WASHINGTON – It was not an 18-minute gap, but it will be remembered as the most awkward conversation pause of recent presidential history.
The setting, according to former FBI Director James Comey’s detailed testimony, was a private dinner in the Green Room of the Executive Mansion. President Donald Trump, who had been hinting at (in Comey’s account) a “patronage relationship,” ceased merely to hint. “I need loyalty,” Trump insisted. “I expect loyalty.”
At that point, recalled Comey, “We simply looked at each other in silence.”
Later in the dinner, Trump came back around to the expectation of loyalty. “You will always get honesty from me,” replied Comey. The president and the FBI director finally settled on the concept of “honest loyalty,” to defuse a difficult argument.
During the Comey hearing Thursday, it was naturally the legal issues that predominated, including: How does being instructed (or feeling “directed” in Comey’s word) by the president to stop an ongoing criminal investigation differ from obstruction of justice? While not alleging obstruction himself, Comey seemed to be setting up the factual basis for an obstruction case, like a tennis-serve toss for his friend, former colleague and special counsel Robert Mueller, to smash home. Comey also managed to change the political facts on the ground in at least one decisive way. Just based on Comey’s testimony, if Democrats win control of the House in the midterm elections, there will be impeachment proceedings.
But the deeper point here is not different legal interpretations or different memories but different moralities. The Trump/Comey contest is also a titanic clash of worldviews.
In the Green Room, Trump was expressing a morality rooted in relationships. He defines character, like Vito Corleone, as adhering to a code of personal loyalty. The generosity of the patron must be respected and repaid.
Comey responded with a morality of norms. He defines character as obedience to a code of rules. And in that code, honesty seems to hold pride of place. In his testimony, by directly accusing Trump of lying, Comey was relegating the president to the lowest circle of moral failure.
The conflict between these two views of ethics is not easily resolved. The concept of “honest loyalty” ultimately fails. Trump defines integrity as faithfulness. Comey defines integrity as truthfulness. Neither is entirely faithful or true to his own standard. But the failures are not equal.
Trump lives for loyalty but seems incapable of showing it. He demands sycophancy, and yet, driven by his own obsessions and disorders, he regularly exposes his closest aides to public ridicule and humiliation. Why, by Trump’s own standard, should members of his administration be loyal? Not for personal reasons, given his rule by ridicule. Not for ideology, because Trump does not really possess one. The only plausible reason for loyalty to Trump is the opportunity to exercise power. But his rented recruits end up discredited by the daily work of defending the indefensible. And Trump himself ends up isolated by his own suspicions and distrust.
Comey, in contrast, explores the line between righteousness and self-righteousness. The defense of truth seems to justify a variety of measures – including strategically leaking information in hopes of ensuring the appointment of a special counsel – that earn the description of extreme political hardball. Comey seems to regard the FBI as the priesthood of norms – an institution to be defended at nearly any cost. The president’s alleged request to end the Flynn investigation, for example, was not reported upward, but rather kept in a back pocket for future use. “We decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed,” explained Comey. This is a fairly cold calculation, even if in a good cause.
There is, however, a world of difference between the two men. Comey’s considerable errors of judgment seem motivated by moral exactitude. Trump’s alleged transgressions would be the definition of public corruption. Only one man in Comey’s account of the White House dinner was proposing the ethics of a protection racket.
In the end, Trump’s endless legal and ethical troubles are the revenge of the campaign issue of temperament. Those who argued that ideology matters more than character – that a favored law or Supreme Court seat is more important than the deepest beliefs of the president himself – have some explaining to do. Trump’s moral and political instincts are the result of choices made little by little, year by year, and will not be changed.
There is no president other than the disturbing, needy man in the Green Room.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.