James Comey: Boy Scout or Partisan Hack?

When Director Billy Ray bluntly told James Comey “Well, sir, you got him (Trump) elected,” while pitching him a mini-series The Comey Rule, it turned my mind to events in November 2016.

James Comey (Jeff Daniels) left, and Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson) at the infamous loyalty dinner.

Ray’s assertion is a widely held opinion that is hard to disprove.

Closely watching from afar, I never felt that Comey’s actions greatly affected the vote. How many of us can name the director of ASIO? How many voting Americans were influenced by whatever hair-splitting legality that FBI guy was on about?

I find can’t imagine the election turned on an overblown news meme. US politics is a hard ship to turn. The Comey wavelet was quickly lost in the wake.

Those who didn’t think “working person’s billionaire” was the height of irony elected Donald Trump. The Electoral College got him elected. The weak-kneed, power-at-any-cost Republican Party got him elected. Hillary Clinton’s procedural naivety (that email server) got him elected. The absurdly accident-prone Anthony Weiner gave it to him. The elitist Democratic Party hierarchy pretty well gave it to Trump by running a flawed candidate who was clearly a “billionaire’s socialist” – ironically not overlooked by the irony-free lot mentioned above.

Most blameworthy of all? The 70 million voters who didn’t give a toss and stayed home. Seventy million non-voters. Let that sink in.

So let’s drop the Comey got Trump elected idea for now.

I wondered at the time about this James Comey and his motives. How could the FBI director be so clumsy? Did he have had some agenda? Months later his name re-emerged from the bedlam when Trump fired him abruptly from a 10 year tenure. The incongruity of White House slander of an FBI director, the Jeff Sessions fiasco, the crazed Tweeting – well, it all became rather too hard to form an opinion from the other side of the globe.

Although Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty passed beneath my radar in 2018, the two-part television series The Comey Rule was hard to miss and offered an easy take on the brouhaha. And having watched it I’m compelled to read his book upon which it’s based. Because what I saw in the television show stirred imperatives not felt since watching All the President’s Men so many decades ago. For that movie and the Watergate story it methodically unfolded became, retrospectively, all the more impressive fafter reading two insider books detailing that turbulent era: one by The Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham; the other by her Editor in Chief, Ben Bradlee.

Watergate and Richard Nixon’s dark role were perilous times for America. His White House cronies were later exposed to be as ruthless and criminal as we suspect are Donald Trump’s occupational force hunkered at 1600 Pennsylvania Av. Nixon, who had been reelected in a landslide – revealing how notoriously imperceptive voters can be – fell only when self-incriminated by his own White House tape recordings. Unlike Nixon who, at the end, stood alone, Trump rules with the solidarity of his clan that helps him run the White House brand, kin bonded by familial blood, barely thicker than water, like the kids in Brian Cox’s dysfunctional Succession family.

It’s fair to say the FBI is, as far as we outsiders can assess (let alone hope), staffed by mostly decent people. But people they are, with factions, faults, office politics, duplicitousness, and the usual portion of really nasty types. But ninety years of television white-washing – most memorably imprinted by the clean cut Effrem Zimbalist Junior – has us in a frame of mind to think the best of the G-men. Oh, and women. A consensus might be that, despite a few dozen controversies and some drifting off course during Edgar Hoover’s disturbing tenure, the FBI does its job and does it well, considering what a massive task it has.

So, with all the aforesaid baggage floating in my head, I settled down to watch The Comey Rule.

On with the show

The two episodes cover the periods of just before and just after Donald Trump’s election.

The first looks at Hilary Clinton’s bullet-holed foot that dragged the FBI into an unsavoury and unwanted task of investigating one of the presidential candidates in an election year. The second episode reveals Comey’s equally unpleasant job of dealing with a new and unexpected president, one who reminded him sickeningly of the New York Mafiosi he had investigated earlier in his career.

Like almost any American dramatised documentary, this one is impeccably written and produced, a polished affair with attuned acting from well-known faces, primarily Jeff Daniels. The script adheres to documented facts and relies heavily on Comey’s carefully gathered “notes” (almost verbatim transcripts) that he made after each interaction with Trump or one of his coterie – a habit he quickly adopted after that infamous first unsettling encounter in Trump Tower.

Students of current affairs – aka, history unfolding before our uncomprehending eyes – will gain useful perspective from this apparently straight depiction of one side’s account at the start of a chaotic war of words that has gone on for 4 years.

There’s little more to say about a TV show that qualifies almost as a political thriller, a play in many parts, at the highest level of US politics. That, and its sheer relevance to a rapidly approaching election (as I write in October 2020), provides the necessary tension to make it fascinating viewing.

To seek further the true character of Comey, a follow-up video could help gauge the calibre of this high-level former public servant who controlled one of the largest and most powerful paramilitary organisations in the world. His extended interview with Nicole Wallace is good insight. Wallace, a former republican staffer, has the necessary rapport with Comey to elicit a range of responses and, on occasion emotions, to picture frame the man who has, in numerous interviews, reiterated the same talking points almost ad nauseam.

How else, so far removed from high politics, do we lowly ones find truth other than by watching the body language, nuances, and sentiments emanating from these polished troupers in the great American kabuki?

As a footnote, I would assume that statistically half the Australian readers and a third of US readers will detest The Comey Rule and reject it as partisan fake news and propaganda that tries to glorify a sacked hack who was not only a slimeball and serial leaker, but will go down as the worst FBI director in history.

They’re joined in their dislike of the man by a faction of Democrats who will never forgive James Comey for sabotaging Hillary Clinton’s run at president.

Whichever side of the debate you stand, whichever political trench you lie in, to either of you I can only reflect thus.

The reviewer has a beloved sister who leans heavily to the pink side of Australian politics and judges Donald Trump prima facie by what he says and what he’s done in the past 40 years. Another equally cherished sister considers the pink side of politics worse than Joseph McCarthy’s red menace and has a strong attraction for Donald Trump, being quite taken with his appearance. These are both intelligent mature women.

The reviewer is at a loss to explain either of his sisters’ predilections…  particularly the latter.