Which Comey could have been.
The Weird Hedge Fund That Prepared James Comey for His Capitol Hill Hot Seat
FBI Director James Comey is about to discover whether Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the 49-year-old Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, can be scarier than a 25-year-old employee of the world’s largest hedge fund. Comey, who hasn’t spoken publicly since his political bombshell on Tuesday that the FBI wouldn’t recommend an indictment of Hillary Clinton, would probably argue no.
Comey is set to appear Thursday before the House committee to answer questions about the FBI’s yearlong investigation into Clinton’s private email system as secretary of state—a hearing that already appears to have the FBI director firmly in its cross hairs. Chaffetz has said that he found Comey’s decision “surprising and confusing,” and added in a statement, “Congress and the American people have a right to understand the depth and breadth of the FBI’s investigation.”
Even after weeks of statements from Republican leaders and conservative media figures that they trusted Comey to conduct an impartial and independent investigation into Clinton’s emails and would respect whatever his decision ended up being, it took just hours after his 11 a.m. news conference before critical questions began flying. Former—and likely future—GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz called Comey’s conclusion a “dubious decision.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said it “defies explanation” and instantly promised further hearings. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) declared it an “outrage,” saying, “The FBI should be better than this.”
Yet Chaffetz and his colleagues might get more than they bargain for in attempting to set up the FBI director for an oversight hearing bloodbath—just as last summer’s marathon hearing on Clinton’s role in Benghazi ended up backfiring on the select committee empaneled to investigate the 2012 Libya attacks, as the former secretary of state parried questions with confidence and ended up making Republican lawmakers look small by comparison.
Comey, as it turns out, is in his element when he’s under fire: He’s an experienced courtroom prosecutor and savvy Washington political in-fighter, and he burst onto the national stage in 2007 with some of the most riveting—and unexpected—congressional testimony in memory. But more than that, Comey comes armed Thursday with a secret weapon that he didn’t have even during that 2007 hearing, when he shocked the committee room by blowing the lid off a secret high-level showdown over the NSA’s domestic spying program that nearly caused mass resignations within George W. Bush’s Justice Department.
After he left government, Comey spent three years being grilled, or “probed,” as an executive at Bridgewater Associates, the $150 billion hedge fund founded by Ray Dalio that the New Yorker has labeled “the world’s richest and strangest hedge fund.” Dalio, who regularly ranks among the 50 or 60 wealthiest people on the Forbes 400 list, has built the highly successful fund since the 1970s on a platform of “radical transparency,” a principle that encourages—actually forces—deep questioning from the ranks of all leadership decisions.
It was just weeks after he joined Bridgewater—whose corporate culture of high-achieving intellectuals resembles a moneyed management cult that shares more in common with the 1970s personal-improvement fad est than it does with a typical Wall Street firm—that Comey was cornered by a similarly new 25-year-old employee. The junior associate interrogated the former Justice Department official on a seemingly illogical stance that Comey had taken in an earlier meeting. “My initial reaction was ‘What? You, kid, are asking me that question?’ ... I was deputy attorney general of the United States; I was general counsel of a huge, huge company. No 25-year-old is going to ask me about my logic,” he recalled. “Then I realized ‘I’m at Bridgewater.’”
Comey said that, even though he was excited to embrace the new way of thinking, it took him at least three months to settle in with Bridgewater’s culture. “I finally relaxed and untied the knot in my stomach that would instantly appear when someone questioned me,” he recalled. “Bridgewater’s a hard place. … It’s a place filled with really smart people who are always going to tell you the truth, and that’s hard.”
Inside Bridgewater, the culture of questioning is known as “probing,” a chance to understand the deeper “whys” inherent in an individual’s thinking or a corporate process. It’s a chance for everyone, from junior associates right up to Dalio himself, to force people past easy answers or glib statements into tight, rigorous thinking. “At Bridgewater, every day is a kind of after-action review, although the process goes much deeper than a typical postmortem,” business writers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey concluded in their book. Inside Bridgewater, where the “Culture of the Probe” reigns, meetings are even recorded, to force accountability for people’s statements and commitments.
According to Comey, who prosecuted targets ranging from Mafia boss John James Gambino to Martha Stewart to the bombers of the Khobar Towers, the decision-making environment for the firm’s 1,300 employees is tougher than anything he ever endured during decades rising through the ranks of the Justice Department, from a junior prosecutor to U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York—the department’s highest-profile posting—to the No. 2 job under Attorney General John Ashcroft.
In a corporate video still on Bridgewater’s website, a cashmere sweater-clad Comey discusses the hedge fund’s emphasis on transparency and accountability: “I’ve been ‘probed’ in this strange field trip through life that I’ve had a lot of different places. I’ve testified in court, I have briefed the president of the United States repeatedly, I’ve argued in front of the United States Supreme Court, and I’ve been probed at Bridgewater. And Bridgewater is by far the hardest,” Comey says. “You combine that intelligence, the depth and the almost 360 [degree] vector of the questioning, there is no more demanding, probing, questioning environment in the world than Bridgewater.”
“Sometimes I felt my head spinning when people were questioning me, but it’s uniquely demanding,” he said in the video. “If you say something stupid to the president of the United States, he may backhand you and say that’s a dumb answer, but he doesn’t want to know why you said that and what does that tell me about the way that you’re approaching your work, and what does it tell me about you. He’s never going to ask that.”...MORE