A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

James Comey on the cover of his book

Review by Jon Elsby

Reviewers have been divided about the purpose of this book. Supporters of Donald Trump see it as an exercise in score-settling. Other Comey critics, not necessarily Republicans, are inclined to see it as an ego-trip – the former Director of the FBI seizing a final chance to take centre stage before he slips into historical oblivion. Fair-minded, non-partisan readers will probably disagree; they will regard the book as, first, an attempt to set the record straight, after the avalanche of lies from Trump and innumerable misleading statements in the media, by telling the truth about James Comey’s tenure of office as the head of the FBI; and, second, a sustained meditation on the virtues and values of leadership by a man who has had extensive experience of leading (and being led) at multiple levels, including the highest.

In fact, the book is more than any of these. It is probably as close to an autobiography as Comey will ever get. It tells us something about his upbringing, his schooling, his experience of being bullied, the traumatic and terrifying experience as an adolescent of confronting the Ramsey Rapist, and his early experiences of leadership in the workplace. (Comey, then aged sixteen, and his brother, who was a year younger, were at home alone when a gunman broke into their house and threatened them. The boys eventually managed to escape by climbing out of a bathroom window, and the gunman had to flee to avoid capture. Only later did they find out that the armed intruder was, in fact, the so-called Ramsey Rapist, who had been terrorizing the area for months.)

We read about his admiration for the proprietor of the grocery store where he got his first job – an honest man who knew how to be firm but fair, and how to temper toughness with kindness: something Comey adverts to again and again throughout the book. It is clearly his view that such knowledge is absolutely indispensable to wise and morally good leadership.

In his career in law enforcement, Comey was at great pains to ensure that everyone was treated alike, irrespective of rank, status, fame, or wealth. In order to be genuinely impartial, justice had to be blind to social distinctions. Comey’s education, his early moral and intellectual formation, peculiarly suited him to the career he chose. He was brought up in a family strongly imbued with the religious values of Christian orthodoxy. He very quickly acquired a hatred of bullying, partly from being on the receiving end of it at school and partly from the shame of meting out similar treatment to another boy later on. This gave him an instinctive sympathy with victims of crime or anti-social behaviour. He noted that good leaders inspired loyalty not by threatening or terrorizing others, but by having clear moral values, by treating others fairly, by being just but also merciful, by combining confidence with humility, by being good listeners, and, above all, by being anchored in the truth.

That last quality became especially relevant when Comey, as a federal prosecutor, first had to deal with members of the Mafia. The Mafia – La Cosa Nostra, “this thing of ours” – had a warped ethical code which enabled them, despite their brutal and immoral conduct, to maintain the fiction that they were “men of honour”. Comey lists the rules a “made man” supposedly committed to and abided by—

“… [T]he rules of American Cosa Nostra: no killing with explosives; no killing law enforcement; no killing other made men without official permission; no sleeping with another made man’s wife; and no dealing in narcotics. As a general rule, the Mafia did a good job following the first two rules. The American government would crush anyone who harmed innocents with explosions or killed law enforcement. But the promises not to kill made guys, bed their wives, or deal dope were lies […] Mafia members routinely did all three. […]

“The closely related Sicilian Mafia had a different rule, one that highlighted the centrality of dishonesty to the entire enterprise of organized crime on both sides of the Atlantic. Newly inducted members were told that they were forbidden to lie to another ‘made member’ – called a ‘man of honour’ in Sicily – unless […] it was necessary to lure him to his death.”

This meant, as a Mafioso once explained to Comey, without a trace of irony, that “men of honour may only lie about the most important things”. Anyone with a normally functioning conscience will see the contradiction. The moral orientation of the Mafia was the diametric opposite of being anchored in the truth. They were embedded in the lie.

The experience of having dealt with sundry members of the Mafia as a prosecutor stood Comey in good stead when, many years later, he came to deal with the forty-fifth President of the United States. He recognized Donald Trump’s type, and he describes it well (more accurately, he came to recognize it. Initially, he was nonplussed, as anyone would be whose past experience of dealing with presidents had not prepared him in any way for an encounter with a serial liar and, in the words of Lord Patten, a “vulgar, abusive, ignorant man”. Only when Comey made the connexion between Trump and the gangsters he had met in the course of his career in law enforcement was he able finally to take the President’s measure)—

“[T]his president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego-driven, and about personal loyalty.”

The indictment may seem extreme, but it is borne out by the facts. At an early meeting with Trump, the President told him, “I need loyalty.” It rang a bell with Comey, both in the sense of sounding an alarm and in the sense of stirring a memory. He writes—

“The ‘leader of the free world’, the self-described great business tycoon, didn’t understand leadership. Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear – like a Cosa Nostra boss – require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice. They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations – to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions requires people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration – ‘love’ is not too strong a word – that builds lasting bonds and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.”

Of course, what is at issue here is the fundamental opposition between two different conceptions of leadership. The opposition between them is logically necessary and ineradicable because it is rooted not in mere opinions, but in convictions – in their antecedent ethical beliefs and assumptions. On the one hand, we have Comey’s concept of ethical leadership, deeply rooted in the moral teachings of the Christian tradition. On the other, we have Donald Trump’s concept of leadership (if he were capable of conceptualizing or articulating it), which, did he but know it, is rooted in the ruthless pragmatism of Machiavelli’s The Prince. The former, at its best, produces outstanding leaders who earn (but do not always get) the loyalty of their subordinates without ever asking for it. The latter, at its best, produces Cesare Borgia (Cesare Borgia, 1475–1507, though hardly a model of Christian virtue, was probably no worse than many other Italian noblemen of his day. He was prepared to do whatever was necessary in order to win and secure political power for himself. That included committing or authorizing assassinations, perpetrating various acts of treason and treachery, embarking on aggressive wars of conquest, and imprisoning political rivals and adversaries without charge. Throughout history, dictators, from Caligula to Kim Jong-un, have displayed similar qualities. Donald Trump seems to have most of the instincts of dictators, but to be restrained from their worst excesses by the checks and balances provided in the American politico-legal system).

Given the unbridgeable gulf that separates their respective worldviews, it is unsurprising that Trump and Comey did not get along. Comey struggled to understand Trump: a basically decent, rational man will always struggle to understand someone who is neither decent nor rational. He lacks the concepts and criteria by which to take his measure – although, ironically, in a different context, Comey would have understood Trump perfectly. If he, as a federal prosecutor, had been interviewing Trump with a view to charging him with, say, racketeering, he would have appraised him swiftly and accurately. But his expectations of a gangster, and of the President of the United States, were, not unnaturally, quite different. Comey had already had dealings with two US presidents, both of whom, despite significant differences in policy and personality, were steeped in Christian moral values. Trump, as he well knew, was not; but even so, he was not prepared for the reality. He was shocked by what he found: a man whose moral compass was not so much broken or defective as non-existent.

All this is vividly described in the book. The prose is not literary – and, arguably, literary prose would have been inappropriate to Comey’s purpose here – but it is clear, concise, and readable. It does the job it has to do. It enables Comey to get his points across economically and forcefully.

There is a danger, of which Comey is sensitively aware, that anyone writing a book with a high moral purpose will come across as sanctimonious. In his prefatory Author’s Note, Comey admits to being “stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego”, adding that “I’ve struggled with those [faults] my whole life.” What saves him from sanctimony is self-awareness. He is disarmingly honest about his own failings, and tells many stories against himself. A sanctimonious man would not. An egoist would not. And a narcissist most definitely would not. James Comey has been accused by his detractors of being all three. In my view, these accusations are unjust. The person we encounter in these pages, it seems to me, is honest, morally serious, well grounded, intelligent, objective, rational, and humane. And those are seven more reasons why his views on leadership should be attended to with respect, and pondered long after we have finished reading the book.


Jon Elsby is the author of numerous books on aspects of Roman Catholicism, and is a specialist in opera, on which subject he has written a wide-ranging survey of operatic tenors, titled Heroes and Lovers.