As the release of James Comey’s book neared, Republican operatives in Washington began spreading the word: They had a plan to counter the former FBI director’s much-anticipated tome. Thursday, the Republican National Committee unveiled the secret weapon, which turned out to be a slick though shallow website called (wait for it) “Lyin’ Comey.” Then came the morning of Friday the 13th, and with it the revelation of what the real strategy was: Tweets from the president.
If Donald Trump’s Friday-morning fusillade was intended to defuse the book, the tweets seem certain to do the opposite. Not only is the president focusing more attention on the book, but the specific nature of his pushback on Comey serves only to prove the portrayal of him in the book.
Trump, Comey writes, “is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values … His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty.” He writes that this is “a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded.” He likens the administration to the Mafia: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
These are sharp attacks, and while they are commonplace in parts of the press and politics, it remains stunning to hear them from a staid G-man and lifelong Republican like Comey.
Not totally stunning, though. Comey has often been his own worst enemy. While his work ethic and integrity consistently impress those with whom he works, his sense of self-righteousness and moral purity have rubbed plenty of colleagues the wrong way, and led him to a disastrous intervention in the 2016 election. These same tendencies come through in the book. Luckily for him, the president has stepped forward to serve as his chief publicist and to confirm much of what he says.
Here’s Trump Friday morning:
James Comey is a proven LEAKER & LIAR. Virtually everyone in Washington thought he should be fired for the terrible job he did-until he was, in fact, fired. He leaked CLASSIFIED information, for which he should be prosecuted. He lied to Congress under OATH. He is a weak and.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2018
....untruthful slime ball who was, as time has proven, a terrible Director of the FBI. His handling of the Crooked Hillary Clinton case, and the events surrounding it, will go down as one of the worst “botch jobs” of history. It was my great honor to fire James Comey!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2018
Comey says Trump is untethered from truth; Trump asserts, without proof, that Comey is a perjurer and criminal. Comey says Trump has no respect for institutional values; Trump uses his Twitter account to call a former FBI agent an “untruthful slime ball” and to demand his prosecution, violating longstanding norms against presidential interference in criminal cases. Comey says Trump disputes basic facts and normalizes lying; Trump asserts leaks and perjury without proving them, claims without evidence that Comey was terrible at his job, and without substantiation says there was unanimous support for his firing. Trump also claims he fired Comey for mishandling the Clinton investigation, even though Trump has repeatedly contradicted the official explanation the White House gave for dismissing Comey.
Comey says Trump ignores, excuses, and rewards unethical behavior; Trump, even as he blasts Comey as a perjurer, issues a pardon to former Dick Cheney aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, convicted of lying to federal investigators.
Comey says that Trump takes an us-versus-them mentality and places his own well-being above all else; Trump declares all-out rhetorical war on Comey, after firing him for refusing to clear Trump’s name publicly, and after Comey refused to ease up on a case against Trump’s fired national-security adviser. There is scant need for a fact-checker on a book when the president is eager to prove it right.
It’s now been almost a year since Comey’s firing, and Trump’s pushback shows he has taken few lessons from the intervening 11 months. He continues to find meddling in law enforcement irresistible, even though his pressure on Comey and subsequent firing of Comey led to the appointment of the special counsel he so detests. He still feels compelled to make suggestions on who the Department of Justice should be prosecuting, even as he reportedly seriously weighs firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The Libby pardon, meanwhile, like Trump’s earlier pardon of Joe Arpaio, show the president forgiving people convicted of crimes and circumventing standard DOJ procedures. This is in keeping with the pattern, identified by my colleague Adam Serwer earlier this week, of Trump’s double standards on due process and administration of justice.
Trump’s tweets are, finally, another masterpiece in projection. He depicts a chronic liar, who leaks information to the press via his friends and spreads classified information and is an incompetent administrator of a dishonest coterie. If this sounds familiar, it’s because these are also characteristics that the public has seen the president demonstrate. It doesn’t require a tell-all from James Comey to see that, though if Trump wishes to validate the book, that’s one presidential prerogative no one will question.