Most of us have failed to deliver a good comeback right when we needed it. Few of us ever get the chance to deliver that belated coup de grace in the form of a book, as James Comey has.
Kicking off his publicity tour Sunday night in advance of Tuesday’s release of A Higher Loyalty, the former FBI director offered his first substantive television interview since President Trump abruptly fired him last May, paving the way for the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. At various moments, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos seemed genuinely stunned that Comey hadn’t offered a strong riposte when Trump either demanded his personal loyalty or, rather transparently, asked him to end the investigation into Michael Flynn, the disgraced ex-national security adviser who would eventually plead guilty to lying to the FBI.
"Should you have said more there?" Stephanopoulos asked Comey. "Should you have said, 'Mr. President, I can't discuss this with you. You're doing something improper?'" Comey conceded that was a fair critique, as he did earlier when Stephanopoulos brought up his similarly shady dinner with the president. When Trump allegedly demanded personal loyalty, Comey promised honesty. After the president offered a confounding compromise – "honest loyalty" – Comey says he remembers saying, "You’ll get that from me." Asked whether he crossed a line by conceding that to Trump, the former FBI director allows that "maybe I should’ve been tougher or more direct." At about the same time that the ABC broadcast went on the air, USA Today published its own Comey interview. The same issue arises. "It might have been a mistake," he said when asked why he told Trump that he wasn’t under investigation.
This is as close as Comey has so far come to admitting that he screwed up by not standing up to Trump more effectively. In addition, Comey hasn’t lived down releasing a memo days before Election Day 2016 about the FBI reopening its probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails. He is still catching hell over the subsequent revelation that the bureau was indeed looking at Trump and his campaign at the same time. As he did when revisiting his wasted opportunities with Trump, Comey equivocated just enough to both affirm his own integrity and to intrigue the audience enough to buy his book.
Rather than apologize, Comey instead invites us to empathize with him – for the low price of $29.99. "What I would hope is that they would, by reading the book, come with me to October 28th," he told Stephanopoulos. "Come with me, and sit there with me." Despite warning us anew of the urgent threat that this president poses to the republic, Comey seems not to have fully understood, going into these interviews, that the public would insist upon as much accountability from himself as from Trump. He cannot assume that he is suddenly the "good guy" in our simplified political paradigm just because the majority of the country likes what he’s saying now and trusts him more than the man whom he declared "morally unfit" for office.
It is notable that in an unaired portion of the ABC interview, Comey waxes on about the time that he, as acting Attorney General in 2004, stood up to Vice President Dick Cheney’s insistence upon illegal spying. Even as Cheney reportedly bellowed that "thousands of people are going to die because of what you're doing," Comey claims that he stood firm and even subverted a Bush White House attempt to get a hospitalized John Ashcroft, the Attorney General whose severe illness put Comey in charge of the Justice Department, to sign off on the surveillance program. Either Comey has gotten softer in recent years, or the demands Trump made so disoriented him that he was struck all but dumb. Though his testimony to Congress last June was compelling and appreciated by those who care about exposing this president’s assorted improprieties, he wasn’t critiquing Trump with the kind of abandon – saying that the president treats women like "meat" and that he is a "stain" on those around him – that we find in the book and during this publicity tour. It is fascinating, indeed, that Comey rediscovered his ability to effectively rebuke the president only after publishers came calling.
I’ll grant that Comey’s shock and awe at the president’s foibles and flaws, as performed in these interviews and in various book excerpts, has been somewhat refreshing. It is a fresh splash of water in our faces as we risk growing numb to this president’s daily stupidities. But his outrage is hardly original. In writing this book, Comey expects us to value the fact that he is the new messenger of this anger and indignation, given his past position. But if his reputation is meant to be a selling point, he has another thing coming. He’d be well served by dropping some of the sanctimony and self-righteousness inherent in his book’s title, and grasping the depth of the damage he’s done – not simply with the Clinton memo, but by failing to resist Trump more effectively while he had more power.
The former FBI director may be indeed serving the interests of the United States by further exposing this charlatan of a president. Similar to those words that Comey wished he’d said to Trump, though, it all may be too late to make a difference anywhere but in his own bank account.