James Comey’s book is titled “A Higher Loyalty,” but it surrenders the higher ground, at least partly. To watch him promote it is to see him descend.
Not to President Trump’s level — that’s a long way down. But Comey is playing Trump’s game, on Trump’s terms. And in that sense, he has let the president get the better of him.
From the cursed moment when Trump stepped out on the campaign trail, he has sought, by accident and by design, to define leadership downward and establish new norms of behavior for political candidates and government officials. Everyone is out for himself or herself. No gambit is too tawdry and no accusation too speculative, not if the television cameras approve. The only thing better than a whole lot of attention is a whole lot more.
And here we have the former head of a supposedly scrupulous, detached federal agency reaching for Mafia metaphors, readily indulging talk of the so-called pee tape and taking cosmetic digs at the president in the service of a book tour as exhaustive and elaborate as they come. There’s apparently room in Comey’s primness for a measure of Michael Wolff.
His demeanor may not be fiery or furious. Talking with George Stephanopoulos for an hourlong ABC News special on Sunday night, he maintained a subdued, steady voice and communicated sadness more than anything else over Trump’s conduct in the White House.
But other aspects of that special told a more complicated story. For starters, Comey didn’t just agree to sit with Stephanopoulos to share his account completely and meet his book-marketing obligations. He granted a level of access akin to a pajama party.
Meet the wife. Here are some great shots of the kids. And here are the long fingers of Comey’s normally sized hands on the very keyboard that he used to type the memos that documented his interactions with Trump. Comey was game to provide footage of that — and to follow up with interviews on Tuesday on “Good Morning America” and on Wednesday on “The View,” which is not a place where I would have expected to see a former F.B.I. director anytime soon.
I mention hands because Comey does. That was one of the first bits of his book that leaked out last week. Flashing back to his initial up-close, face-to-face encounter with Trump, he recalls how orange Trump’s skin looked, how improbably his hair glistened and how inferior his hands were. “Smaller than mine,” Comey writes, but not “unusually so.”
I chalked that up to a fleeting passage that was being overplayed by the media, and I was heartened by other advance material from the book. Comey, for example, mentions his experience in two administrations before Trump’s and has judicious complaints about members of each. He thus makes clear his broad frame of reference and ability to find flaw on both sides of the aisle.
But he revisited and riffed further on Trump’s physical peculiarities with Stephanopoulos on Sunday night. Wasn’t he supposed to be better than this? He telegraphed that proudly and frequently.
He’s enough of a “get,” in media parlance, to decide on some reasonable parameters for these interviews and to color within those lines. What’s more, he could set the record straight and settle any scores that need settling without a tour this extended or details this catty. His choice of a different tack suggests some unflattering motives in the mix. It gives Trump’s allies plenty to attack him with, and it has goaded Trump — predictably — into his most infantile epithets.
There’s obviously no contest of character or credibility between Comey and Trump. I believe most and maybe all of what Comey has to say, and much of it needs saying, as an answer to the president’s lies and an exposure — affirmation might be the better word — of who and what Trump is.
But in succumbing to this sort of showboating and spite, hasn’t Comey joined Trump almost as much as he’s defying him? Comey says that he means to shine a spotlight on what leadership should and shouldn’t be, and I hope that’s the long-term takeaway of the “Higher Loyalty” rollout and all the hours and miles being devoted to it. But right now I’m cringing at a food fight.
Trump personalizes everything. Ideas don’t joust. People do. And it’s vanity, not verities, at stake. With the way that Comey has written his book, which charts every last tremor of his conscience, and the staging of his appearances in promotion of it, he has abetted his own transformation from a crucial witness to a character in the serial drama and nonstop spectacle of Trump’s life.
That drama only serves Trump. If he can distract his Republican enablers and American voters with a crossfire of accusations and convince them that what they’re beholding has as much to do with the egos of the actors as with the egregiousness of his acts, he has inoculated himself against the judgment of Robert Mueller, and he shapes the movie that’s made of this.
Its title? “Honey, I Shrunk the F.B.I.”