A Higher Loyalty by James Comey – TwoMorePages Book Review

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey – TwoMorePages Book Review

Well, this review is…interestingly timed, since the inspector general just released its report yesterday about its findings about Comey’s actions during the election.

While Republicans once again cried wolf about HOW SHOCKING THIS REPORT WOULD BE (like the stupid Nunes Memo TWICE!), when it actually came out, it said that the FBI acted without political bias, and that if anything, Comey’s actions helped Trump, not Clinton.

Like duh, obviously. Anyone not living in a Fox News delusion would know that. If the FBI wanted to help out Clinton’s campaign, it would have A) not announced that they were re-opening the Clinton email investigation so close to the election and B) announced that they were investigating possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign BEFORE the election.

But of course, reality doesn’t matter in Fox News Fantasyland.

But anyway…we were talking about Comey’s book! Rachel went on this journey again with me (comments will be in blue).

I might have hyped this book up a little too much in my head. I had expected interesting POV moments where I would learn a lot more than I already knew about the Clinton email investigation and Comey’s interactions with Trump while he was FBI director.

Those things actually only were in the last 1/2 of the book. And didn’t really have a ton of information I didn’t already know from keeping up with events as they unfolded and from his interviews with Colbert, 60 Minutes, etc.

What I did glean from those sections though, was some more insight into his thought processes behind his actions and a lot of insight into who he is as a person.

Hi all! Rachel here. What struck me about this book was not really the dry, straight manner of writing so much as the “I swear I’m the good guy here,” high moral-ed (that’s not a word but oh well) way Comey expressed everything. How he spoke about his past was very interesting and revealing, but it did make you wonder (especially in light of recent events and findings) whether he has altered in his mind how some of his past went down. He does emerge from this book looking overall the good guy, but of course he does – he wrote the book. I think it’s a good memoir, just one that needs to be read with a clear, discerning mind, and a grain of salt. 

He began the book by talking about the progression of his career and the events that made him decide to enter public service. In talking about a trial he witnessed he described two prosecutors who, he says, set the example for who he wanted to be. 

The two prosecutors were only a few years older than I was. They stood straight, spoke clearly and candidly. They didn’t overstate, they didn’t posture. They seemed to have no other motivation that tackling injustice and telling the truth. I was struck by lightning. “This is what I want to do with my life,” I thought.

His description of this event seems worthy and certainly frames the entire rest of the book. He goes on to describe years of being bullied in high school and the lessons he learned from school, family, and early jobs. In discussing his experience with bullies he once again makes a pretty clear insinuation about the current presidency and the events leading to it. 

We all have a tendency to surrender our moral authority to “the group,” to still our own voices and assume that the group will handle whatever difficult issue we face. We imagine the group is making thoughtful decisions, and if the crowd is moving in a certain direction, we follow, as if the group is some moral entity larger than ourselves

But by imagining the group has these centers, we abdicate responsibility, which allows groups to be hijacked by the loudest voice, the person who knows how brainless groups really are and uses that to his advantage.

Wonder who/what he could be referencing there…

Bush/Cheney Administration Storytime

Let me start off with this: Comey is kind of boring haha. It comes off in his writing style where he’s describing scenes in ways while including incredible amounts of (imo unnecessary) detail. I’m sure it’s a byproduct of his craft – these are all things he’d notice as someone who worked at the freaking Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“It was a reservoir of trust and credibility built for you and filled for you by people you never knew, by those who are long gone. A reservoir that makes possible so much of the good that is done by the institution you serve…the problem with reservoirs is that they take a very long time to fill but they can be drained by one hole in the dam. The actions of one person can destroy what it took hundreds of people years to build.”

That being said, you can tell from his writing that he very much is NOT PARTISAN. AT ALL. He basically only cares about one thing: the “reservoir of trust” in the FBI to be nonpartisan and to uphold the law, no matter what, especially against political pressure.

He gives 0 shits about how the FBI can help someone politically.

I don’t care about politics. I don’t care about expediency. I don’t care about friendship. I care about doing the right thing. And I would never be part of something that I believe to be fundamentally wrong. I mean, obviously we all make policy judgments where people disagree, but I will do the right thing.

Boy oh boy is Edmund right – Comey could not appear any more non-partisan. If there is ONE thing you get from reading this book, it is that he really truly does care about the reputation and appearance of the FBI and DOJ, politics be damned. To quote all the times he talks about that theme would bore you guys to tears, so here’s just a few examples I found most revealing. 

The American people must see the administration of justice as independent of politics, race, class, religion, or any of the many other things that divide humans into tribes. We had to do everything we could to protect the department’s reputation for fairness and impartiality, its reservoir of trust and credibility.

The Constitution and the rule of law are not partisan political tools. Lady Justice wears a blindfold. She is not supposed to peek out to see how her political master wishes her to weigh on a matter.

When we tell a judge or a jury or Congress what we saw, or found, or heard, they are not hearing it from a Republican or a Democrat. They are hearing it from an entity that is separate and apart in American life. The FBI must be an “other” in this country or we are lost.

…If we at the FBI started to think like every other partisan in Washington thought – what’s good for my “side” or whose political futures we might help or hurt – then the FBI would no longer have, and would no longer deserve, the public trust.

Say and believe what you want about the man, he truly believes in his work and in the need for integrity in the American justice system. And that is admirable. It is how it should be. Although the recent IG report seems to declare that Comey himself messed up in the Clinton and campaign investigations, it also seems to leave the FBI’s reputation intact, so at least we can take small comfort in that. 

There was one section where I straight up learned about things I knew nothing about before – Comey’s tenure in the Department of Justice under the Bush / Cheney administration. Comey went into extensive detail about how he could not support the “enhanced interrogation techniques” being employed by the US and why: not only was the information gleaned basically useless (because a tortured man will tell you anything, including lies, to get you to stop torturing him), but it wasn’t right in Comey’s eyes AND it wasn’t right legally either.

His description of how the Bush/Cheney administration basically tried to railroad him and the Department of Justice into signing off on the torture programs (nicknamed “Stellar Wind”) was probably the most interest part of the book, especially the part where Bush/Cheney/Republican officials tried to sidestep him entirely by getting a delirious Ashcroft to sign a renewal of Stellar Wind while in the hospital.

Yeah, so the Bush Administration did NOT come out looking too hot in this book. Which, considering Comey, I believe, is a registered Republican, is quite interesting. Comey learned some valuable lessons that can be transferred to our knowledge of the Trump Administration. 

I would discover in the coming months that the pressures to bend the rules and to make convenient exceptions to laws when they got in the way of the president’s agenda were tempting. And it was a temptation fed by the urgency of the topic and the nature of the people around the president, people who couldn’t take the long view or understand the importance to the country of doing things the right way, no matter the inconvenience. They would be painful, exhausting lessons in the importance of institutional loyalty over expediency and politics.

Oh, and Cheney definitely kept his troubled reputation in this book. In discussing the Bush Administration’s attempts to get him to continue the ‘torture program’ he wrote: 

It was obvious that the purpose of this meeting was to squeeze me, although nobody said that. To have the vice president of the United States accuse me of recklessly provoking another 9/11 – even seeming to suggest I was doing it intentionally – was stunning. He didn’t want to hear another side. He didn’t seem to accept the obvious truth that there was another side. To him, he was right, everyone else was wrong, and a bunch of weak-willed and probably liberal lawyers weren’t going to tell him otherwise.

Not a good look. 

 

(Then FBI Director) Mueller and I were not particularly close and had never seen each other outside of work, but I knew Bob understood and respected our legal position and cared deeply about the rule of law. His whole life was about doing things the right way.

~~~

“In every man’s life there comes a time when the good Lord tests him,” Mueller told Ashcroft. “You passed your test tonight.”

~~~

Bob had proven it would be a mistake to break the FBI into a criminal investigative agency and a counterterrorism agency by making the FBI great at both.

We even got small insights into Comey’s opinions of Mueller, which I really enjoyed.  Mueller comes off as universally well respected in this book. It boggles my mind that Republicans today can so mercilessly attack a decorated military veteran who has done nothing but serve his country well (and who was so well respected that both Republicans and Democrats requested legislation to keep him in his FBI Director role for longer than the normal 10 years).

Anyway…we were talking about Comey, not Mueller, so back on topic we go!

Buttery Males!

The middle of his book talked about what most of us came to read about – the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Our investigation required us to answer two questions. The first question was whether classified documents were moved outside of classified systems or whether classified topics were discussed outside of a classified system. If so, the second question was what the subject of the investigation was thinking when she mishandled that classified information.

In secretary Clinton’s case, the answer to the first question – was classified information mishandled” – was obviously “yes.” … The heart of the case, then, was the second question: What was she thinking when she did this? Was it sloppy or was there criminal intent? Could we prove that she knew she was doing something she shouldn’t be doing?

He did a great job framing up the situation right in the beginning.

In 2011, Patreus had given multiple notebooks containing troves of highly sensitive, top-secret information to an author with whom he was having an affair. In contrast to those Hillary Clinton corresponded with, the author did not have the appropriate clearance of a legitimate need to know the information.

Despite the endless drumbeat in the conservative media, filled with exaggerated scandals and breathless revelations of little practical import, Hillary Clinton’s case, at least as far as we knew at he start, did not appear to come anywhere near General Patreus’s in the volume and classification level of the material mishandled.

Although she seemed to be using an unclassified system for some classified topics, everyone she emailed appeared to have both the appropriate clearance and a legitimate need to know the information.

Now that I’m doing this review, another thing that I learned from this book that I didn’t know from before was the context around Patreus’s situation from before. I like that Comey approached this in his book in a similar manner to the way a courtroom would – by drawing comparisons to concluded cases.

His distinction of just how egregious Patreus’s crimes were vs Clinton’s is an extremely important parallel, because not only was his more egregious, he lied to the FBI about it as well. And he only got a misdemeanor + a $40k fine and two years of probation. So the exaggerated “lock her up” bullshit was just that – bullshit, and would never have happened.

We knew that the Department of Justice would never bring – and had never brought – criminal charges in such a situation without strong evidence that the subject of our investigation knew she was doing something she shouldn’t be doing. Accidents, sloppiness, and even extreme carelessness with regard to classified information were not things that were prosecuted. Ever.

This was an interesting piece to read for two reasons. One, being that Comey was basically saying that worst case scenario, criminal charges were never being brought against Clinton. Ever. She was careless, but at the end of the day, not malicious.

Two, and this goes to today’s political climate regarding Trump…it basically says that intentions matter. If you are MALICIOUSLY going around and fucking things up, the DoJ will come wreck your shit. If you are INCOMPETENTLY going around and fucking things up, the DoJ will be more lenient on you.

Well, for Trump and all the things he and his campaign are accused of, which way will judgement lie? Maliciousness? Or incompetency?

“I have asked myself many times since if I was influenced by that assumption (that Clinton was going to win). I don’t know. Certainly, not consciously, but I would be a fool to say it couldn’t have had an impact on me. It is entirely possible that, because I was making decision in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls.

And then of course there was the whole announcement of re-opening the investigation, the thing that Democrats crucify Comey over, and that…arguably was a large tipping point for the election.

I can understand why, with the benefit of hindsight – knowing that the emails on Weiner’s laptop contained no new information – people are super upset at Comey’s actions.

But that’s the thing; this is with the benefit of hindsight.

I can 100% understand Comey’s thought process there, ESPECIALLY if he strongly thought that Hillary was going to win. He was faced with the very real possibility that Hillary would get elected, and that this investigation would find something on Weiner’s laptop AFTER the election was concluded.

Conspiracy theorists are ALREADY going crazy in today’s world with their completely unfounded theories of “the deep state” and how the FBI wanted Clinton to win (lol); imagine how it would have played out if Clinton had won and then suddenly the FBI announced “oh, by the way, we re-opened the Clinton investigation during the weeks up to the election because of new evidence – but we didn’t tell anyone. Oh, and by the way, we found stuff. Elections over though so…….sucks to suck?”

I don’t have much to add here that Edmund hasn’t already wonderfully covered and explained, but I do think that Comey did a pretty good job of giving a very detailed explanation of his actions – which is all we can really ask for anyways, right? It will forever be impossible to know with 100% certainty that his actions – whether subversive and irresponsible or not – influenced the election to such a degree as to hand over the win to Donald Trump. But we can take some comfort in knowing that he, too, is still trying to figure that out and still trying to make sense of all that happened in 2016. 

I have spent a great deal of time looking back at 2016…Like many others, I was surprised when Donald Trump was elected president. I had assumed from media polling that Hillary Clinton was going to win. I have asked myself many times since if I was influenced by that assumption. I don’t know. Certainly not consciously, but I would be a fool to say it couldn’t have made an impact on me. It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump was ahead in the polls. But I don’t know.

Even if I couldn’t persuade them that I made the right decision, I hoped that at least I could explain what I was thinking, the doors I saw, and why I chose the one labeled “Speak” rather than the one labeled “Conceal.” I didn’t handle everything in the investigation perfectly, but I did my best with the facts before me.

Thoughts on Obama

I do enough Trump bashing in my life. He’s a terrible, unfit President who is an embarrassment to the country.

Don’t think it particularly adds to the review here for me to do more, so I’m actually going to take this review in a different direction – Comey’s thoughts on Obama.

(on being asked to interview as Obama’s FBI Director)

Maybe it was because I had become so hardened to the tribal loyalties of Washington, D.C., that it was difficult to believe a Democrat would choose someone who had been a political appointee of his Republican predecessor for such an important post.

(Obama) “In a way, this and the Supreme Court are the two most important personnel decisions a president makes, because I’m choosing for the future. You will be here after I’m gone.” He said he thought there was great value in that long tenure and hoped that if I were the director, I could help a new president.

(Obama) “I don’t want help from the FBI on policy. I need competence and independence. I need to sleep at night knowing the place is well run and the American people protected.” Contrary to my assumption, the fact that I was politically independent from him might actually have worked in my favor.

First off, let’s start with the beginning of their relationship. The great propaganda machine, Fox News, has so consistently pushed out the lie that Obama never wanted to work with Republicans, that he did everything unilaterally, that people seem to have believed it.

But right here is concrete evidence that isn’t true. In fact, Obama went WAY out of norms specifically to pick who he thought was the best person for the job, regardless of party affiliation.

With a serious look on his face, Obama turned to me and said, “Jim, there’s one thing I forgot to talk to you about.”

While I looked confused, the President nodded toward Mueller. “Bob long ago made a commitment to me, and I need you to honor it.” What could this possibly be? The president had assured me of my independence. Now I was being asked for secret assurances?

The President paused to signal the gravity of the moment. Then he went on. “Bob has always allowed me to use the FBI gym to play basketball, and I need you to commit to continuing that.

I laughed. “Of course, Mr. President. It is your gym, in a way.”

Though I love basketball, I knew I would never join him in the FBI gym. I also love golf, but knew we would never play. FBI directors can’t be that way with Presidents. Everybody knows why. Or at least I thought they did.

I picked this passage both because it is humorous, but also because it highlights the strong differences between similar interactions that Comey had with both Presidents.

With Obama, Comey ALSO had the very real fear that he was going to be asked to do something shady outside the norm. But of course, “everybody knows” that you can’t do that. And so Obama made it into a funny joke – “I want to still be able to use the basketball gym.”

With Trump of course, we got…”I need you to see your way to letting Flynn go”.

To be effective at the FBI, I spent a lot of time listening, something we all struggle to do well. It is hard for leaders to listen well because it requires us to be vulnerable, to risk our superior position.

Barack Obama surprised me by picking me as FBI Director. And this is where Barack Obama surprised me yet again. He was an extraordinary listener, as good as any I’ve seen in leadership.

In various meetings with the President, I watched him work hard to draw as many viewpoints as possible into a conversation, frequently disregarding the hierarchy reflected in seating arrangements – principals at the table, lower-ranked folks in chairs against the wall.

Obama hunted for points of view. Maybe it was a legacy of his life as a professor, cold-calling someone in the back row. This approach often led to chaotic conversations, but it allowed him to hear views that, in the Bush administration, would have been watered down by rank or by fear of being teased.

Obama had the ability to really discuss something, leveling the field to draw out perspectives different from his own.

I also appreciated Comey’s insights in his brief interactions with Obama. Most of us probably are ever going to meet him. From his deeds and his actions, I can draw an inference into what type of person and leader he is, but these firsthand accounts of interactions with him are WAAAY more valuable than my third-hand accounts of  reading about him in the news.

“Hey, why don’t we take another (picture) without the guys. You know, just in case.” He was playful as he said it, and he did it in a way that no one was offended. But I could tell he was also being thoughtful in a way few leaders are. What if things didn’t work out with one or the other of these guys? Would having them in a picture with the president ruin it for the Comeys forever? So Obama gestured the boyfriends out of the show, to our great amusement.

Though it was a small moment, what struck me about President Obama’s remark is that it displayed a sense of humor, insight, and an ability to connect with an audience, which I would later come to appreciate in the president even more. These are all qualities that are indispensable in good leaders.

It’s the small things that really show you the character of a person.

Couldn’t say any of this better than Edmund or Comey himself, but yes, Obama comes out of this looking very good – even when described by a Republican. So maybe Fox News people just need to get to know the guy, play basketball or golf with him or something. One can dream, right? Comey talked to Obama about his decisions and the investigation and wrote: 

He wasn’t telling me he agreed with my decisions. He wasn’t talking about the decisions. He was saying he understood where they came from. Boy, were those words I needed to hear.

Although I hadn’t supported President Obama when he ran for office, I had developed a great respect for him as a leader and a person, and it was only at that moment that I felt the full weight of his imminent departure and what it would mean.

This might have been my favorite passage in the book. To hear someone say they hadn’t supported a candidate for office, but that upon getting to know and work with them, they now respected them was truly, truly refreshing. And I think we can all learn a little something from that. 

Republican, Democrat, Independent, agree with Comey or disagree, everyone should read this book. Yes, it’s a little dry. Yes, parts of it will anger you, regardless of where you lie on the political spectrum. But it is an illuminating piece of work, and it does its best to explain the FBI’s and Comey’s role in the 2016 election. And I must admit, my faith in the ability of the FBI to remain nonpartisan still stands. 

Conclusion

When we tell a judge or a jury or Congress what we saw, or found, or heard, they are not hearing it from a Republican or a Democrat. They are hearing it from an entity that is separate and apart in American life. The FBI must be an “other” in this country or we are lost.

I 100% believe Comey when he says everything he did was with the idea that the FBI’s impartiality was the most important thing on his mind. When I look through the lens of his experience in this book, I understand his reasoning perfectly.

Of course, I believed him before I read the book too. I didn’t really blame him and only him for Trump winning like most die hard liberals did; nor did I subscribe to the conspiracy theories that said his firing was justified by Trump (whichever stupid reason you subscribed to at the time).

Comey to me was the definition of nonpartisan. If both sides hate you, you’re probably nonpartisan. This book didn’t change my mind on that, and his response to the IG’s report cements that notion in my mind.

Hopefully, someday soon the insanity will lift from this administration’s awfulness, and people like him can serve the US again.

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