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The unflappable, unfailingly polite and sometimes maddening James Comey

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.

James Comey
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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.  

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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.

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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.”