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Frank Bruni: The debasement of James Comey

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    ABC News correspondent George Stephanopoulos, left, appears with former FBI director James Comey for a taped interview promoting Mr. Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership."

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James Comey’s book is titled A Higher Loyalty, but it surrenders the higher ground, at least partly. To watch him promote it is to see him descend.

Not to President Donald Trump’s level — that’s a long way down. But Mr. Comey is playing Mr. Trump’s game, on Mr. Trump’s terms. And in that sense, he has let the President get the better of him.

EDITORIAL: James Comey's tell all

Mr. Trump has sought, by accident and by design, to define leadership downward and establish new norms of behavior for political candidates and government officials.

Everyone is out for himself or herself. No gambit is too tawdry and no accusation too speculative, not if the television cameras approve. The only thing better than a whole lot of attention is a whole lot more.

And here we have the former head of a supposedly scrupulous, detached federal agency reaching for Mafia metaphors, indulging talk of the so-called pee tape and taking cosmetic digs at the president in the service of a book tour as exhaustive and elaborate as they come. There’s apparently room in Mr. Comey’s primness for a measure of Michael Wolff.

His demeanor may not be fiery or furious. Talking with George Stephanopoulos for an hourlong ABC News special on Sunday night, he maintained a subdued, steady voice and communicated sadness more than anything else over Mr. Trump’s conduct in the White House.

But other aspects of that special told a more complicated story. For starters, Mr. Comey didn’t just agree to a single, straightforward sit-down with Stephanopoulos. He granted a level of access akin to a pajama party.

Meet the wife. Here are some great shots of the kids. And here are the long fingers of Mr. Comey’s normally sized hands on the very keyboard that he used to type the memos that documented his interactions with Mr. Trump. Mr. Comey was game to provide footage of that — and to follow up with interviews on Tuesday on Good Morning America and on Wednesday on The View, which is not a place where I would have expected to see a former FBI director anytime soon.

I mention hands because Mr. Comey does. That was one of the first bits of his book that leaked out last week. Flashing back to his initial up-close encounter with Mr. Trump, he recalls how orange Mr. Trump’s skin looked, how improbably his hair glistened, and how inferior his hands were. “Smaller than mine,” Mr. Comey writes, but not “unusually so.”

I chalked that up to a fleeting passage overplayed by the media, and I was heartened by other advance material from the book. Mr. Comey, for example, mentions his experience in two administrations before Mr. Trump’s and has judicious complaints about members of each. He thus makes clear his broad frame of reference and ability to find flaw on both sides of the aisle.

But he revisited Mr. Trump’s physical peculiarities with Mr. Stephanopoulos on Sunday night. Didn’t Mr. Comey always tell us that he was better than this?

He could have set the record straight and settled any scores that need settling without a tour this extended or details this catty. His choice of a different tack suggests some unflattering motives in the mix. It gives Mr. Trump’s allies plenty to attack him with, and it has goaded Mr. Trump — predictably — into his most infantile epithets.

There’s obviously no contest of character or credibility between Mr. Comey and Mr. Trump. I believe most and maybe all of what Mr. Comey has to say, and much of it needs saying, as an answer to the president’s lies and an exposure — affirmation might be the better word — of who and what Mr. Trump is.

But in succumbing to this showboating and spite, hasn’t Mr. Comey joined Mr. Trump almost as much as he’s defying him? Mr. Comey says that he means to shine a spotlight on what leadership should and shouldn’t be, and I hope that’s the long-term takeaway of the Higher Loyalty rollout and all the hours and miles being devoted to it.

But right now I’m cringing at a food fight. In fact, Good Morning America displayed a snazzy graphic of Mr. Trump’s various Twitter tirades against Mr. Comey — “Slippery,” “Slimeball,” “Leaker & Liar” — as Mr. Comey was asked to respond.

Mr. Trump personalizes everything. Ideas don’t joust. People do. And it’s vanity, not verities, at stake. With the way that Mr. Comey has written his book, which charts every last tremor of his conscience, and the staging of his appearances in promotion of it, he has abetted his own transformation from a crucial witness to a character in the serial melodrama of Mr. Trump’s life.

That spectacle only serves Mr. Trump. If he can convince American voters that what they’re beholding has as much to do with the egos of the actors as with the egregiousness of his acts, he has inoculated himself against Robert Mueller, and he shapes the movie that’s made of this.

Its title? “Honey, I Shrunk the FBI.”

Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist.

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