ABC News aired an hour-long interview on Sunday (US time) with James Comey, the FBI director fired by President Donald Trump last year.
George Stephanopoulos, ABC’s chief anchor, interviewed Mr Comey, who is promoting his new book A Higher Loyalty for five hours in all.
ABC published a complete transcript of their conversation. Here are highlights and analysis from that transcript.
ON PRESIDENT TRUMP’S LEADERSHIP
‘He is morally unfit to be president.’
COMEY: I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia. He strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president. I think he’s morally unfit to be president.
A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it — that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds. And that’s not a policy statement. Again, I don’t care what your views are on guns or immigration or taxes.
There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.
During much of the interview, Mr Comey seems disciplined and almost dispassionate. But at the end, he lets loose in a remarkable way. It is hard to think of a time that such a senior official of the government has gone on to so directly question the moral fitness of the sitting president. He said that he hoped Mr Trump would be held accountable for his lies, but that impeachment would be a cop-out for a public that should also be held accountable for electing Mr Trump in the first place.
ON COMPARING THE PRESIDENT TO A MOB BOSS
‘The loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant centre of everything.’
STEPHANOPOULOS: How strange is it for you to sit here and compare the president to a mob boss?
COMEY: Very strange. And I don’t do it lightly. I — and I’m not trying to, by the way, suggest that President Trump is out breaking legs and — you know, shaking down shopkeepers. But instead, what I’m talking about is that leadership culture constantly comes back to me when I think about my experience with the Trump administration. The — the loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant centre of everything, it’s all about how do you serve the boss, what’s in the boss’ interests. It’s the family, the family, the family, the family. That’s why it reminds me so much and not, “So what’s the right thing for the country and what are the values of the institutions that we’re dealing with?”
The comparison to the mob is sure to be one of the more controversial takeaways of Mr Comey’s new book. But it is one that Mr Comey repeatedly defends in the interview.
ON MEETING TRUMP AT A WHITE HOUSE RECEPTION
‘How could he think this is a good idea?’
COMEY: And so I’m walking forward thinking that, thinking: “How could he think this is a good idea? That he’s going to try to hug me, the guy that a whole lot of people think, although that’s not true, but think I tried to get him elected president and did. Isn’t he master of television? This is disastrous.”
One of the enduring images of Mr Comey was captured by television cameras shortly after Mr Trump became president and held a reception at the White House for law enforcement officials. Mr Trump calls to Mr Comey, who walks across a room to shake the President’s hand, and Mr Trump appears to lean over and almost kiss his cheek.
The moment was one of many that Mr Comey describes in which he believes the president is trying to intimidate him into understanding that they are both on the same side, part of the same team.
ON TRUMP’S PHYSIQUE
‘It seemed like he had average-sized hands.’
COMEY: I say that in my book ‘cause I’m trying to be honest, ‘cause that’s the truth there had been all this controversy and mocking about hand size, I can’t remember the details. But as I shook his hand I made a note to check the size and it seemed like he had average-sized hands.
Mr Comey describes his book as an attempt to have a thoughtful discussion about ethics, values, honesty and other serious topics. But he also includes a few salacious details that he — and his publishers — know will help sales.
He says that Mr Trump is shorter than he thought (coming from a man who stands 6 feet 8). He notes that Mr Trump’s tie was too long and that his hair was perfectly coifed.
But perhaps the observation about his hands is most likely to get the President riled up. After Senator Marco Rubio mocked Mr Trump in a presidential debate, Mr Trump declared: “Look at those hands; are they small hands?”
Mr Comey said in the interview that he recalled those moments as he shook the President’s hand for the first time.
ON TRUMP’S MONOLOGUES
‘It was him talking almost the entire time.’
COMEY: It was him talking almost the entire time, which I’ve discovered is something he frequently does. And so it would be monologue in this direction, monologue in that direction, monologue in a different direction.
And a constant series of assertions that — about the inauguration crowd, about how great my inauguration speech was, about all the free media — earned media, I think was his term, that I got during the campaign. On and on and on and on. Everyone agrees, everyone agrees, I did this, the — I never assaulted these women, I never made fun of a reporter.
And — I’m sure you’re wondering what question did I ask that would prompt those? None, zero. I didn’t ask any questions that I recall.
One of the most interesting observations by Mr Comey during the interview was that Mr Trump delivers monologues that are intended to leave the impression that those listening agree completely with him.
Mr Comey notes on several occasions that in private conversations, the President simply makes assertions — often falsely — without giving the people he’s talking to a chance to interject or object. It’s an interesting observation because it is similar to what Mr Trump does in public.
When he is giving remarks to a small group around a table at the White House, he often rambles from one topic to the next, making assertions that often are not true but cannot be challenged at the time because they come in such rapid-fire fashion.
And Mr Comey notes that the President often says contradictory things in the same monologue. He noted that over dinner, the President told him that Reince Priebus, the chief of staff at the time, didn’t know they were having dinner together. But later, Mr Trump told Mr Comey to follow up with Mr Priebus, who knew they were having dinner together.
“One of those things is not true. One of those things is a lie,” Mr Comey says in the interview.
ON THOSE WHO WORK WITH THE PRESIDENT
‘He will stain everyone around him.’
COMEY: The challenge of this president is that he will stain everyone around him. And the question is, how much stain is too much stain and how much stain eventually makes you unable to accomplish your goal of protecting the country and serving the country? So I don’t know.
Mr Comey reveals in his book that John Kelly, the current White House chief of staff, said he wanted to resign in protest when Mr Comey was fired. In the interview, he says he urged Mr Kelly to stay for the good of the country.
ON INFORMING PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP ABOUT RUSSIA’S MEDDLING IN THE ELECTION
‘I don’t remember any questions about, “So what are they going to do next. How might we stop it?”’
COMEY: No one, to my recollection, asked, “So what — what’s coming next from the Russians?” You’re about to lead a country that has an adversary attacking it and I don’t remember any questions about, “So what are they going to do next? How might we stop it? What’s the future look like? Because we’ll be custodians of the security of this country.” There was none of that. It was all, “What can we say about what they did and how it affects the election that we just had.”
Much has been written about the meeting in Trump Tower on January 6 when Mr Comey and other intelligence officials briefed Mr Trump and his top aides about Russian interference. Mr Comey says that the President-elect and his aides were more concerned about how to “spin” it publicly. And he says that he got the feeling that Mr Trump wanted to talk about the public relations effort with the intelligence chiefs there to send a message that they were part of the spin effort as well.
ON WHETHER THE RUSSIANS ARE BLACKMAILING THE PRESIDENT
‘I think it’s possible. I don’t know.’
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump?
COMEY: I think it’s possible. I don’t know. These are more words I never thought I’d utter about a president of the United States, but it’s possible.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s stunning. You can’t say for certain that the president of the United States is not compromised by the Russians?
COMEY: It is stunning and I wish I wasn’t saying it, but it’s just — it’s the truth. I cannot say that. It always struck me and still strikes me as unlikely, and I would have been able to say with high confidence about any other president I dealt with, but I can’t. It’s possible.
Some of Mr Comey’s assertions in the interview, and the book, are sure to be assailed by his critics. Among the most damning is that he cannot say for sure whether the President is being blackmailed by the Russians. He offers no proof that there is such blackmail.
ON THE PRESIDENT’S REQUEST TO ‘LET GO’ OF THE FLYNN INVESTIGATION
‘It’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice.’
COMEY: It’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice. It would depend and — and I’m just a witness in this case, not the investigator or prosecutor, it would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent.
Perhaps the most consequential exchange between Mr Comey and Mr Trump occurred when the President cleared the Oval Office of his staff — including the vice president — and asked to speak with Mr Comey alone. It was in that session that Mr Comey says that the president asked him to “let go” of the investigation into Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who had just been fired.
Mr Comey makes it clear what he thinks the president’s motivations were.
“Really? The President just kicked out the attorney general to ask me to drop a criminal investigation. Wow, the world continues to go crazy.”
ON THE ‘STEELE DOSSIER’
‘Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?’
COMEY: And then I started to tell him about the allegation was that he had been involved with prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow in 2013 during the visit for the Miss Universe pageant and that the Russians had — filmed the episode. And he interrupted very defensively and started talking about it, you know, “Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?”
The public has known for months that Mr Comey privately briefed the president about the so-called Steele dossier, which contained salacious and unverified information about the president’s activities. But it’s one thing to know that; it’s another to hear Mr Comey describe the conversation in detail.
Mr Comey notes how odd it felt to be talking with the incoming president about allegations that he had been with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.
Mr Comey asserts that he and other intelligence officials believed it was important for Mr Trump to know that the information about him was in circulation and might soon become public. But it’s clear from his description of the conversation that Mr Trump’s anger toward him began that day.
Mr Comey also says that his decision to assure the President that he was not under investigation — something that was true at that moment — was a mistake because it later angered Mr Trump that Mr Comey and other officials would not say the same thing publicly.
ON DISCUSSING THE ALLEGATION OF A GRAPHIC VIDEOTAPE
‘The world’s gone crazy.’
COMEY: And then he said, “Another reason you know it’s not true is I’m a germophobe. There’s no way I’d let people pee on each other around me.” And that caught me so much by surprise I actually let out an audible laugh and — because it was just one of those — I was startled by it.
And — and I remember thinking, “Well, should I say that, ‘As I understand the activity, sir, it doesn’t require an overnight stay. And given that it was allegedly the presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton, I would imagine you could be at a safe distance from the activity.’” All these things are bouncing around my head. But instead of saying it, it just led me to think, “The world’s gone crazy.”
I’m the director of the FBI and I’m standing at my window, looking out on the darkened Pennsylvania Avenue. And I remember this moment like it was yesterday. And I can see the lit Washington Monument that’s rising from my vantage point of the FBI just over the Trump — new Trump hotel. And I just remember thinking, “Everything’s gone mad.” And then, having finished his explanation, which I hadn’t asked for, he hung up. And I went to find my chief of staff to tell him that the world’s gone crazy.
This is the most graphic allegation about the President in the Steele dossier. Mr Trump raised it directly in a phone call after BuzzFeed published the dossier, Mr Comey says.
In the interview, Mr Comey offers striking thoughts on the president’s assertions as he notes that someone would not have had to stay in the hotel room overnight for the incident to be true.
ON TRUMP’S DESIRE TO HAVE THE VIDEOTAPE ALLEGATION REFUTED
‘It’s very difficult to prove something didn’t happen.’
COMEY: When he started talking about it — “I may order you to investigate that” — I said, “Sir, that’s up to you. But you’d want to be careful about that, because it might create a narrative that we’re investigating you personally. And second, it’s very difficult to prove something didn’t happen.”
What is clear from Mr Comey’s descriptions of his interactions with the President is that Mr Trump is often unaware of the dangers he is putting himself into.
ON THE CLINTON EMAIL INVESTIGATION
‘This wasn’t your ordinary bureaucrat who just mishandles one document.’
STEPHANOPOULOS: And you also would not use the words “extreme carelessness” today?
COMEY: No. I’d find some — I don’t know what it would be, sitting here. Find some other way to convey, because I wanted to be honest and transparent. This wasn’t your ordinary bureaucrat who just mishandles one document.
This was something more than that. But not something that anybody would prosecute. And — and that’s one of the things about the criticism that drives me crazy. Nobody who has done counterespionage work would think this is a case that’s been prosecuted — would be prosecuted, ever. And so I needed to find a way to both convey that and to capture that it was more than just ordinary carelessness.
Repeatedly in the interview, Mr Comey defends his decision to hold a news conference in the summer of 2016 announcing the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. He instead asserted that Mrs Clinton had used “extreme carelessness” in her handling of classified materials.
In the end, he admits, the words he chose made both sides angry (and led to criticism from his wife and daughters, who supported Mrs Clinton). But he adamantly defends the overall choice to hold the news conference, saying that if he had just issued a one-line statement closing the investigation, critics would have said it was “fixed”.
It’s an answer that is unlikely to satisfy many people or persuade them to change their minds, and Mr Comey seems to know that.
ON NOT REVEALING THE RUSSIA INVESTIGATION DURING THE CAMPAIGN
‘This was very different.’
COMEY: Consistent with our policy — again, very different than the Hillary Clinton case, which began with a public referral. Everybody knew we were looking at her emails. So when we confirmed it three months later, there’s no jeopardy at all to the investigation.
This was very different. We did not want these Americans to know that we had reason to believe they might be working with the Russians because we got to run this down and investigate it.
Democrats have long assailed Mr Comey for having a double standard: He revealed and confirmed the existence of an inquiry into Mrs Clinton’s emails before the election, but he refused to tell the American people that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russians.
He says the Trump-Russia investigation needed to be kept secret because the people under investigation didn’t know that the FBI was on to them. To reveal it would have imperilled the investigation, he says.
ON REVEALING THAT THE CLINTON EMAIL INQUIRY WAS REOPENED
‘Concealing is catastrophic.’
COMEY: Speaking is really bad; concealing is catastrophic. If you conceal the fact that you have restarted the Hillary Clinton email investigation, not in some silly way but in a very, very important way that may lead to a different conclusion, what will happen to the institutions of justice when that comes out?
Mr Comey has been repeatedly criticised by Democrats for deciding to announce — just days before the 2016 election — that the FBI was reopening the Clinton email case. It is, to many Democrats, evidence that he was biased against Mrs Clinton, or driven by an egotistic need to be in the spotlight.
One interesting point: He argues that even if he had chosen not to reveal the investigation, he thinks it would have leaked out anyway before the election. He argues that there had been many leaks from inside the FBI’s New York offices, which was handling the case.
ON THINKING THAT CLINTON WOULD WIN
‘I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump.’
STEPHANOPOULOS: At some level, wasn’t the decision to reveal influenced by your assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win? And your concern that she wins, this comes out several weeks later, and then that’s taken by her opponent as a sign that she’s an illegitimate president?
COMEY: It must have been. I don’t remember consciously thinking about that, but it must have been. Because I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. And so I’m sure that it — that it was a factor. Like I said, I don’t remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That — that she’s going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she’ll be illegitimate the moment she’s elected, the moment this comes out.
Mr Comey’s acknowledgment has been seized on by Democrats as evidence that he admits being driven by political considerations.
He disputes that in the interview, saying that he was not driven by a desire to see a particular outcome.
ON OBAMA’S REMARKS ABOUT THE EMAIL INVESTIGATION
‘He shouldn’t have done that.’
COMEY: I think he felt a pressure in the political environment because he wanted Hillary Clinton to be elected, to give her a shot in the arm. And so he spoke about an investigation. And he shouldn’t have done that.
Mr Comey generally speaks highly of former president Barack Obama. And his criticism of Mr Obama seems a little quaint given what Mr Comey describes elsewhere in the interview about Mr Trump’s public and private attempts to influence the Russia investigation. But at the time of the email investigation, the former FBI director suggests, Mr Obama’s public statements were one reason that Mr Comey decided to make a public statement about the end of the email inquiry.
At another point in the interview, he also cites classified information suggesting that Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, was trying to protect the Clinton campaign. It’s unclear what that evidence was — he won’t say. But he says that even though he didn’t believe it was true, the existence of the material made it more important for him to act independently of Ms Lynch.
ON HIS IMPACT ON THE ELECTION
‘Oh my God, did we have some role in this?’
COMEY: But a whole lot of me was thinking, “Oh my God, did we have some role in this? Did we have some impact on the election?” And it’s an incredibly painful juxtaposition, but also thinking, “I really wouldn’t have done it any differently.”
God, I hope we had no impact. I hope we had no impact. But it — I know — I worry it sounds arrogant to say, but it — it wouldn’t change the result.
Despite his damning conclusions about Mr Trump, Mr Comey says that he would not have wanted to change a decision because he thought it might get Mr Trump elected.
He says, “That’s not the FBI’s role.” And yet, he offers searing observations later in the interview about Mr Trump, saying he is untethered from the truth and is morally unfit to be president.
ON HIS OWN EGO
‘I have to be careful not to fall in love with my own view of things.’
COMEY: One of the things I’ve struggled with my whole life is my ego and — and a sense that I — I have to be careful not to fall in love with my own view of things.
In several places in the interview, Mr Comey confronts head-on the criticism — from Democrats and Republicans alike — that his ego drove him to make flawed decisions as FBI director.
He remains defensive throughout much of the interview, saying that he still believes he made the right decisions about the Clinton email case and other contentious actions. But the admission that he struggles with his ego seems like a savvy attempt to give his critics a win, even as he disputes their ultimate conclusion about his motives.
-The New York Times