Much has been made of President Trump’s asking his former FBI director for “loyalty” allegedly being improper — in Beltway-speak, “inappropriate.” This arises because loyalty, post-Watergate, has been construed to be blind loyalty — “my president, right or wrong.”
This is a caricatured definition of loyalty. No one would argue that if President Trump dispatched Col. Mustard with a candlestick in the Rose Garden, an FBI director who opened an investigation would be evincing disloyalty. Surely even Mr. Trump would not argue this.
Loyalty to the president is a more modest concept. All non-union executive branch officials serve at the pleasure of the president. They are subject to dismissal at any time, for any reason — even, for no reason. If they lose out on policy debates, they are expected to implement the policy or, if unwilling to do so, to resign.
Two notable examples illustrate this. In 1980, President Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, was opposed to the Iranian hostage rescue mission. He decided to resign, but did not do so until after the raid. In 1988, James Webb resigned as secretary of the Navy in opposition to Reagan administration defense budget cuts. Both men conducted themselves honorably in doing so.
All administrations face hostile leaks from bureaucrats who lose internal debates, and then leak to the press to undermine the chosen policy. As this provides much fodder for the Beltway press — and nearly always is legal to publish — it rarely gets media criticism. But in doing so such leakers, by clandestinely sabotaging policy they do not like — or a president they do not like — are acting disloyally.
Enter James Comey, spurned bureaucrat par excellence and a darling of Washington insiders who mostly despise Donald Trump. Comey meets with Trump, tells the president three times that he is not under investigation, and then decides that he will force Trump to appoint a special counsel to investigate alleged collusion between Team Trump and Russia. He does this despite every senior Obama official — including Comey himself — having said publicly, some under oath, no less — that there is zero evidence of such collusion. After his one-on-one conversations with Trump, Comey made notes memorializing in writing his recollections from their meetings.
Comey does not tell the president that he thinks Trump is obstructing justice. He does not say so to Congress. He does not say so to Jefferson Sessions, the attorney general and thus his superior. He leaks to the New York Times, a paper at the epicenter of the effort to drive Trump from office. He does so not directly, but through a law professor friend. He leaks only potentially derogatory information, and declines to tell the Gray Lady that major stories it has published alleging Team Trump/Russia collusion are nearly entirely wrong. And above all, Comey does not tell the paper — or anyone else publicly until his June 8 testimony — that Trump was not under investigation.
Unlike Vance and Webb, whose actions were loyal and in plain view, Comey’s backdoor actions exemplify disloyalty and deceit. No one suggests blind loyalty be the standard of public service. An example of that is — you guessed it — provided by James Comey himself. During the 2016 election campaign he carried out an order from then-attorney-general Loretta Lynch, directing him to call the Hillary investigation a “matter” instead of an “investigation.” The latter term would have complicated, to say the least, Hillary’s election prospects.
In Washington, it may be said, Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.
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