Trump Breaches Comey’s Gap

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Trump Breaches Comey’s Gap on Monday, May 22, 2017.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that, the day after Donald Trump fired James Comey as the Director of the FBI, he characterized him as a “nut job.” This coup de grace punctuated the end of a tortuous four month unraveling of a relationship with the man who, by any measure, influenced Trump’s election.

The unraveling may very well have begun the day after the inauguration when, during an event at the White House, Trump yanked Comey’s arm forward from an arm’s length handshake into a hug. “Comey was disgusted” by the moment, reported Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, the Hoover Institution, and a friend of Comey’s. “He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats.”

Political, legal, and strategic factors aside, the physical encounter between these two alpha males was a clash of diametrically opposite personalities. Ever the fastidious investigator whose every activity is, by nature, confidential, Comey perpetually plays it close to the vest. Ever the demonstrative showman whose every engagement is aimed at domination, Trump perpetually plays it in your face. In his short tenure as president, he has demonstrated a penchant for forceful handshakes. (As in these videos of his encounters with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Judge Neil Gorsuch, and Vice President Mike Pence.) His encounter with Comey was an incident just waiting to happen.

But there was a far deeper factor at work: the penetration of Comey’s personal space. We all know the feeling when someone—stranger or friend—gets too close. That feeling has deep underpinnings:

  • In sociology, humans and animals react aggressively when their turf is invaded, a dynamic Robert Ardrey described in his noted 1966 book, The Territorial Imperative.
  • In theater, literature, and performance, artists strive to maintain aesthetic distance from their audiences.
  • In anthropology, interpersonal communication is impacted by the distance between people, a dynamic called proxemics, described in depth by Edward T. Hall in his noted 1963 book, The Hidden Dimension. Mr. Hall even set parameters for the distances that define personal space:

            Intimate (embracing, touching or whispering): less than 6 inches

            Personal (interactions among good friends or family): 1.5 to 2.5 feet

            Social (interactions among acquaintances): 4 to 7 feet

            Public (public speaking): 12 to 25 feet

Nobody is more aware of Trump’s territorial imperative than the one person who is the common link between him and Comey, Hillary Clinton. Watch her physical reaction during a rehearsal for the first presidential debate last year when the stand-in for Trump tries to breach the gap between them.

As the pervasive signage throughout the London Underground advises: Mind the Gap!

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Trump Breaches Comey’s Gap on Monday, May 22, 2017.