A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

When I first learnt that former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director, James Comey is writing a book, I thought it would contain his encounter, interaction and conversation with President Donald J. Trump painting a bleak picture of the latter particularly because I saw it as a reactionary move on Mr. Comey’s part. During early 2018, when I discovered that the title of Comey’s forthcoming book as, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership”, it only strengthened by earlier presumptions.  Couple of months later, reflecting on the book I have just read in conjunction with the presumptions I have had, made me realize how reactive my instinct is and how vulnerably exposed I am to my own inherent biases and prejudices.   

In an attempt to reform my own thinking as well as to draw insights by reflecting on Mr. Comey’s  experiences as scripted in his book, I tried to reproduce what I understood (chose to understand) from the book…

Early Life

An Irish by descent, Comey’s ancestors were moving frequently from one place to another in pursuit of better living. The concomitant effect came in the form of his family being seen as an ‘outsider’ which they in fact were. Attributable to it, he was exposed to bullies in schools. He had to take alternate routes simply to avoid bullies and confrontation. That said, he would stand firm and argue the bullies, but always refrain from physical confrontation. These negative experiences instilled him the values of justice, compassion and understanding. Besides, his mother also advised him to resist group (peer) pressure.  

Of Marriage: A Husband and a Father

As a husband and a parent, he values family life and respects its needs. Keeping the promise he made to his wife, Patrice, Comey and family moved to Richmond where they could ‘raise a family more cheaply and comfortably.’ At that point of his life, Patrice gave birth to their fourth child, Collin Edward Comey. Despite their repeated plea to the hospital staff to check if anything is wrong with fast deteriorating health of Collin, hospital staff asserted everything is fine only to face the premature death of their new born baby boy of brain infection caused by Group B streptococcus.   To avoid such mishaps in others, Patrice campaigned and got Virginia legislature passed the law requiring universal testing and treatment for Group B streptococcus. Commending Patrice’s efforts, Comey writes, “There is meaning and purpose in not surrendering in the face of loss, but instead working to bind up wounds, ease pain, and spare others what you have seen.”

Public Service: Motivation and Conviction

Public service is undeniably much admired and respected! With legal background, Comey have had the privilege to work in the public organization as well as an option to practice in law firms. Deep inside, he exhibits his higher aspiration to be back in public service as he makes moving remarks, “The Law Firm was fine, the pay good, and the people smart, but I missed public service even with its mismatch furniture and low pay. …I ached to be useful again, to do some good for my community and to represent the victims…”  His conviction vis-à-vis the opportunity that came along, Comey could spend considerable years of his life as a public servant, notably as Deputy Attorney General and Director of FBI until he was fired by President Trump.

Institution Building: Firmness, Consistency and Clarity

The aftermath of 9/11 attack saw series of intelligence and surveillance programmes being launched.  ‘Stellar Wind’, an NSA surveillance activities conducted in the United States against suspected terrorists and citizens without the need for judicial warrants was one of the programmes for which its renewal was imminent.  By this time, sometime in 2003, Mr. Comey was serving as the Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice (DoJ). Mr. John Ashcroft, the Attorney General was admitted in the hospital. There was significant difference between the White House and DoJ with regard to legality of the ‘Stellar Wind’ programme, particularly DoJ under Ashcroft was unconvinced about its legal basis. President Bush had limited options. His Chief of Staff was deputed to the Hospital with an executive order to get the renewal endorsed by the ailing AG, Ashcroft.

Mr. Comey rushed to the Hospital to intervene in such unceremonious conduct by the White House, and save the integrity and independence of DoJ. He called Mr. Robert Mueller, then Director of FBI to come as a witness. An attempt was made by the Chief of Staff to get the renewal endorsed but Ashcroft, though ailing was decisive. Subsequent to it, Comey had series of meetings with President Bush and his White House officials. Memos were exchanged. Comey firmly believed in Martin Luther’s assertion, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” The Bush administration had to accept the amendments in the programme as proposed by DoJ.

2016 US election was election like no other! US was preparing to welcome First Female President to the Oval Office. An outsider Trump has triumphed over established conservatives and making his own gains. And, there was Russia. Secretary Clinton’s own conduct as then Secretary of State began to derail her electoral gains – the emails. In July 2016, Mr. Comey, now as the Director of FBI has announced and written to the Congress that there is no prosecutable case in Secretary Clinton email case. In October 2016, couple of weeks before the impending election, new emails were found. FBI had to reopen the investigation. ‘To speak’ or ‘to conceal’, Comey had simply two options. He always worked to project FBI as an independent, non-partisan and trustworthy institution to the extent that he did not inform DoJ under whose supervision FBI works during his July announcement. To speak would see as favouring Trump over Clinton though he believed Clinton would certainly win. Should Clinton win, what would happen with the very investigation if FBI was not to make it public now? Also, having written to Congress in July and informed the public the same, concealing now would undermine FBI’s credibility and compromise transparency. More imminent, what would happen if there is a ‘leak’ about investigation being reopened? Comey chose to speak.

Mr. Comey would encounter another significant episode in his life as a public servant. This time, President Trump. Trump is unconventional and that partly helped him win the election. Some of his Presidential conducts were unacceptable, as Comey saw. Comey expressed his discomfort in having to meet President Trump one-on-one. He wanted the presence of DoJ whenever he meets with the President. Russia, Flynn…were some of the frequently raised topics. It was in one of these meetings, Trump is said to have told, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Quite often, Mr. Comey chose to stay silent but Martin Luther’s statement, “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say” evoked a sense of duty. Comey responded, “You will get honesty from me.”

Managing the Masses and Leading the Lesser Ones

Mr. Comey, as he narrates, focused on organizational strengthening and team building. To bring everybody own board and hear their voices, he would make internal meetings informal as far as possible. For example, he never wore a jacket to internal meetings as formalizing things/meetings put everyone in ‘restrictive box’. Simply to open up, he would ask, what was their favorite Halloween candy as a child to his subordinates? It was also a portrayal of humility. In the equal measure, Comey highlights the difference between intelligence and judgement and for a leader, latter should form an important attribute.

Further, during his visits to field offices, Comey would visit every offices and cubicles and thank every official for the work they are doing. Not only that, he would thank his escorts, security personnel who accompany him at airports. During his onward flight home from Los Angeles, Mr. Comey is said to have forgotten to thank the escorts at the airport. His special assistant is attributed to have reminded him by nudging to thank the escorts. Indeed, Comey was under the state of confusion and apparently numb after hearing some hours ago through media that ‘he had been fired.’ 

An Enduring Character: The Optimist

Comey likens the Trump Administration to a forest fire. As much as it destroys, it spurs growth – ‘old crowded trees would give way for life to new plants on the floor’. Comey reiterates heightened level of youth, media, academics, nonprofits and civil society engagement, partly/primarily reacting to Trump’s decisions. Equally important, Comey stresses other arms of government, namely the Judiciary and Congress would become stronger offering an opportunity to rebalance the power as envisaged by its founding fathers.  

The preceding note on the book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadershipis a summary and a reproduction of the contents based on my own understanding and choosing what I want to reproduce. It has no element of review and commentary primarily because I have no intention to assess what Mr. Comey’s intention were. Rather, my objective, as I read the book, was to draw insights from his experiences as reported/written in the book. My interest for the book grew stronger as I began to know more about his professionalism. Appointed as the Deputy Attorney General by the Republican President, George W. Bush and later chosen as the Director of the FBI by a Democrat, President Barack Obama, I thought Mr. Comey might be possessing and must have exhibited great deal of character that won him the trust and confidence of partisan politics. I think I was not wrong to be an optimist! 

Dechen Rabgyal

I am from Drepung, Mongar, Bhutan.

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