Comey’s lessons for ha­rassed work­ers

For­mer FBI di­rec­tor’s tes­ti­mony be­fore a Se­nate panel was a tem­plate for how to han­dle abu­sive bosses.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - ROBIN AB­CAR­IAN robin.ab­car­ian@la­times.com Twit­ter: @Ab­car­i­anLAT

Ha­rassed peo­ple of the Amer­i­can workplace, lis­ten and learn.

James B. Comey has some­thing to teach you.

Last week, a lot of us thought for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor Comey’s in­ter­ac­tions with Pres­i­dent Trump were eerily rem­i­nis­cent of the kind of ha­rass­ment many women ex­pe­ri­ence in the workplace.

Comey said he felt un­easy in meet­ings with Trump. Trump, he said, tried to get him alone, and then asked him to do things that made him squirm.

And then, when Comey ap­peared Thurs­day be­fore the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, he was treated in a way that was rem­i­nis­cent of how the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee treated Anita Hill so many years ago, when she al­leged sex­ual ha­rass­ment by Supreme Court nom­i­nee Clarence Thomas.

Why didn’t you speak out at the time? Why did you take phone calls from him af­ter that? Why didn’t you quit?

“You’re big, you’re strong,” said Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (D-Calif.). “I know the Oval Of­fice, and I know what hap­pens to peo­ple when they walk in. There is a cer­tain amount of in­tim­i­da­tion. But why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. Pres­i­dent, this is wrong and I can­not dis­cuss this with you?’ ”

“Great ques­tion,” Comey replied. “Maybe if I were stronger I would have. I was so stunned by the con­ver­sa­tion that I just took it in.”

But now, af­ter read­ing and reread­ing Comey’s writ­ten state­ment to the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee and closely watch­ing his tes­ti­mony, I’m in­clined to change my view of the dy­namic be­tween Comey and Trump.

Yes, Trump be­haved like a clas­sic ha­rasser. But Comey, far from the con­fused un­der­ling he por­trayed him­self as, skill­fully en­trapped his ul­ti­mate boss.

I be­lieve that Comey, a sea­soned pros­e­cu­tor, was not nearly as flus­tered by his meet­ings with Trump as he claims. Nor do I be­lieve he was stunned into si­lence by Trump’s re­quests for the FBI to drop its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor Mike Flynn’s ties to Rus­sia. What Trump did was wrong, and per­haps even crim­i­nal.

But un­like most vic­tims of workplace ha­rass­ment, Comey was not suf­fer­ing in si­lence.

In­stead, he was play­ing a long game, one for which he is uniquely qual­i­fied. This guy has a steel spine.

In 2004, he in­ter­vened at Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft’s hos­pi­tal bed­side when Ge­orge W. Bush’s White House coun­sel and chief of staff tried to get the ail­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral to sign off on war­rant­less wire­tap­ping, which Comey be­lieved was il­le­gal.

That took the kind of guts that no amount of Comey’s folksy syn­tax — “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” — can dis­guise.

It took only one meet­ing with then-Pres­i­dent-elect Trump for Comey to sense he was deal­ing with a guy more suited to run­ning a closely held fam­ily real es­tate com­pany than a demo­cratic na­tion.

He knew, for his own good, that he should take de­tailed notes af­ter every meet­ing with Trump be­cause, as he told se­na­tors, he sensed the man would lie.

“I knew there might come a day when I would need a record of what had hap­pened, not just to de­fend my­self, but to de­fend the FBI and our in­tegrity as an in­sti­tu­tion,” he said Thurs­day to the Se­nate com­mit­tee.

So, he memo­ri­al­ized each con­ver­sa­tion with the pres­i­dent on a lap­top. He con­fided in his lieu­tenants. And he made sure that his ver­sion of events would be dis­sem­i­nated at a time con­ve­nient for Comey — say, af­ter the pres­i­dent threat­ened him with the ex­is­tence of record­ings of their con­ver­sa­tion, or upon the ap­point­ment of a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor, or per­haps dur­ing a Se­nate hear­ing.

Comey, as they say in the busi­ness world, can see around cor­ners.

When his pre­vi­ous boss, then-Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch, di­rected him to call the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton’s email server a “mat­ter” in­stead of an “in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” he re­acted in a way that now feels fa­mil­iar. “Mat­ter,” as it hap­pened, was one of the eu­phemisms the Clin­ton cam­paign was us­ing.

But, in­stead of de­fy­ing his boss’ wrong­headed re­quest to man­gle the English lan­guage in the ser­vice of pol­i­tics, Comey kept quiet.

“I said, ‘This isn’t a hill worth dy­ing on, OK?’ ” he told the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. But, he added, Lynch’s re­quest gave him a “queasy feel­ing.” Now the en­tire na­tion knows about her in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­quest.

Was Comey re­ally “stunned” by Trump’s ask­ing him to drop the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Flynn’s re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia? Was he re­ally “queasy” about Lynch’s ask­ing him to use the word “mat­ter” in­stead of “in­ves­ti­ga­tion”? (And was the thought of hav­ing in­flu­enced the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, as he told the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee last month, some­thing that re­ally made him “mildly nau­seous?”)

Doubt­ful he’s as del­i­cate as he makes him­self sound.

In fact, I think that he is as del­i­cate as a steel mag­no­lia, and as dan­ger­ous as a scor­pion.

I’m not say­ing the Comey Method can work for ev­ery­one who has been mistreated in the workplace, or ha­rassed or asked to do some­thing un­eth­i­cal, but it pro­vides a valu­able tem­plate for fight­ing back with style.

Take notes, tell friends, and then, when the mo­ment is right, un­leash your stinger.

J. Scott Applewhite As­so­ci­ated Press

TES­TI­FY­ING be­fore the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey re­counts a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions he had with Pres­i­dent Trump.

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