Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part series. Read part one here.
Recall former FBI Director James Comey’s advice, in version two of the now-famous Loyalty Dinner, that an independent bureau serves the president’s own best interests; then note how Comey’s narration moves somewhat abruptly to an apparent inflection point in the conversation, set off in a new paragraph:
A few moments later, the president said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move…during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on….
That this critical passage is murky should go without saying, since its main feature is a long and “awkward” silence between two people who are not personal friends, familiar acquaintances, or even longstanding coworkers, and whom narrator Comey assumes see the world through two very different lenses.
But to spare readers any avoidable confusion I shall explain at once the real source of the murkiness: the discussion about the “Steele dossier,” not revealed by Comey until much later (“During the dinner, the president returned . . .”) almost certainly occurred immediately after the awkward stare-down (“The conversation then moved on . . .”). Thus much that is unclear in this passage as it appears in Comey’s testimony becomes clearer when the discussion of the dossier is restored to its (very probable) proper place in the chronological sequence, as I shall demonstrate in part three. With that orientation up front, I shall now continue to analyze the passage as Comey provided it in his testimony, with all the obscurities that result from his maneuver of removing the Steele dossier discussion from the chronological narration.
A Cryptic Narrative
To pick up where we were: the passage of Comey’s narrative quoted above is murky. Just taking the text at face value, there is no way to guess at what two people such as these might have been thinking. Yet Comey, who in previous paragraphs is very liberal in sharing his own private thoughts about the president’s tacit intentions, here offers no illumination even of his own point of view. Since it’s doubtful Comey was aiming at ambiguity in his testimony for an investigative hearing, I would guess that in foregoing explication of the silence he is relying on public knowledge of version one, and of other familiar media portrayals of FBI Director James Comey and reality TV personality Donald Trump, to fill in the meaning that though unexpressed is to be supposed too obvious to need expression; meanwhile Comey effectively dares the reader to entertain a thought that anything not discreditable to Trump could be going on. As I mentioned in part one, the ease with which National Review writer David French repeated the desired narrative shows that if this was Comey’s gamble, he succeeded—at least with some of the people some of the time (so far, about three weeks).
Nevertheless this narrative remains cryptic. Although it quotes Trump verbatim for the first time in the account, as if Comey believed the vividness of the president’s actual words made explanation superfluous, the phrases in themselves offer many ambiguities, not least of which is the quality of loyalty to which Trump refers. The failure either of Comey to reply or of the president to elaborate makes for a complete deficiency of the actual maneuvers people typically use in conversations when they are trying to communicate with each other. And the time-setting phrase “a few moments later” separates Trump’s utterance slightly from Comey’s immediately preceding remarks without supplying any additional context for those “few moments” that might have prompted the president’s response.
Thus, if any readers of version two feel sure they know the scandalously unpresidential thing President Trump meant by “I need loyalty,” they must be importing it from version one, or from MSNBC, because it isn’t there in the words of Comey’s written testimony.
Despite narrator Comey’s decision to set off the president’s words in a new paragraph and preceding them by the phrase “a few moments later,” if Trump’s quoted statement “I need loyalty” is part of the conversation at all, then it can only be his response to the closest previous topic in the narration, which was Comey’s comment that his nonpartisan stance was “in [Trump’s] best interest as the president.” Comey’s appeal speaks to the president in the voice of a loyalist who perceives that he serves his own best interest as FBI director by serving the president’s best interests and vice versa. As a reply to Comey’s profession of solicitude, the president’s statement “I need loyalty” would seem to represent his agreement with the general relationship between FBI director and president that Comey has just expressed as Comey’s own preference, while Trump’s precise wording completes the acknowledgement by making explicit the proper term for the relationship Comey evoked.
The president would be acknowledging, for the first time in the narration so far, what he perceives as Comey’s sympathetic understanding of himself. (In fact, as we shall see, Comey also spoke in the voice of a loyal advisor in the discussion of the Steele dossier, responding to the president’s invitation and successfully persuading the president that his preferred course of action posed risks to him.)
What ‘Loyalty’ Means
To be clear, the meaning of “loyalty” the president appears to invoke here has nothing to do with subservience to a political agenda, which is what Comey’s version one explicitly claimed and Comey informs us he suspected earlier in version two. There is nothing corrupt or improper about wanting an advisor who can be trusted to give beneficial counsel.
By stating that he needs the kind of advice Comey has offered, the president would be acknowledging a lack of self-sufficiency in his new position and a further acknowledgment that without loyal advice Trump might be at some risk. Readers who think this sounds absurdly un-Trumpian should go back to Comey’s testimony about his January 6 briefing of the then-president-elect, which elaborates upon the incoming president’s vulnerable position. In any case, Trump’s awareness of his vulnerability is confirmed much later in Comey’s testimony in the summary of the discussion of the Steele dossier.
After “I need loyalty,” the president adds: “I expect loyalty.” The latter seems to qualify the former’s implication that the president is dependent upon an expert and protective advisor to guide him toward his best interests. The words “I expect” affirm the president’s independence from an advisor who is not loyal—that is, one who takes advantage of Donald Trump’s inexperience in Washington and leads him astray. Coming from the president of the United States, a position that on January 27 Trump had only held for a week, this implied that an advisor whom the president trusted could not knowingly lead him astray without, in the president’s legitimate judgment, essentially violating the duties of his office; and it also suggested that the president’s dependence upon trustworthy advice was not so extreme that an untrustworthy advisor might disable him from exercising his authority as president with respect to the errant advisor. In other words, the president’s need for protective advice from the FBI director coincides with the FBI director’s responsibility to give it to him; a principle that is consistent with the one that Comey had just articulated about the president’s responsibility to the FBI.
Comey’s narration, needless to say, provides no explication of the president’s point, which Comey probably understood incorrectly, if he even cared enough to try to understand it.
After the president says “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” he comes to a stop. Narrator Comey provides no explanation of why the president fell completely silent instead of elaborating upon what this talk of loyalty was supposed to mean. In conversation a speaker will often pause to give another participant a chance to respond. Alternatively, a speaker with an histrionic flair may sometimes make a full stop to let the import of his words “sink in” with the listener. In the present passage I think the latter is more likely, for a reason that cannot be clearly derived from the text as it stands in Comey’s testimony, but will become much clearer in part three, when we take account of the Steele dossier discussion, which probably occurred very soon after the silence Comey describes.
Meanwhile Comey gazes silently across the table at the president. Comey offers no explanation of what he was thinking at the time. Curiously, narrator Comey describes himself giving Trump no reaction: “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.” Taking the narrator at his word, the passage seems to describe someone who is trying to avoid displaying any reaction—one who has something on his mind that he doesn’t want to express or acknowledge to the person across the table. That would be why Comey could feel the silence was “awkward” (it was . . . to Comey) and not ominous, pregnant, or any of the other things sometimes said of conversational silences that bear an apparent significance.
Judging from the way Trump’s “I need loyalty” comment arose, the thought that Comey wanted to repress was probably his alarm at finding that his effort to win Trump’s compliance by expressing solicitude had achieved an unintended effect. Rather than realizing that all Comey wanted was to be left alone to run the FBI as he pleased, the president instead heard him posing as an expert and sympathetic counselor, and was inviting him to continue in that role.