Comey vs. Trump, Two Alpha Dogs


I must confess to having very mixed feelings about former FBI head James Comey as he goes around country promoting his book. On the one hand, I agree with Vox’s Matt Yglesias that we are in desperate need of public officials standing up for the rule of law. It takes courage to argue against the president for institutional independence and autonomy, and Comey got fired when he did so. On the other hand, Comey flouting FBI protocol is a big reason why Donald Trump is president.

Comey’s battle with Trump reminds me of Milkman’s battle with his father in Song of Solomon. Toni Morrison’s protagonist has right on his side when he defends his mother, but he also operates out of a male sense of entitlement.

The scene occurs when Macon Dead hits his wife. For the first time in his life, Milkman pushes back:

Macon didn’t wait to put his fork down. He dropped it on the table while his hand was on its way across the bread plate becoming the fist he smashed into her jaw.

…Before his father could draw his hand back, Milkman had yanked him by the back of his coat collar, up out of his chair, and knocked him into the radiator. The window shade flapped and rolled itself up.

“You touch her again, one more time, and I’ll kill you.”

The moment marks a turning point in their relationship. Milkman later learns, however, that his much put-upon sister Lena is not impressed. For years she has resented how her brother receives preferential treatment while she and the other Dead daughter must live narrow lives. Pointing out that Milkman accepts female caretaking as his due, she unleashes a bitter tirade:

“Where do you get the right to decide our lives?”

“Lena, cool it. I don’t want to hear it.”

“I’ll tell you where. From that hog’s gut that hangs down between your legs. Well, let me tell you something, baby brother. You will need more than that….You are exactly like [our father]. Exactly. I didn’t go to college because of him. Because I was afraid of what he might do to Mama. You think because you hit him once that we all believe you were protecting her. Taking her side. It’s a lie. You were taking over, letting us know you had the right to tell her and all of us what to do.”

When Comey determined that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server didn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense (“no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case”), he should have let the Attorney General handle the matter. Instead, ignoring the direction of Loretta Lynch, he publicly scolded Clinton, even while absolving her. Then, a month before the election, he publicly mentioned finding new e-mails, which turned out to be old-e-mails. Nate Silver of 538, among others, believes the FBI raising new doubts about Clinton was the difference maker in a close election.

In other words, Comey used Clinton as a foil, beating up on her to establish himself as a noble warrior for truth. I can’t imagine him having done the same with, say, Colin Powell, Clinton’s predecessor, who also used a private e-mail server. As Huffington Post explains,

Here’s the thing: the Clinton investigation wasn’t an ordinary investigation, and that’s precisely why Comey should have shut up about it. He’s admitting that his July 2016 decision to publicly criticize Clinton was against FBI protocol. There’s policy in place to prevent FBI directors from doing things like making public statements or taking action that could directly affect an election, because the FBI director could have undue influence. Comey apparently felt that those rules didn’t apply to him.

As it turns out, he did follow protocol in the FBI’s investigation of Russian influence—set in motion by George Papadopoulos’s big mouth—which we heard about only after the election. The FBI investigations are supposed to be quiet until there’s a report, at which point the attorney general decides what to do. We know now that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened to accuse President Obama of election interference if he informed America of Russia’s attacks.

I think Comey is genuinely concerned about Trump’s assault on the rule of law and that, as Yglesias observes, anything else is secondary—just as Milkman’s defense of his mother takes priority over all else. And of course Trump, who believes the DOJ should function as his personal enforcers, is male entitlement personified.

But look at Comey through Lena’s eyes. He thought he knew better than a female attorney general how to handle a report on a female candidate. His comeuppance occurred after Trump was elected and he learned he was expected to be one of the president’s loyal flunkies. His male pride was offended as much as his sense of justice.

Further note: Jennifer Palmieri in a Politico article sums up James Comey’s intervention as succinctly as anyone:

His July 5th press conference, in which he appointed himself Hillary Clinton’s investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury, was his original sin. 

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