Last night, George Stephanopoulos landed what will be remembered as one of the bigger interviews of the year when he sat down with James Comey, former director of the FBI, just days before his book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership” – already a bestseller on preorders alone – was set to hit the shelves.
Over the course of about 45 minutes, Comey described in detail his impression of trivial details like whether President Trump’s hair is real (it is), to whether Trump had obstructed justice, to a bizarre request to investigate certain claims made in the Steele dossier so Trump could prove to Melania that they weren’t real.
But Comey’s claims that President Trump is “untethered to the truth” and “morally unfit” for office drew perhaps the most attention. The former FBI director pushed back against the idea that Trump was somehow bumbling or an idiot and insisted that he’s a person of “above average intelligence” who can follow the plot.
However, Comey insisted that whatever had transpired between them, Trump shouldn’t be impeached – because the American people should be responsible for voting him out of office.
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know is the honest answer. That– that was th– what we were trying to investigate at the time. Was anyone aiding the Russians, conspiring with the Russians? There’s no doubt there was smoke around that. Whether there’s fire, I– I didn’t stay long enough to know.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You write that President Trump is unethical, untethered to the truth. Is Donald Trump unfit to be president?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. But not in the way m– I often hear people talk about it. I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia. He strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president. I think he’s morally unfit to be president.
A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds. And that’s not a policy statement. Again, I don’t care what your views are on guns or immigration or taxes.
There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I’ll tell you, I’ll give you a strange answer. I hope not because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.
The subject of whether Trump obstructed justice also occupied a fair amount of time. While Comey didn’t accuse the president outright of obstruction, he didn’t rule it out, insinuating that the president must’ve known he was doing something improper because he asked the attorney general, vice president and several intelligence agency leaders to leave the room.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So he says, “I hope you can let it go.” What do you say?
JAMES COMEY: He had said, “He’s a good guy, I hope you can let it go,” I think those are the exact words. But he said– and I just said, “I agree he’s a good guy,” or I said, “he’s a good guy.” And so then full-stop. And there was a brief pause. And then the meeting was over.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Should you have said more there? Should you have said, “Mr. President, I can’t discuss this with you. You’re doing something improper?”
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. I mean, that– that’s also a fair criticism. Maybe I should have. Although, as I’ve thought about it since, if he didn’t know he was doing something improper, why did he kick out the attorney general and the vice president of the United States and the leaders of the intelligence community? I mean, why am I alone if he’s– doesn’t know the nature of the request?
But it’s possible that in the moment I shoulda– you know, another person would have said, “Sir, you can’t ask me that. That’s a criminal investigation. That could be obstruction of justice.” Again, it’s one of these deals where I’m so– even though I knew something important was going to happen, it didn’t occur to me he was going to ask me to drop a criminal investigation. And so a little bit of it is the shock of it, and part of it is just from the environment I think I had a good gut sense that he knows what he’s doing.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: With that direction, was President Trump obstructing justice?
JAMES COMEY: Possibly. I mean, it’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice. It would depend and– and I’m just a witness in this case, not the investigator or prosecutor, it would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent.
Stephanopoulos pressed harder, asking Comey to explain why he referred to Flynn as a “good guy” during his meeting with the president.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I wonder if you even should have agreed at that point that Flynn is a good guy. By February 14th, did you know that Mike Flynn had lied to the F.B.I.?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So was it a mistake to even agree with the president on that point?
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. I mean, I– I actually– good people do lie, and my sense of Flynn was he was a good guy, that I sat with him and chatted with him when he was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. And so the fact that someone lies doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. But I think mostly it was me trying to get outta the conversation, give him a piece of what he said that’s harmless so that I cannot give him the rest.
Stephanopoulos also asked Comey to explain reports that he told members of Congress that Flynn hadn’t lied during his interview with the FBI.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: There’s been some reporting that– at– at– at one point you told the Congress that the agency who interviewed Mike Flynn didn’t believe that he had lied.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I saw that. And that– I don’t know where that’s coming from. That– unless I’m– I– I– said something that people misunderstood, I don’t remember even intending to say that. So my recollection is I never said that to anybody.
As he first revealed in a leaked excerpt of his book, Comey reiterated that John Kelly had called him intending to resign in protest over Comey’s firing, but that Comey had effectively convinced him to stay. ‘What would he say to Kelly if he offered to resign today?’ Stephanopoulos asked. Comey replied that Kelly has “sacrificed as much as [he] can for the country” and that “no one could blame [him].”
JAMES COMEY: Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that, John. And I knew him well and still– knew– thought highly of him then, still think highly of him, and I said, “Please don’t do that. This president needs people of character and principle around him, especially this president. Please don’t do that.” And I said, “We need you to stay and serve for the country.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If he called you today saying he intended to quit, what would you tell him?
JAMES COMEY: I understand. I– I think you’ve– you’ve sacrificed as much as you really can of yourself for the country. And– no one would begrudge you leaving. You’ve done your absolute best. It’s– it’s come at a cost to you, but– that no one can blame you.
In one of the interview’s more entertaining digressions, Comey describes his initial reaction to the news of his firing, his initial panic at learning he might be stranded in Los Angeles and that he’d briefly considered renting a convertible and driving the 3,000-plus miles back to Washington DC. But once he’d boarded the FBI’s private plane for the ride home, Comey says he “broke the rules” by cracking open a bottle of pinot noir and drinking it out of a paper cup during the flight back.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Also had to find a way to get home.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. It– ’cause I’m no longer F.B.I. director, so how do I get home? I– I actually gave thought to renting a convertible and driving almost 3,000 miles, something I’ve never done. I’ve had friends drive across country, but I’m not single or crazy so I didn’t do it. And I left it to the– who– my deputy, who immediately had become the acting director of the F.B.I., to figure that out.
And the– the head of my security detail, who’s an amazing person, said, “Sir, we’re going to figure this out. But if I have to put you in handcuffs, we’re taking you back on the F.B.I. plane.” And I said, “Well look, I want to do whatever is appropriate under the law and the regulations, so you all figure that out.” And they figured out that they had an obligation to protect me and so they would bring me back on the plane.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re in that private jet basically alone.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What did you do?
JAMES COMEY: I broke F.B.I. rules. I was no longer an employee so I wasn’t breaking the rules. So I took a bottle of red wine out of my suitcase that I was bringing back from California, a California pinot noir, and I drank red wine from a paper coffee cup and just looked out at the lights of the country I love so much as we flew home.
Early in the interview, Comey said what was perhaps the only positive comment made about the president for the entire duration: That the president’s hair is real.
COMEY: He had impressively coiffed hair … it looks to be all his. I confess I stared at it pretty closely and my reaction was ‘it must take a lot of time in the morning.”
The discussion of a certain claim in the Steele dossier that received plenty of attention after the document was leaked to Buzzfeed and CNN was perhaps the most salacious part of the interview (which is, we imagine, why ABC decided to leak that excerpt late last week).
During their discussion of the Steele dossier, Comey describes how Trump insisted the FBI prove that the allegation that he had been filmed by the Russians watching two prostitutes urinate on each other in a Moscow hotel were untrue. Trump said he desperately wanted to be able to prove to his wife that the allegations weren’t real.
JAMES COMEY: He was very defensive and started to launch into– for reasons that I don’t understand, started going into the list of people who had accused him of touching them improperly, sexual assault and how he hadn’t done this, he hadn’t done that, he hadn’t done that.
And I worried the conversation was about to crash, because I was reading that he was reacting like, “We’re investigating you and we’re going to go figure out whether you were with prostitutes in Moscow.” And– and so I said something in substance about how we don’t– it– “We’re not investigating you, sir. This is not something that we’re– we care about, except that you know that this is out there.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you believe his denial?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t– I don’t know. I don’t– the nature of an investigator is you don’t believe or disbelieve. You ask, “What’s my evidence? What is the evidence that establishes me whether someone’s telling me the truth or not. And ask this allegation–” I honestly never thought this words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the– the– current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It’s possible, but I don’t know.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do the Russians have something on Trump?
COMEY: I don’t know – it’s possible.
The interview touched on many other topics – far too many to recount in detail – which could be a problem for Trump. In a summary, Axios.
* * *
On Trump’s intelligence: “I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia. He strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on.”
On investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails: “Of course, at the time, I had no idea that I could make both halves angry at us, but we’ll come to that later. But the deputy director who was a great deputy director and a longtime special agent, looked at me and said, ‘You know you’re totally screwed, right?’ And I smiled. And I said, ‘Yup. Nobody gets out alive.’
On his comment that Clinton exercised “extreme carelessness:” “I wasn’t trying to go easy on her or hard on her. I was trying to be honest and clear with the American people. What she did was really sloppy.”
On Trump’s reluctance to criticize Vladimir Putin: “I can understand the arguments why the president of the United States might not want to criticize the leader of another country…But you would think that in private– talking to the F.B.I. director, whose job it is to thwart Russian attacks, you might acknowledge that this enemy of ours is an enemy of ours. But I never saw. And so I don’t know the reason. I really don’t.”
On possible obstruction of justice: “I woke up in the middle of the night and the thought hit me like a lightening bold, like, ‘Wait a minute. If there are tapes, he will be heard on that tape in the Oval Office asking me to let it go. There is corroboration or could be corroboration for the thing we thought we’ll never be able to corroborate…’Of possible obstruction of justice. Somebody’s gotta go get those tapes.”
* * *
Given its length, it will occupy the news cycle for at least the rest of the week, giving Robert Mueller some cover before he drops his next bombshell, ensuring that the ongoing information campaign against the president continues uninterrupted until the next wave of indictments come down.