When the long-term story of the Trump administration is eventually written — however short-term his presidency might end up being — James B. Comey may be cast as a secondary player with good intentions and horrible timing.
His last-minute decision to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails just before the 2016 presidential election was one of several variables that seem to have contributed to her thin defeat but probably wouldn’t have made much difference for the result if he had done it weeks earlier or later. Now Comey’s memoir is coming out at what appears to be the peak of a crescendo of bad news for Trump that makes him as likely to try to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as he has been since, well, he fired Comey.
Even more remarkable than Comey’s apparent ability to pinball through history saying what he intends to be the right thing at precisely the wrong time is the reaction to it from Trump and his supporters: a venal mix of hypocrisy and desperate attempts to convince Americans that the former FBI director is a liar — that up is down, and down is up.
Comey’s decision to bring up Trump’s apparent obsession with the allegations in Christopher Steele’s dossier that a video exists of Trump watching prostitutes urinate on each other is being framed by Trump allies as Comey “settling scores” for Trump’s behavior toward him — an ignominious firing without the courtesy of a face-to-face dismissal, followed by repeated disparagements of Comey’s career. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where anything Comey wrote would not be construed as vindictiveness by Trump partisans. In Trumpland, the only acceptable stance is public agreement with the president, even if the president is maligning your career, values and integrity with no basis to do so — and even if you may have helped hand him the presidency in the first place.
Even people who should know better seem to have internalized this propagandistic pablum. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted that Comey should have resigned if he thought the president was a congenital liar, and if he believed that, then “Why did he work for Trump?” Fleischer was quickly reminded that FBI employees do not work for the president; they work for the country and serve to uphold the values of the Constitution. Where the president deviates from those values or actively subverts them, they have a moral obligation to side with the country over the president.
This, of course, speaks to a key mechanism the Trump administration has used to deflect criticism, which is to conflate the president with the country and suggest that any criticism of the president is an assault on America.
If public servants like Comey believed that, we would have a government that reflected the will of a single individual, however weak, misguided, corrupt or incompetent, and it would collapse with every administrative turnover. And if everyone who believed Trump was a congenital liar resigned, who would be left?
The new book, and Comey’s associated publicity tour, is a giant splash of lighter fluid on this week’s Trump administration conflagration, one that was already well-tindered by Monday’s raid on the home and office of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the persistent existence of Stormy Daniels in general, another potential tabloid payoff, and an assortment of other disasters that do not bode well for the president. In his memoir, Comey compares the administration to a forest fire, but at this point, it’s not merely combustible, it’s potentially explosive — and if Trump’s anger level is already at an all-time high, the book was the last thing he needed.
It’s hard to blame Comey for that, though — book publication dates don’t generally follow the minute-by-minute fluctuations of the news cycle. And at any rate, Comey’s most explosive claims appear to be observations that have been made before and facts that have already verified elsewhere. For example, when Comey compares Trump to a mob boss, he’s not saying anything that hasn’t been documented elsewhere, much of it for decades. A representative line from an article in the April 1991 issue of Spy magazine: “A mobster who knew Trump socially said of him once, ‘he’d lie to you about what time of day it is — just for the practice.’ ” Comey isn’t even the first Republican to make that comparison.
But to the Trumpist die-hards, any criticism is a provocation, no matter how plain and irrefutable its validity or veracity. The speaker does not matter, only that what the speaker is saying is oppositional. This is how the GOP performs the sort of moral contortions that led the party to create a website, lyincomey.com, with the explicit purpose of smearing the former FBI director, a registered Republican, ahead of publication of his book.
It’s unclear whether Republicans in Congress feel this way, considering that some of them viewed Comey’s firing as an attempt on the president’s part to avoid accountability, but they are not pushing back. The party at large is taking a cue from Trump, who has a habit of accusing his enemies of things he has done — even the Sunday school-teacher types like Comey, who are so far outside the model of corruption and dishonesty that Trump embodies that they seem like an entirely different species.
Trump is happy to extend and exacerbate this toxic dynamic, and he tweeted Friday that Comey was a “slime ball” and a “terrible director of the FBI,” a “proven LEAKER and LIAR,” and baselessly and falsely accused him of leaking classified information and perjuring himself. Aside from the fact that at least two of these claims would be a slam-dunk defamation claim for Comey if they were made by anyone but the president — who apparently believes that there are no consequences for anything he says, no matter how destructive and false — many of the epithets Trump attaches to Comey are the ones most frequently and accurately applied to the president. He is a prolific fabulist who produces falsehoods at such volume that it might be easier to catalogue the occasions where he accidentally says something that’s true, and whose habit of leaking to the news media became so ingrained and regular that he invented a pseudonym to better facilitate it.
And Trump’s allies are willing and happy to enable the smears. Sean Hannity, whose entire raison d’etre now appears to be defending the president, maligned Comey, who has prosecuted many members of the mafia over the course of his career, as someone who doesn’t know what a real mob boss looks like. (Hannity himself has prosecuted exactly zero members of the mafia and is predictably convinced that mob bosses look like Hillary Clinton.) Former Trump adviser and intelligence pseudo-expert Sebastian Gorka repeated the slur that Comey is a liar, and called CNN reporters “perverts” for good measure. Jason Miller, former Trump senior communications adviser, suggested on CNN that Comey’s practice of taking notes after meeting with Trump was “vindictive,” even though note-taking in these meetings is standard procedure for FBI officials. In a briefing Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders described Comey’s firing as one of Trump’s greatest achievements and called him a “disgraced partisan hack,” an appellation that seems destined to be applied more rigorously to herself.
There’s irony in the GOP response: The central thesis of Comey’s book is that the steady stream of lies coming out of the Oval Office is damaging to democracy, and there’s no evidence that Comey has lied about anything. The notion that “Comey is a liar” is less the view of mainstream Republicans than an attempt by the president’s supporters to redefine “lie” as any assertion of inconvenient information, no matter how easily or obviously verifiable. In Trump’s formulation, a lie is not a fabrication of fact or a statement intended to mislead; it’s anything that offends his sensibilities or those of his cronies. The result is an almost Orwellian algorithm: If what’s said is true but unflattering to the president, it’s a lie. If what’s said is a lie but flatters the president, it’s true.
Even this simple binary fails when confronted with contradicting statements, both of which are unflattering to the president. Late Friday afternoon, Trump took the opportunity to call someone else a liar in all-caps on Twitter — three times in succession, with exclamation marks — following the release of a report by the Department of Justice’s inspector general stating that former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was fired because he “lacked candor” about conversations with members of the media and misled investigators. Trump also fired McCabe, and the report is convenient in the sense that it allows Trump to call McCabe part of a “den of thieves and lowlifes” with some credibility. But it’s inconvenient in the sense that the report is also based on Comey’s assertions about what happened with McCabe. This is the Catch-22 for the president: If you believe that McCabe lied to Comey, you have to believe that Comey told the truth.
And the truth matters, because Comey is right: There is no value to democracy in entrenching an individual’s mistakes and protecting the president’s reputation at the expense of the country and our values. And even if it feels inconvenient right now, that message is still better delivered than not. There’s no bad time to remind Americans that its leaders do not get to construct an alternate reality and demand that everyone else live in it. A lie is still a lie, by the standard definitions, and even the president can’t change that.