A Greek Tragedy: Listening Psychoanalytically to James Comey and Answering Two Agonizing Questions


I was struck by the morality play that unfolded in James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, 2017.  Commentators focussed on the stunning depiction of Trump, by Comey, as the sort of person who couldn’t be trusted not to lie.  And his direct accusation of Trump of lying about his reasons for firing Comey, and defaming both the director and the Agency.  Trump, predictably called Comey a liar, and accused him of perjury.  He also celebrated what he saw as vindication from Comey of any wrong doing–that was not at all the case. 

Listening to Comey, he struck me as a man who had grappled deeply with moral dilemmas, and had the courage to own the dire consequences of his decisions.  



This is a blog post I wrote today for Huffington Post:

source: time.com 6/8/17

The manifest surface of James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence committee on June 8 was riveting and fascinating in itself—for example his describing immediate distrust of the President on January 6 as the kind of person who could be expected to lie. Comey revealed himself to be human, flawed, vulnerable, introspective and profoundly ethical.

Listening just a bit beneath the surface, I found answers to two questions that have been plaguing me. I left the riveting viewing session with some sadness about what I’d learned but considerably greater peace of mind.
First, why did Comey chose to speak out on October 28 about the new emails discovered on Anthony Weiner’s laptop in the Hillary Clinton case, breaking with the tradition of avoiding whenever possible interfering in an election? No previous explanation that I’ve heard from Comey or thrown around by commentators has satisfied me—certainly not the speculation that he as a Republican wanted Trump to win. I never felt that was his motivation.
Second, why did Comey repeatedly reassure President Trump that he was not personally under investigation, when clearly so much is yet to be investigated and understood about the Trump campaign and Russia ties, Trump family business issues, emoluments, etc. etc. This just didn’t meet my common sense bar, and it didn’t seem legally essential for him to offer these reassurances to Trump.
The answers to both questions were revealed yesterday, and they clearly lie in Comey’s bone deep allegiance to the mission and core values of the FBI. I wish he had done neither of things. I share the view of many that his October 28 statement had a significant negative effect, if not a defining impact, on the election outcome. He himself said in previous testimony (May 3, 2017) that “It makes me ‘mildly nauseous’ to think I may have affected election.”
Nevertheless, both under angry questioning by Senator Feinstein on May 3, and again on June 8, Comey insisted he would not, even in retrospect, change his decision. Why not? It never made sense.
I also share the impression of many that there are so many unanswered questions about Trump and Russia as well as other aspects of Trump’s behavior that it seemed just plain weird to repeatedly reassure the President that he wasn’t being personally investigated. We know, of course, that the precise Comey meant “at this moment at which I am saying this”. But we also know that Comey’s reassurance is being used enthusiastically by Trump and his team (either cunningly or naively) as a thoroughgoing exoneration of any wrongdoing, seemingly now and forever.

Clinton Email Decision

Here’s a chunk of the dialogue on June 8 between Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Burr and Comey about the fateful decision to write a letter (which Comey should have known would be immediately leaked) to Congress on October 28 about the newly discovered Anthony Weiner emails

BURR: Director Comey, you have been criticized publicly for the decision to present your findings on the e-mail investigation directly to the American people. Have you learned anything since that time that would’ve changed what you said, or how you chose to inform the American people?

COMEY: Honestly, no. I mean, it caused a whole lot of personal pain for me, but, as I look back, given what I knew at the time and even what I’ve learned since, I think it was the best way to try and protect the justice institution, including the FBI.

BURR: Let me go back, if I can, very briefly, to the decision to publicly go out with your results on the e-mail.

Was your decision influenced by the attorney general’s tarmac meeting with the former president, Bill Clinton?

COMEY: Yes. In — in an ultimately conclusive way, that was the thing that capped it for me, that I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the Justice Department.

BURR: Were there other things that contributed to that that you can describe in an open session?

COMEY: …Probably the only other consideration that I guess I can talk about in an open setting is, at one point, the attorney general had directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a matter, which confused me and concerned me.

Bill Clinton’s tarmac meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Attorney General Lynch’s request that he call the Clinton email thing a matter” instead of an “investigation”.
Comey’s motivation is clearly to protect the independence of the “justice institution”, the FBI. He had to “protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the Justice Department.” The independence, credibility and integrity of the FBI are the paramount guiding values that led to his decision.
Sadly, it was just those values that were questioned by progressives after his October 28 action. Instead of understanding he had to make what for him was an agonizing decision to protect the integrity of the FBI, many of us on the left thought that his action cast a shadow of partisanship over the FBI. Speaking out before the election about Clinton and not Trump made it look to Clinton supporters like the FBI was NOT independent. I think we were dead wrong, at least as far as his motivation was concerned. For Comey, not speaking out, or “concealing” as he called it, would have been betraying the agency’s core values. It speaks to me of a Greek tragedy, where a hero’s greatest strength leads inevitably to his destruction.

Why Reassure Trump He Wasn’t Under Investigation?

Presumably, Comey could have guessed that Trump and his allies would take this as a vindication and exoneration, now and forever. I for one didn’t believe Trump, not known as a truth teller, when he said in the Lester Holt interview (NBC News, May 11, 2017) that Comey had assured him 3 times that he wasn’t under investigation.

HOLT: Let me ask you about your termination letter to Mr. Comey. You write, “I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation.”  Why did you put that in there?

TRUMP: Because he told me that. I mean, he told me that.

HOLT: He told you, you weren’t under investigation with…

TRUMP: Yeah, and I…

HOLT: …regard to the Russian investigation.

I was startled to hear Trump’s claim confirmed by Director Comey yesterday. Why would he do that? Comey gives a very interesting window into his thinking with this answer:

“I was speaking to him, and briefing him about some salacious and unverified material. It was in the context of that that he had a strong and defensive reaction about that not being true. And my reading of it was it was important for me to assure him we were not personally investigating him. And so the context then was actually narrower, focused on what I had just talked to him about.

It was very important because it was, first, true. And second, I was worried very much about being in kind of a — kind of a J. Edgar Hoover-type situation. I didn’t want him thinking that I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way. I was briefing him on it because we were — had been told by the media it was about to launch. We didn’t want to be keeping that from him. And if there was some — he needed to know this was being said. But I was very keen not to leave him with an impression that the bureau was trying to do something to him. And so that’s the context in which I said, “Sir, we’re not personally investigating you.”

I’m old enough to get the J Edgar Hoover reference, and to have a visceral response and understanding. One of the formative and cautionary stories my mother told me in my childhood was about a couple of FBI agents coming to her door during the McCarthy Era and asking if her friend Myrtle was a member of the Communist Party. (My mother proudly but with obvious lingering terror refused to answer). I know what the FBI meant in the public mind in the 1950’s and 1960’s—an agency that would collect dirt on everyone it could and use it to threaten, blackmail or manipulate them when it suited director Hoover. Comey, as a deep believer in the integrity of the agency, didn’t want to have Trump get the impression that his FBI, Comey’s agency, was anything like the J Edgar FBI. He wanted Trump to know that today’s FBI would not use the salacious file to influence or manipulate Trump. I can’t know, but I suspect Trump missed the nuances of this reassurance altogether as well as its narrow “right now/counterintelligence” focus and took it, as he has affirmed in so many tweets, as proof that he has never done anything wrong with respect to Russia or anything else.
So the answers to the two troubling questions come down to Comey’s pride in and allegiance to the values of the FBI. Its motto is Fidelity-Bravery-Integrity.
The FBI’s stated core values are
• Rigorous obedience to the Constitution of the United States;
• Respect for the dignity of all those we protect;
• Compassion;
• Fairness;
• Uncompromising personal integrity and institutional integrity;
• Accountability by accepting responsibility for our actions and decisions and the consequences of our actions and decisions;
• Leadership, both personal and professional; and
• Diversity.
As much as I hate and mourn the political impact of his decisions, if I were James Comey, I believe I would have made the same decisions. I find myself admiring him as a great man whose integrity and profound sense of ethics helped lead us to a very dark time but who will also help bring us back to a time of national integrity, bravery and fidelity to our core national values.
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