From former FBI director James B. Comey’s account this past week of his conversations with President Trump, a very clear, if disturbing, picture emerged of what the president worries most about. It’s not broader questions of law, government or national security. He’s got one paramount thing on his mind: himself.
In written remarks submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as testimony before the panel Thursday, Comey painstakingly described meetings and phone calls in which the president didn’t focus on threats from terrorism, crime or Russian hackers. Rather, according to Comey, Trump continually tried to explain that the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in last year’s election was causing difficulty for Trump.
This preoccupation colored the much-discussed private dinner at the White House to which Trump invited Comey in January, a week after Inauguration Day. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump insisted, in Comey’s retelling. The president did not say “the country,” “this democracy” or even “this administration” needed the FBI chief’s loyalty. Similarly, in their third and final meeting, Comey said the president pushed him to close down the bureau’s investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The profound consequences of a foreign government tampering with our elections did not seem to come up — only the potential ramifications for a close ally of the president.
Comey testified to Trump’s apparent lack of care for larger geopolitical and national security issues. “I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign,” he wrote in his prepared remarks, summarizing one meeting. Similarly, Comey said the president later worried about the “cloud” hanging over his head because of the investigation — but made no mention of Trump appearing concerned about what the investigation, or the Russian interference that the former director said he had “no doubt” about, might mean for the country.
When Comey tried to defend the need for a thorough investigation on the grounds that it might even reveal that no wrongdoing had occurred, he wrote, the president “reemphasized the problems this was causing him.” Trump implored Comey to “get out” the fact that he wasn’t under investigation, no matter what that might mean for the integrity of the probe overall. He apparently wasn’t interested in what Russian interference might mean for the national security of the United States or the integrity of the democratic process.
Compare that self-absorbed, personalized conception of government with the way Comey behaved during his testimony. As if to show by example the failings of his former boss, Comey continually referred to his role as a protector of the institutions of justice and the rule of law. “I worked every day at the FBI to help make that great organization better, and I say help, because I did nothing alone at the FBI,” Comey said. “ … The organization’s great strength is that its values and abilities run deep and wide … The FBI’s mission will be relentlessly pursued by its people, and that mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.”
Even when asked about his decision to present his findings on the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, Comey fell back upon his determination to “protect the justice institution, including the FBI.” Leaving a lasting impression for the public, he invoked the image of “the statue of justice” and its blindfold: “You’re not supposed to be peeking out to see whether your patron is pleased or not with what you’re doing.” When it came to the deeper substance of the hearing — the investigation into Russian interference with the election — Comey portrayed his role as a protector not just of justice but of the country itself: “They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally.”
And given a chance by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) to praise himself in answer to the question, “Do you want to say anything as to why we should believe you?” Comey replied, “My mother raised me not to say things like this about myself, so I’m not going to.” The comparison with Trump was implicit. And it wasn’t flattering to the president.
It’s hard to imagine packing more lessons into one hearing than Comey did Thursday. Chief among them was that justice, however embroiled with politics, does not exist to subsidize a cult of personality. It exists to honor the rule of law and the processes upon which our democracy is built. For that to happen, the country needs a president who can see beyond himself to the larger mark he is making upon our democracy. Without that vision, Comey’s appearance seemed to suggest, the country’s hallowed institutions are in peril.