On 9 May 2017, James Comey, director of the powerful US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was addressing his colleagues at Los Angeles bureau. He explained that FBI had rewritten its mission statement in 2015 to make it shorter and to better express the importance of its responsibility. Its newly defined mission was to “protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.” Comey said: “I wanted it shorter so everyone would know it, connect to it, and share it with neighbors and especially young people. And then he stopped in mid-sentence. On the TV screens along the back wall he could see COMEY RESIGNS in large letters. The screens were behind his audience, but they noticed his distraction and started turning in their seats. I laughed and said, “That’s pretty funny. Somebody put a lot of work into that one.”
While he continued to speak, the message on the screens now changed. Across three screens, displaying three different news stations, flashed the same words: COMEY FIRED. He wasn’t laughing any longer. He told the audience, “Look, I’m going to go figure out what’s happening, but whether that’s true or not, my message won’t change, so let me finish it and then shake your hands.” I said, “Every one of you is personally responsible for protecting the American people… We all have different roles, but the same mission. Thank you for doing it well.” Comey shook hands with everyone and walked to a private office to find out what was happening.
The FBI director travels with a communications team so he can be reached in a second. “But nobody called,” writes Comey in his tell-all book A Higher Loyalty. “Not the attorney general. Not the deputy attorney general. Nobody. I actually had seen the attorney general the day before. Days earlier, I had met alone with the newly confirmed deputy attorney general at his request so he could ask my advice on how to do his job-which I held from 2003 to 2005. In late October, shortly before the election, the now-DAG had been serving as the United States Attorney in Baltimore, and he invited me to speak to his entire stall about leadership… He praised me then as an inspirational leader. Now, he not only didn’t call me, he had authored a memo to justify my firing, describing my conduct during 2016 as awful and unacceptable. That made absolutely no sense to me in light of our recent contacts.”
Comey learnt that a White House employee was down on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington (his office) trying to deliver a letter to him from the president. General John Kelly, then the secretary of Homeland Security called. He said he was sick about my firing and that he intended to quit in protest. He said he didn’t want to work for dishonourable people who would treat someone like me in such a manner. “I urged Kelly not to do that, arguing that the country needed principled people around this president. Especially this president,” writes Comey.
Meanwhile, his assistant, Althea James, got the letter from the White House guy at the front door, down on Pennsylvania Avenue. She scanned it and emailed it to Comey which showed Comey was fired, effective immediately, by the president “who had repeatedly praised me and asked me to stay, based on a recommendation from the deputy attorney general, who had praised me as a great leader, a recommendation accepted by the attorney general… The reasons for the firing were lies but the letter was real. I felt sick to my stomach and slightly dazed.”
As Comey decided to head back to his home Washington, amazingly he had to deal with the question: “How would I get home?” He was no longer and FBI director and wasn’t entitled to the jet that had brought him to Los Angeles. The acting FBI director was now Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe. “He and his team had to figure out what was lawful and appropriate. In the shock of the moment, I gave some thought to renting a convertible and driving the twenty-seven hundred miles back alone. But then I realized I was neither single nor crazy. McCabe decided that given the FBI’s continuing responsibility for Comey’s safety, the best course was to take me back on the plane I came on, with a security detail and a flight crew who had to return to Washington anyway. We got in the vehicle to head for the airport.”
This was a media circus. News helicopters tracked Comey’s journey from the LA, FBI office to the airport. As Comey rolled slowly in LA traffic he looked to his right. In the car next to his, a man was driving while watching an aerial news feed of us on his mobile device. He turned, smiled at me through his open window, and gave Comey a thumbs-up.
The car pulled onto the airport tarmac with a police escort and stopped at the stairs of the FBI plane. “The helicopters then broadcast our plane’s taxi and takeoff. Those images were all over the news. President Trump, who apparently watches quite a bit of TV at the White House, saw those images of me thanking the cops and flying away. They infuriated him. Early the next morning, he called McCabe and told him he wanted an investigation into how I had been allowed to use the FBI plane to return from California,” writes Comey. McCabe replied that the plane had to come back, the security detail had to come back, and the FBI was obligated to return me safely.
Apparently, Trump exploded with anger. “He ordered that I was not to be allowed back on FBI property again, ever. My former staff boxed up my belongings as if I had died and delivered them to my home. The order kept me from seeing and offering some measure of closure to the people of the FBI, with whom I had become very close,” writes Comey.
This episode is the most exciting section of the 277-page book that is supposed to have exposed the chaotic and crazy Trump administration. Comey shows that Trump is behaving more or less like a Mafia boss, demanding complete loyalty from law enforcement and that he just does not believe in democratic norms or the independence of the judiciary. But Trump makes his entry only on page 210. That is because this book is an autobiography of Comey starting from his traumatic experience of Comey and his sister being held hostage by an armed burglar at home, getting bullied in school and losing a newborn son to an illness that could have been prevented.
Comey worked with the New York attorney general’s office as a rookie under former New York mayor, Rudi Guiliani, making his name prosecuting terrorism cases in the eastern district of Virginia, and then as the US attorney for the southern district of New York. He worked in three administrations, as president George W Bush’s deputy attorney general, during the 9/11 attack, as FBI director under the Obama administration which continued for a few months under Trump.
Comey was known for his fierce, go-it-alone, independent approach. He admits that he has a streak of righteousness about his job and that he can be “stubborn, prideful, overconfident and driven by ego.” But there is a strange episode of the past few years that has baffled many. And this is his handling of the Hillary Clinton’s email investigation. Strangely, quite contrary to longstanding custom of FBI, he decided to hold a press conference in July 2016, where he charged Hillary with ‘extremely careless’ handling of ‘very sensitive, highly classified information’, even though he went on to conclude that the FBI recommend no charges be filed against her. This was not even his domain. Bringing charges is the domain of the US department of justice, in consultation with FBI.
Then, suddenly on 28 October 2016, 11 days before the election, he announced that FBI was reviewing more Clinton emails that might be pertinent to its earlier investigation. Nothing came of this too. But it is now widely believed that this announcement cost Clinton the election, which she seemed sure to win. Comey provides detailed explanations of why he made those very public announcements about Clinton, but skirts several of the key questions his critics have regarding the need to make announcements about unfinished investigations.
This is an interesting book; it gives insights into how decisions are taken at the highest levels of the world’s most powerful State and how those who seem driven by the deepest sense of loyalty to fairness and justice can be fallible. And, of course, what kind of a human species America has elected as its president.