The Comey Rule makes the fatal mistake of thinking James Comey's intentions matter

The former FBI director's rehabilitation tour continues

Jeff Daniels.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS Television Studios/Showtime)

Some think he is a hero, some a villain. Others just want him to please shut up.

Wherever you stand, it has been four extremely long years since then-FBI Director James Comey released his statement calling Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton "extremely careless" over her handling of sensitive emails. In the weeks that followed, the FBI would announce that it was reopening its investigation, and then, with mere hours to go before the election, close it again. Trump would subsequently win the Electoral College, and Comey would have his now-infamous dinner with the commander-in-chief, where he was reportedly pressured to pledge his loyalty. Shortly thereafter, he was vindictively fired.

If this brief walk down memory lane gives you hives, then perhaps you should consider skipping The Comey Rule. At almost four hours long, and broken into two parts airing on consecutive nights, the Showtime miniseries revisits the events before and immediately following the 2016 election. The painstaking exercise is undertaken in pursuit of an answer to a question that seems, at this point, destined to join the great debates of political history: Was James Comey a good person? But by making that its focus, The Comey Rule completely whiffs on the greater point.

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Admittedly, there are likely exactly zero people who plan to watch The Comey Rule to get to the bottom of "that James Comey fellow." Much of the buzz of the show is owed to it being the first major dramatization of the 2016 election, with a star-studded cast that includes Jeff Daniels as the title character, Michael Kelly doing a great Andrew McCabe, Scoot McNairy as a weasely Rod Rosenstein, an underutilized Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir as Barack Obama, and T. R. Knight going full goofball with his portrayal of Reince Priebus. Of course, the most need-to-see-it role of all is Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump. While at times The Comey Rule leans a little too heavily into its supervillain impulses (for some reason, Trump does a lot of sweeping-open-of-curtains, like a wicked count), Gleeson on the whole understands that impersonating the president requires, counterintuitively, a downplaying of his more ostentatious traits, lest the performance veer too much toward satire. Helped along by a bad fake tan, Gleeson mostly nails it, and at times watching him can feel a little like experiencing the uncanny valley.

But as much as The Comey Rule is a carousel of characters and events from your nightmares — the Pulse Nightclub shooting, Loretta Lynch's tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok's affair, Anthony Weiner being Anthony Weiner — The Comey Rule clearly has one major objective. "I just don't know what to think about James Comey," Stephen Colbert jokes in the Late Show clip that kicks off the first episode. "First it seems like he's the good guy, then it seems like he's the bad guy, then it seems like he sacrificed himself to save other people." Though this predicament is poised to guide us through the rest of the show, the answer offered by writer/director Billy Ray — who is also the screenwriter of similarly patriotic works like Richard Jewell, Captain Phillips, Shattered Glass, and ... The Hunger Games — never gets much dispute. The Comey Rule's Comey is the kind of character who says things like "money is nice; stopping bad guys is better," and gets called "daddy" by his worried Clinton-supporting teenage daughters at home. When it comes to his consequential decisions as director of the FBI, Comey is largely viewed by the creators as a man with a rigid moral backbone who was put in an impossible lose-lose situation.

While The Comey Rule spends great care and expense walking us step-by-step through why Comey made the decisions he did, it is Comey's actions, not his intentions, that actually matter. The issue of motivation in this case belongs solely to the realm of ethicists; for the sake of history and citizens alive today, the bigger concern is the fact that Comey's Oct. 28 letter reopening the investigation into Clinton "probably cost [her] the election." Quartz explains the difference:

Regardless of Comey's motives, the implications were concerning. "There's an obligation for an investigator to not do damage to an individual's character before they have evidence to justify it," says [Thomas Kolditz, director of the John Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University]. "Hillary Clinton … was never indicted or charged with anything. Arguably she did nothing wrong. And yet her character was assassinated by the mere suspicion of information [about her wrongdoing]." Based on these consequences, Kolditz believes that Comey's decision was wrong, though not immoral if made with good intentions. [Quartz]

If you set aside the question of Comey's morality — worthwhile only for a character study, though in the case of a sanctimonious person like Comey, I'm not sure it's even that — the fact remains that he made the wrong call, one that directly broke FBI protocol, and one that aided a devastating outcome. It's similar to arguing that you can't be certain Trump is a racist because you don't know his heart; his actions being racist are what have actual consequences.

The importance of the Comey scandal, more than anything it says about one man, is what it reveals about our corruptible political system as a whole. In particular, while The Comey Rule views the FBI director's refusal to kowtow to Trump on the Russia investigation, and his subsequent firing, as the redemptive climax of the story, it doesn't pause to comment on the fact that Comey's nobility is also mostly irrelevant (besides, not colluding with Trump to stop the investigation seems like the bare minimum requirement of a public servant in his position, not something worthy of endless hagiography). Lest we forget, the motive behind Comey's firing was blatantly transparent to everyone watching.

The subsequent report by the Department of Justice's Inspector General "concluded that Comey, fired by a president who was publicly seeking to cripple an investigation into a foreign hacking-and-disinformation campaign that helped put him in office, should have kept silent," as The Atlantic's Adam Serwer summarized. "That standard would not only incentivize presidential corruption, but establish that government officials who witness such corruption should not warn the public and instead adhere to a Mafia-like omertà." That this can happen in our present system is the real scandal.

Of course, the question of if James Comey is good or bad matters deeply to one person: James Comey. Following his ousting, the former FBI chief has not gone softly into that good night of retirement, but continued to justify his decisions to the public, including writing A Higher Loyalty, his memoir about the experience on which The Comey Rule is based.

The Showtime miniseries, then, is another piece of his redemption campaign, and as a result, doesn't have any more credibility than Comey himself standing up and saying, "No really, I'm the good guy." Good or bad, no one other than Comey and his family ought to care what kind of person he is. What matters is what he's left us with.

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