Fieldnote as Political Weapon: James Comey’s Ethnographic Turn?

Watching the testimony of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey live on television, I came to realize—one more time and with political feeling—that our work as ethnographers and as interpreters of “ordinary affects” (Stewart 2007) is centrally important not only to contemporary social life, but also to our contemporary political worlds. Our skill for comprehending political discourse is necessary, and thus it is precisely our methods, evidence, argument, and finally, our forms of writing that can provide new openings for anthropological intervention. The art of making ethnographic writing relevant, even while leaving it to readers to decide where they may stand in terms of any particular interaction or description, is purposeful and is about persuasion. Everything, I argue, begins with the well-done fieldnote. Comey’s recent oral testimony to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee illustrates that the well-done fieldnote can be a political tool and a powerful weapon of persuasion.

Still from video of James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, June 8, 2017. Video by C-SPAN.

I write in awe of Comey’s ethnographic skill, even while maintaining sobriety about the more sinister machinations of the FBI in the past and present. For this anthropologist, Comey showed himself to be a skilled and admirable ethnographer. Comey put into action all of those things that we teach our students in the unit on “Fieldnotes 101.” Central to his oral televised testimony earlier this month were his fieldnotes; by taking notes much like an ethnographer would, Comey began to make his case to the Senate and to the country. But by leaving his audience the space to interpret the interactions he experienced and wrote about, he accomplished a small act of genius that perhaps we should all absorb. He left the final act of interpretation to his audience, whether that is taken to be the Senate or the American people.

I advance this positive reading of Comey’s performance somewhat hesitantly, mindful of the necessary caveats that must accompany any praise of the FBI or its director. It is crucial to remember the history of the FBI before, during, and after the Joseph McCarthy era. The chilling effects of McCarthyism on academic freedom, the pursuit of racial justice (see Price 2004), and the labor movement are tangible, as are the FBI’s more recent forms of intimidation of Muslim Americans, particularly since 9/11. Two recent documentaries—The Newburgh Sting (2014) and (T)error (2015)—vividly portray the farcical and nefarious methods used by the FBI to entrap Muslim Americans, not just as potential terrorists but also as paid informants working in the shadows for the FBI. Indeed, a recent article directed at left-wing enthusiasts for Comey’s recent testimony critically reminds us that “the FBI is not your friend.” Most of us have already experienced a psychic whiplash of sensibilities regarding Comey as we pivoted from his interventions in Hillary Clinton’s email case to his recent appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Whatever praise is to be offered must, therefore, be tempered by this broader context.

* * *

Difficulties for the practice of ethnography have remained since our discussions of power and reflexivity in the 1970s and 1980s (e.g., Marcus and Fischer 1986; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Rabinow 1977). We still wonder just how much reflexivity to share and how much interiority to inject into our descriptions (Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990; Stewart 2007; Stoler 2006). In this intensified political moment, Comey’s writings and oral testimony, drawn from his fieldnotes, highlight the definitive utility of interiority, and how the astute reflections of a narrator can highlight the power dynamics in play. In his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, 2017, Comey explained multiple times that he did not want to be left alone with President Donald J. Trump. He also did not want to be caught in a situation where the president could deny the veracity of events, or the meaning of particular verbal and gestural communications. Comey’s fieldnotes, written on a government laptop in his car immediately after his interactions with Trump (much as we tell our students to do in “Fieldnotes 101”) were his insurance policy.

In a number of recent articles, cultural anthropologists have struggled to capture something critical about the political dramas of our time, how they unfold and how they alter the political and cultural landscape. Whether ethnographers are writing about comedy, spectacle, and gesture (Hall, Goldstein and Ingram 2016), the rise of Trumpism (Bessire and Bond 2017), Trump’s lies (McGranahan 2017), nostalgic racism (Goldstein and Hall 2017; Maskovsky 2017; Roland 2017; Rosa and Bonilla 2017; Scheper-Hughes 2017), or any other Trump topics, they are attempting to create a forceful argument based on a distillation of reading, experience, media saturation, and analytics. The more I tuned in and listened to Comey, the more I came to see the power that Comey’s ethnographic sensibilities afforded him. I began to identify with him and with his positionality as interlocutor of Trump, as somebody who has already learned a great deal about entrapment and clever rivals and who understood the risks at hand. Indeed, while I myself have written about Trump, I had never met the man! I can’t help but think that Comey knew he needed serious preparation for this particular assignment.

Perhaps Comey has, like many of us, been culturally and psychically infiltrated with the messages dealt deftly by the television series House of Cards, and particularly Season 5, in which the characters have become ever more tyrannical, entrapping their rivals in clever ways and yet still managing to “win” in the Trumpian sense. In this age of the mediatized anti-hero, will we ever get to see these scheming tyrants fall? Trump has already delivered a public response to Comey, attempting to turn the tables, calling him a liar, and intimating the possibility of a taped record of conversations. He has also labeled Comey as a “leaker,” which is understood to be a truly damaging nickname, particularly when applied to a former FBI director (cf. Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram 2016). We have experienced these antics before and should by now be aware of the Trumpian repertoire. Trump’s ability to entrap and damage his opponents must have been clear to Comey. Comey’s weapon, in turn, is the well-done fieldnote.

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It is in this context that I watched Comey and his interlocutors live on television (and then on playback) and read the transcript of his televised testimony. I readily found Comey’s seven-page “Statement for the Record: Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” which he provided to the committee prior to the live hearing. In that written statement, Comey draws on his own memos, taken as fieldnotes each time he concluded a meeting with Trump. Did Comey predict that this man might pervert the meeting and the words that were spoken? Did he have evidence that this was likely? I, for one, would like to think that Comey read our anthropological musings on how President Trump demolished his opponents through comedy, nicknaming, rumor, and entrapment (Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram 2016). Not so long ago Marco Rubio was being made fun of by Trump for sweating profusely during debates and for being a “choke artist” during the primaries. Trump always found each candidate’s weak spot and attacked. Comey must have witnessed these events and arrived at his own conclusions about the methods through which Trump routed his opponents. Strangely, though, many of Trump’s onetime opponents have now become his allies. Senator Rubio stepped in line with most Republicans during the Intelligence Committee hearing, pursuing a line of questioning about the meaning of Comey’s conversations that seemed curiously protective of the president.

I find Comey’s reliance on the excellently done fieldnote to be strangely comforting, especially when it comes to interactions that require sound memory, detail, and attention to gestural cues. Comey’s fieldnotes and the documents he created from them already consider his own relativism and the worlds of those others who would be listening—the senators, as well as the American people. We can only imagine that Comey has watched his opponent on the campaign trail and as president over these past interminable 100+ days in office. He does not want to let this presidential coyote isolate him from other credible witnesses, from the truth of the meaning of uttered words, or from the context of what is known and what is at stake. Rather than ask Trump follow-up questions during their encounters (such as, “What do you mean, Mr. President?” or, “Could you clarify what ‘I hope’ means in the statement you just made about the Michael Flynn investigation?”), Comey instead assumes a position of relativism with respect to the political leanings of his audience. He leaves it to the Intelligence Committee to determine whether his interpretation is the correct one.

Comey knows that Democrats and Republicans have their own political battles to wage, no matter what the evidence might show, and thus he needed to both feel and appear to be completely independent of those desires, presenting a flat, neutralized version of his nine encounters with President Trump. Comey offers up his own reflexivity (and willingness to be wrong in his interpretation of those interactions) as proof of his own ethical integrity. He explains in wonderful ethnographic detail the manner in which the president, on February 14, 2017, asked others to leave the Oval Office. Comey recalls how Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner “lingered,” and how Kushner seemingly remained to exchange pleasantries until the president said he wanted to speak to Comey alone. Here is part of the memo created from his fieldnotes:

When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” Flynn had resigned the previous day. The President began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify.

Comey describes in detail how the president returned to the Flynn conversation:

He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”

Let’s take apart some of the most important moments of his interaction with his interlocutors in the Senate. Politics seems to negate the kind of interiority that would provide historical context to a particular actor. Interpretations that attempt to build on historical materials about Trump, for example, lose relevance when it comes to the Republican senators on the committee, who were eager to defend the presumed innocence of Trump in this set of interactions with Comey.

Even a more critically minded Republican such as Susan Collins (R–ME) asked Comey why he started taking notes about his interactions with the president. Her line of questioning revealed and focused on the fact that Comey responded to Trump’s power as president and as populist Tweeter by passing along the content of one memo to a Columbia law school professor, who would then pass it along to a New York Times reporter. Trump and other Republicans could then speak of Comey as a “leaker,” a kind of enemy within who could be painted in a traitorous manner. The exchange reveals that the act of taking notes (for future use) is potentially understood to be a hostile act. Collins is said to be one of the more reasonable Senate Republicans, and so it is interesting to consider her line of questioning during the Senate hearing:

Susan Collins: Okay. You mentioned that from your very first meeting with the president, you decided to write a memo memorializing the conversation. What was it about that very first meeting that made you write a memo when you have not done that with two previous presidents?

James Comey: As I said, a combination of things. A gut feeling is an important overlay, but the circumstances, that I was alone, the subject matter and the nature of the person I was interacting with and my read of that person. Yeah, and really just gut feel, laying on top of all of that, that this is going to be important to protect this organization, that I make records of this.

SC: Finally, did you show copies of your memos to anyone outside of the Department of Justice?

JC: Yes.

SC: And to whom did you show copies?

JC: I asked—the president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there's not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night because it didn't dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might [be] a tape. My judgment was, I need to get that out into the public square. I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn't do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. I asked a close friend to do it.

SC: Was that Mr. [Benjamin] Wittes?

JC: No.

SC: Who was it?

JC: A close friend who is a professor at Columbia Law School.

SC: Thank you. 

Comey states his reasons for taking fieldnotes after meeting with the president as “the circumstances, that I was alone, the subject matter and the nature of the person I was interacting with and my read of that person.” Collins’s oppositional line of inquiry suggests that the act of taking fieldnotes (here described as memos) could be understood as a hostile practice. The fact is, anthropological methods have historically been employed by a wide range of actors. Some of the more nefarious of these uses include the FBI’s coordination with thousands of informants to infiltrate and surveil groups designated as hostile during particular time periods, among them Black Panther activists, Communist Party organizers, and Muslim Americans. I thus approach my exposition of Comey’s use of fieldnotes as political weaponry with caution. As Nomi Stone reveals in an interview about her fieldwork in constructed Middle Eastern villages designed as training camps to emulate current war zones, many complex institutions employ “the kindred tools that soldiers and anthropologists use to find our feet.”

Comey, to his credit, did not claim to know the final truth about the president, nor about how this presidential drama would end. His decision to refrain from judgment, enabled by the evidential neutrality of the fieldnote, became the basis for a much more persuasive argument. Comey’s use of fieldnotes as “kindred tools” thus reveals a critical intersection between contemporary politics and the ethnographic arts, reminding us once again of the discursive power in the methods we practice.


Thanks to Kira Hall, Marcel LaFlamme, Carole McGranahan, Arielle Milkman, and Magdalena Stawkowski for being wonderful interlocutors.


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