Programming note: Former FBI director James Comey answers questions from a live audience at CNN’s Town Hall, hosted by Anderson Cooper. Watch via CNNgo or on CNN TV tonight at 8 p.m. ET.
James Comey has shifted hundreds of thousands of copies of a “A Higher Loyalty” and has a bumper bestseller on his hands.
But whether his book tour has advanced his goal of alerting Americans to the danger of what he sees as a presidency that threatens “much of what is good in this nation” is far less clear.
The former FBI director will have a new chance to make his case to the country in a CNN town hall meeting Wednesday night at his alma mater, The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, hosted by Anderson Cooper.
It was probably inevitable that Comey’s warnings would be overshadowed, given that he’s now one of the most polarizing figures in American life following his role in the 2016 election, which left him despised by supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
In the storm whipped up by the book, his calls for ethical leadership and fears that Trump is damaging the institutions that underpin the republic have been drowned out by reaction to his more mundane observations – for instance, about Trump’s skin tone and hand size, which some critics saw as vindictive.
Yet given that his book has already sold 600,000 copies, according to its publisher on Tuesday, far outpacing other political exposés, it is destined to become part of the public record of the Trump presidency.
Comey’s final argument – that the norms, traditions and values that have guided the United States for decades are under threat by a President brazenly challenging the rule of law – is one that could be rendered more relevant and powerful by events that are yet to occur in this most unusual presidency.
And Comey’s character sketch of the President – who he portrays as curiously lacking an emotional core and with the morals of a Mafia boss, will be still influencing the historical interpretation of the Trump presidency when current controversies have faded and all the key players are long dead and gone.
Strong sense of own integrity
Throughout his book tour, Comey has remained the same singular, cordial and self-possessed, sometimes exasperating figure with a strong sense of his own sense of integrity that he was while in office.
That highly developed sense of his own pure motives – despite his admissions that he has worried about the size of his own ego – is continuing to irk his critics. Yet he’s interpreted the bile coming his way as a sign that his motives, if not his actions in the Clinton email saga or in investigating the President over Russia’s election meddling, are unimpeachable.
“It doesn’t mean that I’m right, that everybody hates me, I could still be wrong,” Comey told CNN’s Jake Tapper last week.
“(But both sides) can’t be right that I’m in the other team’s pocket, which I hear all the time. That can’t be possible.”
Like many prominent figures who chose to take on Trump, a bare-knuckle fighter, head on, Comey has had to struggle not to become tarnished.
At times, in his flurry of television and radio interviews, he seemingly pinched himself that he was discussing salacious matter that detracted from his most substantive arguments.
“I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current President of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey told ABC News.
He has conceded that his attempt to add color to his account, by sizing up Trump’s appearance, was something he might not do again.
Given that many Clinton supporters blame him for throwing the election to Trump and many Trump supporters believe the Russia investigation that he once oversaw is a hoax, his power to convince partisans was always limited.
His two weeks in the spotlight, which started when excerpts of his book leaked to media outlets 13 days ago, also do not seem to have made a tangible difference to the status of the Russia investigation threatening the President.
That’s partly because Robert Mueller has marched on swiftly since Comey was fired on May 9, 2017, so his knowledge of the current scope of the special counsel’s investigation is limited. His book contained few huge surprises because he had testified publicly on much of what he knew about the events leading up to his firing, and about Trump’s apparent attempt to get him to go easy on former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Comey’s testimony to Mueller was locked in months ago and to some extent the release of Comey’s contemporaneous memos last week from his encounters with the President served to scoop his own story.
Notwithstanding some outraged tweets, Trump himself believes he has weathered the Comey storm and is pleased at the way Republicans came to his defense over the book, sources told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny last week.
Yet that doesn’t mean that the President emerges from Comey’s publicity tour unscathed, either. Comey’s book was valuable, because for those with open minds about Trump at least, it appeared to validate news reporting of a President who demands misplaced loyalty from his subordinates and often seems to stretch the boundaries of his authority and presidential protocol.
Trump does not emerge unscathed
There are also ominous notes for Trump in the book, in that Comey – at least before he got dragged into the 2016 election morass – was seen as one of Washington’s straight-shooters, much like Mueller himself.
He portrays the breed of investigators to which they both belong as dispassionate, relentless in following the facts and dedicated to the institutions of law enforcement that Comey believes Trump has called into question.
“Any investigator or prosecutor who doesn’t have a sense, after nearly a year of investigation, where their case is likely headed, is incompetent,” Comey writes at one point. If Mueller observes a similar code, given the rapid pace of his investigation, it could mean bad news for some people around Trump.
The most startling revelations from Comey’s media blitz, however, have come in his portrayal of the President himself. In his book and his memos, Comey painted a picture of a lonely leader craving respect, recognition and loyalty that ranks among the most stunning glimpses into the West Wing in recent years.
At one point in his interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, Comey says he doesn’t hate Trump or even dislike him and almost feels sorry for the President as he creates a devastating character sketch.
“It’s a hard thing to say, but I think he has an emptiness inside of him and a hunger for affirmation that I have never seen in an adult,” Comey said.
“I think that he lacks external reference points, instead of making hard decisions by calling upon a religious tradition or logic or tradition or history it is all what will fill this hole, what will get me the affirmation that I need?”
“Something is missing in his life that has created this orientation.”