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James Comey: Trump presidency a "forest fire," seen optimistically

The Trump presidency is quickly eroding the norms of the office of the U.S. president. Will the United States emerge stronger, more aware of these norms and of their importance, and better able to uphold them in the future? To describe this possibility, Brian Klaas used the metaphor of a vaccine in his book The Despot's Apprentice in late 2017. In April 2018 in his book A Higher Loyalty, James Comey referred to "the forest fire that is the Trump presidency," a metaphor he explained as follows:

”Yes, the current president will do significant damage in the short term. Important norms and traditions will be damaged by the flames. But forest fires, as painful as they can be, bring growth. ... There is reason to believe this fire will leave the presidency weaker and Congress and the courts stronger, just as the forest fire of Watergate did. There is a lot of good in that.”

Having been fired by Trump for his refusal to cease the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Comey now, as a private citizen, describes the character failings of a president who seems not to have been “shaped” by his awareness or experiences of suffering, loss, or moral error. “I see no evidence," Comey writes, "that a lie ever caused Trump pain, or that he ever recoiled from causing another person pain.” Unfortunately, "without kindness to leaven toughness, without a balance of confidence and humility, without empathy, and without respect for truth," Trump will lose the staff "that every president needs to make wise decisions." Comey adds that "this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty."

Clinton email investigation

The material on Trump is rather limited and toward the end of the book. Much of A Higher Loyalty focuses on an investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server that took place during the end of the Obama administration.

There were 36 email conversations that referred to information classified Secret and 8 that referred to information classified Top Secret (“sometimes cryptically, sometimes obviously”). All recipients had the necessary security clearance and a work-related need for the information, and no documents were attached. The only problem was that the email system itself was not approved to handle classified information. This put the security of the United States at risk if the system had ever been hacked, and Comey says that in Clinton’s memoir What Happened she seemed not to understand or acknowledge the technological side of this. The use of an unclassified email system to discuss classified information required a criminal investigation, but the impact was limited. “So although we were not going to prejudge the result, we started the Clinton investigation aware that it was unlikely to be a case that the career prosecutors at the Department of Justice would prosecute.” It was certainly not, as some shrill voices in the Republican camp would have had it, among “the worst crimes since the Rosenbergs gave our nuclear secrets to the Russians in the 1950s and were executed for it.” Comey’s boss asked him to refer to it as a “matter,” not an “investigation,” and he did so in his first press appearance, but since “the press uniformly missed the distinction and reported that I had confirmed the existence of an investigation,” he called it an “investigation” from then on, since that was what it was. He acknowledges: “There was no moment when investigators caught her in a lie. She did not at any point confess wrongdoing or indicate that she knew what she had done with her emails was wrong. Whether we believed her or not, we had no significant proof otherwise. And there was no additional work the investigators thought they should do. This case was done.” He saw no need to recommend prosecution. In fact: “No fair-minded person with any experience in the counterespionage world (where “spills” of classified information are investigated and prosecuted) could think this was a case the career prosecutors at the Department of Justice might pursue. There was literally zero chance of that.”

Comey had made a public statement in the summer of 2016 that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails was closed. When the investigation was reopened in the fall, it was clear that it could not be completed in the mere days remaining before the election since knowledgeable people had to read “tens of thousands of emails.” Comey describes his personal choice in that moment as “Speak” or “Conceal.” That is, he could publicly acknowledge the reopening of the investigation or he could stay silent and hide it. The risk of speaking was to “put the Bureau, and me, in a place where we might have an impact on an election. Really bad, nauseating even. To be avoided if humanly possible.” But he judged that the risk of concealment was worse. Someone might leak the news anyway before the election, which would still impact the election and would also make the FBI look untrustworthy for not having announced the news itself. And if the news had to be revealed after the election (assuming Hillary’s anticipated victory and the possibility that the investigation could lead to a prosecution of the president-elect), the concealment would discredit both Hillary’s presidency and the FBI. He came to this conclusion not as someone who was professionally allowed to prefer one candidate over another but as someone who had to consider the integrity (actual and perceived) of all government offices including that of the presidency.

Comey writes:

”’Tell me what you would do in my shoes and why you would do that,’ I asked, unheard, of op-ed writers and talking heads on television. I knew the answer, of course: most of them would do what would be best for their favorite team. Well, the FBI can’t have a favorite team.”

He adds that

“even knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it differently, but I can imagine good and principled people in my shoes making different choices about some things. I think different choices would have resulted in greater damage to our country’s institutions of justice, but I’m not certain of that. I pray no future FBI director is forced to find out.”

Update: June 14, 2018

Update: June 27, 2018

Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, after resigning from the Republican party, repeated the "forest fire" metaphor to Rolling Stone: "I don't view it so much differently than I view a forest fire. A forest fire is part of a natural cycle of the forest. The forest burns, and through its burning and destruction, it is regenerated and made healthy again. For the Republican Party and the conservative movement, with its rot, its corruption, its indecency ... before there can be any talk of restoration, there must be a season of burning." Several days later, Project Syndicate commented: "Like Ernest Hemingway's description of going bankrupt, history can be said to progress 'gradually, then suddenly.'"


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