Grief-Stricken: Comey Pushes Back Against Trump

One name kept coming to mind as I watched former F.B.I. director Jim Comey’s interview on ABC’s “20/20” program last night, and it wasn’t Vladimir Putin. Instead, the name was John Dean: the man who served as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel from 1970 to 1973. Why did Dean’s name resurface now? It’s that moment before the Senate Watergate Committee when Dean recalls telling the president that, given the cover-up underway, there was “a cancer growing on the presidency and if the cancer was not removed that the president himself would be killed by it.”

Two details of Dean’s testimony stand out for me even after all these years. The first was the high stakes involved. While Alexander Butterfield’s inadvertent disclosure about the existence of a taping system within the White House was the torpedo that sank Nixon’s presidency, Dean’s testimony was the major, sustained, initial hit. The other detail is just how flat-footed but earnest Dean was as he stoically read a seven-hour opening statement, rarely emoting.

Comey’s five hours of being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos was boiled down into an hour-long segment on ABC. Also, there was plenty of emoting by the former F.B.I. director. Those are the differences between Dean and Comey’s televised appearances, neither of which takes away from the similarities between the two men and the circumstances they found themselves in. With Comey likely to be central to Robert Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice case against Trump, the stakes in judging Comey’s veracity and motives are immense; and, yes, Comey came across on the air as equally flat-footed but earnest.

041718-01 Dean & Comey (resize)

Of all the ways a person might emote, few if any are as hard to fake as when somebody’s inner eyebrows arch upwards without the entire brow rising. That movement is a reliable sign of sadness, fear and surprise.  Call it grief, for short. On “20/20”, Comey expressed grief repeatedly and in bipartisan fashion. The inner eyebrows shot up, for example, while discussing Barrack Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch insisting Comey call his probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server a “matter”, not an “investigation”.  And they shot up again and again as Comey talked about Trump extracting a pledge of “honest loyalty” from Comey at a private White House dinner; about Trump raising Michael Flynn’s case and asking Comey to “let it go;” about inviting Russian guests into the White House shortly after firing Comey and telling those guests the “pressure is off;” about the possibility of Muller being fired by Trump; and finally even about the possibility of Trump ever being impeached.

Since Comey calls Trump’s presidency a “forest fire” causing grievous damage to America in his new book, A Higher Loyalty, why not favor impeachment? The former F.B.I. director’s rationale is that to do so would be the easy way out. As he said on “20/20”, the American people need to “vote their values,” values Comey believes amount to faith in maintaining that nobody is above the law. In making that statement on the air, for one of the few times in the interview Comey’s lower eyelids grew taut with anger.

Why is anger, and its rarity compared to expressions of grief, significant? Because expressing anger so rarely speaks to Comey’s motives in going on offense against Trump with the new book and an extensive book tour. Will Comey make some money? Yes. Does he hope to restore and possibly even burnish his reputation? Undoubtedly. Is he out for revenge? Due to the far greater frequency of grief instead of anger, I don’t think so. I believe Comey is utterly earnest about seeing Trump as equivalent to a mafia boss who must be stopped before inflicting more damage on the country. (Other instances where Comey shows that brand of anger is Trump’s habit of trying to establish dominance, and Trump treating women “like meat.”)

One pejorative slang term for cops is to of course call them “flatfoots”.  Of Comey’s fundamental honesty and decency I have little doubt after watching him on “20/20”. As to any criticism of him, who could say they would do better in the situations Comey experienced? Still, there is something a little odd about a veteran, high-level law enforcement officer allowing himself to be alone with Trump more than once, no witnesses present, for compromising conversations.

Comey admits to not having had “the guts” to push back against Trump in-person. In making that admission to Stephanopoulos, Comey’s entire brow raised as if in perpetual surprise and discomfort about his own lack of courage.  In perhaps being naïve in an un-naïve sort of way, Comey brought to mind Dean yet again, given the moment captured on tape of Dean telling Nixon, “I have the impression that you don’t know everything I know,” when in fact Nixon knew plenty more than Dean had yet to realize.

Who’s the Real “Nut Job”: Comey or Trump?

Comey Trump Blog Photo (resize)

“The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.”

Mark Twain

If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie. How better to stun your rivals. It’s awfully rich irony to hear Donald Trump accuse the now-fired FBI Director, James B. Comey, of being “a grandstander” and a “showboat.” That anybody, anywhere on earth could qualify as more ego-centric and media-attention hungry than Donald Trump is, frankly, close to impossible to imagine.

But let’s leave those two audacious epitaphs alone in favor of one with more importance to the drama playing out in Washington, D.C.  Was there collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia? Has there now been some degree of obstruction of justice by the Trump administration in seeking to lift “the cloud” of doubt hanging over The White House? In the he-said, he-said battle of credibility between Trump’s and Comey’s  differing accounts of their private interactions, the epitaph of greatest relevancy is Trump calling Comey “crazy” and “a real nut job” (during a meeting with his Russian visitors to the White House, no less).

To those of us who seriously study personality traits, neuroticism equates most closely to being “crazy” and four emotions matter most. Being neurotic equates most readily to large, frequent displays of anger, fear and sadness, while the opposite of being neurotic (being emotionally stable) is aided by being happy instead. Using Comey’s sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee versus Trump’s daily emotional patterns, who’s most likely to be “crazy”?

Using Comey’s sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee versus Trump’s daily emotional patterns, who’s most likely to be “crazy”?

Let’s go emotion by emotion. Did Comey show anger last week during his testimony? A muted, purposeful degree of anger (mostly in how Comey’s lower eyelids stayed tight) was evident. Granted, Comey was a man on a mission to air his concerns. But the only three times where Comey’s mouth also tightened in anger involved, first, being asked to call the Hillary email server a “matter” by the former attorney general Loretta Lynch; second, in wondering  aloud “What am I going to do?” after the current attorney general Jeff Sessions, didn’t act on Comey’s request not to ever again be left alone with Trump; and third and very understandably, in trying to be patient during John McCain’s befuddled series of questions for Comey, all of which came down to basically why not keep pursuing the email scandal?

In comparison, Trump is angry every day, more often, and with more vehemence. Who’s the most crazy when it comes to frequent, strong displays of anger? Verdict: Trump.

Fear, yes, Comey showed a little of it in testifying before Congress.  When asked if he had been directly requested to go easy on former national security adviser Mike Flynn, Comey’s eyes went wide with alarm at the prospect that the Senators might not take seriously the import of the President telling Comey in the Oval Office that he hoped Comey might “let Flynn go.” But the strongest instance of fear came when Comey was recalling the moment that Trump was shooing both Sessions and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, out of the Oval Office so he could make his Flynn request in private. Then his mouth went wide in fear and his inner eyebrows shot upwards.

In comparison, Trump almost never shows fear. By his own admission, Comey didn’t manage to be “Captain Courageous” in confronting Trump’s wheedling. So who’s the most “crazy” when it comes to frequent, strong displays of fear? Verdict: Comey.

As to sadness, that emotion was evident more commonly during Comey’s testimony than fear was. Comey visibly winced on being asked why he was fired. Raised inner eyebrows created a puddle of wrinkles across Comey’s forehead when discussing a range of topics, from the “salacious materials” alleging Trump cavorted with Russian prostitutes, to Session’s refusal to intervene to help him avoid Trump’s entreaties, to closing his eyes when asked if he might have also been fired if Hillary Clinton had won the election instead of Trump.

Nevertheless, the verdict here favors Comey over Trump because in Trump’s endless search for affirmation, the president shows more sadness than any major American politicians since Richard Nixon.  Verdict: Trump.

Finally, there’s the matter of happiness as a stabilizing emotion. Not only is Trump frequently sad, he’s also rarely ebullient and hardly ever smiles. From “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” to comparing reporters to “sea gulls at the beach,” Comey managed a wry version of happiness repeatedly amid the tough circumstances of testifying before Congress after being called a “nut job.” While “between opportunities,” as he said of his career, Comey firmly took the opportunity to affirm his own credibility while leaving the president’s credibility shred even more. Who’s more “crazy”? Why, it’s not even a close call.