Despite the lofty title, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership finds James Comey at his pettiest, smuggest, most sanctimonious, bitterest, and most pandering. Comey feeds the rubes exactly what they paid the carnival sideshow barker at the front of the Barnes & Noble to hear: the “pee tape,” the jokes about small hands, the comparisons of Trump to a mob boss, and enough Obama worship to fill a week’s worth of Rachel Maddow.
Where Comey could have shined—clarifying historical events from the Bush and Obama eras, shedding real light on the FBI’s interplay with the Clinton campaign, verifying or denouncing parts of the Russiagate narrative—he stops purposefully short. A Higher Loyalty is a quick grab at the money, something that in the old days would have been on pay-per-view cable or tucked away inside a second-tier men’s magazine.
Comey tells us Trump is obsessed with the pee tape, desperate for the FBI to investigate-to-exonerate. “I’m a germaphobe,” Comey quotes Trump, emphasizing that the president claimed he only used the Russian hotel room to change clothes. The then-FBI director was apparently non-committal to his boss, but in his book, safely removed from the president by a year and the publishing process, he writes, “I decided not to tell him the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants. In fact, though I didn’t know for sure, I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity.”
Classy, and it sets the tone for the two men’s encounters over loyalty pledges, Mike Flynn, and all things Russia. Trump says something neatly packaged and impeachment-worthy (conveniently only in a conversation he and Comey were privy to). Comey, rather than seek clarification, assumes the worst, keeps his thoughts to himself, but remembers to document every word in writing. Comey is presented so that he appears as everything that Trump isn’t. It’s My Word Against His (and You Know Who to Believe) might as well be the title of the book.
You were expecting insight? Trump never laughs, Comey writes, a clear tell that he harbors “deep insecurity, an inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others.” Comey describes Trump as shorter than he’d expected with a “too long” tie. The eyes, by the way, are “expressionless.” The hands, he says, were “smaller than mine.” Brother, just represent: I’m a bigger man than the president!
The Clintons are always in the background. Comey teases that there is classified but unverified info on Loretta Lynch that “casts serious doubt on the Attorney General’s independence in connection with the Clinton investigation.” Only unlike with dirt on Trump, where classification and proprietary have the value of a paper bag in the rain, Comey reveals no details about Lynch’s wrongdoing.
Elsewhere, Comey creates his own standard, well outside the law, for why the investigation into Clinton’s exposure of classified material on her personal server did not lead to prosecution. She, gosh golly, didn’t intend to do anything criminally wrong, he says, taking the term “willful” in the actual law and twisting it to mean “evil intent.” Comey says prosecution would have required a specific smoking gun message from someone telling Clinton to send classified material via unclassified channels. He has nothing to say about whether that message might have been in the 30,000 emails Clinton deleted: on that subject he only shrugs that there was nothing to justify prosecution as far as anyone looked. Why, he adds, they even asked Hillary herself.
As long as Comey’s making up the law, what of those memos he wrote about his conversations with Trump on federal property regarding national security-related official government business? He “regards” them as personal property, so their contents didn’t have to be classified and thus could not by definition be leaked. He did not, however, include them in his book and they remain hidden from the public.
Comey writes that he felt confident reopening the Clinton email probe days before the election because he assumed Clinton would win, and if the new investigation was revealed after her victory it might make her seem “illegitimate.” He says the same thing about keeping Russian meddling quiet, certain it wouldn’t matter when Hillary became his boss a few months later. Setting aside the irony of Comey setting out to legitimize the expected Clinton presidency only to hurt her, what’s most disturbing is the blatant admission that a partisan calculus was a part of his decision making in any way.
It’s a heck of a thing to admit in writing, and it shows how empty Comey’s constant claims to integrity really are. Should Trump end up being prosecuted, Comey’s credibility as a witness is tainted, and his value to the American people he claims to serve thus diluted. His testimony will be whittled down by defense lawyers who are even now cross-indexing statements in the book with the public record.
Most people linked to Washington beheadings wait until after the dust has settled to write their books. That was the case for the Watergate gang, Oliver North, and Monica Lewinsky. The problem with Comey waiting is that there’s very little new here. Whether your impeachment fantasy includes the pee tape or you believe it’s made up, Comey has nothing that will enlighten you.
Instead, this is like reading a 13-year-old’s diary about why she hates boys, or a bunch of angry tweets dragged over 304 pages. Comey doesn’t appear to have any political ambitions, and he doesn’t seem to be using the book to audition for a talk show job. His book isn’t even good “score settling”: it’s just the same stuff you’ve heard before.
And that’s a shame, because there is a better book Comey could have written. Comey was witness to the legal wrangling inside the Bush administration over the NSA’s illegal domestic spying on Americans, and was in the hospital room when Bush White House officials tried to bully an ailing attorney general John Ashcroft into reauthorizing the Stellar Wind surveillance program. He was there for the debates over torture, and the use of the Espionage Act to punish journalists and whistleblowers under Obama. None of that was morally repugnant to him at a Trump-like level, and he never resigned in protest to protect his honor. Why, Jim?
Instead of insight into all that, we get a quick overview of the early Trump presidency that adds little to the known facts. Comey’s narratives are designed only to show leaders that in each instance he acted honorably enough. But his visceral hatred of Trump prevents him from writing an honorable memoir of his decades in government, and instead drives him to present a version of events where history is only of value when it can be conscripted into making Trump look bad. It’s a thin shell for anyone who knows more about these events than Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers regularly spoon out.
There’s a reason why circus sideshows got out of town after a few days, before the rubes figured out the “Alien from Mars” was just a rabbit with some fake teeth glued on. It’s pretty clear Comey’s higher loyalty lies only in making a quick buck for himself, before anyone realizes it’s all a fraud.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.