Former FBI director James Comey is a reserved and meticulous lawman who boasted that the bureau was nonpartisan under his watch, saying, “We’re never on anybody’s side, ever.” Donald Trump is a mercurial businessman and reality-TV star who repeatedly makes claims that have no basis in fact, and who values loyalty above all else.
The bizarre relationship between these polar opposites has greatly influenced American politics for nearly a year. During the campaign, Trump’s stance on Comey was wildly inconsistent; he pointed to the director as proof that the system was “rigged” against him, while praising him for any move that hurt his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Once in office, Trump reportedly tried to influence Comey to roll back the Russia probe hanging over his administration. When it became apparent that Comey — who has angered and confounded both Democrats and Republicans at various points — was not interested in doing anything to aid the White House, Trump fired him.
If Trump’s aim was to get rid of “this Russia thing,” as he’s suggested, the move had the opposite effect. Comey’s firing made the Russia scandal even bigger and more serious, leading to the appointment of a special counsel.
Leaks in recent weeks have painted a fuller picture of Comey’s handling of the FBI’s investigations into both candidates, and his deteriorating relationship with the president. As we await Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, his first appearance before Congress since his ouster, here’s a look at the bizarre path that led us here.
The Campaign and the FBI Probes
Trump is far from the only politician who had a complicated stance on Comey’s handling of the probe into Clinton’s private email server, but Trump’s reaction was especially contradictory.
On July 5, 2016, Comey held a press conference to announce his recommendation that Clinton not be charged over her private email server. (Apparently, at that point, the FBI had been investigating Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign’s possible involvement for months, but reports about that probe only emerged in early 2017.)
At a rally that night, Trump said, “Today is the best evidence ever that we’ve seen that our system is absolutely, totally rigged. It’s rigged.” But while suggesting Comey was letting Clinton off the hook for political purposes, he simultaneously cited Comey while attacking her. “He talked about ‘extremely careless.’ She was ‘extremely careless,’” Trump said. “That’s a tremendous word.”
As CNN notes, Trump kept repeating this mixed assessment of Comey’s credibility throughout the campaign. “Hillary Clinton is guilty, of all the things that Director Comey stated at his press conference and congressional hearings, and far more,” he said on October 13. “He stated many things, but it’s far more and he knows that. And yet, after reading all of these items, where she’s so guilty, he let her off the hook.”
Then suddenly, Trump’s position on Comey changed. On October 28, when Comey informed Congress that the FBI was reopening the Clinton probe over the discovery of new emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, Trump proclaimed that Comey had redeemed himself.
“It took a lot of guts,” Trump said. “I really disagreed with him. I was not his fan. But I’ll tell you what, what he did, he brought back his reputation. He’s got to hang tough, because there’s a lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. What he did was the right thing.”
Trump also attacked Democrats for being fickle about Comey:
By November 5, Trump was casting Comey and the FBI as victims of the Clinton machine. “There’s virtually no doubt that FBI Director Comey and the great, great special agents of the FBI will be able to collect more than enough evidence to garner indictments against Hillary Clinton and her inner circle despite her efforts to disparage them and to discredit them,” he said.
When the FBI said two days before the election that there was nothing incriminating in the new batch of emails, Comey went back to being a pro-Clinton conspirator. “Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it, the FBI knows it, the people know it,” Trump said. “She is being protected by a rigged system. It’s a totally rigged system.”
Comey Under the Trump Administration
Days after the election, Trump told 60 Minutes that he hadn’t decided whether he would ask for Comey’s resignation, explaining he’d like to talk to him first. “I haven’t made up my mind,” he said. “I respect him a lot. I respect the FBI a lot.”
President Obama ordered a review of Russia’s election meddling, and on January 6 Comey and three other intelligence chiefs went to Trump Tower to brief the president-elect on their conclusion that Russia conducted an influence campaign in the 2016 election, with the goal of aiding Trump. During the meeting, Comey reportedly presented Trump with a summary of an unverified dossier compiled by a former British spy that described alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. It also asserted that Russia has compromising personal and financial information about Trump.
On January 22, two days after taking office, Trump singled out Comey during an event at the White House, saying, “Oh, and there’s Jim. He’s become more famous than me.”
Last month, Comey’s friend Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, said Comey didn’t want to attend the event, and hoped his blue suit would allow him to blend into the blue curtains behind him and avoid drawing Trump’s attention, though he is six-foot-eight.
“Comey said that as he was walking across the room he was determined that there wasn’t going to be a hug,” Wittes told the New York Times. “It was bad enough there was going to be a handshake. And Comey has long arms so Comey said he pre-emptively reached out for a handshake and grabbed the president’s hand. But Trump pulled him into an embrace and Comey didn’t reciprocate. If you look at the video, it’s one person shaking hands and another hugging.”
Wittes said on Lawfare that Comey was disgusted by the incident and felt Trump was making a physical attempt to compromise him in the eyes of Democrats. He noted that at the time Comey was preoccupied with “training” Trump officials to respect the FBI’s independence.
Then, five days later, Comey was summoned to the White House to have dinner with the president. Two sources told the Times that during the dinner, Trump asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to him, circling back several times after the director demurred. Comey reportedly told Trump he could only promise “honesty.”
But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be “honest loyalty.”
“You will have that,” Mr. Comey told his associates he responded.
The meal took place on Friday, January 27, two days after Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House that the FBI had just interviewed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and the Justice Department had concluded his false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador could open him up to blackmail. Eighteen days later, Flynn was forced out of the administration following reports that he had lied to Vice-President Mike Pence.
Several aspects of the Trump-Comey dinner are in dispute. Trump claims Comey requested the meeting and “wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on,” but several other people said Comey was reluctant to attend. Weeks later, Trump said he didn’t ask Comey for his loyalty, but suggested it would have been completely proper to do so.
“I didn’t, but I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask. I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States is important,” Trump told Fox News. “You know, I mean it depends on how you define loyalty. Number one. Number two, I don’t know how that got there, because I didn’t ask that question.”
Comey reportedly wrote memos describing his interactions with the president and shared them with colleagues. The Times reported that, in one memo, Comey described a February 14 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump asked him to end the FBI’s investigation into Flynn, a day after Flynn resigned.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
… Mr. Comey had been in the Oval Office that day with other senior national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When the meeting ended, Mr. Trump told those present — including Mr. Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — to leave the room except for Mr. Comey.
Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.”
The next day, Comey confronted Sessions and said he didn’t want to be left alone with Trump again, according to a Times report on Tuesday.
Mr. Comey believed Mr. Sessions should protect the F.B.I. from White House influence, the officials said, and pulled him aside after a meeting in February to tell him that private interactions between the F.B.I. director and the president were inappropriate. But Mr. Sessions could not guarantee that the president would not try to talk to Mr. Comey alone again, the officials said.
However, Benjamin Wittes said Comey told him about another unnerving interaction with Trump on March 1:
… he described one incident in particular that had bothered him. Comey was about to get on a helicopter when his phone rang. It was the White House saying that the President wanted to speak with him. Figuring there must be something urgent going on, he delayed his flight to take the call. To his surprise, the President just wanted to chitchat. He was trying to be social, Comey related; there was no agenda, much less an urgent one. Notably, since the President has claimed that Comey told him in two phone conversations that he was not under investigation, Comey said nothing to me about the subject coming up in this call. Indeed, he regarded the call as weird for how substanceless it was. What bothered Comey was twofold — the fact that the conversation happened at all (why was Trump calling him to exchange pleasantries?) and the fact that there was an undercurrent of Trump’s trying to get him to kiss the ring.
Throughout March, Trump and Comey publicly clashed over the president’s unfounded claim that his predecessor wiretapped Trump Tower:
Comey reportedly asked the Justice Department to publicly reject the claim, but top officials said nothing. During his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on March 20, Comey and NSA director Mike Rogers said they found no evidence to support Trump’s assertion.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that in addition to asking two top intelligence officials — Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency — to publicly deny that there was collusion between his campaign and the Russians, the president asked Coats to try to make Comey back off the Flynn investigation.
On March 22, less than a week after being confirmed by the Senate, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats attended a briefing at the White House together with officials from several government agencies. As the briefing was wrapping up, Trump asked everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
The president then started complaining about the FBI investigation and Comey’s handling of it, said officials familiar with the account Coats gave to associates … After the encounter, Coats discussed the conversation with other officials and decided that intervening with Comey as Trump had suggested would be inappropriate, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.
Responding to a May 2 interview in which Hillary Clinton suggested Comey cost her the election, Trump attacked his own FBI director on Twitter:
The next day, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he revealed there was a new batch of Clinton-related emails just days before the election because he felt failing to disclose that information would be even worse. “It makes me mildly nauseous to think we might have had an impact on the election. But, honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision,” he said.
This was reportedly the final straw for Trump. Per the Times:
Mr. Trump burned as he watched, convinced that Mr. Comey was grandstanding. He was particularly irked when Mr. Comey said he was “mildly nauseous” to think that his handling of the email case had influenced the election, which Mr. Trump took to demean his own role in history.
He began talking to aides about firing Comey, and on May 8 he asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to write out the case for his firing.
On May 9, while speaking to FBI agents in Los Angeles, Comey learned from TV reports that he had been fired. The White House released Sessions’s recommendation for Comey’s firing, which was based on a memo from Rosenstein describing Comey’s improper handing of the Clinton email probe.
In a brief letter firing Comey, Trump said, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” Sources close to Comey deny that he ever told Trump he wasn’t under investigation.
Initially, the White House suggested Sessions and Rosenstein came up with the idea of firing Comey on their own, but later in the week Trump himself contradicted that claim.
The next day, Trump reportedly made comments to Russian officials in the Oval Office that suggested Comey was fired over the Russia probe. “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to a summary of the conversation read to the Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
“I was going to fire him regardless of recommendation,” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt. “Look, he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago — it hasn’t recovered from that.”
In the same interview, Trump suggested he fired Comey to get rid of the Russia investigation: “And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”
On May 12, Trump added even more Nixonian flair to the scandal, suggesting that he might have recorded his conversations with Comey in the White House. Days later, sources revealed that Comey had been writing memos on his meetings with Trump all along.
On May 17, several congressional committees requested any tapes or memos related to Trump and Comey’s interactions, and the Senate Intelligence Committee invited the former director to testify.
Later that day, Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Rober Mueller, Comey’s mentor, as special counsel. He’s tasked with looking into “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
What to Expect on Thursday
There’s so much interest in Comey’s testimony that the major networks will break into daytime programming, and bars are holding special screening events. His public remarks before the Senate Intelligence Committee are set to begin at 10 a.m., and he’ll speak to senators in a private afternoon session.
The White House has repeatedly shifted its story on why Comey was fired, and Comey himself has yet to confirm any of the reports about Trump’s efforts to influence him. Questioning is expected to focus on whether Trump actually asked Comey for a loyalty pledge, whether he pressured the director to shut down Russia-related investigations, and whether there’s evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
Sources close to Comey told ABC News that he will dispute Trump’s claim that he told him he wasn’t under investigation on three occasions. However, he’ll stop just short of accusing the president of obstruction of justice — though it’s possible others will draw that conclusion from his memos.
“He is not going to Congress to make accusations about the president’s intent, instead he’s there to share his concerns,” a source said. He’ll also describe “what made him uneasy” and why he wrote the memos.
Another Comey source told Politico that he wants to be careful “to just describe what happened with the president and how he felt about it,” but he wants to “correct the record, from his point of view, on certain things the president and his aides have said.”
Comey has reportedly been in contact with the special counsel, so “Mueller won’t be surprised.”
As for Trump, White House officials are trying to keep him busy on Thursday, but he’s suggested he may live-tweet Comey’s hearing, against their advice. According to the Post, he’s been stewing in recent days:
Glued even more than usual to the cable news shows that blare from the televisions in his private living quarters, or from the 60-inch flat screen he had installed in his cramped study off the Oval Office, he has fumed about “fake news.” Trump has seethed as his agenda has stalled in Congress and the courts. He has chafed against the pleas for caution from his lawyers and political advisers, tweeting whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
In public, Trump has restrained himself this week, at least on the topic of Comey. When reporters asked on Tuesday if he had a message for the former FBI director, he said, “I wish him good luck.”