Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency, and Trust, by James Comey
Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency, and Trust, by James Comey
The collapse of President Trump's administration in its final fortnight will surely downgrade his already damaged standing in history. It may also make all previously published books about his one-term presidency seem truncated.
The horror of seeing extreme Trump backers barging past U.S. Capitol Police, driving out the Congress and disrupting completion of the 2020 election will darken what we remember of the Trump years in toto. More than a few manuscripts may come back to authors for additions and revisions.
There isn't time for that to include James Comey's latest work, Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency and Trust. But Comey has had his assessment of Trump locked and loaded for some while. As the title suggests, this is a sequel to Comey's A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, which appeared in April 2018 and swiftly became a best seller. It could be called the first really consequential critique in the initial barrage of books about President Trump in office.
At the time, Comey was not just looking back, he was elucidating history in the making. His first subtitle recalled his testimony to a Senate committee right after he lost his job as director of the FBI. Trump had said he wanted and "needed" loyalty. Comey had offered loyalty to the truth — and shortly thereafter he was fired.
While within his rights, Trump shocked the legal and political worlds by booting an FBI director who was midway through his 10-year term and whose agency was still investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was shocking enough that the Justice Department named an independent counsel, Robert Mueller, whose lengthy probe and eventual report haunted Trump's first two years in office. It set up Trump's loss of the House in the 2018 midterms and the eventual departure of Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
Former FBI Director James Comey speaks at Harvard Kennedy School with Harvard's Eric Rosenbach on Feb. 24, 2020 in Boston, Mass.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
But thousands also bought A Higher Loyalty wondering how much Comey could tell about another FBI probe, this one into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for official business while secretary of state. Questions of what she might have been hiding dogged her campaign throughout 2016, even after Comey recommended against prosecution (for her "incredibly careless" behavior). Comey's decision to reopen that probe just weeks before the election, albeit briefly, may have contributed to her narrow loss to Trump.
In other words, Comey the first-time author, renowned for his height (6 feet, 8 inches) and high-mindedness, stood at the nexus of two issues that may have determined the fates of Trump, Clinton and the nation in the 2016 election. No wonder everyone wanted to know what he knew.
This time round, there are no similarly suspenseful questions in the air. But Saving Justice might still be called a continuation of the first memoir, and both might be titled Defending Comey. The answers he gives in both books, to detractors from both parties, are much the same. He sees his obligation, his client if you will, not the person or party who appointed him or even as the Department of Justice. He sees his obligation as being to justice itself. He knows how it looks, sometimes, and how hard it is to explain to others. But he has to refuse to care, or at least act as though he doesn't, while he perseveres.
He explains this in a series of illustrative anecdotes about cases he handled over his years as an assistant U.S. attorney, then as a full-fledged U.S. attorney, as the deputy attorney general to John Ashcroft under President George W. Bush and finally as FBI director. He cites an early case in his career where the actual currency seized in a raid had been replaced with an equal cash value in different denominations. He brings this to the attention of judge and jury knowing it may cost him a conviction.
He also details time spent prosecuting gun crimes in Richmond, Va., sending his people out door to door to explain to African Americans why the federal government is concentrating on their community. "We earned their trust with truth and transparency," Comey writes.
There is also a human story here. We see him court his wife, Patrice, and we see them struggle to set up a home while moving often and having five children. Comey shares quite a bit, including how he made an offer on a suburban home outside New York City without noticing one bathroom had no toilet. We learn that he had to make an oral argument to the U.S. Supreme Court in borrowed trousers that were 4 inches too short.
Some of this serves the Eliot Ness image of the G-man with the G-rated lifestyle. But Comey is prepared to be regarded as many things, including sanctimonious and self-important. He sees it as part of the obligation he bears if he is going to take down members of the Gambino crime family in New York or some of the political heavyweights in Washington.
The first and last sections of his latest book lay out his case against the Trump administration, particularly against Trump's second attorney general, William Barr, whom he blames for subordinating the values of the Justice Department.
More specifically, he upbraids Barr for suppressing the anti-Trump essence of Mueller's report: "In light of the attorney general's statements, the report itself would come as a shock to fair-minded people who actually read it."
But neither does he spare Mueller, a former FBI director whom he served and who produced a report of 448 pages and 2,375 footnotes but failed to provide a salient summary in terms people could understand.
He quotes Winston Churchill, who said in another context: "This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read."
But here, as in the first book, Comey's central issue is Trump, whom he views as the antithesis of his own focus on truth, transparency and trust.
"From the beginning, Barr echoed the president, aping his dishonest characterizations of the department's work and appearing to respond to President Trump's self-interested demands for investigations and prosecutions," Comey writes.
One person whom Comey does not spend much time on is the first U.S. attorney he worked for in New York, Rudy Giuliani. He refers to Giuliani's harshness as a boss and powerful ambition for higher office, but leaves him comfortably in the past, sparing him any part in the Trump meltdown of recent months.
It is possible that Comey would write the Barr passages somewhat differently today, having seen the recent turnaround by the attorney general in rejecting Trump's false accusations of election fraud. It is also possible Comey would rethink his negative recommendation on seeking criminal charges against Trump based on the Mueller report. Setting those issues aside, would it make sense to charge Trump for pressuring Georgia state officials to "find" votes for him? Or for inciting rioters to breach the Capitol and disrupt the counting of electoral votes?
These are the risks one takes in writing history while it is unfolding.
Comey's first book marked the point at which Trump literature moved to a new and serious phase, leaving behind the campaign accounts, the ghost-written business bragging (The Art of the Deal) and the magazine exposé mongering of previous decades. Trump was no longer just a tabloid subject or a TV reality show star. The man was leading, in some sense, the free world. His decisions were upending policies, precedents and principles on a daily basis.
Of course, there had been those who were quicker on the trigger. Magazine profile artist Michael Wolff had managed access to the president's inner circle in the early weeks and months to produce a fast Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by January 2018. "It is 'reality' journalism in the same way Trump is a 'reality' character," said The Atlantic. Wolff would produce a sequel the following year with the somewhat eerily predictive title of Siege: Trump Under Fire. While there were again many blind quotes, the second book also identified former Trump strategist Steve Bannon as a major source.
More deliberate in his work habits and style, legendary Washington Post investigator Bob Woodward took a little longer to produce Fear: Trump in the White House in 2018 but gave a much fuller and more profoundly frightening picture of life around the 45th president. While primary sources were not named, they bore great resemblance to Cabinet and West Wing figures who left the administration relatively early.
In 2020, Woodward came out with Rage, based largely on extensive interviews he had done with Trump on tape. Among other stunning revelations, we learned how much Trump knew in early February about the emerging COVID-19 virus. Even as he dismissed it publicly as "just like the flu" and promised "one day it will just disappear," Trump knew better. Trump did not bother to deny or dispute Woodward's account. He apparently felt secure in the knowledge that Woodward's target audience did not include much of his own, and evidence would suggest that was correct. Woodward's account did not produce a notable change in the president's approval rating, nor was it identifiable as a factor in November.
Perhaps no book ever could be. At least not as a weapon against a candidate or officeholder such as Trump. Comey surely lifted the lid on that little secret well before Woodward did.
And other writers, some well-known but not on Woodward's level, were not able to do much more in altering perceptions. Journalists such as Jonathan Karl of ABC News (Front Row at the Trump Show) and Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post (A Very Stable Genius) were able to take readers inside the operations of the White House and Trump team and marshal reams of evidence concerning Trump's mercurial personality and haphazard governing style.
The Post also turned loose its fact-checking staff, led by Glenn Kessler, in a lengthy compendium of "falsehoods, misleading claims and flat-out lies" titled Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth. It was all far in excess of the assault on any previous president in the mainstream media, and yet it did not seem to dent the president's armor. To be sure, it was pleasing to people who had not cared for the man from the beginning, but there is an underlying assumption in digging for and telling hard truths needs to make a difference.
But Comey was part of separate stream, one that may matter more, at least to historians sifting back through the evidence. Comey kicked off a series of "tell-alls" that would come to include quite a few insiders. Early on there was Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who had run against Trump in 2015 but jumped aboard the bandwagon as the primaries began. Christie was still steaming over having his extensive transition plan consigned to the dumpster when he himself was denied a White House job. (It turns out the West Wing wasn't big enough for him and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose father Christie had prosecuted in federal court years earlier.)
Another victim of West Wing internal wars was Cliff Sims, a young blogger from Alabama brought into the campaign by Bannon in 2016. Sims' Team of Vipers appeared in early 2019 and foretold some of the infighting that would be featured in other accounts. Sims, however, remained basically loyal to Trump. The same could not be said for national security adviser John Bolton, who blistered his former boss in The Room Where It Happened. And the deepest cuts of all might have been those by Michael Cohen, formerly Trump's personal lawyer and fixer, whose Disloyal appeared in September 2020.
The temptation to get one's side of the story told can be hard to resist. Thus we had an early autobiographical entry from Nikki Haley, who lasted less than two years as ambassador to the United Nations. With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace is largely a defense of Trump but a critique of his chief of staff and national security adviser. In any event, it has been taken as an early campaign document for Haley's expected presidential bid in 2024.
But this is but the briefest of thumbnail sketches of the Trump lit to date. Carlos Lozada, the estimable book editor for The Washington Post, in October published What Were We Thinking, the result of reading some 150 Trump-related or Trump-themed books, adding, "That's just a fraction of the Trump canon." And he's ready for more, listing Trump aides he hopes will pitch in.
We are told that quite a few are planning to do just that. Kayleigh McEnany and Kellyanne Conway are said to be continuing their speaking-for-the-president roles in print, as past spokespersons Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Sean Spicer have already done.
Former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is also rumored to be publishing, and his resignation this week coupled with statements about Trump "not being the same man he was eight months ago" suggest he may be more disaffected than when he was reassigned as special envoy to Northern Ireland.
In any event, the next generation of Trump literature, whether pro or con, will have a different tone and perspective in the wake of his reelection defeat and the astonishing lengths he has gone to in denying it — and insisting others do the same.