A front row seat for James Comey's street fight with Donald Trump - Macleans.ca

A front row seat for James Comey’s street fight with Donald Trump

Allen Abel reports from the streets of NYC, as the fired FBI chief hawks his new book and trades insults with America’s president

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Former FBI Director James Comey arrives to speak about his new book 'A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership' at Barnes & Noble bookstore, April 18, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It was six o’clock in the morning and the first wan light of an April weekday was creeping over Union Square in Manhattan. Eddie Callison from the Bronx was sitting in a folding chair on the sidewalk on the north side of the plaza, between Broadway and Park Avenue South. Jeff Witt was beside him, and next to the two men there was a woman named Cate Smith and stretching eastward along the sidewalk were a dozen other stragglers and scragglers at this shivery hour.

Many of them had been up all night, nodding off at the 24-hour McDonald’s to get warm, then jolting awake to rejoin the queue before it could grow too long.

Now they all were cemented, muffled and shuffling, outside the ornate Barnes & Noble bookstore on East 17th Street, the first such experience for Cate Smith from Western Pennsylvania, a bastion of gun-toting Deplorables, though she herself was not one of those; maybe the five hundredth such encampment for Callison and Witt. They had been here since 4:30, or just in time for Jeff Witt, who was almost invisible beneath a couple of dozen overcoats, to have to shoo a well-fed rat from his chosen bivouac. Cate Smith was smarter—she had paid a man to hold her place, starting the midnight before.

The instant community was made up of streetwise New Yorkers and lambs from out of town.

Callison and Witt had seen them all, right on this very spot—Hillary and Shaq,  Muhammad Ali and Stephen King, Willie Mays and Slick Willie Clinton, the eternal and the ephemeral, the great and the even greater.

“Pele, the soccer player?”  Eddie Callison mused. “Now THAT was crazy!”

Today was not about sport, but the lesser pastimes of politics, prosecution, posturing and publicity. For redemption, for resistance, for the evening guest’s renown, or just for an autograph to auction on the Internet, all of us were waiting for towering Jim Comey, that cashiered paragon of honesty and justice, the fired director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the novice author—“Who am I to tell others what ethical leadership is?” he asks in his very first line—and Donald Trump’s bête noire.

“Slimeball” tweeted Donald Trump, and the echoes reverberated off the delivery trucks and the co-op apartments and the NYU residences and down the sewer to rattle the overweight rats.

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The bookstore would open at nine o’clock. The first 200 in the queue would be allowed to buy an autographed copy of Jim Comey’s A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies, and Leadership—and a wristband that would admit the purchaser or someone who purchased it from the purchaser—to listen to a reading and lecture by Comey in person at seven in the evening in the same Barnes & Noble. That amounted to a minimum of 15 hours of sleeplessness and frostbite, just to see an unemployed man ladle public insults all over the President of the United States.

You could pry the same imprecations from almost anybody in Donald Trump’s Manhattan, but that wasn’t the ballgame today. Yet here were two exceptions: both Witt and Callison had voted for Donald Trump.

“I see a guy who’s got a big ego,” Callison opined, and the men were asked what to make of Jim Comey’s assertion that Donald Trump, possibly obstructing justice in a criminal fashion, or perhaps not, had asked him to make the investigation of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn for malfeasance and collusion “go away.”

“In my time, I saw a lot of things go away that shouldn’t have,” said Eddie Callison, who retired after 20 years as a detective with the New York Police Department. “If you know the right people, a lot of things go away.”

“I knew he’d be a bit of a loose cannon,” said Witt.

“But I don’t see a criminal,” said Callison. (Neither did Comey, exactly. “The behavior I saw, which while disturbing and violating basic norms of ethical leadership, may fall short of being illegal,” he wrote.)

“There are three sides to every story,” Witt noted. “Your side, my side, and the truth.”

At one point in A Higher Loyalty, James Comey compares Donald Trump to Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, a Mafia consigliere who flipped to the feds and confessed to the murders of (at least) 19 outlaws, in-laws and wise guys.

Callison, who was now buying and selling autographs as a living and a hobby, claims he knew both Gravano and Trump. Where else could you encounter someone like this at six in the morning except in New York, N.Y.?

“I was at Sammy’s famous barbecue when the dog dug up his brother-in-law’s head,” boasts Callison, but other sources say that it was an arm, not the cranium, that the hound unearthed.

“I just sold an autographed copy of Playboy with Trump on the cover for $6,000,”Callison said. “I gave Trump one of them, too. His security guy said he has it hanging in the White House. He was so excited. Even before he was president, I’d ask him to sign something at Trump Tower and I’d say ‘Good morning, Mister President.’ He loved that.”

Then there was the night that they brought in Sammy the Bull, and Eddie Callison remembered how kind and sweet he was to all the cops: “I got a signed picture of him and me in the holding cells, and he threw down two hundred-dollar bills and said ‘Go buy everybody pizza.’”

Now James Comey was throwing shade at Trump, and the city and the nation were waiting for the other shoe—Bob Mueller’s shoe—to drop.

“I definitely think Trump is a one-term president,” Jeff Witt, who worked in data, said. “I don’t see America making that kind of mistake again.”

“You made the same mistake,” the early birds were informed.

“I thought he’d surround himself with the best people, with Warren Buffett,” said Callison. “But he’s only listening to himself.”

“Still, my taxes have gone down and my paycheque has gone up 10 bucks,” said Witt. “Money, money, money, money. At the end of the day, it’s all about money and love.”

Cate Smith, who had lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Singapore and Australia and who now was housed in New Jersey—Jim Comey’s home state—with her husband and their children aged eight and six and four and two, took this all in. She had not voted for Trump, but her friends and relatives back in the Ohio River valley had, and she explained that “the people I grew up with were tired of being insulted by the elites from the coasts and ignored as being from ‘flyover country’.”

How odd it was that a germophobic tycoon from the towers of Manhattan would tell them “I am your voice” and that they would believe him, and that they believe him still.

“When you look at Donald Trump, what do you see?” Smith was asked.

“I see a grifter,” she replied. “I see someone who lives to make money and he thinks the laws don’t apply to him. People talk about his authoritarian tendencies, but that’s just the way he operates.”

Now the law itself—or the man who, brandishing it aloft like Pele with the World Cup, provoked the grifter’s ire and was sacked—was coming to speak to the first 200 searchers in the queue.

“What do you see in James Comey?”

“Someone who is maybe doing this to say ‘Look what a good guy I am.’” Cate answered. “Now that he’s out of a job, maybe someone who has to try to protect his reputation, and to make a lot of money.”

The out-of-towner thought for a moment.

“Maybe someone who is too confident in his decency,” she said.

***

“James Comey is a proven LEAKER AND LIAR,” Donald Trump had tweeted over the previous few days.

“I didn’t do sneaky things, I told him, and I don’t leak,” James Comey responded on page 237 of A Higher Loyalty.

“He is a weak and untruthful slime ball,” Trump spat.

“This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values,” retaliated Comey. And so on:

“With a serious look on his face, he said, ‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.’”

“I never asked Comey for personal loyalty.”

“To my mind, the demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony.”

“It was my great honor to fire James Comey.”

“The hypocrisy is so thick as to almost be darkly funny.”

“His ‘memos’ are self-serving and fake!”

“I watched the president building with his words a cocoon of alternative reality that he was busily wrapping around all of us.”

“A man who always ends up badly and out of whack.”

“His assumptions about what “everyone thinks” and what is “obviously true” wash over you . . . because he never stops talking,” sniffed James Comey.

“His reputation rehabilitation book tour won’t help,” sneered Donald Trump.

In 2011, Prof. William Hopkins of Emory University published a scholarly paper in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society explicating a common behaviour of some higher primates; namely, their propensity to hurl excrement at each other and, in a zoological-garden setting, at passing humans. Hopkins found that fastballing feces—or any other handy object—is a complicated motor skill that is evidence of a highly-ordered brain development that is unknown in lower mammals.

“Donald Trump’s presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation,” flung James Comey in A Higher Loyalty.

“The WORST FBI Director in history, by far!” answered Trump.

***

From the podium where the former director of the FBI was going to speak at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square, one could look to one’s right and see copies of Ivana Trump’s Raising Trump, signed by the author, on the top shelf of the Biography section, just a tall man’s wingspan away.

Near the cash registers was the latest edition of New York Magazine, whose cover featured a picture of Donald Trump with a pig’s snout and the words “It’s the CORRUPTION, stupid.”

And down the escalator on the third floor were a couple of odd lots of The Art of the Deal exiled to the very lowest shelf in Management. Such was the descent of Donald Trump in his own Manhattan, where the gilded towers still shout his name yet the vast majority of the citizenry reviles him.

At exactly seven o’clock in the evening James Comey, a Jersey boy who was 17 when a burglar and mass rapist held a gun to his head in his own bedroom; who lost a baby son in his second week of life to an undiscovered, preventable pre-natal infection; who dined and debated with three presidents; who learned from Mafiosi like Sammy The Bull that “men of honour only lie about the most important things,” stepped to the microphone to wild whoops and applause.

“Why did I write this book?” Comey began, open-necked and aw-shucks small-town boy-scout goofy in a very un-Manhattan kind of way. “I was fired and so I had to figure out what to do next.”

“One of my worries about myself,” he blushed, “is, is my ego getting in the way? Is it getting too big?”

“A lot of people have criticized (the book) who have not read it,” Jim Comey—patriot? slimeball?—said, and among these may be Donald Trump, who has referred to A Higher Loyalty as Comey’s “badly-reviewed book.”

“I worry very, very much that we are becoming very numb to the loss and erosion of the core values that underlie this country,” Comey told the crowded room, and this was scathing as he would get. “This isn’t a political statement. It’s a statement of what unites us as Americans.”

“We care that Lady Justice wears a blindfold.”

“Truth. It’s a real thing.”

The new author tried to reason that the 45th president held no monopoly on the sin of falsehood; he noted that George W. Bush had lied about Saddam Hussein’s weaponry and that Barack Obama had lied when he said, “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”

But Trump had taken this talent to new depths, to a point where, Comey said, “When I wake up in the morning and find that the President of the United States has called for my imprisonment, I just shrugged.”

A Higher Loyalty, its writer tried to argue, “is not about Donald Trump.” It was about lessons in leadership. It was about how “Love is a much more powerful motivator than fear,” though this was a bromide with which Sammy the Bull Gravano, who got out of prison a year ago, may not agree.

Things then got crazy, A pro-Trump heckler—a young, black-haired woman with a book and wristband who had been in the queue at daybreak—shouted out “You’re not ethical either—you’re gonna get locked up!”

Then another heckler—an older woman—started hollering “Donald Trump is a fascist! In the name of humanity we must [something] the fascists!” tying the game at 1-1.

“We should not be yelling at each other,” James Comey responded. “You shouldn’t hate people who are on a different part of the political spectrum.”

“Do not withdraw,” he advised. “Do not become disenchanted. This great country of ours is better than our leadership.”

“I wanted Donald Trump to succeed as president,” big Jim Comey declaimed. “I would have wanted Hillary Clinton to succeed. That’s not a political statement. That’s an American statement.”

The lecture was over in less than an hour, just as Donald Trump’s presidency will be over in 2,468 days, or fewer. Cassidy and Witt weren’t in the audience; their autographed copies of A Higher Loyalty already were for sale online, with an asking price of US$165  for a $25 book.

Cate Smith, bleary, in the big town since darkness, gathered up her folding chair and said of James Comey, as she had said before dawn on the sidewalk, “He wants us to see him as the good guy.”

Outside, it was one of those nights in the canyons of Manhattan—and across the deep chasms of this country—when, no matter which direction you were walking, a raw wind was in your face.

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