Sigh. James Comey is starting to remind me of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. And I don’t mean that as a compliment, even though I served as a foreign policy adviser to Rubio’s presidential campaign.
In late February 2016, after finishing behind candidate Donald Trump in a few early primaries, Rubio got desperate. Trump was mocking “Little Marco,” so the senator decided to retaliate by making fun of Trump’s “small hands” and his “spray tan.” Rubio elicited laughs by saying: “You know what they say about guys with small hands.”
It was a horrible miscalculation for which Rubio later apologized. The Don Rickles act works for President Trump because he’s a reality-TV star, but it doesn’t work for his critics, because they are expected to be more serious. By slinging insults with Trump, they are simply reducing themselves to his sordid level.
Now Comey is heading down Rubio Road as he promotes his memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.” Trump calls the former FBI director an “untruthful slime ball,” “a proven LEAKER & LIAR” and “the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!” Comey, in turn, calls Trump a serial liar who is a “stain” on those around him, who treats women like “meat,” and who is “morally unfit to be president.”
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In a sense, Trump is falling into Comey’s trap by helping him to sell his book - just as he previously did with Michael Wolff when he unloaded fire and fury on his book, “Fire and Fury.” But Comey is also falling into Trump’s trap by inadvertently feeding Trump’s narrative that all of his legal troubles are the result of a “Deep State” plot by FBI agents out to get him. As Trump tweeted Friday: “No collusion, all made up by this den of thieves and lowlifes!”
Trump’s claim is false. There is no evidence that Comey, a lifelong Republican, was biased against Trump when he was FBI director. In fact, Comey did as much as anyone to get Trump elected with three ethically dubious decisions: He publicly lambasted Hillary Clinton for her handling of her emails, despite his decision not to recommend criminal prosecution. He publicly announced 11 days before the election that he was reopening the email investigation. And, while being so forthcoming about Clinton’s legal troubles, he refused to disclose during the campaign that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
But Comey’s invective will now feed the crackpot conspiracy theory of Trump partisans who are convinced that an organization made up primarily of conservative, white, middle-aged male cops is out to get a Republican president. This may not reduce Comey’s value as a witness against Trump in court, but then the likelihood is that the president will never be tried in court – at least not while he is in office. Trump is being tried now in the court of public opinion, and he is likely to be tried later by Congress during an impeachment inquiry. In the public arena, the reputation of both the accused and his accusers counts for a lot.
Up until now, Comey has been a devastating witness against Trump because, unlike the president, he is so obviously upright and so careful in what he has said. He sounded truthful when he testified under oath that Trump tried to extract a loyalty oath from him and asked him to go easy on disgraced national security adviser Michael Flynn. But Comey is now undercutting his own standing by giving into the temptation to tell the world what he really thinks of the president who fired him.
Comey should remember that revenge is a dish best served cold. By heating up his dispute with the president, he is potentially undercutting the work of another former FBI director now investigating the president. Special counsel Robert Mueller hasn’t said one word for or against Trump in public. But now Trump will try to unfairly tar him as a “friend” of Comey’s who must be pursuing a political vendetta against him.
If Comey’s goal is to bring down Trump, rather than to simply sell books, he would have been better advised to stick to his previous strategy of posting cryptic tweets such as this one on Dec. 13: “’Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. . .. Most people can bear adversity; but if you wish to know what a man really is give him power.’ Robert G. Ingersoll (1883, speaking of Lincoln).” Everyone knew whom he was talking about. By bringing his subtext into the open, he is inadvertently helping Trump, just as he did during the campaign. I am still convinced that Comey is a good man, and an honest one. But once again, he is showing that his judgment is flawed.
Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.