Why Didn’t James Comey Confront Trump?

Lordy, I hope there are tapes.

James Comey


During former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee (June 8, 2017), Senator Marco Rubio asked Comey why he didn’t air his concerns about Trump immediately while he was still FBI director.

“I think the circumstances were such that I was a bit stunned and didn’t have the presence of mind, and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m Captain Courageous; I don’t know whether even if I had the presence of mind I would’ve said to the president, ‘Sir, that’s wrong.’ I don’t know whether I would have. But in the moment, it didn’t come to my mind; what came to my mind was, ‘Be careful what you say.”

James Comey’s history reveals a courageous man. Was he showing false humility to avoid telling a deeper truth that he may not have been totally aware of?

I can imagine a different response from Comey to Rubio’s question:

I was stunned and caught off guard by the things President Trump said and the underlying messages he sent to me. I also felt repulsed by the nature of the man. My instincts told me at our dinner meeting (Jan. 27, 2017), ‘This is a dangerous moment’ and I better remember what he says and document it for he will lie about what he said if the meeting became important in the future. I focused on Trump, his words and his unspoken messages to me. I had to get through this meeting with my integrity intact and without getting fired. Not to save my job: I wanted to protect the Russia investigation from him and survive long enough to gather whatever evidence the President wanted to give me. I decided that I would document all future engagements with Trump. 

I knew some things intuitively: Confronting Trump would be futile and unproductive. He attacks anyone who confronts him. He would have refused enlightenment and efforts to educate him. I was not the President’s lawyer or advisor and it was not my job to school the President on how to do his job or to stop him from going down an inappropriate path that may become criminal. Besides, he wasn’t naïve, ignorant or inexperienced; he knew exactly what he was doing.

I talked to the Attorney General about not leaving me alone with the President. He said nothing. I did not trust him enough to say more to him. Resignation would have harmed the investigation and the FBI and there might not be a Special Counsel today had I quit. I knew without thinking about it that I would stay and do what I could to advance the Russia investigation and protect the integrity and independence of the FBI.

It was my job to document the facts and my experiences with the President. I would do so until I could no longer contain the situation and was put in a position by the President where I had no choice but to resign or sacrifice my integrity. I wondered how far he would go. I reviewed each conversation with Trump with my FBI staff and we discussed my strategy. I needed the documentation and witnesses to protect myself and the FBI. The evidence I documented led, I believe, to the appointment of the Special Counsel.

People considered Comey a smart political operative within the government bureaucracy. I suspect he was more calculating than he wanted to acknowledge–even, perhaps, to himself. I think his “calculating”–fully conscious and rational or on emotional and intuitive auto-pilot–was a good thing for it served a noble purpose and he carried his plan out ethically. For political reasons, maybe it was easier for Comey–a man who doesn’t like to talk about himself–to be self-deprecating about his personal courage than to share his deepest essence and personal reactions with the Senators. Comey may not be Captain Courageous but he has more nerve than most of us and he’s no naive boy scout.

I had several situations in the corporate world—as a leader and as a consultant—where I was threatened with the loss of my job or income if I did or didn’t do certain things that went against my values. I sat across from angry executives who insulted, demeaned and threatened me and who had no respect for niceties or talents for confrontation. I also sat across from executives who delivered dark metamessages with a soft tone and “safe’ words. Trump embraces both tactics to get what he wants. Like Comey, I felt stunned. Also confused and crazy. Imagining myself interrupting people of questionable intent who had power over me to tell them how badly they were handling themselves makes me laugh. I would have been fired and ridiculed for my naiveté. It is even more ludicrous to expect Comey to do so with Trump. Confront a mean narcissist? Get real. Comey had a greater purpose.

In dealing with such people, I often operated at a gut and intuitive level in real-time without the opportunity to think everything through as rationally as I might have liked. These were new, confusing and dangerous situations with no manual to tell me how to handle myself. My values guided me. It took me years to sort out some crazy situations and to make sense out of nonsense. I suspect James Comey will be reflecting on his “nonsense” experiences with Trump and his own feeling  and reactions for a long time.

The moment always came with those executives when I had to choose to sell my soul, quit or get fired. My commitment to truth and my values was deep and I never gave in to threats made by powerful people. Comey managed his situation as long as he could without selling his soul. Trump fired him before Comey felt he had to resign (May 8, 2017).

It’s hard to stand up for our values in a world filled with madness. James Comey faced darker craziness with far greater things at stake than I ever had to deal with. He did so in the public eye certain to be criticized and attacked. He is a noble and honorable man.

I look up to the James Comey’s of the world who—often alone–stand up to malevolent people with full knowledge that they will suffer personally for their commitment to something larger than themselves: in Comey’s case a powerful allegiance to our Constitution and to the integrity and independence of the FBI and to his own values.

I was once asked disdainfully, “Who do you think you are, the keeper of the values?”

Yes, I am the keeper of the values and so are you and you and you.

11 thoughts on “Why Didn’t James Comey Confront Trump?

  1. Excellent piece, Tom. I think you nailed it on Comey. He is clearly an adept strategic thinker. Lecturing Trump on the inappropriateness of the president clearing the room and asking the FBI director to drop an investigation would not have been either helpful or strategic.


  2. Tom, It’s how I felt about it too and I so appreciate, as ever, how you have laid this out.

    It would be hard to believe Comey would be duped by these men who think they possess superior intellect to Comey. He was, after all, general counsel for Bridgewater, wasn’t he? I don’t think they employ professional with weak reasoning, deciphering, decision making ability. Most likely his voluntary appearance fits a strategy of his, not the other way around.It felt like he was duping the dopes, clearing a path, laying HIS foundation. It seems to me we will owe him a debt of gratitude.


  3. I’ve been wondering about your take on Comey’s reaction and testimony, given your unique background. I’m reassured to read that you think he did the right thing, Tom. And thank you especially for the reminder at the very end of your post that we are *all* keepers of values (and defenders of the Constitution).


  4. Tom, I agree this is an excellent piece. All the way through reading your “take” I was nodding in agreement. And, to the last statement: ABSOLUTELY, WE ARE!
    And I’m seeing and hearing a lot of others making that same statement as they take to the streets of cities and towns all over the world, and fill town-halls and sit/make judgements on court-benches…
    it is ironic that the Trump presidency is bringing out new awareness and commitment and action as to what it means to be framed by a Constitution, and to be an honorable, principled activist these days, and I think the country (and the world?) will be better for it.
    Who knows what this will mean for James Comey; at least he is being a catalyst for the next phase of light-shining! (That’s my view from the northern Canadian wilderness!)
    In loving spirit, Eleanor


    • Thanks Eleanor, I can feel your enthusiasm! My greatest hope when Trump was elected was that he would be the catalyst for a great awakening. And if he wasn’t, then that would be the end of us as an alive and vital model for the world. I think James Comey will do just fine. By the way, I wanted him fired after last summers press conference and then the reopening of her case. Maybe deep down, he saw he could maybe help right the mistake he made that contributed/led to Trump’s election. So I didn’t come at this post from a position of being a big fan. He grew on me and I wrote and reflected on the hearing and how he handled himself.


  5. ” Maybe deep down, he saw he could maybe help right the mistake he made that contributed/led to Trump’s election. So I didn’t come at this post from a position of being a big fan. He grew on me and I wrote and reflected on the hearing and how he handled himself.” Yep, that’s my experience as well. When he talked about the email situation on Oct. 28, I thought that guy just drove a nail into Clinton’s coffin! But, maybe a higher good will be served, after all. Waiting with eagerly for Sessions to testify — the complete other end of the spectrum. Have you read this article? http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/6/9/1670247/-Putin-Russia-The-Religious-Right-And-The-Trump-Base?detail=emaildkre
    It’s very good and explains a lot.


  6. Tom, I’m thinking the same (re Comey’s earlier actions and how this has arisen from those ashes). It’s probably unwise to have too many judgments about who did what and when and why and to whom, etc. as we (the general public) cannot be sure we are getting the whole story — or, actually, we can be sure we are NOT getting the whole story.
    That said, it feels like there is more subterfuge and intrigue going on in this real-life unfolding than there ever has been in the best political/spy novels — art imitating life imitating art.
    I feel sad that the American people — 100 million of whom did not vote, apparently — are in the pickle they’re in right now. People of courage are surfacing, to give a different face to the sadness…
    In loving spirit, Eleanor


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