To save his skin, Jacob Zuma disbanded the Scorpions. Donald Trump fired a giraffe, the creature with which two metre tall former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey associates himself in his memoir, A Higher Loyalty, published on Tuesday.
The book, in which Comey calls Trump “morally unfit” for office and says reminds him of the mob bosses he prosecuted at the start of his career, is getting mixed reviews.
Among the kindest was by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. Of Comey and Trump, she wrote: “They are as antipodean as the untethered, sybaritic Al Capone and the square, diligent G-man Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie “The Untouchables”.”
From Trump himself came the inevitable twitter tantrum, closely coordinated with his Fox News mbongi chorus and nicely illustrating Kakutani’s comparison. Comey was a “slimeball”, the president said, and ought to be in jail for a range of (imaginary) offences.
Supporters of Hillary Clinton expressed their disapproval more delicately, though their underlying rage is scarcely less fierce. Comey, they are convinced, put Trump over the top in 2016 when he told congress, days before the election, that he was reopening the FBI’s enquiry into whether she had knowingly compromised US secrets by using a private email server while secretary of state.
Comey, to my mind quite convincingly, argues that of the terrible choices with which he was confronted he made the least ghastly to preserve the integrity of the FBI as an institution that must, for democracy’s sake, remain outside the political fray.
He had announced the previous July that while Clinton had been “extremely careless” with her email, there was no evidence she knew she was breaking the law, let alone that she intended to break it. Then, in October, police in New York discovered a whole new trove of potentially incriminating Clinton emails on a laptop belonging the the estranged husband of one of her closest aides, Huma Abedin. The husband, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, was under investigation for digitally exposing himself to an underage girl.
Comey’s critics argue he should have kept mum about this discovery until after the election. But he had every reason to believe it was about to be leaked by anti-Clinton cops in New York. If that happened before the election, as was likely, the FBI would be accused of trying to protect the Democrat. If Clinton won as the polls predicted and it then became know that the FBI had been sitting on incriminating evidence, the legitimacy of her election would be thrown into doubt and Trump’s charge that the result would be rigged validated.
In the event, Comey’s team had time to the examine the emails before election day and confirm his earlier decision not to prosecute, but the reclosing of the enquiry came too late to unbreak camels’ backs broken by the last straw of its reopening.
If there is a case to be made against Comey’s handling of an impossible situation, it is that to protect the institution he loved he allowed himself to be intimidated by the howling heads of the rabid right. The terrible irony is that in doing so he helped deliver the FBI into the hands of a man with zero respect for its independence.
Trump, in Comey’s telling, wanted the FBI director to act as one of his “made men” in Mafia parlance — to drop the probe into the Kremlin’s meddling with the election, go easy on Mike Flynn, his first national security adviser facing prosecution for lying about his Russian contacts, even to find some way of disproving allegations that Trump had cavorted with urinating prostitutes in a Moscow hotel suite during the Miss Universe pageant in 2013.
Comey, a stiff-necked but honest giraffe with a nice eye for the telling detail, wouldn’t play.