The big news today has been Attorney General William Barr’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But a short while after the hearing’s first break of the day,The New York Times published an opinion piece written by former FBI Director James Comey. It is pretty damning stuff. In it, Comey wonders whether of these obviously criminal and corrupt officials will be punished. But one of the most sobering parts of the piece is Comey’s analysis of what power can do to people.
Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them. Sometimes what they reveal is inspiring. For example, James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, resigned over principle, a concept so alien to Mr. Trump that it took days for the president to realize what had happened, before he could start lying about the man.
But more often, proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing. I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from. It takes character like Mr. Mattis’s to avoid the damage, because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.
Comey notes that meetings with Trump include no space for other people to speak. Trump sputters lies and delusions, and you, he writes of the officials that surround Trump, are complicit in your silence. You believe you are doing the important jobs your institution needs done, until your institution comes under attack from Trump. In the end, you find yourself in a hell of good intentions.
I would only disagree with Comey as to the degree to which this happens. Donald Trump takes very large bites out of your soul. Pretending there are degrees to this process is letting yourself off a little too easy.