You’d think given a lucrative book contract and free rein to write the tale of his tumultuous four months with the Trump administration, former FBI Director James Comey would use A Higher Loyalty: Truth Lies And Leadership to drop some bombs. Instead, he drops 24 gallons of milk.
“Instantly, the tops of those paper gallons burst open in unison,” Comey writes breathlessly, “dumping more milk in one place than I had ever seen before.” It was, he explains, “a catastrophe beyond words.”
It was not, in fact, beyond words. He devotes quite a few of them to it, and even more to the important life lessons he learned at the side of grocery store manager Harry Howell, who managed a high-school-aged James Comey with “with compassion and understanding.” Seriously.
A Higher Loyalty is half folksy ethics lessons learned from folks like Harry Howell, a quarter apologies to everyone and no one for the handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the potential role it played in the 2016 presidential election, and, finally, a merciful quarter dunking on Donald Trump.
The first half is part autobiography and part meditation on “ethical leadership.” You step through all of Comey’s life, from the grocery store job and high school bullies to prosecuting mobsters as a U.S. Attorney to debating torture in the Bush administration as deputy attorney general. Each example builds a plodding case for how he became, in his eyes, an ethical leader. It ends with a PowerPoint presentation to FBI staff in his first week of taking over the job (from Robert Mueller) in 2013. It includes the order to “love somebody” because “It’s the right thing to do.” James Comey is a lot of things, but a big tall goober seems to be the main one.
Comey’s commitment to ethical leadership gets muddied in the Clinton chapters. Reading about the decision-making process that led to his infamous letter that reopened the investigation into her email servers a week before Election Day is like watching a slow-motion train wreck you’re powerless to stop. You watch the car stalled on the tracks try to turn its engine over in time, you see every mistake the conductor makes magnified, you watch the inevitable, and then you watch the bodies flying end-over-end.
Rehashing the worst election of our lifetimes is hard. Watching the morass of bad decisions (certainly not all by Comey, but also definitely some by Comey) that played a part in the outcome is literally painful. Despite his repeated claims of doing the right thing in order to keep the “reservoir of trust and credibility” (WTF) of the FBI intact, we can now see that that dam done burst all over everything. This, not the milk, was the catastrophe beyond words.
It’s a rough transition (just like the actual one, I guess), but the dunks do come in the last quarter. Comey is impossibly tall so they come easy, with Trump setting up the alley-oop by being a goon among goons throughout.
You want Russian prostitutes and pee tapes and repeated pledges for loyalty and to look the other way? Boom shakalaka.
President Trump, of course, has come out tweets-a-blazin’ against Comey. The Republican Party has launched a website to counter the claims in the book. They call it Lyin’ Comey, a Trumpian nickname so laughably bad you have to wonder how many people were at the meeting that thought it up.
No part of A Higher Loyalty feels like a lie (other than the big one Comey’s telling himself about the email investigation). In the painstaking, plodding case he makes for ethical leadership and the importance of an independent FBI, you really do feel like he means it down to his core. Dude is genuinely a very tall, very boring-ass nerd, it seems. If he were an egoist, he would have made himself look a lot better in the Clinton chapters. If he were a fabulist, why not be like a Spice Girl and spice up his life. I mean, my man documents the buildings he passes on his commute to work not once, not twice, but three different times in the book. If Comey were a liar, I’d hope he’d try to burnish up the boring parts more. There are a lot of them.
Ironically, as this review was written, the memos that Comey wrote at the time, and which drive the narrative of the last section of the book (and the main reason anyone’s interested in it), were leaked to the press. After demands by Republicans, the Justice Department released redacted versions to congressional investigators and copies found their way to the Associated Press moments later. The memos are better than Comey’s often-plodding book: They cut right to the chase, offer better tick-tock, and more tantalizing details.
While discussing Trump’s frustration with leaks from his administration, in the book Comey says, “The president said something about how we once put reporters in jail and that made them talk.” The memo, written contemporaneously, puts a hell of a lot more meat on Trump’s words: “It may involve putting reporters in jail. They spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk.”
You’ve got the president of the United States talking about reporters getting raped in jail and when you write the book you paraphrase?
In another scene, Trump talks to Comey about “the golden showers thing” while in a meeting with then-Chief Of Staff Reince Priebus, but Comey omits a line from the memo where Trump says Putin had told him, “We have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.” Come on man, I slogged through your 24-gallon milk spill: Throw me a bone here.
The memos made A Higher Loyalty redundant, right in the middle of the book’s publicity push. They’re not just better, they’re real. When we tell the history of right now, A Higher Loyalty—with its goofy Boy Scout ethics lessons, plodding first half, and contorted Clinton chapters—probably won’t be high on the reading list. But the memos will be right at the top. Nobody’s crying over spilled milk in those memos: They are cutting and brutal, unvarnished, and real. I don’t need 150 pages of ethics lessons to help me understand what’s in them. I live in the world and I know it’s fucked—the memos help me see why.