The Comey Rule
Politically speaking, The Comey Rule lands broadly under the Lincoln Project and #Resistance umbrella: mostly middle of the road on policy but obsessed with national security, basic decency and decorum, and the integrity of government institutions. The most prominent guardians of this vaunted reasonableness are — or were, anyway — men like James Comey, a Republican, and Robert Mueller, a Republican, and others who have been exiled into the political wilderness now that Trump has fully remade the party. For those on the left, one frustrating aspect of this whole affair has been feeling like spectators to an intraparty squabble, though obviously the results of hyperpartisanship and the politicization of institutions (the FBI, the CDC, the fucking USPS) have been a comprehensive loss for democracy.
The Comey Rule is wholly on Comey’s side through all this rigmarole, a fact that’s made clearer in the second half of the miniseries than in the first. Writer-director Billy Ray certainly registers the frustrations of those who are bothered by Comey’s decision-making — not least his wife and daughters, who make their views known in the Women’s March — but it tries to reflect his thinking as accurately and plausibly as possible. To that end, the series, especially “Night Two,” is more dignified and compelling than most of the cable-TV movies and miniseries that have tried to recap the political events of the day. It doesn’t have a particularly sharp perspective on Comey, but it dramatizes his version of events with a scrupulousness that matters. If someone in the future wonders, What was the deal with James Comey?, this miniseries would be a respectable primer.
The second part also brings in Brendan Gleeson as Trump, and he’s exceptionally good. Gleeson gets the physical details right — the hulking gait, the sharp intakes of breath before speaking, the way he moves to impose himself on others in a room — but he has also internalized Trump’s paranoia and narcissism as well as the ham-handed strongman tactics he uses to assert his will. The scenes between Trump and Comey would be funny if they weren’t so alarming: Comey the Boy Scout, so devoted to protocol and the fine art of diplomacy, squaring off against a boor who barely notices all the norms he’s squishing on the bottom of his dress shoes. It’s like Bambi Meets Godzilla.
After a first half that focuses on Comey’s role in the Hillary Clinton email investigation and its likely effect on the 2016 election, the second turns to the Russia investigation, which, of course, was not so favorable to Trump. From the start, Trump doesn’t respect the role that Comey and the FBI have to play in dealing with Russia’s efforts to influence the election. And it doesn’t matter how Comey or anyone else frames it: Trump is assured that this is a matter of national security aimed at protecting democracy from attack by a foreign adversary. Trump insists on Comey making it explicit to the country that he, personally, is not a target of the investigation. Comey can never allay his concerns. Nobody could.
Hence the title of Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty. In their now-infamous private dinner (about which Comey wrote extensive contemporaneous notes), that’s the demand Trump has for him, with the tacit understanding that his job as FBI director is at stake. It should have been known then — it’s definitely known now — that Trump understands the various institutions of government as simply extensions of his power and will as the chief executive. There’s no respect for the “bright line” between the FBI and the Oval Office, or between the Oval Office and the Department of Justice and Attorney General. Comey would learn that the hard way, as would Jeff Sessions, who punched his ticket after recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
The Comey Rule mourns the death of the career-long public servant under Trump. When Acting Attorney General Sally Yates comes into her office the day after the election, she tells her people, “Today is a day to remember that this is a politically agnostic institution.” Even after she is fired, she tells her assistant, Justin — an utterly ridiculous creation, incidentally — that he might feel better if he steps out onto Pennsylvania Avenue and looks at the buildings, which will still be standing long after they and all their colleagues are gone. (We sure about that, Sally?) In the Oval Office, Obama soberly talks about putting the new president on solid footing and using sanctions to punish the Russians for their actions. He was a believer in certain longstanding traditions of public service too, including a peaceful transfer of power to a guy who spent months denying his basic eligibility to be president.
One fundamental lesson of the Trump presidency is that democratic and institutional norms require all parties to participate in order to work, especially the person at the top. The firing of Comey was only the first of many stress tests the government would fail in holding Trump accountable. In “Night Two,” Comey is utterly convinced that he could never be fired because it would be obvious to everybody that Trump was obstructing justice in the Russia investigation. What he didn’t realize was that his firing would make Trump’s motives obvious, even with Rod Rosenstein doing his best to finesse the language, but that nothing would happen to him. From there, he could just set about ruining the lives of anyone who defied him or who seemed insufficiently loyal, including the entire FBI team in The Comey Rule and, years later, anyone who came forward in the impeachment hearings.
The annoyance of watching all of this play out in The Comey Rule is that Comey should have seen this coming. The Attorney General is the highest-ranking law-enforcement official in the land, with the FBI director just one notch below in the hierarchy. So it was Comey’s job to snuff out bad actors and know their modus operandi, yet he seems totally blinkered about the man he’s dealing with, despite abundant evidence — in his presence, no less — that Trump was more than capable of firing him and making sure all the previously apolitical parts of the federal government could serve him personally.
Ray’s valorization of Comey is an irritation. So Comey gets to leave the FBI with his integrity intact, knowing that his “higher loyalty” to the agency guided his actions in both the Clinton email affair and the Russia investigation. Good for him! Meanwhile, his legacy in practical terms lies in helping Trump get elected and getting steamrolled for his trouble. That last part was perhaps unavoidable — Trump would also dump Sessions, the first senator to support his campaign and easily his most effective Cabinet member, and later sabotage his effort to return to the chamber — but Comey’s feeling of moral satisfaction is a cold comfort, even before you get to scenes of him comforting a crying agent or asking his driver about his kid’s recital.
Still, there’s value in Ray’s sturdy approach to docudrama, which avoids moments of glib irony and never becomes one of those contemporary political dramas in which a name cast gathers for what seems like a Saturday Night Live episode without jokes. For all the negative things that can be said about Comey — about his arrogance, his fecklessness, his self-aggrandizement, his naïveté — he doesn’t lack credibility, at least in his account of what happens in this tumultuous period for the FBI and the country. In other words, the events in The Comey Rule ring true. How we process those events is our business.
• “We’re going to be okay. America will figure this out”: The Comey Rule could be improved by Ron Howard’s narrator from Arrested Development (e.g., “It wouldn’t”).
• “Only Comey can violate department norms, throw an election, and still get an ‘attaboy’ from the outgoing president”: Rosenstein is painted as an opportunist in the series, but he’s not wrong here.
• Of the first episode, I complained that Michael Flynn’s meeting with the Russians was handled a bit clumsily — being told that Jill Stein would be at his table, for example — but it cannot be emphasized enough how dumb and self-destructive Flynn’s dealings with Russia before Trump’s inauguration turned out to be. That comes through well here.
• “The Handshake” played like the “And … scene” of the 2016 election, and Comey knew it.
• The hotel trysts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page really do seem like scenes based on a Trump tweet.
• “The FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is and always will be independent.” Paging Ron Howard again!