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James Comey To 'Fresh Air': The FBI Isn't 'On Anybody's Side'

James Comey served director of the FBI from Sept. 4, 2013, until his dismissal on May 9, 2017.
Elias Williams for NPR
James Comey served director of the FBI from Sept. 4, 2013, until his dismissal on May 9, 2017.

It's been almost a year since since James Comey first learned that President Trump had fired him. The former FBI director was in Los Angeles visiting the field office for a diversity event when a ticker announcing his ouster scrolled across the bottom of a TV screen.

"I thought it was a scam," Comey says. "I went back to talking to the people who were gathered in front of me."

But it was true. Comey later told the Senate intelligence committee that he believed he had been fired for leading the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the election and potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. But Trump gave conflicting reasons for the dismissal — including the claim that Comey had mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server that she used as secretary of state.

Now Comey shares his story in his new memoir, A Higher Loyalty. In it, he explains his handling of the Clinton investigation and sounds the alarm about the Trump presidency. He also defends the FBI against charges of partisanship.

"People love the FBI when they think it's on their side," Comey says. But, he adds, "We were not — and are not — on anybody's side. ... That is not how we looked at the world and not how the FBI looks at the world today."

Hear the full Fresh Air interview with James Comey at the audio link above, and read on for highlights.

Interview Highlights

On his first awkward public encounter with Trump on Jan. 22, 2017

I was really keen not to be in a picture with the president or have him attempt to hug. ... He called me across the room. ... The walk across the room probably took me five strides. It seemed like a half hour and my wife ... seeing that ... she said, "That's Jim's 'Oh s***' face."

I'm walking forward and I'm just thinking, "There's no way I'm hugging this guy. That is not going to happen." So I reach out my hand to keep it in front of me to make it a handshake, and he grabs my hand and he pulls in and down. He's going for the hug. So I thought I'm going to resist this; unless he's a lot stronger than he appears, he's not going to be able to get me to hug him. And so I tighten my whole core, and I stiffened up and he didn't get the hug.

He couldn't pull me in close enough, but I actually got something worse. He pulled me down as far as he could and then he put his lips by my right ear, which obscured them from the camera. What he said was, "I really look forward to working with you." But of course the whole world, including my wife and children, saw Donald Trump kiss me. There was no kiss, but that's what it looked like. Far worse than a hug.

On his claim that President Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty during a private dinner on Jan. 27, 2017

He looked at me and said just that, "I need loyalty. I expect loyalty." And I just looked at him and I didn't blink and I didn't move. ... I was stunned by what he was asking and didn't want to give him any indication of ascent.

Again, I'm the director of the FBI. That's an organization that is in the executive branch but must always be, in a way, apart from the executive branch, because we have to investigate executive branch officials. We often have to investigate a White House, and so the distance is at the core of the FBI's credibility, and here's the president asking me for personal loyalty. And so I just stared at him and he stared at me. It seemed like forever. It was probably two seconds, and then he looked back down at his food and the conversation moved on.

But he surely noticed that I hadn't answered or even moved, because he came back to it near the end of the conversation. ... He came back to loyalty again and said, "I need loyalty." And I paused and I said, "I will always be honest with you," and he said after a pause, "That's what I want. Honest loyalty."

And I paused, desperately looking for a way to get out of this incredibly awkward conversation. I said, "You'll get that from me," knowing what I meant and believing that, given the conversation that had happened since we started the meal, he understood what I meant by that. And then we were out of that particular part of the conversation.

On his decision to hold a press conference to announce the end of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails on July 5, 2016

It is absolutely the normal practice that when we complete a criminal investigation the Justice Department finishes and there is no statement at all. Sometimes there's a statement that we're finished. Sometimes just the person being investigated is notified privately, sometimes nothing is said at all.

But there are occasions, and this has been a long tradition of the department, where the Department of Justice's policies acknowledge that the public interest demands more than that. I was making this statement in an effort to demonstrate to the American people that we had done a competent, honest and independent investigation and there was no "there" there. ... I believe that without transparency and some level of detail that the credibility of the conclusion would be undermined and accomplishing the goal of showing the American people, "Look, we did this in a fair and independent way," would be we'd fall short of that goal if we weren't honest about what we found in characterizing it. Again, that happens very, very rarely, but it happens when it has to.

On his decision to notify Congress that the FBI was reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails 11 days before the 2016 presidential election

The Clinton email investigation was a series of no-win decisions where people were going to be mad at you no matter what you did. That was true in July when I thought that the matter was over, and boy, it was sure true in late October.

The Clinton email investigation was a series of no-win decisions where people were going to be mad at you no matter what you did. That was true in July when I thought that the matter was over, and boy, it was sure true in late October.

Here's how I thought about it: The FBI and the Department of Justice had told Congress and the American people repeatedly since early July that this investigation was done well and it's over: "You can rely on that. Move on. There's nothing to see here."

Now we were restarting it in not some frivolous way, but in a hugely significant way. We're talking hundreds of thousands of emails and maybe the emails from the first three months [of Clinton's term as secretary of state], the result could change here. And so what do you do?

Despite what folks may have heard, there actually aren't any rules about how you conduct yourself in the runup to an election. I keep hearing stuff about a 30-day rule or a 60-day rule; that's nonsense. But even though there aren't any rules, there's a really important norm that I've lived my entire career in the Department of Justice under and still believe in: that if you can avoid action, you avoid action that might have an impact on the election.

But as I sat there on the 27th and 28th of October, I couldn't find a door that said "no action," I could only see two actions:

I could speak. I could tell Congress what we had discovered — that would be terrible. It might have an impact on the election. Speaking would be really bad.

How would concealing be? And all of us kept coming to the same conclusion: Concealing would be catastrophic for the institutions of justice. It would undermine confidence and faith in these institutions, maybe forever, certainly for a generation.

So as between "really bad" (speaking) and "catastrophic" (concealing), we've got to go with the really bad option.

On why the FBI didn't make public before the 2016 election that it was investigating Russia's interference in the election and possible ties with the Trump campaign

We don't confirm the existence of an investigation until there are important public interest reasons to do so and the investigation itself will not be jeopardized. Russia was engaged in an extensive effort to interfere in our election, that the intelligence committee got onto beginning in June of 2016. Separately, in late July, the FBI got information that there may be Americans associated on the periphery and associated with the Trump campaign who may be — although we don't know this — helping the Russians or in some way conspiring with the Russians. And so we, the FBI, in late July, opened counterintelligence investigations to try to figure out whether that might be true, as to four different Americans — not President Trump, not his entire campaign.

So there was a discussion throughout the summer and into the fall in the Obama administration as to what to tell the American people about the broader Russia effort. There was actually never serious consideration given by anybody inside the Justice Department about disclosing that we had brand new criminal counterintelligence investigations on American citizens for a couple of reasons. First, we didn't know what we had. It was just beginning. The last thing we want to do is tip off people that we're looking at them. And what exactly would we say in the months after that investigation? We've opened counterintelligence investigations of people who are not the candidate but they somehow may be connected, we just don't know?

It didn't meet the bar for disclosing [an] active investigation until the following spring. The Justice Department confirmed the investigation, then, only in a general way. So our treatment of the two actually illustrates our consistent policy.

Separately, it's a really good question as to whether the Obama administration should've said more about the broader Russian effort. I offered to be the voice of inoculation to the American people in August. I drafted an op-ed to say, "Hey, the Russians are coming for our election. Here's what we think they're doing. It's part of a broad pattern. ... American people be warned." The administration never took me up on that and didn't get around to making a decision about disclosing the broader Russian effort until October.

On President Trump's recent tweet suggesting that Comey should be in jail

Think about how far the erosion of our norms has come in just a year that that's not shocking to people. Because he's threatened to jail — and order the Department of Justice to jail — lots of others before me. And the good news is, it's noise. And those institutions follow the facts and the law and the facts here are clear: He's just making stuff up.

It is not OK for the president of the United States to say that a private citizen should be in jail.

But it's a sign of the danger from this forest fire. We can't become numb to that, and we have to point it out when it happens and not say, "Oh, that's just another one of those," because it is not normal. It is not OK for the president of the United States to say that a private citizen should be in jail. I happen to be that private citizen, so it actually does not bug me much, it doesn't freak me out, but the fact that it doesn't is a sign of the way our norms have changed.

On why he's speaking out now

I think [my role is] to remind people that there's something in this country that we actually all have in common. As ferocious as our disputes can be about guns or about taxes or about immigration, we share a set of values. Really that's all America is, is a collection of ideas, and that people ought to look above their fights about policy and realize this presidency threatens something very fundamental that is above partisanship.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Dana Farrington adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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