The headlines could not be more enticing or salacious. One declared “Comey memoir claims Trump was obsessed with disproving ‘pee tape’ allegation” while others featured the fired FBI director questioning Trump’s marriage. In his book, as well as Sunday’s interview with ABC News, James Comey described Trump’s “slightly orange” face with “bright white half moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles” or discussed how he “made a mental note to check [his hand] size.” (Spoiler alert: Comey found them not unusually small.)
One could easily ask what any of this has to do with justice as an ideal, let alone the Justice Department as an institution. Comey’s book makes the answer plain: Nothing. Comey is selling himself with the vigor of a Kardashian and the viciousness of a Trump. While professing to write the book to protect the FBI as an institution, Comey is doing that institution untold harm by joining an ignoble list of tell-all authors.
Until this week, the very notion of a tell-all book by a former FBI director would have been a contradiction in terms. Past directors have been remarkably circumspect. That ended with Comey’s $100 a ticket book tour to get the nitty-gritty on Trump. Both the book and Comey’s sit-down with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News feature a carefully constructed image of Comey as the virtuous man thrown into the pit of perdition that is the Trump White House. Comey was largely unchallenged in the interview as he claimed to be the “guardian” of the FBI. If true, it is a curious way to go about that. Comey was the most senior person investigating the president, and that investigation is ongoing. Prosecutors and former prosecutors are not supposed to discuss active investigations in public. It cannot benefit this investigation to have Comey hold forth on the underlying facts or reference disclosed and undisclosed evidence, nor is it helpful to his role as a cooperating witness. Witnesses are generally asked to avoid public comments, let alone tell-all books.
Notably, figures like John Dean and even Monica Lewinsky waited for underlying investigations and proceedings to end before cashing in or telling their stories. Not Comey. Timing is everything in a tell-all book, and telling this tale now will make him an exceedingly wealthy man. Comey has a history of acting in his own interest at such moments. When he was fired, he took memos he prepared during the investigation.
These were clearly FBI material, and four of the seven memos are viewed as classified. Comey never informed the FBI, and he gave four to a friend to leak to the press. He could have given them to investigators or to Congress, but he leaked them to control the press narrative. He instantly went from being an unpopular director, particularly with Democrats, to being a wronged civil servant.
It is not just classified information that may have been compromised. Some people might wonder about sharing their own secrets with Comey. Just ask John Kelly: Comey writes in his book that Trump’s chief of staff called him to express support and to denounce Comey’s firing as “dishonorable.” He says Kelly intended to resign. If true, this was a personal and confidential call, but Comey revealed it at obvious risk to Kelly. And it worked. The Kelly story added buzz to the book’s rollout.
What is most telling is how Comey continues to commit the very violations that led to calls for his firing. Stephanopoulos questioned Comey about his controversial decision to disclose information on the Clinton investigation. Before Comey was fired, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo that excoriated Comey for his “serious mistakes” as FBI director and noted that both Democrats and Republicans were calling for his termination.
Rosenstein cited former attorneys general, judges and leading prosecutors who believed Comey “violated his obligation to ’preserve, protect and defend’ the traditions of the Department and the FBI” and “violated long-standing Justice Department policies and tradition.” Rosenstein added that Comey “refused to admit his errors.”
The book and the ABC News interview show Comey is both unrepentant and unchanged. Comey is again discussing the evidence in an ongoing investigation against an uncharged person. He further alluded to still-undisclosed evidence involving former Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s role in the Clinton investigation, evidence he suggested would support him. Comey went even further in the interview, declaring there is “certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice” by Trump.
Comey stated publicly that “I think it’s possible” the Russians have compromising material on Trump and made repeated reference to the possibility that Trump had prostitutes in a Moscow hotel urinate on each other and the bed once used by the Obamas. Rather than saying the allegation remains unverified, Comey said with signature wide-eyed shock that it could have happened. In that one statement, he showed exactly why so many thought he should have been fired on Inauguration Day.
In one of the few challenges to Comey’s account, Stephanopoulos referred to the “previous attorney generals for President Bush, for President Ford, for President Obama, Justice Department officials for President Clinton. They all disagree with you.” Comey flailed around with a long-winded answer and basically said all of them are wrong. Stephanopoulos then offered an alternative rationale that everyone expected Clinton 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 immediately said that must have been his thinking: “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. And so I’m sure that it … was a factor. Like I said, I don’t remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. 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.”
Where in the Justice Department guidelines is an FBI official given license to follow the polls and take actions to legitimize political figures? Comey seemed unfazed by the obvious contradiction when he declared, “If I ever start considering whose political fortunes will be affected by a decision, we’re done … we’re just another player in … the tribal battle.” So you can never “consider political fortunes” unless you are trying to legitimize the expected winner of the presidential election.
In the end, the book and interview tell more about the former FBI director than the president. In again reminding viewers that Trump may have engaged with Russian prostitutes, Comey feigns a pained expression and says, “It is stunning and I wish I wasn’t saying it, but it’s just … the truth.” And more importantly, it is all in his book.