A Higher Loyalty by James Comey – review | Books
His height makes him an awkward fit for the smaller-scaled world the rest of us occupy, and his memoir abounds in clumsy physical upsets. Wearing resoled shoes that boost him by half an inch, he miscalculates how far he needs to duck and bangs his head on the lintel of a door as he enters a solemn White House conclave, which leaves him trying to finesse a trickle of blood from his skull during a meeting with George W Bush. Embraced by the diminutive Loretta Lynch, Obama’s attorney general, he feels her head nudging his navel. Trump, grandly enthroned behind “a large wooden obstacle”, humbles Comey by assigning him to a child-sized chair, from which his bony knees protrude to prod the presidential desk.
Comey used his height defensively at a White House reception when Trump tried to lure him into complicity with a hug, an unwanted and inappropriate act of collusion between two branches of government that ought to remain separate. In a video of the incident, you can see Comey cautiously hold back and then, when Trump advances, swivel sideways; it’s a nimble manoeuvre, spoiled a little when Trump grabs him again, pulls him down and, like a mafia don ceremoniously initiating a loyalist, appears to give him a kiss. In their first meeting, Comey had to brief Trump about the unverified Steele dossier and its tale of Moscow hookers and a purported golden shower. He describes the occasion as “an out-of-body experience”, and out of his body – abstracted into what Judge Judy calls “a truth machine” – is probably where this cerebral man would prefer to be.
Comey’s character, with its stiff-backed rectitude, is a reflex of his stature. Sent to his room at the age of seven for some forgotten infraction, he apologised to his mother in a note, vowing: “I will be a great man some day.” Aware of his sanctimonious reputation, he humanises himself by relating traumatic events that shocked him into sympathy with the victims of crime. He was bullied at school, and at home he was once held hostage by an armed burglar; he and his wife lost a newborn son to an illness that might have been prevented. He values humour because it involves the admission of vulnerability. Trump, Comey says, is incapable of laughter and prefers to sneer, whereas Robert Mueller, the special counsel charged with uncovering presidential malfeasance, possesses “a grimace that passes for a smile”.
Despite these concessions to human weakness, Comey’s principles are as inflexible as his elongated limbs. He theorises about what it takes to be a leader, always indirectly aiming his remarks at Trump, who is likened to the Cosa Nostra bosses Comey jailed during his days as a New York prosecutor – an ignorant thug whose tantrums and rants make up for gnawing personal insecurities. Comey points out that Trump soliloquises unstoppably and incoherently, assuming that the silence of his browbeaten audience signifies assent; his constant lying seals him in an impermeable “cocoon of alternative reality”.
Although he doesn’t say so in the book, at college Comey wrote a thesis on the existential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who believed that Christians should “enter the political realm” to combat wrongdoing. On Twitter, where Comey has published landscape photographs that serenely confirm his belief in natural order, he even used Niebuhr’s name as his alias – a more high-minded pseudonym than John Barron, the identity Trump adopted in the 1980s when he phoned gossip columnists with updates on his sexual exploits. (Later, he leeringly recalled the imposture when he chose a name for his youngest son.)