A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership review: Thought provoking autobiography

May 11, 2018
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The autobiography of former FBI director James Comey is not only a blow-by-blow account of his role in the Hillary Clinton emails investigation and a description of the increasingly creepy interactions with President Trump that presaged his demise, but a page-turning account of a high-flying career in US law enforcement.

A formative experience for Comey occurred in October 1977 when has was 16. Following a string of attacks in a nearby town, a serial offender dubbed the Ramsey Rapist kicked open the front door of the Comey family home and demanded at gunpoint that “Jim” and his younger brother tell him where the valuables were.

Both boys escaped after their captor was disturbed by the return of a neighbour but the incident had a lasting effect on the future FBI boss. “I thought about him every night for five years – not most nights, every night – and I slept with a knife at hand for far longer,” writes Comey. This incident appears to have amounted to a call to arms.

By 2003 Comey was deputy attorney general under George W Bush and was caught up in a row over a controversial presidential order. Comey was acting attorney general due to the incapacitation of his boss through pancreatic cancer and his colleagues in the Justice Department considered the classified programme involving surveillance of terrorist suspects without judicial warrants as “clearly unlawful”.

So he clashed with fearsome vice-president Dick Cheney and his legal counsel David Addington. In one tense meeting Comey told Cheney that the legal opinion on which the order was based was so bad that “No lawyer could rely upon it.”

Addington responded by saying: “I’m a lawyer and I did.” Without breaking eye contact with the vice-president, Comey said: “No good lawyer.”

What happened next is like something out of a thriller. Comey heard that the president’s chief of staff and legal counsel were heading for the hospital where the attorney general John Ashcroft lay in a serious condition. Comey raced to get there first to ensure they could not pressure Ashcroft to sign a renewal of the order.

After a stint in private practice, Comey had joined the faculty of Columbia Law School when he was invited to apply for the FBI’s top job by the Obama administration, which had been impressed by the independence he showed under Bush.

Comey’s biggest challenge came 12 days before the 2016 presidential election. He had previously opened and closed an investigation into the content of emails Hillary Clinton had sent from an unauthorised private server at her home during her time as secretary of state.

When hundreds of thousands of new emails came to light, Comey felt duty-bound to sift through these too and announce that the investigation had been reopened, an incendiary decision that many felt gave the election to Trump.

Although Comey admits the thought of this left him “mildly nauseous”, he felt he made the right decision. But he was soon out of the frying pan into the fire.

The way the new president pressed him for a pledge of loyalty reminded Comey of mafia bosses he had investigated as a young lawyer.

The writing was on the wall after he refused to drop the investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and “lift the cloud” of the investigation into Russia’s alleged election interference.

The theme that runs through the book is leadership, a subject on which the author’s views range from profound to corny.

If you can forgive the odd foray into American folksiness, you will enjoy a thought-provoking account of a God-fearing man walking among villains.



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