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.