james comey Former FBI director James Comey. Photo: Flickr/Rich Girard

Sections of the US elite are at each other’s throats, but the death blow to the whole system will only come from the millions of ordinary Americans

The atmosphere of semi-permanent crisis engulfing the Trump White House was deepened this week by the revelations of former FBI Director James Comey in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey was fired by the President early last month, supposedly for his role in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. Hardly anybody, including Trump himself, probably-believed that absurd rationale at the time; not least because Comey’s re-opening of the case a few days before the vote played a not inconsiderable role in handing the White House to the current incumbent. The suspicion of Trump’s powerful enemies among the Washington establishment was that the real reason behind the shock dismissal was that Comey was on the brink of unearthing damning evidence of the President’s links with the Putin regime and its supposed role in influencing the outcome of the election. For the US deep state that has gorged itself on anti-Russian rhetoric for decades, Trump’s tentative  rapprochement with Moscow has been profoundly disturbing. The current political pantomime playing itself out on Capitol Hill represents a visible tussle for power between two factions of the elite battling for control of the levers of power.

Honest loyalty

No doubt at some point in the future, an aspiring dramatist or film-maker with an eye for political farce will devise a script based on the shambolic opening phase of the Trump administration. The Comey hearings will certainly provide plenty of rich material for a tale of incompetence, nepotism and skulduggery. Millions of Americans were not oblivious to the dramatic potential of the FBI Director’s appearance as they tuned in to watch last week with ratings that compared favourably with the country’s premier sporting event (the media labelled the event Nerd Superbowl).  In his written statement to the Intelligence Committee, Comey recalls a surreal private conversation  between himself and the President in the White House at the end of January:

‘He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.’

Quid pro quo

It is apparent that Trump’s characteristically meagre grasp of semantics means he is unaware that honesty and loyalty do not mean the same thing  and do not always coincide. The President also unsurprisingly falls short in his appreciation of the constitutional niceties of the US system in which a senior member of the federal bureaucracy such as Comey is expected to owe loyalty to the constitution and not necessarily to the President who happens to be in office at the time. Comey describes his growing realisation of this gap in Trump’s understanding of civics during the same meeting when the President was clearly expecting some form of quid pro quo in return for allowing the FBI Director to serve out the rest of his ten year term:

”My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting and the pretence that this was our first discussion about my position, meant that the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some of patronage relationship.”

The Washington Russophobes no doubt believe this interchange in itself is evidence of the President’s dodgy dealings designed to cover his tracks regarding a link with Moscow. It is equally likely, however, that Trump is simply duplicating the type of corrupt bullying, allied with an entitled sense of his own superiority, that turned him into an egregious real estate plutocrat in the first place. The President’s career before entering the White House is littered with examples of his arrogant and high-handed belief that any person he interacts with can be brought onside by fair means or foul. The grotesque Trump Tower in downtown Manhattan was built in the early 1980s by a team of 200 illegal immigrants working in virtual slave labour conditions for twelve-hour shifts and no overtime. The equally absurd Trump University he set up in 2004 offered worthless business courses and scammed hapless students out of $40 million, charging $35 thousand a head!

This is the man who the US ruling class have permitted to become the highest elected official in the land and many of them, including Comey, are becoming increasingly queasy about the fact.


The latter also relates in his memo to the Senate the content of another bizarre conversation with the President in mid-February on the subject of now disgraced National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. The latter was exposed for blatant lying only a few days into the new administration regarding his meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Sisliak. Trump stated to Comey in their private meeting on the subject:

”I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go, He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

This type of dubious exchange between the two men provoked Comey to start making his own notes of their conversations because, as he put during his testimonial:

”I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”

Comey’s reservations about the integrity of Trump’s recollections of their conversations are wholly understandable in light of the latter’s reputation as a serial tantrum-thrower; a reputation not enhanced by his typically crass comment to the Russian Foreign Minister the day after sacking the FBI Director: ”I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job.” The President followed up this incisive observation with another one of his unhinged tweets, warning the departed  Director: ”James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” When Comey was asked about the President’s veiled threat last week he quaintly responded:  ”Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” The spectacle of the two men squabbling in public over contrasting accounts of secret meetings will send shivers of trepidation down the collective spine of the US elite as the word Watergate returns to popular discourse.

Federal Bureau of Subversion

Of course, we should not conclude that because Trump is clearly unfit to be President, Comey and the newly appointed Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, are therefore upstanding members of the community, heroically attempting to preserve the integrity of the state. Both men have blood on their hands. They were senior members of the national security apparatus under George Bush Jnr and were complicit in the manipulation of intelligence that facilitated the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They also spoke out in defence of the torture regime the US established at Guantanamo Bay in the wake of the war. The FBI itself has been one of the most potent weapons of class warfare  in the hands of the elite since its inception after World War One. Under the infamous leadership of J Edgar Hoover in the 1920s, it played a crucial role in crushing the nascent Communist movement in the US that had been inspired by the October Revolution. Following the next world war, it was deployed to assist the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the left. In the 1960s, Hoover unleashed the Bureau on the Black Panthers in a ruthless programme of illegal subversion , infiltration and assassination known as Cointelpro.

Washington behind closed doors

Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill certainly adds to the growing sense that the Trump Presidency is currently in the waiting room of impeachment. Beneath the rhetorical swordplay between Trump and Comey lies a strategic conflict between two factions of the ruling class: one represented by the latter that wishes to re-invigorate the traditional – and hugely profitable – hostility to Russia; and another  personified  by the President that is looking to revert to a more overtly protectionist and nationalist agenda. These two cliques are visibly locked in combat for control  of the domestic and foreign policy agenda in the US. However,we should also not lose sight of their shared agenda of maintaining the 1% at the expense of the 99%. During the hearings, Comey conspicuously refused to directly incriminate the President, stating the most sensitive information he wished to discuss  was only suitable for closed sessions. Sections of the US elite are at each other’s throats in this debacle  but the death blow to the whole system will only come from the millions of ordinary Americans who are watching outside the Washington bubble.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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