It’s strange to open a revelatory book from a former United States FBI director who, under normal circumstances, would still be in his role with the world none the wiser about his insights. But these are no ordinary times.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump to the White House put then-director James Comey in a surreal position. He had to privately warn the new president about a dossier that raised questions about contact between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s government.
The report, known as the Steele Dossier, also contained personal information about Trump. It would form the basis of an FBI investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians to influence the outcome of the US election.
In decades gone by, Comey was a federal prosecutor who helped to bring down the notorious Gambino family, one of the “Five Families” that ran organised mafia crime within New York City.
In A Higher Loyalty, he presents parallels between Trump’s leadership and that of a mafia don. It’s not hard to see why. Republicans and conservatives who were once critics of then-candidate Trump were quick to toe the line once he won the Electoral College.
After a meeting early in Trump’s administration with the president and his then-chief of staff Reince Priebus, Comey was reminded of his days as a federal prosecutor working to take down the mob’s leadership: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that puts the organisation above morality and above the truth.”
In the maelstrom of quick news, fake news and divisive commentaries that flood the media, A Higher Loyalty provides sober reflection on the concept of ethical leadership, what it means to pursue objective truth, and how to do what’s right rather than what’s expedient.
For Comey, even small lies become gateways to corruption down the line. Standing at an impressive 2m (6ft 6½in) tall, Comey would regularly be asked if he played basketball in school. Rather than launch into an unnecessary narrative about why he hadn’t, he simply said “Yes”.
Aware of the seduction of white lies, he was subsequently compelled to write letters to friends and colleagues about why he lied, and resolved to hold himself to a higher standard.
Trump, on the other hand, sees himself as someone who is never wrong, telling The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon in 2015, “I think apologising’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologise, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”
Comey, who was fired from the FBI by Trump on May 9. 2017, believes that a leader who doesn’t doubt himself will lack the necessary wisdom to carry out his role. (Comey was at a recruiting event in Los Angeles when he saw a TV news report that he had been fired.)
He writes, “Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. And the older I get, the less I know for certain. Those leaders who never think they are wrong, who never question their judgements or perspectives, are a danger to the organisations and people they lead. In some cases, they are a danger to the nation and the world.”
A Higher Loyalty is a book about the value of ethical leadership and the necessity of truth. It’s also a touching memoir of how an often turbulent life shaped the values and character of a man who can appear somewhat sanctimonious at times, but who clearly values truth, justice and honesty as the highest virtues.
Stories about his close encounters with death, the tragic – and possibly avoidable – death of his baby son, and the deeply loving relationship with his wife Patrice, offer a more human perspective to Comey that has been lacking in his media coverage.
Throughout the pages of this damning book, we don’t see the stoic giant, the man who previously referred to himself as “the FBI giraffe”. Instead, we see a man who has often had to wrestle with difficult decisions and tough choices that has drawn criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.
As an old-school editor once told me as a young journalist, “If all the politicians are complaining about you, you’re doing a good job.”
Comey describes Trump’s presidency as a “forest fire” that is wreaking havoc on the values and institutions upon which America was built. Of Trump himself, Comey writes, “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”
Despite the sombre tone and obvious despair that shines through Comey’s words, he remains hopeful that America can recover from the spiteful divisions and tumultuous upheaval. “Forest fires, as painful as they can be, bring growth,” he writes, signifying his hope that order can be restored from chaos.
Comey’s book delivers some fascinating and disturbing insights into the administration of his former boss, but also encourages people to reflect on their own contribution to the state of their nation. After all, it’s been said that voters get the leaders they deserve.
It will be interesting to see the comparative judgement history makes of Comey and Trump. This book will surely be a key documentation of this turbulent era of American politics long after the dust has settled.
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, And Leadership
Author: James Comey
Publisher: Macmillan, autobiography, nonfiction, politics