A Higher Loyalty

By James Comey

Reviewed Jun 19, 2018 on The Litt Review.

The day after the Department of Justice’s inspector general published a report that Comey had been insubordinate for his public announcements regarding the ongoing investigation into Clinton’s emails during the 2016 campaign, I finally reneged and started reading A Higher Loyalty. I bought The New York Times and the book, because I frankly did not know enough about Comey’s defence. I had seen Rachel Maddow, the night before, talk about how Comey’s publicly talking about Clinton could be seen as capitulating to partisan bullying by too aggressively pursuing the Democrats, even though Clinton ultimately was found to have committed no crimes. I couldn’t place her comments acurrately, because for the majority of the 2016 campaign I simply hadn’t been paying attention. And I’ve been meaning to read this books for months, since seeing an Eastern European in Montréal reading it, and feeling ashamed that I was less informed about my own country than him. So, I capitulated myself, and got it.

It was a fascinating, wonderful read. Initially, I judged Comey’s writing style as bland and sanctimonious. However, as he laid out in some detail his experiences serving as the US Attorney in the Southern District of New York and as the head of the FBI (as well as more personal stories such as his survival of an armed robbery in his house as a teenager, or the experience of one of his sons dying in infancy), I quickly realized that Comey’s straight-talking attitude wasn’t a charade. He is rather bland and sanctimonious, because that’s generally how the truth appears. At points, I wondered how much of the book is true, because it seemed so clearly biased to show Comey in a good light (the autobiographical nature helps). Looking around online, I don’t see any major refutations. Given that, I think the book is a wonderful response to the partisan hackwork that has tarnished his reputation over the past few years.

One of the more interesting revelations in the past week was that Comey was insubordinate in his role as the director of the FBI, which should report to the AG and the President, ultimately. I agree, he was insubordinate. That’s the entire point of the book. It’s right there in the title. Comey references confidential information concerning the AG and Clinton, which influenced his decision to publicly announce that there was a trial going on, not once, but twice (the second time when it became clear that there was more research). He also mentions that there was clear precedent for talking publicly about ongoing investigations (not ‘matters’, as the AG instructed him to say): “The Department of Justice and FBI policies contained established exceptions to our no-comment policy, for investigations of extraordinary public interest or where our investigative activity is apparent to the public.” This point seems to be lost on the public. Uncharacteristically, he backs up his arguments for going forward and speaking in one paragraph, saying it was ‘silly’ not to; I think this could have been more drawn out.

Another point lost in the news cycle, or which I hadn’t known at least, is that the FBI is supposed to remain impartial politically. When asked in a meeting by an aide if publicly announcing that Clinton was under investigation would help elect Trump, Comey stated that it doesn’t matter: the FBI can’t consider political fallout, but should concern themselves with the truth. I’m inclined to agree with him, if only because the opposite course - blaming Comey entirely - fails to take into account that the system itself may occasionally lead to flaws like this. Comey was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I may not agree with his decisions, but I think he made them well, given the situation he was in. Personally, I think the rule that the FBI comments should be amended to ban comments at all, just like the Secret Service does with their operations. But lacking such an ammendation, I’m not sure it’s anyone’s role but the FBI director to judge whether or not providing a press release is the right choice or not. (Of course, pundits gonna pundit, anyway.)

A lot of the book was spent exploring what ethical leadership looks like; unsurprising, as Comey now teaches a course on this at his alma mater. I expect the book will be on the syllabus. It should be. It should be on the syllabus for American conservatives as well, especially for the RNC’s chair Ronna McDaniel, who panned the book but then explained that she hadn’t read it herself. Get a pair of reading glasses.

I learned a lot from this book, outside of a new view on Comey himself. For one, I learned much more about the FBI than I knew, and I have a newfound respect for Obama and some of his appointment decisions. I also learned more about Trump; he doesn’t appear to know the word “calligrapher”, for one. Comey spent a lot of time talking about his early job as the US Attorney in New York, dealing with the Mafia there. He doesn’t spare his judgements, either; comparisons between the mob and Trump are abundant. It’s not a hard connection to make. But for the majority of the book, Comey doesn’t mention Trump explicitly, focusing on whatever was pressing at the time. This isn’t a screed about getting fired; it’s the story of his entire life in politics. It’s also a masterpiece of passive aggressive writing, because Trump’s visage is lurking behind any sentence, anyway. Comey wouldn’t have written A Higher Loyalty if he was still working for men of Obama’s stature.

Comey’s writing was clear, and almost legal in places. A few beautiful sentences snuck through, mostly of the Jeffersonian variety. And, overall, the book was a quick, enjoyable read. I suggest it.

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