The unflappable, unfailingly polite and sometimes maddening James Comey

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
James Comey

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how many hours I’ve spent over the last few days watching televised interviews of former FBI Director James Comey, about his book and some of the incidents he covered in it. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read more than a few excerpts from  “A Higher Loyalty” yet.)

The best and most substantive of the interviews (IMHO) was the one on CNN yesterday with Jake Tapper. Tapper’s questions and tone were tough and aggressive in a good way.

Comey, in all of the interviews, has been unflappable, unfailingly polite (he starts most of his answers by telling the interviewer “good question”) and — a difficult trick given the hyper-partisan temper of the times — non-partisan.

Comey, who was a Republican until fairly recently, now says the Trumpian version of his former party left him behind. But he hasn’t become a Democrat.  

Because the book shares Comey’s view that Donald Trump is “morally unfit to be president,” he is not popular with partisans of his former party. But he is also reviled in many Democratic circles for his actions and statements of 2016 regarding the FBI’s open-then-closed-then-reopened investigation of Hillary Clinton’s questionable handling of classified emails. Many Democrats believe the reopening of the investigation cast a shadow that cost Hillary Clinton the election.

Notwithstanding the hyper-partisanship that pervades our current moment, Comey asks us to see him as a dedicated former leader of a non-partisan law enforcement agency that made all those decisions based on apolitical considerations.

As of now, my own belief is that Comey tried to exercise non-partisanship in making those decisions. This, I assume, is exactly the “higher loyalty” that Comey claims to have followed. I’m not smart enough to second guess all of the decisions he made in that effort. But, as of now, I believe he was trying.

My favorite exchange from the Tapper interview went like this:

Tapper: You’ve been excoriated by both supporters of Hillary Clinton and supporters of Donald Trump. How do you think history will treat you? Are you confident that you’ll be seen as having taken the path of the righteous?”

Comey: I don’t know. I hope people see me, whether they agree with my decisions or not, as a fair-minded person, acting in good faith, involving other people. But I don’t know. And I hope this doesn’t sound odd, but it doesn’t matter that much [whether people see him that way]. I’m a happy person. I care how my family feels about me.

I take this to mean that Comey cares more how his family feels about him than a bunch of strangers looking at his actions through their own (possibly) partisan lenses.

Tapper: You’re an interesting public figure, because I don’t know anyone else so reviled by the Hillary Clinton partisans and by the Donald Trump partisans. Does that mean to you that you did your job right, or does it mean something else?

And then there’s this next answer, which is maddening, hilarious and both self-justifying and the opposite of self-justifying.

Comey: It means mostly that my deputy was right when he told me in the summer of 2015, as this investigation began, that I’m totally screwed either way. The fact that now everyone hates me doesn’t mean I was right. I could still be wrong…. But both sides can’t be right that I’m in the other team’s pocket, which is what I hear all the time. That just isn’t possible. The challenge of being the FBI in today’s political environment is that you’re not on anyone’s side. And that confuses people. Which I get. And it angers people. Which I also get. And there isn’t much you can do about it except constantly show transparency, show people your work, so that fair-minded people can make a judgment.”

Then, hilariously, CNN went to a panel of two pro-Clinton and two pro-Trump commenters. And all four of them ripped Comey, for opposite reasons, meaning the pro-Trump people cast Comey as anti-Trump and the pro-Clinton people blamed him for throwing the election to Trump.

For example, Democratic operative Paul Begala, said: “If [Comey] believes that the Trump presidency is a forest fire, he’s the guy that poured on the gasoline and struck the match.”

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/20/2018 - 12:46 pm.

    Not as obsessive

    I confess I’ve not watched nearly as many interviews of James Comey as has Eric, but I can understand the frustration of those who’d like him to come down squarely on one side or the other in this hyperpartisan era. My own bias is that he cost Clinton the election, and we’ll never know if we’d have been better off with a different electoral outcome or not, but I also confess that I like his attempts to remain largely above the partisan fray and just enforce the law as he sees fit.

    I think his on-again, off-again business with the Clinton emails in the final countdown to election day probably cost her the White House (And to our “conservative” readers, I’d say that a narrow Clinton victory would be no more false or suspicious than the Trump victory, which didn’t manage a majority of the popular vote.), but I don’t think Comey acted from partisan malice. He may have been wrong, but I basically see him calling them as he sees them, for better or, in this case, worse.

    Comey does come across as unflappable and unfailingly polite in interviews – I’d love to be a proverbial fly on the wall in some private conversations – and because of what seems to me to be a fairly even-handed view of the law and its enforcement, it’s even more interesting that he has publicly pilloried the Current Occupant as being “morally unfit” to be President. I’ve never seen the Current Occupant in a private, non-media environment, and Comey has, so I’m inclined to take his word for it. “Probity” or “rectitude” are words that come readily to mind in connection with Comey, and while he may not be riding to the rescue of the Democratic Party and all that’s right and good in the world, my limited exposure to him in print and on-screen suggests that he took his job seriously, and did his best to perform it impartially. That I didn’t like the result doesn’t really change my view of his approach to his job. He could be a powerful adversary, and I think it a grave strategic error for Republicans to attack his integrity.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/20/2018 - 03:21 pm.

    It is clear that one of the most surprising things for Trump upon his attainment of the office was that citizen, media, and governmental officers were NOT bound by liege (an unconditional bond between a man and his overlord). Comey proved that, unlike the rest of the people Trump has been trying to install.

    As stiff and awkward as Comey is (in some situations he seems pretty similar to Stevens in “The Remains of the Day”) he is conscious of the precedent of history and the unusual times we are in. This is in sharp contrast to the ferocious ignorance of the Trump administration.

    I suspect that in the coming weeks as more of the Cohen issues become clear, the nature and history of the Trump administration entanglements will likewise become clearer. If you are keeping up with the Cohen revelations, you will now know that Cohen has has long familial affiliation with New York and international Russian mob figures, has extended and deepened that relationship, and has been involved in a series of scams and schemes (well beyond Stormy). With that in mind, Cohen’s role may have been the key one of driving Trump and the Russians together.

    It is interesting, on the two side of the coin, while Comey is exuding rectitude, Cohen is exuding an increasing criminality. The most interesting thing is that Trump’s people are more worried about Cohen than Comey–they think Cohen will “flip”. Which is really a damming thing–his supporters are worried most about Trump’s closest advisor revealing Trump’s secrets. Says a lot that they all believe there are more bad things in the Trump closet to be revealed.

  3. Submitted by Misty Martin on 04/20/2018 - 08:03 pm.

    I have a tremendous amount of respect for James Comey.

    I am in the process of reading his book, “A Higher Loyalty”, and I too, have been drawn to the many televised interviews that he has given, promoting his book. I’m up to the section that includes President Trump after being informed about the “Steele Dossier transcript” from former FBI Director Comey and the President’s reactions about that.

    I have to say, that I find the book very well written, and it covers most of the author’s life, since he was a teenager, in fact, so it is not just a book about President Trump, as you would think from listening to some of his many critics. I must say, that Meghan McCain from The View, was most disrespectful and rude, I thought. Since when was she a fan of President Trump? Hasn’t President Trump insulted her father, Senator John McCain, over and over again? I respect and admire John McCain very much, and couldn’t understand her deliberately attacking James Comey as she seemed to do, just because he described in his book, among other things, President Trump’s physical appearance. Mr. Comey described a lot of people in his book, and as he pointed out many times during these televised interviews, he, as the author, was simply trying to take the reader along with him to where these events occurred. Besides all that, I’m sure that being the former FBI Director, not to mention, his much earlier stint in the U. S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, where he served as the Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division (from 1987 to 1993) someone in that type of work would learn to mentally assess a person’s physical appearance and their reactions, as to draw information from that in addition to a person’s speech, but I digress.

    My favorite interview so far as been that by late night talk show host, Stephen Colbert, who despite the joking, asked some very good questions and raised some very good points. I enjoyed that interview tremendously!

    The book is about how ethical leaders behave and what they do to try and be good leaders, with honesty, integrity and all of the characteristics that moral leaders should have. I find the book extremely interesting and challenging to us as American citizens and to future aspiring politicians and leaders in other areas of life.

    I would recommend that our President read it himself. One can’t eat cheeseburgers in front of the television set night after night, Sir. One should endeavor to expand one’s mind from time to time.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/20/2018 - 08:05 pm.

    Comey’s problem

    is an old one:
    when you try to please everyone you end up pleasing no one.
    Beyond that he appears somewhat intellectually limited in his ability to analyze the consequences of his actions. You can be a good cop without doing that; just make sure that laws are obeyed and assume that this will be good for society in the long run.
    —–
    And an interesting debate would be one between the real authors of Trump’s and Comey’s books.

  5. Submitted by John Appelen on 04/21/2018 - 07:59 am.

    Agree

    Eric and Ray,
    I whole heartedly agree with your comments and love the deputy’s simple statement… “totally screwed either way”

    It is bad enough that our citizen political divide is pulling our politicians away from the middle. How in the world are our “non-partisan” government offices to operate in this environment?

    That increasing bi-modal distribution split is a big problem and I have no idea how to bring people back together. 🙁
    http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 04/21/2018 - 08:10 am.

    The Muck and Mire of Trumpism

    I understand Mr. Comey’s in ability to spill out everything he knows about President Trump and his minions for legal reasons. I understand President Trump has an inability to speak the truth and has spun a life long web of fiction. It takes awhile to sort out fiction. We, the public, have the daily dribble of information that we have to sort through as we try to figure out innocence or guilt and who to trust. President Trump’s and the GOP’s responses lead me to guilty as can be. It is mind tiring to stay tuned in to it all. One way or another I hope the truth is revealed in time for the next election to be a clean election of whomever that may be. America need to start moving forward. If Trump can lead, as he claims, he better start leading and get out of the muck and mire of Trumpism.

  7. Submitted by Richard Lentz on 04/21/2018 - 01:36 pm.

    Honorable sanctimony

    Nice article, Eric.

    Comey is probably a decent man with good intentions. There are so many variables in trying to understand the 2016 outcome, including the campaign Clinton chose to run. Still, it’s possible we might all be better off if Comey had a lot less sanctimony.

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/23/2018 - 09:04 am.

    Stay out of politics Mr. Comey….

    Comey has admitted that politics were a factor regarding some of his actions.

    His disastrous news conference in July when he all but “convicted”HC and then gave her a pass to his reopening of the email investigation days before the election, politics was a factor.

    While forcing himself on the political stage it causes one the question his motives, judgement, and truth telling.

    His book is another attempt to force himself on the political stage but will do nothing but hurt him politically and possibly legally.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/23/2018 - 09:24 am.

      “Possibly Legally?”

      Care to explain that one?

      • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/23/2018 - 11:43 am.

        Many possible legal issues with Comey…

        I think if you would goggle “Comey and possible legal jeopardy” you would find many pages devoted to this possibility.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/23/2018 - 12:28 pm.

          Many Pages

          I did what you suggested. Many pages are devoted to debunking the idea, which seems to have been raised by the usual suspects in the right-wing commentariat.

          Is there something I’m missing? Perhaps you would care to explain it yourself, rather than referring me to Google?

  9. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/23/2018 - 09:23 am.

    Seems

    That Obama administration found itself in a similar situation with the Russian interference. They were well aware of the hacking but didn’t push the panic button for fear of partisan election interference accusations from the right. Looks like lots of folks wished there was a door #3 choice.

  10. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 04/23/2018 - 12:37 pm.

    One-sided political considerations

    The more telling thing about the “political considerations” that impacted Comey’s decision-making is that those political considerations were solely designed to placate Republicans, who when it came to the Clinton e-mail scandal were largely acting in bad faith. Comey never gave serious thought to any “political considerations” about the fact that making one-sided disclosures might impact the election.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/23/2018 - 08:48 pm.

      Oh Come Now

      Didn’t you hear him say that he made the statement before election to ensure Hillary’s win was not clouded with doubt when it came out later after she won? I mean know one thought Trump was going to win.

      And then he annoyed Trump to the point of getting himself fired.

      Poor Comey, he does all the correct things and gets beaten by both tribes.

      • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 04/24/2018 - 08:59 am.

        Yes, that’s exactly my point

        Comey’s response was meant to placate right-wing actors who weren’t acting in good faith on the Clinton e-mail issue. (one need only witness the fact that these same folks didn’t care about the Bush Admin disappearing 20 million e-mails on RNC servers and they don’t care today about the multiple reports of Trump Admin personnel using personal e-mails and devices to conduct official business)

        He never considered that by making a series of one-sided disclosures, he risked tilting the playing field. The right thing to do would have been to be transparent not just about the Clinton e-mail issue, but also the investigation of Trump campaign personnel.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/24/2018 - 11:24 am.

          Disagree

          The Clinton investigation was well underway and worthy of an update. How would he have even assumed that Clinton’s support was so weak that updating on a multi- year investigation would impact the vote? I think most of were pretty numb regarding Clinton’s irresponsible handling of emails by then.

          The Trump collusion investigation was at best a potential conspiracy at that point in time. Even now little has been proven… And more importantly, what Trump voter would have cared… They don’t seem to care even today…

          • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 04/24/2018 - 12:07 pm.

            Nope

            Comey chose to go beyond FBI policy when he described Clinton’s conduct as “extremely careless” in July in part because of the right-wing pressure to prosecute her. It’s also why he felt compelled to make the October announcement, even though they had no idea if the e-mails found on the Weiner laptop were new or not. The hype that surrounded this issue was extremely damaging to the Clinton campaign even though it turned out to be nothing.

            (And if you’re truly interested in doing the right thing, you ignore the polls and the political pressure and follow procedure.)

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/24/2018 - 12:51 pm.

              The Usual

              We will need to agree to disagree. 🙂

            • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/24/2018 - 04:39 pm.

              In support

              After 5-7 rounds of Benghazi investigations, what the republicans gave to America was a we really don’t have a case, but lets throw in enough trash and BS to pretend that there is something even though there isn’t. (Not a shinny clear of all). So for Comey, whether he wanted to or not, gave/put more BS on the pile. End result the “R’s” will do anything and everything true or not to insure that we don’t have a strong independent women for President! Talk about witch hunt, HRC has been on the “R’s” “burn her at the stake” since her and Bill took the white house, she was guilty of one thing and one thing only, being a smart and tough female.
              .

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