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Is James Comey Helping?

How the former FBI director’s new book, “A Higher Loyalty,” is shaping the narrative surrounding the Russia affair

Alex Wong/Getty Images

There’s now a foolproof way to guarantee a book sells hundreds of thousands of copies: Get the president to tweet about how much he hates it. Michael Wolff’s dishy Fire and Fury sold nearly two million copies in three weeks, thanks in part to Donald Trump’s rants, while former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir A Higher Loyalty—whose very title is a subtweet aimed squarely at the president—will almost certainly top next week’s bestseller lists, with Trump taking to Twitter to call Comey a “slimeball” and “the WORST FBI Director in history.”

Comey is slinging insults, too, both in the pages of his book and in interviews promoting it. In A Higher Loyalty he writes that the Trump administration is a “forest fire” harming the country, adding, “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values.” In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulous on Sunday night, he said Trump treated women like “meat,” was a “stain” on those around him, and was “morally unfit to be president.”

It’s the latest round of the “he said, he said” war of words that the two men have waged over the past year. Without a doubt, A Higher Loyalty gives greater credibility to the idea that Trump obstructed justice when he fired Comey, bolstering one of the possible planks in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. But Comey’s own credibility has undergone some damage in the process, and it’s unclear whether the book and its accompanying media blitz have moved the needle of public opinion in his favor.

Comey has claimed—and testified under oath before Congress—that Trump repeatedly tried to influence his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and ultimately fired him in an attempt to block that investigation. Trump and his allies, meanwhile, have contended that Comey was a lousy FBI director who had lost the agency’s rank and file. Furthermore, in official communications related to Comey’s firing, they have indicated he was let go over his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s illicit email server.

Trump’s narrative has never been particularly persuasive because Trump has undermined it in various ways. He was very chummy with Comey when they met shortly after his inauguration, which does not indicate distress over the FBI’s handling of a sensitive issue involving a political rival. Most importantly, Trump himself contradicted this narrative almost immediately after Comey was fired, telling NBC’s Lester Holt: “And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”

Despite these glaring slip-ups, Trump and his Republican allies have stuck to their cover story in recent days. Trump has tweeted that Comey is a liar, that the contemporaneous “memos” covering his interactions with the president that he turned over to the Mueller investigation are fictitious, and that he never demanded “loyalty” from him or attempted to interfere with the Russia investigation in any way. Trump has dusted off the Hillary Clinton email defense and a host of other Fox News boogeymen, including the 2016 tarmac meeting between Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, to suggest that Comey was asleep at the wheel when he wasn’t unduly motivated by political concerns.

He has been backed up by the Republican National Committee, which launched a website “Lyin’ Comey” last week that makes the case that Democrats should hate the former FBI director because he cost Hillary Clinton the election by reopening an investigation into her emails days before voters went to the polls. (Perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of Comey’s book, from the perspective of the left, is his explanation for this poor, ill-timed decision; but it’s telling that Republicans are so interested in one form of election meddling but not another.)

Trump’s public admission that he fired Comey over the “Russia thing” undercuts this version of events. A Higher Loyalty, which essentially serves as a book version of Comey’s classified memos and testimony to Congress, blows it up completely. Where Trump’s narrative has always been flimsy and inconsistent, Comey’s has been careful, consistent, and in keeping with everything we know about the president, which only bolsters his credibility.

Comey depicts the president as being fixated with sabotaging the Russia investigation. Trump asks him if it is possible to “lift the cloud” regarding the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian officials. Comey writes that Trump’s loyalty demand reminded him of “Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony—with Trump, in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man.’”

Trump is depicted as being capricious, insecure, overmatched for the job, and obsessed with his legitimacy. In his ABC News interview, Comey said Trump’s “first question was to confirm that [Russian interference] had no impact on the election.” Describing the “out-of-body experience” of briefing the president on the Steele Dossier, which contained an allegation that Trump was filmed watching Russian prostitutes pee on a bed that the Obamas had slept in, Comey told interviewer George Stephanopoulos, “He interrupted defensively and said. ‘Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?’”

But it’s salacious details like this, combined with Comey’s personal animus toward Trump, that may damage his credibility in the eyes of conservatives. In A Higher Loyalty, Comey can’t resist taking little digs at the president, writing about the size of his hands and “orange” skin. After correctly noting that the book contains no new information, Fox News’s Chris Wallace added, “The other thing that surprises me, frankly, is how bitchy the book is. Comey goes out of his way to say that the president isn’t as tall as he thought he was. He checked out the size of his hands the first time they shook hands.”  

This is not, of course, a dilemma unique to Comey. It is difficult for any critic of the president to separate the sacred from the profane; it is also difficult to break through a polarized media environment. But with no new information, Comey’s book may end up entrenching the two narratives surrounding his firing into a familiar pattern of gridlock. In a widely shared story in The New Yorker, Adam Davidson argued that Trump’s presidency has reached a turning point toward a broad consensus that the president has been a disaster for the United States. If the rollout of Comey’s book is any indication, the country is still a long way from that consensus.