Former FBI Director James Comey testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Capitol Hill in Washington June 8. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Everyone who cares about our country should read James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty. Read and decide for yourself whether the former FBI director is self-righteous, ego-driven, and sanctimonious. Decide for yourself whether he is petty, insecure, and in need of affirmation; decide for yourself whether he is just another Donald Trump. Don’t let the media decide for you. 

Comey’s interviews promoting his book have journalists in full churn. The agitation seems to cloud the good sense not only of editorialists and columnists but also reporters, some diagnosing Comey with the very viral infection—I’ll call it Trump-myelitis—he writes about. Turn the diagnosis around and ask whether the media’s Trump obsession hasn’t clouded the mental acumen of the gaggle that regularly follows the president and must now take account of Comey’s full-court criticism. Not criticism deduced from questions shouted across the White House lawn or speculation born of tweets and a true-believer spokeswoman. No, Comey’s criticism is born of direct contact, conversation, and combat with a man wholly self-involved and negligent of the responsibilities of his office. 

After the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972, the relationship between presidents and directors of the FBI has achieved, over several decades, a balance between executive oversight and investigative independence that Comey found himself defending in the three months he continued as director under Trump. It is not only the rule of law, constitutional values, and prosecutorial independence that Comey claims to defend. He also sees Washington’s partisan political divide, of which Trump is a beneficiary and practitioner, as a venomous threat to fair treatment under the law and a democratic ethos. 

He sees the FBI and its investigatory responsibility threatened by Trump’s Mafioso perspective on the office of president and by the promise of loyalty the president attempted to wring from him. This may seem a minor matter in the overall swamp of Trump’s words and deeds. But if not Comey, if not the FBI, then which official, department, or agency has countered Trump’s disdain for proper order and contempt for norms? There don’t seem to be any other volunteers.

James Comey is not beyond criticism, something that he, unlike the man in the White House, is able to admit.

Comey’s story from childhood through adolescence, education, marriage, fatherhood, and prosecutorial career is of a person who examines his conscience. He reports finding, often enough, that his words and deeds need course correction, apologies, and setting the record straight. His wife Patrice, in pithy phrases, seems to serve as true north for the searching needle of his moral compass. In short, he operates in the mode of David Riesman’s “inner-directed man.” That is not a plus in Trump world, and apparently not in the media scrum that reports on that world.

James Comey is not beyond criticism, something that he, unlike the man in the White House, is able to admit. Trump's GOP defenders-at-all-costs are now supposedly alarmed by the possibility that Comey violated security protocols in sharing some of his memos; for these people even a misspelling in the memos would probably prove Comey's lack of "judgment and integrity" even while they remain unconcerned about those qualities in the president. In fact, Comey’s greatest weakness may be reticence about criticizing anti-Clinton leakers in the FBI and how they could have weighed on his 2016 actions. Yet even when he defends his decisions, he is apt to allow that other conclusions are arguable.  

For years, keen observers of the media have complained that the legitimate goal of giving all sides a hearing has often collapsed into a lazy practice of matching critical observations about one protagonist with an equivalent criticism of the other, setting aside any difference of degree or validity. This “false equivalency” distorted the 2016 presidential campaign coverage and long before that the coverage of responsibility for congressional gridlock.  Now it persists in the media coverage of Comey, his interviews, and the contemporaneous memos of his conversations with Trump (released by the Justice Department on April 19). Add to that the fierce partisanship over the Mueller investigation of the Trump campaign, and we could be tempted to conclude that there’s not an honest man among them. I think that would be a serious error.

But as I say, read A Higher Loyalty—decide for yourself.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. This article has been adapted from the foreword to A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop by Rembert Weakland (Eerdmans).

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