There's No Such Thing as 'Honest Loyalty'

Fueling the clash between Comey and Trump was this simple fact—they inhabit incompatible moral universes.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The way James Comey describes it in his statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, you can easily imagine the movie. On January 27, Donald Trump invites Comey over for dinner. Expecting there will be others, Comey is unnerved when he realizes that he and the new president are dining alone. Worried that Trump is trying to “create some sort of patronage relationship,” Comey makes a point of saying that he will not be politically “reliable” but will always tell Trump the truth. Trump is not mollified. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” he declares.” Comey says nothing and the conversation moves on.

Near the dinner’s end, Trump returns to the subject: “I need loyalty.” Comey says once again: “You will always get honesty from me.” There’s a pause. Finally, Trump says, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.”

No phrase better encapsulates the conflict of values between President Trump and the man he later fired. There is no such thing as honest loyalty. “Honesty” derives from the same Latin root as “honor.” It’s an inner-directed ideal. To be honest is to be true to one’s own moral sense. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “uprightness of disposition and conduct; integrity, truthfulness, straightforwardness.”

Loyalty is outer-directed. The phrase “X is honest” requires no object. But the phrase “X is loyal” is incomplete until you explain to whom, or what, X is loyal. A 2013 essay in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that there is a debate over whether someone can “have loyalty to principles or other abstractions.” But loyalty most often describes someone’s relationship to another person or people: a spouse, a partner, a boss, a team, a nation. If honesty means being true to oneself, loyalty means being true to others, even it that requires subordinating what you believe is right. Your best friend cheats on a test and your teacher asks whether she did it. The honest answer is yes. The loyal answer is no.

It’s not surprising that Comey offered Trump his honesty. Even Comey’s critics acknowledge that he’s motivated by strong, personal convictions about what is right. Maybe to a fault. Before the 2016 election, Comey was most famous for an incident in 2004 when, as acting assistant attorney general, he resisted pressure from the Bush White House to reauthorize a secret surveillance program that he considered illegal. President Obama alluded to that incident when he nominated Comey to run the FBI. It was Comey’s “fierce independence and his deep integrity,” Obama said, that made him “prepared to give up a job he loved rather than be part of something he felt was fundamentally wrong.”

But when the details of the surveillance program later emerged, it turned out that Comey’s objections had been narrower, and more technical, than previously assumed. In a terrific profile earlier this year in Vanity Fair, Bethany McLean quoted a Comey associate as suggesting that the former FBI director sometimes confuses honesty, integrity and honor with “stubbornness, ego” and “self-righteousness.”

Critics see a similar pattern in Comey’s announcement, 11 days before last November’s election, that because the FBI had discovered emails from Hillary Clinton on Anthony Weiner’s computer, it was reopening its investigation into her case. Comey believed he had promised to alert members of Congress if new evidence emerged. But a critic told McLean that Comey should have thought less about his own moral code and more about what was good for the FBI. “I think it was his integrity he was worried about, not the bureau’s, and the bureau’s integrity has suffered a devastating blow as a result of his decision-making,” explained the critic. “He would have protected the bureau by playing it by the book.” In other words, Comey should have been less honest and more loyal.

If Comey has at times valued loyalty too little, Trump values it too much, at least when it comes to the loyalty of others to him. Asked once what a boss should look for when hiring, Trump replied, “The thing that’s most important to me is loyalty.” And since running for president, Trump has repeatedly insisted that Comey and other government officials place loyalty to him above moral scruples and legal constraints. When asked in March of 2016 about reports that military officers might disobey a presidential order to torture, Trump replied, “I’m a leader. If I say do it, they’re going to do it, that’s what leadership is about.”

Trump’s emphasis on loyalty even underpins his foreign policy. “Loyalty,” explains The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “is generally seen as a particularistic virtue. That is, it privileges certain groups or individuals.” Previous presidents have paid at least lip service to universal values like democracy and human rights. And they have argued that when people in other nations grow more prosperous and free, the United States benefits too. Trump, by contrast, sees international affairs as zero sum. Again and again he suggests that other countries are ripping America off. And he boasts that, unlike his predecessors, his only loyalty is to the people of the United States.

In his statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey acknowledges that, “it is possible that we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently.” Of course they did. Honest loyalty is an oxymoron. The two words suggest different theories of government, and life. How Americans and their elected representatives determine the relative weight of each may determine the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency.