COMEY V TRUMP

The gloves are off

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - CAMERON STE­WART WASH­ING­TON COR­RE­SPON­DENT

‘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...

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