The Stack

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

James Comey's A Higher Loyalty gained a lot of notoriety in the days leading up to its release. Tanner Kenney reviews the former FBI director's memoir detailing some of the most notable parts.


There has been a great deal of discussion about former FBI Director James Comey’s entrance into the world of journalism and public relations as well as his affinity for media appearances and book tours. However, it is the basis for and substance of the work he produced that should be of great concern to all Americans as opposed to the trajectory of his career since his exit from public office. Throughout A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, readers are taken on a 30,000 feet flight above James Comey’s entire life, focusing mostly his career in public office, and culminating in his whirlwind relationship with President Donald Trump, ending in his firing on May 9th, 2017.

A Higher Loyalty begins with Comey’s recounting of testifying before Congress and then quickly shifts to his work as a Deputy United States Attorney prosecuting La Cosa Nostra – the Italian Mafia in New York City – under the leadership of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, now one of President Trump’s attorneys. Comey then moves on to a terrifying childhood experience which saw him home alone with his brother during a home invasion – likely the work of the Ramsey Rapist – that eventually pushed him away from the study of law to law enforcement. Comey describes how, in that moment, his brain chemistry changed, and he became dedicated to the protection of those who could not defend themselves – the sick, elderly, and infirmed, who deserve the same quality of life as more able-bodied individuals.

From here, A Higher Loyalty returns its focus to La Cosa Nostra. But instead of focusing on their crimes and punishments, Comey looks to their actions, intentions, and mindsets in examining the mind of a criminal organization as opposed to an amalgamation of individuals. La Cosa Nostra is not unique in demanding personal loyalty through a culture of honor that relied upon lying, silencing critics, and refusing to let those not ‘in-the-know’ close – and Comey saw a lot of those traits in Giuliani and, eventually, Donald Trump. However, while the Mafia is a treacherous organization, “evil makes great pasta.”

Maintaining a rapid pace through A Higher Loyalty, Comey proceeds to his appointment as United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York and details the investigation he led into ImClone and claims of insider trading by investors – primarily lifestyle media personality Martha Stewart. At this point, Comey begins introducing the major players he dealt with from the Bush Administration, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and is named the Deputy Attorney General of the United States.

In this position, Comey began his professional relationship with then-FBI Director Robert Mueller III. Confirmation Bias shifts the focus of the book back to the discussion of principles as opposed to a minute-by-minute account of his time in-office under President Bush. The chapter concludes with Comey’s conclusion that former Vice President Dick Cheney was to blame for the torture of suspected terrorists through “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In Hoover’s Shadow, Comey ascends to the position of FBI Director and discusses the bureau’s history, highlighting the terrifying reign of former Director J. Edgar Hoover as a time when the institution suffered through its greatest challenges – some of which may be outdone by the current Administration. After a brief stint in the private sector with Bridgewater Advisors, Comey returned to a life of public service.

A Higher Loyalty often shifts its tone and point-of-view – from policy shifts to the wording of conversations – and the second half of the book focuses greatly on specificities of interactions Comey had with individuals, agencies, and organizations throughout his time with the Obama Administration until his dismissal by President Trump. The time Comey spent with Barack Obama in a personal capacity lasted merely one meeting, and his professional relationship with the then-President was nearly as short. Comey emphasizes the importance of separation between the FBI and Oval Office as the two are inextricably linked.

Given that the FBI is under the purview of the Executive Branch, the Director serves as the pleasure of the President, but tradition has shown that they must remain “at arm’s length.” Donald Trump and his staff shattered this norm even prior to taking office in inviting Comey to several unofficial meetings in addition to unwarranted and casual phone calls on top of regular business. Moreover, he paints a picture of the most important people in civil society in recent American history and compares their personalities and honorability via their senses of humor – Mueller an old-school crime-fighter, Obama a jovial and thoughtful leader, and Bush a bully. The Washington Listen gives insight into the inner-workings of D.C. politics through the lens of a career law enforcement official looking at the poor treatment of minorities throughout the nation at the hands of police, the judicial system, and beyond.

Every major event that Comey worked on is referenced in A Higher Loyalty, such as the protests in Ferguson following the shooting deaths of multiple unarmed black men throughout the nation and the subsequent #BlackLivesMatter movement. In Roadkill, Comey chastises President Bill Clinton’s pardoning of fugitive criminal Marc Rich and fully explores the difficulties surrounding the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email-scandal. “The emails” and private server were of some concern, but due to the toxicity of the election, Comey decided to take the investigation public. Although unorthodox, Comey uses this section of his book to defend the decision he and his subordinates made whilst investigating the possible transmission of classified materials and concludes he would have done nothing different, if he were able to.

Comey describes the interactions he had with Obama Administration officials regarding the subject, in particular highlighting what he believed to be an overstep by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch when she asked him to refer to the investigation as a “matter” – possibly the result of her friendship with Hillary Clinton. Speak or Conceal details the thought-processes of Comey and other FBI officials when weighing whether or not to inform Congress that the investigation had been reopened, and after AG Lynch’s recusal from the investigation, the matter is reopened and closed again with great fanfare merely three days prior to the election.

A Higher Loyalty then shifts its focus to the Russian government’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 elections through a 3-progned attack on our election systems through vote-tabulation equipment, emails of the parties that put candidates forth, and sewing discord throughout American society with well-placed, highly critical ads, comments, and responses – essentially creating the “fake news” phenomenon. Comey reasserts that he is a lifelong Republican, as are many in the FBI – the organization “leans right” – and he is thankful to have received praise from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D – NY) in maintaining a loyalty to the law over his party.

Trump Tower is where most of the text-based fracas over Comey’s account of the investigation into Russian election-meddling begins. Here he details the Trump Campaign’s desire to get “dirt” on Clinton and the meeting it took with several Russians in the offices of Donald Trump, Jr. as well as the “Steele Dossier” – a collection of highly scandalous claims made by a former British spy who was paid by several political bodies to surveil the Trump Team and those in its orbit.

This is where the reader will also find what Comey has already stated is his biggest regret in A Higher Loyalty – his comments about President Trump’s appearance. While the comments are brief and not overly-critical, they are unnecessary and addressed solely due to the pop-culture obsession with the size of Trump’s hands. During his first meeting with the President – a national security briefing, Comey noticed that Trump was more concerned about the public messaging regarding the Russia investigation than the facts it had already uncovered. Comey later notes one interesting observation about Trump – he never laughs, ever.

Tests of Loyalty brings back the comparisons to the Mafia at various points in time, from Comey’s observations of the Trump Administration’s willingness to lie about things like size of the crowd that attended the inauguration to the purpose of the meeting in Trump Tower. He then cites the private dinner between the two men at the White House as a turning-point – this is the night Comey began memorializing his interactions with President Trump should the account of their interactions be brought into question – an assumption that proved to be correct on several occasions.

The Cloud, referring to the Russia investigation, is where Comey’s position as FBI Director is lost. Trump repeatedly asks Comey to drop the investigation into his friend and former National Security Adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, and without objection from an “overmatched” Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, Comey is fired by President Trump while in Los Angeles to visit the FBI field office and attend a diversity recruitment event. Shortly after his removal, and as a private citizen, Comey details the contents of one of his memos to a friend that then reports that information to the New York Times.

Comey is careful to point out that the information reported was not, in any way, leaked to the press as the material was neither classified nor a government document.

Like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, there was a heightened sense of anticipation prior to the publication A Higher Loyalty. And while the book maintained its previously-planned release date, Comey’s media appearances dwarfed that of Wolff’s – in terms of both quantity and stature – and varied greatly throughout each day of the week of April 16th, 2018. From interviews with the New York Times in print and podcast to sit-downs with The View and Stephen Colbert, Comey defended his defense of his career in public office.

Whereas Michael Wolff came off as combative and unwilling to address criticism of his work, Comey appears to have expressed the genuine emotions and qualities of pride, regret, honesty, hubris and diligence in his assessment of his time as Director of the FBI; his passion for justice is palpable and Comey’s desire to promote equality and fairness in civil society is evident, throughout, as well. Thankfully, A Higher Loyalty contains none of the negative characteristics that Fire and Fury suffered from – the timeline and facts presented within the book are done so in a clear and repetitive fashion as to allow the reader time to digest each and every event and to judge their importance in an appropriate context.

While touching on various points in time, and in as great detail as Wolff’s undertaking, Comey’s book flows well with a comprehensible narrative structure, unlike Wolff’s notebook-like production filled with every Trump-related person, place, thing, and innumerable references to obscure items. Personally, I would have preferred further elaboration on the things that Comey would have done differently, given the benefit of hindsight, as well as a reduction in just how noble, righteous, and principled he may be. With that said, this is one of the most fascinating retellings of a snapshot of American politics from one of its biggest players alongside a detailed history of American law enforcement and justice.

Tanner Kenney is an energy and media professional with a background in journalism and received his M.S. in Global Affairs, Environment & Energy Policy from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. Recently, Tanner has focused on the advocacy of sustainable development through renewable energy technologies, transportation efficiency, and inclusive public policy.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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