If you didn’t catch the interview former FBI Director James Comey gave George Stephanopoulos last night, don’t blame ABC. The network did a pretty good job teasing the interview, which Comey did as PR for the book he’s publishing this week, and we heard most of the juicy bits in the days before it aired. However, this was the first time we heard the man who in many ways is perhaps the most central figure of the Trump presidency speak candidly about the events surrounding the election, the Russia investigation, and Trump’s first few months in office.
Among other things, Comey said the President was a liar who was possibly guilty of obstruction of justice and possibly being blackmailed by the Russian government. He compared Trump to a mob boss and said he was “morally unfit” to serve. As promised, we got some pee tape stuff, which was pure gold, along with a succinct and measured breakdown of the Steele dossier. Comey also said enough about the Clinton email investigation (sorry, but I have to talk about it) to fill out Sean Hannity’s calendar for the month. Things were looking pretty bleak there for Sean. And even though Trump didn’t come out smelling great, it wasn’t entirely bad for him, and we can expect the interview will breed some positive right-wing spin.
After all, Comey said he didn’t want Trump to be impeached. More on that below, though.
Sadly, the interview wasn’t very well put together. ABC cut it at a manic pace, and it felt like the Comey interview was a commercial for the Comey interview—a string of intriguing sound bites that the actual interview, whenever it began, would expand upon. But we never really got there.
(For you curious folks, the reason the edit seems so rushed is that ABC had to cut a five-hour interview down to an hour. The full, fascinating transcript is available here.)
But although Comey did dish on Trump, he didn’t drop the bombs that many of the anti-Trump crowd are sure he’s got in his pocket. But we should remember that Comey’s candor is constrained by the Mueller investigation: He’ll inevitably get called as a key witness to Trump’s doltish conspiracy to obstruct justice, which continues undaunted, so Comey can’t say anything that would compromise the investigation or his role in it. But the interview didn’t offer much depth and insight, which is a shame because one thing the interview did make clear is that Comey is a thoughtful, insightful person, and that should be obvious no matter your opinions on his many controversial choices. Like all of us, Comey is “deeply flawed,” as he put it, and he seemed to have a genuine and open interest in exploring the morality of his decisions, his failings, and the limits of his honesty.
This is about as honest as Washington gets. Here are the most significant moments from a fascinating interview.
Yep, Comey delivered the goods.
I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current President of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It’s possible, but I don’t know.
Why it’s important:
First, but definitely least, it’s funny. But it’s amazing that the former FBI Director—the guy who investigated the claim that the current President of the United States has been captured on video watching hookers pee on a bed for his enjoyment—can’t rule out the possibility that this happened. Hell, even Melania couldn’t rule it out. Trump reportedly asked Comey to investigate the dossier (more on that in a bit) because he needed prove to Melania that it didn’t happen. That’s the kind of guy Trump is.
According to Comey, Trump’s defense against the dossier’s allegations was, “Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?”
But is any of this actually important? Very much so. Comey was speaking in the context of a question about whether the Russians might have compromising material on Trump. That is, whether the President is vulnerable to blackmail by our number one geopolitical adversary. That’s a big deal, and Trump’s words, actions, and inactions regarding Russia make pretty clear that there’s something going on there. But there’s even more we can take away from the pee tape stuff…
The Russians could and likely do have all sorts of blackmail on Trump, stuff that goes way beyond the pee tape. This is most obviously in the form of shady business deals, money laundering, and other financial crimes. But Comey, when asked about blackmail, didn’t mention any of those. He went straight to video. Why?
First, Comey is clearly trolling Trump. A+. But also, Comey probably didn’t say anything about those other things because he can’t say anything to compromise Mueller’s investigation. And it wasn’t just this answer, either: Comey didn’t bring up Trump’s financial deals at any point in the interview. It’s a pretty glaring omission, and Mueller likely has loads of proof about Trump’s financial crimes. We might infer something’s coming.
First, let’s remember the Steele dossier isn’t a thing that can be true or false. It’s called “raw intelligence,” information gleaned from sources and sometimes sources of sources, which means some of it is guaranteed to be inaccurate. Steele qualifies every claim by citing the sources he got that information from. He never makes claims of truth. In the interview, Comey gave a great breakdown about the dossier’s role and value in the beginning of the investigation.
Q: “You first were briefed on the Steele dossier in August of 2015. What did you make of it?”
Comey: “That it, at its core, was consistent with the other information we’d gathered during the intelligence investigation…”
Why it’s important:
Comey is reminding us that the dossier didn’t start the investigation. Rather, it echoed information the FBI already had about Trump-Russia, namely that a Trump adviser had blabbed months earlier about meeting with a Russian who offered Clinton’s emails. To quote Comey again, emphasis mine: “The reason that was important was that it was long before there was any public indication that the Russians had material they were going to dump, which they started dumping in mid-June.”
Comey explained there were three claims at what he called “the core” of the dossier: 1. to “dirty up the American democracy”; 2. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to tank Hillary Clinton’s campaign because he “personally hated” her; and 3. “to help Donald Trump become elected president.” He said, “we already knew [those allegations were] true from totally separate information.”
Comey also offered insight about the dossier’s author, former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele:
Well, certainly the source was credible. There’s no doubt that he had a network of sources and sub-sources in a position to report on these kinds of things. But we tend to approach these things with a bit of a blank slate, trying to figure out, “So what can we replicate?” This guy, who’s credible, says these things are true. Okay. That means we should try and replicate that work to see if we can develop the same sources.”
Surprise: The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates stuff. It’s not the Federal Bureau of Belief.
With all that said, Comey did toss Trump a bone. When asked directly whether he thinks Trump has been compromised by the Russian government, Comey said, “It always struck me and still strikes me as unlikely, and I woulda been able to say with high confidence about any other president I dealt with, but I can’t. It’s possible.”
I can already see the tweet: “UNLIKELY!”
Comey never quite came out and admitted he swung the presidency for Trump when, one week before the election, Comey went public with the information that the FBI had discovered more Clinton emails on another computer server. Comey has caught a lot of shit for this, and deservedly so. He told ABC that his book invites the reader to “Come with me to October 28th. Tell me what you would do.”
Why it’s important:
Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done. Comey was in a hard spot. The FBI’s New York field office had this evidence on Clinton, and if she’d won the election and word got out that Comey had sat on it, it would have looked as if Comey had rigged the election for Clinton. I understand this dilemma.
But when Stephanopoulos pushed Comey about why he hadn’t also revealed the FBI’s investigation into Trump, Comey made a distinction: “We were not investigating Donald Trump.” As we know now, the FBI was indeed investigating people close to Trump, but they weren’t investigating Trump himself. (At the time.) The FBI was, however, investigating Clinton. Comey’s point is that we should consider that the two investigations, at the time, were of a different magnitude, and are a false parallel. I concede that there is a logical distinction here, but I don’t know if I can buy that this distinction matters enough to merit separate standards.
Stephanopoulos pointed out that I’m not alone: “You look at previous attorney generals for President Bush, for President Ford, for President Obama, Justice Department officials for President Clinton; they all disagree with you. They say this crossed a line.” Then the money question:
STEPHANOPOULOS: If you knew that letter would elect Donald Trump, you’d still send it?
COMEY: I would. I would… because [if I didn’t, then] down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If I ever start considering whose political fortunes will be affected by a decision, we’re done. We’re no longer that group in America that is apart from the partisans, and that can be trusted. We’re just another player in the tribal battle.
It’s your call whether he succeeded here or betrayed his own standards.
Comey spent probably more time discussing Clinton’s emails than he’d have liked to. This was another dilemma for him, and Loretta Lynch didn’t make it easier. Comey was damned both ways, or as he put it, “Nobody gets out alive.” But, he added, “that’s kind of freeing.”
In response, Stephanopoulos was direct: “Can you tell me the Obama justice department was not protecting Hillary Clinton?” Comey said they weren’t. He did say that he got uneasy when Lynch, a Clinton ally who was at the time Attorney General, inserted herself into the investigation. When she advised Comey to call the Clinton investigation a “matter” instead of an “investigation” Comey said he knew he had to step away from her. He eventually announced the conclusion of the FBI investigation without first informing her because he’d judged her involvement would harm the investigation. That in itself is pretty surprising.
But to those people who believe Clinton’s exoneration was a foregone conclusion, Comey said, “Anybody who’s done investigations knows that if you’ve been investigating someone for a year and don’t know where it’s going, you should be fired.”
Trump Reminded Comey of a Mob Boss
Comey spent years prosecuting the mafia, and said the Trump circle gave him flashbacks to that time. This, Comey said, was because of how Trump organized his circle of friends: “There’s an expression in the Mafia, a distinction between a friend of yours and a friend of ours… And I think the reason it was coming into my head was I felt this effort to make us all… and maybe this wasn’t their intention, but it’s the way it felt to me, to make us all ‘amica nostra.’
He added, and I will quote him at length:
“I’m not trying to, by the way, 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… the loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant center of everything, it’s all about how do you serve the boss, what’s in the boss’ interests. It’s the family, the family, the family, the family. That’s why it reminds me so much and not, “So what’s the right thing for the country and what are the values of the institutions that we’re dealing with?” It’s all about here.
This passage is especially meaningful when compared to how Comey describes the Trump team’s reaction when Comey told them Russia had interfered with the election on Trump’s behalf: They didn’t worry about Russia. They worried about spin.
Ah yes. The collusion. Or the NO COLLUSION!, depending whom you ask. Comey cleared a few things up here.
We hear the word “collusion” all the time. “Collusion” is not a word that’s familiar to me from my work. The question is, is anybody conspiring or aiding and abetting, helping, the Russians accomplish their goal of interfering in the American election? That’s what the counterintelligence investigation was about.
Why it’s important:
Collusion isn’t the question. It’s a made-up term. The crimes, as Comey points out, are things such as conspiracy against the United States (which Paul Manafort has already been charged with) or aiding and abetting. Given what we know now, and what was obvious during the campaign, it’s tough to see anyone on Team Trump escaping an aiding and abetting charge.
This isn’t much of a surprise. I hate Trump, and everyone I respect hates Trump. But Comey went into surprising detail. He took shots at Trump’s vanity, describing Trump’s appearance his first in-person meeting: his hair “appeared to be all his… It most take a heck of a lot of time in the morning, but it’s impressively coifed. He looked— his tie was too long, as it always is. He looked slightly orange up close with small white—half moons under his eyes, which I assume are from tanning googles.” Comey even sized up Trump’s hands: as I shook his hand I made a note to check the size and it seemed like he had average-sized hands.
Comey also pointed out “that I’ve never seen [Trump] laugh. Not in public, not in private.” This is a sharp observation, and when I think about it, I’m not sure whether I’ve seen Trump laugh for any reason than laughing at somebody else’s foolishness or misfortune. No happy laughter for the man.
Comey Won’t Say Whether He Thinks Trump Is Guilty
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone on either side of this thing: Comey will be a witness to any obstruction of justice charges brought against the president, and so obviously he wouldn’t want to say anything publicly that will hamstring him if and when called to testify. He went as far as to say Trump is “possibly” guilty of obstruction of justice.
But he did offer some insight when he said, “It’s crazy to fire me. I’m leading the investigation of Russian influence and particularly whether anyone in the Trump orbit had coordinated and conspired with the Russians. That makes no sense at all. And the reasons they’ve given make no sense at all, are clearly a pretense.”
So yeah, Comey thinks Trump is guilty.
This isn’t because Comey doesn’t think there’s a strong case for impeachment. And it’s not because he thinks Trump is intellectually or psychologically incapacitated, or is going through dementia, a view I happen to share with Comey. Comey said he’s observed that Trump “strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president.”
He added, “I think he’s morally unfit to be president.”
He elaborated on this point:
“A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly and insists the American people believe it—that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds… There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that.
Again, that’s no smack-ya-mama shock, but Comey is forceful, forthright, and eloquent. But even in light of that criticism, when asked whether he believed Trump should be impeached, Comey said no.
I’ll give you a strange answer. I hope not because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.
We’ll fight about guns. We’ll fight about taxes. We’ll fight about all those other things down the road. But you cannot have, as President of the United States, someone who does not reflect the values that I believe Republicans treasure and Democrats treasure and Independents treasure. That is the core of this country. That’s our foundation. And so impeachment, in a way, would short circuit that.
That sounds noble. But Mr. Comey, I’d point out you’re presenting a false choice: Our duty to vote our values isn’t dependent on whether Donald Trump is still President. That attitude is what got us here in the first place.
That and the whole email thing.