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Former FBI chief James Comey: How to save US justice after Trump

Former FBI director James Comey - Credit: Rouse Photography Group

James Comey, the blurb on the inside cover of his new book, Saving Justice, says, “might be best known as the FBI director Donald Trump fired in 2017”.

Which is true, but, as I tell him when we speak via Zoom from his home in Fairfax County, Virginia, I instinctively want to speak about a favourite story from the book, in which a criminal escapes from the seventh floor of the Manhattan federal prison using dental floss. 

“Take the gloves! Takes the gloves!,” the 60-year-old laughs. (You can read the book for the details, but basically sliding bare-handed down dental floss seven floors is inadvisable).

It’s one of many tales that form the first, pre-Trump, three quarters of a book that uses Comey’s long, varied career in the US legal system to illustrate a clarion call for the return of truth and fairness to its institutions.

“I’d had these stories for a long time so it gave me a chance to trick people into learning about the values of an institution I care about with fun stories,” he says.

“My goal was to try and teach non-experts and people who haven’t worked in the government about this institution that’s so important to our democracy, the institution of justice, and to do it in an entertaining way and communicate to them these values that matter. Also that I can explain the jeopardy they’ve been in over the last four years and the imperative of repairing and restoring it.

“A whole lot of Americans don’t get it, don’t understand why I’m so exercised about what’s happening. And so maybe I could teach them about how justice is supposed to be compared to what it’s been and then offer a way forward that would be useful to a new administration.”

As a registered Republican for most of his adult life, albeit now, unsurprisingly, a Joe Biden voter, New York State-born Comey is keen that he is not seeking to preach to the converted. Rather, he suggests, much of the US public has been gaslit by the Trump presidency.

“One of the great challenges for America in the coming years is gonna be taking the millions of people who have been caught in a fog of lies… I used to prosecute fraud cases. And I remember cases where the fraudster would plead guilty but the fraud victims would come to the sentencing to speak on his behalf. They are often the last people to acknowledge they’d been defrauded. 

“And we have millions of Americans who are defrauded about the virus, about institutions, about the election. And they’re trapped in that fog. And so one of our central challenges is gonna be recognising that you don’t move those people by shouting at them. You have to offer them a way out of that fog. And that’s gonna be a big challenge for Joe Biden. I hope to be a small part of trying to reorient some of those people.”

Saving Justice has a striking tonal change three quarters of the way in, when Trump comes to power, less than three-and-a-half years into Comey’s tenure as FBI director (the position is appointed for 10). An analysis of the importance of fairness and equity in dispensing justice turns to anger as he becomes increasingly politicised.

“I think I have participated as a partisan since I was fired in ways I never imagined,” he says.

“And it’s the reason I don’t think it would be appropriate – no-one’s gonna ask me – but I don’t think it’s ever going to be appropriate for me to go back into a leadership role as part of the justice institution. Because I’ve chosen to do that. And I felt an obligation to – I thought I’d be ashamed of myself if I remained silent. I’ve participated in politics in a way I never imagined that I would.”

Comey famously lasted four months as FBI director under Trump. The latter was unhappy at the Bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the election that brought him to power. At a dinner of just the two of them at the end of the President’s first week in office – itself unorthodox, given the distance the executive would be expected to keep from the Bureau – Trump told Comey: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” He meant to him personally and not the office of President, Comey says.

“It was clear from the way that he asked it and also the context,” he says. “He began that dinner – which was in itself very odd, that we were alone – by asking me what did I want to do, in other words, did I want to stay in the job. And so that both revealed a lie – he had already asked me to stay in the job – and that this was about a quid pro quo, this was about some exchange. He wanted something.”

Some of the earlier stories in Saving Justice tell of Comey prosecuting mobsters as an assistant US attorney in New York in the 1980s. Reading them together so closely, Trump can come across, I say, like a mafioso. 

“When I first dealt with Donald Trump, this image of the Cosa Nostra kept popping in my head,” he says, agreeing. 

“And I kept suppressing it and telling myself ‘You’re getting emotional, stop that’. And it kept coming back and coming back, and, you know, human instincts are powerful… it came because I was picking up facts that made it a reasonable thing to feel. He really does operate as a criminal boss. And that’s the way he is. 

“I was reading in the American press today about his conversations with Vice-President Pence, trying to threaten him and cajole him into doing something that’s illegal and telling him if he didn’t he’d be a p***y. And that’s how a mob boss talks, that’s not how the President of the United States talks. So there’s a good reason it popped into your head.”

Interestingly, Comey describes the outgoing president as amoral, rather than immoral. Why, I wonder?

“I think he’s a nihilist, he’s empty,” he says. 

“And Donald Trump in every moment is trying to do that which fills the hole in him in that moment. What will get me the affirmation that I need in this moment? And sometimes by accident that can be a deeply moral act. But he’s acting out of complete self-interest which means some things he’s gonna do are good, bad… he’s not thinking about the distinctions between those people. 

“He’s untethered to any kind of external framework. He’s not guided by faith or logic or history or moral philosophy or tradition.”

It’s little wonder then that, partly, Comey was relieved to be fired (he found out from TV news reports as he was making a speech to agents in Los Angeles).

“Yeah, in part, sure,” he says. “Because I was away from so much awfulness. I mean, it is very, very stressful. I’m sure it is for Chris Wray, the current FBI director, ‘cause he’s a person of principle. To be a principled person close to this president – very stressful. And so, yeah, a big part of me was, like, I don’t have to wake up each morning thinking about what they’re gonna try to get me to do and how do I stop it.”

In his book Comey writes it is not the time for the Justice Department to pursue a criminal investigation of Trump. That, though, was written at the back end of last year. On the day we speak, not far from Virginia the House of Representatives was deciding whether to impeach the President over his role in the storming of Congress. Has Comey changed his mind?

“I haven’t. I’ve had cause to struggle even more with the question,” he says. 

“When I finished the book in the Fall it was a very hard and close question. It’s even harder and closer now. I think I’m still in a place, though, where I think the national interest would best be served by not giving him the daily platform on our screens that United States v Donald Trump in court in Washington, D.C. for three or four years would give him.

“If Joe Biden and the rest of us are gonna be able to heal the country both physically, and battle the virus, and spiritually, we can’t really accomplish that if Donald Trump is sucking up all the oxygen in the nation’s capital. And so I think it’s a very hard question and reasonable people can see it very differently, but I think the best thing for the country is to get him off of that platform and to have him standing on a lawn at Mar-a-Lago in his bathrobe yelling at cars but you and I don’t watch it.

“The comparisons with Nixon are not complete, but the principles are the same. People were furious at Gerald Ford for not pursuing Richard Nixon and it killed his public approval rating. I think he was right and I think, as hard as this is, that posterity would see this to be a wise decision, not to keep Donald Trump in the centre of our public life.”

In “an odd and terrible way”, he says, that attack on the Capitol will aid the US’ transition to a healthier place.

“As more Americans awaken and realise what they were drawn into being part of, and as Donald Trump is pushed out of the centre of the stage – look, America’s not gonna be perfect overnight, but it will gradually get healthier over time, I think.”

In more ordinary times, coverage of the book may focus more on just one line, almost thrown away on the last page: his call for the name of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s now deeply-tarnished founding director, to be removed from the bureau’s HQ and renamed in honour of civil rights icon John Lewis.

Such a move, he tells me, would show “that the FBI owns its past, which is something I tried very hard to have us do when I was director, and recognises the pain that so much of our country is in that you saw manifested in protests this summer over our original stain, which is the stain of racism against black Americans. 

“And that as a symbolic gesture to all of law enforcement we are gonna recognise the past, strip it off the building and name the building in honour of a civil rights icon. I think that would be a powerful symbol, because the FBI’s looked to by law enforcement all around the country, all around the world, as a tone-setter, and I think that would set a great tone.”

And what of Comey’s personal next move? He was a vocal Biden supporter who posted a picture of himself in a Biden-Harris t-shirt on the day of last year’s presidential election. But, he insists, he is not going into politics.

“Oh God, no, no! That’s unequivocal. No, I would never run for office. 

“I don’t imagine myself back in public service again. I’m gonna teach – my class starts next Thursday at Columbia University and I love teaching. So I’ll do that, and I’ll figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”

And if President Biden calls and offers this most experienced of lawyers a job in his administration…?

“He’s not gonna call him because I’m hated apparently on both left and right in the United States. I unify them in a weird way. But it shouldn’t be somebody like me. It ought to be somebody who hasn’t participated in the same way I have in political criticism in the last few years. It ought to be a clean break with that.”

● Saving Justice is published by Macmillan Hardback, priced £20

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