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What we learned from James Comey’s book about leadership—aka, the book about Trump

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
It’s out.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty, is finally out. It is, the former FBI director says, a treatise on ethical leadership. But it feels more like a 150-page build-up to a 100-page tell-all about Comey’s role in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and his disastrous tenure in the first months after US president Donald Trump’s election.

Comey offers plenty of details of his life and philosophical approach from before he found himself at the center of what was arguably the most complicated presidential transition in America’s history. But of course, that’s not what the readers who made the book a bestseller before it was even released are interested in. Much of that preamble reads like scene-setting for a defense of his actions in the Clinton investigation, and for his strong criticism of Donald Trump.

Here are a few things to worth knowing about A Higher Loyalty—for people who won’t read it, have read it, or are pretending to have read it.

James Comey isn’t sorry

Hillary Clinton, her staff, and the many millions who voted for her have little doubt that Comey’s last-minute reveal of an additional avenue of investigation into her emails turned the tide of the election and precipitated Trump’s victory. “I hope very much that what we did—what I did—wasn’t a deciding factor in the election,” Comey writes.

Yet Comey, while conceding that “reasonable people might well have handled it differently” never really seems to ponder whether those reasonable people may be right. His logic leaves ample space for questions—he seems, for instance, more concerned with doing what he considers “right” than enforcing what is legal, essentially giving his own moral values priority over the law.

This holier-than-thou tone persists throughout the book, which makes his occasional self-criticism feel less than genuine and his assessments of other people—whether accurate or not—come off as rather judgmental. For his own part, he seems to see little to regret in his own career or life.

Still, Comey writes, “The stuff that gets me the most is the claim that I am in love with my own righteousness, my own virtue.”

James Comey knows a bully when he sees one. Trump is a bully

One of the threads running through the book is Comey’s experience with bullies. He learned to identify the traits of bullies early on, when he was bullied as a child (before he became the 6-foot-7 giant he is today). He spent his early career dealing with mafia bosses, and then working under former prosecutor and New York mayor Rudy Giuliani—and was therefore exposed to different brands of ego and bullying behavior.

“Surviving a bully requires constant learning and adaptation. Which is why bullies are so powerful,” Comey writes, “because it’s so much easier to be a follower, to go with the crowd, to just blend in.”

This bullying informed Comey’s understanding of the world, in which confidence is at the root of moral value. Those who are confident, he argues, are humble, kind, and strong. They are good. Those who are insecure are attention-seeking, bullies, and weak. They are not good.

On the positive side of this divide, Comey places all his mentors, his wife, Robert Mueller, presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and, naturally, himself. On the other are people like Giuliani, whose ego got in the way of his law enforcement judgement, in Comey’s view. And, needless to say, Trump.

In describing the president, Comey doesn’t mince words: “This President is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values,” he says. “His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”

Comey goes so far as to compare the president to a mafia boss: ”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 organization above morality and above the truth.”

Bush was funny. Obama was funny. Trump, not so much

“A sense of humor strikes me as an important indicator—or ‘tell’—of someone’s ego,” writes Comey. Indeed, through his book he often highlights a sense of humor—his own, or that of the people he interacts with—as an important quality for leaders.

Comey is proud of his own jokes, and respects people who can laugh—at themselves and at a situation. He says he likes to inject laughter and humor into the everyday life of overworked colleagues. He reports an episode in which he was made (by Robert Mueller, no less) to repeat a joke he had made about president Bush… in front of the president himself.

In one of our daily morning terrorism meetings with the president, FBI director Bob Mueller told him that a suspected Al Qaeda operative named Babar, whom we were closely monitoring, had just gotten a second job in New York.
Mueller, not known as a comedian, then paused, turned his head towards me and added “And then Jim said…”
Bush looked at me, and so did Vice President Cheney. I froze. Before our meeting, I made a private joke to the FBI director that I hadn’t expected to repeat for the president, who could occasionally display a temper.
Time slowed down, way down. I didn’t reply.
The president prompted me. “What’d you say, Jim?”
I paused and then, horrified, plunged in. “Who says you haven’t created any jobs; this guy’s got two.”
To my great relief, Bush laughed heartily.

(Cheney was not amused, Comey reports.)

Comey spends some time unpacking Bush’s sense of humor, noting how it often had a slight edge, and would make the other person feel slightly demeaned. Obama’s sense of humor was very different, he says—more kind. “I never saw a belittling edge to Obama’s humor, which in my view reflected his confidence,” he writes.

Comey remembers, for instance, how Obama asked to take a family photo with the Comeys without the older daughters’ boyfriends, as well as one with—”just in case.”

He also recalls a brief interaction he had with Obama on the day of his nomination to FBI director—an episode all the more striking in light of the Trump’s requests for personal loyalty.

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. The 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.”

There is no mention of Trump displaying humor. In Comey’s descriptions, the president appears self-serious and incapable of finding humor even in ridiculous things, such as the rumored “pee tapes.” In fact, he describes Trump denying the existence of the tape with great seriousness—”I’m a germaphobe, there’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me,” he recalls Trump telling him. “No way.”

Comey broke into laughter after Trump said that, he recalls. Trump did not.

Robert Mueller is hella tough

Joking aside, Comey reports that Mueller does not mess around. He writes:

Bob was not a jokester, and his severe demeanor intimidated most people. Word at the Bureau was that he had knee surgery not long after 9/11 and declined anesthesia in favor of biting on a leather belt.

Comey hates bullies but he’s a bit of a troll

Comey’s descriptions of Trump rehash many of the liberal internet’s most tired jokes: The orange-ness of Trump, the size of his hands, the shape of his hair—they are all in the book, serving no higher purpose than belittling the man for his physical appearance.

“His face appeared slightly orange with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his,” Comey writes. “I remember wondering how much it would take him in the morning to get done. As he extended his hand, I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.”

Comey also reports trivial episodes that make the president look less than sophisticated. At one dinner, he writes:

The president began by admiring his own card, which he held up.
“They write these things out one at a time, by hand,” he marveled, referring to the White House Staff.
“A calligrapher,” I replied, nodding.
He looked quizzical. “They write them by hand,” he repeated.

This mockery looks a lot like bullying the bully. And by applying his own logic, it’s not a strategy that makes Comey look especially confident.

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