pepper hair … Brower hadn’t signed up for this kind of turmoil, which only grew after the shocking result of the 2016 election … I was worried this craziness and stress might be getting to him. I half wondered whether he might fling open the door of the Suburban and head for the hills …
“I could see that worry on Brower’s face, so I broke the silence. ‘How great is this?’ … Brower looked at me. ‘We’re in the shit,’ I said. Now he seemed confused. Did the FBI director just say ‘shit’? ‘Yup, I had.’”
I’ve heard some mockingly refer to Comey as “St. James,” then try to knock him off the perch they’ve just built for him. But, within pages, James Comey has voluntarily surrendered his saintliness: “… the tension was broken. We took a breath together. For a moment, we were two people on a road trip. Everything was going to be okay. Then the moment passed, and we pulled up to the U.S. Capitol to talk about Putin and Trump and collusion allegations and secret dossiers and who knew what else … And more than once I found myself thinking that same question: How on earth did I end up here?”
As an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City, Comey learned about the Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, from Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano: “Newly inducted members were told that they were forbidden to lie to another ‘made member’ … unless, and this was a big unless, it was necessary to lure him to his death.” Reminds me of La Cosa Trumpa: “The Life of Lies. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. Loyalty oaths. An us-versus-them worldview. Lying about things, large and small, in service to some warped code of loyalty. These rules and standards were hallmarks of the Mafia, but throughout my career I’d be surprised how often I’d find them applied outside of it.”
Hardly sanctimonious, Comey reveals his own youthful failings the night his younger brother Pete and he were held at gunpoint by the Ramsey Rapist: “… a high school senior and a nerd with few close friends … I was home that night, finishing a piece for the school’s literary magazine … I heard two sets of footsteps just outside my door … looked to my right, and froze. A stocky, middle-aged white guy wearing a knit cap was holding a gun … Time slowed down in a way I have never again experienced. I lost my sight for an instant … Spotting me, the gunman moved quickly to Pete and put his knee in the middle of his back, using his left hand to push the gun barrel against my fifteen-year-old brother’s head. He turned to me.
“You move, kid, and I’ll blow his head off … he demanded to know where he might find money. I later learned Pete had money in his jeans pocket as we lay there, and never gave it up. I gave it all up. I told him every place I could possibly think of — piggy banks, wallets, dollar coins received from grandparents for special events, everything. Armed with my leads, the gunman left us lying on the bed and went searching …he returned and simply stood above us, pointing his gun in our direction …The lies came pouring out. I explained how estranged we were from our parents — hated them, actually — didn’t care what he took from them, and wouldn’t tell anyone he had been there. I lied again and again and again …
“[Then] we heard the door to the garage open and close as the gunman left … I told Pete that we were going to stay there until Mom and Dad came home. Pete had other ideas. He said, ‘You know who that is. He is going to hurt other people. We’ve got to get help.’ … I don’t think it fully dawned on me what Pete was saying, or how the evening might have played out if our nineteen-year-old sister, Trish, actually had been home … I was afraid. Pete argued with me briefly and then announced that he was leaving. He pulled the plastic from the window, turned the half-moon latch, and raised the window open. He swung himself out …
“Should I stay or should I follow? I swung my feet through the window … I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled furiously into thick bushes at the back of the house. The gunman already had grabbed Pete and now was shouting toward me, ‘Come out of there, kid, or your brother is getting hurt.’ I emerged, and the gunman berated me for lying to him … For the second time that night I thought I was going to die … until I heard our neighbor’s huge Siberian husky, Sundance, bound into our backyard with his owner, Steve Murray … I remember running from the gunman into my house with Pete and Coach Murray close behind and then slamming the door behind me. We locked the door, leaving the gunman outside to terrorize Coach’s wife and mother, who had followed him toward the commotion at our house—a move that makes me cringe with guilt even decades later. (Emphasis added.)
“We then raced up the stairs, turning out all the lights and arming ourselves. I held a large butcher knife … we dialed the operator and I asked to be connected to the police. I spoke to a dispatcher, who kept telling me to calm down. I explained … that a man with a gun was at our house and he was coming back in and we needed help now. We waited by the front door in the dark and debated going after the gunman. A police car pulled up in front of my house. We blinked the front lights and the car came to a stop. We ripped open the front door and ran straight at the officer, me barefoot and holding a large butcher knife. The officer quickly stepped from his car and his hand went to his weapon. I shouted, ‘No, no!’ and pointed toward the Murrays’ house. ‘There he goes. He has a gun!’ The gunman burst out from the Murrays’ front door and took off running toward the nearby woods …”
Unfortunately, Comey misses an opportunity to acknowledge a great irony here: Had he been black and brandishing that knife, the odds are fairly good that he wouldn’t have made it to head the FBI.
Comey continues: “My encounter with the Ramsey Rapist brought me years of pain. I thought about him every night for at least five years … and I slept with a knife at hand for far longer. I couldn’t see it at the time, but the terrifying experience was, in its own way, also an incredible gift. Believing – knowing, in my mind – that I was going to die, and then surviving, made life seem like a precious, delicate miracle ….”
In this the overdue time of #MeToo, Comey does us a great favor by talking with such candor about how he so easily fell short of the mythic need to be unrelentingly brave and victorious against evil. He does the same when he talks about the years he was bullied in school, and later when he acknowledges he could have done a better job immediately confronting Donald Trump’s attempt to shatter the proper boundaries between the White House and FBI when asked for his loyalty and special treatment for Michael Flynn.
Given President Trump’s unrelenting need to mock — John McCain; a Gold Star mother; the “untruthful, slime ball Comey”; and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Maggie Haberman, a “sad … third-rate reporter,” — it’s comical Comey has received so much criticism for commenting on Donald Trump’s appearance: “His suit jacket was open and his tie too long … His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coiffed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his. I remember wondering how long it must take him in the morning to get that done. As he extended his hand, I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.”
Jonathan Turley, the uber lawyer/cable TV commentator, offers a common critique: “One could easily ask what any of this has to do with justice as an ideal, let alone the Justice Department as an institution. Comey’s book makes the answer plain: Nothing. Comey is selling himself with the vigor of a Kardashian and the viciousness of a Trump. While professing to write the book to protect the FBI as an institution, Comey is doing that institution untold harm by joining an ignoble list of tell-all authors.”
“Viciousness”? But isn’t Comey just doing his due diligence as a writer—trying to have you see the world through his eyes? And doesn’t the president’s complexion sometimes approach the orange? And the reality is the president receives pretty much the same descriptive treatment as the others who inhabited Comey’s world:
“Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno…was straight out of a Mob movie. He was overweight, bald, walked with a cane, and kept an unlit cigar in his mouth, even in court. He had a gravelly voice and would use it to call out in court to supplement something his lawyer had said. “Dat’s an outrage, ya honah,” he erupted from his seat. His codefendant Vincent “Fish” Cafaro, with his narrow face and dark eyes, actually looked like a fish to my twenty-five-year-old eyes … the federal prosecutors offered tapes of conversations made by an FBI bug planted under a table at Fat Tony’s social club …. Salerno could be heard talking about ordering beatings and killings, and being quite clear about his role: “Who am I? I’m the fucking boss.”
Describing an aspect of his job as a prosecutor in New York City: “My supervisor told me I was to stand behind the podium while Giuliani … spoke to the press. I was not, under any circumstances, to speak or move. He then repeated a line I had heard before: ‘The most dangerous place in New York is between Rudy and a microphone.’ I stood frozen in the back, looking like an extra from a basketball movie who had wandered onto the wrong set.”
Or Patrick Fitzgerald of Scooter Libby fame: “I was assigned to supervise him during his first federal criminal jury trial. He was a legendary slob with an uncanny memory. In his trial cart — a modified shopping cart used to move documents and exhibits back and forth to court — I saw a messy stack of key documents for the case. “You gotta put these in folders,” I coached. He nodded. I returned later to find that he had put each document in an unlabeled file folder and returned them to the stack. Somehow, he still knew where each document was.”
There’s this illuminating look at his home life: “[Fitzgerald and I] were both veteran prosecutors and on the phone discussing possible partners for him because the Gambino case required two prosecutors. I wasn’t a candidate because my family was planning to move out of the New York area. My wife, Patrice, was more accustomed to the cornfields of her native Iowa and the leafy suburbs of northern Virginia, and had endured New York City for years. Early in our marriage, when the opportunity to work for Rudy Giuliani had come up, I had reneged on a deal that we would raise our family in Virginia. So Patrice and I had lived in the New Jersey suburbs for six years, first in a shoebox apartment over a bike shop, then in a modest two-family house rental. With our two growing daughters, half of a house had become too cramped …
“Suddenly she interrupted, asking me to hang up because she needed to speak with me … ‘That sounds like the case of a lifetime,’ she said. ‘It is,’ I replied. ‘I’ll stay for that. I’ll stay for you to do that case with one of your best friends. Call him back and tell him you found his partner.’ We postponed our move for a year.”
Back to the mob: “We started by talking to the one man in the United States who knew La Cosa Nostra best … Kenneth McCabe was a … gentle giant of a man, standing six foot four and weighing more than 250 pounds, with a deep voice and thick New York accent … Kenny understood the peculiar need of Mafia members to believe they were people of honor, so he treated them with what they saw as respect, by never serving a subpoena at their homes and never embarrassing them with an arrest in front of their wives or children. As a result, members considering betraying La Cosa Nostra would frequently contact McCabe first … One of those turncoats was Sammy the Bull Gravano, the former underboss — number two — of the Gambino crime family.
“The diminutive Gravano stepped into the room in prison garb and rubber-soled shoes with no laces. His quick eyes swept the space and settled on the mountainous McCabe. He didn’t need an introduction. ‘It’s an honor,’ he said to Kenny, extending his hand. Gravano then turned and spoke to me and Fitzgerald. If we were with McCabe, we were okay.”
And Gaspare Mutolo, a Mafia killer who Comey and Fitzpatrick interviewed in a convent in Rome: “As we ate homemade pasta prepared for us by this professional killer, Mutolo laid out his life as a Cosa Nostra man of honor. I wish I could say I felt something different when I was in the presence of a mass murderer, handing me a cup of espresso in an empty convent … Evil has an ordinary face. It laughs, it cries, it deflects, it rationalizes, it makes great pasta. These killers were people who had crossed an indelible line in human experience by intentionally taking another life. They all constructed their own narrative to explain and justify their killing … And to a person, they all said the same thing: The first time was really, really hard. After that, not so much …
“Mutolo had killed so many people that he couldn’t remember them all … At one point, he recalled killing a man named Galatalo. Then he recalled hitting another man named Galatalo with a meat cleaver, but the man had not died. On the witness stand, he remembered that he had actually killed yet another man named Galatalo, making it two Galatalos killed and one Galatalo merely hit in the chest with a meat cleaver …
“Mafia members may dress and talk in distinctive ways, but they are part of a fairly common species — the bully. All bullies are largely the same. They threaten the weak to feed some insecurity that rages inside them. I know. I’ve seen it up close.”
One thing becomes clear as you read “A Higher Loyalty”: James Comey is a better man for the great respect and love he shares with his wife, Patrice, and because of the pain and heartbreaking loss their family suffered and transcended together. And how Patrice, in particular, dedicated great effort to make sure other families wouldn’t suffer the same way. Comey writes: “Patrice’s quest — to try to make things right for others — undoubtedly influenced my own views on the purpose of the law and the justice system to which I’ve devoted most of my adult life …”
There are several important stories Comey tells that provide greater insight into why he might have acted the way he did in the Hillary Clinton investigation.
Comey served as the deputy for Attorney General John Ashcroft in the administration of George W. Bush while Robert Mueller was the head of the FBI. “In June 2003, a couple of months after the invasion of Iraq, an article by reporter Robert Novak had revealed the name of a covert CIA employee. The revelation had come days after the CIA employee’s husband had written a newspaper opinion piece attacking one of the Bush administration’s main rationales for the war in Iraq, namely that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire nuclear material. Speculation was rampant that members of the Bush administration had illegally disclosed the name of this CIA employee to Novak in retaliation for the negative article.
“… there was also evidence that … the vice president’s chief of staff, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, spoke to numerous reporters about the CIA employee … Libby had been interviewed by the FBI and admitted doing so, but said he only knew about the CIA employee from a reporter … [and] was just passing gossip, not proactively disseminating the name of a covert agent …
“To Democrats, it was obvious that key members of a Republican administration were subverting justice to undermine and punish their critics. To Republicans, it was just as obvious that this was a witch hunt against people who made an inconsequential mistake. My job would make at least one of these groups, or tribes, very unhappy.”
Because Ashcroft had frequent contact with Scooter Libby, the senior advisor to Vice President Cheney, Comey decided: “We had to do everything we could to protect the department’s reputation for fairness and impartiality … Ashcroft understood that, and when I met with him to discuss my recommendation that he recuse himself from the case, he agreed. I immediately appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, then serving as the United States Attorney in Chicago, as special counsel to oversee the investigation …
“It took Fitzgerald three years of litigation to get to a place where he charged, tried, and convicted Libby of making false statements in a federal investigation, perjury, and obstruction of justice. Republican loyalists howled that he was persecuting Libby because prosecutors could never prove the underlying crime — the intentional leaking of a covert agent’s name with prior knowledge of its illegality… Meanwhile, Democrats, who six years earlier attacked the case against Bill Clinton as a silly lie about sex, had discovered in the Libby case that they cared deeply about obstruction of justice crimes — when the obstructers were Republicans.”
Seems so terribly familiar, doesn’t it? Then there’s Stellar Wind’s surveillance of Americans and the John Ashcroft hospital bed episode and the decision “To Torture Or Not?” Jack Goldsmith, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel “had inherited a set of legal opinions written quickly and under great pressure by his predecessors following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Those lawyers had attested to the lawfulness of aggressive counterterrorism activities by the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The president and the intelligence community had relied on those opinions for more than two years. The opinions were dead wrong in many places, Goldsmith concluded. And the debate within the Bush administration over them was getting nasty.”
Stellar Wind was a highly classified program of NSA surveillance “against suspected terrorists and citizens without the need for judicial warrants … What Bush appeared not to know was that the NSA was engaging in activity that went beyond what was authorized, beyond even the legally dubious, and into what Goldsmith and Philbin concluded was clearly unlawful …
“I became the United States Attorney in Manhattan when Ground Zero, where thousands died, still smoldered. Late at night, I would stand at the fence and watch firefighters sift through the dirt to find those lost. Nobody needed to tell me how hard we needed to fight terrorism, but I also understood we had to do it the right way. Under the law … On Thursday, March 4, 2004, I met alone with Attorney General Ashcroft to tell him in detail about the problems with the program and why we could not approve another extension … At the end of lunch, he said the analysis made sense to him and we should fix the program to be consistent with the law … After our lunch, Ashcroft … collapsed [and] was rushed to George Washington University Hospital … By this time, I had gotten on a commercial flight to Phoenix for a government meeting … My chief of staff, Chuck Rosenberg, called to tell me that with Ashcroft incapacitated, I was now the acting attorney general and needed to be back in Washington.
“On Tuesday, March 9, I was summoned to a meeting at the White House in Chief of Staff Andrew Card’s office … Goldsmith and Philbin were with me. The vice president was presiding … Also at the table were General Hayden, Card, Gonzales, FBI Director Bob Mueller, and senior CIA officials …The first part of the meeting was a presentation by NSA personnel using charts to show me how valuable the surveillance program had been in connection with an ongoing Al Qaeda plot in the United Kingdom … I knew enough about the matter to have serious doubts about whether the NSA’s program was needed to find those links …Still, I said nothing. Our concerns were not based on the usefulness of the program …our job was to certify that the program had a reasonable basis in law …
“The vice president looked at me gravely and said … ‘Thousands of people are going to die because of what you are doing.’ … It was obvious that the purpose of this meeting was to squeeze me … To have the vice president of the United States accuse me of recklessly producing another 9/11 — even seeming to suggest that I was doing it intentionally — was stunning …
“[Cheney] pointed out that the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had written a memo to support the program in 2001 and that the attorney general had repeatedly certified the program’s legality in the two and one-half years since … I sympathized with him and told him so, but I added that the 2001 opinion was so bad … No lawyer could rely upon it.’ From the windowsill came Addington’s cutting voice: ‘I’m a lawyer and I did.’ … It was no surprise that the meeting ended shortly after, without resolution.
“… That Wednesday was strangely quiet on the Stellar Wind front, despite the fact that the current order expired the next day … late that day, Ayres called to pass on Janet Ashcroft’s urgent message — Andy Card and Al Gonzales planned to do an end run around me. They were on their way to the hospital, and I had to figure out what to do.
“I called my chief of staff, Chuck Rosenberg … and asked him to come to the hospital. Then I added, ‘Get as many of our people as possible.’ … I called FBI Director Bob Mueller, who was at a restaurant with his wife and one of their children … Mueller and I were not particularly close and had never seen each other outside of work, but I knew Bob understood and respected our legal position and cared deeply about the rule of law …. When I told him what was happening, he said he would be there immediately …
“The hall was dimly lit, occupied only by half a dozen FBI agents in suits, there to protect the attorney general … He was lying in the bed, heavily medicated … I did my best … to remind him that this was related to the matter we had discussed at lunch before he got sick … I then went out into the hall and spoke to the lead agent for Ashcroft’s FBI protective detail. I knew Card and Gonzales would arrive with a Secret Service detail and, as incredible as it seems now, I feared they might try to forcibly remove me so they could speak with Ashcroft alone … I called Bob Mueller again on his cell phone … ‘Bob,’ I said, ‘I need you to order your agents not to permit me to be taken from Ashcroft’s room under any circumstances.’ Mueller asked me to pass the phone to the agent. I stood as the agent listened, crisply answered, ‘Yes, sir,’ and passed the phone back. The agent looked at me with a steely expression. ‘You will not leave that room, sir. This is our scene.’ …
“Moments later, the hospital room door opened and Gonzales and Card walked in. Gonzales was holding a manila envelope at his waist … Gonzales spoke first, ‘How are you, General?’ ‘Not well,’ Ashcroft mumbled to the White House counsel. Gonzales then began to explain that he and Card were there at the president’s direction about a vital national security program … that they had briefed the leadership of Congress, who understood the program’s value, wanted it continued, and were willing to work with us to fix any legal issues …
“[Ashcroft’s] tired eyes fixed upon the president’s men, and he gave Card and Gonzales a rapid-fire blast. He had been misled about the scope of the surveillance program, he said … Then he said he had serious concerns about the legal basis for parts of the program now that he understood it. Spent, he fell back on his pillow, his breathing labored. ‘But that doesn’t matter now,’ he said, ‘because I’m not the attorney general.’ With a finger extended from his shaking left hand, he pointed at me. ‘There is the attorney general.’
“The room was quiet for several beats. Finally, Gonzales spoke two words. ‘Be well.’ Without looking at me, the two men turned toward the door. When their heads were turned, Janet Ashcroft scrunched her face and stuck her tongue out at them … Bob Mueller entered the room. He leaned down and spoke to Ashcroft in intensely personal terms — terms that would surprise those who knew the stoic Mueller well.
“In every man’s life there comes a time when the good Lord tests him,” he told Ashcroft. “You passed your test tonight.” … My heart was racing. I was feeling slightly dizzy. But when I heard Bob Mueller’s tender words, I felt like crying. The law had held.”
“But neither Gonzales nor Card were finished with me yet … The president had reauthorized the program despite our warnings … The line for the attorney general’s signature had been removed and replaced with a line for White House Counsel Al Gonzales. Addington also added language to authorize NSA activity that had not been covered by his earlier drafts of the president’s orders.”
Comey writes: “We were done here. I knew this would be my final night in government service. The same for Bob Mueller. Like me, he could not continue to serve in an administration that was going to direct the FBI to participate in activity that had no lawful basis. I drafted a resignation letter …(Emphasis added.)
“Bob Mueller and I went through the motions at our usual early-morning terrorism threat session at FBI headquarters, then we drove together to the White House for the regular Oval Office threat briefing … The meeting felt surreal. We talked about Madrid and Al Qaeda and everything other than the collision that was threatening to topple the administration. Then we got up and headed for the door… ‘Jim,’ the president said, ‘can I talk to you for a minute? … You don’t look well,’ the president began, adding, with typical bluntness … ‘I haven’t been sleeping much,’ I confessed. ‘I feel a tremendous burden.’ ‘Let me lift that burden from your shoulders,’ the president said.
“‘I wish you could, Mr. President. But you can’t … A train is coming that is going to run over me and my career, but I can’t get off the tracks.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because we simply can’t find a reasonable argument to support parts of the Stellar Wind program.’ We then discussed the details of the program and the problematic parts. I finished by saying, ‘We just can’t certify to its legality.’ ‘But I say what the law is for the executive branch,’ he replied. ‘You do, sir. But only I can say what the Justice Department can certify as lawful …
“‘I just wish you hadn’t sprung these objections on us at the last minute.’ I was shocked. ‘If that’s what you were told, Mr. President, you’ve been badly misled by your staff. We have been telling them about this for weeks.’ He paused, as if digesting that revelation. “Can you just give me until May 6 so I can try to get a legislative fix? This program is really important. If I can’t get it, I will shut it down.’ ‘We can’t do that, Mr. President. And we’ve been saying that for weeks.’
“I paused, took a breath, and then overstepped my role as a lawyer to offer policy advice to the president. ‘And Mr. President, I feel like I should say something else. The American people are going to freak when they find out what we have been doing.’ He seemed irritated for the first time. ‘Let me worry about that,’ he said sharply. ‘Yes, sir. But I thought it had to be said.’ … I wanted to find a way to help Bush. This man, whom I liked and wanted to see succeed, appeared not to realize the … entire Justice Department leadership was going to quit, and just as he was running for reelection. An uprising of that sort hadn’t even happened during the worst days of Watergate. I had to tell him, to warn him … ‘You should know that Bob Mueller is going to resign this morning,’ I said.
“He paused again. ‘Thank you for telling me that.’ He extended his hand and showed me back to and across the Oval Office… I had just started to describe my conversation with the president when a Secret Service agent approached to say that the president wanted to see Mueller upstairs, immediately.
“Bob came down about ten minutes later … Bob confirmed to him that he could not stay as director under these circumstances and implored the president to listen to us. The president replied with a directive: ‘Tell Jim to do what needs to be done to get this to a place where Justice is comfortable.’
“That was all we needed, an order from the president. That took us around the vice president, Card, and Gonzales … The team worked all weekend to shape a new draft presidential order that narrowed the scope of the NSA’s authority. I decided to send a classified memo to the White House summarizing the problems and our recommended fixes …
“On Tuesday, Gonzales called me to say a memo would be coming back to us from the White House … The memo was a big middle finger, clearly written by Addington. It said we were wrong about everything, and acting inappropriately by usurping presidential authority. It rejected all our proposed changes … I told Ashcroft’s chief of staff that I was resigning, again. He asked me to wait. He was sure Ashcroft would want to quit with the rest of us, but he was still too ill. Could we give him a few days to get stronger? Of course …
“Two days later, without notice, the president signed a new order. It incorporated all the changes we had requested. All the changes that the middle-finger letter said were unnecessary. The order said the president was making these changes for operational reasons. Not because we said he had to or because our interpretation of the law required it …The Stellar Wind crisis was over. Now things would get really tough … And they did when the torture photos of Abu Ghraib were published and the world saw first hand how our interrogation policies had careened out of control.”
Torture. Remarkably relevant as Gina Haspel, who directed a black site in Thailand known for its enhanced interrogation of terror suspects and who destroyed videotaped evidence of suspected abuse, has been nominated to serve as director of the CIA.
Back to Comey, who writes: “… I wasn’t looking forward to another ugly, draining fight against the same powerful faction in the White House. The fight over the surveillance program had been a stressful time, not just for me but also for my family. I thought I was going to lose my job. Patrice and I had a floating, interest-only mortgage on our home, and we were not in a good place financially as parents of five kids fast approaching college age … But I agreed with Goldsmith that the legal opinion about torture was just wrong. So I went to Attorney General Ashcroft and, in a private meeting, told him why I believed it made sense to take the dramatic step of withdrawing the Justice Department’s earlier opinion on the legality of these actions. He agreed … we were deeply skeptical of what we were told about the effectiveness of the CIA’s coercive tactics. It struck me as the kind of stuff pushed by chicken hawks—aggressive-sounding administration officials who had seen plenty of movies but had never actually been in the storm …
“Dick Cheney, David Addington, and others had decided that ‘enhanced interrogations’ — acts that fit any normal person’s definition of torture — worked. They simply couldn’t admit that evidence contradicting their conclusion was valid, maybe most of all to themselves. And so, in their view, people standing in the way of allowing these activities — lawyers like me — were needlessly putting lives at risk …
“One evening after work in spring 2004, Patrice looked at me … She had seen all the media coverage of the treatment of captives. She simply said to me, ‘Torture is wrong. Don’t be the torture guy.’ ‘What?’ I protested. ‘You know I can’t talk about that stuff.’
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Just don’t be the torture guy.” … I couldn’t get away from the mental pictures of naked men chained to the ceiling in a cold, blazingly lit cell for endless days, defecating in their diapers, unchained only to be further abused and convinced they were drowning, before being rechained.
“On November 10, 2004, President Bush announced that his pick to be the next attorney general of the United States was Alberto Gonzales. I was getting a new boss who had actively opposed what I viewed as the department’s responsibility to enforce the law as it was written, not as the administration wanted it to be. One who seemed to prefer satisfying his boss more than focusing on hard truths …
“I was something of a loaded gun in the Bush administration’s eyes, one that could go off at any moment. Because I was a loaded weapon, they handled me with care, but it was obvious to me that serving as Gonzales’s deputy was not the right thing for me. In the spring of 2005, I announced I would be leaving that August … I didn’t have the stomach for what were certain to be more losing battles within the administration.”
Opposing intrusive surveillance on Americans. Trying to reverse our disastrous policy of “enhanced interrogation” – the completely ineffective use of torture. I hope you read Comey’s book and I hope you look at Comey’s actions regarding the Hillary Clinton investigation and his quick suspicions of President Trump in light of Comey’s previous experience with politicians at the highest levels of government, his need to actively oppose their willingness to distort the law in pursuit of their political agendas.
Unexpectedly asked to serve by President Obama, Comey returned to head the FBI, and once again found himself in the midst of a mess. On July 6, 2015, the FBI received a referral from the inspector general of the intelligence community about Hillary Clinton’s use of email: “For the first few months of her tenure, she had used a personal AT&T BlackBerry email address before switching to a Clintonemail.com domain. In the course of doing her work, she emailed with other State employees … and they talked about classified topics in the body of dozens of their emails.”
Comey notes: “The first question was whether classified documents were moved outside of classified systems or whether classified topics were discussed outside of a classified system. If so, the second question was what the subject of the investigation was thinking when she mishandled that classified information … In Secretary Clinton’s case, the answer to the first question — was classified information mishandled? — was obviously ‘yes.’ In all, there were thirty-six email chains that discussed topics that were classified as ‘Secret’ at the time. Eight times in those thousands of email exchanges across four years, Clinton and her team talked about topics designated as ‘Top Secret,’ sometimes cryptically, sometimes obviously.”
While many imagine Comey was solely responsible, the 18-month investigation was led by a 12-member FBI team. Comey writes: “Attorney General Loretta Lynch and I had scheduled appearances with reporters at the beginning of October where it was obvious that we each would be pressed on whether the Justice Department was acting on the referral … Attorney General Lynch … quickly added, ‘Call it “a matter.” ‘Why would I do that?’ I asked. ‘Just call it ‘a matter,’ came her answer …”
Comey was worried: “the Clinton team had been employing a variety of euphemisms to avoid using the word ‘investigation.’ The attorney general seemed to be directing me to align with that Clinton campaign strategy. Her ‘just do it’ response to my question indicated that she had no legal or procedural justification for her request … It was probably a mistake that I didn’t challenge this harder. But in that moment, I decided that her request was too frivolous to take issue with, especially as my first battle with a new boss.”
By early 2016, Comey tells us that, while it was clear there were “accidents, sloppiness, and even extreme carelessness with regard to classified information,” it didn’t seem like there was a prosecutable case. Comey writes: “If the investigation continued on the same trajectory, the challenge was going to be closing the case in a way that maintained the confidence of the American people that their justice system was working in an honest, competent, and nonpolitical manner. We’d never convince extreme Clinton haters in the news media of that, of course, but hopefully we could persuade a majority of fair- and open-minded Americans.”
But, as the inimitable William Shakespeare reminds us, “Aye, there’s the rub,” because, lo and behold, appeared a major monkey wrench. And in this case, a highly classified wrench: “in early 2016, there was a development that threatened to challenge that effort significantly. A development still unknown to the American public to this day. At that time, we were alerted to some materials that had come into the possession of the United States government. They came from a classified source—the source and content of that material remains classified as I write this. Had it become public, the unverified material would undoubtedly have been used by political opponents to cast serious doubt on the attorney general’s independence in connection with the Clinton investigation.” (Emphasis added.)
This seems to have not gotten that much play. And my security clearance and, I’m guessing, yours pales in comparison, so, in this case, it’s Comey word against, well, against a secret and very mute blank wall. And depending upon whether or not, in the course of reading, you’ve come to the point where you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, you will either believe or discount what follows: “Though I had been concerned about her direction to me at that point, I saw no indication afterward that she had any contact with the investigators or prosecutors on the case. But it bothered me that there was classified information that would someday become public—likely decades from now—and be used to attack the integrity of the investigation and, more important, call into question the independence of the FBI.”
Then there’s President Obama: “He had jeopardized the Department of Justice’s credibility in the investigation by saying in a 60 Minutes interview on October 11, 2015, that Clinton’s email use was ‘a mistake’ that had not endangered national security. Then on Fox News on April 10, 2016, he said that Clinton may have been careless but did not do anything to intentionally harm national security, suggesting that the case involved overclassification of material in the government. President Obama is a very smart man who understands the law very well. To this day, I don’t know why he spoke about the case publicly and seemed to absolve her before a final determination was made …The truth was that the president — as far as I knew, anyway — had only as much information as anyone following it in the media … And if he was following the media, he knew nothing, because there had been no leaks at all up until that point. But his comments still set all of us up for corrosive attacks if the case were completed with no charges brought.”
Comey had prosecuted Martha Stewart for lying, had watched cover-ups in the Scooter Libby case and with government-approved torture. Here, according to Secretary Clinton: “there were about sixty thousand total emails on her personal server as of late 2014, when State asked for the work emails. The secretary’s personal lawyers reviewed those emails, producing about half of them and deleting the rest …”
While Comey wasn’t immediately suspicious of Attorney General Lynch’s 20-minute talk with Bill Clinton in the midst of this investigation: “As the firestorm grew in the media, I paid more attention, watching it become another corrosive talking point about how the Obama Justice Department couldn’t be trusted to complete the Clinton email investigation.
“In the middle of that firestorm, the attorney general rejected calls that she recuse herself from the Hillary Clinton investigation altogether. Instead … she would accept my recommendation about the case and that of the career prosecutors at Justice. In effect, she was removing herself but not removing herself …”
You can add James Comey’s past history into the mix, because it was James Comey who had worked to bring Marc Rich to justice. Rich, the fugitive oil trader, had been indicted on 65 counts of income tax evasion, wire fraud, racketeering and trading with Iran while it held dozens of Americans hostages. Rich had fled to Switzerland, which refused to extradite him. Surprisingly, in his last days in office, President Bill Clinton pardoned the fugitive.
Comey: “I needed to visibly step away from Loretta Lynch and do something I never could have imagined before 2016: have the FBI separately offer its views to the American people … by making public my recommendation and the thinking behind it. I knew this was going to suck for me. From the Democratic side would come predictable stuff about my wanting the spotlight, being out of control, driven by ego. From the Republican side would come more allegations of Justice Department incompetence or corruption … But I believed — and still believe, even in hindsight — it was the best thing for the FBI and for the Department of Justice.”
Regarding Clinton: “After discussion and careful review of her answers, there was nothing in her comments that we could prove was a lie beyond a reasonable doubt … She did not at any point confess wrongdoing or indicate that she knew what she had done with her emails was wrong. Whether we believed her or not, we had no significant proof otherwise. And there was no additional work the investigators thought they should do … Now the American people needed to know what the FBI had found.”
“… I liked both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general and I was about to piss them off by not coordinating with them on a public statement about a high-profile case because any coordination could be perceived as political influence …”
This is some of what Comey announced: “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information … Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case … As a result, although the Department of Justice makes final decisions on matters like this, we are expressing to Justice our view that no charges are appropriate in this case …
“I know there will be intense public debate in the wake of this recommendation, as there was throughout this investigation. What I can assure the American people is that this investigation was done competently, honestly, and independently. No outside influence of any kind was brought to bear.”
In “A Higher Loyalty,” Comey admits: “Hindsight is always helpful, and if I had it to do over again, I would do some things differently … I thought there was a risk people wouldn’t listen carefully after the headline, but looking back, the risk of confusion from me delaying the conclusion was greater. More important … my use of ‘extremely careless’ naturally sounded to many ears like the statutory language – ‘grossly negligent’ – even though thoughtful lawyers could see why it wasn’t the same … Other than those two things, and in spite of the political shots directed at me since – and my supposedly being fired because of it -… I still believe it was the best available alternative to protect and preserve the Department of Justice’s and the FBI’s reservoir of trust with the American people.”
If only this had been the end of the email story. But, aye, there’s the second rub—in this case, the completely unexpected discovery in early October 2016 of Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, found during the investigation of his improper contact with underage girls.
Comey writes: “The Midyear team had never been able to find Secretary Clinton’s emails from her first few months as secretary of state, a period during which she was using an AT&T BlackBerry email domain … For reasons no one around the table could explain, the Weiner laptop held thousands of emails from the AT&T BlackBerry domain. They told me those might well include the missing emails from the start of Clinton’s time at the Department of State.”
The FBI team worked exhaustively to get the emails and check them. And once again Comey faced a thorny question of accountability: “I had repeatedly told the country and Congress that the FBI had done an honest, competent, and independent investigation and we were finished … Yet, on October 27, the FBI and the Department of Justice had just decided to seek a search warrant to review a huge trove of Hillary Clinton’s emails, including information that conceivably could change our view of the investigation. And, as I was assured by top investigators at the Bureau, there was no prospect of finishing the review before the election … Speak or conceal—both terrible options. The Midyear senior team debated them both … but even with a dozen perspectives, we kept coming back to the same place: the credibility of the institutions of justice was at stake. Assuming, as nearly everyone did, that Hillary Clinton would be elected president of the United States in less than two weeks, what would happen to the FBI, the Justice Department, or her own presidency if it later was revealed, after the fact, that she was still a subject of an FBI investigation? What if, after the election, we actually found information that demonstrated prosecutable criminal activity? …We had to tell Congress that things had changed …”
Not surprisingly Comey has paid a great price for his decisions: “The lovers and the haters from July largely switched positions. The fear that my letter was going to bring a Trump victory drove some normally thoughtful people around the bend. There was much hysteria about how we were violating Justice Department rules and policies. Of course, there were no such rules and there had never been another situation in the middle of an election like this. I suppose reasonable people might have decided not to speak about the renewed investigation, but the notion that we were out there breaking rules was offensive …” (Emphasis added.)
I imagine most people have made up their minds about all of this. But I am reminded about the controversy regarding the Bush/Gore election which rages to this day. Democrats still find it easier to blame Ralph Nader than their candidate for the loss in Florida. Bush won Florida by 543 votes. While highlighting Nader’s Green Party’s 97,488 votes, these experts ignore the fact that the Libertarians got 16,415 votes, the crazed Workers World got 1,804 and, most importantly, while Nader received 24,000 votes from registered Democrats, more than 308,000 registered Democrats in Florida voted for Bush. Bush won white women 53–44 percent.
Blaming Comey for Hillary Clinton’s loss of the electoral college is misleading. What about the 35 percent of registered Democrats who didn’t vote versus the 32 percent of Republicans who stayed home? Black and Hispanic Democrats and the 18- to 29-year-old Democrats who didn’t like their candidate and stayed home.
Comey tells us: “I hope very much that what we did — what I did — wasn’t a deciding factor in the election. I say that with a wife and daughters who voted for Hillary Clinton and walked in the 2017 Women’s March in D.C. the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. As I said in testimony, the very idea that my decision had any impact on the outcome … leaves me feeling sick because I have devoted my life to serving institutions I love precisely because they play no role in politics, because they operate independently of the passions of the electoral process. But 2016 was an election like no other. One of my kids showed me a tweet that seemed to capture the feelings at the time. It said, ‘That Comey is such a political hack. I just can’t figure out which party.’
Most of you are familiar with the remarkable moments James Comey shared with Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Comey was chosen to inform the president-elect of the claims of the Steele dossier. The president never forgave him. Comey was asked for his loyalty and asked to lay off Michael Flynn. He was asked for assurances that he wasn’t in the sights of Robert Mueller. All these events are discussed in greater detail in “A Higher Loyalty.” Clearly, his multiple failures to give the president what he wanted and needed led to his dismissal.
And the action Comey took once he was fired was informed by what he had been through before: “I had trusted the system years earlier on the question of torture. Then, I had trusted the attorney general to carry our department’s concerns about torture policy to the White House … but nothing happened. No, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. This time I could and would do something because, ironically, thanks to Donald Trump, I was a private citizen now … (Emphasis added.)
“I trusted the FBI, but I didn’t trust the Department of Justice leadership under the current attorney general and deputy attorney general to do the right thing. Something was needed that might force them to do the right thing. Now that I was a private citizen, I could do something. I decided I would prompt a media story by revealing the president’s February 14 direction that I drop the Flynn investigation. That might force the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor, who could then go get the tapes that Trump had tweeted about. And, although I was banned from FBI property, I had a copy of my unclassified memo about his request stored securely at home.
“I contacted my good friend Dan Richman, a former prosecutor and now a professor at Columbia Law School. Dan had been giving me legal advice since my firing. I told him I was going to send him one unclassified memo and I wanted him to share the substance of the memo — but not the memo itself — with a reporter. If I do it myself, I thought, it will create a media frenzy — at my driveway, no less — and I will be hard-pressed to refuse follow-up comments. I would, of course, tell the truth if asked whether I played a part in it. I did. I had to.To be clear, this was not a “leak” of classified information no matter how many times politicians, political pundits, or the president call it that. A private citizen may legally share unclassified details of a conversation with the president with the press, or include that information in a book. I believe in the power of the press and know Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote: ‘Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.’ (Emphasis added.)
“I don’t know whether the media storm that followed my disclosure of the February 14 ‘let it go’ conversation prompted the Department of Justice leadership to appoint a special counsel. The FBI may already have been pushing for the appointment of a special counsel after seeing the Trump tweet about tapes. I just know that the Department of Justice did so shortly thereafter, giving Robert Mueller the authority to investigate any coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign and any related matters.
“We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election, and our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty … Policies come and go. Supreme Court justices come and go. But the core of our nation is our commitment to a set of shared values that began with George Washington — to restraint and integrity and balance and transparency and truth.
“I wrote this book because I hope it will be useful to people living among the flames who are thinking about what comes next. I also hope it will be useful to readers long after the flames are doused, by inspiring them to choose a higher loyalty, to find truth among lies, and to pursue ethical leadership.”
For a brief moment in time because they imagined Comey had torpedoed the Clinton campaign, Republicans adored James Comey. Then Democrats abhorred James Comey because they believed he had torpedoed the Clinton campaign. Now the Republicans despise the leaker Comey, convinced he wants to torpedo the Trump presidency. The Democrats now are torn, hoping Mueller (thanks to Comey) might save us.
“A Higher Loyalty” forces us all to add multiple shades of gray to the black-and-white judgments currently dominating our airwaves. Do yourself a favor and challenge yourself and spend some time with James Comey.
“A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies and Leadership”
James Comey, Macmillan 2018
Senator Susan Collins- Contributors 2013 – 2018
“I Was a Top Clinton Aide. Here’s What I Think About Comey’s Book.”
Jennifer Palmieri, April 21, 2018, Politico
“Lawyers Told Gina Haspel Torture Was Legal. But It Never Was”
By Claire Finkelstein and Stephen N. Xenakis, May 9, 2018, New York Times
“Interrogation Memos Detail Harsh Tactics by the C.I.A.”
By Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, April 16, 2009, New York Times
Comey’s October Letter to Congress regarding the Clinton emails and the Weiner computer:
“Registered Voters Who Stayed Home Probably Cost Clinton The Election”
Harry Enten, Jan. 5, 2017