After explaining to Mr. Trump how communications with the F.B.I. should work, Comey believed he had drawn the line with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardized the F.B.I.’s independence.
By Benjamin Wittes / Lawfare / Thursday, May 18, 2017, 8:02 PM
he New York Times is reporting tonight:
President Trump called the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation, according to two people briefed on the call.
Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau’s investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquires to the Justice Department, according to those people.
After explaining to Mr. Trump how communications with the F.B.I. should work, Mr. Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line after a series of encounters he had with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardized the F.B.I.’s independence. At the time, Mr. Comey was overseeing the investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.
I did not know this particular fact, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. The principal source for the rest of this story is, well, me—specifically a long interview I gave to reporter Michael Schmidt on Friday about my conversations with FBI Director James Comey over the last few months, and particularly about one such conversation that took place on March 27 over lunch in Comey’s FBI office.
This story breaks hard on the heels of this week’s revelation—also by the Times—that Trump had asked Comey to bury the investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn. A few words of elaboration are in order.
I called Schmidt Friday morning after reading his earlier story, which ran the previous evening, about Comey’s dinner with President Trump and the President’s demands at that dinner for a vow of loyalty. Schmidt had reported that Trump requested that Comey commit to personal loyalty to the President, and that Comey declined, telling the President that he would always have Comey’s “honesty.” When I read Schmidt’s account, I immediately understood certain things Comey had said to me over the previous few months in a different, and frankly more menacing, light. While I am not in the habit of discussing with reporters my confidential communications with friends, I decided that the things Comey had told me needed to be made public.
As I told Schmidt, I did not act in any sense at Comey’s request. The information I provided, however, dovetails neatly with the Times‘s subsequent discovery of the personal confrontation described above between Comey and the President over investigative inquiries and inquiries directly to the Bureau from the White House.
I did this interview on the record because the President that morning was already issuing threatening tweets suggesting that Comey was leaking things, and I didn’t want any room for misunderstanding that any kind of leak had taken place with respect to the information I was providing. There was no leak from Comey, no leak from anyone else at the FBI, and no leak from anyone outside of the bureau either—just conversations between friends, the contents of which one friend is now disclosing. For the same reason, I insisted that Schmidt record the conversation and give me a copy of the recording, so that we had a good record of what was said: both what was said by Comey as reported by me, and what was said by me about the conversation. Schmidt and I have had a few clarifying phone calls since then that were not recorded.
Before I go on, let me pause briefly to explain my relationship with Comey, which has been the subject of a lot of misinformation since I disclosed that we are friends in a piece in his defense a few months back. Ever since then, and particularly since Gizmodo used me as forensic evidence in its weird effort to out a supposed Comey Twitter account, people have developed this idea that Comey and I are especially close. Some people have even started following me on Twitter because they think I’m channeling Comey or am some secret line into his thinking. The truth is rather more pedestrian: We’re friends. We communicate regularly, but I am not among his close intimates or advisers. I know nothing about the Russia investigation that isn’t public. Comey has never talked to me about a live investigative matter—and I’ve never asked him to.
That said, sometimes, as friends do, we have lunch, and when we do so, we talk about things of mutual interest, like how Lawfare is going or how life running the FBI is going. And those latter conversations necessarily involve President Trump—and President Obama before him.
Note that in the conversations I’m going to describe here, I was not interviewing Comey. There are any number of follow-up questions I would ask were I meeting him in a journalistic capacity that I did not ask. So in the conversations I’m about to relate, the answers to all questions about whether I followed up on this or that point is that I did not. I never expected to be giving a public account of his thinking during this period. I took no notes. What follows is just my recollection of things he told about his interactions with Trump that I now believe flesh out the relationship between the two men in the weeks after that dinner about which the New York Times reported and in the period in which Trump also apparently asked Comey to back off of Flynn—and in which I now learn that Comey also told the President to stop asking the FBI about investigative matters.
The first point is a general one: Comey was preoccupied throughout this period with the need to protect the FBI from these inquiries on investigative matters from the White House. Two incidents involving such inquiries have become public: the Flynn discussion and Reince Priebus’s query to Andrew McCabe about whether the then-Deputy FBI Director could publicly dispute the New York Times’ reporting regarding communications between Trump associates and Russian officials. Whether there were other such incidents I do not know, but I suspect there were. What I do know is that Comey spent a great deal of energy doing what he alternately described as “training” the White House that officials had to go through the Justice Department and “reestablishing” normal hands-off White House-Bureau relations.
Comey never said specifically that this policing was about the Russia matter, but I certainly assumed that it was—probably alongside other things. While I do not know how many incidents we’re talking about, how severe they were, or their particular character, I do know this: Comey understood Trump’s people as having neither knowledge of nor respect for the independence of the law enforcement function. And he saw it as an ongoing task on his part to protect the rest of the Bureau from improper contacts and interferences from a group of people he did not regard as honorable. This was a general preoccupation of Comey’s in the months he and Trump overlapped—and the difference between this relationship and his regard for Obama (which was deep) was profound and palpable.
Second, Comey described at least two incidents which he regarded as efforts on the part of the President personally to compromise him or implicate him with either shows of closeness or actual chumminess with the President.
The first incident he told me about was the infamous “hug” from Trump after the inauguration:
The hug took place at a White House meeting to which Trump had invited law enforcement leadership to thank them for their role in the inauguration. Comey described really not wanting to go to that meeting, for the same reason he later did not want to go to the private dinner with Trump: the FBI director should be always at arm’s length from the President, in his view. There was an additional sensitivity here too, because many Democrats blamed Comey for Trump’s election, so he didn’t want any shows of closeness between the two that might reinforce a perception that he had put a thumb on the scale in Trump’s favor. But he also felt that he could not refuse a presidential invitation, particularly not one that went to a broad array of law enforcement leadership. So he went. But as he told me the story, he tried hard to blend into the background and avoid any one-on-one interaction. He was wearing a blue blazer and noticed that the drapes were blue. So he stood in the back, right in front of the drapes, hoping Trump wouldn’t notice him camouflaged against the wall. If you look at the video, Comey is standing about as far from Trump as it is physically possible to be in that room.
And for a long time, he reported, Trump didn’t seem to notice him. The meeting was nearly over, he said, and he really thought he was going to get away without an individual interaction. But when you’re six foot, eight inches tall, it’s hard to blend in forever, and Trump ultimately singled him out—and did so with the most damning faint praise possible: “Oh, and there’s Jim. He’s become more famous than me!”
Comey took the long walk across the room determined, he told me, that there was not going to be a hug. Bad enough that he was there; bad enough that there would be a handshake; he emphatically did not want any show of warmth.
Again, look at the video, and you’ll see Comey preemptively reaching out to shake hands. Trump grabs his hand and attempts an embrace. The embrace, however, is entirely one sided.
Comey was disgusted. He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him.
The loyalty dinner took place five days later.
Comey never told me the details of the dinner meeting; I don’t think I even knew that there had been a meeting over dinner until I learned it from the Times story. But he did tell me in general terms that early on, Trump had “asked for loyalty” and that Comey had promised him only honesty. He also told me that Trump was perceptibly uncomfortable with this answer. And he said that ever since, the President had been trying to be chummy in a fashion that Comey felt was designed to absorb him into Trump’s world—to make him part of the team. Comey was deeply uncomfortable with these episodes. He told me that Trump sometimes talked to him a fashion designed to implicate him in Trump’s way of thinking. While I was not sure quite what this meant, it clearly disquieted Comey. He felt that these conversations were efforts to probe how resistant he would be to becoming a loyalist. In light of the dramatic dinner meeting and the Flynn request, it’s easy to see why they would be upsetting and feel like attempts at pressure.
On March 27, he described one incident in particular that had bothered him. Comey was about to get on a helicopter when his phone rang. It was the White House saying that the President wanted to speak with him. Figuring there must be something urgent going on, he delayed his flight to take the call. To his surprise, the President just wanted to chitchat. He was trying to be social, Comey related; there was no agenda, much less an urgent one. Notably, since the President has claimed that Comey told him in two phone conversations that he was not under investigation, Comey said nothing to me about the subject coming up in this call. Indeed, he regarded the call as weird for how substanceless it was. What bothered Comey was twofold—the fact that the conversation happened at all (why was Trump calling him to exchange pleasantries?) and the fact that there was an undercurrent of Trump’s trying to get him to kiss the ring.
By the time we had lunch that day, Comey thought he had the situation under control. It had required a lot of work, he said, to train the White House that there were questions officials couldn’t ask and that all contacts had to go through the Justice Department. But he thought the work had been done. After reading the top few paragraphs of the Times story, I now have no doubt that he was referring among other things to the conversation with the President, which he did not mention specifically to me. He also thought that policing the lines he had established was going to require constant vigilance on his part in the future.
He said repeatedly that it was going to be a very long few years. And he joked that the hashtag I use on Twitter—#NotesFromUnderTrump, which identifies the particular day of the Trump presidency—was ticking very slowly.
He said one other thing that day that, in retrospect, stands out in my memory: he expressed wariness about the then-still-unconfirmed deputy attorney general nominee, Rod Rosenstein. This surprised me because I had always thought well of Rosenstein and had mentioned his impending confirmation as a good thing. But Comey did not seem enthusiastic. The DOJ does need Senate-confirmed leadership, he agreed, noting that Dana Boente had done a fine job as acting deputy but that having confirmed people to make important decisions was critical. And he agreed with me that Rosenstein had a good reputation as a solid career guy.
That said, his reservations were palpable. “Rod is a survivor,” he said. And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises. “So I have concerns.”
In retrospect, I think I know what Comey must have been thinking at that moment. He had been asked to pledge loyalty by Trump. When he had declined, and even before, he had seen repeated efforts to—from his point of view—undermine his independence and probe the FBI’s defenses against political interference. He had been asked to drop an investigation. He had spent the last few months working to defend the normative lines that protect the FBI from the White House. And he had felt the need personally to make clear to the President that there were questions he couldn’t ask about investigative matters. So he was asking himself, I suspect: What loyalty oath had Rosenstein been asked to swear, and what happened at whatever dinner that request took place?
I don’t want to make a unified field theory out of these incidents, which are pieces of a much larger mosaic—a mosaic that surely includes whatever Comey knew about the Russia investigation, among many other things. But I am confident that these incidents tell a story about Comey’s thinking over the months that he and Trump were in office together. And I think they also sketch a trajectory in which Trump kept Comey on board only as long as it took him to figure out that there was no way to make Comey part of the team. Once he realized that he couldn’t do that—and that the Russia matter was thus not going away—he pulled the trigger.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books and is co-chair of the Hoover Institution’s Working Group on National Security, Technology, and Law.