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James B. Comey: A Zen-like tweeter, revered as a Trump troll

Former FBI chief James B. Comey put an end to online rumors when he confirmed Oct. 23 that he is the owner of a Twitter account with the name Reinhold Niebuhr. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

“But justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” Amos 5:24

— from the Book of @Comey, verse 27, Dec. 1, 2017

Amen Mr. Comey

— Book of @Comey, verse 27, reply thread

The former FBI director trolling Trump on twitter. What a f—-ing time to be alive.

— Book of @Comey, verse 27, reply thread

The Twitter prophet James B. Comey has written exactly 28 verses, going back to his early anonymous tweets under the handle “Reinhold Niebuhr” and continuing into the present day as @Comey.

The word “Trump” does not appear in Comey’s original words, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you’ve studied the voluminous interpretive texts that supplement his canon, written mainly by contemporary tweeters and newspaper scholars.

In the example above — which Comey tweeted minutes after President Trump’s former national security adviser pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents — many  analysts saw a coded warning that “justice” is finally rolling down on Trump’s administration.

There’s a popular theory among Comey’s disciples that his tweets, which take the form of simple quotations and photos of trees, should not be read literally, nor in a political vacuum.

Rather, the theory goes, the mystic writings of former FBI director James B. Comey aimed squarely at our political leaders — and at the president who fired him, in particular.

We have divided Comey’s verses into two chronological volumes in the compendium below: the Book of Niebuhr, and the latter-day Book of @Comey.

The Book of Niebuhr (verses 1-13)

Comey began his Twitter work in secrecy in 2014, when he was still employed as director of the FBI. His account might have remained unknown to the world if not for a chance remark during a speech in March:

I’m on Twitter now. I have to be on Twitter,” Comey said.

From that oration, and a few details he let slip about his anonymous account, a Gizmodo scholar deduced that Comey had been active on Twitter for three years under the alias Reinhold Niebuhr.

He had not published a single tweet on the account, but even his chosen alias inspired a flurry of analysis.

The actual Reinhold Niebuhr was a well-known theologian from the early 20th Century, and this represented to the New Yorker “the compote of ideas, personality, influence, and moral virtue that prompts Comey and people like him to go into government work in the first place.”

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As The Washington Post noted, a younger Comey had studied the theologian in college and had even written this in his thesis: “For Niebuhr the true prophet is an internationalist who casts all national pretensions in the light of divine judgment.”

A true prophet.

You could argue Comey came to resemble something like that to thousands of people who flocked to his Twitter account after its existence was revealed.

Comey issued his first tweet, as Niebuhr, a day after he was outed. Verse 1 consisted simply of an “Anchorman” meme and a single word: “”

It might have lacked the eloquence of tweets to come, but so began the tradition of Comey’s hidden messages — in this case a sly acknowledgment that the director of the FBI was indeed the man behind “Reinhold Niebuhr.”

Trump abruptly fired Comey several weeks later, causing speculation that the president was trying to squash an investigation the FBI director had been leading into the Russian government’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

Comey’s second tweet, issued months after his firing, was a cryptic, Zen-like passage that some saw as a direct warning to Trump.

(Archivist’s note: All of Comey’s early tweets have since been altered to display his true name. The original signature, “Reinhold Niebuhr,” has sadly been lost to history.)

An amateur analyst in the reply thread below this tweet noted that the American Revolution-era traitor Benedict Arnold had plotted to hand West Point to a hostile nation.

Similarly, when Comey tweeted a picture of pelicans in verse 5, a commenter saw an allusion to a novel called “The Pelican Brief,” in which the president interferes with an FBI investigation.

It’s possible that these early analyses went too far. They may have represented nothing more than an unemployed man’s thoughts about his holiday.

But as Comey’s verses piled onto one another throughout October, and reverent commenters pored over and analyzed each one, an unmistakable pattern emerged.

On Oct. 30 — hours after Trump’s former campaign manager was indicted by the special prosecutor who took over the Russia investigation — Comey, as Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote his ninth tweet, quoting Niebuhr himself:

Now it was not just random commenters who saw a hidden message, but the international press.

The Independent declared the next day: “James B. Comey has trolled Donald Trump on Twitter.”

The Book of @Comey (verses 14-28)

Comey admitted to writing the Niebuhr tweets in late October.

The next month he abandoned his anonymous handles — @projectexile7 and @FormerBu — and wrote his 14th verse as @Comey, or simply “James Comey.”

Breaking with his cryptic reputation, Comey even descended into his Twitter stream to explain that photo of rocks.

“I included the picture of the Great Falls of the Potomac because I like it and because it reminds me of my favorite scripture verse, from Amos,” he wrote. “’But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’”

As Kristine Phillips wrote for The Post: “The tweets may seem innocuous to someone who had not been following the news.”

But hours earlier, Trump had called Comey a liar.

A week later (verse 20, if anyone’s still counting), Comey quoted one of Trump’s predecessors, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to write that “unquestionable integrity” was the first quality of leadership.

By then, his meaning could be lost on no one.

Verse 25: James B. Comey tweets about freedom of the press minutes after Trump attacks CNN

His little Twitter verses and their deep meaning continue up to present day — 28 and counting as of Friday.

Soon, they could spread beyond the Internet: The fired FBI-chief-turned-Twitter-prophet-turned-possible-Trump-troll has a book coming out.

The jacket description is vague, but the title might be a clue:

“A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.”

This post, originally published Nov. 20, has been updated.

Read more:

‘Let justice roll down’: James Comey is subtweeting Michael Flynn with the Bible

Why did James B. Comey name his secret Twitter account ‘Reinhold Niebuhr’? Here’s what we know.

James B. Comey, called a ‘liar’ and ‘leaker’ by Trump, tweets a quote about truth and justice