Trump wanted Comey’s input about how the FBI could protect their country’s President from a vile defamation. Too much to ask?
Once FBI Director James Comey finishes narrating the end of his dinner with President Trump, he unveils a surprise: the story so far has been incomplete. Narrator Comey has withheld a topic of the dinner conversation that he now appends as an afterthought. But it’s much more important than that.
The topic, never mentioned at all in version one and thus made public as part of the Loyalty Dinner only in Comey’s June 8 testimony, is what has come to be known as the “Steele dossier” (which Comey calls “the salacious material”). In narrating the Loyalty Dinner from beginning to end while suppressing the discussion of this topic somewhere in the middle, Comey’s testimony reveals that version two in itself actually presents two conflicting versions of his dinner with Trump.
The version we analyzed in Part II would be version 2a, while version 2b would be the Loyalty Dinner as reconstructed with the “Steele dossier” discussion restored in the chronological sequence. This fairly simple mechanical adjustment has a major effect upon the substance of Comey’s testimony. Not only does it confirm that Comey misunderstood the president’s comments about loyalty, as our previous analysis has already shown to be likely, but it reveals that Comey’s narrative of a January 27 dinner discussion centered on Comey’s own job security is a mere mirage created by narrator Comey’s prejudgments, prejudices, and above all his strategic omissions. The matter that Comey’s testimony has suppressed can be recognized in retrospect as the president’s primary if not sole agenda item for the January 27 dinner.
The Real Dinner Topic?
The role of the Steele dossier as an item on the president’s agenda is indicated in Comey’s narration by the fact that the president is represented as taking the initiative to introduce the topic (“the president returned to the salacious material”), his coming prepared with a plan of action to share with Comey (“he said he was considering ordering me to investigate”), and his implicit solicitation of Comey’s contribution to his deliberations (“considering”). Comey’s testimony narrates a continuous exchange between the participants, without interruptions, pauses, silences, or diversions of topic, until the president instructs Comey about how he would like to move forward (“He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it”). Thus the narrative here clearly represents President Trump engaging Comey in work that the president came prepared for and wanted to move forward. This is what I mean by an agenda item.
Nothing in version 2a (i.e., Comey’s narrative from the beginning through the conclusion of the dinner) is presented this way, so it appears that the Steele dossier may have been the president’s only agenda item for the dinner. In version 2a most of the discussion topics are initiated by Comey (his disavowal of reliability, the importance of FBI independence, history of White House-Department of Justice relationships). The narrative represents President Trump initiating the dinner’s first topic in asking Comey whether he wanted to remain in his position as FBI director, and then at the end of the dinner expressing his pleasure that Comey wanted to stay. The president’s initial question could not represent an altogether serious probe for information, since as Comey mentions, he had already told the president twice before that he intended to stay on.
Indeed, since the president had the authority to dismiss Comey without giving a reason, his very gesture of having to find out about Comey’s job by asking Comey, and his offer of sympathetic understanding if Comey decided to step down of his own accord, suggest a very passive and casual stance for a chief executive. The narrative never indicates that the president is dissatisfied with Comey’s performance and hopes for a different response to his overture; on the contrary. After Comey has reaffirmed his wish to continue serving as FBI director the president never asks another thing about it, while he listens patiently, and without indication of displeasure or disagreement, to Comey’s divagations about how in his view the job of FBI director should be done. When Trump revisits the topic of Comey’s job near the end of the dinner it is merely to express his satisfaction with the status quo in a spirit of flattery not inappropriate to the conclusion of a social occasion. Trump’s quoted remarks about loyalty in this passage, and those reported earlier, do not even make unambiguous reference to Comey in particular and, in any case, they could not be part of the president’s work agenda because they accomplish nothing. The first time they elicit a mysterious silence, followed by a change to an unspecified different topic. The second time Trump simply reaffirms that everything with Comey is fine (“That’s what I want….”).
Moreover, somewhere during the Loyalty Dinner the president turned his attention to the Steele dossier. That means that he dropped the topic of Comey’s job, another sign that it could have played at best a secondary role in the president’s agenda for the meeting. And in the Steele dossier discussion itself the president addresses Comey as the fully empowered FBI director, with the explicit expectation that Comey will continue to advise the president about the Steele dossier in the future.
Seeking Reassurances Was Sensible on Trump’s Part
It is conceivable that the president did have a distinct reason for seeking reassurance, at the outset of that dinner, that Comey was not wavering in his decision to remain as FBI director. Since the president had some thoughts to convey about the Steele dossier, a matter of personal sensitivity to him, he may have wanted extra confirmation that he would not learn soon afterwards that he had shared his confidences with an FBI director suddenly turned civilian. Either that was the president’s reason, or the topic of Comey’s future was just a Trumpian form of small talk to establish rapport before turning to the serious business he planned to cover with the FBI director that evening.
We might note in addition that, given what we have subsequently learned about Comey’s personal hostility to Trump and his misgivings about working in his administration, it would not have been unperceptive of the president to at least wonder whether Comey’s intent to remain in the Trump administration was as secure as Comey had led him to believe.
The fact that the Steele dossier was on the president’s agenda for discussion with Comey on January 27 must be the reason that Trump arranged that the dinner occur in private. As Comey reveals in his testimony about his sole meeting with Trump prior to this one, he himself had briefed President-elect Trump in a meeting where only Trump and Comey were present, in order to “minimize potential embarrassment to the president-elect.” Comey adds that the material “implicated the FBI’s counter-intelligence responsibilities,” which probably means that it was highly classified and that Trump would have learned that in the briefing.
This completely satisfactory explanation of the private setting on January 27 destroys much of Comey’s narration in version 2a, where he rather elaborately recounts the scheduling, location, furniture, wait-staff, and Comey’s point of view as it dawns upon him that the president has arranged for them to dine alone together, a setting that suggested to Comey that “the dinner was…an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.” Narrator Comey, who composes this narrative for his testimony with the perfect knowledge of hindsight, already knows, as his readers do not, that the conversation will discuss the Steele dossier; but he laboriously establishes a false frame of significance for the Loyalty Dinner that conceals the true reason for the dinner being held in private, and substitutes another one whose flimsiness does not become completely apparent until we restore the Steele dossier discussion in the chronological sequence. With the one-on-one nature of the meeting eliminated as a sign of the president’s corrupt intentions, the whole pretense of versions one and 2a that President Trump attempted to compromise the FBI director at the dinner of January 27 is revealed as a baseless mirage created by Comey’s manipulative narration.
The Steele Dossier Talk Changes Everything
Narrator Comey’s summary of the Steele Dossier Conversation also throws additional light on the president’s meaning when he spoke to Comey about his need for loyalty, and why on January 27 the president would have had loyalty on his mind in a discussion with the FBI director. I have placed some phrases in bold type for special attention:
[the president] said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it.
Although Trump seems to be aware that as President he has the authority to order Comey to investigate the Steele dossier, and he doesn’t hold back his own considered view, he stops short of preempting Comey’s independent expert judgment about his idea. Obviously Trump’s purpose in bringing Comey to the White House was to consult with him, not to give Comey an order about the Steele dossier or anything else that might be on the FBI’s agenda. In Comey’s response we again see the FBI director demonstrating that he is mindful of the president’s interests, specifically his vulnerabilities. Then for the first and only time in the Loyalty Dinner the president asks Comey to do something for him: “[he] asked me [Comey] to think about it” (emphasis added). That is hardly the manipulative and invasive President Trump of Comey’s suspicious imaginings.
align=”right” Comey presents himself to the president as a loyalist. This reinforces the impression of our earlier analysis that when Trump told Comey “I need loyalty” he thought—because Comey’s testimony shows he had reason to think–that he was only acknowledging gratefully a quality that Comey had spontaneously led the president to believe he possessed.
But an aspect of the president’s respect for Comey’s independence is that, while Trump and Comey approach the Steele dossier with different ideas about the FBI’s practical role, they both share the common goal of shielding the president from harm that might arise even just incidentally from an FBI investigation of the dossier’s source. Comey presents himself to the president as a loyalist. This reinforces the impression of our earlier analysis that when Trump told Comey “I need loyalty” he thought—because Comey’s testimony shows he had reason to think–that he was only acknowledging gratefully a quality that Comey had spontaneously led the president to believe he possessed.
The Steele dossier discussion throws more light on Trump’s quoted phrases about loyalty if we explore more precisely where it would have occurred in the chronological sequence of the actual conversation. Since the narrative’s paraphrase of the Steele dossier discussion gives only an imprecise indication (“During the dinner…”), any more exact suggestion must have an element of conjecture. Nevertheless Comey’s testimony does supply a clue. At only one point does narrator Comey indicate a change in the topic of conversation, but without stating what the new topic was. That is in the “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” paragraph. The critical words are printed in bold type:
…the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on…
According to narrator Comey some conversation occurred here, and he doesn’t say that it wasn’t about the Steele dossier. Since apart from Comey’s job the Steele dossier is the only topic his testimony states occurred at the January 27 dinner, it would be a reasonable hypothesis that the beginning of the Steele dossier conversation occurred right here. If we hypothetically set the Steele dossier paraphrase to follow the awkward silence passage, and then read the resulting narrative continuously from Comey’s disquisition on how FBI independence is in “[Trump’s] best interest as President,” on through the “I need loyalty” paragraph and then down to the end of the Steele dossier paragraph, the whole passage fits together so well that even the silence that Comey found awkward makes sense.
I have explained in Part II that Comey’s effort to refuse the president any response suggests a desire, not to overtly reject Trump’s gesture of engagement, but to avoid accepting it while simultaneously preventing the president from perceiving Comey’s inner revulsion—because Comey postures as a paternalistic expert advisor throughout the dinner. As for Trump, he gazed at Comey in silence to let his words sink in, because he knew the discussion was about to engage his guest in consultation about a confidential matter. At a point in the conversation where Comey had just addressed him in the voice of a loyal advisor, Trump found the opportune moment to make the transition, since the whole matter of the Steele dossier placed the president’s interests at serious risk, and not only the risk of personal embarrassment.
Comey’s testimony account of his January 6 meeting with the president-elect makes visible the vulnerabilities the new president would have had on his mind barely a week after his inauguration. Comey had to explain to President-elect Trump not only that the salacious Steele dossier existed, but also the corollary circumstance that while Trump knew nothing about it until the moment Comey told him, the leaders of FBI and the other intelligence agencies knew about it, some in the media knew about it, and a hostile foreign government might well know about it. In effect, Comey had been assigned the mission of disclosing to Donald Trump the ugly, humiliating, and frightening facts of life: that compared to the director of the FBI, Donald Trump, builder of tall buildings and POTUS-elect, was almost as powerless as a blind man trying to cross a busy street. The Intelligence Community was concerned that the president-elect might find out about the Steele dossier through “some effort to compromise [the] incoming President,” and they wished to instruct him about how to defend against such an approach.
In other words, through no fault of Trump’s, the Intelligence Community already perceived the incoming President as a potential security risk. Comey and his staff recognized that when the president-elect beheld his image captured in the panopticon of the Intelligence Community, he might reasonably infer that he himself was actually the subject of an FBI “counterintelligence investigation of his personal conduct.” Comey and his staff considerately felt that an incoming president should not be in a state of uncertainty about whether the FBI was investigating his personal life, and the team decided that Comey might relieve the president-elect’s uncertainty “if circumstances warranted,” or he could let the president-elect sweat if “circumstances” didn’t. In the event, Comey made the call to relieve the president-elect’s uncertainty. But it was entirely up to the FBI whether the incoming President was under surveillance or wasn’t, whether he was deemed vulnerable to blackmail or wasn’t, whether he would be told or wouldn’t be. On January 6 Donald Trump was just the president-elect, spoken-to and not speaking with respect to the Intelligence Community.
Comey’s testimony about the January 6 meeting, reporting what seems to be the judgment of the Intelligence Community at the time of the briefing, describes the Steele dossier as “unverified,” which means possibly true but not yet certainly so. We know that in the briefing Comey left the Steele dossier’s veracity unresolved, because, as Comey reports in his summary of the Steele dossier discussion, the matter the president wanted to consult about on January 27 was precisely a way the FBI could prove that the Steele dossier was false. So from January 6 to January 27, besides everything else the FBI director had given the incoming President to worry about, President Trump did not even know what the FBI really thought about the salacious accusations in the dossier, or whether someone in the FBI might use the disinformation against him whether believing in it or not. The president quite reasonably hoped the FBI could find a way to dispel the threat of the baseless slander by neutralizing it conclusively.
align=”right” In other words, through no fault of Trump’s, the Intelligence Community already perceived the incoming President as a potential security risk.
In speaking with the president-elect on January 6, the FBI director had given the incoming president a “defensive briefing” to enable him to protect the nation’s security if he discerned an effort to compromise him, and he had demonstrated a measure of sympathy for the president-elect’s predicament by assuring him that he was not the subject of FBI surveillance of his personal conduct. Comey already knew Trump’s vulnerability far better than Trump himself did, and he had shown himself to be an ally. Of course this was really no more than an FBI director’s duty of office would require, because in that situation an FBI director who was not the president’s ally would have been his enemy, and the country’s as well. After Trump was inaugurated and obtained the official authority to instruct the FBI to investigate an intelligence matter, President Trump’s mind turned to the lingering problem of the Steele dossier, and for expert, loyal, and candid advice he naturally turned to the sole official whom he knew to be fully informed of both the disinformation and the president’s own vulnerabilities, and who had provided helpful counsel three weeks before, FBI director James Comey.
Nevertheless, despite the president’s urgent need for the help of an FBI director he could trust, he really didn’t know James Comey well at all. So he invited Comey to a dinner at his home where the men might relax and “bond,” and before sharing his anxiety about the matter he and Comey had discussed during the transition, the president began building rapport by asking Comey about a topic he’d probably thought about a lot, his job. When Trump saw in Comey’s advice about the president’s best interest a thread by which to draw the FBI director’s posture of solicitude from the abstract into the concrete, the president chose words to adjust the tone of the discussion and prepare Comey for the uniquely sensitive advisory role he would momentarily be asked to play. The phrase “I need loyalty” would have gestured toward the vulnerable situation of which Comey himself had just recently warned him, as well as Comey’s presumed willingness and unique ability to offer protection with advice and perhaps other means that only an FBI director would know.
The phrase “I expect loyalty” would also have reminded Comey that since Donald Trump was now President the protection he sought was also Comey’s official duty to give, and if his displays of concern for the president’s welfare were insincere he would necessarily find the president a dangerous adversary. The president paused before proceeding to let Comey absorb the responsibility the president would momentarily ask him to bear. While Comey, who in his contempt for the president must have understood none of this, gazed back without expression to conceal his resistance to the president’s overture of trust, Trump gazed at Comey in order, as Trump perhaps imagined, to touch his conscience. The misunderstanding was complete and mutual.
If as we have surmised Trump’s phrase “I need loyalty” was his transition into the discussion of the Steele dossier, this would also suggest his reason for repeating the phrase to Comey at the end of the dinner. It was a way of sealing the occasion with the sign of the important work on which the president and Comey had collaborated that evening, the discussion of the Steele dossier. Since the whole topic was top secret for reasons both personal and official, it was tactful of the president merely to gesture towards it by using a phrase that only the two participants would associate with the Steele dossier, for it was unique to the particular conversation they had shared together. Added to the compliments that he paid to Comey as the FBI director prepared to leave the Green Room, Trump’s reprise of “I need loyalty” amounted to a wink that meant “I know you’ll remember to think about that thing we discussed.”
Comey’s narrative reveals a crippled inability to understand anything the president said or did, and in fact a stubborn determination not to try. President Trump reached out to him in legitimate need, and Comey, while feigning assistance, turned the president’s confidence into a weapon aimed at his heart. At a dinner where the president consulted him about an intelligence matter that touched upon the country’s president himself, Jim Comey coincidentally had heard fall from Donald Trump’s mouth a few words that, stripped of their actual context and splashed across the newspapers, could be used by the president’s eager enemies to implicate him in a proposition to corrupt the FBI. The version of the Loyalty Dinner that Comey recited to associates, so they could pass it along to the Times when the moment to strike arrived, was a deliberate and maliciously damaging misrepresentation, disloyal to the country as well as to its president. First we had the Steele dossier, a body of disinformation fabricated by a hostile actor to harm Donald Trump. The Comey dossier is just a somewhat more devious product of the same intelligence craft.