Beyond the pee tape

Forget whether the salacious rumor in Comey's new book is true. How Trump reacted to it is what's important.

James Comey and President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images, AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The fabled "pee tape" is back. Reviews of former FBI Director James Comey's book, A Higher Loyalty, are already making the rounds and it's hard not to focus on his blow-by-blow account of the time he told then-President-elect Donald Trump about the possible existence of a Russian blackmail video that supposedly featured Trump hiring prostitutes to urinate on a bed that President Obama once slept on. According to Comey, Trump became obsessed with the rumor.

Yet as salacious as these details are, they make it very difficult to talk about what actually matters about this episode — and it's not the pee tape.

But before we talk about what does matter, it's time to accept that the rumored pee tape is Trump's version of Schrodinger's cat. This legendary document has both existed and not existed for so long now that neither outcome changes anything. (As Neil Gaiman once wrote of the cat: "[I]f they don't ever open the box to feed it, it'll eventually just be two different kinds of dead.") To the extent that the pee tape was supposed to shock us, it can no longer achieve its hypothetical object. The consequences have been theoretically rehearsed past the point of public exhaustion, and this was likely strategic. You may have noticed — Seth Meyers frequently points it out — that Tucker Carlson makes a point of reminding Fox News viewers of the details of the so-called pee tape. Repetition blunts the impact of a scoop like this; if you imagine a scandal over and over, you become incapable of responding with shock. Carlson — by reminding his viewers of its possible existence over and over and over — has acclimated his viewers to watersports. Proving that anyone can get used to anything, a rabidly conservative section of the public has been inoculated against the idea of this president asking prostitutes to pee on a bed that another president and first lady once slept on. They find this rather natural.

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The dull question of whether the pee tape is "real" makes it tough to focus on what odd documents like A Higher Loyalty can really tell us. Of course everyone grabs onto the curious description of Trump's reaction to Comey's summary of the Steele dossier, the source of the rumor. "He brought up what he called the 'golden showers thing' ... adding that it bothered him if there was 'even a 1 percent chance' his wife, Melania, thought it was true," Comey wrote. "He just rolled on, unprompted, explaining why it couldn't possibly be true, ending by saying he was thinking of asking me to investigate the allegation to prove it was a lie. I said it was up to him."

It's both exciting and ludicrous: Trump, who complains endlessly about taxpayer-funded investigations of things he says didn't happen, allegedly asked Comey to "investigate" something that he says never happened. He claimed he wanted this in order to make his wife — whose happiness he has never publicly seemed to notice, let alone value — happy. What's more, he tried to convince Comey that he, a man who allegedly had unprotected sex with a porn star he'd just met, was a "germaphobe."

What's really interesting about the encounter isn't whether the "pee tape" is real or not. It's how Trump reacted to the report of the pee tape. It's so weird.

One widely circulated theory about this encounter is that Trump — whose circle seems to operate via thuggish intimidation tactics — thought the FBI was threatening to blackmail him: "[I]n my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there," he told The New York Times of his interpretation of Comey's remarks. "As leverage?" the interviewer asks. Here's Trump's bizarre response, which tells us a lot about what a panicked and paranoid reader he is:

Yeah, I think so. In retrospect. In retrospect. You know, when he wrote me the letter, he said, "You have every right to fire me," blah blah blah. Right? He said, "You have every right to fire me." I said, that's a very strange — you know, over the years, I've hired a lot of people, I've fired a lot of people. Nobody has ever written me a letter back that you have every right to fire me. [Trump, via The New York Times]

Anyway: back to Comey's account. If Trump took Comey's report as an attempt to control him, then his response — professing his innocence and even inviting Comey to conduct an "investigation," citing Melania's happiness — is fascinating. Perhaps Trump was asking Comey to produce a superficial story that would satisfy his wife ("honey, the FBI says I'm innocent!"). Perhaps he was testing Comey's willingness to "investigate" and "prove" it was a lie as one of a series of loyalty tests. Perhaps his confidence in whatever agreement he'd struck with whomever owns the "pee tape" was such that he didn't mind the FBI investigating. Perhaps it was a clumsy bluff he hoped would convince Comey of his innocence. Or perhaps he's completely innocent of asking prostitutes to urinate on hotel beds — but found it prudent to list reasons why "it couldn't be true" and somehow transition to unrelated accusations of sexual assault.

Look: Books like these aren't meant to break new ground. What they offer instead is one player's intimate record of our shared national nightmare. This is Comey's story about his experience with a volatile, ignorant bully who thought he could bury the truth by bullying the U.S. government into covering for him. And to the extent that Comey's record shows him to have been a serious man — which no one would pretend Trump is — that story holds. Comey describes an ugly pattern of behavior (one he compares to the Cosa Nostra) intended to infect various branches of government with loyalty tests that compromise their independence. He compares Trump's tactics to mafia-like "induction ceremonies" intended to pressure those present into complicity. And his firing is proof of exactly this. Comey refused to pledge loyalty. He investigated the Russia allegations. Trump not only fired him, he candidly admitted to Lester Holt that he fired James Comey over the Russia investigation — and had planned to do so before he even received Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's recommendation.

Now, Comey's detractors have a point: If their argument is that Comey is bitter over his firing, and that this book is petty revenge, well, there's certainly pettiness and bitterness here. Nothing could be less essential than (for example) James Comey's estimation of the size of Trump's hands, or his impression of the "bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his." These swipes aren't just catty and irrelevant; they're impossible to reconcile with the high-mindedness Comey claims for the book as a whole. Even the book's title, A Higher Loyalty — which winks at the loyalty pledge Trump unsuccessfully tried to elicit from him — feels like a cheap shot.

Then again, Comey has a right to be a little bitter. In fact, the jaw-dropping story of his ouster is the perfect illustration of his paranoid boss's manipulative skill-set: Trump mistreats people who know things about him so he can later crow that their testimony against him is due to that mistreatment. The man poisons his wells and claims credit for it.

This isn't exactly a brilliant strategy, but it does require the kind of interpretive work Trump shuts down in his followers. The curious result — which they appear to find charming — is that he gets to rage and flail and threaten and throw tantrums they'd condemn in anyone else. Trump gets "a mulligan" from Evangelical leaders. He gets to be petty. He gets to pout and whine when people say unkind things about him. He's a curdled, bitter man, and they applaud him for it. But — and this is the lop-sided way he has infantilized the public sphere — no one else is afforded the same leeway. Only Trump's immaturity is permitted. Everyone else is expected to be adult.

But that isn't the point. Trump supporters are willing to see exactly what Trump wants them to, and it's best to leave them to it. Even if the pee tape surfaces, they will either not see it or act amazed that anyone thinks it's news.

For the rest of us, though, whether the tape really exists or not shouldn't even matter . The real work lies in figuring out how this man responds when he's cornered, and what sorts of lies he tells when he's threatened — or thinks he is. That's what Comey's book can tell us. We know the public-facing side of that through his Twitter account, but A Higher Loyalty offers some insight into the private-facing side to which Americans have much less access. That may not be ground-breaking — the thing about impulsive behavior is that it isn't actually that cunning — but it is useful as this administration continues to dissolve.

Forget the pee tape. Read for the articles.

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