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'A Higher Loyalty' book review: In the throes of a scandal

A Higher Loyalty is the first big memoir by a key player in the alarming melodrama that is the Trump administration

Michiko Kakutani | NYT 


Truth, Lies, and Leadership

By James Comey

Flatiron Books

290pages; $29.99

In his absorbing new book, former calls the presidency a “forest fire” that is doing serious damage to the country’s norms and traditions. “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values,” Mr Comey writes.

Decades before he led the FBI’s investigation into whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with to influence the 2016 election, Mr Comey was a career prosecutor who helped dismantle the Gambino crime family; and he doesn’t hesitate in these pages to draw a direct analogy between the Mafia bosses he helped pack off to prison years ago and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

A February 2017 meeting in the with and then chief of staff Reince Priebus left Mr Comey recalling his days as a federal prosecutor facing off against the Mob: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organisation above morality and above the truth.”

The central themes Mr Comey returns to throughout this impassioned book are the toxic consequences of lying; and the corrosive effects of choosing loyalty to an individual over truth and the rule of law. Dishonesty, he writes, was central “to the entire enterprise of organised crime on both sides of the Atlantic,” and so, too, were bullying, peer pressure and groupthink — repellent traits shared by Mr and company, he suggests, and now infecting our culture.

A Higher Loyalty is the first big memoir by a key player in the alarming melodrama that is the Mr Comey, who was abruptly fired by Trump on May 9, 2017, has worked in three administrations, and his book underscores just how outside presidential norms Trump’s behaviour has been — how ignorant he is about his basic duties as president, and how wilfully he has flouted the checks and balances that safeguard our democracy, including the essential independence of the judiciary and law enforcement. Mr Comey’s book fleshes out the testimony he gave before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017 with considerable emotional detail, and it showcases its author’s gift for narrative.

The volume offers little in the way of hard news revelations about investigations by the FBI or the special counsel (not unexpectedly, given that such investigations are ongoing and involve classified material), and it lacks the rigorous legal analysis that made Jack Goldsmith’s 2007 book The Terror Presidency so incisive about larger dynamics within the Bush administration.

What A Higher Loyalty does give readers are some near-cinematic accounts of what Mr Comey was thinking when, as he’s previously said, Mr Trump demanded loyalty from him during a one-on-one dinner at the White House; when Mr Trump pressured him to let go of the investigation into his former national security adviser Michael T Flynn; and when the president asked what Mr Comey could do to “lift the cloud” of the investigation.

There are some methodical explanations in these pages of the reasoning behind the momentous decisions Mr Comey made regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 campaign — explanations that attest to his nonpartisan and well-intentioned efforts to protect the independence of the FBI, but that will leave at least some readers still questioning the judgment calls he made, including the different approaches he took in handling the bureau’s investigation into Ms Clinton (which was made public) and its investigation into the Trump campaign (which was handled with traditional FBI secrecy).

The book also provides sharp sketches of key players in three presidential administrations. Mr Comey draws a scathing portrait of Vice President Dick Cheney’s legal adviser David S Addington, who spearheaded the arguments of many hard-liners in the George W Bush White House; Mr Comey describes their point of view: “The war on terrorism justified stretching, if not breaking, the written law.” He depicts Bush national security adviser and later Secretary of State as uninterested in having a detailed policy discussion of interrogation policy and the question of torture. He takes Barack Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch to task for asking him to refer to the Clinton email case as a “matter,” not an “investigation.”

Mr Comey was feeling unnerved from the moment he met Mr Trump. In his recent book Fire and Fury, wrote that Trump “invariably thought people found him irresistible,” and felt sure, early on, that “he could woo and flatter the into positive feeling for him, if not outright submission” (in what the reader takes as yet another instance of the president’s inability to process reality or step beyond his own narcissistic delusions).

After he failed to get that submission and the cloud continued to hover, Mr Trump fired Mr Comey. It’s ironic that Mr Comey, who wanted to shield the FBI from politics, should have ended up putting the bureau in the midst of the 2016 election firestorm; just as it’s ironic (and oddly fitting) that a civil servant who has prided himself on being apolitical and independent should find himself reviled by both Mr Trump and Ms Clinton, and thrust into the center of another tipping point in history.

© 2018 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Mon, April 16 2018. 00:03 IST