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What the Comey memos say

Since President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, the explanations for the dismissal have been getting murkier. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referred to previous reporting in The Washington Post that Belarusan-American businessman Sergei Millian had been a source of information for a dossier of unverified allegations against Donald Trump. In November 2021, The Post removed that material from the original 2017 story after the account was contradicted by allegations in a federal indictment and undermined by further reporting. References to the initial report have been removed from this piece. 

On Thursday evening, after a protracted back-and-forth between the Department of Justice and congressional Republicans, the memos written by former FBI director James Comey were released to House committees investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. In short order, the Associated Press first obtained a copy of the memos and published them online.

Here is our assessment of what each of the seven memos says, what we’ve learned from the full documents — and how they fit into the broader questions of Russian collusion and President Trump’s interactions with his former FBI director. Particularly interesting revelations have been highlighted.

Jan. 7, 2017, memo

On Jan. 6, 2017, Comey and other representatives of U.S. intelligence agencies traveled to Trump Tower in New York to brief him on their assessment of the Russian interference effort. This was the first time the two met. Comey took notes in the car after that meeting, sending them the following day to other FBI officials including former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.

What we already knew: It was during this conversation that Comey first raised the subject of the contents of the dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. That included the most salacious allegation: That Trump, while visiting Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant, had paid sex workers to perform unusual acts on a bed in the Moscow Ritz Carlton.

Comey has indicated in recent interviews that Trump discussed this allegation at length, including saying that he didn’t need to pay women for sex. He has also relayed that Trump during this meeting raised the issue of allegations of sexual misconduct that came up during the 2016 campaign.

What we learned: Comey’s memo — one of two to include a timestamp from having been sent over email — indicates that Trump praised him for his handling of the prior year, saying that Comey had been put into “impossible positions.” Comey says Trump said he hoped Comey would remain in his position.

Trump suggested that he and Comey meet alone to discuss the information Comey wanted to relay (though he didn’t yet know what the subject was). When Comey relayed the allegation from the dossier, Trump denied it, saying that he always assumed hotel rooms were “wired in some way.” Comey told Trump that CNN had the story, and Trump said he couldn’t believe the network hadn’t run with it.

Comey explained why it was important to tell Trump about the allegation.

“…[W]e were not investigating him and the stuff might be totally made up but it was being said out of Russia and our job was to protect the president from efforts to coerce him,” Comey wrote. “I said we try to understand what the Russians are doing and what they might do. I added that I also wanted him to know this in case it came out in the media.”

Comey says Trump said he was “grateful for the conversation.”

Jan. 28, 2017, memo

Trump and Comey had a private dinner in the White House. This is the dinner that Comey attended expecting others to have attended. It was six days after the first encounter the two had after Trump became president, when Trump embraced Comey in the White House’s Blue Room.

What we already knew: On his book tour, Comey has described Trump’s conversations with him, including the mention at this dinner about the size of the crowds at the inauguration. This was also the dinner where Trump told Comey that lots of people would like to serve as FBI director in case he didn’t want to stay on.

Most important, this was the meeting during which Trump asked Comey for his loyalty, with Comey pledging his honesty instead. This, then, is the memo that was leaked by Comey to the New York Times through a friend.

What we learned: Comey told Trump that he was “reliable” — but not in the sense of loyalty that political people often mean. He also told Trump he didn’t leak.

Trump told Comey that he questioned the judgment of Michael Flynn, who was then Trump’s national security adviser. He told a story about how Flynn had failed to tell him about a call from a foreign leader (the identity of the leader is redacted) for days after it happened. “The guy has serious judgment issues,” Comey says he was told.

Update: The Wall Street Journal reports that the call was from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The memo details a broad range of other subjects. Among them:

  • Trump asked Comey whether McCabe had a problem with him, given the attacks Trump had leveled during the campaign.
  • Comey defended his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, and the response within the FBI. He told Trump that he “surely didn’t need to tell him that the media sometimes gets stuff wrong.”
  • Trump asked him to compare Barack Obama’s attorneys general, and Comey said that Eric Holder was “smarter and more sophisticated” than Loretta E. Lynch. Comey told Trump that presidents often try to stay close to their attorneys general, which “paradoxically makes things worse.” Trump noted the relationship between John and Robert Kennedy.

Trump also again brought up the Ritz Carlton allegations, calling them “fake news.” Trump told Comey that “he had spoken to people who had been on the Miss Universe trip with him and they had reminded him that he didn’t stay overnight in Russia for that. He said he arrived in the morning, did events, then showered and dressed for the pageant at the hotel.”

This contradicts what his longtime aide Keith Schiller said to congressional investigators. Schiller indicated that they stayed the night.

Trump asked Comey to investigate the Ritz allegations, and Comey replied that he “wouldn’t want to create a narrative that we were investigating him” and that “it is very difficult to disprove a lie.”

The two agreed that Comey should deal mostly with Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff. Trump told Comey both that Priebus did and didn’t know that the two of them were dining that night.

Feb. 8, 2017, memo

Comey and Trump met briefly in the Oval Office after a meeting with Priebus.

What we already knew: It’s not clear that much from this meeting had been reported previously.

What we learned: Trump raised a number of subjects again including whether McCabe harbored a grudge against him and the Ritz-Carlton allegations. Again, Trump told Comey that he hadn’t stayed overnight in Moscow in 2013.

During this conversation, Trump also told Comey that Putin had told him that Russia has “some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.” It’s not clear when this conversation would have occurred, as Trump and Putin are not known to have had any direct conversations before Trump was inaugurated and the two spoke for the first time only once Trump was in the White House, at the end of January. Did Putin mention sex workers in his first phone call with the new president, some have wondered. 

Trump also asked Comey whether he had liked his response to Bill O’Reilly during an interview that aired during the Super Bowl. O’Reilly had noted that Putin was a “killer,” and Trump replied: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?”

Comey indicated that he didn’t like that answer and that Trump had “clearly noticed I had directly criticized him.”

Before speaking with Trump, Comey talked with both Flynn and Priebus. Flynn he spoke to about staffing and fitness. Priebus and he had a lengthier conversation, including about the immigration ban executive order. (Comey thought it was valid.)

When Comey met with Priebus, the chief of staff asked if the FBI had a “FISA order” on Flynn — that is, if the government had been surveilling Flynn’s contacts with foreign agents. Comey answered — the answer is redacted — and suggested a better channel for sharing such information.

Priebus also asked about the Clinton email investigation, saying, Comey wrote, that “it wasn’t the Russians’ fault that she failed to campaign in Michigan, and it wasn’t my fault that she set up her email the way she did. He then pressed me on why it wasn’t chargeable ‘gross negligence,’ and I took him through the facts and the law. At some point I added that it also wasn’t my fault that Huma Abedin forwarded emails to Anthony Weiner.”

Trump and Priebus both also asked about leaks from the West Wing.

Feb. 14, 2017, memo

The day before this, Flynn was fired from the White House, purportedly for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

What we already knew: This was the meeting in which Trump asked Comey to hang back after a larger meeting about counterintelligence. It was the one-on-one discussion during which Trump told Comey that he hoped “you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go” — a comment that Comey interpreted as Trump asking him to drop the Flynn investigation.

The following day, Comey asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to assure that he wasn’t left alone with the president again.

What we learned: Trump also pressed Comey on the leaks, particularly of the transcripts of the president’s calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia. He also lamented the leaks about Flynn’s calls with the Russians, which Trump “stressed was not wrong in any way.”

The two agreed on the need to send a message to leakers — and the media.

“I said I was eager to find leakers and would like to nail one to the door as a message. I said something about it being difficult and he replied that we need to go after the reporters, and referred to the fact that 10 or 15 years ago we put them in jail to find out what they know, and it worked. He mentioned [former Times reporter] Judy Miller by name. I explained that I was a fan of pursuing leaks aggressively but that going after reporters was tricky…”

(Miller spent time in jail for contempt of court instead of revealing her source — who turned out to be White House staffer Scooter Libby, pardoned by Trump earlier this month.)

Trump told Comey to talk to Sessions to be more aggressive. “I said something about the value of putting a head on a pike as a message,” Comey wrote. “He replied by saying it may involve putting reporters in jail. ‘They spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk.’ ”

Comey writes that he laughed at this.

March 1, 2017, memo

Trump called Comey briefly, as recorded in an email sent to the FBI’s James Rybicki.

What we learned: Nothing interesting.

March 30, 2017, memo

Trump called Comey again.

What we already knew: This was the first conversation in which Trump lamented the “cloud” hanging over his presidency from the Russia investigation. Ten days prior, Comey had admitted to the existence of the investigation into Trump’s campaign during a congressional hearing. Trump asked Comey what the FBI director might do to lift that cloud.

Comey told Trump again that the president wasn’t under investigation, and Trump “several times asked me to find a way to get that out.”

What we learned: Trump again raised the issue of the hookers by way of dismissing questions about his involvement with Russia. He said he was going to bring a lawsuit against Steele, the dossier’s author. (This hasn’t happened.) Trump also said, ominously, that Comey was getting more media attention than he was.

Trump also raised a story he had read in The Post. The day prior, our paper had reported that a businessman named Sergei Millian had been in contact with a then little-known Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos.

Trump asked Comey if there was “some satellite” who had done something that it would be good to find that out. Comey interpreted as meaning that Trump was fine with investigating people related to the campaign, as long as his own name was cleared. We know now, of course, that Papadopoulos’s contacts with a British professor led to the revelations that kicked off the entire counterintelligence operation.

And, once again, Trump raised questions about McCabe.

April 11, 2017, memo

Comey returned a call from the president.

What we already knew: This was the second time that Trump asked Comey to try to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation.

What we learned: Comey writes that he thinks Trump was “slightly annoyed” when Comey told him to talk to his superiors at the FBI. Trump said, “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know,” which Comey assumed was a reference to Trump’s request for loyalty on Jan. 28.

The two then discussed the deaths of several Americans in Jordan. Comey ends the memo by writing, “He then said that I was doing a great job and wished me well, The call ended.”

That was the last time the two talked. Comey was fired by Trump on May 9.