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Moral man and immoral presidency

Former FBI Director James Comey testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The big take-away from James Comey’s Sunday interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos is that the fired FBI director believes Donald Trump is morally unfit to be president:

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.

Of the items on this list, it’s the lying that really gets to Comey. Elsewhere he says that what ethical leaders leaders have to focus on is “most of all, the truth. That the truth matters.”

And, allowing as how there will always be political fights over issues like guns and taxes and immigration:

But what we have in common is a set of norms. Most importantly, the truth. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” right? Truth is the fourth word of that sentence. That’s what we are. And if we lose that, if we lose tethering of our leaders to that truth, what are we? And so I started to worry. Actually, the foundation of this country is in jeopardy when we stop measuring our leaders against that central value of the truth.

It’s hardly an accident that the subtitle of his book is “Truth, Lies, and Leadership.”

For his part, Comey has been criticized for agreeing to promise Trump his “honest loyalty”–a weaselly way out of President Trump’s demand for loyalty per se. Maybe, he concedes, he should have said, “Sir, I can’t promise you loyalty. Given the nature of my role, I can promise you I always tell you the truth.”

In a word, the G-Man who tried to live by the lessons of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society” comes off as someone who did not quite manage to speak truth to power. But the rest of us should recognize that we’re convicting him on his own account.

Many people have accused James Comey of mistakes in judgment. No one—except Trump, of course—has accused him of lying.

Whether he’s got Trump pegged exactly right is another question.

“I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia,” he says, and turns, as a favorite case in point, to Trump’s contention that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s: “That’s just not true. That’s not a perspective, that’s not a view, that’s just a lie. And—and yet he would say it and, ‘Everyone agrees, everyone says, everyone believes.'”

No doubt, what Trump says about his inauguration crowd is as untrue as his insistence that those 3 million more votes that Hillary Clinton got in the last election were illegally cast. But what’s disturbing about such claims is that they show him to be doing something scarier than lying: saying obviously untrue things that he has persuaded himself are in fact the case.

In other words, if Donald Trump is unfit to be president, the issue is not just moral. It’s psychological.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service