Jurisprudence

The Shrinking of James Comey

How publicly engaging with Donald Trump, especially on television, makes the former FBI director look small.

James Comey sits down for an exclusive interview in a Sunday prime-time 20/20 special on ABC.
James Comey sits down for an exclusive interview in a Sunday prime-time 20/20 special on ABC.
Ralph Alswang/ABC via Getty Images

For those who wondered what it would look like to watch a somber, reflective adult human wander into a political cage match with a drunk dancing bear, we can now state definitively that the bear wins. Especially if the cage match is televised.

Sunday night’s ABC interview with James Comey made the former FBI director look smaller, more uncomfortable, and more shot through with human failings than the Comey we’d all invented in our heads. I’m not alone in that assessment. Many Comey watchers expressed frustration at his evasiveness when answering George Stephanopoulos’ questions, his unsavory book-selling motives, and his self-regard. And those were his fans. Perhaps it’s time to agree that Donald Trump’s superpower is that whatever thoughtful, sober grown-up we send in the ring to do battle with him emerges diminished, merely for having attempted to spar.

Consider those aforementioned knocks on Comey—that he is seeking to cash in; that he only wants to be famous; that he is too enamored with himself. At one point, Stephanopoulos actually asked: “Couple years back, you gave a speech I think to the FBI personnel saying, ‘If we fall in love with our own virtue, we can go sideways.’ At any point over the last two years, did you fall prey to that? Did you fall in love with your own virtue?” Comey’s answer was torturous and included an unfortunate pitch to buy his book. But really, what’s the correct answer to: “Are you in love with yourself?”

Welcome to the age of Trump, in which any public display of Trump’s greatest weaknesses—grifting, money-grubbing, or self-regard—becomes disqualifying not for the president, who is, after all, who he is, but for his critics. And further, if one criticizes the president from a posture of behaving ethically, one is reflexively decried as pious. But if the act of seeking publicity and financial reward is inherently corrupting, there can be no forum for meaningful public criticism. Had Comey told his story at a church in Virginia, nobody would have heard it. So he wrote a book and did TV, which makes him a sellout apparently.

I have been covering Comey for a long time, and my own instinct, based in part on his long-ago intervention in the John Ashcroft–NSA reauthorization events of 2004, is that he has tried to be all the things one seeks in a lawyer and intelligence officer: honorable, careful, and truthful. With errors that are sharply visible in hindsight—the Clinton-probe announcement just before the election, especially if based on dubious sourcing—he still seems to have tried to put the FBI and the rule of law first.

That Comey has a lot to answer for in terms of the 2016 election is not in doubt. That there is no palatable answer to be offered in hindsight, knowing what we all know today, was perfectly clear to everyone on Sunday. If one believes that Comey found himself in an intolerably difficult spot in the fall of 2016 and made a very questionable call to go public on the state of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, the only possible way to answer for that today must be, “I didn’t know what would happen,” which is in effect what he said again on Sunday. “And do you regret making that decision at that time?” Stephanopoulos asked. “Yes? No? Maybe? What should I say?” Comey answered. Is there a better answer?

In an interview with very few interesting moments, I found myself fixating on Comey’s description, again, of standing in a meeting with Trump and trying to disappear into the blue curtains behind him. It seems to me that no better metaphor exists for the choice faced by any sentient human in the Trump circle, having to decide each day between getting swept up by the drunk dancing bear or fading back into the scenery. James Comey has only bad choices: Having seen what he has seen, he can either try to fade into the background, or he can step forward and say his piece. We condemn him for stepping forward because he is self-aggrandizing and pretentious and hoping to cash in. Had he not stepped forward, we would condemn him for his silence and complicity.

This is the ultimate tragedy of Donald Trump’s moral takeover of our politics and the media: To engage with him in any public forum is to be accused of being like him—venal, self-regarding, and corrupt. To refuse to engage with him in any public forum is to be accused of moral cowardice. And as we careen ever closer to constitutional crisis, the silence of Trump’s critics has ever-greater consequences.

Every aspiring “Great Man” who steps into the amphitheater of the Trump presidency will emerge pilloried and scarred by Trump’s tweets, and by his own failings. He will be diminished by a GOP machinery that calls him a criminal and then further diminished by those of us who want a more virtuous, less flawed Great Man. This partly explains why Robert Mueller, who works in silence, surrounded by others who work in silence, continues to be our collective national fantasy of the hero who will save us. We have no notion of what he is doing. He’s behind closed doors and therefore, at least on the left, unsullied.

Of course, Comey doesn’t have that option. He was pushed out of the sober world of the law and into the morally compromised world of celebrity, personality, and Twitter. If one grades him on a curve compared to the licentious fabricator sitting in the Oval Office, of course he is morally and ethically superior in every single way. The problem is that television will never be the medium in which to prove that, and everyone comes away tainted by the selectively staged and awkward silliness that an exclusive prime-time interview demands in order to seem “real.” So you end up making a joke about tanning glasses and you look small. You speak of virtue and you look sanctimonious. Any screen, any time? The drunk dancing bear wins again. Not because he looks good, but because he’s brought you down just a tiny bit closer to his level.

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Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.