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James Comey, Integrity, and the Appearance of Integrity


Michael Dorf’s assessment of Comey (and Rosenstein) is brilliant:

Another problem with the idea that Rosenstein was taking one for the team is that people with reputations for integrity often cultivate them. That’s not to say that they lack integrity. But it is to say that Comey and Wittes might have it somewhat backwards. Making at least small compromises is what people of good will who are not trying to impress everyone with their integrity do all the time.

Any adult with substantial experience in any organization that operates roughly by consensus will be familiar with the phenomenon. Someone proposes doing something that you think is a bad idea; you voice your concerns; your colleagues or your boss hear you out but they say that they want to proceed anyway; you could make a big stink but you conclude that this is not a question of life-or-death or a fundamental principle, so you go along. The sort of person who always stands up for principle is a gadfly at best and often an asshole.

How does someone who is not widely perceived as a gadfly or an asshole develop a reputation for being a person of great principle and integrity? Essentially by curating his reputation. As numerous commentators have noted, that’s more or less what Comey has done–leaning very hard on the tale of the hospital visit.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that Comey did not act honorably and with integrity back in 2004, when he blocked the effort of Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card to reauthorize an illegal surveillance program. He acted honorably. What I am saying is that Comey seems like the sort of person who pays a great deal of attention to his own reputation. And that accounts for his worst sin: Because he didn’t want to look like he had acted unfairly to influence the election by sitting on the Anthony Weiner material, he in fact unfairly influenced the election. The cultivation of the appearance of integrity can sometimes be inconsistent with actually acting with integrity.

This is precisely correct. Although, again, I’ll add that it’s not a coincidence that between two paths, each of which could have gotten him criticized for acting unfairly, he was more concerned about Republican than Democratic criticism and went with the option that allowed him to take a shot at Clinton. Comey’s vast exaggeration of the number of emails Abedin forwarded to Weiner — making the question of whether to inform Congress or just let the investigation play out seem like a much closer call on the merits than it actually was — is the key tell here. As scholars of the judiciary are well aware, an awful lot of partisan behavior is the work of people who consider themselves above partisanship.

With Trump having become president in substantial measure because of Comey’s misconduct, Comey’s close attention to his reputation works in the national interest again. And, in addition, I would guess he’s the kind of elite Republican who holds Trump as well as Clinton in contempt, so his partisanship functions very differently with Trump actually in the White House than it was nearly-universally assumed that Clinton would win. But even if he acts honorably in the wake of the election, he should always be a reminder of the critical distinction between being a person of integrity and being a person who cares a lot about being perceived as a person of integrity.

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