James Comey’s View of Justice — and How It Differs From Donald Trump’s

Truth, Transparency, and Trust
By James Comey

In his second debate against Joe Biden last October, Donald Trump inadvertently stated his philosophy of life. The issue was refugees. He said that “low I.Q.” immigrants were the only ones who abided by the law and showed up for their refugee status hearings. A week or so later, The Washington Post reported a similar statement Trump made when he admitted to stiffing his creditors on a Chicago high-rise. He said the chicanery made him “a smart guy, rather than a bad guy.”

A smart guy, according to Trump, is someone who is wise enough to cheat. Stupid people abide by the law and attend their refugee status hearings; smart ones abscond. Stupid people pay their debts; smart ones stiff their lenders and dare them to sue. Stupid people believe their elected officials; smart people know the game is rigged. The most distressing aspect of Trump’s enduring appeal, even in defeat, is how many Americans seem to agree with him.

The former F.B.I. director James Comey is appalled. In his second attempt at a memoir, “Saving Justice,” there is a story about a small-time drug dealer named Vinnie who is placed in the federal witness protection program. Vinnie begins his new life, falls in love and gets married. The trouble is, Vinnie also was married in his old life. He now has two wives, which makes him a bigamist, which is a crime. “The Department of Justice has an obligation to tell defendants and their lawyers bad stuff about the government’s witnesses,” Comey writes. This is true, even if the “bad stuff” has nothing to do with the facts of the case — Vinnie’s testimony can convict a major drug dealer — and even if the revelation might ruin Vinnie’s new happiness, since Wife No. 2 doesn’t know about Wife No. 1. “I felt sorry for Vinnie in that moment,” Comey concludes. “But the truth was more important than his pain.” We never learn the fate of Vinnie’s marriages or the case in question — he is, after all, in the witness protection program — but Comey hammers the larger point: “The Department of Justice could not accept anything short of the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Comey’s view of justice — both the concept and the department — is ecclesiastical. U.S. attorneys are members of a sacred order. They make an unequivocal vow to tell the truth, and they do so with a certain style: “They were almost always younger than the other lawyers and stood straighter, buttoned their jackets more quickly, answered more directly, met deadlines and admitted what they didn’t know.”

In other words, they are the precise opposite of Donald Trump, who demanded “loyalty” rather than “honesty” from Comey, and fired him as director of the F.B.I. “Saving Justice” is a slight and repetitive book, but not an insignificant one. Comey revealed the crucial moments of his confrontation with the president in his 2018 memoir, “A Higher Loyalty.” They are rehashed here, but within the context of a larger theme: the national descent from strict, fact-based truth into a feckless mirage of “truthiness,” to use Stephen Colbert’s brilliant formulation. Can an institution religiously devoted to the truth, like the Justice Department, survive in a democracy where vast numbers of people believe that the 2020 election was a fraud?

Comey is a curious figure. He is smart, admirable, hard-working — and yet slightly smarmy in his rectitude. He begins each chapter with a quote from sources ranging from Virginia Woolf to Malcolm X to the inevitable Dalai Lama. He tries to leaven his supreme pontification with stories of his own flaws, mixed emotions and humility. His height — 6-foot-8 — makes him testy in cramped spaces. His government salary makes it hard for him and his wife to raise five children. Annoyed, he throws his daughter’s obnoxious talking doll out the window of his automobile (of course, he drives back to retrieve it). His pursuit of transparency is rigorous to the point of myopia.

But, of course, he is right: You can’t have a working democracy without an agreed-upon standard of truth. You need a “reservoir of trust” in our institutions if the government’s truth-work is to proceed. Conspiracy theories about the Deep State are debilitating. The Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the intelligence community have to be perceived as honest to a fault — even about their own faults.

Comey is surprisingly tough on Robert Mueller. He believes Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election is devastating, but too complicated for mass consumption. Attorney General William P. Barr spins up a dust storm of inaccuracies while Mueller “chose to submit his unreadable — and unread — report and then go away without a sound,” Comey writes. “He could have found a way to speak to the American people in their language. … Department policy and tradition gave him plenty of flexibility to speak in the public interest. He chose not to, and, in the end, the only voices most Americans heard were lying to them. No truth, no transparency, and Justice paid the price in lost trust.”

He should talk. It was Comey’s epic mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email case in 2016 that, arguably, gave Donald Trump the presidency. Comey defends his Clinton actions in both memoirs. He admits only to sins of honesty. The public was clamoring for a judgment. And the F.B.I.’s conclusion, after overwhelming work on the case, was that Clinton had been sloppy but not venal. “If we couldn’t prove bad intent, there was no prosecutable case,” he writes. Comey chose to announce this dramatically, in public, but not without a bone to his fellow Republicans: Clinton had been “extremely careless,” Comey said. He stewed about the adverb, which turned his report into an op-ed. And then, on the brink of the election, he reopened the case. A computer containing more Clinton emails was found in the possession of former Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose wife, Huma Abedin, worked for Clinton. Now, if there ever was a time for transparency, this was it. Comey could have said: “Look, we found no evidence of criminality in the Clinton case, and I would be very surprised — given the nature of the thousands of emails we’ve read — if this new batch proves otherwise. But we’ve got to look at them, and so we will.” Instead, he sent a damning letter to Congress, announcing that the investigation had been reopened. As Comey might say: No context, no transparency.

In fairness, there was probably nothing that Comey could say about the Clinton case that would have stanched the “lock her up” conspiracy-mongering. His battle, and Mueller’s, is against a powerful sludge-tide of cynicism that has been flowing, especially in the media, for 50 years — and, for the past four years, from the White House itself. All politicians are crooked, aren’t they? All politicians lie.

If nothing else, Comey has laid out the challenge of the next four years. Joe Biden’s quiet humanity will confront a noisy nation where too many citizens have become so sour that they’ve found solace, and entertainment, in an alternative reality. It will not be easy to lure them away from their noxious fantasies, but fact-based truth is not negotiable.

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