James Comey's 'A Higher Loyalty' Is a Study in Contradictions, Inside and Out

The former FBI director's memoir is about life, leadership and undoing all of the above

James Comey and Donald Trump at the White House on January 22, 2017. Credit: Shutterstock

One of the odder bits of the public controversy surrounding President Trump and the Russia investigation is how Robert Mueller, James Comey and Andrew McCabe have become lumped together, as if all three G-men were the same. The president made that accusation explicit on Friday, tweeting "McCabe is Comey!!" But actually, the 48 hours that unfolded on Thursday and Friday laid bare just how different the three men truly are: In fact, it seems increasingly clear that perhaps the only thing they really share is that all three are lifelong Republicans.

James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, will be officially released on Tuesday, but the juicy bits began to leak Thursday. The former FBI director’s memoir has been highly anticipated for months – each pending media interview trumpeted anew – and news from the book happened to coincide with the release Friday by the Justice Department’s inspector general of a harsh report accusing Comey’s deputy, McCabe, with lying to Comey and to investigators. Whether or not the IG report represents the full truth – and there’s good reason to believe it doesn’t – there likely will be little love lost between McCabe and Comey, who provided the key testimony to the inspector general that led to McCabe’s firing last month just hours before he was to retire with his full pension.

Similarly, having now read Higher Loyalty, it is impossible to imagine Robert Mueller writing the book that Comey did, one that places himself at the center of the drama and in which all the supporting players exist as incomplete stubs – with one notable exception, the "slightly orange" man with "impressively coiffed, bright blond hair which upon close inspection look to be all his," who would ultimately fire him. Mueller, for his part, would edit his speeches as FBI director to excise the phrase "I," striking it throughout a text and replacing it with "we."

Comey’s tale is about the "I," not the "we." In fact, the gregarious Comey – quick with a laugh and a 1,000-watt smile – explains in detail how different his leadership style was from the strait-laced former Marine Robert Mueller he replaced. He explains that his first action on his first day as FBI director – wearing a blue shirt – was meant to make clear he departed from Mueller, who always wore a white shirt and insisted his leadership team did the same. "I said nothing about my shirt, but people noticed," Comey writes.

Higher Loyalty offers almost as much criticism of Mueller’s top-down leadership style at the FBI as it does praise for Mueller’s own unfailing moral compass, which Comey drew upon in the midst of the "Stellar Wind" controversy over the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program that seemed, at least until the 2016 presidential campaign, to be the most dramatic moment of Comey’s career.

Most Americans will never go beyond the juicy bits trumpeted by the wall-to-wall Comey coverage this week – but they should. James Comey’s book is more interesting and more important than the gossipy headlines make it out to be, albeit not necessarily for the reasons the author may have wanted.

Comey is a hero to the #resistance left today in a way that seems inexplicable to those who have followed his career. Let me be clear here about my own biases: I believe James Comey is a decent and principled man and that he was a good FBI director – and had the potential, had he served longer, even to become a great one. I’ve spent hours with him talking over the central crises of his government service in the 2000s while I researched my own history of the FBI post-9/11 and Robert Mueller’s time as director, and he was a core part of my book. I’ve followed his career closely since, sat through his confirmation hearing to be FBI director, and later profiled Comey at his one-year mark at the job, back when the conceit of the piece was just how low-profile he was being. (And, though I haven’t spoken to Comey since his departure from the FBI, I used to work with his literary agent and provided him with Comey's contact information after the FBI director was fired last May.)

Had the 2016 campaign not intervened and Comey never been dismissed by Trump and, instead, had he served out his 10-year term as an outspoken FBI director who liked picking philosophical fights on issues such as encryption and racial bias in policing – the two topics he was best known for prior to the campaign – he would have likely written a career-capstone book not unlike that of Admiral William McRaven’s Make Your Bed, tracing his accumulated life leadership lessons.

Leadership – and particularly transparency – have been at the heart of Comey’s professional interests for decades, a personal study shaped by his time at the Justice Department as well as the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, which practices, as he says, "a culture of complete transparency and honesty," and whose founder Ray Dalio penned his own bestselling business leadership treatise last year. Higher Loyalty is filled with little tidbits like how Comey asked members of the FBI leadership to share their favorite Halloween candy. "I worked to build an atmosphere of trust by encouraging leaders to tell the truth about something personal," he writes. Those leadership lessons are, in some ways, clearly the book that Comey wishes he could have written if life had turned out normal.

But the fact that his memoir of his tenure as the shortest-serving of the FBI’s six directors is a national, headline-grabbing event is because of what begins on page 159: The story of the intertwined mess of Hillary Clinton’s email investigation, the 2016 campaign, Russia’s unprecedented attack on the election and his firing by President Trump.

The only reason we’re all reading this story is because of Donald Trump, a character who is mentioned only late in the book but whose presence looms on nearly every page. "We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country, with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused or rewarded," Comey writes on the book’s opening page.

On social media, Comey has mastered the "subtweet," the comment about one thing that’s clearly about another. It’s hard not to read most of the first half of the book – in which Comey cites his own encounters with schoolyard bullies, the Italian cosa nostra, Martha Stewart and weak principled leaders like Alberto Gonzales – as one long subtweet about the ethical compass of the final president he served. "Some of the most satisfying work I did as a prosecutor, in fact, was putting bullies of all kinds in jail, free good people from their tyranny," Comey writes.


In that sense, Higher Loyalty is really three different books in one. It's a meditation on ethical leadership (a conceit that disappears for scores of pages at a time), a traditional memoir of a senior public servant and an exposition of Trump’s presidency and the pair’s now infamous meetings at the White House and telephone calls where the president – at least to Comey’s ears – tried to exact a loyalty pledge and have the FBI director "let go" the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

It’s an obviously hurried project – in places, even the page numbers in the index are wrong – and one that perhaps would have benefited from more distance for self-reflection. It’s not that Comey is blind to the criticism that surrounds his public persona of the last two years – the fear that he might be seen as too "sanctimonious" appears in the second sentence of the book, and on the second page, he admits, "I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego."

Yet even as he recognizes his own shortcomings, Comey falls far short of the "radical transparency" that he once embraced at Bridgewater and that he says guided his actions during the 2016 campaign, where he erred on being open about the FBI’s decisions, despite that going against decades of Justice Department norms. Even though the lanky Comey chronicles and analyzes his own white lies of assent when asked in elevators if he ever played basketball (one of the 10 entries in the aforementioned index listed under "lying," including "acceptance of," "about basketball," "by Clinton, B.," "about FBI," "in Mafia," and, of course, "by Trump, D."), Comey stops well short of the thorough and full-throated explanation of his own actions throughout the 2016 campaign that so many Americans hunger for.

I believe Comey’s sense of duty and personal code misled him at a critical moment in our country’s history, and that in trying to be "by the book," he in fact departed fundamentally from it, crossing over an important line to assume the unwarranted role of both investigator and prosecutor. I believe, too, that Comey believes he consistently did the right thing for the right reasons throughout 2016. That said, he doesn’t do a good job of convincing readers why he did what he did – those seeking insights into his decisions over the course of 2016 will likely find themselves disappointed by his accounting and reckoning with those actions in this book.

By now, the controversial Trump meetings he outlines – the odd telephone calls, the Oval Office pull-aside, the awkward dinner in the Green Room – have all been well-trod, including by Comey’s own testimony last summer, and contrary to all the hyped excerpts, there seems to be precious little in terms of revelations in those spaces.

More unfortunately, though, it doesn’t move us as far as it could towards understanding what transpired inside the FBI over the course of the 2016 campaign. Where Comey could have provided fresh insight and helped us to understand the decisions that he, his leadership, and the Obama administration made, he often stops short.

Instead, much of the book – too much, in truth – takes place in the blank spaces in between, glossed over as so much yadda yadda yadda. Somewhere in between pages 190 and 191 exists the entire summer of internal government debate over whether – and how – to go public with news of the Russia investigation in 2016. Comey portrays himself and the FBI as all-but passive players in the debate – despite the fact that the DNC hack was an FBI investigation, the bureau a critical player in the discussions. 

The head-scratching decision that the FBI didn’t ultimately see a need to add Comey's name to the government's October 7, 2016, announcement of Russia’s influence campaign is dispensed with in a few sentences. At the time of the release, the lack of Comey’s name engendered all manner of conspiracy theories about whether he ultimately agreed with the conclusions of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. But Comey's superficial argument for withholding his own signature, even though he agreed with the statement, is baffling. "Adding the FBI's name would change nothing and be inconsistent with the way we hoped to operate on the eve of the election," he writes, a statement which seemingly undermines his own actions later in the month when he would announce the political bombshell that the FBI was reopening the Clinton email investigation. Similarly, the month-long lag in deciding how to tackle Anthony Weiner’s laptop, a lag that pushed a conversation from six weeks before the election to just two weeks before the election, is dealt with in all-but a parenthetical. 


Moreover, there are core inconsistencies in Comey’s own explanations of his behavior: While making clear that the FBI could never consider whether its actions might help elect Donald Trump, he fails to reconcile that with his stated desire to act to preserve the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton’s impending victory.

In general, Comey dismisses criticism of his July 5, 2016, press conference announcing that the bureau would not recommend charges against Clinton as Washington partisanship. He makes clear that he felt he was in a lose-lose situation, but argues that the problem was his alone to solve, given how compromised Attorney General Loretta Lynch was amid both the public news of her tarmac meeting with President Bill Clinton and some undescribed and unverified "classified" information about Lynch that the FBI feared might leak. (Although he doesn’t say it, it’s likely this document.) The truth, of course, is more complicated; Comey – who admits later on how he targetedly leaked his Trump memos to help force the appointment of a special counsel in the Russia matter – could have advocated for Lynch to recuse herself, to place the decision in the hands of career prosecutors like Sally Yates and other nonpartisan officials at the DOJ who are used to handling sensitive political investigations.

Interestingly, too, Andrew McCabe is all but a ghost in the book until the day Comey is fired, despite McCabe’s central role in the controversies around the Clinton email investigation (codenamed inside the bureau as MIDYEAR EXAM) and the Trump-Russia counterintelligence investigation. It's an omission so marked that it comes across as an almost intentional slight – like how Vice President Cheney and Karl Rove merit barely a mention in President George W. Bush’s presidential museum in Dallas.

Meanwhile, some of the most important passages are so subtle that a lay reader would likely miss them: Kathy Ruemmler, Obama’s White House counsel, sits in carefully during Comey’s two meetings with the president as he’s interviewed for FBI director, a role and presence meant to ensure that the conversation stays appropriate and the FBI maintains its independence. By contrast, Attorney General Jeff Sessions bows out of the Oval Office after being dismissed by President Trump so that the commander-in-chief could be alone to pressure the FBI director to drop the Flynn investigation.

Comey’s book is strongest at its simplest, when it’s just a straightforward memoir of a lawyer who has risen through the ranks of the Justice Department to be inside some of the most interesting crises of the post-9/11 era. It’s filled with the fun, anodyne details that make Washington memoirs so human: How the 6-foot, 8-inch Comey, used to ducking to enter the Situation Room’s low doorway, miscalculated one day while wearing a taller-than-normal pair of shoes and cracked his head on the door jamb, and then spent the briefing hoping President George W. Bush wouldn’t notice that his head was bleeding. Or how the famously prudish John Ashcroft chastised him for using the word "turd" in another meeting. And the background it provides on Jim Comey, the person, is richer and more complex than anything we’ve seen before. Comey includes a detailed account of when a rapist held him and his brother hostage at gunpoint, as well as the heart-wrenching story of how his family – including his wife, Patrice, who comes across as perhaps the book’s most likable, straight-talking hero – grappled with the preventable death of one of their sons as an infant.

It’s clear from almost every page – and from everything that we know about his life in public and private – that Comey believes deeply in the mission and importance of the work of the Department of Justice, an agency founded by Ulysses S. Grant to help protect southern blacks during Reconstruction.

In one of the book's most poignant sections, he discusses how he used to stress to new prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York how they were stepping into a centuries-old line of men and women who had stood in courtrooms and advocated for the United States, assuming a position that required and demanded the utmost in integrity, as judges and jurors needed to trust their words and their actions. "Total strangers were going to believe what they said," he says he would explain to the "they" in question, his team. "It would happen because of those who had gone before them and, through hundreds of promises made and kept, and hundreds of truths told and errors instantly corrected, built something for them. I called it a reservoir. I told them it was a reservoir of trust and credibility built for you and filled for you by people you never knew, by those who are long gone."

The bitter irony now is that Comey finds himself in a position where he is responsible for poking holes in that reservoir of trust, for launching the FBI not once, not twice, but three times in the 2016 election on a path that made the American people question whether the nation’s premier law enforcement agency was, in fact, putting a thumb on the electoral scale and weighing in where it shouldn’t.

That’s a legacy he would have to own today even if Hillary Clinton had won, even if he was still ensconced on the seventh floor of the Hoover Building, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Trump International Hotel. But of course that’s not what happened. And so while the only true villain of Comey’s book is President Trump – the man who bears so much responsibility for exacerbating the nation’s poisonous partisanship and trying to undermine our democratic institutions – James Comey shares blame for putting Trump in a position to do it. Comey’s own sense of duty and lifelong study of consistent ethical leadership appears to have failed him at the moment America most needed it.

Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is the author of The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI. He can be reached at garrett.graff@gmail.com.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders says Comey will "be forever known as a disgraced partisan hack" after the publication of his book. Watch here.