President Trump and former FBI Director Comey: 2 paths of loyalty
Loyalty was all over the news last week, as former FBI Director James B. Comey took to the road to promote his new book, “A Higher Loyalty.” And, we now see that Comey's relationship with Donald Trump was star-crossed from the get-go, mostly because of their different notions of loyalty.
At Trump's invitation, these two powerhouses — from different places with very different values — dined alone at the White House, seven days after Trump's swearing-in. As Comey tells it, Trump wondered, after some small talk, whether he could expect “loyalty” from the FBI director, and Comey countered with a promise of “honesty.”
There was some back and forth, before they settled on a mutually unsatisfying agreement that Comey would give the president “honest loyalty,” whatever that means. And it was all down hill from there.
In Trump's private business world, loyalty is personal, and disloyalty is a fire-able offense. Where Comey comes from, loyalty is not to any individual, but to the Constitution, through the institutions in which one serves.
And, while the constitutional meaning of loyalty is a fundamental American value, it is one of those things that require an occasional reminder. That can occur on the big stage, as with Watergate in the 1970s, but it also happens in more mundane settings.
During the George W. Bush administration, former White House Political Director Sara Taylor was grilled by a Senate committee over the firing of U.S. Attorneys who seemed to be disloyal to the Bush administration. When pressed by Sen. Patrick Leahy to answer a tough question, Taylor refused, citing her “oath to the President,” as her reason.
Leahy pounced, asking, “Did you mean, perhaps, you took an oath to the Constitution?”
Taylor conceded that Leahy was correct, but she hemmed and hawed, and made it clear that she still thought her loyalty was to the president. Leahy would not let her budge.
“No, the oath says that you take an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States. That is your paramount duty,” he said.
“I know that the President refers to the government being his government. It's not. It's the government of the people of America. Your oath is not to uphold the President, nor is mine to uphold the Senate.”
Trump, the hard-nosed New York developer, knows the blurred line between business and politics, and the casual quid pro quo, in which jobs and contracts are rewarded with unflinching loyalty.
That is still the rule in many of the countries where Trump's businesses flourish.
And while the Trump and Comey versions of what happened over dinner will always differ, this one thing remains true: the highest officials in our government owe their loyalty to the American people, not to a person.
In 1953, Winston Churchill compared England's unwritten constitution with our own, noting a common purpose.
“We do not want to live under a system dominated either by one man or one theme,” he said.
So, regardless of politics, as Presidents come and go and political parties rise and fall, our loyalty remains to the guarantees of the United States Constitution.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).