Mark Bauerlein: James Comey did not sound like a respected former director of the FBI
He came across as a meek and fearful middle manager unable to stand up to his boss, writes Bauerlein
Editor’s Note: Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University, senior editor of the journal “First Things” and author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
During his testimony, James Comey didn’t sound like the head of a fearsome investigative agency. He sounded like a middle manager in business who’s just attended a human resources seminar on inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
Let’s start from the beginning – with the release of Comey’s written statement on Wednesday. When President Donald Trump adjourned the February 14 counterterrorism meeting and asked the former FBI director to remain, even brushing Attorney General Jeff Sessions away, why didn’t Comey say, “Uh, President, if this is about a pending investigation, others should be here”?
In the hearing, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, followed up on that point, asking Comey why he didn’t resist the setup, particularly after Trump brought up the Flynn case. “Maybe if I were a little stronger …,” he replied, but “I was stunned.”
A few minutes later, when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, repeated the question, Comey spoke again about how “stunned” he was, and that he lacked the “presence of mind” to respond with anything except the silent realization, “Be careful what you say.” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, too, seemed baffled by Comey’s diffidence.
Another question along the same lines: At the January 27 tete-a-tete dinner, when President Trump pressed the need for loyalty on Comey, why did it produce so much discomfort? “I didn’t move, speak or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey’s statement says. “We simply looked at each other in silence.”
Instead of replying directly to the President on February 14, Comey went off by himself and composed his memo, recording the substance of the exchange. The decision smacks of self-protection, not principled conduct. He admits as much when he acknowledges that President Trump, “this particular person,” was a proven liar and might misrepresent their exchange and hang him out to dry. Comey had never felt motivated to record meetings with Presidents Obama and Bush, only with President Trump, a decision Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, at the hearing termed “very significant,” and I guess we’re supposed to do the same.
Whether President Trump crossed the line into obstruction and pressed too hard for loyalty are matters for politicians and jurists to decide. For the rest of us, at least those who aren’t eager to seize any filament of possible malfeasance on the President’s part, Comey’s plight doesn’t impress.
These kinds of interactions between bosses and underlings are commonplace. Most of us have felt pressured by higher-ups at one time or another, but we didn’t freeze up. We either worked our way around it or respectfully pushed back. President Trump’s approach was not unusual, and we wonder why the Democratic opposition and the media hang such explosive meaning on it.
It’s not just the politicization of everything that disgusts ordinary citizens who live and work far from the Beltway. It’s this kind of histrionic exaggeration, too, which is one of the ingredients of populist resentment that politicians and media still fail to appreciate.
Sen. Trevor Heinrich, D-New Mexico, invited that kind of theater when he raised the difficulty of he said/he said situations, asking Comey why we should trust him more than the President. Comey graciously demurred, but we can take his version of events at face value and still find the whole affair a D.C. melodrama.
Sen. James Paul Lankford, R-Oklahoma, offered a bit of perspective when he characterized President Trump’s actions as a pretty “light touch,” not a threat or blunt intimidation. But that doesn’t make for good highlights or heightened controversy.
The old slogan “The personal is political” has been reversed. The customary workings of government, including the subtle power plays everyone exerts, have been converted into experiential, sensitivity terms, as when Comey talked about how his staff was “shocked and troubled” by pressure from the White House.
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Soon after the one-on-one meeting, Comey met with Jeff Sessions and “took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me” — in other words, “Don’t leave me alone with him again.”
If you share the sensitivity outlook and enjoy Potomac theater, you sympathize with Comey. If you don’t, you’re inclined to think, “Where is Eliot Ness?”