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.

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.

When “You’re Fired” Becomes a Constitutional Crisis

Trained killers will kill, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the presidency of Donald Trump could be approaching a constitutional crisis. As a way to squelch special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of him, will Trump fire U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? And would Trump be within his rights to do so? The legality of this and other possible maneuvering by Trump to avoid further scrutiny in the wake of the FBI raid that seized documents from Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen is a story still to be told: likely in Congress, in the courts, and most of all in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, as Lou Reed’s favorite poet Delmore Schwartz once observed, the past is inevitable. So it’s to the past we can turn for a more definitive perspective on the current mess.

A large part of this looming crisis goes back to Donald’s relationship with his father, Fred, and how Donald was trained. “You are a killer . . . you are a king . . . you are a killer . . . you are a king” was the mantra Fred used to tell his two boys, Freddy and Donald, from their early childhoods onward. Never be vulnerable was the underlying message. Freddy the “loveable loser” flamed out long ago from alcoholism, but Donald is still going strong . . . or is he? Was Donald ever really, truly strong? To what degree is the boy who endlessly sought to gain his father’s attention and approval, while eager to best him, still the insecure brat who once bullied classmates and engaged in mischief involving stink bombs and switchblades?

Trained killers will kill, which brings us back to the present. Watch the extraordinary video of Trump objecting to the FBI raid—“an attack on our country”—and beyond the words, what stands out the most? To be sure, there’s Trump’s anger.  In calling the investigation “a total witch hunt,” Trump’s eyes narrow. And when he characterizes the raid as a “break in,” there’s more of that look of eyes reduced to slits, with the lower eyelids taut with anger to go along with an upper lip raised in anger and disgust.

But an infuriated, fuming Trump is only part of the story here, emotionally speaking. Never be vulnerable. There’s also a president understandably weary of an investigation that’s lasted almost the length of his presidency. The strain would hamper any man, and certainly somebody now 71 years old. He’s not a boy anymore, but what are the odds Trump hasn’t been engaged in mischief that might earn him more than just his father’s begrudging admiration? Watch the video, and you’ll also see Trump closing his eyes as if to ward off the mess he’s found himself in. Even more so, note the fear. Cohen’s “a good man” Trump vows, but the president’s mouth pulls wide in fear as he says so. Cohen has been by all accounts his fixer, and now the fixer could be somebody who, given enough legal pressure, could spill the beans and leave Trump extremely vulnerable. Fear piles up. The investigation’s “a disgrace” Trump also says, even as his right outer eyebrow arches up in fear and surprise, eyes closed again. A “biased” team of investigators, Trump objects. Again his mouth pulls wide in fear. Everybody’s unfairly after him, Trump believes and feels the danger.

What Mueller knows, or is about to know thanks in part to Cohen’s documents, we don’t know. But eventually the public will find out. What we already know is Donald Trump’s personality and modus operandi. His grandfather ran brothels in the Wild West. His father, Fred, augmented his other real estate earnings by building G.I. housing after World War Two—and was investigated by the government for possibly bilking it. Now his son is the government, he’s the president, but he’s wild and quite likely been operating outside the law while supposedly embodying the law of the land. Trump’s signature line on The Apprentice was, of course, telling people “You’re fired”: in effect killing off “losers.” Waves of people have already left this administration. Will Trump fire Rosenstein, Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Who’s next? Or will it be Trump ultimately getting fired from his own White House reality show? Whatever happens, the ratings will remain sky-high.