President Donald Trump once described himself as “like, this great loyalty freak.” But to former employees of the nation’s top law-enforcement service, it’s his apparent demands for personal loyalty from the nation’s top cop that are freakish.
Seven days after taking the oath of office, Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to pledge his loyalty to him twice during a one-on-one White House dinner, according to a stunning report from The New York Times. Citing two people close to the former FBI director who claim to have heard Comey himself recount the events of the dinner, the Times reports that Comey declined, pledging instead always to be honest with the president.
Trump, in apparent dissatisfaction with this answer, reportedly asked Comey the same question again later on in the dinner. Again, Comey allegedly responded that he would give Trump his “honesty.” Upon being asked to deny the president’s wishes a third time, the Times reports that Comey met Trump halfway, promising “honest loyalty.”
At the time of the president’s alleged request for personal loyalty, the FBI was already investigating alleged ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government.
The account differs radically from Trump’s own accounting of the dinner. In an interview recorded Thursday afternoon with NBC’s Lester Holt, all that Trump recalled from the dinner was asking Comey, “if it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, ‘You are not under investigation.’”
Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former FBI special agent, told The Daily Beast that the report is straight out of the playbooks of the authoritarian strongmen of whom Trump appears to be such a fan.
“This loyalty pledge is completely out of line,” Watts said. “The FBI director is given a 10-year term for this exact reason—to prevent the nation’s top law-enforcement officer from being put under undue influence based on political pressures.”
If the Times report is true, Watts continued, “Trump’s loyalty pledge tactic comes straight from the worst aspects of authoritarians and mob bosses who see their rule above the rule of law.”
For the head of an organization that must operate with impartiality by necessity, such an overture would represent a massive red flag. For Comey, who was coming off of a half-year of blistering criticism for his treatment of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of State, the request would have incited an even stronger reaction.
“I can’t imagine any FBI agent or director that would respond well to this overt pressure,” Watts said. “They would naturally push away from [President Trump] to remain independent.”
This Xerxian alleged request is in keeping with the president’s longtime insistence on absolute fealty from his subordinates, as well as his more recent fixation on fidelity from his supporters and officials in the U.S. government.
In March of last year, Trump was criticized for inadvertently invoking the Third Reich when he began asking attendees of rallies in Florida to give “loyalty pledges” to vote for him in the Republican primary.
“Raise your right hand,” Trump told his supporters at the time. “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote, on or before the 12th, for Donald J. Trump for president.”
Abe Foxman, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Trump’s pledge a “fascist gesture.”
“He is smart enough—he always tells us how smart he is—to know the images that this evokes,” Foxman told the Times of Israel. “Instead of asking his audience to pledge allegiance to the United States of America, which in itself would be a little bizarre, he’s asking them to swear allegiance to him.”
Since his election, Trump has folded his paranoiac fixation on loyalty into the governing of the nation. As The Daily Beast reported in March, Trump agreed with the suggestion of chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon to keep a “shit list” of Republicans who failed to support his first, doomed bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“[Bannon] has told the president to keep a shit list on this,” one official told The Daily Beast. “He wants a running tally of [the Republicans] who want to sink this… Not sure if I’d call it an ‘enemies list,’ per se, but I wouldn’t want to be on it.”
The White House has even cited a lack of loyalty toward the administration as part of the reason behind Comey’s firing. On Thursday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox & Friends that Trump “expects people who are serving in his administration to be loyal to the country and to be loyal to the administration.”
In the rhetorical version of taking a chainsaw to the branch you’re sitting on, Trump himself told Holt that “this Russia thing” was on his mind when he fired Comey.
“When I decided to just [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Trump said.
With personal devotion to the president an apparent job requirement for the next FBI director, Watts said, the list of potential successors to Comey is short.
“It’s impossible to be an independent, impartial FBI director under Trump’s tantrums and Sessions’ pressure,” Watts said. “Who can they possibly pick?”