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.