This post is excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here.
If James Comey’s media strategy is simply to say things that get under President Trump’s skin, thus prompting the president to rage-tweet, thus generating media attention, thus generating book sales, thus driving profits, well, it all seems to be working. Last night, ahead of the launch of the former FBI director’s book A Higher Loyalty tomorrow, ABC aired an hourlong interview with Comey. (I didn’t stay up to watch; here’s a transcript). This morning, USA Today published its own interview, in which Comey said many of the same things. Here’s a quick overview:
- USA Today: “In an extraordinary interview, former FBI director James Comey called Donald Trump ‘morally unfit to be president’ and said he believed it was possible the Russians were holding compromising personal information over the head of the commander in chief. … ‘I actually believe he’s morally unfit to be president,’ Comey told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview Friday at his home in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington. He called that characterization appropriate for ‘someone who is able to see moral equivalence in (white nationalist protests in) Charlottesville or to speak and treat women like they’re pieces of meat and to lie constantly and who appears to lack an external moral framework’ of religion or philosophy or history. In an even more explosive comment, Comey said it would be less than honest to rule out the possibility that Trump had been compromised by one of the United States’ primary foreign adversaries. ‘It’s hard to explain some things without at least leaving your mind open to that being a possibility,’ said Comey, who has served three presidents in senior posts. ‘There’s a non-zero possibility that the Russians have some, some sway over him that is rooted in his personal experience, and I don’t know whether that’s the business about the activity in a Moscow hotel room or finances or something else.’”
- To recap: 1) The president is morally unfit. 2) The Russian may have something on him. 3) The pee tape might be real. That is a hell of a statement for the former director of the FBI to make about a sitting president of the United States, even if he is trying to sell a book.
- From the NYT’s recap of the ABC interview, Comey also thinks there might be an obstruction case: “Mr. Comey says that Mr. Trump asked him to drop the F.B.I.’s investigation of Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, after a White House meeting with Mr. Trump and other senior officials. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Comey says, the president asked everyone in the room to clear out, save for Mr. Comey. The request, Mr. Comey recalled in the interview, was too brazen to be spontaneous. ‘Why am I alone if he doesn’t know the nature of the request?’ Mr. Comey said. [George] Stephanopoulos pointed out that Mr. Trump denied he had made the request. ‘Yeah, well, what am I going to do? He did,’ Mr. Comey said flatly. Mr. Stephanopoulos asked if that scene in the White House constituted obstruction of justice. ‘Possibly,’ Mr. Comey said. ‘I mean, it’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice.’”
- But he also said he doesn’t favor impeachment. From WaPo: “He said that he would not favor impeaching Trump to remove him from office, because that ‘would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty-bound to do directly’—meaning through elections. But he made clear his view of whether Trump was fit to hold the position. ‘This president does not reflect the values of this country,’ Comey said.”
- Also WaPo: “Parts of the interview are likely to revive the fury of Clinton supporters who think he cost her the presidency by reopening the email investigation less than two weeks before the election. When Stephanopoulos asked him if the decision was ‘influenced by your assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win,’ Comey replied: ‘It must have been. I don’t remember consciously thinking about that, but it must have been. ’Cause I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump.’ He also said he was sorry for how he handled the first announcement in July 2016 that he was closing the Clinton email probe without seeking any charges. He says he agrees now with the criticism that his remarks muddied important issues. … He also spoke at length about his complicated relationship with former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch. Previously, Comey’s defenders have argued that a Russian intelligence document the FBI received in early 2016 suggesting Lynch would protect Clinton in some fashion from the email probe meant that he had to cut her out of the final decision-making process. But The Washington Post has reported that many FBI officials viewed the allegation against Lynch as dubious at best—and possibly one of Russia’s very first disinformation efforts during the 2016 campaign.”
WHAT IT MEANS: It’s this last bit where Comey’s efforts to cast himself as a defender of the institution comes up flat for me. He, probably more than any other figure, is responsible for the Trump presidency. It was his decision to give an against-protocol press conference lambasting Hillary Clinton while not charging her with a crime. It was his decision to release a letter a few days before the election insinuating that the investigation had been reopened based on new evidence that turned out to be nothing. And all the while, it was his FBI that kept its investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia hidden from the American public. So this is a very much a mess of his own making, and let’s not forget that.