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Ex-FBI Chief Comey Reflects On Circumstances Surrounding His Firing

Apr 17, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 7:05 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former FBI Director James Comey knows some people think he swung the 2016 election. He spoke in public more than once about an investigation of Hillary Clinton. If Comey's acts made a difference, it dismayed some people very close to him. That was clear as Comey spoke with me and with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: You've written that your wife and your daughters were Hillary Clinton supporters, and in fact, some of them marched the day after the inauguration. What was election night like in your house?

JAMES COMEY: I don't think we talked about it because my wife knew that I was trying to push away politics. She will say it was kind of bizarre that her husband was trying not to follow the political race.

INSKEEP: You didn't have the television on or the radio? You weren't...

COMEY: I think the television was on. I actually think - my family was in Connecticut, but we didn't talk about a lot because I knew how passionate she was about wanting the first female president, wanting it to be Hillary Clinton. And so it was nothing good for our marriage about talking about the decisions I'd had to make.

JOHNSON: So what did you think when you watched TV?

COMEY: I was surprised that Donald Trump was elected president.

JOHNSON: Did you think maybe the FBI had something to do with that?

COMEY: I hope not. And I still feel that way. I read people arguing that we did, and I sure hope not. It doesn't change how I think about the decision. It makes it all the more painful.

INSKEEP: Comey wrote of his choices in his book, "A Higher Loyalty." It's become a major moment to review the FBI director's role before the election and after. He details a series of uncomfortable private meetings with President Trump.

COMEY: His first request for loyalty stunned me, and so all I thought to do is just not move, not even blink.

INSKEEP: In one meeting in February 2017, Trump asked me to let go his former national security adviser. Comey didn't, and the adviser, Michael Flynn, later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Comey writes that his goal was to maintain the FBI's independence.

Mr. Comey, I want to ask a little more about some of your meetings with President Trump. After you were fired, of course, you testified before Congress about them. And some of the commentary about your testimony said, Comey has just laid out the case for obstruction of justice. In your book, you describe the meetings again but then offer your own judgment, which is that this may not amount to obstruction of justice. Why did you go there?

COMEY: Because I don't know the answer. And I don't think - I hope I didn't testify publicly that it was obstruction of justice.

INSKEEP: You didn't say obstruction of justice. People just felt you were laying out the evidence for it.

COMEY: Oh, I see.

INSKEEP: But you look at that same evidence and don't see obstruction.

COMEY: Well, because I can't see all of it. And it could be obstruction of justice. It would depend upon what the full scope of the evidence is with respect to intent because obstruction of justice requires a demonstration of corrupt intent. And I'm just a witness when it comes to that particular incident, the February 14 incident, and so I don't know what the evidence is that the prosecutor and investigators have gathered with respect to intent.

INSKEEP: Comey says he tried to keep his distance from a president whose campaign was under investigation. Then the president fired Comey, and Trump publicly referred to the Russia investigation when explaining that firing. Today, Comey sees his old agency under pressure. His deputy, Andrew McCabe, was recently fired amid fierce public criticism by the president. The case is complicated, though. An inspector general found McCabe broke FBI policy for dealings with the media and failed to speak about it with candor.

Is it appropriate, then, that he was fired?

COMEY: That's a judgment I can't make. What it is appropriate is that the inspector general did the kind of investigation that that organization did. This is what an organization, an institution committed to the truth, looks like. The problem with this whole situation is the president stained those institutions, the entire Department of Justice and the inspector general by doing something wildly inappropriate, which is calling for Andy McCabe's head.

JOHNSON: I got a question for you. Over the last few days of your book tour, people - some people have argued that you've been stained by your interactions with the president. They don't understand why you engaged in some name-calling of the president and making fun of his appearance and the like in your book. And to them, that makes some of the more high-minded points you are trying to convey in the book less powerful.

COMEY: Yeah, they should read the book because I'm not making fun of the president. I'm trying to be an author, which I've never been before in my life. But while I'm typing, I can hear my editor's voice ringing in my head - bring the reader with you; show them inside your head; bring them with you.

INSKEEP: Describe the president's hands - can you hear the editor saying that?

COMEY: No, but that was on my mind. And by the way, not that this matters, but I found his hands to be above average in size. And so I'm not making fun of the man. I'm trying to tell the reader what's in my head.

INSKEEP: Why have you focused in some of your comments on what you view as the moral fitness of the president to be president?

COMEY: Because I'm very worried that - and one of the ways I hope to be useful is having people realize that there's something above our normal fights. We fight like crazy in this country about guns, and about social issues, and taxes and immigration. And that's as it should be, and it's always been that way. But there's something we all have in common, which is a core set of values that is us as America - right? - freedom of expression, freedom of religion, rule of law, equal protection of the laws, the truth. So there's a thing, a set of values that's above our normal fights. And what I'm worried about with this president is, he threatens those. And if we lose those, if those norms are degraded, those values are degraded, what are we, exactly?

President Trump tweeted - I don't follow him on Twitter, but I get to see his tweets - tweeted - I don't how many, but some tweets this past couple days about me - that I should be in jail, right? The president of the United States just said that a private citizen should be jailed. And I think the reaction of most of us was, eh, that's another one of those things. This is not normal. This is not OK. There's a danger that we will become numb to it and we will stop noticing the threats to our norms, the threats to the rule of law and the threats, most of all, to the truth.

INSKEEP: That's former FBI Director James Comey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.