What does the FBI director do when he suspects the president is a manipulative liar? The answer in James B. Comey’s case is that he writes memos, tries to evade demands for loyalty — and anguishes about protecting himself and the FBI.
But by Comey’s own admission, perhaps he should have done more.
The big news had already surfaced before Comey’s appearance Thursday in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, with the release of his prepared testimony. What we got at the hearing was the raw morality play, told in Comey’s words, about his dealings with a president whose behavior frightened him.
“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document,” Comey said about his Jan. 6 meeting with President Trump. Comey had just briefed the president-elect, alone, about salacious, unverified details of a dossier alleging various Trump escapades in Moscow.
What troubled Comey, he said, was “the circumstances, the subject matter and the person I was interacting with.” As he left Trump Tower, he began writing a self-protective memo describing the encounter.
Comey was a compelling witness to the bullying behavior of this president. But Trump supporters can argue that the president’s hand was strengthened by Thursday’s “Super Bowl” hearing. Even as Comey chronicled his disturbing encounters with Trump, he also affirmed some important strands of the White House narrative.
Comey said that as of May, when he was fired, Trump was not personally under FBI investigation — offering, finally, the public acknowledgment Trump had been requesting so assiduously. Comey also said Trump had never ordered him to halt the overall FBI investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
And on the sensitive subject of leaks, Comey revealed that to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel,” he had used a cut-out to share with the New York Times details of a memo recounting Trump’s Feb. 14 request, “I hope you can let this go,” referring to the FBI investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Thursday’s hearing offered a haunting portrait of a moralist confronting a dealmaker. Comey conveyed his fastidious attention to ethics, and to his own reputation. He spoke of his “personal pain” in dealing with the Hillary Clinton investigation, his concern for morale if FBI agents heard that Trump “wants [the Flynn investigation] to go away.”
He wrote memos after his encounters and briefed his closest aides. But he didn’t take the evidence of what he saw as Trump’s wrongdoing to Justice Department superiors or congressional oversight committees.
It was “Pilgrim’s Progress” meets “House of Cards” when Comey arrived for a one-on-one dinner at the White House on Jan. 27. Comey described his fear that Trump wanted to create a “patronage” debt by making Comey ask for his FBI job. He said that Trump might have similarly hoped to induce an obligation in a March 30 phone call suggesting that he hadn’t questioned the Democratic political ties of the wife of Comey’s deputy. As Trump stressed so baldly, in Comey’s telling, he wanted loyalty — much as a feudal lord might seek allegiance from his barons.
Comey imagined that by offering Trump only “honest loyalty” during the dinner, he had diluted his demand. But in their last phone call, on April 11, Trump protested: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” Comey didn’t push back. He wrote another memo.
The most poignant moments in Thursday’s hearing were Comey’s reflections on what he might have done differently. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked why he hadn’t rejected outright Trump’s “hope” that he close the Flynn investigation, Comey answered: “Maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance. . . . Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.”
Later Comey was pressed about why he accommodatingly told Trump in the March 30 call that he “would see what we could do” to lift the “cloud” of the Russia investigation. He conceded that his response was “a slightly cowardly way . . . of getting off the phone, frankly.”
What is it about being FBI director that makes people so concerned about image, yet unable to be entirely independent of the politicians they serve? That’s been part of the bureau’s history ever since J. Edgar Hoover. Comey couldn’t escape it.
Comey’s personal ethical dilemmas are now interwoven with the nation’s political history. It’s the stuff of high drama — the temporizing ethicist meets the amoral bulldozer. The story didn’t have a happy ending for Comey — or, it seems, for the country.