Sometimes a defining moment in one’s career arises suddenly, disguised as nothing too extraordinary.
For ex-FBI Director James Comey, that moment came Oct. 28, 2016, when he publicly disclosed the agency was reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Clinton supporters found the timing suspicious — two weeks before the election — and accused Comey of making a blatant partisan move to help Donald Trump win the presidency.
His decision would cast a shadow over his long career and dog him to this day.
But Comey stands by it.
“It was an impossible situation, even in hindsight,” Comey said in a phone interview. “Telling the truth rather than concealing it was the better of really bad options. If I had a magic wand, I’d go back and have nothing to do with it.”
Comey, 60, has reflected much on this pivotal moment, defending his actions in both of his books, which he wrote after former President Donald Trump fired him as FBI director.
He will discuss his memoirs and his former jobs at the U.S. Justice Department under three presidents in a virtual forum April 21, hosted by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations and moderated by former CIA agent Valerie Plame. Tickets are $75.
A question of honesty
Comey is outgoing, humorous and candid. In fact, he prides himself on his honesty, whether speaking about the FBI’s internal problems or his former bosses’ missteps, aptly titling his second book Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency and Trust.
He doesn’t mince words when talking about Trump and the damage he feels the former president wreaked on the Justice Department and country.
The department is inherently political, he said, with each attorney general pursuing a particular set of priorities. One of them might put child sex trafficking at the top of the list and another might want to crack down harder on environmental crimes, he said.
It’s fine for political leaders to talk about cases in a broad sense, Comey said, but it becomes dangerous when they focus on an individual case for political reasons, as Trump and his attorneys general did with Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.
“Once you start doing that, then you introduce a corrosive doubt about the entire system,” he said. “Lady Justice is supposed to wear a blindfold. She’s not supposed to be peeking to figure out whether the defendant is a friend of the president or not.”
Trump’s meddling in cases was in stark contrast to former President Barack Obama, who sought to keep the FBI free of political pressure and tribalism, Comey said. Obama’s beliefs on this matter, he added, were reflected in his decision to hire Comey to head the FBI even though he was a Republican who had donated money to Obama’s GOP opponents in two elections.
Trump, in contrast, went so far as to ask Comey to swear his loyalty to him while they dined at the White House in January 2017.
Comey said the request made him feel slightly disoriented.
“It was unimaginable that a president would seek a pledge of personal loyalty from an FBI director,” Comey said. “But I quickly switched to trying to protect the institution by not giving him that pledge. For two or three seconds, I just stared at him and didn’t answer, which is a very long time at a tiny table in the middle of the Green Room.”
Trump has denied asking for the loyalty pledge. Comey has insisted, according to news reports, that Trump pressed him to vow “honest loyalty” and that Comey agreed to do that.
Relations between Trump and Comey soured as the FBI investigated whether his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. The FBI also concluded Obama never wiretapped Trump Tower, which irked the former president.
Comey also refused Trump’s request to back off from investigating Flynn, who briefly served as national security adviser before Trump fired him.
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his questionable dealings with a Russian ambassador, then later recanted his plea. Trump pardoned Flynn in November.
On May 9, 2017, Trump announced he was firing Comey. He later said it was to relieve pressure he felt from the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Comey was only the second director in the FBI’s history to be fired. The other was William S. Sessions, whom former President Bill Clinton fired in 1993 based on a list of complaints dating back to the first Bush administration.
Comey said he knew Trump disliked him but thought that was a good thing because Trump would leave him alone. He never expected Trump to go so far as to fire him, he said.
“I actually was stunned to find out on television in Los Angeles while I was giving a speech that I had been fired,” Comey said. “I was going to try to last. I was going to be miserable, but I thought it was really important to try to stay and protect the FBI from a deeply unethical president.”
Comey praised special counsel Robert Mueller’s work in amassing evidence that shows Russia interfered in the election, and that the Trump campaign made dozens of contacts with the Russians and even coordinated with them.
He also accepts Mueller’s conclusion that there’s not sufficient proof to charge anyone with criminal conspiracy.
But in his second book and during the interview, he criticized Mueller for not being clearer in his public statements about the strong evidence showing Trump obstructed justice.
“It left it open for [former Attorney General] Bill Barr to issue pithy sound bites about no obstruction, no collusion,” Comey said. “When you read the report, that’s not what the report says. The report lays out a damning case of obstruction of justice.”
Comey said he decided to go into the prosecutorial side of the law after he landed his first job as a young attorney, working for a Manhattan federal judge in the mid-1980s.
While in a courtroom awaiting a hearing, he watched a case involving the leaders of a Mafia family.
“I was struck by lightning,” Comey said. “I’d always hated bullies. I was bullied as a kid. And I thought, ‘These are the worst bullies there are. If I could be part of rescuing people from that, how cool would that be?’ “
A year later, Rudy Giuliani, who was U.S. attorney for New York’s southern district, hired Comey, who would help Giuliani build cases against the Gambino crime family.
Giuliani has since turned against Comey, calling him a traitor who betrayed Trump.
In the mid-1990s, Comey went to work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Richmond, Va. After 9/11, he did a two-year stint as U.S. attorney for New York’s southern district.
He was hired as a U.S. deputy attorney general in 2003. He clashed with officials in the Bush administration over the torturing of terrorism suspects and the use of what he thought was unconstitutional wiretapping.
It has been reported that Comey backed waterboarding but thought it inhumane to combine that with sleep deprivation. Comey insists he opposed both interrogation methods.
“I was never in support of them,” Comey said. “I always thought those things were horrible and we shouldn’t be doing them.”
The differing views on combating terrorism prompted him to resign in 2005 and go into the private sector.
In 2013, while teaching at Columbia University Law School, Obama’s attorney general called him to ask if he was interested in being interviewed for the job as FBI director.
“My wife convinced me to go down, even though she said, ‘They’re not going to pick you,’ “ Comey recalled. “And she was wrong.”
Comey said even if he’d known the job would end the way it did, he still would’ve taken it because of the work he has been able to do.
He wishes his 10-year term hadn’t been cut short, as he would’ve had more time to increase racial and gender diversity within the FBI’s ranks.
“Our country was getting more diverse, more complicated … but the FBI was not keeping pace with that change,” Comey said. “And it has to look and act more like America to be effective in protecting the country.”
Comey questioned whether the FBI eased up on its efforts to combat white nationalism, a growing domestic terrorist threat, after he left.
Trump stoked white nationalism with his rhetoric and, with the help of right-wing media and political enablers, radicalized a great number of Americans, Comey said.
Millions of people now believe there’s a sinister “deep state,” that the coronavirus is a hoax and that the 2020 election was stolen by shadowy, leftist forces, Comey said. “And that’s a real problem for a country.”
Within that group of millions are thousands who believe they must engage in violence — such as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — in response to this imaginary threat to their way of life and identity, Comey said.
He said he has received many threats online from Trump supporters who feel he was part of the deep state persecuting the former president. They tend to be more belligerent than the Hillary Clinton supporters who think he deliberately derailed her presidential bid, Comey said.
The situation was unforeseen and unwelcome, he added.
His agents were investigating former Congressman Anthony Weiner and found thousands of emails Weiner’s wife and Clinton had exchanged.
The discovery came a few months after the FBI had closed its investigation into the private email server Clinton had used while she was secretary of state.
In the spirit of transparency, he let Congress know agents were sifting through a new batch of Clinton’s emails, he said.
The FBI closed the investigation a couple of weeks later after finding nothing improper. That has led critics to question why Comey didn’t wait to publicize the probe until after the findings.
Comey said he’s not convinced it changed the election’s outcome. Still, it’s what many people believe and what many will most remember him for, he said.
He likened it to a referee blowing the whistle and calling a penalty in the final seconds of a close game.
“You have to make a call, and a big part of the crowd is going to hate whatever call you make,” Comey said.