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.
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.