For the second time in 2018, a book originating behind the scenes of the Trump White House erupts onto the nonfiction bestseller lists: the year began with Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, and now readers get A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Loyalty by former FBI director James Comey, whose firing by Donald Trump in May of 2017 helped to trigger the US Department of Justice probe headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and tasked with investigating any possible Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election – an investigation the FBI had first begun under Comey's direction.
Now Comey has written a book. A Higher Loyalty is technically a memoir, but it's unlikely that any of its millions of readers will care about the details of Comey's upbringing and personal life, nor about his departmental work-life. In reality this is almost exclusively a Trump administration exposé, and unlike Michael Wolff's book, this one is written by a former member of that administration. Wolff could be dismissed by Trump's defenders as a mercenary gossip. But a former FBI director writing a tell-all about a sitting president? That's a far, far more serious thing.
Or at least it should be. But directly underneath its starchy pieties and pseudo-literary veneer, there are a great many touches here that can only be called "novelistic". A Higher Loyalty reads like just another gossipy tattle piece, essentially Fire and Fury 2: This Time It's Personal.
Comey makes serious, albeit by now very familiar, criticisms of Mr Trump: that he's “unethical and untethered to truth and institutional values,” that his leadership is “transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty,” and, in what is sure to be the book's main media talking point, that he runs his White House like a Mafia boss – an atmosphere familiar to Comey from his years prosecuting the Gambino crime family: "The boss [is] in complete control,” he characterizes things. “The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organisation above morality and above the truth."
Comey's portrait is one of a megalomaniacal narcissist, someone drastically unfit for office and, as he writes in the book's final pages, someone who's a serious danger to the country. The whole account should be unprecedentedly damning.
Two things stop it from being that. The first is minor but also screamingly hypocritical: sprinkled throughout the book is exactly the kind of schoolyard mockery for which Mr Trump himself has been rightly condemned. Mr Trump's hands and hair and eyes and face and posture all come in for snide asides.
But much worse is the book's most stunning revelation, which is about Comey, not Mr Trump. Two weeks before the election in 2016, then-FBI director Comey announced to Congress that the organisation had re-opened its investigation into the private email server Hillary Clinton had used as US Secretary of State. Such a grandstanding play was totally out of line with the FBI's normal procedures, and Mrs Clinton's standing plummeted in the polls overnight. She subsequently lost key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan by such slim margins that the blame can easily be laid at Comey's feet. More than any other single person, James Comey himself is responsible for President Donald Trump.
In A Higher Loyalty, Comey admits that his actions in 2016 were politically motivated. His torturous logic? Like most of the country, he was certain Mrs Clinton would win the election and didn't want her new presidency tainted by the revelation that he'd kept quiet about the re-opened investigation. And his utterly unbelievable contention in these pages? That despite his 15 years of experience as a Washington insider serving under two presidents, the chance that his announcement would wreck Mrs Clinton's campaign never occurred to him. And the question of what the FBI director was doing meddling in a presidential election for any reason is never addressed.
It ultimately sinks the book. Readers of A Higher Loyalty will be left with the deeply ironic impression that James Comey is actually very Trump-like: his higher loyalty is reserved mainly for himself.