Thursday, June 8, 2017

Comey: Square Peg in a Round Hole

Comey has been hard to peg down. You think he's one thing and then he's another. You think he's genuinely honest and then you think he's an absolute weasel. What's the deal with him? Is he extraordinarily complex? Is he mental? After seeing plenty of Comey in action, I would make the suggestion: he's a square.

He has a reputation as a by-the-book guy. As a cop's cop. He seems to be dedicated to protocol (except when he's violating it). I still think he was genuinely trying to do the best job he could. Whether he did it well or flubbed it entirely, you have to appreciate what a pickle the man was in. A preposterously corrupt candidate under investigation for shitting all over national security and his boss was meeting her husband, the former president, on a private jet in secret! It was absolutely a Constitutional crisis. We ask why Comey didn't follow the normal protocol, and probably he should have, but this was not in any way normal circumstances. Averting a national political catastrophe is not in his job description and we shouldn't be surprised he wasn't cut out for the task.

We have this tendency to think that the leaders of organizations should be the premier technicians from the relevant domain. While it is certainly a plus if they are, and they must be competent in domain knowledge, their primary role is to provide political leadership. The FBI Director is appointed. It is by definition a political role. People are promoted to this level, not because of their technical competence, or even their domain knowledge, but their ability to successfully engage in the power game to support the organizational mission. People who excel at the power game have their own language. Power talk.

Based on Comey's testimony it is clear to me that what we have here is a case where one powerful leader is speaking in power talk and the other is not. Trump's language is somewhat cryptic yet suggestive. He meets with Comey. "I'd like to have you stay. You're doing a great job. I just need loyalty." Trump meets several times with Comey, or on the phone, to have similar conversations. But Comey is a square. He doesn't speak power talk himself. He's actually frightened by it, as suggested in his own testimony, and reports that he tried to avoid Trump at social events.

While most of us (being little people) can understand Comey's reaction, as we'd react in a similar fashion, you must also consider from Trump's perspective. He's a tycoon. He's been surrounded by powerful people his whole life. His primary role in society is this: he speaks power talk to other powerful people to strike deals, and takes a cut of the transaction for himself. So he goes to Washington, the pinnacle of power, and probably assumes he is in like company. Imagine his frustration at having these conversations with Comey over and over again and not having the message go through. The message is clear: I'm being eaten alive because the media and half the country say I'm under FBI investigation and there is strong evidence against me. Set the record straight.

There's nothing to suggest he was asking Comey to call off any investigations (which he is authorized to do) or anything illegal. Was there a quid pro quo on offer? Implicitly yes, there was. And because quid never materialized, neither did quo, which was Comey's continued employment with Trump's branch of government. Is it shady? Arguably yes. But also arguably no. That is the dynamic of every organization. Is the president supposed to have no influence at all in these matters? Then why have a president of the executive branch at all? If he's violating the law it really falls on Congress -- not his underlings in the FBI -- to keep him in check. That's what they're doing now with the Senate investigation, and what many Democrats are threatening to do with House impeachment hearings. There's a convention of non-interference between the White House and the Hoover Building, but it's merely convention. Ultimately the FBI works for the president, and it's naive to think that perfect insulation is even possible, let alone preferable.

Comey mentions that Loretta Lynch ordered him to refer to the Clinton investigation as a "matter". Was that ethical? Surely not. She was asking him to use the language of the campaign of the political party in power. Was it illegal? Probably not, but it should be. Lynch didn't use power talk on Comey, either because she doesn't speak power talk herself or because she knows Comey doesn't, so she gave it to him direct. A common complaint from other nations, particularly from Russia (as explained frequently on the Saker blog linked on the sidebar), was that the Obama administration didn't engage in diplomacy, but merely issued orders and ultimatums. Diplomacy is just power talk between nations. Obama and his cronies did not have the necessary skills to engage in proper diplomacy. Trump came in and found that his Obama-appointed FBI Director did not either.

Comey's organization had been co-opted as a weapon against the sitting president. Investigations were launched in response to media reports (as admitted by Comey), then those investigations -- not specifically directed at Trump -- were used to justify calls for impeachment. Trump tried to get Comey to fix the situation. Comey, who after the Clinton investigation was probably terrified to do anything to deviate from rote protocol, refused. And so he was fired. I find myself unable to assign moral judgment in all this. Comey was justified to resist pressure to make another unorthodox announcement when technically Trump might still get swept up in the ongoing investigation. Trump was justified in firing Comey because the FBI was underpinning a political attack that was preventing him from carrying out his agenda, among other reasons.

Comey mentioned that he felt he failed to respond to Trump appropriately at times because he was caught off-guard and didn't know what to say. That's because he doesn't speak power talk. He also mentions waking up at night with certain revelations, or that he has kept himself up at night self-analyzing his own actions. Do you think Trump loses sleep ruminating? Comey has confessed that he knew when he exonerated Clinton he was making a bad decision, but it was the least bad decision and that he was risking his career to avert a Constitutional crisis. He was right on the latter point, and I commend him for his "service before self" attitude. But if he was properly qualified for the job, meaning he was adept at power talk, he would have responded appropriately to Trump, would have worked a deal where he satisfied Trump's needs to de-weaponize the FBI without hindering his ability to do the investigation "the right way." Instead, he got canned, and he no longer has the authority to ensure the FBI maintains the proper attention to protocol. There is no doubt that Trump will appoint someone more adept at the political game than Comey and, we hope, just as patriotic and duty-oriented. If so, our nation will ultimately be better served by our new FBI Director than we were with Comey, the square peg in the round hole.

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