James Comey, the smiling weasel

Have you ever wondered how people of the caliber of James Comey ever rose to the lofty heights of the Department of Justice and the FBI?  After all, these are two of the premier agencies of the federal government, known for attracting talented and dedicated people. It should now be evident that Comey never should have been entrusted with serious law enforcement powers and responsibilities, based on his sneaky, partisan, weaselly behavior, his lack of candor, and his willingness to bend the rules.

Recall that Comey was presented to the American people as enjoying wide bipartisan respect, with sterling reputation, and was easily confirmed as FBI Director by a shocking (in retrospect) 93-to-1 vote. (It probably will be no surprise to you that the only senator willing to oppose the next FBI chief and stand against the tide of adulation was Rand Paul.)

So how does a self-righteous prick get so far in life?

The answer, I am afraid, is based on the iron law of bureaucracy. No matter how noble ostensible the goal of any bureaucratic agency – helping the victims of natural disasters, for instance – inevitably the organization ends up serving the interests of the members of the bureaucracy. Self-interest comes first, and those who best protect those who make decisions on career advancement rise to the top.

A very valuable clue about Comey (and his close allies) comes from Andrew McCarthy, writing in National Review. You probably know that McCarthy was a career prosecutor working as an assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York, widely considered the most prestigious and influential of the US Attorneys’ offices. In that capacity, McCarthy led the prosecution of the first World Trade Center Bombing and obtained a convection of the Blind Sheikh. McCarthy is a man that I admire greatly. In an article very critical of Comey, in the interest of full disclosure, he writes:

I am fond of Jim Comey and have been for 30 years. (snip)

No doubt because of my personal regard for him and respect for his high-end ability, I am inclined to cut the former director slack. He was thrust into a no-win situation: It is not his fault that Democrats nominated a criminal suspect, or that Republicans nominated an irregular politician heedless of the norms of discretion and distance that a president should maintain when dealing with his law-enforcement subordinates. Comey aside, I had no better friends in nearly 20 years as a federal prosecutor in New York than Dan Richman, the Columbia Law School prof through whom Comey transmitted information to the New York Times, and Pat Fitzgerald and Dave Kelley, Comey’s lawyers. These aren’t just former colleagues of mine; they are old friends. I haven’t tried to speak to any of them about this matter, but my esteem for them weighs on me — as does my duty to be an honest analyst. How well I resolve that tension is not for me to say; I can just tell you it is real.

Comey almost certainly earned this regard through a combination of factors. Personal affability, a willingness to help others, hard work, and of course native intelligence and an accumulation of expertise, all tend to earn respect, admiration, and friendship from colleagues. These qualities also serve an executive well in dealing with those in a position to help with career advancement. At senior executive levels in private industry, the board of directors, who must approve top executive appointments, and critical outside constituencies, such as key customers, suppliers, and regulators, as well as media, must be cultivated using these same qualities. In the federal government, it is legislators, media figures, and pressure groups that must be won over, spreading the impression of competence, honesty, diligence, and other desirable qualities.

But there is another, less sunny, side to the equation: ruthlessness in ridding oneself of rivals or obstacles to persona advancement, or to the preeminent goal of the organization – its self-interest.

Comey demonstrated his calculating mind when he admitted that the likelihood (as everyone saw it at the time) that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency affected his decision to not prosecute her for obvious violations of the law in her handling of classified emails. He was helping out his DOJ boss, Loretta Lynch, by doing her dirty work, even though she had not formally recused herself (an embarrassment) after being caught in a covert airport tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton, exercising powers that he did not possess, but which a willing media and many GOP pols were willing to overlook, having been convinced that he was a “man of integrity.”

The combination of affability and ruthlessness is one of the most useful tools for advancement in any large and hierarchical organization. Comey’s mistake was in believing that Hillary would win, and once Trump became president, believing that the deep state, within which he had flourished, would succeed in defending its own interests by casting him out of office, with James Comey in the lead.

Corporate lore is full of examples of ruthless executives who end up badly when the market no longer rewards their talents, and their karma comes due. “The smiling cobra” and “the smiling barracuda” are two such instances. Comey deserves his own expression, “The smiling weasel.”

Have you ever wondered how people of the caliber of James Comey ever rose to the lofty heights of the Department of Justice and the FBI?  After all, these are two of the premier agencies of the federal government, known for attracting talented and dedicated people. It should now be evident that Comey never should have been entrusted with serious law enforcement powers and responsibilities, based on his sneaky, partisan, weaselly behavior, his lack of candor, and his willingness to bend the rules.

Recall that Comey was presented to the American people as enjoying wide bipartisan respect, with sterling reputation, and was easily confirmed as FBI Director by a shocking (in retrospect) 93-to-1 vote. (It probably will be no surprise to you that the only senator willing to oppose the next FBI chief and stand against the tide of adulation was Rand Paul.)

So how does a self-righteous prick get so far in life?

The answer, I am afraid, is based on the iron law of bureaucracy. No matter how noble ostensible the goal of any bureaucratic agency – helping the victims of natural disasters, for instance – inevitably the organization ends up serving the interests of the members of the bureaucracy. Self-interest comes first, and those who best protect those who make decisions on career advancement rise to the top.

A very valuable clue about Comey (and his close allies) comes from Andrew McCarthy, writing in National Review. You probably know that McCarthy was a career prosecutor working as an assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York, widely considered the most prestigious and influential of the US Attorneys’ offices. In that capacity, McCarthy led the prosecution of the first World Trade Center Bombing and obtained a convection of the Blind Sheikh. McCarthy is a man that I admire greatly. In an article very critical of Comey, in the interest of full disclosure, he writes:

I am fond of Jim Comey and have been for 30 years. (snip)

No doubt because of my personal regard for him and respect for his high-end ability, I am inclined to cut the former director slack. He was thrust into a no-win situation: It is not his fault that Democrats nominated a criminal suspect, or that Republicans nominated an irregular politician heedless of the norms of discretion and distance that a president should maintain when dealing with his law-enforcement subordinates. Comey aside, I had no better friends in nearly 20 years as a federal prosecutor in New York than Dan Richman, the Columbia Law School prof through whom Comey transmitted information to the New York Times, and Pat Fitzgerald and Dave Kelley, Comey’s lawyers. These aren’t just former colleagues of mine; they are old friends. I haven’t tried to speak to any of them about this matter, but my esteem for them weighs on me — as does my duty to be an honest analyst. How well I resolve that tension is not for me to say; I can just tell you it is real.

Comey almost certainly earned this regard through a combination of factors. Personal affability, a willingness to help others, hard work, and of course native intelligence and an accumulation of expertise, all tend to earn respect, admiration, and friendship from colleagues. These qualities also serve an executive well in dealing with those in a position to help with career advancement. At senior executive levels in private industry, the board of directors, who must approve top executive appointments, and critical outside constituencies, such as key customers, suppliers, and regulators, as well as media, must be cultivated using these same qualities. In the federal government, it is legislators, media figures, and pressure groups that must be won over, spreading the impression of competence, honesty, diligence, and other desirable qualities.

But there is another, less sunny, side to the equation: ruthlessness in ridding oneself of rivals or obstacles to persona advancement, or to the preeminent goal of the organization – its self-interest.

Comey demonstrated his calculating mind when he admitted that the likelihood (as everyone saw it at the time) that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency affected his decision to not prosecute her for obvious violations of the law in her handling of classified emails. He was helping out his DOJ boss, Loretta Lynch, by doing her dirty work, even though she had not formally recused herself (an embarrassment) after being caught in a covert airport tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton, exercising powers that he did not possess, but which a willing media and many GOP pols were willing to overlook, having been convinced that he was a “man of integrity.”

The combination of affability and ruthlessness is one of the most useful tools for advancement in any large and hierarchical organization. Comey’s mistake was in believing that Hillary would win, and once Trump became president, believing that the deep state, within which he had flourished, would succeed in defending its own interests by casting him out of office, with James Comey in the lead.

Corporate lore is full of examples of ruthless executives who end up badly when the market no longer rewards their talents, and their karma comes due. “The smiling cobra” and “the smiling barracuda” are two such instances. Comey deserves his own expression, “The smiling weasel.”