Least wanted

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Pari Dukovic

The for­mer FBI di­rec­tor James Comey tells Mar­tin Fletcher why he thinks Pres­i­dent Trump is un­fit for of­fice

Sur­pris­ingly, given all James Comey’s re­cent ex­pe­ri­ences, the most con­tro­ver­sial FBI di­rec­tor since J Edgar Hoover ar­rives alone in his out­sized Lin­coln Nav­i­ga­tor SUV for our ren­dezvous at a pri­vate home in Wash­ing­ton, DC’S Vir­ginia sub­urbs. There is not a body­guard in sight.

He is dressed ca­su­ally in an open-necked shirt and jacket. He is slim, im­mensely tall at 6ft 8in – he calls him­self a ‘gi­raffe’ – and looks younger than his 57 years. He is ge­nial, chatty and amused by a tweet he has seen ear­lier in the day: above the words ‘Just say­ing…’ it com­pared the packed crowds at the re­cent royal wed­ding with Don­ald Trump’s sparsely at­tended in­au­gu­ra­tion. All in all, he is re­mark­ably re­laxed con­sid­er­ing that since 2016 he has been at the heart of some of the most bit­terly con­tentious events in mod­ern US pol­i­tics.

Comey is the man ac­cused of hand­ing the Oval Of­fice to Don­ald Trump by an­nounc­ing, less than two weeks be­fore the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, that the FBI had re­opened its crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Hil­lary Clin­ton’s mis­han­dling of clas­si­fied emails.

Seven months later, Trump fired Comey in the most pub­lic and hu­mil­i­at­ing man­ner, seem­ingly for re­fus­ing to drop the FBI’S in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sia’s sus­pected sup­port for Trump. He has de­nounced Comey as a ‘slime­ball’, a ‘grand­stander’ and the ‘worst FBI di­rec­tor in his­tory’, and de­clared that he should be jailed.

Since leav­ing the FBI, Comey has pub­lished a spec­tac­u­larly damn­ing in­dict­ment of the pres­i­dent, A Higher Loy­alty: Truth, Lies, and Lead­er­ship, which is why he is meet­ing me: he will ar­rive in Bri­tain later this month to pro­mote the book, which has topped Amer­ica’s best­seller lists.

He is now recog­nised wher­ever he goes, and re­spected and re­viled in equal mea­sure. He de­scribes the past 18 months as ‘ver­tigoin­duc­ing’. ‘The whole ex­pe­ri­ence has been sur­real and slightly dis­ori­en­tat­ing,’ he con­cedes at the start of a con­ver­sa­tion that is it­self, by any stan­dards, sur­real.

For the next hour, the man who once led Amer­ica’s fore­most do­mes­tic-in­tel­li­gence and lawen­force­ment agency pro­ceeds to tell me that it is con­ceiv­able that the pres­i­dent of the United States is be­ing black­mailed by Moscow; that Trump might in­deed have en­gaged in per­verse sex­ual prac­tices with Rus­sian pros­ti­tutes; that he could be im­peached be­fore he fin­ishes his term; that he is ‘morally un­fit’ to oc­cupy the Oval Of­fice, and poses the gravest threat to Amer­ica’s val­ues and in­sti­tu­tions that

Comey can re­mem­ber.

Comey is com­ing to Lon­don not just to sell books, he in­sists, but to make it clear to Amer­ica’s clos­est ally that his coun­try’s ly­ing, bul­ly­ing and reck­less pres­i­dent is an aber­ra­tion. ‘I would like the Bri­tish peo­ple to know that this is not us… that the con­duct they see now doesn’t re­flect our val­ues.’

Comey’s foes re­gard him as arrogant, vain and sanc­ti­mo­nious, and there is cer­tainly a high­minded, slightly pu­ri­tan­i­cal side to this de­vout Chris­tian, fa­ther of five chil­dren and oc­ca­sional foster par­ent.

‘Saint Jimmy’, as Comey is some­times known, likes to re­call how he in­clined to­wards a ca­reer as a prose­cu­tor after a no­to­ri­ous rapist broke into his fam­ily’s New Jersey home when he was 16 and held him and his younger brother at gun­point. His col­lege the­sis was on ‘The Chris­tian in Pol­i­tics’. In re­sponse to end­less com­ments that a man of his height must surely have played col­lege bas­ket­ball, he used to reply sim­ply, ‘Yup,’ to avoid hav­ing to ex­plain why he did not: one day he re­alised he was ly­ing and wrote to all those he had mis­led to tell them the truth.

As a US at­tor­ney in New York in 2003, he suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted the life­style guru Martha Ste­wart for ly­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors in a stock case.

As deputy US at­tor­ney gen­eral from 2003 to 2005, a quote from his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings was stuck on his fridge door: ‘I don’t care about pol­i­tics. I don’t care about ex­pe­di­ency. I don’t care about friend­ship. I care about do­ing the right thing.’ Al­though ap­pointed to that post by Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush, he en­raged the White House by doggedly op­pos­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s use of un­tram­melled elec­tronic sur­veil­lance and tor­ture in the ‘war on ter­ror’. Quot­ing Mar­tin Luther, he told Bush, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’

He got on well with Pres­i­dent Obama, who ap­pointed Comey FBI di­rec­tor in 2013 – he likes to cite a tweet that com­plained, ‘That Comey is such a po­lit­i­cal hack. I just can’t fig­ure out which party.’ But he re­sisted Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­peated at­tempts to com­pro­mise the Bureau’s in­de­pen­dence – which is why, he be­lieves, his 10-year term was abruptly cur­tailed after just four.

The FBI be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing Clin­ton’s misuse of her pri­vate email server in July 2015. A year later Comey an­nounced, to Repub­li­can fury, that she had been ‘ex­tremely care­less’ but would not be charged.

Then, 12 days be­fore the 2016 elec­tion, he re­opened the in­ves­ti­ga­tion fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery of a huge new batch of Clin­ton’s emails on the lap­top of An­thony Weiner (the es­tranged hus­band of a Clin­ton aide and a for­mer con­gress­man, who had re­signed for send­ing sex­u­ally ex­plicit pic­tures of him­self to women). Clin­ton’s nar­row lead evap­o­rated, and al­though the FBI ex­on­er­ated her a se­cond time two days be­fore the vote, Trump won. She and her hus­band, Bill, both blamed Comey for her de­feat.

He tells me he found it painful even to write about that episode. ‘I still feel sick to my stom­ach about the no­tion we had any im­pact [on the elec­tion], and I se­cretly hope that some day aca­demics will demon­strate we had no im­pact what­so­ever.’

But he con­tin­ues to believe he did the right thing, and stren­u­ously de­nies any po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion – his own wife and daugh­ters were ar­dent Clin­ton sup­port­ers. He had to choose be­tween speak­ing and con­ceal­ing, he ex­plains. ‘One op­tion was bad and the other was ter­ri­ble.’ Had he not re­vealed the re­open­ing of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion after pub­licly clear­ing Clin­ton, and had she been found to have com­mit­ted a crim­i­nal

‘I still feel sick about the no­tion we had any im­pact [on the elec­tion]’

of­fence after win­ning the elec­tion, the con­se­quences for the FBI would have been ‘cat­a­strophic’.

It re­mains to be seen whether an im­mi­nent re­port on the FBI’S han­dling of the email in­ves­ti­ga­tion, from the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, will ex­on­er­ate Comey, but mil­lions of Democrats found it im­pos­si­ble to for­give him – es­pe­cially as the FBI had said noth­ing be­fore the elec­tion about its in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sia’s sus­pected sup­port for the Trump cam­paign. That was be­cause the Clin­ton in­ves­ti­ga­tion had be­come com­mon knowl­edge, Comey writes, whereas the Obama White House – con­fi­dent of a Clin­ton vic­tory – did not want to un­der­mine pub­lic con­fi­dence in the elec­toral process by ac­knowl­edg­ing the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Then Comey tan­gled with Trump. On 6 Jan­uary 2017, two weeks be­fore his in­au­gu­ra­tion, Amer­ica’s in­tel­li­gence chiefs met the pres­i­den­t­elect at Trump Tower in New York to tell him of their unan­i­mous as­sess­ment that Rus­sia had in­ter­fered ex­ten­sively in the elec­tion to in­flu­ence the re­sult.

Comey then briefed Trump one-to-one on a dossier com­piled by a for­mer Bri­tish MI6 of­fi­cer called Christo­pher Steele, which the me­dia had got wind of. Among other things, the dossier al­leged that Moscow had cul­ti­vated Trump for five years, and that in a bizarre sex­ual es­capade dur­ing a visit to the Rus­sian cap­i­tal in 2013 he had paid pros­ti­tutes to uri­nate on a bed in the Ritz-carl­ton’s pres­i­den­tial suite, once used by the Oba­mas.

Comey chuck­les at the mem­ory. ‘It was an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence,’ he re­calls. ‘I re­mem­ber al­most look­ing down on my­self. Some voice in­side me was say­ing, “What are you do­ing? How did we end up here? Are you re­ally brief­ing an in­com­ing pres­i­dent of the United States about this?”’

I ask Comey whether the so-called ‘golden show­ers’ story could pos­si­bly be true. ‘I don’t dis­miss it,’ he replies. He con­sid­ers Steele to be ‘a re­li­able in­di­vid­ual with a proven track record’. He con­tin­ues, ‘If some­one said there was an al­le­ga­tion that Ge­orge W Bush was in a ho­tel in Moscow with pros­ti­tutes pee­ing on each other I would laugh and say that’s im­pos­si­ble, but I can’t say that in this in­stance.’

Comey notes in his book that Trump did not re­act to the claims of Rus­sia’s elec­toral in­ter­fer­ence by ask­ing the ob­vi­ous ques­tion: how should the US re­spond to such an as­sault on its demo­cratic process? He also wonders why – as pres­i­dent – Trump has of­fered ‘con­stant equiv­o­ca­tion and apolo­gies for Vladimir Putin’ in­stead of con­demn­ing his many trans­gres­sions.

Could Trump pos­si­bly have been com­pro­mised and sub­jected to black­mail? Re­mark­ably, Comey does not scoff at the idea. ‘I don’t know,’ he replies. ‘These things are all cu­ri­ous. I can’t say it’s im­pos­si­ble. The same thing about pros­ti­tutes in Moscow. If you asked me that about Barack Obama I would say it’s im­pos­si­ble, but I can’t give you that an­swer [in this case].’

As Comey tells it, Trump then set out to co-opt him, to en­tice him into his in­ner cir­cle and sub­vert the in­de­pen­dence of the FBI and its di­rec­tor. He em­braced Comey at one of his first White House re­cep­tions. He in­vited him to a one-to-one din­ner and de­manded his ‘loy­alty’ – Comey de­clined to give it. On an­other oc­ca­sion, hav­ing ejected ev­ery­one else from the Oval Of­fice, Trump raised the sub­ject of the FBI’S on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Michael Flynn, who had just re­signed as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser over his se­cret con­tacts with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador. ‘I hope you can see your way clear to let­ting this go, to let­ting Flynn go,’ Trump said in an in­ter­ven­tion that could, Comey-- be­lieves, con­sti­tute ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

After each en­counter, Comey im­me­di­ately wrote down the de­tails. He would never have done that with Bush or Obama, he tells me, ‘but the na­ture of this per­son [Trump] put me in a po­si­tion where I never thought I’d be. I was hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with the pres­i­dent of the United States that I be­lieved he might lie about, so I needed to pro­tect my­self and the FBI.’

In March 2017, as the FBI’S Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­gan to en­snare Trump’s cam­paign aides, the pres­i­dent called Comey to ask whether he could ‘lift the cloud’ – pre­sum­ably by shut­ting down the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Trump re­peated the re­quest two weeks later, not­ing that, ‘I have been very loyal to you, very loyal.’

Trump even­tu­ally lost pa­tience. On 9 May he fired Comey, who learnt of his dis­missal when a news­flash ap­peared on a tele­vi­sion screen while he was ad­dress­ing FBI staff in Los An­ge­les. Trump was so fu­ri­ous that An­drew Mc­cabe, the FBI’S deputy di­rec­tor, had let Comey fly back to Wash­ing­ton on an FBI plane that he called Mc­cabe to protest. Mc­cabe’s wife, a Demo­crat, had re­cently lost an elec­tion to the Vir­ginia state leg­is­la­ture. Be­fore ring­ing off, Trump said to Mc­cabe, ‘Ask her how it feels to be a loser.’ Comey still finds that shock­ing. ‘That is the pres­i­dent of the United States,’ he says. ‘Take a deep pause on that one.’

Trump com­pleted what Comey calls a ‘bl­iz­zard of aw­ful be­hav­iour’ by pro­hibit­ing him from en­ter­ing FBI head­quar­ters – even to say good­bye or col­lect his things. ‘It was a ter­ri­ble thing to do.’

Comey did not go qui­etly, how­ever. A sly op­er­a­tor de­spite his pro­fessed dis­dain for Wash­ing­ton’s po­lit­i­cal shenanigan­s, he leaked the fact that Trump had urged him to drop the Flynn in­ves­ti­ga­tion. A furore en­sued. The Jus­tice De­part­ment ap­pointed a spe­cial prose­cu­tor, Robert Mueller, to in­ves­ti­gate Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

I ask Comey if he be­lieves Trump will com­plete his term of of­fice. ‘I don’t know. There’s a range of pos­si­ble out­comes,’ he replies. The most likely is that he will, but the se­cond most likely is that he is im­peached and re­moved from of­fice on the ba­sis of what Mueller dis­cov­ers.

Comey has ab­so­lute con­fi­dence in Mueller, an­other for­mer FBI di­rec­tor. ‘He’s a guy who doesn’t give a rip about pol­i­tics. He just wants to find out the facts and if he’s al­lowed to com­plete his work he will find those facts.’

Trump now rou­tinely de­nounces Comey, the FBI, the Jus­tice De­part­ment and Mueller in his

‘I feel sorry for [the pres­i­dent]. I think he’s a fun­da­men­tally un­happy per­son’

tweets, ev­i­dently seek­ing to dis­credit them by por­tray­ing them as some sort of ‘deep state’ and ac­cus­ing them of con­duct­ing ‘the great­est witch hunt in Amer­i­can his­tory’.

Iob­serve that for an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to wage war on his coun­try’s top law-en­force­ment agency is an as­tound­ing sit­u­a­tion. ‘Cor­rect,’ Comey replies. ‘It’s un­prece­dented, cer­tainly in my mem­ory and study of his­tory, and deeply, deeply re­gret­table, and some­thing the coun­try, no mat­ter what one’s po­lit­i­cal views, should be very, very con­cerned about.’

Can he re­mem­ber the last time the core Amer­i­can val­ues of truth, jus­tice and the rule of law were so threat­ened? ‘Prob­a­bly noth­ing sim­i­lar in my life­time,’ he replies, be­fore in­vok­ing the pres­i­dency of An­drew Jack­son in the 1830s.

He laments Amer­ica’s re­treat from global lead­er­ship, and Trump’s re­shap­ing of the old world or­der ‘not in a thought­ful way’, but care­lessly – as if he had dropped a vase and was try­ing to glue it back to­gether again. He ad­vises Bri­tish min­is­ters seek­ing a post-brexit trade deal with Amer­ica to ap­proach this pres­i­dent ‘with great care’, and of­fers a con­spic­u­ously guarded an­swer when I ask if he be­lieves Rus­sia in­ter­fered with the EU ref­er­en­dum. ‘I don’t know enough to say,’ he replies. ‘What lit­tle I know I can’t talk about any­way, but it was a se­ri­ous con­cern of West­ern in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.’

Comey also ex­co­ri­ates Repub­li­can con­gress­peo­ple for their com­plic­ity in Trump’s de­struc­tive be­hav­iour. ‘There are some so tribal that maybe they don’t even re­alise the dam­age they are do­ing, but oth­ers know bet­ter and are do­ing it any­way be­cause they like their jobs. They have to ask them­selves what they tell their grand-chil­dren. “I did what? So I could stay in of­fice? So the base would not be an­gry with me?” “You did what, ex­actly, Grandpa?”’

He used to be a Repub­li­can him­self, but no longer. ‘The Repub­li­can Party left me,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t re­sem­ble in any way my be­lief in Amer­i­can val­ues and our com­mit­ment to law and truth and our role in the world.’

In his book, Comey ac­cuses Trump of pre­sid­ing over ‘a po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment where ba­sic facts are dis­puted, fun­da­men­tal truth is ques­tioned, ly­ing is nor­malised, and un­eth­i­cal be­hav­iour is ig­nored, ex­cused or re­warded’. But he is scathing not just about Trump the pres­i­dent, but also Trump the man. In the book he por­trays him as deeply in­se­cure, a con­gen­i­tal liar, nar­cis­sis­tic, in­ca­pable of ac­cept­ing crit­i­cism, a bully who thinks noth­ing of caus­ing pain, a man who in­hab­its a ‘co­coon of al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity’ and, cu­ri­ously, never laughs. He com­pares Trump to a mafia boss who in­sists on to­tal con­trol and ab­so­lute loy­alty (Comey knows all about mafia god­fa­thers; he helped pros­e­cute New York’s Gam­bino crime fam­ily ear­lier in his ca­reer).

Is Trump men­tally un­fit to be pres­i­dent, I ask? ‘I think he’s morally un­fit,’ Comey replies, adding, ‘I don’t think he has the ca­pa­bil­ity to be an ef­fec­tive leader in any en­vi­ron­ment be­cause es­sen­tial to be­ing a leader is hav­ing a bal­ance of con­fi­dence and hu­mil­ity that al­lows you to lis­ten and learn and seek the truth.’ Comey misses the FBI. ‘My over­whelm­ing sense is of sad­ness,’ he says. ‘I loved the job be­cause I loved the work. It had moral con­tent, and the peo­ple were flawed like I am but amaz­ing peo­ple.’

But he de­nies that he wrote the book to set­tle scores. He in­sists he wants Trump to suc­ceed as pres­i­dent. ‘I don’t ac­tu­ally hate Don­ald Trump,’ he says. ‘I feel sorry for him on a hu­man level be­cause I think he’s a fun­da­men­tally un­happy per­son. He has a bot­tom­less crav­ing for af­fir­ma­tion, and that’s a pit that can never be filled.’

He re­grets some of the more per­sonal pot­shots in the book – in­clud­ing a de­scrip­tion of Trump’s or­ange com­plex­ion, with ‘bright white half-moons un­der his eyes where I as­sume he placed small tan­ning gog­gles’. Those de­tails ‘be­came a hand­hold for peo­ple who had not read the book and just wanted to crit­i­cise it’, he ex­plains, adding some­what disin­gen­u­ously that he never ex­pected the me­dia to seize on them.

Nor, Comey in­sists, did he write it for the money, though he re­port­edly re­ceived a $2 mil­lion ad­vance. He claims he wrote it be­cause as a Chris­tian he be­lieves it is his duty to re­main in­volved in pub­lic life, and be­cause ‘it is wrong to stand idly by, or worse, stay silent… while a pres­i­dent brazenly seeks to un­der­mine pub­lic con­fi­dence in law-en­force­ment in­sti­tu­tions that we es­tab­lished to keep our lead­ers in check’.

He tells me he wants to wake the ‘sleeping gi­ant’ that is the silent ma­jor­ity of de­cent, mod­er­ate Amer­i­cans. He wants to stop his com­pa­tri­ots from be­com­ing ‘numb’ to what is hap­pen­ing in their coun­try be­cause ‘there’s a dan­ger that norms will be eroded and the next pres­i­dent will think, “I can wake up in the morn­ing and de­clare that cer­tain cit­i­zens should be in jail. I can wake up and lie all day long and won’t be ac­count­able for it, and do all man­ner of things in­com­pat­i­ble with our val­ues.”’

He plans to use his book for a course on eth­i­cal lead­er­ship that he will be teach­ing this au­tumn at the Col­lege of Wil­liam and Mary, his alma mater, though he in­sists he will be giv­ing his stu­dents copies rather than mak­ing them pay for them.

Comey poses af­fa­bly for pho­to­graphs, and then it is time for him to go – he needs to be home for his youngest daugh­ter’s high-school prom night, and is us­ing the free time he now has to im­prove his golf and learn the pi­ano. I like the man. In gen­eral I find his as­ser­tions plau­si­ble, but about one I re­main doubt­ful.

He ends his book on the sort of op­ti­mistic note ex­pected of Amer­ica’s pub­lic fig­ures. He com­pares the Trump pres­i­dency to a for­est fire that causes great dam­age but per­mits vig­or­ous new growth. ‘I al­ready see new life – young peo­ple en­gaged as never be­fore, and the me­dia, courts, aca­demics, non-prof­its, and all other parts of civil so­ci­ety find­ing rea­son to bloom,’ he writes.

A for­est fire, I won­der. Or a vol­cano that erupts and de­stroys every­thing around it for ever?

A Higher Loy­alty: Truth, Lies, and Lead­er­ship is pub­lished by Macmil­lan (£20). James Comey will be speak­ing at an In­tel­li­gence Squared event at the Bar­bican Cen­tre, Lon­don EC2, on 21 June. Tick­ets are avail­able at in­tel­li­gencesquar­ed.com

Comey ad­vises Bri­tish min­is­ters to ap­proach Trump ‘with great care’

Don­ald Trump fired James Comey for re­fus­ing to pledge loy­alty to him. Here, the for­mer di­rec­tor of the FBI re­veals to Mar­tin Fletcher that the Moscow pros­ti­tute ru­mours can­not be dis­missed, why the man he might in­ad­ver­tently have helped into the White House is ‘morally un­fit’ for high of­fice – and how he hopes to rouse Amer­ica’s silent ma­jor­ity against their pres­i­dent.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.