How to “Stun” Speechless an F.B.I. Director — James Comey Testimony Takeaways

One of the main takeaways from former F.B.I. Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week is that timing, if not everything, is indeed crucial to the interpretation of events.

When President Donald Trump pressured Comey to drop the F.B.I. investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn’s connections with Russia, and when he asked for Comey’s personal loyalty, the then F.B.I. head failed to inform the president that such requests are wrong – especially in private.

The Justice Department has specific guidelines developed to avoid the extensive influence exerted by late Director J. Edgar Hoover over several U.S. presidents.  These guidelines pertain specifically to appropriate communication:

The relevant guidelines from a May 11, 2009 Attorney General memorandum read as follows:

 The Assistant Attorneys General, the United States Attorneys, and the heads of the investigative agencies in the Department have the primary responsibility to initiate and supervise investigations and cases. These officials, like their superiors and their subordinates, must be insulated from influences that should not affect decisions in particular criminal or civil cases. As the Supreme Court said long ago with respect to United States Attorneys, so it is true of all those who exercise the Department’s investigatory and prosecutorial powers: they are representatives “not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.” — Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935).

Following this establishment of priorities are specific instructions for communications with the president:

In order to ensure the President’s ability to perform his constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” the Justice Department will advise the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal or civil investigations or cases when – but only when – it is important for the performance of the President’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.

As James Comey made clear in his testimony, he was aware of these requirements and others in the memorandum.

Yet, he did not tell the president that their private meetings were wrong – to say nothing of the subject matter. His admission to such inaction being “slightly cowardly” does not alter that fact that such meetings occurred – more than once.  (His understated phraseology reminds me of his “mildly nauseous” description of how he feels when thinking about his Trump-favorable influence on the 2016 election.)

It’s interesting to note, too, that Comey had harsh words for former AG Loretta Lynch given her having met with former President Clinton, but considers his own inappropriate meetings with a sitting president, one potentially under investigation, minor and defensible misjudgments.

That brings us to the issue of timing as it relates to blame. What if Comey’s “stunned” responses had been leaked right after they’d occurred rather than after Trump’s dismissal of him?  Certainly he would have been criticized for speaking privately to the president. His leadership and integrity might well have been questioned.  At this point in time, however, a lot of water has gone over the dam. Within the context of his firing, his being “defamed” by Trump, referred to by the president as a “nut job,” and his willingness to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the impact of his inaction – to his benefit — has been muted.

At the very least, though, when the Director of the F.B.I. is asked by a president to do something wrong — yet he replies, “We’ll see what we can do” — there should be less fawning by senators regarding the quality of his judgment.

It’s hard not to wonder if a President Hillary Clinton would have received the F.B.I. Director’s patience and willingness to violate DOJ established protocol even for less egregious actions than those attributed to Trump by Comey.

Would the F.B.I. director have contacted the attorney general and advised him to help the president understand how her relationship with the F.B.I. should be conducted – a courtesy Comey extended to President Trump?  Or would he have cut Clinton no slack, and made sure she paid a high price for such behavior?  You don’t need to be a genius to answer that question?

Is Comey a hero or perhaps a villain?  Is he a patriot hampered by attacks of questionable judgment? Or did he purposely help Donald Trump win and then realize he’d backed the wrong horse?

History may reveal the answer sooner rather than later.  At least we now know that the president asked a top Justice Dept. official for favors and loyalty, fired him when he appeared to refuse, flouted well-established procedures, and lied repeatedly.

Investigations are underway that may lead to criminal charges of people in the president’s inner circle – perhaps the president himself. Whether Comey’s testimony helps him pay his dues for admitted errors remains to be seen.  But at least someone in a position to know has placed Americans on official notice that their president can’t be trusted.






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Failed NATO Speech by President Trump — A Lesson on Poor Leadership

True leadership is in large part about communication.  Today, we saw President Trump speak to the NATO leaders.  Instead of speaking of their collective moral goals and rather than bind them as one in ending terrorism around the world, he scolded them for not paying their bills.

While world leaders waited for the president to endorse Article 5, stating that an attack on any member is an attack on all, he instead jested that he hadn’t asked how much the NATO building addition was costing.

There is a time and place for airing differences, for risking pettiness to make a point, and this president has no sense of that.  Attempting to humiliate heads of state from around the world at a public ceremony is the height of ignorance when it comes to communication and persuasion timing.

If his goal was to let people back home know he is insisting that NATO members pay the “massive” amounts they owe, it was the wrong venue for doing so.  His demeanor and words drew snickers from some leaders, frowns from others and likely disdain from most.

It’s difficult not to ask, “Who the heck does he think he is?”  And, no doubt, the leaders assembled were asking themselves that question.  President Trump chose a ceremony aimed, in part, at the dedication of a 9/11 statue to verbally slap leaders from around the world about paying bills.  It was wrong.  It was cheap. More importantly, it achieved nothing except growing animus.

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When Moral People Understand Politics

I wrote THE SECRET HANDSHAKE and IT’S ALL POLITICS because there is no such thing as an effective business, nonprofit, or government manager or leader who doesn’t know the ins and outs of politics.  Politics, especially the interpersonal dynamics behind-the-scenes, is a part of how things get done in every organization.

My first book was about persuasion, as was much of my early research.  But aptly choosing persuasion strategies depends on understanding the political culture in which those strategies may be applied.

Power is not as important as a significant knowledge of politics. The former does not last without the latter.  No one is above politics.  We are immersed in it.  Those who overestimate their political acumen pay a price.  Sometimes it takes a while.  But it’s inevitable.

It’s important to encourage people of high moral character to learn about politics so that those at the other end of the continuum don’t come out ahead.  Aristotle believed people could only defend themselves from sophistry if they understood the ways in which they might be duped.  Nothing has changed in that regard.

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How Well Do You Handle Your Choice Points in Conversation?

What were President Trump’s goals when he shared “highly classified” information with Russian officials?  It’s difficult to be sure.  We do know that what he said in the Oval Office resulted in a firestorm of criticism.  Was he “shooting from the hip,” trying to impress, or purposely giving away secrets?

As a rule, we don’t sufficiently consider the communication competence of presidential candidates.  Being a businessman was touted as a positive attribute during Trump’s presidential run.  But there are many failed businessmen and businesswomen.  Certainly we don’t need slick communicator presidents, but high on our list of important characteristics should be how well a candidate thinks on his or her feet — recognizes and effectively utilizes conversational choice points or turns at talk.

In the course of conversation, each statement or nonverbal expression one person makes is influenced by the anticipated and previous contributions of one or more others. Effective communicators know this.  They don’t simply talk.  They don’t just react.

Early on, especially in conversations that could have serious personal or professional consequences, it’s important to know where you want to go, topics you’d like to avoid, tone or “attitude” stances that facilitate as well as those that hinder, and potential obstacles that you’ll need to go around, over or work through.  At each choice point, opportunity exists to locate or retain a constructive path.

How do you handle your choice points?  Do you simply let conversations happen to you rather than guiding them away from disappointing or disastrous outcomes?

Conversations are the building blocks of relationships.  Relationships are the building blocks of most careers.  When we abdicate our responsibility in communication, we put our personal and professional futures in jeopardy.  Elect people to power who have no sense of this responsibility and we put all of us at risk.

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THE SECRET HANDSHAKE has been on a number of bestseller lists since its publication. Now, especially with all that is going on with regard to politics around the world, it’s available in audio.

Whether business, government or nonprofit politics, THE SECRET HANDSHAKE is a guide to navigating the subtle and often behind-the-scenes actions that influence your effectiveness and career.

Are you a purist who believes politics is a distraction or a street fighter who sees it as important — not only to getting things done but to protecting yourself from those who would hinder your progress or even derail your career?

What kind of political culture surrounds you at work, in the PTA or as a scout leader? Even church choirs have political cultures.  Is your environment minimally political or pathological?  To survive or thrive, you need to know.

Here’s the audible version.


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Was the President Suckered in the “Context of Conversation”

People who become effective leaders have a greater than average willingness to make bold moves, but they strengthen their chances of success—and avoid serious errors of judgment—through careful deliberation and preparation.  In short, their courage is calculated rather than impulsive.

Learning to take an intelligent gamble requires an understanding of what I described in HBR as the courage calculation — a method of making success more likely while avoiding rash, unproductive, or irrational behavior.

Six discrete processes make up the courage calculation: setting primary and secondary goals; determining the importance of achieving them; tipping the power balance in your favor; weighing risks against benefits; selecting the proper time for action; and developing contingency plans.

Were any of these rational steps involved in President Trump’s decisions last week to share “highly classified” information with his Russian visitors to The White House?  Had he considered the lives he would surely put in danger and the relationship with the ally who provided the highly classified information?  Did the president consider the inevitable weakening of his trustworthiness and how that would jeopardize the receipt of future classified and secret information from allies?

Leadership at its best is not about bravado or impulsivity just as it is not about inaction.  It is about considered action even when speed is crucial.  Rarely is it a solo activity as major decisions often require the advice of perceptive, informed and intelligent advisors.

National Security Advisor McMaster today stated that the president made the decision to share highly classified information in the context of the conversation — on the spot.  As such, it was not based on preparation and consideration, but was spontaneous.

It’s conceivable that he was suckered into giving away highly classified information by a tactic used in conversation called apparent self-disclosure.  One party acts as if he or she is sharing personal or private information in order to elicit reciprocal disclosure from another.  In other words, conversation depends on patterns that can be manipulated — another reason for significant preparation before meetings with potential or current adversaries.

The president promised as a candidate to increase the protections of classified information.  Instead, we’re now told he can suddenly declassify information merely because it suits the conversation at hand.  This is not leadership.  It is playing fast-and-loose with America and all it represents simply because he can.



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A Twisted Presidential Agenda — The Firing of James Comey

Skilled observers can perceive disconnects between the nonverbal expressions and verbal comments of politicians.  Or between their spoken comments and their subsequent actions.

Given the failure of many journalists to pick up on such disconnects and trace them to irreconcilable actions, it’s more important than ever for ordinary people to become more adept at noticing and reading those contradictions.

Today, as Vice President Pence discussed the firing of FBI Director James Comey, his considerable ability to convey conviction or dismay by a mere tilt of his head or a squint of his eyes couldn’t camouflage his willingness to turn on a dime to justify the disturbing actions of the president.

Skilled observers watch for such cues as the slight sneer, the snicker, the twitch of eyes, the turn of the head, and the odd change in vocal pace, tone or volume.  Even the best of liars leak cues.  Fail to read them and you may be misled or even blindsided.

Previously on this site, I have disagreed with Director Comey’s decisions regarding then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.  However, the unprofessional, insulting way that President Donald Trump fired Comey demonstrated once again a crude sense of entitlement that poses a danger to U.S. democracy.

What appears to be erratic leadership or adjusting to the job of president is a methodical ambiguity in governing.  The president gave as a reason for Comey’s firing the American people’s need to regain confidence in the FBI — yet the timing and tone of the abrupt dismissal damages the agency’s ability to continue  an effective investigation into the alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.  How can that possibly increase confidence?

Comey’s handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation and its damage to her campaign was praised by President Trump only months ago.  The Director was supposedly doing his job until that job involved what Trump likely saw as disloyalty.  In this case, the response to such disloyalty has been disguised as administration recognition of a rather sudden lack of confidence in Comey by increasing numbers of key people.  First it was the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General who carried water on the decision.  According to Sarah Huckabee Sanders today, high ranking people in the FBI had lost confidence as well.

If indeed there was a growing lack of confidence in James Comey’s leadership, a process over time, what was the rush to fire him yesterday and do so before talking with him?

For how long will such discrepancies between leadership and truth pass as presidential idiosyncrasies rather than the pathological politics they reveal?  How long will it take for the press to call out Republican leaders who give boilerplate responses to important questions — that is, if they bother to respond at all since the latest fad is to rudely walk away?

When people smell a rat, that usually means there’s a rat in the vicinity.  Comey’s precipitous firing raises the odor of rats — and not for the first time.  If we don’t see the disconnect there, we’re simply not looking.  Or, worse, we’re turning our heads and justifying what can’t be justified in the service of those advancing their own twisted agenda.



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