In his new book, fired FBI Director James Comey details his “disturbing” talks with President Donald Trump and concludes that this presidency is “a forest fire” that must be contained.
The nation’s intelligence chiefs had just finished briefing Donald Trump on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election when FBI Director James Comey stayed behind to discuss some especially sensitive material: a “widely circulated” intelligence dossier contained unconfirmed allegations that Russians had filmed Trump interacting with prostitutes in Moscow in 2013.
The president-elect quickly interrupted the FBI director. According to Comey’s account in a new memoir, Trump “strongly denied the allegations, asking — rhetorically, I assumed — whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorized their allegations.”
The January 2017 conversation at Trump Tower in Manhattan “teetered toward disaster” — until “I pulled the tool from my bag: ‘We are not investigating you, sir.’ That seemed to quiet him,” Comey writes.
Trump did not stay quiet for long. Comey describes Trump as having been obsessed with the prostitutes portion of the infamous dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, raising it at least four times with the FBI head. The document claimed that Trump had watched the prostitutes urinate on themselves in the same Moscow suite that President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stayed in previously “as a way of soiling the bed,” Comey writes.
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Trump offered varying explanations to convince Comey it was not true. “I’m a germaphobe,” Trump told him in a follow-up call on Jan. 11, 2017, according to Comey’s account. “There’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me. No way.” Later, the president asked what could be done to “lift the cloud” because it was so painful for first lady Melania Trump.
On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey, leading to the Justice Department special counsel’s Russia investigation.
The discussions about the Steele dossier — which Comey recounts for the first time in his book — are among a number of revelations in “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership,” a 304-page tell-all book in which the former FBI director details his private interactions with Trump and his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
The book is scheduled to be released Tuesday. It will be heavily scrutinized by the president’s legal team, looking for any inconsistencies between it and his public testimony, under oath, before Congress. They will be looking to impeach Comey’s credibility as a key witness in the special-counsel investigation, which the president has cast as a politically motivated witch hunt.
Trump, for his part, has assailed Comey as a “showboat” and a “liar.”
In his memoir, Comey paints a portrait of a president who built “a cocoon of alternative reality that he was busily wrapping around all of us.” Comey describes Trump as a congenital liar and unethical leader, devoid of human emotion and driven by ego.
Comey narrates in vivid detail, based on his contemporaneous notes, instances in which Trump violated the norms protecting the FBI’s independence in attempts to coerce Comey into being loyal to him, such as during a one-on-one dinner in the White House residence.
Interacting with Trump, Comey writes, gave him “flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
The result, in Comey’s telling, is “the forest fire that is the Trump presidency.”
“What is happening now is not normal,” he writes. “It is not fake news. It is not okay.”
‘Letting Flynn go’
Comey describes a Feb. 14, 2017, meeting in the Oval Office where Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to clear the room so he could bring up the FBI investigation of former national-security adviser Michael Flynn directly with Comey, a key event in special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation of whether Trump sought to obstruct justice.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to Comey’s account of the meeting, some of which he first shared in Senate testimony last year. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey writes that he regrets not interrupting Trump to explain that his plea was wrong. He recalls later confronting Sessions, whom he describes as “both overwhelmed and overmatched by the job.”
“You can’t be kicked out of the room so he can talk to me alone,” Comey told Sessions, according to the book. “You have to be between me and the president.”
Comey also recounts new observations: “Sessions just cast his eyes down at the table, and they darted quickly back and forth, side to side. He said nothing. I read in his posture and face a message that he would not be able to help me.”
A lifelong Republican until recently, Comey also delivers an indirect but unmistakable rebuke of the GOP’s congressional leaders as well: “It is also wrong to stand idly by, or worse, to stay silent when you know better, while a president brazenly seeks to undermine public confidence in law enforcement institutions that were established to keep our leaders in check.”
Comey defends his handling of the Clinton email investigation and for the first time details a private assurance he received from Obama after Clinton’s defeat. Many Democrats blame Comey for announcing less than two weeks before the election that the FBI was examining a new trove of Clinton emails for possible classified material.
Comey writes that Obama sat alone with him in the Oval Office in late November and told him, “I picked you to be FBI director because of your integrity and your ability. I want you to know that nothing — nothing — has happened in the last year to change my view.”
On the verge of tears, Comey told Obama, “Boy, were those words I needed to hear … I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
“I know,” Obama said. “I know.”
Clinton wrote in her campaign memoir, “What Happened,” that she felt “shivved” by Comey. Two days before the election, Comey announced that the FBI had reviewed the new emails and found nothing to change its view that Clinton should not be prosecuted. But in Clinton’s assessment, the damage already had been done.
Comey, who says his wife and daughters voted for Clinton, includes a message in his book to the would-be first female president: “I have read she has felt anger toward me personally, and I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do a better job explaining to her and her supporters why I made the decisions I made.”
‘Smaller than mine’
The first time Comey met Trump was at the pre-inauguration intelligence briefing that focused on Russian meddling in the election. Comey, who is 6’8” tall, writes that the 6’3” president-elect looked shorter than he did on television. “His face appeared slightly orange,” Comey writes, “with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his.”
“As he extended his hand,” Comey adds, “I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.”
Trump was accompanied at the Trump Tower session by his national-security team, and by political aides Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, who were slated to become White House chief of staff and press secretary, respectively. Trump asked only one question, Comey writes: “You found there was no impact on the result, right?”
James Clapper Jr., then the director of national intelligence, replied that the intelligence community did no such analysis.
Comey recalls being struck that neither Trump nor his advisers asked about the future Russian threat, nor how the United States might prepare to meet it. Rather, he writes, they focused on “how they could spin what we’d just told them.”
With Clapper and then-CIA Director John Brennan — both Obama appointees — still in the room, Priebus and other Trump aides strategized for political advantage, Comey writes. The Trump team decided it would emphasize that Russian interference had no impact on the vote, which, Clapper reminded them, the intelligence community had not determined.
When the meeting ended, Comey stayed behind with Trump to discuss the dossier.
A week after the Trump Tower meeting, on Jan. 11, Comey writes that Trump called him and said he was concerned about the dossier being made public and was fixated on the prostitutes allegation. The president-elect argued that it could not be true because he had not stayed overnight in Moscow but had only used the hotel room to change his clothes. And after Trump explained that he would never allow people to urinate near him, Comey recalls laughing.
“I decided not to tell him that the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants,” Comey writes.
After one week as president, Trump invited Comey to dinner. Comey describes the Jan. 27 scene: The table in the Green Room was set for two. The president marveled at the fancy handwriting on the four-course menu placards and seemed unaware of the term calligrapher. White House stewards served salad, shrimp scampi, chicken Parmesan with pasta and vanilla ice cream.
Comey writes that he believed Trump was trying “to establish a patronage relationship,” and that he said: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”
“I was determined not to give the president any hint of assent to this demand, so I gave silence instead,” Comey writes. “I stared at the soft white pouches under his expressionless blue eyes. I remember thinking in that moment that the president doesn’t understand the FBI’s role in American life.”
Trump broke the standoff by turning to other topics, Comey writes, speaking in torrents, “like an oral jigsaw puzzle,” about the size of his inauguration crowd, his free media coverage and the viciousness of the campaign.
Eventually, Trump brought up “the golden showers thing,” Comey writes. The president told him that “it bothered him if there was ‘even a one percent chance’ his wife, Melania, thought it was true.” Comey writes that Trump told him to consider having the FBI investigate the prostitutes allegation to “prove it was a lie.”
As the dinner concluded, Trump returned to the issue of loyalty.
“I need loyalty,” Trump tells Comey, according to the book.
“You will always get honesty from me,” Comey replies.
In March 2017, Trump called Comey to complain about the Russia investigation as a “cloud” that was impairing his presidency and, again, brought up the Moscow prostitutes allegation.
“For about the fourth time, he argued that the golden showers thing wasn’t true, asking yet again, ‘Can you imagine me, hookers?’” Comey writes of their March 30, 2017, call. “In an apparent play for my sympathy, he added that he has a beautiful wife and the whole thing has been very painful for her. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ ”
Comey recalls telling the president the FBI was investigating it as quickly as possible, and he had told Congress that Trump was not personally under investigation, to which the president repeatedly told him, “We need to get that fact out.”
Two weeks later, on April 11, Trump called Comey again to check on his request to “get out” that he was not under investigation, Comey writes.
“He seemed irritated with me,” Comey recalls.
“I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know,” Trump told him, according to the book, apparently referring to the loyalty dinner.
That was the last time the two men spoke. On May 9, as Comey was talking with FBI employees in the Los Angeles field office, he peered at a television screen and saw a news alert: “COMEY FIRED.”
Comey describes soon receiving an “emotional call” from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
“He said he was sick about my firing and that he intended to quit in protest,” Comey writes. “He said he didn’t want to work for dishonorable people who would treat someone like me in such a manner. I urged Kelly not to do that, arguing that the country needed principled people around this president. Especially this president.”
Kelly did not resign. Two and a half months later, he was named White House chief of staff.