“A weak and untruthful slime ball…” tweeted President Donald Trump on 13 April, illustrating his elegant command of the English language. He was firing his initial salvo in response to the publication of the former FBI director James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership. It seems several light-years away from the heady days of the presidential election campaign in October 2016, when the GOP nominee Trump praised Comey for reopening the issue of Hilary Clinton’s private email account: “What he did was the right thing…it took a lot of guts…he brought back his reputation.” A month later, the President-elect Trump reiterated his positive views on Comey during a 60 Minutes TV interview with Lesley Stahl: “I respect him (Comey) a lot. I respect the FBI a lot.”
On 22 January 2017, his second full day as President, Trump spotted Comey in the audience at a White House reception for law enforcement and security officials and called out to him: “He’s become more famous than me”, he said while shaking his hand and giving him a hug. It took just a month for Trump to change his tune, when he angrily slammed Comey for opening the claims that Russia had interfered with the presidential elections, thus casting a shadow. Less than three months later, Trump fired Comey, ostensibly on the advice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, charging him with the inability to “effectively lead the Bureau”. According to the New York Times, shortly after he had fired Comey, Trump told some visiting Russians, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” How quickly things changed for Comey in the Trumposphere: from hero to zero in just four months.
Now it’s Comey’s turn. At over 2m tall, this US lawyer and father of five has been a life-long Republican, although he testified to Congress in 2016 that he is no longer registered with any party. James Comey replaced the former FBI director, Robert Mueller on 4 September 2013, following a near-unanimous vote of 93-1 of the Senate which confirmed Comey to a full 10-year term as the seventh director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Accused by some as being in love with his own righteousness, this former Sunday school teacher now considers Trump as a “cataclysmic threat to the nation”. Branding the President as “unethical” and “untethered to the truth and institutional values”, Comey argues that Trump’s greatest sin was to conflate the presidency with himself, disregarding constitutional and institutional norms. Right on cue, Trump, without realising that he was actually confirming this charge, accused the Mueller enquiry looking into the alleged Russian influence on the presidential elections, of carrying out a witch-hunt. “It’s a disgrace, frankly a real disgrace. It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.” Well done, Mr President!
Using his legal experience, Comey kept copious contemporaneous notes after his meetings with Donald Trump, which lend authenticity to his accounts. In a most damming section of his book he likens Trump’s style to that of the Mafia “flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the MOB. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organisation above morality and above the truth.” Referring to a meeting in the Oval Office on 14 February 2017, Comey describes the time when Trump asked the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to clear the room, so that he could bring up the issue of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who was being investigated by the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Trump feared a smoking gun pointed at him and, with Sessions out of the room, on a one-to-one basis allegedly sought to persuade Comey to drop the investigation. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go,” said Trump according to Comey’s account of the meeting. “He’s a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Flynn has since pleaded guilty to perjury, being the first time a former head of a major US intelligence agency has faced criminal charges related to improper dealings with a hostile power.
In what is possibly the most poignant part of his book, Comey ruminates on the psychology of liars, with a less-than-subtle pointer to the occupant of the White House. “They lose the ability to distinguish between what’s true and what’s not. They surround themselves with other liars. Perks and access are given to those willing to lie and tolerate lies. This creates a culture which becomes a way of life.”
Trump was less subtle and more direct in his response to Comey’s tell-all book: “James Comey is a proven LEAKER & LIAR…” he tweeted on 13 April, without offering any proof. He continued, “He was a terrible Director of the FBI. His handling of the Crooked Hilary Clinton case, and the events surrounding it, will go down as one of the worst ‘botch-jobs’ of history. It was my great honour to fire James Comey.” Trump seems totally oblivious to the fact that Comey’s decision to resurrect the Clinton private email issue just days before the presidential election actually increased his chances of winning, giving him an additional five points in the polls!
These are dangerous times for Trump. While Comey’s book offers little to what is already known, adding mostly detail, its publication is hot on the heels of the raid on the offices of Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. These are said to be connected with the allegations of Stormy Daniels, the pornographic actress, about her relationship with Trump. Cohen’s own lawyer said in a statement that the US Attorney’s office had “seized privileged communications between Cohen and his clients”. Concerned that privileged information could be discovered, a furious Trump said “this is a disgraceful situation” and “an attack on our country”, again giving a perfect example of Comey’s charge of conflation.
Having sacked Comey, could Trump now do the same to Mueller? “Why don’t I just fire Mueller”, responded Trump to that very question, “we’ll see what happens. Many people have said you should fire him.” Trump’s friends are, however, cautioning him against such a move. A poll released on 13 April shows that a majority of Americans, 69%, support the Mueller investigation into Russia and the Trump election campaign, an effort first spearheaded by Comey. Trump supporters are mindful of the Nixon era and Watergate, and we all know what happened to Nixon.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.