Former FBI Director James Comey delivered highly anticipated testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, detailing the conditions surrounding President Trump’s decision to fire him nearly a month earlier. Among the highlights, Comey stated that Trump asked to privately meet with him in the Oval Office to discuss the investigation into former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn over inappropriate ties to Russian officials. Others in the room were requested to leave, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In the meeting, according to Comey, Trump pressured him into “letting Flynn go.”
Legal scholars can debate whether Trump’s actions, if true, amount to obstruction of justice; heated discussions on this point have already flooded the news media. Regardless, in the eyes of many observers, the attempt to influence Comey and his later firing resembles a cover-up. Beyond the implications of these developments for building a case for a Trump impeachment, this was not the only admission of Comey that was troubling.
Consistent with earlier reports leaked to the press, Comey asserted that Trump essentially tied Comey’s prospects for maintaining his job (he was in year three of a ten-year term) to his loyalty to Trump while at a private dinner. In Comey’s words, “the President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.’ I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”
Such requests are inconsistent with the norms of American democracy, as discussed earlier on this site. Moreover, the obsession with loyalty is a telltale characteristic of leaders seeking to consolidate power into their own hands. Although virtually all leaders prefer loyal advisors and bureaucrats over the alternative, prioritizing loyalty over all else paves the way for the erosion of checks and balances. As key institutions, particularly the security apparatus and judiciary, become increasingly stacked with loyalists, their capacity to maintain impartiality when evaluating the leadership decreases. In this context, Trump’s emphasis on personal loyalty from a key law enforcement official is troubling.
Beyond setting the stage for concentration of power, Trump’s preoccupation with loyalty has negative consequences for the quality of the advice he is likely to receive. Research on dictatorship reveals two interrelated reasons for this. First, it decreases the competence of the advisory group when experts are sidelined in favor of those who promote the government line. Second, it disincentivizes members of the advisory group from challenging or questioning proposed government policies. The risk of losing one’s job should criticism be seen as an act of disloyalty quickly converts advisors into sycophants.
Putting a premium on loyalty may make Trump feel more secure, but it comes with very real risks. Should the administration find itself in a major crisis—always a possibility in light of tensions in the Korean peninsula and the Middle East—Trump’s emphasis on loyalty is likely to lead to a response based on bad advice. His loyalty obsession spells trouble not only for the quality of American democracy, but for the quality of its policy choices as well.
Erica Frantz is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University. You can follow her at @EricaFrantz.