James Comey

A Higher Loyalty

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A Higher Loyalty Summary

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In his memoir, A Higher Loyalty (2018), former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) James Comey traces his career in law enforcement, beginning with his early days as a United States Attorney in New York. Comey explains the development of his ethical sensibility and leadership style. Written in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency of the United States 2016, the book gives particular attention to Comey’s relationship with Donald Trump and his contentious decision to fire Comey in 2017 amidst an investigation into Trump’s personal affairs. The memoir has been met with both praise and vitriol, as well as with accusations of being overly moralistic and dubious in content. Nonetheless, the book helped establish Comey as a character foil to Trump in recent U.S. rhetoric, characterizing the former director as level-headed and sensible.

A Higher Loyalty begins with an outline of Comey’s early career. He began it in New York, where his job as a U.S. attorney brought him into contact with some of the most notorious criminals alive at the time, many of them belonging to the Mafia. He recalls this period as particularly formative, as it forced him to become self-reliant and to withstand political pressure to execute his duty. Comey decided to receive a law degree to better serve marginalized groups who lacked adequate legal representation. He recalls working under his mentor, Rudy Giuliani, a polarizing figure who was both highly successful and alienating. Comey suggests that he slowly came to oppose Giuliani’s Machiavellian methods.

In 1996, Comey took another job as an assistant U.S. Attorney and moved to Virginia to work under Helen Fahey. He characterizes Fahey as having a much stronger moral compass than Giuliani, crediting her with most of his critical early professional development. She particularly helped him realize his passions for rooting out violence and public corruption. He quickly rose in the ranks of the U.S. Attorney’s office. His chain of promotions culminated in 2004 when President Bush appointed him to U.S. Attorney General. Despite claims made about his virtuosic command of legal analysis and ethical instinct, Comey asserts that this achievement was only possible due to a combination of good mentorship and hard work. Though Comey and Bush got along well, he was ultimately replaced by Alberto Gonzalez, possibly due to his staunch opposition to torture, a practice Bush viewed as necessary to obtain information about national threats.

When Obama was elected President, he selected Comey as his FBI Director. This decision was met with some confusion, as Comey had officially departed public service. During his tenure, Comey tried to improve a number of FBI programs ranging from diversity programs to cybersecurity. His methods brought unprecedented positive attention to the FBI, which, in turn, bolstered its funding, official repute, and political leverage. Though Comey was making real improvements to this institution, he remained unsatisfied with America’s climate of discrimination and injustice. He calls particular attention to the specter of racial bias in law enforcement communities, which led to such tragedies as the Ferguson shooting. Comey directly criticizes law enforcement for its systemic, gross mistreatments of the criminal issues plaguing the country.

Comey also discusses Hillary Clinton’s email server, a contentious issue amplified by the voice of Donald Trump during his campaign. According to a report sent to the FBI that was initially prepared by the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Ms. Clinton had wrongly handled classified information by using a private email server. Comey reasserts his claim made publicly, that he had to follow through with the investigation without respect to contemporaneous analysis suggesting the report was politically motivated. Comey also criticizes the Obama administration’s slowness in answering allegations that Russia had interfered with the 2016 election results, spinning them in favor of Trump, primarily through the dissemination of fake news.

At this critical juncture in U.S. history, when evidence appeared of collusion between a President-elect and a foreign state, Comey laments that the Trump administration fended off any discussion of the matter, thereby discrediting U.S. intelligence authorities. During this time, Trump instead turned to the Steel dossier, a document alleging that Trump had had sexual contact with Russian prostitutes. Comey regrets none of his decisions to alert the appropriate officials about Russian meddling, though he expresses ambivalence about the inefficacy of intelligence institutions to take swift action. In one threatening meeting, which Trump disguised as a “dinner,” he insinuated a request for Comey to affirm his loyalty. Since Comey was an intelligence director, he could offer no such loyalty to a head of state. He recalls realizing at this moment that Trump’s administration, like Trump himself, would be dishonest to the core.

Comey ends his memoir by describing the most shocking request Trump made to him before he was fired. Trump asked Comey to drop an investigation of Michael Flynn, who was under FBI investigation for a potential role in facilitating Russian interference in the U.S. election. Shortly thereafter, Comey was relieved of his role as Director. A Higher Loyalty describes these derelictions of duty with a degree of disbelief: they seem to shock Comey at his time of writing the memoir, months after. The memoir constitutes a powerful defense of merit, evidence, and ethics in intelligence proceedings, at the same time excoriating those who reject these pillars of American democracy and law.