Former FBI director James Comey testifies in Washington on May 3 2017. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
Former FBI director James Comey testifies in Washington on May 3 2017. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

A HIGHER LOYALTY: Truth, Lies and Leadership
James Comey
Macmillan Publishers

 

A work of startling naivety? A timely exposé of the good fighting the bad? Or a bit of both? Former FBI director James Comey’s bestseller continues to sell at record levels, earning him a tidy sum.

As a government employee, Comey was unhappy with his salary — which was why he left and worked for the private sector for nearly a decade before returning to public service in 2013 as FBI director for an envisaged 10-year term. That was not to be. On May 9 2017 President Donald Trump fired him.

His firing may constitute obstruction of justice, with special counsel Robert Mueller recently presenting Trump with at least four dozen questions about his ties with Russia. For now, the book can be viewed as a justification for Comey’s aspiration to ethical leadership.

But is he eyeing a high political office, positioning himself as an ethical rock in the political divide of present-day America? Or is he just stimulating debate?

This is not clear. But he does not hold back. He has no qualms in comparing Trump to a Mafia boss. Or saying that Trump does not understand ethical leadership. Or that the Russians could have a scandalous hold on him, involving prostitutes in a Moscow hotel. He just does not know. Big statements. Heady criticism of a president.

But the book does not convince that Comey has the lofty ideals he expects from Trump. Nowhere is this more evident than in his handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail saga.

On July 5 2016, halfway through a divisive US election, Comey announced that the FBI would level no criminal charges relating to Clinton’s emails. On October 28, just more than a week before the election, Comey said the FBI was again investigating Clinton as new information had come to light. He retracted this two days before the election.

The damage was done. Clinton, leading the polls, lost the election, causing Comey to feel "slightly nauseous" that his actions might have had an effect on the result. But he would not have done it differently.

Ironically, he makes it clear that the FBI has always followed the dictum to avoid, if possible, any action that could affect an election result. Therefore, his announcement on October 28 was necessary, "because to remain silent would have been an affirmative act of concealment, which would mean the director of the FBI had misled the American people".

Contrast this stance with the FBI investigation of the Russian collusion allegations. Comey admits the FBI was worried about clear evidence of Russian interference in the election to benefit Trump. But there was no announcement to Congress. No statement that the investigation could involve Trump.

Evil has an ordinary face. It laughs, it cries, it deflects, it rationalises, it makes great pasta. Surviving a bully requires constant learning and adaptation

What transpired was a lot of hand-wringing and sleepless nights as he grappled with what to do about the Russians as Trump upped the tempo against "crooked Hillary". But with Clinton’s e-mails these qualms were not apparent.

Comey’s actions are therefore sure to raise questions about a subliminal negative bias towards the Clintons. There is plenty of evidence of this in the book, with him questioning former president Bill Clinton’s controversial decision to pardon rogue trader Marc Rich. And he insinuates former US attorney-general Loretta Lynch was not as independent as she should have been towards the Clintons.

Throughout the book certain themes are addressed, such as leadership, patriotism and putting the truth first.

Comey’s fight against the Mafia taught him that they were bullies, he writes. "Evil has an ordinary face. It laughs, it cries, it deflects, it rationalises, it makes great pasta." And, he says: "Surviving a bully requires constant learning and adaptation." Fully three quarters of the book relates to Comey’s formative years, prosecuting Mafia figures and Martha Stewart, among others. But all of this is just a precursor, a road of inexorable progression through the labyrinthine political theatre that is America, towards the day he finally meets Trump.

Though there are interesting reflections on Comey’s interactions with former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, Trump only comes to the fore in the last quarter of the book — as the epitome of unethical behaviour.

No president is above the law. But allegations must clearly rest on proof. Innuendo is not enough. Both Clinton and Trump have reason to be aggrieved by Comey’s actions. The unpalatable fact is that, by trying to be scrupulously fair, Comey crossed a line towards a presidential candidate which could have dire consequences for the US and the world.

Perhaps Comey is not a slime ball. But he is also not the paragon of virtue he wishes to convey, his views appearing somewhat self-serving.

Striking a pose that ethical leadership is the cornerstone of any management style is a slippery slope. Especially for an FBI director, whose duty is to combat ordinary crime. Therein probably lies the real message of the book, contrary to what Comey wanted to convey.

 

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