James Comey’s Blistering Interview About Donald Trump
“I don’t know whether folks notice this, but, in Washington, Democrats tend to wear blue—men tend to wear blue ties. Republicans tend to wear red ties,” James Comey, the former director of the F.B.I., told George Stephanopoulos in an interview, sections of which were aired on “20/20,” on Sunday night (ABC News posted other clips and a full transcript online). Comey, whose six-feet-eight-inch frame seemed folded into his chair, didn’t wear any tie for the interview. Stephanopoulos had just asked Comey about how he’d decided what to put on for the press conference on July 5, 2016, when he announced that there would be no criminal charges against Hillary Clinton related to her private e-mail server. “I chose a gold tie that morning, ‘cause I didn’t want to wear either of the normal gang colors,” he said.
The phrase “gang colors” might be an example of what Comey referred to elsewhere in the interview as “gallows humor.” He mentioned the term to describe why he smiled and made a joke when a deputy told him that the decision of whether or not to prosecute Clinton left him “totally screwed”—meaning that neither political party would be happy. But this reaction also reveals something about Comey’s essential, and essentially disdainful, view of politics. His well-earned sense of horror at Donald Trump is only one example of this disdain; a theme of his statements in the interview is that the F.B.I. must be seen as trustworthy at all costs because there’s not much of a chance that politicians will be. That is a depressing and, to borrow another of Comey’s words, “dangerous” notion for a democracy. In Trump’s case, however, Comey does not seem to see the “gang” designation as a metaphor. From the moment he met him, during a visit to Trump Tower shortly after the election, Comey had a “flashback,” he told Stephanopoulos, to his days chasing the Mafia as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.
“There’s an expression in the Mafia, there’s a distinction between a friend of yours and a friend of ours. A friend of yours is someone on the outside of the family. A friend of ours, an amica nostra is the way they talked about it in Sicilian, is part of the Family, capital ‘F,’ ” Comey said. He was at Trump Tower, sitting with Trump and members of his circle, to brief them on possible Russian interference in the election. He got the sense that their main priority was not the integrity of the electoral system but how the story might play, and that Trump and his associates were attempting “to make us all amica nostra. We’re all part of the messaging, we’re all part of the effort. The boss is at the head of the table and we’re going to figure out together how to do this.”
“How strange is it for you to sit here and compare the President to a mob boss?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Very strange,” Comey said, although at this point, with all we know about the Trump Organization’s way of operating, and with the President’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, the subject of an F.B.I. raid and what appears to be a sprawling investigation covering matters ranging from hush payments to taxi medallions, it comes across as less strange by the minute. “And I don’t do it lightly,” Comey continued, saying that he was not trying to “suggest that President Trump is out breaking legs and, you know, shaking down shopkeepers. But, instead, what I’m talking about is that leadership culture constantly comes back to me when I think about my experience with the Trump Administration.” That experience included what Comey called the “loyalty dinner,” a week after the Inauguration, when Trump, he said, asked for a pledge of fealty; an Oval Office meeting during which Trump said, of a criminal investigation into his former national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, “I hope you can let it go”; and other instances of the President saying things that were, in Comey’s view, “just a lie.”
And the wonders never cease. Trump’s response to Comey’s interview, and to advance reports about his memoir, “A Higher Loyalty,” which comes out on Tuesday, has been of a piece with the character-portrait that Comey draws. Trump’s Twitter rant began on Friday: “James Comey is a proven LEAKER & LIAR. Virtually everyone in Washington thought he should be fired for the terrible job he did-until he was, in fact, fired”—by Trump himself, that is. “He leaked CLASSIFIED information, for which he should be prosecuted. He lied to Congress under OATH.” That exhortation is more illustrative of the President’s tendency to call for the prosecution of his perceived political enemies than of anything that Comey has done. Trump continued, writingComey was “weak,” an “untruthful slime ball,” and part of a “den of thieves and lowlifes.” There was another level of “slimeball!” over the weekend, an assertion that “Slippery James Comey” was untruthful and that the memos he said he’d kept on the President’s conversations were “FAKE!” (When Stephanopoulos asked if, in writing those memos, Comey had “shifted to collecting evidence of a possible crime,” Comey replied, “Well, yes, in a sense.”) On Monday morning, Trump tweeted that Comey and others “committed many crimes!”
At that first Trump Tower meeting, though, Comey did not push the Trump team on their response, because he was about to clear the room and brief the President alone on some of the lurid allegations in what has become known as the Steele dossier. These included the possibility that the Russians had a video of Trump with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, to which the then-President-elect’s first response, as Comey recalled, was to interrupt “very defensively and started talking about it, you know, ‘Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?’ ”
“I assumed he was asking that rhetorically,” Comey told Stephanopoulos. “I didn’t answer that.” Instead, Comey explained that it was a “defensive briefing.” The whole thing was, he said, “really weird.” Stephanopoulos asked how “graphic” he had been. Comey replied that, at that meeting, he did not get into the unproven allegations, in the document, that the prostitutes had urinated on each other in front of the President. It is an image, it seems, that Comey, as much as he knows that it had not been substantiated, has had trouble banishing from his imagination. At one moment in the interview with Stephanopoulos—one not part of the broadcast—when Comey reveals how far his disbelief of Trump extends, he described his internal dismantling of Trump’s arguments, made in a call to Comey a week after BuzzFeed published the Steele dossier, that the charge is impossible, because he is a “germaphobe” who did not even spend the whole night in the hotel.
“I remember thinking, ‘Well, should I say that, As I understand the activity sir, it doesn’t require an overnight stay. And, given that it was allegedly the Presidential suite at the Ritz Carlton, I would imagine you could be at a safe distance from the activity.’ ” He added, “All these things are bouncing around my head. But instead of saying it, it just led me to think, ‘The world’s gone crazy.’ ”
Comey told Stephanopoulos that his biggest shortcomings are his ego and his sense of his own righteousness, and both were on display during the interview. Does Comey really think that he should have got into a debate with the President about the exact logistics of a still spurious allegation? It is a moment when Comey himself, in fairness, is being a little strange, too.
Stephanopoulos spent a good deal of time on one of Comey’s more controversial moments: his decision, less than two weeks before the 2016 election, to reactivate the investigation into Clinton’s e-mail server. The proximate cause was the discovery of hundreds of thousands of State Department e-mails on a laptop used by Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman who was married to one of Clinton’s closest aides, Huma Abedin. Justice Department guidelines call for avoiding taking any action close to Election Day that might affect the outcome of the vote. “And I’m sitting there, on the morning of October 27th, and I can’t see a door that’s labelled, ‘No action here,’ ” Comey told Stephanopoulos. “I can only see two doors, and they’re both actions. One says, ‘Speak,’ the other says, ‘Conceal.’ “ He added, “Speaking is really bad; concealing is catastrophic.” He was, he said, “operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump,” and thus, if that discovery came out after Election Day, “She’ll be an illegitimate President.” And in this alternate world, he said, the F.B.I. and other institutions of justice would “never recover from that.”
It would be wrong to dismiss Comey’s point of view, but also wrong not to question it. Stephanopoulos asked if Comey might have made more of an effort to find out, first, whether the e-mails were relevant—they were not, as the F.B.I. confirmed in another reversal issued a few days before the election—and Comey had no real answer, other than to say that he took at face value his subordinates’ notion that there wasn’t enough time to evaluate them first. Could he have directed them to put every possible person on it, to get technical help, to work around the clock? And why were the investigators, who had apparently known something about the e-mails for a few weeks, so slow to bring the problem to him? Comey did not have a good answer to those questions, but he was, again, clear about his priorities: the best thing he could do was to make sure that everybody trusts the F.B.I. But law enforcement cannot, in the long run, be a proxy for democratic accountability.
It can feel as though we are headed that way, and that is a reason to be cautious about the allure of impeachment, as opposed to the next Presidential election, as a quick fix for the problem of Donald Trump. There is a stage, no longer so hard to imagine, at which impeachment might become necessary, out of simple respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. But Comey himself worries that impeachment would let voters “off the hook.” At the same time, he does not completely shy away from that prospect, calling his own interactions with the President “evidence of obstruction of justice.” He added, “It would depend—and I’m just a witness in this case, not the investigator or prosecutor—it would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent.”
That note raises another question about the both the interview and Comey’s book. Is the book meant to be his act of witness, and, if so, to what? To make a legal case or to take an ethical stand? He calls Trump “morally unfit,” and he told Stephanopoulos that he wants to be “useful.” But, given that he might be called to testify, if it ever comes to the point of an impeachment trial in the Senate (which would depend on the Democrats winning the House in November), there is some awkwardness in his publishing a book before the investigation of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is complete. Then again, it all might put Trump in such a rage that it proves a catalyst for his firing of Mueller and anyone else in his way. That is not to say that Comey wrote the book with any thought of the consequences, other than with regard to setting the record straight about his own time, as he sees it, in the land of politicians.
In the extended interview, Stephanopoulos asked Comey about Trump’s complaint that Hillary Clinton was not interviewed about her e-mails “under oath.” Comey reminded him that lying to federal investigators, under oath or not, is a crime. Indeed, he made the point a number of times in their exchange that he believes it is a crime that is particularly important to prosecute, in a nation that has drifted away from the day “when people were afraid of going to hell.” He also said, of the criminality of lying to investigators, that he was sure that President Trump’s lawyers, “given his situation, are focussing him on this.” In other words, they need to remind Trump, in the days to come, not to lie. It may not be so easy.
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April 16, 2018 at 05:44PM