In his first interview since being fired by President Trump, James Comey offered his account of how we went from the FBI investigating Hillary Clinton’s private email server to the Bureau’s former director declaring the current president “morally unfit” for the office on national TV.
Tidbits from Comey’s forthcoming book A Higher Loyalty have been trickling out for days, but there were still plenty of wild revelations in Sunday night’s 20/20, from Comey comparing Trump to a Mob boss to saying it’s “possible” that the Russians have compromising information on him.
As the one-hour interview aired on TV, ABC News released a transcript of Comey’s full five-hour sit-down with George Stephanopoulos. Pour yourself a tall “James Comey” (red wine served in paper coffee cup), and take a look all the moments Trump will be fuming about in tomorrow’s tweets.
Comey Thinks Trump Is ‘Morally Unfit’ for the Presidency
Comey doesn’t subscribe to arguments that Trump is mentally or medically unfit to be president. “He strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on,” he said. However, that doesn’t mean he thinks he’s fit to hold the office.
JAMES COMEY: I think he’s morally unfit to be president. A person who sees moral equivalence 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. And that’s not a policy statement. Again, I don’t care what your views are on guns or immigration or taxes.
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. He is morally unfit to be president. … Values matter. This president does not reflect the values of this country.
Comey Is Against Impeachment
He said that while he wants to see Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continue and “whatever flows from that,” he’d prefer that Americans remove their “unfit” president at the voting booth. “As a citizen, I think we owe it to each other to get off the couch and think about what unites us,” he said.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If you are right, what is the remedy? Should Donald Trump be impeached?
JAMES COMEY: … 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.
Comey Didn’t Vote in 2016, But His Family Was Pro-Clinton
In a clip that’s certain to get significant play on the right (which is already racing to discredit him), Comey revealed that his family members strongly opposed Trump during the 2016 election. Comey said he opted not to vote because, “I’m the director of the FBI. I’m trying to be outside of politics so intentionally tried not to follow it a lot.”
JAMES COMEY: Oh yeah. And– and the– the– I didn’t take a poll among all the kids, but I’m pretty sure that at least my four daughters, probably all five of my kids, wanted Hillary Clinton to be the first woman president. I know my amazing spouse did. My – my wife and girls marched in the women’s march the day after President Trump’s inauguration. There was a lotta passion in this house for Hillary Clinton. And I– I get that. But again, I hope it illustrates to people that I really wasn’t making decisions based on political fortunes.
Comey Has Regrets About His Clinton Press Conference
He said he felt investigating Clinton was a “no-win situation” for the FBI, so he accepted that at least one side of the partisan divide would be angry at the Bureau. During the interview Comey repeatedly defended his decision to hold a press conference in July 2016 announcing that the FBI would not recommend charges related to her private email server. However, he said he regrets phrasing his statement in a way that made it sound like he was accusing her of a crime, while letting her off the hook.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you also would not use the words, “extreme carelessness” today?
JAMES COMEY: No. I’d find some – I don’t know what it would be, sitting here. Find some other way to convey, ‘cause I wanted to be honest and transparent. This wasn’t your ordinary bureaucrat who just mishandles one document. This was something more than that. But not something that anybody would prosecute.
And – and that’s one of the things about the criticism that drives me crazy. Nobody who has done counterespionage work would think this is a case that’s been prosecute – would be prosecuted, ever. And so I needed to find a way to both convey that and to capture that it was more than just ordinary carelessness.
Comey Doesn’t Regret Announcing the Reopening of the Clinton Probe
He said that even if he knew announcing the reopening of the Clinton investigation would hand Trump the election, he would still do it. Comey reasoned that the news would eventually get out, and the suggestion that he concealed information for political purposes would mean the “death of the FBI as an independent force in American life.” He conceded that the widespread assumption that Clinton was going to win played a role:
JAMES COMEY: It must have been. I don’t remember consciously thinking about that, but it must have been. ‘Cause I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. And so I’m sure that it– that it was a factor. Like I said, I don’t remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That – that she’s going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she’ll be illegitimate the moment she’s elected, the moment this comes out.
Comey Felt He Couldn’t Disclose the Russia Probe During the Campaign
Comey denied that there was a double standard in the decision to update voters on every step of the Clinton probe, but conceal the beginnings of the Trump-Russia investigation. He said the Clinton probe was already public knowledge, but revealing the Russia investigation — which at that point was about a handful of Trump associates, not the candidate himself — would have compromised it.
JAMES COMEY: … actually [it] was not a hard question about whether to talk publicly about the fact that we’d opened in– counterintelligence investigations on a small number of Americans because it was far too early. We didn’t know what we had, and we didn’t want to tip them off that we were looking at them.
So consistent with our policy– again, very different than the Hillary Clinton case, which began with a public referral. Everybody knew we were looking at her emails. So when we confirmed it three months later, there’s no jeopardy at all to the investigation.
This was very different. We did not want these Americans to know that we had reason to believe they might be working with the Russians ‘cause we gotta run this down and investigate it. So actually what was debated was a different and harder question which is what should we tell the American people about the fact that the Russians are messing with our election?
Comey Sized Up Trump’s Hand Size and Tanning Habits
Comey described Trump as shorter than expected, with “average-sized” hands, and odd coloring, presumably from tanning.
JAMES COMEY: He had– impressively coifed hair, it looks to be all his. I confess, I stared at it pretty closely and my reaction was, “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. And otherwise looked as I had expected him to look from tele– as I thought he looked on television.
Team Trump Didn’t Seem Concerned About Russia’s Election Meddling
Comey said he when he and other members of the intelligence community went to Trump Tower in January 2017 to brief the transition team about Russia’s activities during the election, they instantly focused on damage control.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You also said you were struck by what they didn’t ask?
JAMES COMEY: Very much. No one, to my recollection, asked, “So what– what’s coming next from the Russians?” You’re about to lead a country that has an adversary attacking it and I don’t remember any questions about, “So what are they going to do next, how might we stop it? What’s the future look like? Because we’ll be custodians of the security of this country.” There was none of that. It was all, “What can we say about what they did and how it affects the election that we just had.”
Trump Was Defensive About the Russian Hooker Story From the Start
Comey said he was left alone to brief President-elect Trump about the allegations in the Steele dossier, and when they got to his alleged activities with prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow in 2013, Trump interrupted to say, “Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?”
JAMES COMEY: He was very defensive and started to launch into . – for reasons that I don’t understand, started going into the list of people who had accused him of touching them improperly, sexual assault and how he hadn’t done this, he hadn’t done that, he hadn’t done that.
Comey said he didn’t get into the details about “people peeing on each other,” and assured Trump, “We’re not investigating you, sir. This is not something that we’re — we care about, except that you know that this is out there.” Now he doesn’t know if he believes Trump’s denial.
I honestly never thought this words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the – 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.
Trump Didn’t Actually Kiss Comey
Comey said that when Trump moved toward him during a White House reception he thought, How could he think this is a good idea? That he’s going to try to hug me, the guy that a whole lot of people think, although that’s not true, but think I tried to get him elected president and did. Isn’t he master of television, this is disastrous.
He said he was determined not to let Trump hug him, but that backfired.
JAMES COMEY: Our arms are tense and he gets just far enough that I get something worse than a hug. Because he’s just able to lean up to put his face by my right ear – unfortunately, the cameras were on the left side of my face. And so the whole world saw him kiss me. And he didn’t kiss me, he said, “I really look forward to working with you. But the whole world, including my beloved family, saw the president of the United States kiss the man who helped get him elected.”
Trump Delivered Long, Lie-Filled Monologues
Comey noted that in private, as in public, Trump is prone to delivering monologues that include obviously false statements. This is how he described the conversation during the infamous “loyalty” dinner in January 2017:
JAMES COMEY: It was him talking almost the entire time, which I’ve discovered is something he frequently does. And so it would be monologue in this direction, monologue in that direction, monologue in a different direction. And a constant series of assertions that – about the inauguration crowd, about how great my inauguration speech was, about all the free media – earned media, I think was his term, that I got during the campaign.
On and on and on and on. Everyone agrees, everyone agrees, I did this, the – I never assaulted these women, I never made fun of a reporter. And – I’m sure you’re wondering what question did I ask that would prompt those? None, zero. I didn’t ask any questions that I recall.
Trump Brought Up the “Pee Tape” Unprompted
Comey said that during the same dinner, Trump brought up the alleged golden shower tape.
JAMES COMEY: He brings it up and says he may want me to investigate it to prove that it didn’t happen. And then he says – something that distracted me. ‘Cause he said, you know, “If there’s even a 1 percent chance my wife thinks that’s true, that’s terrible.”
And I – and I remember thinking, “How could your wife think there’s a 1 percent chance you were with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow?” I’m a flawed human being, but there is literally zero chance that my wife would think that was true. So what kind of marriage to what kind of man does your wife think there’s only a 99 percent chance you didn’t do that?
And the reason I’m recounting this is I remember – I wasn’t listening to him, ‘cause I’m running this through my head, like, how could that possibly be true? And I said to him, “Sir–” when he started talking about it, “I may order you to investigate that,” I said, “Sir, that’s up to you. But you’d want to be careful about that, because it might create a narrative that we’re investigating you personally. And second, it’s very difficult to prove something didn’t happen.”
Comey Isn’t Sure If Trump Obstructed Justice
Comey has claimed that Trump suggested he drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, by saying, “He’s a good guy, I hope you can let it go.” In the interview, Comey conceded that rather than answering “I agree he’s a good guy,” he should have told Trump his request was improper — though he’s still not sure if it constitutes obstruction of justice.
JAMES COMEY: Possibly. I mean, it’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice. It would depend and– and I’m just a witness in this case, not the investigator or prosecutor, it would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent.
Comey Repeatedly Compared Trump to a Mob Boss
He said several interactions with Trump and his staffers brought him back to his days investigating the Mafia.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How strange is it for you to sit here and compare the president to a mob boss?
JAMES COMEY: Very strange. And I don’t do it lightly. I – and I’m not trying to that, 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 – 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?”
Comey Had a Drink After Trump Fired Him
After learning he was fired from TV reports while speaking at the FBI field office in Los Angeles, Comey had to find his way back to D.C. He briefly considered an option that would have made the story even crazier: renting a convertible and driving across the country. Eventually he wound up taking one last ride on the FBI’s private jet, and drinking solo.
JAMES COMEY: I broke F.B.I. rules. I was no longer an employee so I wasn’t breaking the rules. So I took a bottle of red wine out of my suitcase that I was bringing back from California, a California pinot noir, and I drank red wine from a paper coffee cup and just looked out at the lights of the country I love so much as we flew home.
And then I – as – we got close to the airport in Washington, I asked the pilots could I sit up with them, ‘cause I’d never done it. Been all over the world with these pilots and sat in the passenger’s seat. Hundreds of flights, I’d never sat up there and watched them do their work. So they put the headphones on me and I sat on a jump seat between the two pilots and watched them land along the Potomac. And– and then we shook hands with tears in our eyes and then I left and get driven home.
Comey Doesn’t Rule Out the Russians Having Something on Trump
Comey said he initially though Trump was “crazy” to fire him while he was leading the Russia probe. Then Trump told Russian diplomats that Comey was a “nut job” and admitted he was thinking of the investigation when he made the call. Comey said that made him think, the pretense is melting away, though he’s still not sure what to make of Trump’s relationship with Russia.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump?
JAMES COMEY: I think it’s possible. I don’t know. These are more words I never thought I’d utter about a president of the United States, but it’s possible.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s stunning. You can’t say for certain that the president of the United States is not compromised by the Russians?
JAMES COMEY: It is stunning and I wish I wasn’t saying it, but it’s just – it’s the truth. I cannot say that. 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.