Interview with James Comey 'What Am I Doing? How Did I End Up Here?'
In a DER SPIEGEL interview, former FBI Director James Comey discusses how U.S. President Donald Trump resembles a mafia boss, the dangers of egocentrism and why impeachment would let the American people off the hook.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Comey, let's jump right into this.
Comey: Yeah. Hit me. Hit me.
DER SPIEGEL: You have written a book about leadership, and while U.S. President Donald Trump is certainly not the only focus, you do spend quite a bit of time discussing him. Then, in your interview with ABC, you said Trump was "morally unfit" to be president. Why?
Comey: The way I'd sum it up is: Anyone who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who speaks about and treats women like pieces of meat and who lies constantly about things big and small, and then insists that America believe it, in my view, is not morally fit to be president. And one of the reasons I say it that way is because of all the stuff we heard following the publication of "Fire and Fury," about whether he is medically fit. I don't buy that. I never saw any indication of that.
DER SPIEGEL: Almost exactly a year has passed since Trump fired you from your position as director of the FBI. What was that like?
Comey: It was surreal in a way. I had been touring the L.A. field office, and there was a group of employees gathered in a big room that had three TVs on the back wall. I was speaking to them and saying what I would typically say about the values of the FBI and our mission - and I got distracted because on the TVs in the back, it said: "Comey resigns." There are a lot of funny people at the FBI, so I thought it was a joke. I turned to my staff off to the side and said: "That took a lot of work." I continued speaking and then the TVs changed to "Comey fired." It was a bizarre experience.
DER SPIEGEL: Is your book a way of getting revenge on Trump?
Comey: I'm really not interested in getting revenge by virtue of what I am doing. I would actually rather not be doing this, but my thinking was I can be useful, especially now. This is something that I really have an obligation to do, and that's why I'm doing it.
DER SPIEGEL: The president has called you a "slimeball," a "liar" and a "leaker." He has also suggested that you be jailed. What is your reaction?
Comey: One is a shrug. The second is: We can't all simply shrug at this. It's not normal in this country for the president of the United States to say that a private person should be in jail. That's not consistent with American values. It's really important that Americans not become numb to it and accept it as normal behavior. We have to realize that this is not the way our leaders behave. It's not consistent with our values.
DER SPIEGEL: You also attack Trump personally in your book, writing that he looks shorter than expected with a "slightly orange" face and "bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles." You even point out that his hands are smaller than your own. With such passages, are you not undermining your own arguments about morals and decency?
Comey: I don't think they're attacks. I didn't intend them as attacks and I really don't think they can reasonably be thought of as attacks. I've never been an author before, and my editors would say to me: Bring the reader with you. Show the reader what's inside your head. Let them be in the room with you. In the room, that's what I was struck by, that his face looked orange and he had white circles under his eyes and his hair was very impressive. And I'm not looking to make fun of his hand size, but I remembered in the moment that there had been this business about hand size - and I remember thinking as I went to shake his hand: How big is it?
DER SPIEGEL: You really didn't think he would strike back if you wrote about his hand size?
Comey: (Grinning) The thought never entered my mind.
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DER SPIEGEL: Your first meeting with Trump was in early January 2017 when you informed him together with the heads of the NSA and the CIA of Russia's meddling in the presidential election. You write that the meeting in the Trump Tower in New York reminded you of a meeting with a mob boss. Where did that comparison come from?
Comey: I know the mob very well from my work here in New York (Eds. Note: Comey was an assistant U.S. attorney in New York in the early 1990s) and when the president-elect and his team shifted immediately to political spin with us still at the table, this image popped into my head. It felt like the effort of a boss to bring everybody into the family. I pushed it away because I thought it was too dramatic, but in my encounters thereafter, it kept coming back into my head.
DER SPIEGEL: Isn't the comparison of Trump to a mafia boss a bit overwrought?
Comey: I'm not trying to suggest Donald Trump is out breaking legs or firebombing stores or hijacking trucks. I'm trying to compare it to a leadership style where loyalty to the boss is everything, where there are no external reference points. Most leaders - all ethical leaders - have some external reference points that they look to when making decisions, whether it be philosophy, religion, logic, tradition or history. But with a boss like the ones I've dealt with over the years, it's about the boss. What can you do for me? How are you serving me? And I was struck by the comparison of that leadership culture to his leadership culture. That's what I mean by the comparison.
DER SPIEGEL: For Trump it's all about Trump?
Comey: I was struck that the only reference point seems to be internal. What will be good for me? What will bring me the affirmation that I need?
DER SPIEGEL: You write that Trump tried to turn you into a kind of accomplice from the very beginning. At a meeting in the White House, he even seemed to try to kiss you on the cheek.
FBI Director James Comey shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House on Jan. 22, 2017.
Comey: The alleged kiss - and there was no kiss, by the way - was excruciating. It's a scene that, in my mind, plays in slow motion because I was trying very much to avoid appearing to be close to the president of the United States. Since Watergate, the U.S. has developed a tradition that the FBI stays at a distance from the president. One of the abuses of Watergate was that J. Edgar Hoover (Eds. Note: Hoover was director of the FBI at the time) was too close to presidents.
DER SPIEGEL: On that day, Trump was receiving U.S. security officials to thank them for their work during his inauguration. Initially, you didn't want to attend.
Comey: I was very, very keen to maintain that distance. I was trying to hide, as you probably know, literally in a blue curtain. After the Trump-Clinton campaign (Eds. Note: the reference here is to the scandal surrounding the FBI's role in the Hillary Clinton email affair), I was very concerned about the appearance that I was somehow one of his people. When the president summoned me forward, I walked across that room determined not to let him hug me. I resisted the hug, but he tried to pull me down and then whispered in my ear: "I really look forward to working with you." The problem was that the cameras were on the other side, and so the whole world, my children too, saw a kiss. The optics of that were very concerning to me.
DER SPIEGEL: Then came your famous one-on-one dinner with Trump, during which he famously asked you to pledge loyalty to him. Why didn't you just tell him that the question was inappropriate?
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Comey: That's a really good question. Probably because I'm not as strong as I should be. Probably because I was surprised, stunned by the request, and it's difficult to describe being at dinner alone with the president of the United States. I don't know how many people would say: "Mr. President, you shouldn't be saying that." In a way, I did so because I met his first request with silence. Then, even though it was hard to get a word in, I spoke about the importance of the distance between the president and the Justice Department and the FBI. Despite that, he came back and asked again.
DER SPIEGEL: Ultimately, you settled for "honest loyalty."
Comey: Right. He said again that he needs loyalty, and I said: "I'll always be honest with you. You'll always have honesty." He replied by saying: "That's what I want. Honest loyalty." I accepted that as a way of getting out of a very awkward conversation, but also because I think I had made clear how he should understand "honest loyalty."
DER SPIEGEL: Back to your first visit with Trump on Jan. 6, 2017. You had to tell him about the dossier compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele. Included in the dossier is a claim that Trump was in a Moscow hotel room with prostitutes. What exactly did you tell him?
Comey: My goal was to put him on notice, to alert him that this material was out there. I wasn't saying that I believed it, but we thought it was our obligation as the intelligence community to let him know. I didn't go into all the details. I did talk about prostitutes in Russia, but I didn't think it was necessary to go into the other parts of it - that people call the "golden showers" thing. I was deeply uncomfortable with the whole thing. I was actually floating above myself looking down thinking: "What am I doing? How did I end up here?"
DER SPIEGEL: You didn't tell him that the dossier claimed that the prostitutes had urinated on each other?
Comey: No, I did not.
DER SPIEGEL: How did he react?
Comey: Defensively. And he interrupted me very quickly and then began talking about accusations that women had made against him. He then asked me, I assumed rhetorically, whether he looked like a guy who needed the service of hookers. The conversation, in my judgment, was starting to spin out of control. It was at that moment that I told him for the first time that we weren't investigating him personally. I just needed him to know this because the press was likely to report on it soon. One of our jobs at the FBI is to protect the presidency, and if someone was trying to blackmail him, one of the ways we deal with it is to make sure the person knows the FBI knows.
DER SPIEGEL: Did Trump understand the seriousness of the situation?
Comey: I think so, yeah, because he then later called me to talk about it again. I think he got it.
DER SPIEGEL: On the one hand, you're supposed to protect the president. On the other, you had an ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the elections, which involved people close to Trump. Isn't that a fundamental conflict?
Comey: Well, it can be. There's a natural tension between the FBI's obligation to protect the government and its obligation to investigate parts of the government. But I think it's a conflict that can be navigated.
DER SPIEGEL: What was your view of the veracity of the Steele dossier?
Comey: I didn't know at the time. It came from a reliable source who had an established source network in Russia. And I knew that one of the central assertions of this collection of materials was true, namely that the Russians were engaged in a massive effort to influence the American election. People talk all the time about how the Steele dossier was unconfirmed. That part, in our experience, was confirmed. The rest of it, the details and the salacious things, I didn't know. An effort was underway when I was fired to try to evaluate it in a deeper way, but I don't know where that finished.
DER SPIEGEL: At the center of this whole thing is the question, currently under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as to whether part of the Trump campaign actually colluded with Russia. Did it happen?
Comey: One of the duties of the special counsel is to investigate exactly that. There was certainly a basis for the investigation. As you now know, because it's public, the FBI had information that a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor had been in touch with a Russian representative about obtaining emails damaging to Hillary Clinton. I don't know what the ultimate conclusion will be, but I do know that if Mueller is allowed to do his work, he'll find the truth.
DER SPIEGEL: Was Trump attempting to obstruct justice when he asked you to suspend the investigation into Michael Flynn, his security adviser for a short time, and by then firing you?
- Part 1: 'What Am I Doing? How Did I End Up Here?'
- Part 2: 'The Danger Is that Donald Trump Lies So Often'