Woensdag 08/02/2023

United States

Comey, in interview, launches all-out war with Trump

Former FBI-director James Comey. Beeld EPA
Former FBI-director James Comey.Beeld EPA

WASHINGTON — If there was any chance that President Donald Trump and James Comey could have avoided all-out war, it ended Sunday night.

Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker

That was when ABC News aired an interview with Comey, the president’s fired FBI director, as he uses a publicity blitz for his searing tell-all memoir, A Higher Loyalty, to raise the alarm about the dangers he says Trump poses to country.

While ABC aired one hour of its conversation with Comey, it had conducted a five-hour interview with him, a transcript of which was obtained by The New York Times. In it, Comey called Trump a serial liar who treated women like “meat,” and described him as a “stain” on everyone who worked for him.

He said a salacious allegation that Trump had cavorted with prostitutes in Moscow had left him vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government. And he asserted that the president was incinerating the country’s crucial norms and traditions like a wildfire. He compared the president to a mafia boss.

“Our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country,” Comey told ABC’s chief anchor, George Stephanopoulos, on the program “20/20.” “The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.”

Publicity tour

The interview with Comey and the publicity tour for his book, which is scheduled to hit bookstores Tuesday, amount to a remarkable public assault on a sitting president by someone who served at the highest levels in the government.

The stakes for both men could hardly be higher. Comey seems likely to be the star witness in any obstruction of justice case that might be brought against the president by Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the sprawling Russia investigation. Trump’s legal fate, as well as his political fortunes in Washington, may depend on whether he succeeds in undermining the credibility of Comey and the law enforcement institutions he views as arrayed against him.

While many of Trump’s critics believe that the proper remedy for his perceived transgressions is impeachment, Comey insisted that would just “let the American people off the hook.” He said the public was “duty bound” to vote Trump out of office in the next election.

A copy of former FBI Director James Comey's new book, 'A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership' is on display, Friday, April 13, 2018, in New York. Beeld AP
A copy of former FBI Director James Comey's new book, 'A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership' is on display, Friday, April 13, 2018, in New York.Beeld AP

“You cannot have, as president of the United States, someone who does not reflect the values that I believe Republicans treasure and Democrats treasure and independents treasure,” Comey said. “That is the core of this country. That’s our foundation. And so impeachment, in a way, would short-circuit that.”

Epic Battle of Wills

Comey’s intensely personal attacks — a reflection of his self-righteousness, his detractors say — are all the more combustible because they are aimed directly at a president who has said with pride on Twitter that “when someone attacks me, I always attack back...except 100x more.”

As if on cue, hours before the interview aired, Trump called Comey a “slimeball” for the second time in three days, saying in a pair of early-morning Twitter posts that he belonged in jail for what the president said were lies to Congress and leaks of classified information. In another post, Trump said Comey would go down in history as “the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!” He added that “he is not smart!”

In the ABC interview, Comey had kinder things to say about Trump’s brainpower, saying he did not think the president suffered from mental incompetence or was in the early stages of dementia. He said Trump struck him as a person of “above average intelligence.”

But Comey responded to the president’s Twitter posts with a more subtle dig of his own.

“My book is about ethical leadership & draws on stories from my life & lessons I learned from others,” he wrote on Twitter. “3 presidents are in my book: 2 help illustrate the values at the heart of ethical leadership; 1 serves as a counterpoint.”

On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday morning, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, unloaded on Comey, calling him a “self-admitted leaker” and a liar. At the White House on Friday, she had called him a “disgraced partisan hack” and a fired employee trying desperately to “rehabilitate his tattered reputation and enrich his own bank account.”

Comey was similarly unrestrained in his ABC interview, speaking with the abandon of a man who finally feels unleashed. He repeated for the cameras some of the assertions from his book that he must know will get under the president’s skin: that Trump’s hands are “average-sized,” that his skin is “orange” and that he seemed shorter than Comey had imagined he would be.

“His tie was too long, as it always is,” Comey said. “He looked slightly orange up close with small white half-moons under his eyes, which I assume are from tanning goggles.”

Comey described in vivid detail the interactions he had with Trump, including meetings and phone calls about which he said he meticulously wrote down notes afterward for posterity. (In another Twitter post Sunday morning, Trump said that Comey’s “'memos’ are self serving and FAKE!”)

Startling New Details

Some of the most startling assertions by Comey revolved around his first meeting with the president-elect at Trump Tower just days before the inauguration. That day, intelligence officials, including Comey, briefed the incoming president on Russia’s attempt to meddle with the election.

Comey said Trump and his aides seemed interested only in what the former FBI director called the “PR and spin” about the issue.

“The conversation, to my surprise, moved into a PR conversation about how the Trump team would position this and what they could say about this,” Comey said. “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?'” Comey said.

It was at the end of the meeting that Comey said he asked to speak to Trump alone to brief him on the salacious “Steele dossier,” which contains unverified allegations about Trump, including a claim that the Russian government has video recordings of him watching prostitutes urinate on one another in a Moscow hotel room in 2013.

Comey said Trump denied the allegations that day, saying, “Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?” Weeks later, in a telephone call after the dossier was published by BuzzFeed, Trump again denied the account in graphic terms, Comey said.

“There’s no way I’d let people pee on each other around me,” Trump said, according to Comey’s account. Comey said the president also raised the idea that the FBI should investigate the claim as a way of proving that it never happened. Comey said he warned Trump that doing so would add to “the narrative” that the president was under investigation.

Comey said in the interview that he did not know whether the episode had taken place, or whether the Russians had material they could use to blackmail Trump.

“I think it’s possible. I don’t know,” Comey told Stephanopolous. “These are more words I never thought I’d utter about a president of the United States, but it’s possible.”

Hallmarks of a Mob Boss

Comey also offered additional details about the one-on-one dinner at which he says Trump demanded his loyalty.

“And I said, ‘You will always get honesty from me,'” Comey recalled. “And he paused and then he said, ‘Honest loyalty,’ as if he was proposing some compromise or a deal. And I paused and said, ‘You’ll get that from me.'”

That dinner felt like a mob initiation of sorts, Comey said in the interview, similar to the ones he often came across as a young prosecutor working to break up the mafia.

“I’m not trying to, by the way, suggest that President Trump is out breaking legs and, you know, shaking down shopkeepers,” Comey said. Instead, it was reminiscent of “the loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant center of everything. It’s all about how do you serve the boss, what’s in the boss’s interests. It’s the family, the family, the family, the family.”

In one of his Sunday Twitter posts, Trump insisted that “I never asked Comey for Personal Loyalty. I hardly even knew this guy.”

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