Other presidencies would have found it difficult to survive endless storms and this one may not either – especially with these sorts of revelations, including the accusation of Trump running his office ‘like a mafia boss’.
One of the most interesting aspects of James Comey’s highly interesting memoirs is just how fixated Donald Trump apparently was about allegations in Christopher Steele’s dossier that he had used prostitutes while on a visit to Russia.
The claim that the man who is now the US president had hired the women to urinate at a hotel room in Moscow was the most lurid made by the former MI6 agent, and something which was used at the time by his detractors to discredit the report.
Many of the claims made in the Steele document have subsequently turned out to be true. There has not, however, been any proof yet of the “golden shower” (or the alleged filming of it by the Kremlin) which supposedly took place on the bed once used by Barack and Michelle Obama, who Trump hated.
There have been assertions from some intelligence and diplomatic officials that the incident did take place and that Trump had used prostitutes in other occasions in Russia, but these remain unverified.
We also know there are allegations that Trump had affairs with a porn actress and others in the US, and that the woman concerned, Stormy Daniels, was paid off for her silence. This was the reason for the raid by special counsel Robert Mueller’s on the offices of the president’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. The investigators were reportedly also looking for a tape in which Trump’s advice to a companion on women was “grab them by the p***y”. Separately, Steve Bannon had claimed that “100 women” had been “taken care of” on Trump’s behalf; the number may be a hyperbole, but that is what the President’s former chief strategist said.
All this is still not proof of the Moscow prostitute act, but that is a claim which appeared to have greatly exercised the president. Comey recounts his meeting with the president-elect in January 2017 to discuss the Steele dossier. Trump was quickly focused on the sex. He denied the claim, “asking – rhetorically I assumed – whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorised the allegations,” Comey writes.
The conversation, Comey felt, “teetered towards disaster” until “I pulled the tool from my bag: ‘We are not investigating you, sir.’ That seemed to quiet him”.
Comey’s assurance was technically correct at the time, and had been used by Trump to declare that he is not suspected of any wrongdoing. But since then, of course, the president has become the focus of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, appointed after Comey’s sacking by Trump, into Russian interference in the US election.
It seems the president-elect could not stay quiet for long. Just a week after that meeting, he called Comey to talk about the dossier and moved on, unprompted again, to the sex allegations. He was keen to stress that he had not stayed overnight in Moscow and had only used the hotel room to change clothes. In any event, said the man who was about to take over the most powerful job in the world, “there’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me. I’m a germaphobe!”.
Comey decided it was prudent not tell the president-elect that “the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants. In fact, though I didn’t know for sure, I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity.”
A week after his inauguration, Trump invited Comey to dinner at the White House. It was an intimate affair with the table set for two. The president spent some time marvelling at the handwriting on the menu and then turned once again to the many sex allegations against him and his answer to them. “There was no way he groped the lady sitting next to him on the aeroplane, and that the idea that he grabbed a porn star and offered her money was preposterous.”
The next month, Trump is said to have telephoned the FBI chief once more to complain about the Russian investigation and again brought up the matter of the Moscow prostitutes. “For about the fourth time, he argued that the golden showers thing wasn’t true, asking yet again, ‘Can you imagine me, hookers?’ In an apparent play for my sympathy, he added that he has a beautiful wife and the whole thing has been very painful for her. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud,’” Comey writes.
That was how some of the interaction apparently went between the new president of the United States and the director of the FBI. It is a revelation of Trump’s obsession with and, at the same time, worries about the salacious parts of his life and just one grubby part of a presidency which, to Comey, is shorn of integrity, honesty and morality.
In the 290 pages of A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership,the former FBI director charges that “this president is unethical, and untethered to the truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego-driven and about personal loyalty”. Trump’s rule is a “forest fire” which is doing great damage to America.
Comey compares the president to a mafia boss of the type he used to try and put behind bars as a federal prosecutor: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small. In service to some code of loyalty that puts the organisation above morality and above the truth.
“We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country,” he writes, “with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalised and unethical behaviour is ignored, excused or rewarded.”
But Comey himself has helped to put Trump in the White House and the creation of this toxic and desperate political environment. Just before the election he announced, as head of the FBI, that he was reopening investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. At the same time he failed to mention that Trump had been under investigation for months over his Kremlin connections. The Clinton investigation came to nothing: but her campaign had, by then, been stymied and Trump’s boosted.
Comey tries to defend his action over the Clinton investigation. He says President Obama sat alone with him later in the Oval Office and told him: “I picked you to be FBI director because of your integrity and your ability. I want you to know that nothing – nothing – has happened in the last year to change my view.” Comey, close to crying, told President Obama, “Boy, were those words I needed to hear. . . I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
It is a bit too late for tears now from Comey over Trump, one may think. But this is the second book with hugely damaging revelations, after Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, about an administration, not even halfway through its term, lurching from one severe crisis to another.
Other presidencies would have found it difficult to survive endless storms and this one may not survive either. The Syria conflict Trump is threatening to start or other foreign adventures which may follow are unlikely to provide a distraction forever.