Former FBI Director James Comey’s new memoir has the misfortune of rendering a verdict on the Trump presidency before what could be its most defining day.
Comey’s book was already finished before the violent mob incited by the president stormed the Capitol last week, leading to five deaths.
“I was sickened, as I hope all Americans were, watching an attack on the center of our democracy,” Comey says of the violence. “And I was also angry as someone who spent a lot of a career in law enforcement; I was angry that it was being allowed to happen and that the Capitol was not being adequately defended. It just mystified me and angered me.”
The federal prosecutor in Washington left open the possibility of charging Trump over crimes related to the riot. Washington, D.C.’s attorney general said the same. Some Democrats have also called for prosecuting Trump over other potential crimes.
Comey tells NPR he thinks Trump should be impeached but opposes a drawn-out federal criminal trial. “I think it’s still the best thing for the country not to have Donald Trump on our television screens every day for the next three or four years,” he says.
Comey’s 2018 book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, describes Trump as “unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values.” His latest offering, Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency and Trust, continues to lay out his case against the Trump administration while assessing former Attorney General William Barr and the Mueller report. Trump’s firing of Comey in 2017 helped set in motion what became Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Comey talked with NPR’s Ailsa Chang about the attack on the Capitol, the response of law enforcement, his actions involving Hillary Clinton’s email in 2016 and trying to convince people to believe the truth.
There were warnings that something on that scale was going to happen at the U.S. Capitol. How concerned are you that law enforcement, potentially, even including the FBI, just were not ready for what happened?
That was the source of my anger as I watched it, because we were faulted as a government after 9/11 by the 9/11 Commission for a failure of imagination, not imagining how the terrorists might attack us. This required no imagination at all. This was just a failure.
Because they were announcing they were coming. They were literally walking slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue. I don’t know how the Capitol was not fortified in an adequate way. And I think it’ll be really important for all of us to find that out with a commission-type examination.
You do make the case at the end of your book that the Justice Department should not spend its time trying to prosecute Donald Trump after he leaves office for the sake of rebuilding national unity and moving on. Do you still believe that, given last week’s events, that Donald Trump should not be prosecuted?
That was a very close call when I wrote about it and finished the book back in the fall. It’s even closer now, but I think it’s still the best thing for the country not to have Donald Trump on our television screens every day for the next three or four years as part of United States v. Trump in the District of Columbia.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to try to heal a country both spiritually and literally, because so many of our fellow citizens are sick and dying. And I just think Donald Trump’s craving for attention is something we don’t want to accommodate now. We don’t want him center of our lives. I’d rather him in his bathrobe yelling at cars on the lawn at Mar-a-Lago with the camera lights off. I think that’s the best thing for the country now. But look, I’m not sure that I’m right.
Do you think he should at least be investigated for his role in what happened at the U.S. Capitol?
I think the Congress has important interests to vindicate. I think he ought to be impeached. And ideally, he would be convicted by the Senate and barred from further office. I also think that the local prosecutors in New York should continue their work to hold him accountable for his life of being a garden-variety criminal before he became president. I’m just talking about not giving him the platform of a daily drama outside the federal courthouse in Washington, while Joe Biden is trying to change this country in a good way.
You mentioned the impeachment process, but impeachment is a political process, right? And you write in your book that for people to trust in the legal system, everyone needs to be held accountable under the law. So how does the country move on when you don’t hold the president of the United States accountable under the law and you rely on a political process, assuming that states don’t end up prosecuting?
That’s what makes it such a close question. But I think slightly differently about the impeachment process. It’s a deeply legal process embedded in our Constitution, and it’s about the American people, through their representatives, holding accountable the chief executive. And so I don’t think of that if there were no federal prosecution as not holding him accountable. I think it’s actually the most important form of accountability right now.
Throughout the book, you talk about this reservoir of trust that’s necessary for the Justice Department to function. In what way do you believe former Attorney General Bill Barr eroded this trust you speak of when the Mueller report was released?
By lying to the American people about it in both written and in a brief press conference, misleading the American people so severely that later a federal judge wouldn’t trust the Department of Justice’s redactions or elimination of some texts from that in deciding what to make public. But that misleading the American people allowed the Trump administration and their enablers to proclaim full vindication, complete vindication, this thing is over. When anyone who took the time to read the report knew that that was false.
You argue that Mueller left himself wide open to having his findings distorted by Bill Barr and others. You say that was Mueller’s fault. Can you just briefly explain that point?
I think the world of Bob Mueller and I have worked with him and considered him a friend for a long time, but I think the way he handled the conclusion of his investigation allowed it to be distorted, lied about by the president and the attorney general. And the reason I say that is: Bob did the old-school thing. He prepared a very long report in single-spaced, 12 Times New Roman with, I think, thousands of footnotes and sent that over as his report. Well, that’s not how Americans consume information. I don’t know that they ever did, but they certainly don’t today. And that allowed the attorney general to go to the keyboard and write pithy letters and offer snapshots in a statement at a press conference to the American people, which drove the entire narrative.
You announced in a letter to Congress just days before the 2016 presidential election that you were restarting the Hillary Clinton email investigation because of a new batch of emails that was discovered. Do you think that you also left room for people to distort what you were, in fact, saying in that letter?
Yeah, I think that’s fair. I mean, it’s a different kind of situation, but it’s the same basic challenge. How do you provide information that fosters the trust and the knowledge of the people that you’re working for, the American people? The challenge there in late October was there was nothing we could say beyond that sparse letter that wouldn’t magnify the harm that was flowing from our doing the notice in the first place. If I had included in there that we found hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, I think I would have increased the harm. And so we wrestled with it. But there was no way to do less harm by speaking more at that point.
I want to turn you now to the ultimate question that you pose in your book, and that is, how do you restore faith in the Justice Department given all that’s happened the last four years? How optimistic are you that restoring that trust is possible?
I’m very optimistic. It will take time. The easiest part’s going to be restoring the morale and the operations of the Department of Justice because the culture is solid. The hard part is going to be reaching those Americans, the tens of millions, literally, who are trapped in a fog of lies about the virus, about our institutions, including about the FBI and the Justice Department. It’ll take time to win that back, to coax those people back to reality. But it’ll happen. The work will prove itself.
And the pick of Judge [Merrick] Garland, who I don’t know, seems to be the perfect person, as Ed Levi was when he became attorney general after Watergate, to restore not just the internal operations of the department, but the way in which the American people see it as something nonpartisan, something above the tribal scrum in our country.
You continually argue in this book that truth is paramount, but how do you make the truth matter when it appears a lot of America does not agree on what the truth is?
It’s very hard. It requires constant attention. And you don’t bring people out of a fog of lies by shouting at them that their facts are wrong.
And so the way you do it is you show them what good looks like. And I’m optimistic that our new president is going to show what empathetic, competent leadership when we need it most looks like, and then people gradually awaken.
I’m actually hoping that this horrific attack on the Capitol is an inflection point in that sense, that if the numbers are to be believed, people are awakening more quickly even than I expected to what’s really going on here. But it will take time. It’ll be earned by the work and by transparency and communication with the American people.
Sam Gringlas and Courtney Dorning produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.