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‘The Capitol riot was our Chernobyl’: James Comey on Trump, the ‘pee tape’ and Clinton’s emails

David Smith in Washington
·13-min read

As an investigator turned author, James Comey has developed a forensic eye for detail. The colour of the curtains in the Oval Office. The length of Donald Trump’s tie. Something about the US president that the camera often misses.

“Donald Trump conveys a menace, a meanness in private that is not evident in most public views of him,” says Comey, a former director of the FBI, from his home in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC.

That menace came flooding out to engulf the US on 6 January when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in Washington. Five people, including a police officer, were killed in the mayhem. Comey, whose unorthodox interventions in the 2016 election are blamed by many liberals for putting Trump in the White House, watched in horror.

“I was sickened to watch an attack on the literal and symbolic heart of our democracy, and, as a law enforcement person, I was angered. I am mystified and angry that Capitol Hill wasn’t defended. It’s a hill! If you wanted to defend it, you could defend it, and for some reason it was not defended. I think that’s a 9/11-size failure and we’re going to need a 9/11-type commission to understand it so that we don’t repeat it.”

If he were still at work in the FBI’s brutalist building on Pennsylvania Avenue, Comey would be at the heart of the hunt for the domestic terrorists. He misses the job. Aged 60, a father of five and grandfather of one, he has spent the pandemic learning yoga, training to become a foster parent again and preparing for a teaching job at Columbia University in New York.

Comey has also written another memoir, Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency and Trust, a slender sequel to his 2018 bestseller, A Higher Loyalty. It includes anecdotes from his law enforcement career, tangling with the New York mafia and others, and quotations from William Shakespeare and Trump (who reported to Comey that “Putin told me: ‘We have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world’”). It acknowledges the flawed history of his beloved FBI while defending the nobility of its purpose; he calls for it to strip the name of the former director J Edgar Hoover from its headquarters and rename it in honour of the civil rights hero John Lewis.

Donald Trump and James Comey in the Oval Office two days after the president’s inauguration
‘I bent in small ways that I convinced myself were tactical’ ... Donald Trump and Comey, then the FBI director, in the Oval Office two days after the president’s inauguration in January 2017. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

But there is no escaping the 2016 election and the explosive investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, at her home in New York, while she was secretary of state. “I didn’t want to put it in the book and I ended up having to because my editors convinced me,” he says. “How do you talk about transparency and all these things without at least touching it?”

Driven by transparency, Comey broke protocol during the campaign by publicly opining that, although she would not be prosecuted, Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information. Then, just 11 days before the election, he notified Congress that the FBI was reviewing more Clinton emails.

Comey is sure the news would have leaked anyway. Clinton blames him for her shock defeat; he maintains that an FBI director’s decisions cannot be guided by their preference for president. “I’m sure that strikes people as stubborn and righteous and all kinds of stuff, but I don’t think so. Between bad and terrible, we chose bad in a way that we had to.” (The “terrible” option would have been to stay silent, which would have seemed like a cover-up, especially considering the justice department was already compromised as a result of an impromptu meeting between Bill Clinton and the attorney general.)

But, looking back, was he truthful and transparent to a fault? Did Trump’s baseless rants about bias in the FBI and the deep state prompt Comey to overcorrect in a way that he would not have done if Clinton’s opponent had been a conventional candidate such as Jeb Bush?

“Maybe. But I’m not sure what you do about that,” he says. “It is totally legitimate to think about what the American people will think about this decision or that decision.”

Last year, A Higher Loyalty was turned into a TV drama, The Comey Rule, with Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson cast supremely as Comey and Trump respectively. Among the most wrenching scenes were those in which Comey faced his wife, Patrice (Jennifer Ehle), before, during and after decisions that could tilt the election away from the woman who would be the first female president and towards a man who boasted about grabbing women by the genitals.

Hillary Clinton? I’m sorry for her pain. I remember reading that she said I shivved her

“She knew that I was in agony about the whole thing and I couldn’t talk to her about a lot of it,” he says. “I would tend to tell her things just before they went public so she would be prepared it was going to be on the news.

“Her strongest reaction was in October, first: ‘Why does it have to be you? You’re going to get slaughtered for this. Oh my God, I wish it weren’t you.’ Then, second: ‘It’s too close, it’s too close to the election.’ That was a worry both about me and that I might do something to help Donald Trump. She really wanted a woman to be elected president.”

The mood in the Comey household was “sombre” on the morning after Trump’s victory, but, after Comey explained his actions, his wife and daughters understood, he says. Liberal Twitter, however, has been less forgiving.

When he posted a photo last year showing him wearing a T-shirt that said “Elect more women”, the former Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill tweeted: “A lot of us tried. You fucked it up. But the tee shirt definitely makes up for it.” Tom D’Angora, a producer, director and activist, added: “Every horrifying thing Trump has done to this world started with you Comey! YOU have blood on your hands.”

He has grown a thick skin. “I’ve learned to push that out. I can’t open that window, because you get overwhelmed with bile, so I don’t ever read comments on Twitter, but I have to open it enough in case there’s something thoughtful that shows me I missed something. What am I going to do? It doesn’t change my life. I’m not a public person and I don’t want to run for office. I’ve never been to a Washington DC party. It doesn’t affect me.”

Comey and Clinton have never met. If they did, what would he say? “I think I would tell her that I’m sorry for her pain. I remember reading that she said I shivved [stabbed] her. I’m sick of talking about it, but if she wanted to, I would try to have her understand why we made the decisions we made.”

James Comey at a Senate intelligence committee hearing in June 2017, shortly after he was fired
‘The “pee tape” stuff is more likely than it was when I was fired’ ... Comey at a Senate intelligence committee hearing in June 2017, shortly after he was fired. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

In fact, Comey was overseeing not one but two investigations – the other was into mysterious contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia. This included a dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer, that contained the salacious – and unverified – allegation that the Russian government has a video of Trump watching sex workers urinate on each other in a Moscow hotel room in 2013.

“It came to us in late September. We had information since the summer with which it was consistent and I didn’t know what to make of it, but, because it was from a source who had a track record with the FBI, our team dove into it to see if they could replicate it. I still don’t know. I actually think the Senate intelligence committee report, coupled with [former Trump lawyer] Michael Cohen’s account in his book, probably makes the ‘pee tape’ stuff more likely than it was when I was fired.”

Eventually, Comey had to inform Trump of the allegations, which was “nerve-racking” and “almost an out-of-body experience”. He went on to endure several excruciating months as FBI director, witnessing up close the 45th president’s corrosive disregard for institutions, the intelligence community and the rule of law. One night, Comey faced a test of his loyalty to Trump in the form of a private White House dinner of salad, shrimp scampi, chicken parmesan with pasta and vanilla ice-cream.

“So, I’m thinking, sitting at the table, I have to protect the FBI, I have to protect myself, I have to avoid a war with the president of the United States and I’ve got to remember every word he says, because he may commit a crime in my presence. You’re trying to do all four of those things and eat and he never stops talking, so it’s one of those sweat-through-your-suit moments – not that it’s warm in the room.

The Republican party needs to be burned down ... It’s just not a healthy political organisation

“There’s so many things going on in your head at the same time that it’s exhausting. The 90 minutes or so just flew by and then I’m out of there trying to remember what he said so I could write it down right away.”

Such encounters gave Comey – who was fired in May 2017 – cause to reflect on why so many collaborators, enablers and enforcers have bowed to Trump’s will and embraced his alternative reality, defending the indefensible and proclaiming that two plus two equals five if the president has decreed it so.

“He rarely stops talking in a way that not only is filled with constant lying, but draws those to whom he’s speaking into an involuntary circle of assent. He has this way of lying and saying: ‘Everybody agrees and of course we all agree,’ and a wave of lies hits you.

“But it’s more complicated than that, because the person speaking is in some sense an object of reverence in the American civic religion: he’s sitting in the Oval Office and he’s the president of the United States, so you want to believe him and respect him.

“I think it’s something about that combination that makes him uniquely able to bend people – and he has bent lot of people. It’s a really hard thing to resist. I bent in small ways that I convinced myself were tactical. I gave silence in response to a request for loyalty and I said: ‘I’ll be honest,’ and then when I got ‘honest loyalty’ I agreed to that to get out of that conversation.”

Rioters storm the US Capitol on 6 January, after being encouraged by Donald Trump to march on the building
‘The ugly radioactive violence and racism of America’ ... rioters storm the US Capitol on 6 January, after being encouraged by Trump to march on the building. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Trump tends to attract people who lack a solid moral framework, Comey says. “They tell themselves stories like: ‘I’ve got to deal with this to protect the country; because I’m so important to the nation, I’ll make these compromises.’ And then he’s eaten your soul, it’s too late, and then you’re the attorney general of the United States marching across Lafayette Square thick with choking pepper smoke after protesters have been cleared so the man can hold the Bible up. That’s where you end up.”

The constant appeasement of Trump as he crossed every line and trashed every norm reaped its whirlwind on 6 January with the mob attack on the US Capitol.

Comey offers an arresting metaphor: the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union. The US has always had a “radioactive stew” of violence, he suggests, but in recent decades it has been largely kept inside a containment building (the law) and tamed by control rods (cultural expectations, such as use of the N-word becoming taboo).

“What Donald Trump has done for the last five years is attack the building from the outside to weaken its foundation,” says Comey. “He’s withdrawn the control rods, and that’s a recipe for a nuclear disaster, a radioactive release. That’s what you saw on Capitol Hill, our own Chernobyl, when the ugly radioactive violence and racism of America explodes in public view.”

Comey was a Republican for most of his life, but now describes himself as an independent. He acknowledges that the party’s decay started well before Trump, with partisan bomb throwers such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. But Trump is the first president to have been impeached twice, this time for inciting an insurrection against the US government.

Let local prosecutors in New York pursue Trump for the fraudster he was before he took office

“The Republican party needs to be burned down or changed,” Comey says. “Something is shifting and I’m hoping it’s the fault breaking apart, a break between the Trumpists and those people who want to try and build a responsible conservative party, because everybody should know that we need one. Who would want to be part of an organisation that at its core is built on lies and racism and know-nothingism? It’s just not a healthy political organisation.”

The purge could be accelerated if Trump were to face criminal prosecution after he left office. Comey believes that a case at state level, pursuing allegations of bank and insurance fraud by Trump’s businesses in New York, would be a less divisive way to bring him to justice than a blockbuster trial in federal courts.

“At the end of the day, I still come down in the place that the best interests of the country would not be served by giving him that Donald Trump daily drama in our nation’s capital for three years as part of the United States versus Trump. That would give him the oxygen and the attention that he so craves and make it so much harder for a new president to heal the country both spiritually and physically, and to get some people out of the fog of lies that they’re trapped in.

“I just think, on balance, the country is better served by impeaching him, convicting him in the Senate and letting local prosecutors in New York pursue him for the fraudster he was before he took office. That mixture accommodates the important public interest of the rule of law being asserted, but doesn’t do it in a way that makes it impossible for a new president to move the country on.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Comey’s longtime nemesis will be exiting the White House in disgrace and defeat. It follows an election in which people voted in record numbers despite the pandemic, officials (including Republicans) ensured a fair count, courts (including Trump-appointed judges) threw out preposterous lawsuits and, hours after the mob’s failed putsch, Congress voted to certify Joe Biden’s victory.

US democracy had a near-death experience, but survived. “I’m deeply optimistic,” Comey says. “America is a wonderful, complicated, screwed-up country, but it’s always getting better. It usually gets worse before it gets better, but the better succeeds, so we make progress. I am optimistic this will be the inflection point that we so desperately needed. I wish it weren’t so, but this, I think, is going to awaken Americans to the things that matter.”

Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency and Trust by James Comey is published by Macmillan (£20). To order a copy for £17.40, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.