COMEY V TRUMP
The gloves are off
‘I’m director of the FBI and I’m standing at my window, looking out on the darkened Pennsylvania Avenue. And I remember this moment like it was yesterday. And I can see the lit Washington Monument … and I just remember thinking, “Everything’s gone mad”.’ JAMES COMEY FORMER FBI DIRECTOR
When James Comey learned from the television news that Donald Trump had fired him as FBI director, he climbed on to his government plane in Los Angeles and ordered a drink for the long flight back to Washington.
“I drank red wine from a paper cup and just looked out at the lights of the country I love so much as we flew home,” Comey said this week of that lonely flight on May 9 last year.
The deposed FBI chief, who admits he has struggled his “whole life” to contain his ego, fumed silently about his public humiliation at the hands of the President.
By the time he arrived home in Washington, Comey was bent on revenge. The scene was set for the most dramatic public showdown seen between a president and an FBI chief.
This showdown, which has been played out in lurid view on prime-time TV and Twitter in recent days and months, culminates today in the release across the US of Comey’s tell-all memoir, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.
For Comey, the book is sweet revenge and he has pulled no punches in his damning portrayal of Trump as someone he considers “morally unfit” to be president.
“The President is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values,” Comey writes. “His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”
The former FBI chief’s campaign against Trump goes much further than just the book, the contents of which were leaked to US media late last week. Comey is doing a long round of TV interviews, kicked off by Monday’s (AEST) exclusive with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos and to be followed by a roadshow of soldout talks in large halls around the country.
The stakes for Trump in this fight go well beyond a public spat between two men with towering egos. Comey is a star witness for special counsel Robert Mueller in his Russia probe. Therefore, the more credible he appears in his accounts of his dealings with the President, the worse it could be for Trump.
In a sign of how seriously Trump and the Republicans are taking Comey’s attack, talking points criticising Comey have been sent to all Republican members of congress.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has set up a website called Lyin’ Comey, which seeks to dismantle his credibility by highlighting how much even the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, despise the former FBI chief.
“Comey not credible, just ask Democrats,” the website says.
But the most passionate critic of Comey in recent days has been the President. In a daily Twitter storm, Trump has savaged Comey as a “slime ball”, “the worst FBI chief in history” and someone who broke the law and should be in jail.
“Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by Far!” Trump tweeted.
In another, Trump states: “I never asked Comey for Personal Loyalty. I hardly even knew this guy. Just one of his many lies. His ‘memos’ are self serving and fake.”
Comey’s book and his ABC interview are the first time he has opened up about his impressions of Trump. At 203cm, Comey towered above Trump, whom he gratuitously describes in the book as shorter than he expected while portraying himself as a towering symbol of truth and impartiality.
While most people will be inclined to believe his accounts over those of Trump, Comey comes across as borderline sanctimonious in his depiction of himself as a lone defender of the truth in the face of an unethical president.
Yet he is blind to the view of many on both sides of politics that he mishandled the Clinton email scandal during the election and his desire for revenge against Trump is such that his accounts of various conversations need to be treated with some caution, even if they are not entirely made up, as Trump claims.
Of Trump, he writes: “I think he’s morally unfit to be president. A person who sees moral equivalence (between far right groups and protesters) in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it — that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.”
Despite his intense dislike of the President, Comey curiously equivocates on the key question of whether Trump has broken the law as President.
When asked by Stephanopoulos if Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice when he allegedly asked Comey to “let this go” in relation to the FBI’s investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Comey replies “possibly”.
“I mean, it’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice. That something really important just happened and that I was a little — another one of those outtabody experiences, like, ‘Really? The President just kicked out the attorney-general to ask me to drop a criminal investigation.’ Wow, the world continues to go crazy,” says Comey.
Mueller is investigating wheth- er this alleged encounter, which is denied by Trump, amounts to an attempt by Trump to obstruct justice. Yet even Comey admits that such a determination “would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent”.
Comey tells of Trump’s fixation on unproven allegations that Trump watched prostitutes urinate on each other in a Moscow hotel in 2013, allegations that Trump also denies.
“Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?” Comey says Trump asked him. He says Trump considered ordering Comey to investigate and refute the claim because he didn’t want “even a 1 per cent chance” that his wife, Melania, might think it was true.
According to Comey, Trump later called him to again refute the allegation, saying: “Another reason you know it’s not true is I’m a germaphobe. There’s no way I’d let people pee on each other around me.’’
Comey recalls the surreal nature of this telephone conversation with the President: “I’m director of the FBI and I’m standing at my window, looking out on the darkened Pennsylvania Avenue. And I remember this moment like it was yesterday. And I can see the lit Washington Monument … and I just remember thinking, ‘Everything’s gone mad’. And then, having finished his explanation, which I hadn’t asked for, he hung up.”
When asked in the ABC interview whether he believes the prostitute story is true or whether the Russians have something on Trump, Comey replies: “It’s possible. I think it’s possible, I don’t know. These are words I never thought I’d utter about a president, but it’s possible.”
Comey also speaks of how Trump allegedly asked for his loyalty during a dinner at the White House, an act Comey says was wrong but that Trump denies doing.
The former FBI chief says the encounter reminded him of his days as a prosecutor dealing with the New York mafia and of how they would seek loyalty to the boss above all else.
“It’s the family, the family, the family, the family,” says Comey, who claims Trump has no understanding of or respect for the independence of the FBI.
But in both the book and in the ABC interview Comey under- mines his own credibility as a socalled honest broker by making gratuitous personal attacks against Trump.
He writes, “His face appeared slightly orange with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his … as he extended his hand, I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.”
Such an attack, which has nothing to do with Trump’s leadership, will only give ammunition to Comey’s critics, who say his book is nothing but a personal vendetta rather than a demonstration of Comey’s so-called “higher loyalty”.
Comey’s unconvincing explanations about how he handled the Clinton email scandal also have damaged his reputation.
He says he now regrets the way he handled the controversial press conference in July 2016 in which he cleared Clinton of criminal wrongdoing but accused her of “extreme carelessness” in the handling of classified material.
Comey admits that the words he chose made both sides angry and muddied the issue. “I’m sorry that I caused all kinds of confusion and pain in the way I described her conduct that led people into all kinds of side roads,” Comey says.
Comey’s decision to call that press conference to exonerate Clinton led Trump to accuse Comey and the FBI of political bias. But Comey’s decision 10 days before the election to announce that the FBI had reopened the investigation into Clinton after obtaining fresh information was a devastating blow to her.
Clinton believes it was a turning point in the campaign and contributed to her defeat.
Comey now admits that his decision to announce that the FBI was going to reopen the probe was influenced by his belief that Clinton would beat Trump and his desire to make sure that the election results were viewed as legitimate.
“Speaking is really bad; concealing is catastrophic,” Comey says.
“If you conceal the fact that you have restarted the Hillary Clinton email investigation … what will happen to the institutions of justice when that comes out?”
After Comey’s decision to announce 10 days before the election that the FBI had restarted its probe into Clinton, the Democrat candidate suffered a sharp fall in her approval ratings.
It was a slide that continued until election day, when Trump pulled off an unexpected victory.
“A whole lot of me was thinking, ‘Oh my God, did we have some role in this? Did we have some impact on the election’,” Comey says.
Although this decision — which put the FBI in the centre of a presidential election — is widely considered to be Comey’s biggest mistake as FBI chief, he says he wouldn’t change it.
Yet he concedes for the first time that he did take into account political factors in making the decision.
Stephanopoulos asks Trump: “At some level, wasn’t the decision to reveal (that the FBI inquiry was restarted) influenced by your assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win?”
Comey replies: “It must have been … because I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. She’s going to be elected president and if I hide this from the American people, she’d be illegitimate the moment she’s elected, the moment this comes out.”
Trump has seized on this section of Comey’s book, saying it proves that he is a political player after all.
“Unbelievably, James Comey states that Polls, where Crooked Hillary was leading, were a factor in the handling (stupidly) of the Clinton Email probe. In the words, he was making decisions based on the fact that he thought she was going to win, and he wanted a job. Slimeball!” Trump tweeted.
The upshot is that both Republicans and Democrats now detest Comey, but his robust and salacious attacks on Trump have seen him viewed as an honest broker by Trump’s critics.
Trump’s decision to sack Comey was his biggest mistake as President.
It led to the appointment of special counsel Mueller in a wideranging inquiry that has haunted the administration for the past year.
And it freed a bitter Comey to launch his public campaign to discredit Trump and bring him down.
In the end, Comey’s book and his crusade against Trump will damage both men. But it will hurt Trump more because he has so much more to lose.
Donald Trump, left, and James Comey clashed from their first meetings after the President allegedly demanded Comey’s loyalty. Below from left, the cover of Comey’s tell-all memoir A Higher Loyalty: Truth Lies and Leadership; Comey being interviewed by...