No one who hitches their wagon to Donald Trump does so without getting a little mud on them, and often they suffer a lot worse than that. The president's aides have been so consistently revealed as fools, contradicted, fired, or indicted and even convicted that it's something like a law of nature: What goes up into the White House must come down.
Rex Tillerson was a respected businessman and leader of one of the world's most powerful corporations before agreeing to become Trump's secretary of state; he was fired in humiliating fashion after a tenure widely seen as a disaster. Once-successful establishment Republicans like Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer became mouthpieces for absurd propaganda before being pushed out of the administration. House Speaker Paul Ryan refused to denounce Trump in public as the vulgar reality TV host took over the GOP, and is quitting Congress without even getting to implement his long-desired gutting of welfare and healthcare programs. Michael Flynn attached himself as an adviser to Trump early in the campaign, got awarded with a plum gig as national security adviser, and subsequently resigned in disgrace, got convicted for lying to the FBI, and is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
Another player no longer in the White House who at least at one point was reportedly trying to cut a deal with Mueller is Steve Bannon, the strategist kicked to the curb by the president who once seemed like his kindred spirit. Even infamous Apprentice villain Omarosa Manigault somehow exited the administration looking less respectable than she did going in.
Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall calls the victims of this pattern "dignity wraiths," because Trump reduces them to shadows of their former selves. As he wrote last May, "There’s something dark and sick at the center of the Trump World… Everybody who gets close gets damaged, usually badly. And the heart of that darkness is Trump himself, a lumbering vortex of need and rage, a black hole. The only question is why people keep going, mainly of their own free volition into his reach."
James Comey might be the most perplexing case of all.
On Sunday night, the country got treated to a much-hyped ABC interview with the former FBI director. He obviously didn't have a choice about getting sucked into Trump's orbit, like so many of the president's other underlings, but that just gives an unusual tinge of tragedy to the man's wraithing and makes him perhaps the definitive example of the phenomenon. According to Comey, Trump subjected him to awkward conversations and improper requests for personal loyalty before sacking him, kicking off a feud between the two men that has reignited with the impending release of Comey's book, A Higher Loyalty. Before ABC even aired George Stephanopoulos's highly-touted interview with Comey, Trump launched into a Twitter tirade, calling him an "untruthful slime ball," "a terrible Director of the FBI," and insisting his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server was biased because "he wanted a job."
Comey's fall started with that Clinton investigation, which the FBI director appeared to end by holding a June 2016 press conference where he announced "no reasonable prosecutor" would bring charges against the putative Democratic nominee. Still, he took pains to criticize her team for being "extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information." Commenting so publicly on a case, even one with huge political implications, was a major break from normal FBI procedure, and Comey caught flack from multiple sides. Republicans denounced him for being soft on Clinton; others questioned his choice to attack a candidate he said had committed no crime. (Comey told Stephanopoulos that he made his announcement because Attorney General Loretta Lynch was perceived as too close to the Clintons and "could not credibly announce this result.")
Months later, and just days away from the election, Comey released a letter saying that investigators were looking at new evidence in the Clinton email investigation. Though that evidence (a laptop owned by disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner that contained many Clinton emails) never led to charges against any Clinton aide, the letter was a major news story that might have cost Clinton the presidency—both before and after the election, Democrats were calling on Comey to resign.
In his book, Comey writes that his decisions during this period may have been unconsciously influenced by polls showing that Clinton would likely beat Trump. The White House claims that Comey was actually acting consciously and was trying to give himself "cover," presumably meaning he wanted to make sure he wasn't accused of hiding negative information by the right.
Even under normal circumstances, all this might have led to Comey's leaving his job early. But Trump, as he so often does, turned everything upside down. According to Comey, Trump asked him to drop an investigation into Flynn in February (Trump still denies this). Then, in May, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo criticizing Comey for releasing "derogatory information" about Clinton—that is, being harder on her than regulations called for. That memo was used by Trump to justify Comey's firing. But Trump subsequently claimed Comey “totally protected” Clinton and also said he fired Comey over the "Russia thing," turning the narrative nonsensical. Why was Comey let go? Which of Trump's several proffered motives was closest to the truth? We still don't really know.
Before 2016, Comey had a reputation as a nonpartisan, a man who, if he had a flaw, it was that he was a bit too self-righteous about that whole honor and duty thing. That reputation is done. Though he may have been motivated by a desire to pick the least bad, least politicized path in 2016, Trump's treatment of him clearly inspired him to push back, first in congressional testimony last year, now in the form of his book and attendant interviews.
The version of Comey talking to Stephanopoulos had abandoned the careful language of law enforcement for righteous anger. "A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it—that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds," Comey told Stephanopoulos. The former top law enforcement official also compared Trump to a "forest fire" and a mob boss, a toxic figure who "will stain everyone around him." Comey said Trump looked like he wore "tanning googles," and described meetings where the president would deliver BS-filled "monologues" that included transparently false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd.
Comey has not lost his credibility the way so many other of Trump's dignity wraiths have. He didn't bow and scrape before the president (at least in his own telling), and never publicly defended Trump. But it's hard to imagine Comey wanted to end up here—not just fired after making the most controversial call of his career, but turned into a political lightning rod. Trump's allies seem to want him prosecuted for a variety of crimes; the Resistance has put him on all kinds of T-shirts.
It's easy, especially in hindsight, to second-guess Comey's choices in 2016—if you were being uncharitable, you could even conclude that he helped Trump get elected and reaped that particular orange whirlwind. But under Trump, his options narrowed. Surely, he shouldn't have tried to suck up to Trump in an attempt to save his job. After he was fired, he naturally had to talk to Congress and tell them his side of the story. And when Trump badmouthed him as a liar, was Comey supposed to let him have the last word?
This is how things work in the age of Trump: Maybe you start out on the high road, rulebook in hand, confident of your path. But after a few turns that seem like the only way to go, you find yourself somehow down in the muck, and you're still not sure where you've gone wrong.
At one point in the interview, Comey told Stephanopoulos he'd still send the Clinton email letter if he knew Trump would win—that taking political considerations into account would have been a disaster. "Down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life," he said. "If I ever start considering whose political fortunes will be affected by a decision, we're done. We're no longer that group in America that is apart from the partisans, and that can be trusted. We're just another player in the tribal battle."
That might be true. But it's also possible that the path we're on now leads to the same place.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.