SAN DIEGO – It’s now clear that James Comey is a highly capable lawyer with only one client: James Comey.
The former FBI director may not need an attorney. But he could really use a public relations firm to help him rehabilitate his image.
That’s because, if you paid attention to Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, you know that President Donald Trump isn’t the only person with a credibility problem.
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The anti-Trump media are hammering away at what Trump did wrong, including the president’s clumsy decision to fire Comey while the FBI was looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Yet the media – which seem to have forgotten that it tried to tear Comey to pieces when he interjected himself into the 2016 election in a way that was detrimental to Hillary Clinton – have been lax in pointing out how the former FBI director fouled up in his dealings with Trump.
Don’t misunderstand. None of this excuses Trump. According to Comey, the president asked Comey if he wanted to keep his job, inquired whether he was under investigation as part of the FBI’s probe into Russian meddling in the election, and expressed his “hope” that the bureau would drop its inquiry into the conduct of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. All of this was inappropriate.
Some Republicans on the Senate panel tried to depict the exchanges as casual conversations.
What foolishness. There is no such thing as “casual” when you’re at the White House and talking to the president of the United States – someone who has the power to relieve you of your duties – and he tells you what he’d like you to do. As he said during his testimony, Comey took Trump’s comment as “a direction” – albeit one that he did not follow.
But here’s the important part: How did Comey respond? That depends. Are we talking about the image that Comey is trying to construct now, or what he did at those moments when Trump came to him with his concerns? Big difference.
In the light of present day, Comey wants senators – and the rest of the country – to see him as a paragon of virtue, a pillar of independence and a model of integrity. In this narrative – Comey as martyr, which you will undoubtedly be able to read for yourself one day in an eight-figure memoir – the former FBI director stood up to the bully in chief. It was the right thing to do, and he was punished for doing it.
According to this telling of the story, Trump got more than he bargained for. At one point he invited Comey to the White House for a meal, and guess who came to dinner? Eliot Ness.
But that’s not what really happened. Defiance wasn’t on the menu
Comey wrote in his notes, and repeated in his testimony, that Trump told him: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”
Wow. What did Comey do? He should have gotten up and left. Or smiled politely and said nothing at all. Or changed the subject and commented on how good the soup was.
But the former FBI director didn’t do any of that. According to his own notes, and his own testimony, he told the president that the best he could offer was “honest loyalty.”
Uh oh. There’s that L-word again. It’s likely that Trump thought the two men had reached an agreement. Besides, when you’re the FBI director – and, if you’re really the Eagle Scout that you pretend to be – you have no business pledging your loyalty to anyone, or anything, but the truth.
And when Trump asked Comey to clarify whether he was under investigation, what did Comey do? Again, he should have gotten up and walked out. Or changed the subject.
Instead, Comey did something that no prosecutor should ever do. He showed his cards. Again, according to his own words, he told Trump that he was not under investigation.
This is a guy who seems to have been so intimidated by Trump and the trappings of the White House, and so desperate to keep his job as one of the nation’s top law enforcement officers, that he was much too compliant, much too polite, and much too accommodating. Are these really the actions of a hero?
Comey was invited to dinner at the White House, but the person who showed up – and got weak in the knees – wasn’t Eliot Ness. It was Barney Fife.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.