Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale, is writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover.
In times of crisis, history can be a comfort, reminding us that our own era is not nearly as dire or unique as we might think. James B. Stewart’s new book, “Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law,” does the opposite: It’s a first draft of history that reminds us just how bizarre these times really are. A New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Stewart has assembled a gripping blow-by-blow account of President Trump’s years-long showdown with the FBI — from the first inklings of something about an email server through the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Readers will be familiar with the basic outlines: the election itself, the Trump-Russia investigation, the firing of FBI director James Comey, the release of the Steele dossier. But encountering it all smashed between the pages of a single book is a new experience, less the stop-start jerkiness of a tweetstorm than the slow-build dread of a dramatic tragedy.
The central character in this story is not Trump but Comey, a “man of unimpeachable integrity” and “natural charm,” in Stewart’s telling, caught in a situation not of his own making — at least at first. Stewart does his best to get into the mind of the FBI director during the critical months leading up to the election, when Comey faced, in his own words, choices that looked “really bad” on the one hand, and “catastrophic” on the other. Readers may or may not agree with Comey’s actions, especially his decision to notify Congress, just 11 days before the election, that he was reopening an investigation of Hillary Clinton because of emails found on the computer of former congressman Anthony Weiner, who was married to a top Clinton aide. But they will come away from Stewart’s book with a better sense of how and why it all happened — and what on earth everyone was thinking and weighing behind the scenes.
The book chronicles who said what to whom, moment by moment, in meetings and memos, in personal texts and dinners à deux at the White House. Stewart’s notes indicate that he conducted many interviews, but most were off the record. As a result, much of what makes it onto these pages comes from public sources, such as news reports, congressional testimony and official documents. This makes the book a timely guide for the layperson hoping to brush up on the whole sorry saga (who was George Papadopoulos again?), even if it does not yield new impeachment-worthy smoking guns. The events recounted in “Deep State” help explain how we ended up at our latest impasse and how Trump is likely to react as it unfolds.
What makes the book more than a recitation of unseemly facts is its well-rendered human drama. We see Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, furious that Trump tried to blame him for Comey’s firing, feeling lonely and abandoned and wishing he could reach out to Comey for advice. We encounter FBI employees Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, looking on in anguish as their extramarital affair became national news and their ill-conceived political texts became fodder for denigrating the bureau. And of course we run into Trump, in all of his Mafia-don-turned-mad-king glory. Stewart includes only a fraction of the president’s outrageous comments about “deep state” enemies, but they retain the power to shock. The book’s description of Trump calling former president Barack Obama a “bad (or sick) guy!” and the Mueller staffers “some of the worst human beings on Earth” provides at least a momentary cure for outrage fatigue.
Which side Stewart comes down on will be no surprise. Though this is a work of just-the-facts journalism, the book’s heroes and villains are perfectly clear. Its good-guys-vs.-bad-guys approach can sometimes produce excess: In Stewart’s telling, Comey “oozed rectitude” and was at once “humble and credible,” in full possession of the “loyalty, respect, and devotion from the vast majority” of FBI employees. Chalk this up as an overcorrection for Trump’s theory of events, in which a conspiracy of self-interested, corrupt and highly partisan “deep state” workers first sought to deny him the election and then — for no apparent reason — to destroy his presidency.
If Stewart appreciates the human aspects of this confrontation, he also sees larger issues at stake. At the heart of the book, and of our recent politics, is a conflict over the very idea of nonpartisan, professional government work, so central to the identity of an agency like the FBI. Comey’s dilemma in 2016 reflected a long-standing problem for the bureau: Located within the executive branch, tasked with staying outside partisan politics, the FBI has again and again been assigned highly politicized investigations, often within the executive branch itself. J. Edgar Hoover faced this issue throughout his 48 years at the FBI’s helm, publicly touting his institution’s independence while managing the policies, whims and partisan agendas of eight presidents. He managed to do it without getting fired, though it entailed no shortage of political hardball — and sometimes illegal activity — along the way.
In Stewart’s telling, the men and women of the intelligence community now act as guardians of the best parts of this independent tradition — not the abuses of the Hoover era but the above-politics professionalism that remains such a deep part of bureau culture. This is how the book frames Comey’s go-it-alone news conference in the summer of 2016, when he simultaneously excoriated Clinton for her handling of email and announced that she would not be prosecuted, all without consulting the attorney general. “Comey did it for one reason: to protect public confidence in the FBI as an independent, nonpartisan, and trustworthy agency,” Stewart writes.
And therein lies the book’s central tragedy. Hoping to prove that the FBI was above politics, Comey took actions that ultimately ensnared him in a vicious partisan battle and led to his downfall as director.
While “Deep State” emphasizes Comey’s decision-making process, it also makes clear that there were other forces within the bureau shaping events. The most important of these were the “hotbeds of anti-Clinton hostility” in key field offices, including in New York. As Comey acknowledged in 2016, according to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “there is a cadre of senior people in New York who have a deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton” — and who, moreover, were likely to leak information about the Weiner emails if the news did not come from the director first. As Stewart notes, this reflects another long-standing aspect of bureau culture, which tends to be “politically conservative” as well as professionally independent. If there was anything like a partisan deep-state conspiracy in 2016, the book suggests, it came out of the New York office — and helped get Trump elected.
Though the election ultimately charted new territory, the preoccupation with leaks and potential leaks calls to mind another great political drama of the modern era: the Watergate scandal, which brought down Richard Nixon. Though “Deep State” was completed well before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s embrace of impeachment, the specter of Watergate hovers throughout, a point of reference for the book’s major players. Like Trump, Nixon came to office determined to bend the professional bureaucracy to his will. All too soon, he discovered that institutions like the FBI could not be pushed around so easily. During the first months after the Watergate burglary, FBI leadership kept the investigation open despite pressure from the White House — while FBI leaker Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat, helped keep the story alive in the press. And when impeachment proceedings rolled around a few years later, Nixon was done in by the revelation that he had tried to use the CIA to strong-arm the FBI, a discovery that finally turned his fellow Republicans against him.
Today, many Trump critics are calling on Senate Republicans to follow a similar course, to reject White House leadership and declare that enough is enough. At the moment, the impeachment inquiry seems to be focused narrowly on the Ukraine controversy. As with Watergate, however, it will be indelibly shaped by the longer history of animosity between the White House and the intelligence community. “Deep State” delivers the critical first chapters of that story for the Trump era, as we all watch and wait to find out how it is going to end.
By James B. Stewart
Penguin Press. 384 pp. $30