James Comey just broke tomorrow’s biggest story, today. The opening statement he plans to deliver at Thursday’s blockbuster Senate Intelligence Committee hearing is now online. Here are seven quick takeaways from the former FBI director’s tell-all:
1) Comey corroborates virtually everything that’s been reported about his relationship with Trump.
Comey confirms that Trump asked for his personal loyalty, encouraged him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, and demanded that the FBI publicly announce that he was not under investigation.
The FBI director also validates reports that he asked Jeff Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump.
In many places, Comey’s account aligns nearly verbatim with previous reporting. To take one example: Comey confirms that Trump told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” (Perhaps, a defense attorney could make some hay out of Trump phrasing his request as an expression of hope, rather than as a flat-out command).
2) The president was very clear that he did not want an FBI director who was loyal to the country, but rather, to him, personally.
At a dinner that sounds twice as awkward as your worst Tinder experience, Comey promised the president his unwavering honesty — but stipulated that he would not be Trump’s “reliable” political ally.
Unfortunately, the president wasn’t looking for honesty and integrity in the head of federal law enforcement, so much as unconditional, personal loyalty. Comey’s account of the meal is worth reading in full:
He had called me at lunchtime that day and invited me to dinner that night, saying he was going to invite my whole family, but decided to have just me this time, with the whole family coming the next time. It was unclear from the conversation who else would be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others.
It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.
The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.
My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.
It did not take Trump long to validate those instincts.
I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President.A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.
Nevertheless, Trump persisted.
Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things 4 about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.
This is big. The White House has denied that Trump ever asked Comey for his personal loyalty, insisting that “the president wants loyalty to this country and to the rule of law.”
3) The FBI director does not believe that Trump directly asked him to drop the investigation into links between Russia and his campaign.
Here’s Comey’s account of Trump’s infamous interference in the investigation of Michael Flynn:
When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” Flynn had resigned the previous day. The President began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify.
… He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”
I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.
Comey’s testimony suggests that Trump has contempt for the concept of the FBI’s independence from the White House – which is to say, for the rule of law. It also suggests that he may well be guilty of obstruction of justice, in trying to derail the investigation into his former national security adviser. But Comey takes care to note that Trump never formally asked him to drop all inquiries into the behavior of his campaign’s associates.
In fact, in a call on March 30, Comey records Trump expressing some comfort with the idea of the feds cracking down on the Carter Pages of the world.
The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.
4) Trump was telling the truth — Comey really did assure him, three times, that he was not personally under FBI investigation.
Many federal law-enforcement experts treated Trump’s claim with incredulity. But Comey vouches for the truth of the president’s statement.
Trump and the GOP are celebrating this as “vindication.”
This may be the best spin they’ve got. But it’s still quite poor. For one thing, it treats the former FBI director’s account as credible – a concession that Trump’s defenders will presumably want to resist, given the portrait Comey paints of the president. For another, Comey’s testimony suggests that the FBI never ruled out the possibility that the alleged crimes it was investigating went all the way to the top:
(I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.)
5) Other members of the FBI’s leadership can verify Comey’s account.
Comey was always going to have more credibility in any “he said, he said” dispute with Donald J. Trump. Still, those who wished to cast doubt on early reports of Comey’s memos could point to the FBI director’s long silence: If Trump really asked him to pledge – and then demonstrate – loyalty to him instead of the law, then why didn’t Comey sound the alarm.
But in his testimony, Comey claims that he immediately reported Trump’s behavior to FBI leadership, and then offers his rational for not disseminating word of the president’s actions more widely.
I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership…The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the President’s request, which we did not intend to abide. We also concluded that, given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account. We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.)The Deputy Attorney General’s role was then filled in an acting capacity by a United States Attorney, who would also not be long in the role.
After discussing the matter, we decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed. The investigation moved ahead at full speed, with none of the investigative team members – or the Department of Justice lawyers supporting them – aware of the President’s request
6) Comey does not sound impressed with the Justice Department’s handling of this whole thing.
On a phone call in March, Trump complained that the Russia investigation was casting a “cloud” over his administration,” and asked what the FBI could do to “lift it.” This is the closest Trump comes to asking for the investigation to be dropped. But in the context of the broader conversation, the president appears to primarily want someone in the Justice Department to publicly clear his name. Afterwards, Comey turns to the DOJ for guidance and gets none.
Immediately after that conversation, I called Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente (AG Sessions had bythen recused himself on all Russia-related matters), to report the substance of the call from the President, and said I would await his guidance. I did not hear back from him before the President called me again two weeks later.
In a separate moment, Comey communicated his concerns about being left alone with Trump to Jeff Sessions. The former FBI director once again notes a DOJ official’s unresponsiveness.
I spoke with Attorney General Sessions in person to pass along the President’s concerns about leaks. I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.
7) Trump really wanted James Comey to know that there is no “pee tape.”
8) Comey knew, early on, that his relationship with Trump would be fundamentally different than the one he had with Barack Obama.
Comey first met Trump in early January, to brief the then-president-elect on the infamous Christopher Steele dossier. The FBI director does not impute any specific, off-putting words or deeds to Trump in his account of their first meeting. Nonetheless, he immediately knew that this was a different kind of president:
I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past. I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) – once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone.
9) The president has either seen too many mafia movies … or worked with too many mobsters.
Comey ends his tale with this ominous exchange from April 11:
On the morning of April 11, the President called me and asked what I had done about his request that I “get out” that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that “the cloud” was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. He said that perhaps he would have his people reach out to the Acting Deputy Attorney General. I said that was the way his request should be handled. I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel.
He said he would do that and added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” I did not reply or ask him what he meant by “that thing.” I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended.
That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.