Leonnig: Good morning, everybody. I’m Carol Leonnig. I’m an investigative reporter at The Washington Post. Welcome, to all of you. I’d like to introduce my guest for today who really doesn’t need any introduction, but former FBI director James Comey who we will be referring today as Jim. And his book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership and the response to it from all corners has generated headlines for nearly a month, and hopefully we’ll make some headlines today as well.
I want to let our audience in the room and those watching online know that you can tweet your questions to us using the hashtag #PostLive. I will pose some of them to the director later in our interview. So let’s get started. Jim, in your book you write that good people have to call it out when we see truth endangered, when we see lying. It’s really a call to action to public servants, in my mind, in my reading. It’s a version of, “See something; say something.” You’ve said the president said things to you that you found deeply inappropriate and troubling, his pressure about the investigation, his request that others leave the room when he wanted to speak to you, his pressure for your loyalty, and yet you say you didn’t confront him. My question is, if you as the FBI director can’t say something to correct the president, to manage your boss, how can career bureaucrats serving in the government today and in the future step out and say something when they witness impropriety or a crossing of the red line?
Comey: Well, it depends upon what their job is and what their avenues for addressing what they think is misconduct, what available avenues there are. And in my situation my judgment was, “I’m trying to stay in a role for another six years, protect and represent an institution, and so I need to find a way to both build a relationship with the president and make sure that the appropriate distance and conduct lines are abided.” And there’s no way to do that perfectly, and I’m sure that I didn’t, but each person in their role has to decide. So, what have I seen and what are opportunities and avenues for me to address that? And so difficult to answer beyond that sort of general answer.
Leonnig: But I think I hear you saying that part of it was wanting to stay in the job and protect the institution.
Comey: Sure. I mean, I’m standing there in the first five months of a president’s tenure where I expect to be there for at least his first full four years and then beyond. And so how do you protect the institution, build a relationship that you have to have with the senior leaders of the executive branch, and also make sure that nothing improper goes on?
Leonnig: You kept a series of memos; you began keeping a record of your conversations with the president and his actions. What was the first incident that led you to write that first memo to self?
Comey: The first memo was actually done for the benefit of my colleagues, the directors of NSA, CIA, and the DNI because I was in part recording what had happened in a private session that we had planned for me to have. And so that one was less an aide-mémoire and more a classified briefing for the others that—
Leonnig: Related to?
Comey: Related to the Trump Tower where we briefed the president on the findings of the intelligence community assessment. And so part of that was trying to protect myself and the FBI, but a big part of it was making a record for the others so they knew what had happened. But after that when I had encounters with the president, especially the dinner that we had on the 27th of January and we were touching on things that affected the FBI and me personally, affected him personally, and we were alone, I thought then, “I have to be able to remember this in detail someday.” And so that’s when I really began the process of what I thought of as almost a personal memo diary.
Leonnig: What did you expect you would use them for, and did you anticipate or guess that the president would be under criminal investigation?
Comey: I expected that I—well, I hoped that I would never use them, that they’d never be necessary, that there would never come a time when his account of something would be different than mine. But I knew that could happen, which is why I wanted it. Now, the second question, “Did I imagine the president might be under criminal investigation?” Sure. In fact, that was at the core of the advice—
Leonnig: A little news.
Comey: Yeah. Well, the reason I say that is I was under the—among the advice I recount in my book was the general counsel of the FBI, Jim Baker. When we were discussing whether I could go to that very first encounter with him with the “We’re not investigating you personally” in my back pocket, his advice was, “Look. That’s problematic, because inevitably a look at whether there was a connection between the campaign and Russia is going to touch him in some way, and so that’s a slippery slope, in a way, that you ought to be careful about.” So we discussed it and contemplated the possibility very early on.
Leonnig: Okay. So you say in your book as well that lying has become normalized in our political culture. Are you specifically speaking about the president, and did he ever lie to you and about what?
Comey: I am speaking about the president, but I’m also speaking about the normalization happens when someone lies constantly at the head of the government and then we all become numb to it or imitate it.
Leonnig: And the lie to you?
Comey: Oh, there were quite a few, actually. I mean, during the initial dinner he told me at the beginning of the dinner that his chief of staff didn’t know we were having dinner, which struck me as odd. And at the end of the dinner he said, “He knows we’re having dinner, and so follow up with him.” And he went through, for example, that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history, those sorts of things, the casual lies that have become part of a pattern.
Leonnig: Anything substantive that struck you that he lied about that you knew not to be true?
Comey: Not that I knew for sure wasn’t true at that point. But the normalization I’m worried about is, that I feel even in myself, that I describe as my reaction to his tweets saying I should be in jail, my reaction is almost to shrug like, “Eh, there he goes again,” but that’s a numbness that’s dangerous.
Leonnig: Agreed. Speaking of tweets, you have a lot of insight into the investigation, some of which you can’t share with us, some of which you can. The president repeatedly tweets and says that there’s no evidence that he or his campaign was engaged in any collusion. When you see his tweets and his comments, “No collusion, never,” what do you think?
Comey: First, I wonder how the word “collusion” has found its way into our lives. I don’t know what it means. It’s not a legal term. And, second, it’s always struck me as strange that whenever someone continually denies something it makes me interested. And so his continual denial of something that’s being investigated by some of the best people in the country is strange.
Leonnig: Is he lying?
Comey: Well, that’s for Director Mueller to figure out.
Leonnig: What do you think?
Comey: I think I’ll let Director Mueller figure that out. Yeah.
Leonnig: You spoke on truth to power in your book. What is your advice to people who feel frightened about speaking truth? You know what? I’m going to skip that one because you addressed it a little bit before. A few days ago two of your former top advisors in the FBI resigned, Lisa Page and James Baker. Good careers. Do you know why they resigned?
Comey: Only with respect to Jim. Jim was a top advisor to me. Lisa Page was a relatively junior lawyer who reported to the deputy attorney general. And Jim was asked to step out of the general counsel role. The new director—which is not atypical—wanted his own general counsel. And so Jim, I knew, was going to look for the next thing, and he found something he really wanted to do. He loves artificial intelligence and its application to the national security space, so he’s going to focus on that at Brookings. Lisa Page, I don’t know, since I’m not in touch with her. But Jim is both a friend and a colleague of mine.
Leonnig: Did you ever consider resigning before you were fired?
Comey: No. And, in fact, everything that was going on made me more committed to staying to try to protect the institution.
Leonnig: It’s been said that the president is incredibly new to politics, in fact sometimes completely tone deaf to how politics works and how government works. Is it possible that maybe the Department of Justice and you yourself could have given him more benefit of the doubt, more guidance, more instruction early on that could have helped him?
Comey: It’s possible in one sense and not possible in another. It’s fair to ask, “Did he know the norms and traditions at the core of the—” especially the interaction between the Justice Department and the White House. And so it’s possible that we could have tried to offer more instruction. And I’ll come to that in second. But given the nature of the person, he’s utterly uninterested in you telling him things about how he should do his job, and so it’s not possible in a practical way. I encountered this when I was first asked for loyalty at the beginning of our dinner, and before he came back to it at the end of the dinner I tried to interject a couple times to explain how it should work, and I don’t think he was particularly interested in that.
Leonnig: Did he turn red faced? And what was your signal that this was not interesting to him?
Comey: Just no follow-ups like, “What do you mean by that?” or, “How would that work?” kind of thing. And then returning to the question of loyalty told me that he clearly heard what I said but didn’t really care what I said; it was about this personal transactional loyalty.
Leonnig: In your book you also talk a little bit about what I find really interesting, the beginning of your career as a prosecutor. And you write, as a young person in 1987 working for someone no other than Rudy Giuliani—I’m going to read the passage for the benefit of people who maybe don’t remember this from the book or haven’t read it yet. “Giuliani had extraordinary confidence, and as a young prosecutor I found his brash style exciting, which was part of what drew me to his office. I loved it that my boss was on magazine covers standing on the courthouse steps with his hands on his hips as if he ruled the world. It fired me up. Prosecutors almost never saw the great man in person, so I was especially pumped when he stopped by my office early in my career.” Rudy Giuliani recently called you a baby and other things for defending FBI agents when he described them as storm troopers. How do you feel about America’s mayor and the president’s lawyer today? Have your feelings changed?
Comey: I have a different sense of it than in 1987. [LAUGHTER]
Leonnig: Could you be more expansive? [LAUGTHER]
Comey: Well, first, the reason I tell that story is because it’s true; I was fired up and thought it was exciting to work for Rudy. And it was. It wasn’t until I tried to become a leader myself that I saw some of the underside of that confidence, which was it wasn’t leavened with a whole lot of humility, which is really important to being a leader, to have that balance. And so I use him almost as a counterpoint in the book and compare him to another U.S. attorney I worked for named Helen Fahey, who had this remarkable balance of confidence and humility. And so my view of him as a leader changed over time. And the name-calling and whatnot? I don’t know what’s going on with that, honestly. I said to someone the other day, “I guess the love is gone.” [LAUGHTER] I used to be one of his star prosecutors. It appears I’m not any more. But I don’t know what that’s about.
Leonnig: All right. Thank you. This weekend Giuliani also said that President Trump may not sit down with Robert Mueller because you could be lying. I think his exact quote was, “Could Comey be lying? You’re goddamn right he could be lying. I’m not going to walk into that trap.” Tell me what your reaction is to that? This is a former U.S. attorney, a member of the bar, and a mentor at one point. What do you make of him saying that you’re possibly lying?
Comey: Actually, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. And I don’t mean that facetiously. Of course, everybody could be lying. And so the question you have to ask yourself is, “So what do I make of this person and their account? Is it consistent over time? Was it contemporaneously recorded? What is their track record?” all the things that help you evaluate whether a person is telling the truth. But I’m also not sure of the intersection between an assessment of me and a decision about whether to sit down with the special prosecutor. I don’t quite follow that.
Leonnig: I’m going to switch for a moment to the Hillary Clinton probe.
Comey: I was hoping you would. [LAUGHTER]
Leonnig: It’s still riveting to many in our democracy.
Leonnig: Secretary Clinton’s decision to set up an email server in her home for official business has infuriated her fans and her detractors. Many agreed it was a self-inflicted wound that only increased the perception that she viewed herself as above the law, above the rules. What do you think were the factors in government and in the political culture that allowed someone to do something that was so beyond the rules?
Comey: That’s a really good question. And I don’t know because we didn’t investigate her leadership style. But, to me at least, it raises the prospect that she hadn’t created a culture around herself as a leader where people would tell her when she is full of it. And it’s really important as a leader to do that. And so I’ve often wondered, “So why didn’t anyone around her say, ‘Hey, knock that off. You can’t do that, boss. That’s crazy?’”
Leonnig: In your investigation was there anyone who tried to counsel her not to do this?
Comey: Not that I’m aware of.
Leonnig: And were there a lot of enablers in your investigation?
Comey: I don’t think it’s fair to say enablers, but I didn’t see any indication of the kind of leadership culture that I really hope and try to create around myself where people will tell me when I’m full of crap. And didn’t see any indication of that. And would have expected to, frankly, if it was a healthy leadership culture around that person. But, again, the problem in her situation was not that her email, instead of being on Gmail or on AOL, or on the State Department’s unclass system, was on her own domain. That really wasn’t the problem. The problem was that she was using that un-classed system to talk about stuff that shouldn’t be talked about on an un-classed system.
Leonnig: True. And not preserving government records as required.
Comey: Right. But that wasn’t the focus of the criminal investigation. The criminal investigation was about was classified information mishandled.
Leonnig: Absolutely. So were you or your FBI agents ever warned or provided information that suggested that foreign governments, particularly China, had access to her emails?
Comey: It was a serious concern of ours for reasons I can’t get into, but we never found the evidence, the technical indicators that there was penetration by an adversary of that system.
Leonnig: Were you warned by FBI employees or agents, investigators that there were indicia that China was reading her emails?
Comey: No. There were reasons, again that I can’t get into here, that we were concerned that it might have happened, but we couldn’t find the trail that established that any foreign adversary had gotten into her server. There were indications on the periphery of the people she was in contact with, but we couldn’t track it to the server itself.
Leonnig: Okay. Your decision to hold a press conference in July 2016 about the Hillary Clinton server provided really great insight—I remember thinking it was great television—but great insight into a prosecutor’s decision-making. It also disappointed many Justice Department officials, alumni, people who think of you well, because you did not follow the rule that a prosecutor only speaks—the general rule that a prosecutor only speaks through their charges. You explained Clinton had been extremely careless but would not be charged for her use of this email system. Why did you decide to hold that press conference? What was the single-most important reason?
Comey: Because the credibility of the institution turned upon the American people having confidence that the work was done independently and competently and that the best way—not the only way—the best way to achieve to maintain that credibility would be with transparency, which is, you said—I agree with you totally. The normal rule is you don’t talk on an investigation that closes without charges, except when the interest of justice require it, which the Department of Justice has long done when it really matters. Ferguson, it really mattered to explain why there was no case there against the officer who had killed Michael Brown. The Tea Party targeting, alleged targeting by the IRS, it really mattered to assure people with great detail of why there was no case there. And, to my mind, this was that kind of case. What made this different is not that, because I think the announcement itself was contemplated by the policy. It’s that I had never heard of the FBI director doing it separate from the attorney general. And that was the other big consideration, is that the normal in that situation would have been the attorney general making the announcement I made. And for reasons that I’ve talked about a lot and people may be sick of hearing, I thought it really important to try to protect the institution by separating from the attorney general.
Leonnig: And on that—I know your point for those who haven’t—I mean, I’m not bored by it, by the way, at all. But Loretta Lynch had this tarmac meeting with President Clinton, which you can see that President Clinton initiated but she received, and that that created for you the perception that this could be tainted. Did you ever—I think your answer to this is “no.” Did you ever confront or alert Loretta Lynch to your concern about this perception about her meeting?
Comey: No. Before I even saw her, as this controversy started to explode I guess this last week of June, she made a public announcement that surprised me saying that she would not step aside but would accept my recommendation and that of the career prosecutors. And so it was at that point I thought, “I love her. I’ve known her a long time. I’ve got to step away from her if the American people are going to believe that this was done as it was in an independent way, in a competent way.” So at that point it didn’t make any—she’s made a public announcement, “I’m not going to step aside.” I don’t know what good it would do at that point to go to my boss and say, “You’ve stuck me here.”
Leonnig: Do you think, in hindsight, you wish you had talked to her at all?
Comey: That’s a great question. I think in hindsight it was probably too late. I wish we had had an opportunity to talk before she announced she was not going recuse herself, because we might have lived a different future if she had stepped out and Sally Yates, who I also had a great relationship with, had become the acting attorney general. Because I could imagine myself standing next to Sally and having Sally make the announcement. I don’t think any of that would make a difference for any of us in terms of what happened in October. We were going to get stuck because of Anthony Weiner in October regardless, but it might have played out differently in terms of how we announced it if I’d had a chance to really sit down with her before she said she wouldn’t recuse herself.
Leonnig: This question will seem harsh, but I know you can take it. Earlier you talked about the importance of humility. In this instance and in others you place your decision-making above the attorney general, above the president, what should people watching you think about your level of humility, that your decision-making is superior?
Comey: I mean, it’s an appropriate question—and I don’t think it’s unduly tough—and a really reasonable question. I hope what they’ll do is look at how the decisions were made and why. And that I don’t think a fair-minded person if you stare at that can come away thinking this was about me being the star of the show somehow. First, the decisions were made by a big group of smart people fighting about it, and that the decisions were made because of the institutional interests that were implicated by the situations we found ourselves in. And I knew how much this was going to suck for me. I mean, if anybody thinks this was a way to shine your own apple, you’re out of your mind. But we really felt like if we believe in the values we talk about, then this is the way we have to do it. But it’s a totally fair question.
Leonnig: The Washington Post report—we’re going to get to October now. Woo. Another instance that you loved.
Comey: So glad.
Leonnig: [LAUGHS] The Washington Post reported that you first learned about the information on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, new Clinton emails, in late September, early October. This was confirmed with some of your top people. And yet it wasn’t until October 28th, dangerously close to the election for any prosecutor, when you decided to disclose this in a letter to Congress. You said your reasoning for disclosing these emails was because you thought concealment was disaster; too important to keep this under wraps. How did that news about the new Clinton emails not set of alarm bells in late September, early October, for you?
Comey: Yeah, I don’t know exactly, because I can’t remember clearly how it was first mentioned to me. I think it was the first week of October, somebody said something, that there might be a connection between Anthony Weiner and the Clinton emails. And I think the reason I don’t remember it clearly is, how could that possibly be? Right? Anthony Weiner? It’s a sex case. How could that have anything to do with Hillary Clinton? And so I just don’t remember focusing on it. And I’m sure I assumed that if it means something someone will come and tell me about it.
And so if I had indexed on it and then they came and told me about it in great detail on the 27th of October, if I’d indexed on it the way I did on the 27th, the first week of October, I’m sure I would have reacted in a similar way, which is we’ve got to understand what this is. But I don’t remember knowing about it. And in that level of details. And I don’t know exactly why.
One of the things I write in the book is, because I can’t go back and interview my former colleagues at the FBI, and I’m hoping the IG will—inspector general will lay all this out. What was going on during those few weeks, why did it take from the beginning of October to the 27th of October to sit down with the director and say, “Look, here’s what we have”—I just don’t know the answer to that.
Leonnig: During this time period there were press inquiries, there were rumors that agents were going to leak this information because they felt that the agency wasn’t moving to reopen it or wasn’t moving in the weeks before the election. How much of a pressure point was that for you or your deputies?
Comey: I don’t remember that being a pressure point at all. Like you would think it would cut the other way, it would make things move faster. And I do remember that last full week of October—Rudy Giuliani in particular on TV saying something was coming. I had no idea what he was talking about. And that makes sense because I think he said that on the 26th of October; it’s the 27th when I get briefed on it. And I still don’t know, to this day, whether he was actually getting information from inside the FBI.
But the prospect of a leak was actually not a factor in the decision I made on the 28th to notify Congress. Loretta Lynch and I subsequently had a conversation about that, where she said, “Would they feel better if it leaked on the 4th of November?” But it wasn’t the reason that I made the decision.
Leonnig: You asked Loretta if she’d feel better if it leaked on November 4th?
Comey: No, she asked me. Because we’ve known each other a long time. She was consoling me on the morning of October 31st, and gave me a hug, which is awkward when you’re hugging a giraffe, but it was [LAUGHTER]—she gave me a hug, which is a wonderful thing, and I think she could tell I needed it. And then she said, “Would they feel better if it leaked on November the 4th?” And I said, “Exactly, Loretta.” And I think what she was saying to me was, “Your decision actually wasn’t that important, because had you not told Congress that we had gotten a search warrant, somebody would have told somebody, and it would have come out later on.”
Leonnig: A sealed search warrant?
Leonnig: Okay. I’m going to skip to the money question, which is many Democrats feel that you did this to protect yourself and to protect from looking bad later, when ultimately this was about unverified material that was under investigation that lots of prosecutors don’t discuss, and the result was it threw the election to Donald Trump. What do you say to that?
Comey: I get why they say that, but I hope what they’ll do is imagine themselves sitting where we sat on October 28th, and tell me what you would do and why. Because you only had two choices then. I mean, you got to remember, the investigative team has come to the leadership of the FBI and said, “There are hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop for reasons we can’t explain, and we think there may be the missing emails from her first three months as secretary of state, when she was using a BlackBerry.” And we had never found those emails, any of the BlackBerry emails, and so if there was ever going to be evidence that she knew, had been told don’t do this, it would likely be there.
And so you’ve got the investigative team saying, “Not only do we need to reopen this, our result may change.” And so the question I’d ask people, “So what do you do?” And I only saw two options. I could speak about it and tell Congress what I had said under oath repeatedly was no longer true, or I could conceal that fact. Both of those are horrible options, one more horrible than the other. Speaking is horrible—bad, really bad. Concealing is catastrophic, in my view, because think of what will happen to the institutions of justice if you hide from the American people that you know something they relied upon is a lie now; that they can move on, there’s nothing there. Which do you choose? I don’t think you choose the catastrophic option. I think you got to choose the really bad option.
People could disagree, but what I’d ask people to do is you got to come to that day and say, “So what would I do and why?” And the notion that it’s about protecting myself doesn’t make any sense to me. Because if I was about protecting myself, what I would have done is written a memo to the attorney general or the deputy attorney general saying, “Over to you.” And I don’t know what they would have done, at that point. Part of me thinks they would have had to do what I did and—
Leonnig: But you feared what they would choose. You chose.
Comey: No. This is different, actually. I actually gave them the chance to make the decision. I had my chief of staff inform their chiefs of staff, saying the director thinks that he has to notify Congress about this, but he would welcome your input. And the response was, “We think it’s a bad idea, but we don’t wish to speak to him.” And my reaction to that was, “Okay.”
And I was tempted. As I said in the book, I was actually tempted in that moment to say, “You know what, tell them I’ve decided that it’s their decision,” just to see what they would do. Or, “I’ve decided I’m not going to say anything,” and see what they would do. But I thought, “That’s cowardly. You’re the director of the FBI. You have a responsibility to the institution to act in its interest.” And so I really don’t think this was in my personal interest. I think you have to be a little nuts to think that.
But I think it was in the institution’s interest, and the only way to save the institution, because of what would happen to that institution, no matter who’s elected president—if Hillary Clinton is elected president, you have concealed from the American people a hugely material fact, and she would be, by some lights, an illegitimate president the moment she’s elected. Donald Trump is elected president. The FBI acted to try and help his opponent by concealing the fact that you had restarted the investigation. Either of those, in my judgment, is a catastrophic outcome for the institutions.
Leonnig: Now that you’ve seen the result, do you feel sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”? You’re now viewed as the person who helped elect President Trump, and before, you were worried about looking like you elected an illegitimate Hillary Clinton?
Comey: Sure. Yeah, and I knew that coming in. One of the things I recount in the book, 2015, when this thing came in, the investigation, my deputy looked at me and said, “You know you’re totally screwed, right?” And I smiled and said, “Yep, nobody gets out alive.” And what I thought he meant was one-half of the partisan divide will hate you; I never imagined, as my wife says, you could piss off both halves of the partisan divide [LAUGHTER].
But, you know, again, there’s something freeing about being stuck in a situation where you know you’re screwed. It sort of relieves you of that.
Leonnig: Okay, we have a lot of questions. Actually you—
Comey: I’m happy to get off of being screwed.
Leonnig: No, you teed one of them up very nicely, but we’ll get to it in a second. You talked about smart people fighting. That’s essentially your consiglieres. Did anyone counsel you, “Don’t do this”? Did any of your close deputies, subordinates, peers say, “Don’t do it, Jim”?
Comey: No. Well, there’s two “its.” We debated a lot. The closer question was whether to do the press conference in July the 5th. And there, no one—we sort of took a poll at the end. We had this family environment, we fought about things. We argued it. We argued against our arguments. And then everybody at the end said, “No, this is the right thing to do.” There were a couple—at least one advisor said, “51, 49.” But 51 in favor of doing the press conference. Believe it or not, the discussion, which we had over sort of 24 hours in October, was less close. Because everybody, after we debated it for a while, saw the divide between “do you speak” or “do you conceal,” as concealing would be disastrous.
And so the group—no one voted against doing it. One person in the group voted against once we, to my surprise, finished the investigation before the election, one person said we shouldn’t notify Congress that we finished. But other than that, that everybody saw it, after a lot of debate, the same way.
Leonnig: And you mentioned you would never have imagined that you would draw fire from both sides. How does that feel, actually, to be a lightning rod, such a controversial figure?
Comey: I don’t love it, honestly. It’s painful. And the notion that I had an impact on the election, that we had an impact on the election, is really painful. And so yeah, it is. But it—what consoles you is, you look back and ask, “So did we—forget the decisions, did we have the right process to arrive at sound decisions?” And honestly, we did.
And so it’s these weird things. On the one hand, it’s very painful to everybody—a lot of people angry at you. On the other side, you look back and say, “Well, we had the right process, and even in hindsight, I think we made the right decisions.” And so it’s both off-putting and a piece of it is consoling, if that makes any sense.
Leonnig: On that note, we’re going to go to Russia.
Comey: Delightful [LAUGHTER].
Leonnig: Last Friday the House Intelligence Committee released an unredacted section of its final Russia report. It says that FBI agents never really believed that Michael Flynn was lying about his conversation with Ambassador Kislyak. You’ll remember, this is the conversation where they talked about sanctions, and he indicated to agents that they did not. Rather, the agents felt that he was confused. Did General Flynn tell agents interviewing him that his conversation with Ambassador Kislyak was likely recorded and that they should review that tape?
Comey: I don’t remember as I sit here. This bit in the House report about the FBI not believing—believing he had been confused or not testified falsely. I don’t know where that’s coming from.
Comey: That was never my sense. Never the sense of the agents who interviewed him.
Leonnig: Okay. Did the Justice Department misstep in any way by prosecuting Michael Flynn because he appeared to be saying to people, “Hey, I don’t remember it exactly; go look at the tape”? It shows sort of a lack of intent to lie if he said such a thing?
Comey: He pled guilty, and allocuted, which means explain to the court why I’m guilty and I did this knowing it was wrong. I mean, if any of you ever sat in a court and listened to what’s called a Rule 11 colloquy, where the judge makes sure that you’re guilty—people ought to get that transcript.
Leonnig: This will sound funny coming from a federal court reporter, an old court reporter, but is it possible to plead guilty to something that’s the lesser-lesser charge when you’re implicated in maybe some other things that are more worrisome? And that lesser-lesser charge isn’t something that you actually believe you’re guilty of?
Comey: Is it possible? Sure, it’s possible. Yeah. I can’t say it never happens, but strikes me as a very, very, very, very unlikely prospect here.
Leonnig: Okay. Last week the federal and everyone—this is right out of the news—the federal judge overseeing the case on Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for Donald Trump’s campaign, suggested that Robert Mueller, the special counsel and his team, were only interested in going after Trump so they could gain information to ultimately write a report recommending impeaching the president. Do you think that’s the case?
Comey: I guess I find that very, very, very hard to believe. And I don’t know how a federal judge could possibly know enough about an investigation, given that federal judges aren’t involved in investigations at all, to offer a view like that.
Leonnig: So let me break that sentence in part for a second. Do you think it’s accurate, knowing, as you do, how to prosecute a case so well, that the real goal here is to squeeze Paul Manafort to cooperate in the probe? And that there’s not really great interest in his bank fraud as much as there is in cooperating with Robert Mueller.
Comey: Impossible for me to say, from the outside. There’s all kinds of goals and they’re not inconsistent in criminal investigation and prosecution. You obviously want to bring wrongdoers to account, but if possible—let’s say you’re working a corporate fraud case—you want to get the chief financial officer if he’s been involved in criminal wrongdoing. But you also would like to know what the truth is from him about others in the company. And so they’re not inconsistent goals. And I would hope every prosecutor, when they prosecute a defendant, wants to know, “Does he know things that could bring other people to account?”
Leonnig: Although you emphasize you don’t know, do you expect that this will end with impeachment proceedings?
Comey: I don’t know. I really don’t. And I hope that the president and those around him will let Bob Mueller and his people find the truth. I don’t know what the truth will be. It may sound strange coming from me. The truth may be that they don’t find evidence that the president engaged in criminal conduct of any kind. But I don’t really care what the truth is, so long as we find it. And I would hope that if you’re president of the United States you approach it in a similar way; that’s what the rule of law depends upon.
Leonnig: You wrote that you found it remarkable the president would not say anything derogatory about Vladimir Putin, even in private. It really struck you. What did it make you think about the likelihood that the Russian government had compromising or worrisome information about Donald Trump, the candidate?
Comey: It’s one of the factors that led me to conclude something I never thought I’d conclude, that it’s possible. I wouldn’t say likely, but possible that they had something like that.
Leonnig: And did information come to you—not confirmed evidence, but information come to you that there were investigative leads of that nature?
Comey: Yeah, that’s one I can’t answer. I could. I’m not permitted to answer.
Leonnig: President Trump insists that there’s no evidence that he or his campaign have ever colluded. I know you don’t like the word “collusion.” What links and contacts between Trump’s inner circle and the Russian government or Russian nationals really shocked you?
Comey: I have to give you the same answer there. I haven’t talked about in the book or any interviews what I learned or knew during that investigation, and I need to stick to that.
Leonnig: But some of them have become public. Can I press you on—
Comey: Sure, of course.
Leonnig: I think that a lot of interactions have become known. There were at least, you know, now four people who have agreed, acknowledged, or been charged and had some contact with Russian nationals. Any of them strike you as surprising, worrisome? More worrisome than the others? Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates.
Comey: Maybe the only one I’ll comment on, because it is public, is the Papadopoulos encounter. Because it’s also public now that that was the predication for the opening of the FBI’s investigation when the FBI learned in late July, from an allied government, that Papadopoulos had been in contact with a Russian cutout, a Russian representative, to discuss obtaining dirt the Russians had on Hillary Clinton. And that conversation occurred months before it became public that the Russians were actually dumping stolen emails in an effort to hurt Hillary Clinton. That’s a really important fact, and was certainly ample justification to open an investigation to understand whether there’s a connection between Americans and the Russian effort. That’s probably all I can say.
Leonnig: How important a fact is it that political consultant Roger Stone told close friends that he, in April of 2016, was aware that WikiLeaks had obtained a series of emails that would be damaging to Hillary, also long before it was publicly known? How important a fact is that to you?
Comey: Yeah, that’s one I’m not going to answer.
Leonnig: Okay. You’ve had so much experience, Director Comey, or Jim, as we’re referring to you now, as an investigator, a prosecutor, and a defense lawyer. If you were the president’s lawyer right now, which I’m sure it would be hard for you to imagine [LAUGHTER]—but if you were his lawyer right now, what would you advise him to do? And I don’t just mean “tell the truth.”
Comey: I don’t know what my advice would be, and I ought not to offer any. Anytime you’re representing a client, you have to consider what’s the prospect that they won’t tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in an interview with federal investigators. And again, it doesn’t matter whether you’re under oath or not, if you lie to federal investigators that’s a separate offense. So you have to weigh that consideration against other considerations, like what is your job—you’re the CEO of a public company. Are you in a place where you really can refuse to cooperate with the SEC, for example, to looking at your company? And what are the collateral consequences of that?
Leonnig: Let me try another way. Is he the kind of client, knowing him as you do and having as much interaction as you have, that you would recommend he sit down with Robert Mueller?
Comey: You’d have to be very thoughtful about that. Given that your client is not somebody—well, is somebody who lies a lot. And so you’d have to—that doesn’t mean you don’t do it. I actually believe, as an American, it’s very important that the president cooperate with an appropriate, lawful, disciplined federal investigation that touches on things of which he has material knowledge. But you’d have to, as the lawyer, be very thoughtful about that and prepare your client to understand that this one you cannot BS your way through, you must tell the truth.
Leonnig: Did you have any inkling or idea that the Stormy Daniels case would spiral in the way that it has and become part of a federal investigation in the Southern District, into possible illegal campaign contributions? And do you view it as even more perilous for the president than the Russia investigation?
Comey: I don’t know enough to give you a thoughtful answer. The Stormy Daniels news seems to be everywhere, but I don’t know it well enough to give you a thoughtful answer.
Leonnig: And any advice you’d give client Trump about how to handle Stormy Daniels?
Comey: I wouldn’t give—I’m not giving advice about how to handle Mueller, no less Stormy Daniels. [LAUGHTER] That’s a sentence I never thought I would speak. [LAUGHTER] All kinds of firsts in our lives. Some you can laugh about.
Leonnig: We have talked a lot about lying, and I’m going to ask you a question. Is there anything you feel that you weren’t completely honest about in the course of this—not this interview—in the course of this experience? The Clinton investigation and the Trump administration. Is there anything you feel you’ve left out?
Comey: No. And look, as I write in the book, I’ve lied at times in my life. I guess we all do, in some respects. I lie less because I no longer have to go to Capitol Hill and say, “Senator, it’s good to be with you.” [LAUGHTER] But no.
Leonnig: I don’t want to leave the Russia investigation, but I better get to this in my one minute. The Department of Justice’s inspector general has been looking deeply into the handling of the Clinton email investigation and some other matters, and is poised to issue a report and already has issued some materials that have cast a cloud on your deputy, that have raised questions about political bias among some of your aides. How have you felt about those revelations about the agency, the internal talk about Donald Trump, that was extremely disparaging? And the unpleasant attention they brought to the purity of the FBI or the purity you say the FBI upholds?
Comey: Both terrible and great. Terrible in the sense that it’s incredibly painful to see people exhibiting appalling judgment, criticizing—first of all, having an affair, using FBI devices to communicate, and in the course of communicating, badmouthing not just Donald Trump but everybody, as near as I can tell. And so that’s really bad. And part of the terrible is painful. The part about Andy McCabe has been painful because I like him very much.
But the great part is, that’s what an institution looks like that cares about the truth. That cares about accountability.
Leonnig: And just to put it on the spectrum, you feel he made a grave mistake?
Comey: Andy. I’m not the judge in his case, but it certainly looks from the IG report like he’s a good person, did something that was not only a mistake but was wrong. And that’s what it looks like, though, when an institution cares about the truth. You investigate and you hold people accountable. I don’t know what the IG is going to say about me. I’m confident they’ll say I’ve told the truth, but they may criticize me. Okay, that’s what—I encourage that investigation because I want an independent watchdog to look at the hardest decisions we’ve made. That’s great.
Leonnig: It’s been said, in your most recent interview with the inspector general, that you were not tickled by some of the questions they posed to you. How did you feel about that most recent interview with the IG?
Comey: I don’t remember. An IG interview is a little bit like your annual physical or your visit to the dentist, so you’re never tickled. But I don’t remember. I don’t remember seeing news accounts of that. I don’t remember being put off by any of their questions.
Leonnig: And how do you feel that they’ll treat you in their report?
Comey: I don’t know in terms of the results. I’m highly confident that, with respect to the handling of my memos, that there’s no significant issue there of any kind. With respect to how I made my decisions in the Clinton case, I think they’ll find they were made thoughtfully and deliberately. Whether they agree with them, whether they agree with the view that it was a 500-year flood and we made decisions in the best interest of the institution or not, I don’t know. They might bang me for decisions and have a different view of it. But what I care about is the process. And I respect that process a great deal.
Leonnig: Okay. Last question. What’s next for Jim Comey? You know, you’re wearing such an attractive pocket square.
Comey: Thank you for that, Carol. [LAUGHTER]
Leonnig: It tells me that you’re not longer in your old line of work. What are you going to do now?
Comey: And no tie. No tie. Oh, it’s so liberating. I am teaching, starting in August, and I have a class already of 30 students signed up, a three-credit class, which is no joke, to teach about leadership and ethics at the College of William and Mary. And then I’m going to travel around and lecture at universities and other places, about leadership.
Leonnig: And what’s going to be your recommendation, Jim Comey, about how we fix the divide of our country and the lack of surety and certainty in our democracy, our norms, even the accuracy of our news coverage?
Comey: My small part, I hope, will be driving us all to elevate the conversation above the things we fight about every day—guns, immigration, taxes—and realize that actually what we have in common is above that, and that’s a common set of values. The rule of law, equal protection of the law, freedom of expression, and the truth. And I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, that’s all we are and that’s what unites us. We’ve got to start there. And then fight about all the other things we want to fight about. But if we lose this, what are we? We’re nothing. We’re just a collection of ideas in this country. And we have to realize we cannot sacrifice those.
Leonnig: Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. Director Comey, thank you so much for being here. If you’d like to watch video clips and other highlights from today’s program, please visit WashingtonPostLive.com. Thanks to everyone here in the audience, as well as those who watched online. We’ve enjoyed the program. We hope you have too.
Comey: Thank you, Carol. Thank you so much.