Crossfire Hurricane: Inside Donald Trump’s War on the FBI
By Josh Campbell
Algonquin Books, 2019
One of the most debased coins of this grubby age is the book deal, with every two-bit con artist, craven collaborator, and squinty-eyed felon awaiting sentencing makes a quick and breathless arrangement with some publisher so that they, too, can make a quick buck out of the collapse of the American experiment. Lift up virtually any rock in the years since Election Day 2016 and you’re likely to encounter at least one slug with a Random House contract.
There are two main problems with these years of the Trump administration (one balks at calling it “the Trump era,” mainly because Trump himself has always used that term to describe his entire life): the first is that nobody’s hands are clean, and the second is that everybody thinks their hands are clean. It can lead to an almost painful level of cognitive dissonance in anybody masochistic enough to read what we must ruefully call the literature of the period. Historians will be more interested in these years than in any other period of American history. But reading the self-serving lawyer-vetted cash-grab books of the actual participants? Only political junkies and book reviewers would be so foolish.
When it comes to those participants, there are scarcely any abstainers. From wormy footnotes like George Papadopolous to Trump’s first publicly deceitful Press Secretary Sean Spicer to West Wing turncoat toady Cliff Sims and many more, the flood of these turgid attempts at reputation repair has washed over bookstores, and there is no end in sight. Trump’s second publicly deceitful Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has a book deal; former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has a book deal; publicly deceitful former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks has a book deal; ousted National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster has a book deal; and can there be any doubt that someday bookstores will see “My Side of the Story” volumes from everybody else? Ousted National Security Advisor John Bolton is unlikely to fume in stoic silence; imprisoned Trump hired goon Michael Cohen has three years to work on his own Apologia. The list is endless.
Although not himself literate, Trump will assail each of these books if they assail him, as almost all of them will. In his calamitous years in office, Trump has spent more time assailing enemies than he has making friends, and one of his foremost targets has been the US intelligence apparatus, particularly the FBI and even more particularly its former director, James Comey (who, of course, got a book deal). And now, Josh Campbell, a former FBI special agent and assistant to Comey, has written a book of his own: Crossfire Hurricane: Inside Donald Trump’s War on the FBI.
The book is gummy with schmaltz (“one does not spend years in an organization dedicated to truth, justice, and ethics, to protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution, without having one’s own character benefit as a result”), but at least Campbell spares readers the yards and yards of autobiography he must know doesn’t interest them. Instead, he gets quickly down to business, pursuing his main theme about Trump’s war against his own intelligence agencies, a war in many ways culminated in the summer of 2018 when Trump met Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and openly sided with the Russian dictator against America. Campbell addresses this squarely:
In a terrifying episode in Helsinki shortly after Mueller had laid out in court filings the malicious efforts of Russia’s intelligence operatives, Trump stood next to Putin on the global stage and in effect legitimized Russia’s regime at the expense of the US intelligence community. Trump sided with Putin over the assessment of our intelligence and law enforcement professionals.
That Campbell would consider such a moment terrifying is hardly surprising, and not merely because he himself had an FBI background; any objective observer must have considered the moment a low point in American history. Of more pointed interest to most readers of Crossfire Hurricane will be the cleanliness of Campbell’s own hands in other matters. One is very specific: when former Nixon advisor and political black rot Roger Stone was arrested in January of 2019, only one news team accompanied the small army of weapons-wielding agents the FBI sent for the job: CNN, Campbell’s employer. Naturally, right-wing social media smelled a rat, and Campbell relates the resulting firestorm:
Then I got dragged into the affair personally. Right-wing trolls on social media had been suggesting that, since I worked at CNN, someone inside the FBI must have tipped me off to the arrest. This morphed into a narrative that it was actually me staking out Stone’s home rather than my colleague. I sort of laughed off the conspiracy until former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee threw gasoline on the situation by blasting the conspiracy and my photo out to his one million Twitter followers. All hell broke loose.
“The truth is,” he writes, “I had been sleeping soundly at my home in Los Angeles when the Stone arrest went down, and I didn’t learn about it until my producer, Mary Kay Mallonee, called to pass along the news.” Which is the way of all these my-hands-are-clean books: neither the fact that Campbell was asleep in LA when the Stone raid happened nor the fact that he learned about the raid’s details from his producer contradicts or even addresses the contention that he did, in fact, tip off his CNN colleagues about where and when the raid would take place. All three of those things could simultaneously be true. Crossfire Hurricane seems like the perfect occasion to type the line “I didn’t tip off CNN.” Maybe it’ll be in the sequel.
The more Caesar’s wife consideration inevitably centers on Comey. Campbell’s admiration for his former boss is easily detectable on almost every page of this book, which raises the question of how Campbell assesses then-director Comey’s behavior during the election season that ended with Donald Trump in the White House, specifically his decision to talk in front of cameras in a press conference about Hillary Clinton’s emails - a decision that’s widely seen as costing Clinton the election. In his own book, Comey claims with doe-eyed bathos that he had no choice, that he was acting to protect the integrity of the FBI. Campbell naturally concurs and cites the impromptu 2016 meeting between Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch as the saga’s key moment:
In my judgment, the decision by Attorney General Loretta Lynch not to recuse herself from the Clinton investigation after that conversation with Bill Clinton on the Arizona tarmac was the key factor that helps explain Comey’s decision to act unilaterally. His goal had been to find a way to remove any perception of politics being at play in whether to prosecute Clinton. By remaining in the chain of command for decision-making in the case, DOJ political appointees had, perhaps unknowingly, boxed him in.
This argument was nonsense when Comey made it, and it’s still nonsense. A tree stump in a field could have foreseen the effects of that Comey press conference on a tight election race. The most charitable explanation that makes any sense is that Comey couldn’t resist grandstanding and has been backpedaling and rationalizing about it ever since, but Campbell opts instead for portraying the FBI Director as some kind of helpless jellyfish pulled along by the currents. “Boxed in” is absurd; Comey could have followed longstanding Bureau policy and simply kept his mouth shut.
These kinds of frustrations are endemic in reading what for better or worse we must call Trump books: even the ones that exude some degree of good intentions also exude complicity in the sordid tenor of the times. All these budding authors are running games of their own; all are picking and choosing their words with telling forensic care; all are looking for maximum payoff with minimum legal exposure. It’ll reach its pinnacle when somebody writes Trump’s own account of it all, but it’s plenty bad enough right now.
Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.