There’s a battle unfolding right now between Robert Mueller and Donald Trump. One side fights quietly and efficiently. The other flails and obfuscates, furious at everything in every direction, using a (pretty effective) strategy of chaos. Mueller and his team have walked a political tightrope with deft legal maneuvering and a ten-steps-ahead strategy. Trump has bludgeoned supporters and detractors alike with base, gut-scraping rhetoric. It’s logos vs. pathos. Super-ego vs. id.
We know what Trump is. Love him or hate him, there’s more than enough evidence to draw conclusions about the man’s personality and tendencies. Mueller’s methods and motivations are murkier. He appears the model of the straight arrow G-man, even as he slumps, burdened by the awesome responsibility of protecting the American good, marching solemnly down federal corridors and followed by camera crews that want—what, exactly?
In his silence, Mueller invites us to project an image on him as a Captain America for the oligarchical age. A square-jawed, duty-bound defender of the people. Where Trump will say or do anything for attention, Mueller commands it with an air of gravitas, professionalism and competence. You get the sense that, if and when he finally delivers the Trump-Russia investigation’s findings, even many hardened Trump supporters will feel compelled to hear him out.
Somewhere in the middle of those poles exists fired FBI director James Comey, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Trump-Russia special counsel era. His new book, A Higher Loyalty, a musing on leadership and, presumably, loyalty, hit shelves this week. The accompanying press tour has so far seen him yuck it up with George Stephanopoulos, Stephen Colbert and the ladies of The View. Which is to say Comey—who held the same title as Mueller at the FBI and worked as colleagues with him for years—has taken a different tack than his fellow ex-Bureau director, and you can practically see those who feel strongly that Trump-Russia is a big fucking deal collectively groan as they discreetly mime the cue for him to cut it out, as he puts his credibility and the credibility of a potential obstruction of justice case against the president of the United States at the mercy of any talking head who can bait him into making joke about Trump on-air.
While Mueller methodically leads an army of lawyers and investigators through an exhaustive process legal commentators have likened to an organized crime probe—putting together seemingly disparate puzzle pieces, on a rushed timeline, to build what may end up the most important criminal case in American history—Comey’s on every screen admonishing Trump and defending his own decision-making.
Comey was already an imperfect vessel for the ‘Trump’s a criminal’ message, but a vital one. It’s plausible his diligent memo-writing and his solid reputation in the law enforcement community could take down a president once his statements to the investigation are made public. But it’s hard to believe anything he says outside of a courtroom or the Capitol is going to be helpful before then. So the heart of the Comey issue is the question of why he wrote the book at all, and why he’s making himself so available. It’s difficult to come up with a satisfactory answer that doesn’t include opportunism.
This might be an entirely different story if Loyalty had been packed with new revelations about Trump’s conduct. But aside from Comey’s color commentary about Trump resembling a mafia boss and being “morally unfit,” he’s offered nothing we didn’t already know or couldn’t deduce, and is spending a lot of his TV time defending himself. Comey’s personal opinions about Trump won’t go as far in establishing credibility as a career lawman sticking to the facts would. All the opinion wars do is draw Comey into the shit, where Trump makes his living. Comey’s also out to reshape his own legacy. Right now, on the left, he’s the guy who cost Hillary Clinton the election, thus bringing about the hellscape simulation we find ourselves in today. To the GOP, his official party designation is “Lyin’ Comey.” The Republican strategy is to hit hard on the opportunism angle to paint Comey as a liar, taking a page out of the Trump playbook by employing a tactic the president often uses—getting ahead of a story by accusing your enemy of things you are guilty of. In this case, flagrant attention-seeking and overt deception. Comey has avoided taking that bait so far.
But he’s no villain, and the accusations of lying or bias against him are almost certainly bullshit. He comes off as a well-meaning, honorable guy who botched an impossible situation (not of his own doing) during the election and eventually got screwed over by a maniac while trying to do the right thing, again—an “honest idiot,” as he's described himself. The problem now is that his every public attempt to express remorse for his mistakes only digs him deeper. His ultimate answer to questions about his conduct during the election is, ‘I messed up, and I’m sorry,’ and that’s not something people are prepared to accept while the country creeps into fresh conflicts around the world and wonders daily why their president keeps cutting slack to despots and kleptocrats while publicly chastising members of his own administration. Comey is once again caught in a bad situation—squaring off against a volatile figure of immense power—and, once again, he’s bungling it. Despite his obvious disdain for Trump, Comey could learn a lesson or two from the trouble the president so often finds himself in when he can’t help himself from saying dumb or contradictory things (though we’re talking about someone whose lawyers have determined he can’t sit down with an investigator for fear he literally cannot keep from perjuring himself, so there are differences). The lesson being, stop pontificating when you don’t have to.
Mueller has enjoyed relatively wide public support (though a recent NPR/Marist poll has his favorability numbers dropping) despite unceasing criticism from the right and the specter of termination hanging over his head. Perhaps it’s because he’s the antithesis of the fame whoring snake oil salesman that defines Trump-era politics. He’s the stoic, principled father figure who puts his head down and does his job with dignity—every bit as much a part of the American cultural mythos as the flourishing steel town or the upwardly mobile middle class. When Americans mourn those concepts, they’re mourning an (maybe imagined) everyman version of Mueller. The guy who puts on the crisp dad suit every morning, goes to work, doesn’t call attention to himself, and takes care of his family (or the country, in this case). The Wonder Years embodiment of the “Great America” Trump supporters claim a desire to restore on their more idealistic days. No Twitter. No hollow cable news pronouncements. Of course Mueller might not be any of those things at all. He’s kept such strict light and sound discipline during the investigation, we have no meaningful way of knowing. All we have is gut instinct and split screen images of him, looking composed and stable, juxtaposed against Trump not looking either of those things.
Right now, we need the Comeys and the Muellers of the world to be above punditry. It’s hard to take someone seriously on whom the fate of the nation may depend when he’s sipping coffee on a chair that’s way to small for him, sandwiched between Joy Behar and Whoopie Goldberg on a Wednesday morning. When it’s easier to damage your reputation by saying things publicly than it is if you just say nothing at all, and in a world where most people still refuse to just shut the fuck up, Mueller is worthy of the exaltation he gets from the left. Comey still has to survive the legal and political nightmares that lie ahead, and his reputation remains up in the air. All we can say for sure is that his room-reading skills are underwhelming.
Comey appears to embrace the spotlight since his firing. He scored a multi-million-dollar advance for the book. He’s an active and unsubtle presence on Twitter, with his earnest, Stewart Smalley-esque messages of high-mindedness. He appears almost happy in public sometimes. How dare he?! It’s an unfair standard to expect career government officials to brood about the ills of the world all day, every day. But Trump’s off-the-rails commodification and debasement of the highest office in a land has eliminated the possibility of the public being able to perceive political nuance or seeing any benefit in exploring the interior lives of public servants. Through that distorted looking glass, Comey looks like he’s trying to forge a personal brand out of the persona Mueller seems to embody in reality. Comey wants you to know he’s the beacon of dignity in all this. That he’s right. That he got railroaded by circumstance trying to do his job. And he probably is right. But that’s inconsequential now.