In an extraordinarily well-timed piece of commentary — given Attorney General William Barr’s efforts before the Senate Judiciary Committee to defend the shreds of honor he retains after 11 weeks as Donald Trump’s attorney general — the New York Times published an op-ed by former FBI director James Comey that probes the president’s technique for submitting subordinates to his will. Comey has never made a secret of his disdain for Trump. But now he’s turning his attention to people he once deeply respected to explore — not without sympathy — why they’ve now lost his respect in Trump’s service.
Mentioning Barr and Rod Rosenstein (who, it should be noted, recommended that Comey be fired in order to please the king by slaying a meddlesome subordinate) in particular, Comey doesn’t mince words:
What happened to these people?
I don’t know for sure. People are complicated, so the answer is most likely complicated. But I have some idea from four months of working close to Mr. Trump and many more months of watching him shape others.
Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them. Sometimes what they reveal is inspiring. For example, James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, resigned over principle, a concept so alien to Mr. Trump that it took days for the president to realize what had happened, before he could start lying about the man.
But more often, proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing. I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from. It takes character like Mr. Mattis’s to avoid the damage, because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.
Comey admits he felt the president gnawing at his own soul:
It starts with your sitting silent while he lies, both in public and private, making you complicit by your silence …
Speaking rapid-fire with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions. I have felt it — this president building with his words a web of alternative reality and busily wrapping it around all of us in the room.
I must have agreed that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history because I didn’t challenge that. Everyone must agree that he has been treated very unfairly. The web building never stops.
Again, Comey cites Mattis as the honorable exception to the general rule of self-corruption:
While the entire world is watching, you do what everyone else around the table does — you talk about how amazing the leader is and what an honor it is to be associated with him.
Sure, you notice that Mr. Mattis never actually praises the president, always speaking instead of the honor of representing the men and women of our military. But he’s a special case, right? Former Marine general and all. No way the rest of us could get away with that. So you praise, while the world watches, and the web gets tighter.
Comey writes knowingly of the rationalizations that people around Trump — and his allies in Congress — deploy to forgive themselves for what they know is cooperation in serial lies and travesties, and to avoid being caught out in their hypocrisy by the ever-suspicious, jealous god in the Oval Office. That leads to more insincere flattery of the all-powerful and infallible one, and very quickly to the inability to maintain any integrity. “And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.”
I certainly cannot recall any former high-ranking government official ever describing a president and his top officials with this sort of language. When you remember that Comey was until recently a Republican careerist and a close associate of many of those who still serve this president and the party he has conquered, it’s that much more remarkable. It offers somber mood music to the spectacle we are all witnessing as the Trump administration bullies its way through crimes and misdemeanors and intensely polarizing rhetoric in hopes of winning the Devourer of Souls a second term as president.