I believe former FBI director James Comey is an able and sincere man. But by his own admissions, he is a timid leader who lacks poise when he needs it most. Comey’s own retelling of his encounters with President Donald Trump suggests that he was intimidated by the president.
After watching Comey’s interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, I felt a little sorry for him. To me, the circumstances with Trump that Comey described on Sunday should not have been hard to handle. The way he characterized his own feelings and actions makes me wonder how he became FBI director in the first place. The head of the FBI should be in command of his thoughts and aware of his presence and stature. He should be at ease around presidents and capable of confidently holding his own when an encounter takes an unexpected turn. Obviously, Comey couldn’t do any of this. He could have been a useful tutor to a newly elected Trump. He could have been candid about his role and his ideas about how things should work. But he wasn’t.
Events as Comey describes them reveal his shortcomings. He purposely did not tell the president that the Steele dossier came from Trump’s political opponents. He couldn’t bring himself to pass up an invitation to a ceremonial event at the White House where he had to know he’d be singled out by the president. He couldn’t deal with the so-called request for a pledge of loyalty that came during a private dinner with the president. And he even froze when Trump allegedly asked him to drop the investigation of fired national security chief Michael Flynn. Does any of that sound like someone who is confident and in command of his thoughts? I don’t think so.
Clearly Comey should have shared the dossier’s origins and rejected the invitation. On the latter two mistakes, he should have used both instances when he was alone with the president as “teachable moments.” He should have told the president about the FBI’s independence and why it was his in his best interest for him to view the FBI as independent and for the president and the director to keep their relationship formal. Rather than drawing a clear line with the president, it’s not unfair to think that Comey may have led Trump on.
Comey’s book is nothing more than a standard swamp product. It is just one more self-serving, after-the-fact memoir that has become all too typical. It is meant to point fingers, escape blame and above all else declare that Comey is the righteous one. I say none of this in defense of Trump, but only to suggest that the new, naive and inexperienced president could have been better served by a more capable, candid and confident leader than Comey.
As a longtime resident of the swamp, I think it is obvious that Comey was just one more guy who wanted to keep his job. He didn’t want to rock the boat, he didn’t want to challenge or irritate his boss and he specifically failed in speaking truth to power. He even let former attorney general Loretta Lynch shove him around, dutifully complying with her demands to use campaign-manufactured vocabulary designed to benefit Hillary Clinton during the investigation into her emails and server.
While Comey’s book is all the rage among the chattering classes, I don’t see how it will change anything or have much of a lasting impact. Historians and students of the Trump era will likely dismiss it as lacking any meaningful contributions. If anything, this “tell all” is only going to make it more difficult for Democrats to build up the myth of Comey. It suggests that his accusations against the president are nothing more than just a puny effort at payback directed at the man who fired him from the job that he so obviously wanted to hang on to.
Ed Rogers is a columnist with The Washington Post.