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In his new book, James Comey calls for ‘ethical leadership.’ But does he live up to it?

Review of 'A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership" by James B. Comey

Former FBI director James B. Comey details his conversations with President Trump in his new book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” (Video: Patrick Martin, Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

A HIGHER LOYALTY: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

By James Comey

Flatiron Books. 304 pp. $29.99

James B. Comey has written the Washington Book of the Moment, but he clearly does not want “A Higher Loyalty” to simply be one more Washington book of the moment. This is no “Game Change” or, God forbid, “Fire and Fury,” insider tales gauged by the scores they settle, nuggets they unearth and screenplays they elicit. One look at its austere cover and ponderous subtitle and you know this is meant as a lasting, highbrow work — a big-think story of values and institutions clashing with tribalism and self-interest in Washington.

Running through the book, a sort of geek chorus, is Comey’s doctrine of “ethical leadership,” an often preachy and sometimes profound collection of principles that he believes should govern those who govern. “A Higher Loyalty” is the brand extension of James Comey: the upright citizen turned philosopher, the lawman as thought leader. “Values — like truth, integrity, and respect for others, to name just a few — serve as external reference points for ethical leaders to make decisions,” Comey writes. “Ethical leaders choose a higher loyalty to those core values over their own personal gain.”

In his years as a prosecutor, Justice Department official and FBI director, Comey attempts to live out such values, whereas President Trump embodies their antitheses. “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values,” he writes. “His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty.” Yet Comey understands that side-by-side comparisons are not a true measure of leadership, that leaders should be assessed against their own best performances and highest aspirations. “Ethical leaders do not run from criticism, especially self-criticism,” he writes, “and they don’t hide from uncomfortable questions.”

So let’s pose one: Does Comey live up to the standards of ethics and leadership he outlines in this book?
Comey, one of the few former Trump-era officials not fired on Twitter, does provide lots of scenes, backstory and details, many of which have been exhaustively reported in the frenzy surrounding the book’s coming publication. What he was thinking during those one-on-ones with President Trump? Check. Why he announced, 11 days before the 2016 election, that he was reopening the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails? Check. How it felt to learn he had lost his job by seeing it on television? Check. And how does he really view Attorney General Jeff Sessions (“overmatched”), former attorney general Loretta Lynch (“politically compromised”) and Barack Obama (“extraordinary listener”)? Check, check, check.

Yet one of the distinctions of “A Higher Loyalty” is that the newsiest elements appear fairly deep in the book. First, there is plenty about Comey’s childhood, his early career as a prosecutor in New York, and his time in Washington as a top Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration. This is a real memoir, with recollections and dilemmas building methodically, sometimes dramatically, toward his ethical leadership ideals. But even as chapters fly by without a mention of the current president, Trump hovers.

[In Michael Wolff’s book, the Trump White House is full of intrigue, and out of ideas]

He lurks in Comey’s schoolboy battles with bullies, for instance. “All bullies are largely the same,” he writes. “They threaten the weak to feed some insecurity that rages inside them.” Or in his days battling mafia families as U.S. attorney in Manhattan, a time that came back to him once he encountered team Trump. “As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor 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.”

When Comey cops to petty misdeeds, however, the self-criticism — and self-regard — is almost comical. At 6-feet-8, he used to lie about having played basketball for William & Mary, and he still feels bad about it. (After finishing law school, he reached out to friends and fessed up.) He once regifted a necktie to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “Because we considered ourselves people of integrity,” Comey explains solemnly, “I disclosed it was a regift as I handed him the tie.” And he congratulates himself for not exercising director’s prerogative and cutting in line at the FBI cafeteria. “Even when I was in a hurry. . . . I thought it was very important to show people that I’m not better than anyone else.”

But when the stakes rise, self-examination diminishes. On his decision to publicly denounce Clinton’s handling of classified information in her private emails in July 2016, Comey’s misgivings are cosmetic. He wishes he had organized the statement differently and explained early that no charges were warranted, and he wishes he had not characterized Clinton’s actions as “extremely careless” — even if “thoughtful lawyers” could understand what he meant. (Too bad thoughtful lawyers weren’t his only audience.)

The point of the statement was to level with the public. “We had offered transparency, tried to show the American people competence, honesty, and independence,” Comey explains. For all his talk of 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr — in the introduction, Comey quotes Niebuhr’s statement that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary” — the more relevant guru here may be Ray Dalio, founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. Comey served as its general counsel from 2010 to 2013 and grew to appreciate Dalio’s belief in “a culture of complete transparency and honesty,” Comey writes. “Transparency is almost always the best course.”

But when Comey decided to inform Congress that he was reopening the investigation in late October because additional Clinton-related emails had been found on the laptop of former representative Anthony Weiner, transparency was not Comey’s only motivation; his political assumptions played a role, too. “Assuming, as nearly everyone did, that Hillary Clinton would be elected president of the United States in less than two weeks, what would happen to the FBI, the Justice Department, or her own presidency if it later was revealed, after the fact, that she was still the subject of an FBI investigation?” It is possible, Comey acknowledges, that “my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls.”

It’s a startling admission for a man devoted to “serving institutions I love precisely because they play no role in politics, because they operate independently of the passions of the electoral process.” His interpretation of those passions may have led to one of the most consequential decisions of the 2016 race. He’s supposed to be by the book, not the poll.

[These books will help you hate Hillary Clinton. But only if you already do.]

Comey’s own ethical leadership suffers most in the book’s treatment of his one-time boss, former attorney general Loretta Lynch. He criticizes Lynch for asking him to describe the FBI’s Clinton investigation as a “matter” rather than investigation — an “overtly political” request, he explains. Fine. But then he says that his decision to excoriate Clinton’s actions resulted in part from some unverified classified materials that emerged in early 2016 and that, if publicly known, “would undoubtedly have been used by political opponents to cast serious doubt on the attorney general’s independence in connection with the Clinton investigation.” He insists that he personally never saw Lynch interfere, but he remains “bothered” by the existence of this classified information that someday could be used to “question the independence of the FBI.”

Of course, it is also bothersome that the former FBI director would cite vague information to imply wrongdoing by the nation’s top law-enforcement official, with the very nature of the information making it hard for her to respond. The Washington Post has reported that in 2016 the FBI received a Russian intelligence document citing an email in which Lynch supposedly assured the Clinton campaign that the investigation would not go too deep, but that the document was unreliable. For Comey to suggest that the attorney general “appeared politically compromised” without offering supportive evidence does not seem particularly ethical. And it does not seem like leadership.
You don’t serve as deputy attorney general and FBI director without being a Washington operator, and Comey has a good eye for life in the swamp. “I had gotten used to watching the world pass by through small dark bulletproof side windows,” he remarks, nicely capturing the distance and constraints of officialdom. When he first meets Obama, he is struck by his thinness, confidence and focus; when he first meets Trump, Comey realizes that he looks shorter than on television and — zinger alert — that his hands are smaller than Comey’s though not “unusually so.” And in the book’s funniest moment, he recalls President George W. Bush raising his hand to interrupt an Oval Office briefing so he could gaze out the window and watch Marine One blow snow all over the waiting press corps on the South Lawn. “Without any expression on his face at all, Bush turned back to me, dropping his hand. ‘Okay, go,’ he said.”

Such moments help “A Higher Loyalty” because it’s hard for Comey to make hard news with this book; the territory has been so well covered by copious reporting on his memos and his congressional testimony. Whatever we learn about Trump here emerges from Comey’s personal impressions and first-person anecdotes. After Comey briefed the president-elect on the infamous Russia dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, Trump became obsessed with its more salacious accusations. “I’m a germophobe,” he insists to Comey. “There’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me. No way.” And when Comey and top intelligence officials informed the Trump team about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump’s only question was self-serving: “But you found there was no impact on the result, right?”

[Think you remember every outrage of the Trump presidency? A new book will test you.]

Comey revisits his own big career moments — prosecuting mobsters, standing up to Vice President Dick Cheney and his consigliere David Addington over counterterrorism policies — with understandable pride. Yet he constantly worries he is too self-centered. “I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego,” he admits. “I’ve struggled with those my whole life.”

That struggle continues in this book. Comey isn’t just the kind of writer who quotes Shakespeare, but the kind who quotes himself quoting Shakespeare. He rejects the notion that “I am in love with my own righteousness” yet notes that “I have long worried about my ego.” (Consider the egotism of being preoccupied by your egotism.) “I am convinced that if I could do it all again, I would do the same thing” given what he knew at the time, Comey says of the emails controversy, even if “reasonable people” might have handled it differently. And he apologizes to Clinton in the least apologetic way possible: “I have read she has felt anger toward me personally, and I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do a better job explaining to her and her supporters why I made the decisions I made.” (Ironically, it’s a very Clintonian apology.)

For all his contempt for Trump — he decries “the forest fire that is the Trump presidency” — Comey concludes that the president’s behavior, while disturbing and dangerous, “may fall short of being illegal.” But he’s not here as a lawyer or investigator, this is Comey the philosopher. He laments Trump’s lack of self-reflection or self-awareness. “Listening to others who disagree with me and are willing to criticize me is essential to piercing the seduction of certainty,” Comey writes. “Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. . . . Those leaders who never think they are wrong, who never question their judgments or perspectives, are a danger to the organizations and people they lead.”

Trump is the most severe example of that tendency in this book. But he is not the only one.

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