The sit-down comes ahead of the publication of his new book, A Higher Loyalty, on Tuesday.
Read the full transcript of Comey’s interview:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Thank you for doing this.
JAMES COMEY: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for coming.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Simple start. Why did you write this book?
JAMES COMEY: I r– I was never going to write a book. But I decided I had to write this one to try and be useful. That was my goal after I was fired, to be useful. And it occurred to me maybe I can be useful by offering a view to people, especially to young people, of what leadership should look like and how it should be centered on values. And so–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You lay out qualities of an ethical leader. What are they?
JAMES COMEY: First and foremost, it’s someone who realizes that lasting values have to be at the center of their leadership. Whether they’re in government or in the private sector or leading a university, they have to focus on things like fairness and integrity and, most of all, the truth. That the truth matters.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have– there’s almost a sense of– of alarm underneath the whole book. You say it’s a dangerous time in our country?
JAMES COMEY: I think it is. And– I chose those words carefully. I was worried when I chose the word, “Dangerous” first. I thought, “Is that an overstatement?” And I don’t think it is because–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
JAMES COMEY: I worry that the norms at the center of this country– we can fight as Americans about guns or taxes or immigration, and we always have. But what we have in common is a set of norms. Most importantly, the truth. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” right? Truth is the fourth word of that sentence. That’s what we are. And if we lose that, if we lose tethering of our leaders to that truth, what are we? And so I started to worry. Actually, the foundation of this country is in jeopardy when we stop measuring our leaders against that central value of the truth.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Are we losing it?
JAMES COMEY: I think we are in part. But I think the strength of this country is that we’re going to outlast it. That there will be damage to that norm. But I liken President Trump in the book to a forest fire. Going to do tremendous damage. Going to damage those important norms. But a forest fire gives healthy things a chance to grow that had no chance before that fire.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How do we put it out?
JAMES COMEY: We put it out in two ways. We put it out first by not becoming numb to the fact that the truth is being assailed every day. By not deciding that it’s just too much to pay attention to because that’s the path to losing truth as the central value in this country. So all of us have to constantly be involved and call it out when we see the truth endangered, when we see lying. And then next, we need to get involved. The American people need to stand up in the public square and in the voting booth and say, “Look, we disagree about an awful lot. But we have in common something that matters enormously to this country. And our leaders must reflect those values.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And– and why the title, “A Higher Loyalty?”
JAMES COMEY: Well, in part, the title comes from a bizarre conversation I had with the president in dinner at the White House in January of last year, where he asked for my loyalty personally as the F.B.I. director. My loyalty’s supposed to be to the American people and to the institution. But more than that, it grows out of a lifetime of my trying to be a better leader and figure out what matters in a leader, and realizing from a whole lot better leaders than I, that there must be a loyalty to something above the urgent, above the political, above the popular. We have to think, “What are the values that matter in the institution I’m involved with and in the country that I care a lot about?”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You look at your career over the last four decades, you’re like the Zelig of modern law enforcement?
JAMES COMEY: I stick out ’cause I’m so tall. I appear in every picture–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Y– that’s only part of it. You’ve taken on the mob, Martha Stewart, right in the middle of huge controversies over government surveillance, over torture. What are the big lessons you take away from that?
JAMES COMEY: The big lesson from that– and I’ve had a strange and wonderful career. And I don’t know how I’ve ended up in all these spots. But the lesson I’ve learned is that it’s important when you’re involved in a difficult situation with loud voices to in your mind, rise above it and ask, “So what matters in the long run? What does this institution stand for? What does my country stand for?”
It helps you see things more clearly and realize things like truth matters, integrity matters. Those ethical values are what are going to last. And when you have to explain what you’ve done someday to your grandchildren, that’s what will matter. Your grandkids won’t understand that people– angry at me, or the vice president of the United States was telling me people were going to die because of me.
What they’ll want to know is, “What was your North Star? Why did you make the decision you made?” And I hope your answer’s going to be, “‘Cause I took the time to think about what matters. What my institution stands for and what my country stands for.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Right at the beginning of your career, you’re involved in prosecution of major mafia figures. How does that form you?
JAMES COMEY: Well, it’s a tremendous education to get– a view inside La Cosa Nostra, the mafia, both in the United States and in Sicily. And to realize that the mafia is an organization like any other organization. Has a leader, has underlings, has values, has principles. They’re entirely corrupt. And it is the antithesis of ethical leadership.
But I didn’t know it at the time. But it was forming my view that the truth has to be central to our lives and that leadership has to be focused on important and ethical values. And not what’s good for the boss, how do I accomplish what’s good for the boss and get the boss what he wants.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Truth at the center of our lives. That’s the– at the center of the Martha Stewart case as well?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. The Martha Stewart case was a case that I initially hated.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?
JAMES COMEY: And didn’t want any part of. We had a lot of big cases going on at that point in time. WorldCom, Adelphia. Enron was going on. We were trying to investigate corporate fraud, massive corporate fraud, and send a message to the American people that the system isn’t rigged, the rich aren’t going to get away with frauds, and that’s really hard and important work.
And in the middle of this, walks on this case involving a famous person who appears to have lied during an investigation of insider trading. And my initial reaction was, “You know, that’s kind of a small thing. That’ll be a big distraction. People will throw rocks at me. But more than that, it’ll take away from this other work we’re doing.”
And folks don’t realize this, but I almost hesitated and almost didn’t bring the case against Martha Stewart, in hindsight, because she was rich and famous. And decided that if she were anybody else, any other ordinary person, she would be prosecuted. And what helped me come to that conclusion was I remembered a case I’d been involved in against an African American minister in Richmond when I was a federal prosecutor there, who had lied to us during an investigation.
And I begged this minister, “Please don’t lie to us because if you do, we’re going to have to prosecute you.” He lied. And at the end of the day, we had to prosecute him. And he went to jail for over a year. And as I stood in my office in Manhattan, I’m looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge, I remember this moment. And I’m thinking, “You know, nobody in New York knows that guy’s name except me.
“Why would I treat Martha Stewart differently than that guy?” And the reason would only be because she’s rich and famous and because I’ll be criticized for it. The truth matters in the criminal justice system. And if it’s going to matter, we must prosecute people who lie in the middle of an investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You don’t lie to investigators, you don’t lie under oath?
JAMES COMEY: You can’t or the rule of law breaks down. And there once was a day when people were afraid of going to hell if they took an oath in the name of God and violated it. We’ve drifted away from that day. And so in its place has to be a fear that if you lie and the government can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, they will prosecute you in order to send a message to all the others who might be called upon to give evidence. You must tell the truth. It matters enormously.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You mentioned that Vice President Cheney– at one point said, “People are going to die because of what you’re doing right now.” Take us inside that room?
JAMES COMEY: It was the chief of staff’s room in the West Wing of the White House. And we were engaged– I was at the Justice Department, the number two person at the Justice Department then, the deputy attorney general. And we were in a dispute with the White House about whether there was a lawful basis for surveillance activities that the president had authorized the NSA to engage in in the United States.
And we had concluded, very smart lawyers working for me had concluded and I agreed, that there wasn’t a lawful basis for a big part of these activities. And so we were not going to sign onto it. And there was a meeting to pressure me to change my view. And Vice President Cheney presided at the meeting. He sat at the head of the table.
I sat just to his left. And he looked me in the eye and said, “Thousands of people are going to die because of what you’re doing.” W– what he meant was, “Because you are making us stop this surveillance program,” because there was no lawful basis for it, “people are going to die ’cause of what you’re doing.”
And my reaction was, and I said it to him, “That’s not helping me. That makes me feel badly. I don’t want people to die. I’ve devoted my life to trying to protect innocent people. But I have to say what the Justice Department can certify to, what we find lawful. And that you really want it or that it’s important doesn’t change the law. And so I– I can’t my view.” And so it was thick with tension and it was– I felt like I was going to be crushed like a grape, frankly. But in a way, there was no other way I could act. The law was clear. And so how could I possibly, as the leader of the Justice Department, sign up to something that we had no lawful basis for. And so we stood our ground.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That same issue led to a now famous confrontation in the hospital room of the attorney general at the time, John Ashcroft. You sped to that room. Why?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I did. I think it was the next day after the meeting with Vice President Cheney when I was on the way home, driving along Constitution Avenue. So on my left, I could see the Washington Monument. On the right, we’re coming up on the ellipse where you can see the White House. And the phone rang.
It was– the attorney general, my boss was John Ashcroft. He was in intensive care. Very, very seriously ill at George Washington Hospital. And his chief of staff was on the phone, telling me that although we had told the White House we can’t certify to this, I’m the acting attorney general, we can’t certify to its lawfulness. And so it has to stop.
He was calling to alert me that the president was sending two of his top people, the White House counsel and the chief of staff, to the intensive care unit at George Washington Hospital to see the attorney general. And so I hung up the phone, told the driver, “Ed, I have to get to George Washington Hospital immediately.”
And he didn’t need to hear more than the tone in my voice. And so he turned on the lights and siren and drove this armored vehicle like it was a NASCAR race to George Washington Hospital. We pulled up in front. I jumped out with my security detail. And I ran into the hospital and ran up the stairs. Didn’t wait for the elevator to get to that floor because I needed to be there to make sure a desperately ill man wasn’t asked to sign something when he wasn’t competent to sign it and I was the acting attorney general.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And in the end, he didn’t sign it?
JAMES COMEY: In the end, he was remarkable. I went into that hospital room and got there before they did. And I tried to orient Attorney General Ashcroft as to time and place. And he didn’t seem to be following me. He looked gravely ill, gray and lying in his bed, barely conscious. And I then sat down next to him as close to him as I am to you.
His wife stood on the other side of the bed the entire time and never let go of his arm. And I waited. And two of my staff members stood behind me. I didn’t know that one of them was taking notes the whole time. But in came the White House chief of staff and the– the– the White House counsel. And they were carrying an envelope. And they were going to try and get John Ashcroft to sign off on this program that we had said couldn’t continue because it didn’t have a lawful basis.
And they started speaking to him. And he shocked me by pushing himself up on his elbows and blasting them. And telling them he had been misled, he hadn’t understood what they were doing. They had deprived him of the legal advice he needed. And then exhausted, he fell back. And as he fell back, he said, “But that doesn’t matter because I’m not the attorney general.” And then he pointed at me and said, “There’s the attorney general.” And the two men didn’t acknowledge me. They just turned. One said, “Be well” to the attorney general, and then they walked out.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And in the book, you describe an incident after that, a tender moment between Robert Mueller and Mr. Ashcroft?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. I called Bob Mueller– as the armored vehicle was being driven like it was a NASCAR race to the hospital, I called Bob Mueller, then the F.B.I. director. He was out at dinner with his family. And I told him what was happening. He had been following the conflict with the White House. The F.B.I. was a key participant in the program.
And so Bob Mueller’s view was, “If the F– if the Justice Department can’t find a lawful basis for this, there’s no way the F.B.I. is participating.” The F.B.I., as folks may know, is a separate organization, but it sits within the Justice Department. And so I called Bob and told him what was happening. And I wanted him to know about it because of his stature and his ability. He and I weren’t close, we weren’t friends in any social sense. But I knew he saw it the way I did. And I knew that his gravitas, his– his experience, his weight, would be important. And he said, “I’ll be right there.”
And then he started a race to the hospital. He didn’t get to the hospital until after the two senior White House officials had turned and left. But he came in moments later and he stood and s– leaned down and spoke to the desperately ill attorney general and told him that, in every man’s life, there comes a time when the good Lord tests him. And then he said, “You’ve passed your test tonight.”
And I was– it was a really hard time. And I was overcome with emotion, hearing that. And– had this sense that the law held. The law held. It– it felt like a dream to me, that we were in a hospital room with senior officials trying to get the desperately ill attorney general to sign something. But it wasn’t a dream. And the law held.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: In that same administration– you had the controversy over torture, whether or not it could be justified and legal. And there’s– a remarkable moment with your wife, Patrice. She doesn’t know all the details of what you’re going through, but she says?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, that was remark– it actually irritated me a little bit. I love her desperately. But she’s great at giving me feedback. And she had seen on the news– didn’t know what I was working on, but had seen on the news all the controversy around the treatment of prisoners at a U.S. prison in Iraq called Abu Ghraib.
And there was a great deal of news and debate about whether the American government was engaged in torture. She knew that and she also knew I was under some sorta great stress. This is after the stress of the surveillance battle. And she said to me one evening, “Don’t be the torture guy.” And I said, “Wha– you know I can’t talk to you about that kinda stuff.”
And she said, “I don’t want to talk about it. Just don’t be the torture guy.” And she repeated that periodically thereafter. And I’ve since told her, “Look, that was not helpful except your voice echoed around my head an awful lot during that.” What she meant was, “Rise above and remember, someday you’re going to explain to your grandchildren how you conducted yourself.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You still think it wasn’t helpful?
JAMES COMEY: Oh, it was helpful. In the moment– it w– it was helpful. In– in the moment, it was irritating because I wanted to say, “You have no idea how hard these legal issues are. You have no idea that Congress defined torture in American criminal law differently than you and I would understand it. So saying, ‘Don’t be the torture guy,’ I don’t want to be. But my job as a lawyer is to say, ‘Here’s what the statute means.’” And there’s a whole lot that would pass muster under the statute, that I would think that any normal person would think is torture.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Explain that to– to everybody watching at home because I think that it would be hard for people to understand. You really can’t talk to your wife about the things you’re working on?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. It adds to your level of stress. The– the way the rule works– the rules are, if you’re dealing with a classified matter, you may only discuss it with someone who has a need to know it, a work related need, and the appropriate clearance. Well, your spouse has neither– I guess unless your spouse works with you in the government, on that particular matter.
But as much as I loved her and as important as an advisor she’s been to me my whole life, she didn’t have a need to know anything about the classified topics I worked on. And she didn’t have the appropriate clearance. She’s an extraordinarily trustworthy person, but she doesn’t have the appropriate clearance.
And so she would know, during surveillance and during torture, something was disturbing my sleep. Something was making me come home very late at night, leave very early in the morning. But she could only guess what it was. In the surveillance fight she couldn’t guess ’cause it was totally secret. In the torture battle, she could have some idea ’cause she could see it on the news.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Right at the top of the book, y– you write that you’re aware that it could be seen as an exercise in vanity.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What are you worried about there?
JAMES COMEY: Well, that’s why I was never going to write a book. It always felt like an exercise in ego. And 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. And so that battle with ego and my sense that memoirs are an exercise in ego convinced me I was never going to write a book.
And I’m sure friends of mine from college and law school are out there laughing right now, saying, “Ah-ha, he wrote a book.” I never wanted to write a memoir. And I hope folks will read the book ’cause my goal was to be useful. It’s not a memoir. Lots of stories about my life that aren’t in there, important stories. But I tried to pick stories that relate to leadership to try and explain, including mistakes I’ve made, how I think about ethical leadership and what I think it ought to be.
I’m not a perfect leader. There– I don’t think there are any perfect leaders. But I’ve learned from working with great people, from making a lot of mistakes, and from working for people who aren’t effective leaders, here’s what I think it should be. And so that’s what I’m trying to offer in the book.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: As you say, no one’s perfect. What’s James Comey’s rap on James Comey?
JAMES COMEY: How much time do you have? Yeah. My rap on myself is that– is that ego focus. That I– since I was a kid, I’ve had a sense of confidence. That I know I’m good at certain things. And there’s a danger that that will bleed over into pride, into not being open minded to the fact that I could be wrong and other people could have a better view of it.
And so I think that’s my primary worry about myself, is an overconfidence that can lead to that– that pride, that closed mindedness. I’ve tried to guardrail that my whole life. First of all, by marrying someone who will tell me anything at any time.
But then also surrounding myself with people who will cut through that and say– “No, no, no, no. Slow down. Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don’t mind– and you write this as well, the uncomfortable questions?
JAMES COMEY: I have to have them because, again, if what I worry about myself most is that I’ll be– convince myself that I’m doing the right thing, if I don’t have people who will push through that, who will try and pierce whatever certainty I’m feeling, I may make a bad decision. I may make a big mistake.
And part of that is just aging and getting to realize that doubt is not a weakness. Doubt is a strength. Always remembering I could be wrong until the moment you make a decision is important. And that’s great to tell yourself. But it’s also important to have people around you who will poke at you, poke at you, poke at you.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Another short chapter in your career, you were part of the Senate Whitewater investigation of the Clintons. Wha– what exactly did you do?
JAMES COMEY: I worked for five months as a staff lawyer on the banking committee’s special committee I think they called it on the Whitewater investigation. My role was to focus on the suicide of a White House official who was the deputy White House counsel–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Vince Foster?
JAMES COMEY: –named Vincent Foster, yeah. And whether any documents were taken from his office and mishandled. I was only there five months. Patrice and I had a personal tragedy. We had a healthy baby boy, Collin Comey. Was born after I’d been there five months and died unfortunately of a infection that was preventable. And so I never went back.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And later, you also were involved in– the prosecution or at least investigating whether Bill Clinton as president did anything improper in the pardon of Marc Rich?
JAMES COMEY: That’s right. When I became U.S. attorney in Manhattan after 9/11, I inherited from my predecessor, Mary Jo White, an investigation into whether there was any corruption associated with a pardon that President Clinton had given to a fugitive named Marc Rich and his codefendant, Pincus Green.
These were guys who had been charged with a massive tax fraud case and– and trading with the enemy and had fled to Switzerland and had been there for many years. And President Clinton, on his way out the door, pardoned them, which was extraordinary.
Actually, I’ve never heard of another case where a fugitive from justice was pardoned. And so the F.B.I. and the U.S. attorney’s office were investigating were there promised contributions made to the Clinton Library or something else to secure that pardon. And so as the new boss in Manhattan, I oversaw that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what you found?
JAMES COMEY: Concluded there was not sufficient evidence to bring any charges in that case. And so we closed it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you draw any conclusions about the Clintons, about Hillary Clinton, from those experiences?
JAMES COMEY: No.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: None at all?
JAMES COMEY: No. I had– first of all, I’ve never met her. And my engagement was very limited. The five months on the Whitewater case was focused on Vince Foster and his office. One of the questions was had the– the then first lady, Hillary Clinton, caused anyone to go remove documents from his office. I don’t remember what the conclusion was, but I didn’t re– reach any conclusion about her.
And same with the pardon business. President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich took my breath away. Th– the notion that the president of the United States would pardon a fugitive without asking the prosecutors or the investigators, “What do you think,” was shocking to me. But it didn’t give me any view of Hillary Clinton.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So what did you think of Hillary Clinton before the email investigation began?
JAMES COMEY: Seemed like a smart person, very hardworking. Had been obviously a U.S. senator and had a reputation– again, I get only this– I get this from the media, as a very hardworking person. Had worked very hard as secretary of state. That was really about it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then on July 6th, 2015, there’s a referral about her email case. What do you do?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, in early July the inspector general for the intelligence community, which is an– an organization that looks for fraud, waste and abuse or violation of standards in the intelligence community, sent a referral that was public actually to the Department of Justice and the F.B.I., raising concern that there might’ve been mishandling of classified information on Hillary Clinton’s email server, which was a personal email server device she had in her basement. And that came in in early July. I didn’t focus on it. Shortly thereafter, the F.B.I. opened a criminal investigation. And I didn’t know when we’d opened it. I was b–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So this was far below your level?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. F.B.I.’s an enormous organization. It was opened in the ordinary course in our counterintelligence division. Then eventually, it got briefed up to me by the deputy director, who’s the senior agent in the organization, telling me that we’ve opened this criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But that’s the kinda thing that gets briefed up pretty quickly, doesn’t it?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, yeah. I’m just saying, I didn’t know– I didn’t know bef– as I recall, I didn’t know before they opened it that they were opening it, but nothing untoward about that–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And it wasn’t your order to open the investigation–
JAMES COMEY: Correct. Correct.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And describe what exactly was at issue, what you were looking at?
JAMES COMEY: The question was, was classified information mishandled. And what that means is did anybody talk about classified information outside of a system that you’re supposed to talk about classified information on? Did anybody give classified documents to someone who shouldn’t have them?
What it centered on there was Secretary Clinton used this personal email domain to conduct all her business as secretary of state. She didn’t use government email. And what the inspector general raised was in emailing, in doing her work on that unclassified system, did she and those around her talk about classified topics?
Classified information is either the lowest level confidential, the next level secret, the top level top secret. And there’s rules about how you can email about that information and where you should talk about it. And the question was did they talk about topics on an unclassified system that shouldn’t have been on an unclassified system?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And this had come right on the heels of a very famous case– involving General David Petraeus for his mishandling of classified information. Something that was– prosecuted. He eventually had a plea. As you know, many of your conservative critics– say that the David Petraeus case was far [less] serious than the Hillary Clinton case. Yet, you chose not to prosecute. Answer that.
JAMES COMEY: Well, the David Petraeus case was, to my mind, not a close case at all. He was the director of the C.I.A. He was having a romantic relationship with a woman who was also an author, going to write a book about him. He had taken home and stored in a backpack notebooks full of notes about some of the government’s most sensitive secrets. Classified at the top level in the government, including conversations with President Obama about special access programs, some of our– our most closely guarded secrets.
And he had given these notebooks to this person who had neither a need to know, nor the appropriate clearance. And he’d actually allowed her to photograph pages containing top secret information. And then, when the F.B.I. interviewed him about it, he lied about it. And so you had clearly intentional misconduct by a guy who’s in charge of the country’s secrets as the director of the C.I.A., involving huge trove of our top level classified information. And then obstruction of justice.
It was not a close call. In fact, I thought David Petraeus should’ve been prosecuted not just for the mishandling of the classified information, but also for lying to the F.B.I. because lying is– strikes at the heart of our rule of law in this country. And in the end, the attorney general at the time, Eric Holder, decided he would be charged only with the misdemeanor mishandling of classified information.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Y– you also write that you– you knew from the start that the Clinton case was unlikely to be prosecuted. Some of your critics, including President Trump, think that– that you brought a prejudgment to the case?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. There’s wrong– what– what the F.B.I. brought to the case– folks forget I didn’t actually do this investigation. I supervised an organization that did it, is a knowledge about how these cases are handled in the counterespionage world. That’s the world where mishandling of classified information is investigated. And so we have a 50 year history of knowing what will the Department of Justice prosecute?
They’ll prosecute cases like David Petraeus’. But they’re very unlikely to prosecute a case unless you can show the person, like Petraeus, clearly knew they were doing something they shouldn’t do. There’s evidence of obstruction of justice or disloyalty to the United States, spy– indications.
But without those, sloppiness, even extreme sloppiness, is handled through administrative discipline. Somebody is not prosecuted. And I’ve gone through 50 years of cases. I don’t know of a case where anyone has ever been prosecuted for just being careless, even extremely careless. And so when the case was open, we know that history.
And so the investigators knew that, unless they found something that was a smoking gun, where someone told Secretary Clinton, “You know, you shouldn’t be doing this,” or where she acknowledged it or where somehow there’s an indication of her obstructing justice, the case was unlikely to be prosecuted.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the things that President Trump and his allies bring up is that at some point, her staff smashed Blackberries, also whitewashed the server?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. There was evidence that old Blackberries, after she was finished with them, they destroyed them, which I think a fair number of people do to make sure that if it’s resold, someone doesn’t end up with your information. And that after they produced information back to the d– to the Department of State, they used– a software program to clean the server to make sure there was nothing on it, or clean laptops to make sure there’s nothing on them.
They did that. But as investigators, our question is, when they did that, are they trying to obstruct justice in some ways? And we could never establish, develop the evidence– evidence is a different thing from what people say. Evidence that anybody who did that did it with a corrupt intent. And most importantly, any indication that Secretary Clinton knew that was happening and knew that it was an effort to obstruct justice.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You did know from the start that this case was going to be trouble for you. You tell of a scene with your deputy director?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. I knew this was a no-win situation, this case. America is in an unusually polarized state. We’ve just opened a criminal investigation of one of the people who will likely be candidate for president of the United States in the middle of that viciously partisan atmosphere. One half of the partisan divide is going to be angry at us no matter what we do.
Of course, at the time, I had no idea that I could make both halves angry at us, but we’ll come to that later. But the deputy director who was a great deputy director and a longtime special agent, looked at me and said, “You know you’re totally screwed, right?” And I smiled. And I said, “Yup. Nobody gets out alive.” And, of course, it was gallows humor. And it was funny because it was an actual gallows.
If we decide there is no criminal case there and we recommend no prosecution, the Republicans will be screaming that we let, you know, the greatest crime go since the Rosenbergs were executed for selling our nuclear secrets. And if we prosecute her, the Democrats will scream that we’re just doing it out of some sort of partisan bias because I’m a former Republican appointee and so the system is rigged against Hillary Clinton. Either way, we were going to be attacked.
And this may sound strange, that’s kind of freeing. If you know you’re totally screwed and you know that people are going to be angry at you no matter what you do, y– you can’t do anything about it. And so you just put your f– head down and you do your job. And you let the facts and the law decide what you should do.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: First big controversy comes up– late that summer, September, 2015. You have a meeting with the attorney general Loretta Lynch because you’ve decided to say publicly there is a criminal investigation– of Hillary Clinton, which many considered a break with precedent?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, it was not a break with precedent, but y– you’re right. In the late summer after the investigation had been opened for three months and the whole world was talking about it, ’cause you remember, it began with a public referral from the inspector general. So the candidates were talking about it. Congress was talking about it. The people we were out there interviewing were talking about it.
I went to the attorney general and said, “You and I are both going to have public events coming in the next–” I think it was a few days later. “Do you think it’s time to do what the Department of Justice policy permits, in the appropriate case where there’s a public interest that justifies it, confirming that you have an investigation?” And she agreed.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: She– but– she agreed. But you write that she didn’t want to call it an investigation?
JAMES COMEY: That’s right. She agreed. Loretta Lynch I had a great relationship with and still have a lot of respect for. And she said, “I agree. But call it a matter.” And I said, “Why would I do that?” And she said, “Just call it a matter.” And I didn’t know exactly why she was doing that, but I decided in that moment that the whole world would miss the distinction between investigation and matter. And so I dropped it at that point. At my press event, I said– used the term matter, and I was right, the press missed it and said we’d confirmed an investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did– did you think she was doing that to protect Hillary Clinton?
JAMES COMEY: I didn’t know. It worried me. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling because the Clinton campaign, since the matter had come in, the investigation had started in July, had been trying to come up with other words to describe it. They had used “Review” I think, “Security referral,” things like that. And it did worry me that the attorney general’s direction was tracking that effort to avoid using the word “investigation.” And so, to be honest, it gave me a bad feeling. And maybe I should’ve pushed harder in the moment.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, did you push her on it?
JAMES COMEY: I didn’t because I’ve known Loretta for a long time. We worked a case together in the early 1990s. And she’s a very smart person. And if she’d had a reason that I couldn’t see in Justice Department policy or something, she’da given it to me. But her answer, “Just do it,” told me this is an order from the attorney general. So it’s not improper, it’s a little bit off axis from the actual facts. But people are going to miss the distinction. And so I’m not going to fight this new attorney general. This is not going to be our first battle.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You think you should have?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I probably should have. Given that I respect Loretta, I probably should’ve pushed harder in the moment.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The investigation proceeds. And your initial instinct– is confirmed by the investigation. So that by– I guess it is by spring, 2016, you’re pretty clear you’re not going to prosecute– Hillary Clinton. And you say you took one weekend, I think it was in May, 2016, and began to draft– a statement explaining the decision. Again, President Trump looks at that and says you were “Writing the r– the conclusion even before you interviewed Hillary Clinton. That is just wrong.”
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I’ve heard that an awful lot, not just from President Trump, but from a lot of former prosecutors and former government people saying, “This shows that you had prejudged the matter.” Here’s my reaction. And the reason I smile a little bit is anybody who’s actually done investigations knows that if you’ve been investigating something for almost a year and you don’t have a general sense of where it’s likely to end up, you should be fired because you’re incompetent.
If you’ve been investigating for a year, you know that, unless things change, we’re going to head in this direction. Prosecutors and investigators all the time draft indictments before they finish the investigation. Their mind is open that if they find something that changes their view, they won’t bring an indictment. But they know where it’s headed after a year of investigation. Same thing here.
We had looked all around and scrubbed thousands and thousands and thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. We had a very clear picture after nine or ten months of investigation of this case. Our mind was open to a couple of facts. Maybe something will change in the final month of the investigation. Or maybe she’ll lie to us during the interview, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Or maybe we’ll need to do additional investigation.
But after nine or ten months of investigating, it looked like on the current course and speed, this is going to end without charges. And so what will we do? Smart people, competent people plan ahead. If you’re going to charge, you plan ahead. If you’re not going to charge, you plan ahead. And the hard part about this investigation was going to be not charging because the Obama Justice Department could bring charges against Hillary Clinton without claim of bias, political bias, because they’re Democrats.
What would be hard for the Obama Justice Department for a bunch of reasons is not to bring charges about Hillary Clinton. That will be hard to do without jeopardizing the reputation of the institutions of justice. So it required thought to think about, “So how will we end this in a way that maximizes confidence that we did it in the right way, that the system was not rigged?” So that’s what I’m doing in the beginning of May, is trying to think through, “So how will this end if it continues on this course that it’s on now?”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And to those who say you should’ve brought Hillary Clinton before a grand jury?
JAMES COMEY: Look, I understand why people ask that. We would actually prefer– most people haven’t been in front of a grand jury. We would prefer with a subject of an investigation to do an informal interview. Lot more flexibility there. You can bring a lot more people and have a lot more people involved in the questioning. And it offers us an opportunity in a less formal setting to poke at someone. They’re still required to tell the truth. That’s another thing that gets lost–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, President Trump says you should’ve put her under oath.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. President Trump’s not– I’m– I’m sure his lawyers, given his situation, are focusing him on this. It’s still a crime to lie to the F.B.I. and federal prosecutors, whether or not you’re under oath. It doesn’t matter. If you knowingly tell a false statement to the F.B.I., as Martha Stewart did, as David Petraeus did, as so many others have, you will be prosecuted for it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re under oath or not.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You interview Hillary Clinton I guess it was July 2nd– 2016. But actually, you’re not there?
JAMES COMEY: No ’cause I’m the dir– at that point, the director of the F.B.I. Only on TV is the director jumping out of helicopters and conducting interviews. My job is to make the final decisions. The pros will do the interview, the agents who had actually been investigating her and crawling all around her life for a year. And that’s the way it should be.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And after the interview, what did you learn?
JAMES COMEY: Spent a lotta time on the phone with the team that afternoon and learned that we didn’t find anything, the team didn’t, that changed their view of the case. That this was a case that the Department of Justice would never prosecute. And, most importantly, they didn’t want to do additional investigation.
There was nothing she said that they believed we could prove was false. And there was nothing else they needed to run down to see if she was testifying to us falsely. And so the view of the team was, “We’re done here. Our view of this case is firm. No prosecutor would prosecute this case.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So if no prosecutor would prosecute this case, why not put out a one line statement, “We decline to prosecute”?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. It’s a great question and a reasonable question. And the reason I thought that would be inappropriate is the faith and confidence of the American people in the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. are at the core of those organizations. If they’re not believed to be honest, independent and competent, they’re done.
If you issue a one liner from the Obama Justice Department about one of the two candidates for president of the United States, in this case the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, and say, “We’re done here,” in the absence of any kind of transparency, corrosive doubt creeps in that the system is rigged somehow. And so my view was– and this is a longstanding practice of the Department of Justice, that in rare cases, you should offer transparency so the American people can take a look at what you did and know that it was done in an honest, competent, independent way.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The Department of Justice, but not the F.B.I. director?
JAMES COMEY: That’s right. What was unusual about this, in fact unprecedented in my experience, is that I decided it was important that I speak separately from the attorney general. In the– in the ordinary case, what we’d do is what I said publicly, we’d have sent that to the Department of Justice. And the attorney general could announce it in any way the attorney general chose.
What was different here is I decided, given some things that had happened, that to protect the institutions, we actually had to step away from the Department of Justice and tell the American people, “Look, here’s what we did. Here’s what we found. Here’s what we think. You can count on the fact this was done in an apolitical way. Your organization of justice acted the way you’d want it to be. And that if I’d done the normal thing, that wouldn’t have happened and the institutions would’ve been damaged.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Your critics say this is where your ego got the best of you. This was your original sin?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I hear that. And, look, there’s always a risk that I’m blind to how I’m acting. I don’t think so. I knew this would be terrible for me personally. So if it was about ego, why would I step out in front of the organization and get shot a thousand times?
I actually thought, as bad as this’ll be for me personally, this is my obligation, to protect the F.B.I. and the Justice Department. Given all that had gone on, the attorney general of the United States could not credibly announce this result. And if she did, it would do corrosive damage to the institutions of justice.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Dig into that. Why could the attorney general not credibly announce the results of this investigation?
JAMES COMEY: Well, for a bunch of reasons. And it sort of built over the course of the investigation. First of all, we had the problem that President Obama had twice publicly basically said, “There’s no there, there.” In an interview with– on Fox, an interview on 60 Minutes I think, both times he said that. So that’s his Justice Department.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did that surprise you?
JAMES COMEY: It really did surprise me. He’s a very smart man and a lawyer. And so it surprised me. He shouldn’t have done it. It was inappropriate–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you think he was trying to color the case?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. I don’t think so. He didn’t have any insight into the case, at least as far as I know, more than anybody reading the newspaper did, which was zero ’cause there were no leaks. 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. But that, as you can imagine, created this drumbeat that the Obama Justice Department, the fix is in because the president has told them what result they should reach.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So that’s one reason that the Justice Department is compromised. What’s reason number two?
JAMES COMEY: Reason number two. And I have to talk about it very carefully. Classified information came into the possession of the U.S. intelligence community in the early part of 2016 that indicated there was material out there that raised the question of whether Loretta Lynch was controlling me and the F.B.I. and keeping the Clinton campaign informed about our investigation.
Now, I don’t believe that. And I don’t believe that’s true. But there was material that I knew someday, when it’s declassified, and I thought that would be decades in the future, would cause historians to wonder, “Hmm, was there some strange business going on there? Was Loretta Lynch somehow in — carrying water for the campaign and controlling what the F.B.I. did?”
Again, it wasn’t true. But there was material that would allow that to come out someday in the long future when it’s declassified. That all changed when someday, in my mind, became maybe tomorrow. That was in the middle of June, when the Russian government, using some fronts, started dumping stolen material that had been hacked from organizations associated with the Democratic party in the United States. And all of a sudden, it dawned on me that that someday decades from now when this material comes out actually may be now, tomorrow. And again, even though I didn’t believe it, the material was real. Whether what it said was true or not, I didn’t know. But it would allow people, partisans and even people who were partisans, to strongly argue that something was wrong with the way the investigation–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you investigate it?
JAMES COMEY: We did.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what did you find?
JAMES COMEY: Found no indication that it was true.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Boy. So– so– so you find no indication this is true. And yet– you write that this is the reason you went out on your own–
JAMES COMEY: One of the reasons.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the reasons. Doesn’t that cast a cloud over the attorney general, an unjustified cloud over the attorney general?
JAMES COMEY: In a way, yeah. I mean, I like Loretta. As I said, I respect her even today. And so in a way, it’s unfair to her. But when you’re in the business of running a Justice Department institution, what people think matters. Public faith and confidence is everything to the Justice Department.
And so whether or not it was true, the fact that it would be out there and allow people to argue that something terrible was going on in this investigation cut in favor of more transparency. I’m not saying it’s true. But because it will undermine confidence in our work, the way to react to that is show people your work. And again, Justice Department policy allows for this. What made it different was the separation between the F.B.I. and the Justice Department. Now, that– of course, that material– so– I’m talking about it carefully because it’s still classified, that was just one brick in the load. The– the major brick in the load happened just before–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: H– how–
JAMES COMEY: –the Clinton email–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –yeah, and I want to get to that–
JAMES COMEY: –entered.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –in a second. But I know you can’t talk about it, but I’ve read about it. I think a lotta the country has read about it as well. These are emails or memos released by the Russians. The F.B.I. knows they’re junk. How can you then allow that to influence this decision?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, that’s tricky for me ’cause– ’cause the F.B.I.’s told me that I have to be very careful speaking about this ’cause it’s still classified. What I can say is the material is legitimate. It– it is real. The content is real. Now, whether the content is true is a different question. And again, to my mind, I believed it was not true.
I– I didn’t see any indication that Loretta Lynch was trying to cover this investigation for the Clinton campaign or direct me in any way. She stayed away from it as far as I could tell. But the point of it is I knew there was material that might hit the public square any moment, that would allow people to argue powerfully that there was monkey business going on–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But then wouldn’t– your obligation then be you get up and say, “No, there’s no monkey business. I know that. I’ve investigated it. I’ve looked into it. It’s not true”?
JAMES COMEY: Well, sure, if I could do that, given the rules of classified information, but I couldn’t. But what I could do instead is offer unusual transparency to the American people about the investigation. Tell them, “Here’s what we did, here’s what we found, here’s what we think about it. You can trust us because we’re showing you our work.” Again, which Department of Justice policy permits in an unusual case.
And so, it was frustrating. I’m sure it’s frustrating to Loretta Lynch that– that this material was out there. But it– to my mind, it added to the case that we need to do something unusual to offer the American people transparency. And then the capper happened at the end of June.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, I want to get to that in one second. One final point on this. The New York Times quoted former dus– Department of Justice officials saying, “The F.B.I. never uncovered evidence tying Ms. Lynch and the document’s author and are convinced that Mr. Comey wanted an exers– wanted an excuse to put himself in the spotlight.”
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Look, I– I understand why people say that. That’s just not true. I’m telling you how we evaluated the information. We didn’t have any reason to believe that what the document said was accurate. That is, that Loretta Lynch was a channel to the Clinton campaign and controlling us. But there’s no doubt that it would’ve allowed people to argue strongly that that was the case.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Di– d– did you tell– Congressional officials in a classified setting that this was not true?
JAMES COMEY: That what was not true?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That thi– that this information was not true? That you’d investigated, looked into it and it was not– it was– it was not valid?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I c– I can’t say what I said in a classified setting, so let’s set that aside. I can tell you right now– we looked into it and found no evidence to support its truth.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Third brick. The tarmac meeting.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, the biggest brick of all. Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton had a conversation on an F.B.I. plane which transported the attorney general in Phoenix in late June. And I didn’t pay much attention to it. I saw news accounts of it early on. And it quickly blossomed into a very big deal the last week of June.
I don’t know what they talked about. I credit Loretta Lynch ’cause I think she’s an honest person, saying, “We talked about grandchildren and other things.” I find it hard to believe that Bill Clinton would’ve tried to obstruct justice by walking across the tarmac in front of–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Kind of public.
JAMES COMEY: –in front of a bunch of F.B.I. agents up the s– up the stairs and onto an F.B.I. plane. And so, look, I– I credit Loretta’s account that– what they talked about. I think she’s telling the truth about that. But again, the confidence of people that the system is working in a fair way, that Lady Justice has kept her blindfold on, matters.
And so what happened the last week of June is a big storm blew up about what was going on there. And the attorney general did something that, to my mind, was strange. At the end of that week– so I think Friday, July the 1st, she put out a public statement which I didn’t know was coming, saying, “I’m not going to remove myself from the investigation.” “Recuse” is the official word. “I’m not going to step outta the investigation. But I will accept Jim Comey’s recommendation and that of the career prosecutors.” And at that moment, I decided I have to step– as much as I like her, I have to step away from her and show the American people the F.B.I.’s work separately.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Wasn’t there another route? Couldn’t you have just gone to her privately, personally and said, “You’ve gotta recuse. You’ve gotta get out of this completely”?
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. But she’s my boss, one. Two, w–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve stood up to bosses before.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so that’s why there’s a two. Two, she announced publicly what she was doing before talking to me. And so I really didn’t think there was a prospect that, having announced publicly, she would accept my recommendation and that of the career prosecutors, that I would be able to convince her to recuse.
Now, what I did think about was, “Should I call for the appointment of a special prosecutor?” Someone outside the normal chain of command who can then take our work and announce it separately from– so I don’t have to do this, can do it separately from me. And I decided that would be brutally unfair to the subject of the investigation, Hillary Clinton. And that’s not a political judgment, that’s an ethical judgment.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: No, but there’s a third route. You– you– you push her to recuse and then it goes through the normal Justice Department channels. The deputy AG, Sally Yates, makes the decision, makes the announcement?
JAMES COMEY: Sure, maybe. Maybe. And– and I– I suppose a reasonable person might have done that. But my judgment was she’s just announced publicly that she’s not going to recuse herself. And she’ll accept my recommendation that of the career prosecutors. And so what more is there to do at that point?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you make the decision to make a public statement– July 5th. Take us inside your head. Tell us what you were thinking.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, my goal was to try to offer as much transparency as I could, consistent with the law and policy, to the American people, with the goal of convincing them, first of all, that we’re not on anybody’s side. We’re not on the Democrat side or the Republican side. That we did this in a competent way, an honest way, an independent way.
And there’s no there, there. That no reasonable prosecutor would prosecute this case. And you can rely upon that ’cause we did this well and in an apolitical way. And so we crafted a statement that we worked on endlessly to get it right. And I decided that I would read it, say it out loud, so that people could hear the tone in my voice. But that I wouldn’t take any questions. And that was the goal, to give a report to the American people and then step away from it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You even thought about the tie you’d wear that day?
JAMES COMEY: I did. We’re in such– we’re still in such a vicious partisan time. I don’t know whether folks notice this, but in Washington Democrats tend to wear blue– men tend to wear blue ties. Republicans tend to wear red ties. And so I chose a gold tie that morning ’cause I didn’t want to wear either of the normal gang colors.
Which seems crazy that I have to think about that, but given the times we were operating in and we’re still in, I was hoping the American people would see us as apart from this craziness. That these are people I can trust. And part of that was not just the way I dressed. But by offering them a lot of information. Sh– let me show you my work so you can understand we did this in the way you would want us to do it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Your critics say you offered way too much information. The way they put it, “Listen, in the F.B.I. we simply do not bloody up people we choose not to prosecute.”
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, and I get that. Look, that’s fair criticism. But here– here’s my response to it. The Department of Justice has long done that in the appropriate case, where it’s necessary to the credibility of the work. There was controversy for the first couple years of my time as director over whether the IRS had targeted Tea Party groups.
And the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. did a criminal investigation and in a detailed report that was public as to what we had done– the department did this, they criticized people but said no criminal case was warranted. This is just consistent with that practice. What I’d ask those people is would the work really have been credible if I wasn’t honest? That– that Hillary Clinton’s c– conduct on that personal email server was extremely careless. It just was. And if I wasn’t honest about that, how am I achieving the goal of showing the American people this is your justice system working in the right way?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Y– you– you cited her for extreme carelessness. In an original draft of your statement– the words, “Gross negligence” were there instead of “Extreme carelessness.” And– and President Trump’s allies say that’s a sign that you personally went easy on her.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don’t. All these allies who think I went easy on her have a hard time explaining so why did I do what I did in October, but I’ll stay in July. I wasn’t trying to go easy on her or hard on her. I was trying to be honest and clear with the American people. What she did was really sloppy.
Not– you know, there’s all the time people mishandle a classified document or maybe have one conversation on email that they shouldn’t. This was over the course of four years, dozens of conversations on email about secret topics. And I think eight about top secret topics. So this is more than just ordinary sloppiness.
So if I’m going to be honest, I have to say somehow it’s more than ordinary sloppiness. So my first draft, which I wrote myself, said, “Gross negligence.” It’s a lawyer term. And the reason I used that term is I wanted to also explain that I don’t mean that in the sense that a statute passed 100 years ago means it. And then my staff convinced me that that’s just going to confuse all kinds of people, if you start talking about statutes and what the words mean. What’s a colloquial way to explain it? And elsewhere in my statement I had said, “Extremely careless.” And so they said, “Just use that.” And so that’s what I went with.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And to Hillary Clinton supporters, that sounded like you’re accusing her of a crime even though you don’t prosecute.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I get that. And then the other said saying, “You’re admitting she committed a crime, you didn’t prosecute her.” The goal was– and– and one of the mistakes I made is I don’t know what it would be. I should’ve worked harder to find a way to convey that it’s more than just the ordinary mistake, but it’s not criminal behavior, and find different words to– to describe that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Even your family had some criticism of that press conference?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, they did. They did. God love them, they have criticism of nearly every press conference. But this one, their feedback was, “You Seacrested it, Dad,” which I– they explained to me was a reference to Ryan Seacrest, the TV host, who I guess will frequently say– he’s about to announce a result and then say, “But first, this commercial.” And what they meant was I made people wait till the very end to say what the conclusion was we were reaching, when folks wanted to hear that at the beginning.
And I actually think that’s fair feedback. And I– I think that’s an example of my ego sneaking through. That– that I thought I knew the best way to present this was not to give them the headline up front ’cause I thought then they won’t listen to the rest of it–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You wanted people to listen.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. But– I think I was wrong about that. In fact, I know I was wrong about that ’cause it led to a lotta confusion. “Where is he going?” And people thinking that I was somehow burying the lead for dramatic purposes or– or something. So that feedback from my family, as usually is, was accurate.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you also would not use the words, “Extreme carelessness” today?
JAMES COMEY: No. I’d find some– I don’t know what it would be, sitting here. Find some other way to convey, ’cause 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 prosecute– 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.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But do you think that the F.B.I. would be in better shape today, the institution you love, would be in better shape today if you had simply put out that one line statement, “We decline to prosecute”?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. I’ve asked myself that a million times. It’s hard– hindsight is a wonderful thing. I’m not sure that it would have. And– here’s why I say that. Because we would’ve taken a tremendous amount of criticism for being fixed. The system fixed, no detail. And I still would’ve been dragged up to Capitol Hill all that summer to justify the F.B.I.’s work.
And so surely, I would’ve said something about how we did the work. And so I– I’d kinda be in the same place, except I’d be playing defense like a cornerback backpedaling. There’d be this tremendous hit the institution would take. I’d be trying to explain to people, “No, no, we did it in a good way. We did it in a good way.” And none of it, by the way, would change what I faced in late October. Even if we’d just done the one liner, we’d still have the nightmare of late October.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Y– you laid out a series of reasons that led you to do– do the July press conference– even going back to Loretta Lynch calling this a matter not an investigation. President Obama weighing in. The classified information about Loretta Lynch, the tarmac meeting. Can you assure people today– can you assure them that the Obama Justice Department was not protecting Hillary Clinton?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. And if there were people who were secretly trying to protect Hillary Clinton, we didn’t know about it. The FBI drove this investigation and we did it in a competent and independent way. I would bet my life on that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: While this is all going on in July of 2016, the FBI also opens an investigation into the Trump campaign. Why?
JAMES COMEY: Well– to be more clear, we opened an investigation into whether there were any Americans associated in any way with the Trump campaign who were working with Russia as part of Russia’s effort to influence our election. And so in late July, the FBI got information that there was somebody who had had– was a foreign policy advisor named Papadopoulos to the Trump campaign.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: George Papadopoulos.
JAMES COMEY: Right, who had been talking to someone in London about getting dirt that the Russians had on Hillary Clinton as part of their effort to influence our campaign– the– our election. And the reason that was important was that was long before the– there was any public indication that the Russians had material they were going to dump, which they started dumping in mid-June.
And so we opened, our counterintelligence division, in late July, an investigation to try and figure out– we know the Russians are trying to mess with our election. Are any Americans working with them, trying to help them?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You also had had your eye on Carter Page, who had also been working with the Trump campaign.
JAMES COMEY: Correct.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what was your concern there?
JAMES COMEY: Similarly, trying to figure out is he in any way coordinating with the Russians, as part of their effort to influence our– our election? We hear the word “collusion” all the time. “Collusion” is not a word that’s familiar to me from my work. The question is, is anybody conspiring or aiding and abetting, helping, the Russians accomplish their goal of interfering in the American election? That’s what the counterintelligence investigation was about.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: S– so what impact did the Steele– the so-called Steele dossier have on the FBI investigation? Did that trigger the FBI investigation in any way?
JAMES COMEY: No. No, in fact, as I said, the information that triggered it was the Papadopoulos information that came in late July. The FBI didn’t get any information that’s part of the so-called Steele dossier, as I understand it, until after that. And so the investigation was triggered entirely separately from the Steele dossier.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So the FBI is investigating Russian interference in our campaign, and whether or not any individuals associated with President Trump are cooperating with that interference. What are you thinking then? As you see President Trump invite the Russians to release Hillary Clinton’s emails, as you see him refuse to criticize Vladimir Putin?
JAMES COMEY: I’m thinking the questions that we’re asking ourselves, which is, is anybody– is the Trump campaign in any way working directly with the Russians? Is there– because the– the fact that the president is calling for the release of the emails could cut both ways.
You could argue it’s an indication that they don’t have a secret channel with the Russians, or you could argue it means they’re in bed with the Russians and there must be connections that we can find. And so it was obviously of interest to us, but we already had the investigation underway.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And the refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know what’s behind that. I mean, that’s– that mystified me even after President Trump became president ’cause I discovered that he wouldn’t criticize him even in private, which– I can understand a president making a geopolitical decision that, “I ought not to criticize an adversary country’s leader for some reason publicly.” But I discovered President Trump wouldn’t even do it privately, and I don’t know why that is.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You first were briefed on the Steele dossier in August of 2015. What did you make of it?
JAMES COMEY: That it, at its core, was consistent with the other information we’d gathered during the intelligence investigation. That there was a massive Russian effort underway to interfere with our election with three goals: to dirty up the American democracy so it’s not a shining light for others around the world; to hurt Hillary Clinton, who Vladimir Putin personally hated; and to help Donald Trump become elected president.
Th– those allegations are at the core of the Steele dossier, and we already knew that was true from totally separate information. And so at its core, it said something that was consistent with what we believed. It was coming from a credible source, someone with a track record, someone who was a credible and respected member of an allied intelligence service during his career. And so it was important that we try to understand it, and see what could we verify, what could we rule in or rule out?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you think it was a credible document?
JAMES COMEY: Well, certainly the source was credible. There’s no doubt that he had a network of sources and sub-sources in a position to report on these kinds of things. But we tend to approach these things with a bit of a blank slate, trying to figure out, “So what can we replicate?” This guy, who’s credible, says these things are true. Okay. That means we should try and replicate that work to see if we can develop the same sources.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: A– and at the time, did you know it had been financed at the beginning from President Trump’s– by President Trump’s political opponents?
JAMES COMEY: Yes, I– I was told at some point that it was– the effort had originally been financed by a Republican source to develop– material– opposition research on Donald Trump. Then after the Republican nominating process ended, the effort was taken up and funded by a Democratic aligned group trying to get opposition research on Trump. I never knew which– who the groups were, but I knew it started with Republicans paying for it and then Democrats were paying for it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And– and all through August and September– there’s a great debate going on inside the Obama administration: What to reveal about Russia (SIC) was doing, what to reveal about your investigation. Describe that.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Not the second part. Y– actually was not a hard question about whether to talk publicly about the fact that we’d opened in– counterintelligence investigations on a small number of Americans because it was far too early. We didn’t know what we had, and we didn’t want to tip them off that we were looking at them.
So 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 ’cause we gotta run this down and investigate it. So actually what was debated was a different and harder question which is what should we tell the American people about the fact that the Russians are messing with our election?
Trying to hurt our democracy, hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. What should we do about that? And one of the options debated was should we inoculate the American people in some way by telling them, “The Russians are trying to mess with you. You should know that so you can take that into account when you see news or see particular approaches to things.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: W– we– we know that– there were s– there were strong objections in– by Republicans in the Senate to being public about this. But at one point, you actually volunteered to put it all on paper?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah– I think it was in August, I volunteered that– that I would be– I remember saying that I’m a little bit tired of being the independent voice on things, after the beating I’d taken after the July 5th announcement. But I said in a meeting with the president, “I’m willing to be the voice on this and help inoculate the American people.
But I also recognize why this is such a hard question, because if you announce that the Russians are trying to mess with our election, do you accomplish their goal for them? Do you undermine confidence in our election by having the president of the United States, or one of his senior people, say this publicly?
Will the Russians be happy that you did that?” And so I– I wrote an op-ed, was going to go in a major newspaper that laid out what was going on. Not the investigation, ’cause that was too sensitive to reveal, but that, “The Russians are here and they’re screwing with us. And this is consistent with what they’ve done in the past,” and they never took me up on it. The Obama administration deliberated until the beginning of October.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And– and one of the things you write that was influencing the president and his administration was the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win.
JAMES COMEY: I think so. In fact, I heard the president say, as– as I recount in the book, “Putin backed the wrong horse.” That is, all of us were operating in a world where the polls were showing that Donald Trump had no chance. So I think what the president meant by that was the Russian effort is wasted, and so why should we help them by announcing what they’re doing when their work is not going to achieve their goal?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And it would give people reason to question the outcome of the election.
JAMES COMEY: Right. Donald Trump was already saying, “If I lose, that means the system is rigged.” And so if the Obama administration comes out saying, “The Russians are trying to help elect Donald Trump,” that walks right into his narrative that’s, “See, I told ya,” that the whole system is fixed and you can’t trust the American democratic process. And the Russians would have accomplished their goal.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Eventually the– administration does announce– that they’ve found that Russia is interfering– yet, and this is– this confounds me. I– I’m– I’m puzzled by this. Yet, when they decide to come out with a joint statement of the intelligence committees, you as the FBI director refused to sign it. Why?
JAMES COMEY: Because of the way we approach action in the run-up to an election. The– it’s not written down, despite what you might have heard, but there’s an important norm that I’ve lived my whole government career– obeying. If you can avoid it, you should not take any action in the run-up to an election that could have an impact on the election.
By that, I mean the FBI or the Department of Justice. And so we were being asked, in October, to sign onto a statement that says, “The Russians are messing with our election.” In my view and the view of the FBI leadership was it’s too late. And we can avoid action here.
Because the goal’s already been accomplished. The American people already know this because lots of government officials have been on background talking to the press about this, members of Congress have been talking about it, the candidates are talking about it. So the inoculation has already been achieved, and it’s October. So we can avoid action here consistent with our policy that, whenever possible, we try and avoid action. So we won’t sign this.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But doesn’t that undercut the weight of the statement?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t think so. I mean, coming from the director of National Intelligence, I don’t think anybody noticed at the time that the FBI wasn’t on the statement. It was the secondly of Homeland Security, and the director of National Intelligence, my boss. I reported to the attorney general and the director of National Intelligence.
And so I don’t think it un– undercut the statement. But it allowed us to be consistent with our standard which is, if possible, we should avoid action in the run-up to an election that might have an impact. Here, it is possible because the goal’s been achieved already.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did anybody try to convince you to sign it?
JAMES COMEY: I think I was asked to sign it– by the director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper. And I think I explained why– I thought the FBI shouldn’t sign up at this point. I don’t remember any pushback on that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: At the same time, the Hillary Clinton email investigation comes back. When did you first know you were going to have to deal with this again?
JAMES COMEY: Really, October 27th. Somebody earlier in October, the b– in the beginning of October sometime, mentioned to me that there may be a connection between emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop and the Clinton email investigation. I don’t remember.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Was this Andrew McCabe?
JAMES COMEY: I think it was Andy McCabe, but I’m not certain. I didn’t store that in any prominent place in my brain ’cause how could that possibly be true?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But how could that not be something you remember?
JAMES COMEY: That’s a great question. I think the answer is because how could that possibly be true? How could there be a connection between Anthony Weiner’s laptop and Hillary Clinton’s emails? And so I think it was sort of a passing comment to me, and I’m sure I stored it away thinking, “Okay, well, that doesn’t make any sense, but I’m sure they’ll tell me if it does.” And they did. They c–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It’s l– it’s led your critics to say that the FBI, for several weeks, sat on the knowledge that they had several thousand Hillary Clinton emails.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, more than several thousand, hundreds–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Hundreds of thousands.
JAMES COMEY: –of thousands on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. And I don’t know the answer to that criticism. I don’t know whether the Bureau team could have moved faster to– to bring it to me for a decision. All I know is that they did bring it to me on the morning of October 27th. And so, there’s an inspector general investigation going on– about our work on that investigation. I’m sure they’ll say, which I think is great. But I don’t know the answer to that now–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So th– and– and– and– and to be clear, between that first mention and October 27th, you didn’t hear anything about Hillary Clinton’s–
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don’t–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –emails?
JAMES COMEY: –remember hearing anything else about it until I walked into a conference room early in the morning on October 27th. So we’re now less than two weeks from the election. The deputy director emailed me at about 5:30 in the morning and said, “The midyear team,” which was the code name for the Clinton email investigation, “needs to meet with you.”
And it’s unusual to email me at 5:30 in the morning. And so I m– arranged to meet with the team. And I walked in with a stupid smile on my face, I think, and said, “The band is back together.” ‘Cause they were sitting in the same seats they’d sat in so many times.
And I didn’t smile again for a long time like that– after that. And what they told me was, “We have found, for reasons we can’t explain, hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. And something much more important than that. Thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton’s Blackberry domain.”
She used a Blackberry for the first three months or so of her tenure as secretary of State before setting up the personal server in the basement. And the reason that matters so much is, if there was gonna be a smoking gun, where Hillary Clinton was told, “Don’t do this,” or, “This is improper,” it’s highly likely to be at the beginning.
And we never found those emails. And so now they’re telling me, “For reasons we can’t explain, thousands of those Blackberry emails are on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.” And so I said, “Okay. We gotta go get ‘em. How fast can you review these?” And the answer was, “We can’t possibly finish before the election because we have to read tens of thousands of emails.
We can’t ask recruits to come in and review them because you have to know the context.” And so I’m sitting there on the morning of October 27th, they’re telling me there’s material that may change the conclusion in this case. We all agree, including the Department of Justice, we’ve gotta get a search warrant to go get these.
And then the question for me now is, “So what do we do now?” Remember the– the standard is, the norm is, “If you can avoid it, you take no action that might have an impact on an election.” And I’m sitting there, on the morning of October 27th, and I can’t see a door that’s labeled, “No action here.” I can only see two doors, and they’re both actions. One says, “Speak,” the other says, “Conceal”–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, no. You– you c– you could you f– try to find out first whether or not they were indeed relevant. Whether they– there was evidence there of a crime.
JAMES COMEY: Well, maybe. And maybe another director might have done that. My view is that would be a potentially deeply irresponsible and dangerous thing to do, to gamble– remember, the team is telling you, “We cannot evaluate this material before the election.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But we don’t know what’s in it?
JAMES COMEY: Well, we know there are hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails there, including Blackberry emails. And so there is reason to believe that this is evidence in our case, and may change the result. And so maybe what you do is gamble and say, “I’ll be quiet about it,” but that comes back to my doors.
That’s an affirmative act of concealment, right? Because I’ve told Congress and the American people– the whole point of July 5th was transparency. “Look, American people, what we’ve done. We did it carefully, we did it well. There’s no there there.
You can take that to the bank. You can rely on the FBI. We’re done. Everybody can get on with their lives.” It’s October 27th, that’s not true anymore, in potentially a huge way. So you could speak about it, or you could not speak about it. But the not speaking about it is an action.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Senior Justice officials weren’t convinced that you actually had an obligation to tell Congress that at that time. What was their argument, what was your response?
JAMES COMEY: Their argument was that it was not consistent with our policy, and that we don’t normally comment on investigations, all of which I agree with. And that they would advise against it. Actually never spoke to me about it personally. I had my chief of staff call over to the leadership’s chief of s– staffs of th– the attorney general and the deputy and say, “The director thinks that is between speaking and concealing.
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?
Especially, given the world we’re operating in, when Hillary Clinton’s elected president? She’ll be an illegitimate president, but these organizations will never recover from that. You hid from the American people something you knew gave the lie to what you told them in Congress repeatedly. And so the director thinks that we have to speak. And he would be happy to talk to you about it. Let him know.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Even though you didn’t know what was in– what was in those emails, you could have predicted what President Trump and his allies would do with it once you released this information. It’s exactly what happened. Everyone says, “This must be significant. This must be real.”
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I totally get that, and– which is why we worked so hard. And although they didn’t want to talk to me about the decision, the leadership of the Department of Justice did give input on what I should say to Congress. And the goal was to say as little as possible, because we didn’t know, “Is this going to change our result or not?”
But j– of course I know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be distorted one way, just as if it– when the later thing came out, it would be distorted the other way.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That concern, when it dealt with the classified information about Loretta Lynch, something you didn’t believe but were worried about how it would be used, didn’t seem to affect you here. Here you know that President Trump is going to say– that candidate Trump at the time is going to say, “This proves everything I’ve been saying about Hillary Clinton is right.”
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. And the question is so what do I do? Given that that’s going to happen, what do I do? Does– does that mean I conceal? And my judgment, and reasonable people can disagree about this– my point is not to tell people– “You should believe I’m right.” But I want people to know where the decision came from. That’s between speaking and concealing. It would destroy the Department of Justice and the FBI to conceal that information from the American people.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s the judgment you made. Boy, you seem to be alone in that judgment. You look at previous attorney generals for President Bush, for President Ford, for President Obama, Justice Department officials for President Clinton; they all disagree with you. They say this crossed a line.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I’ve– I’ve heard a lot of that. And in fact, all that was put together allegedly to be the reason for my firing. What I would hope is that they would, by reading the book, come with me to October 28th. Come with me, and sit there with me.
Not knowing the future. And sit there with me, look at the doors I looked at, and tell me then what you would do. Tell me which you would pick? And th– that’s what I would, in my mind’s eye, scream at the television. I wouldn’t scream at the television, but I’d say, “Tell me what you would do. Tell me which door you would pick.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They have a pretty clear answer. You say you don’t break with longstanding Justice Department norms, you don’t reveal information like this?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Okay. And so that means– and first of all, the Justice Department norms allow you, in appropriate cases, to comment on an investigation, to comment on the facts you found in an investigation, all the things we talk–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But there’s no– there’s– there’s no precedent for– putting out information like this at the end of a campaign?
JAMES COMEY: Oh, I’ve never heard of it before. I– I– as I say in the book, I– I think I did it the way that it should have been done. I’m– I’m not certain of that. Other people might have had a different view. I pray to God no future FBI director ever has to find out.
I– I hope so much this is just a 500-year flood we never see again. We have the FBI’s criminally investigating one of the two candidates for president of the United States during the campaign. And– and just over a week before the election, we find on Anthony Weiner’s laptop– and by the way, I– I know this is obvious, but I didn’t put the emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.
Right? I would so much rather Anthony Weiner had never had a laptop. I’d rather never have heard about this situation. But a week or so before the election, we find material on Anthony Weiner’s laptop that may change the result, including the missing Blackberry emails.
My question for all those op-ed pieces is, “So what do you do?” And maybe you would choose conceal, but you gotta explain to me why and how you think ab– again, not with the benefit of hindsight. But how you think about the damage to the institutions–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We just don’t get involved two weeks before an election.
JAMES COMEY: Right. To my mind, that is a narrow way to answer that question without considering the damage to the institutions you lead. I mean, “We don’t get involved.” We get involved if it is the least bad option, right? That’s a terrible option, to speak. It made me sick to my stomach to speak.
I’ve devoted my life in government to institutions that have no impact on elections. Speaking is going to have some impact, potentially. But concealing is going to destroy the institutions that I love.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Hillary Clinton’s convinced that that letter defeated her. What do you say to her?
JAMES COMEY: I hope not. I– I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I sure hope not. But– the honest answer is, it wouldn’t change the way I think about it. I mean, my hope– I didn’t write the book for this reason. But talking about leadership, it was important to tell the email story because it’s me trying to figure out how to lead well.
That people will read that story and try to put themselves in my shoes. Try to realize that I’m not trying to help a candidate or hurt a candidate; I’m trying to do the right thing. And you can come up with different conclusions. Reasonable people woulda chosen a different door for reasonable reasons. But it’s just not fair to say we were doing it for some illegitimate reason.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If you knew that letter would elect Donald Trump, you’d still send it?
JAMES COMEY: I would. I would. In fact, that was a question asked by one of my best people– a deputy general counsel in the FBI who is a very thoughtful and quiet person, who didn’t speak a lot. And that– that morning we were making that decision, she asked, “Should you consider that what you’re about do to may help elect Donald Trump president?”
And I paused, and then I said, “Thank you for asking that question. That’s a great question. But the answer is not for a moment because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If I ever start considering whose political fortunes will be affected by a decision, we’re done. We’re no longer that group in America that is apart from the partisans, and that can be trusted. We’re just another player in the– in the tribal battle.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But– but 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?
JAMES COMEY: It must have been. 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– 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.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: An– and doesn’t that also explain, at some level, your decision to conceal the fact that you’re investigating the Trump campaign for possible ties to Russia? You conceal it so you don’t give him an excuse to say, “Hey, this thing is rigged.”
JAMES COMEY: Well, no. Not with respect to the counterintelligence investigation of those small number of Americans. That– that was actually not a hard call, given the sensitivity of the matter and that it was ongoing. We didn’t want to tip anybody off. What– you’re right though, with respect to the decision by President Obama, as to how to talk about the Russian interference with the American people.
I think it was– I mean, he said it to me– in that meeting I described, “Putin backed the wrong horse.” He was clearly thinking, “I don’t want to, given that Trump’s going to lose, be– look like I’m putting my finger on the scale.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve said that a few times now. You think it’s not a close call. Boy, your critics say this is a clear, clear, clear double standard. You revealed information about Hillary Clinton; you concealed information about Donald Trump. That elected Donald Trump.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I get that. I get that– why they say that. But what I’d ask them to do is take a step back and stare at the two cases and the posture they were in. The Hillary Clinton email case, which began with a public referral, and so was public, th– and we were actually investigating the candidate herself; and the counterintelligence investigations trying to figure out whether a small group of people, not Donald Trump– we were not investigating Donald Trump.
Whether this small group of Americans was coordinating anything with the Russians. We had just started the investigation. Didn’t know whether we had anything. So it would have been brutally unfair to those people to talk about it. And it woulda jeopardized the investigation.
As I said, the Department wouldn’t agree to talk about that, and only in a general way, until the following March. So I hope those critics– I get the initial reaction. It seems inconsistent. But if you take the time and look at the posture of the two cases, they’re very, very different. And actually illustrate the rule that we’re following.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If Attorney General Lynch had ordered you not to send the letter, would you have sent it?
JAMES COMEY: No.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: No way?
JAMES COMEY: No way. I– I believe in the chain of command. I followed her instruction to call it a “matter,” because she told me to call it a “matter.” And I didn’t believe it was unethical or illegal. And so, yes, I would have followed their instruction.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why do you think they didn’t order you not to send it?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. I don’t know. Part of me thinks– given an encounter I had with Loretta after I sent it, that she may have understood what I was doing. And– and so didn’t want to be involved in the decision, didn’t want to approve it, but didn’t want to give me the instruction not to send it. Sorta let me take the hit for that. And I could be wrong about that, but– but I think that’s consistent with– with– an encounter I had with her privately.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What did it feel like to be James Comey in the last ten days of that campaign after ya sent the letter?
JAMES COMEY: It sucked. Yeah, it was– it was a very painful period. Again, my whole life has been dedicated to institutions that work not to have an involvement in an election. I walked around vaguely sick to my stomach, feeling beaten down. I felt, when I went to the White House– I don’t want to spoil it for people, but there’s a movie called “The Sixth Sense” that I talk about in the book where Bruce Willis doesn’t realize he’s dead.
That’s the way I felt. I felt like I was totally alone, that everybody hated me. And that there wasn’t a way out because it really was the right thing to do. And that– that, in a way, I’m ruined. But that’s what I have to do. I had to do it the way.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And during that time, you actually talked about this encounter with Loretta Lynch.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, the Monday I sent the letter– I learn about the emails, get briefed on the need for a search warrant on the 27th of October. We debated and debated and debated and decide on the 28th to send the letter. We had a regular meeting with Loretta on Monday, so that woulda been the 31st.
And she emailed me the Sunday night before and said, “Hey, can I meet with you after our regular terrorism threat briefing on Monday morning?” Said, “Sure.” And at the end of the meeting, she asked could she meet with me? Which of course we’d al– I’d already agreed to meet.
But our staffs were all there, and so they then knew the two of us were going to meet. And they all waited outside. And Loretta took me into an office in the FBI that’s reserved for the attorney general, and I walked in first, and she walked in and closed the door and then turned and just walked towards me with her head down and her arms out.
And I’m not a big hugger, but especially– there was an awkward dis– difference in our height, I guess as there is with me and most people. But she pressed her face against my chest and wrapped her arms around me and then I reached down, as I explain in the book, and kinda awkwardly hugged.
And then we– parted and she said, “I– I thought you needed a hug.” And she was right. I’m sure it showed on my face how beaten I felt. And then we sat down and she said, “How are you doing?” Loretta Lynch is a really good person and has known me a long time.
She said, “How are you doing?” And I told her that I felt terrible, that I felt beaten, and– but that I didn’t see that I had a choice. And then she said something that floored me. She said, “Would they feel better if it leaked on November the 4th?” And my reaction was– and I said to her, “Exactly, Loretta.”
And so, I don’t know, was she telling me, “You’ve done the right thing?” And, in a way, hugging me because she feels badly I’ve taken this incredibly brutal hit? I don’t know. But I interpreted that as, “First of all, I feel badly for you. And even if you hadn’t made this decision, once you start going to get a search warrant for Anthony Weiner’s laptop to look at hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton emails, it’s likely to leak out anyway,” she’s telling me.
And remember, the Department of Justice had thought, “We gotta go get a search warrant,” in the week before the election. And so that’s how I took it. Again, I– I could be wrong about that, but that’s how I took it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the reasons it was– you feared it was going to leak out is– ’cause you were dealing with a rogue element of FBI agents and former FBI agents up in New York who were really pushing to get this out there. Were you aware of that?
JAMES COMEY: I knew that there were leaks coming– or appeared to be leaks about criminal investigation of the Clintons coming out of New York. And I don’t know exactly where that was coming from. I commissioned an investigation to find out. I don’t know what the investigation found.
But, yeah, I was worried about– the– the team that had done the investigation was in the counterintelligence division at headquarters, of the emails. And there were no leaks at all, very tight. But the criminal folks in New York were now involved in a major way, and I don’t want to single anybody out ’cause I don’t know where it was coming from.
But there’d been enough up there that I thought there was a pretty reasonable likelihood that it would leak, and that’s what Loretta was reflecting.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You had your– your former boss, Rudy Giuliani, out there on television saying something big was coming.
JAMES COMEY: Yes, I saw that. And I don’t know whether that was– it’s part of what I ordered investigated. I don’t know whether that was part of a leak outta the– FBI office in New York that knew about the search warrant. But that was my concern, that once you start seeking a search warrant, especially in a criminal case– counterintelligence is different.
They’re so used to operating in a classified environment. They’re much tighter. But once you start involving people whose tradition is criminal, and in New York which has a different culture, there is a reasonable likelihood it was going to get out anyway.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So were you gamed here by people who had political motives?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t think so. I mean, I– I don’t think anybody with political motives put hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, for heaven sakes. And so I– I don’t think so.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Is one of the lessons here that, as hard as you tried to stay outta politics, it actually is unavoidable? That because you have to make political assumptions as ya– as– as you’re closing in on an election, you’re thrown into politics no matter which decision you make?
JAMES COMEY: Oh, I think that’s right. And that– that wasn’t a new lesson. That was why Mark Giuliani said at the beginning, “You know you’re totally screwed.” The FBI’s an independent organization, but it’s operating in a very, very difficult partisan environment in the United States.
And investigating one of the two candidates for president of the United States. That’s what he meant, “You’re totally screwed.” And– one of my kids– I stayed off Twitter during that period of time. One of my kids shared with me a tweet that’s become one of my favorites where someone said, “That Comey is such a political hack.
I just can’t figure out which party.” And I took that as a compliment, but also an illustration of what I’m talking about. You’re the FBI, you’re supposed to be finding the facts. And you’re finding the facts in a world where everybody’s on a side, and can’t possibly understand you’re not on a side. And so you’re inevitably going to get hammered from all points, and you’re going to be involved in politics in some sense, because you’re in the middle of it–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But does that–
JAMES COMEY: –trying to find out what’s true.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –lead to the conclusion do what you’re going to do, don’t talk about it?
JAMES COMEY: Yes, except that you’re an institution that depends upon public trust. And so, again, those people who say, “You should have just closed the Clinton investigation without saying a word about it,” I don’t think you’re thinking about the public trust in the institutions of justice, and the damage that would have done to people’s faith and trust that the justice system is working.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But hasn’t the public–
JAMES COMEY: It’s the reason that you talk about cases– again, cases of great interest you talk about all the time. It was really important that the Department of Justice put out a report about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. An 80-some-page report.
Now, they could have said, “We don’t talk about our investigations,” but folks wanted to know what happened in Ferguson, Missouri? For reasons I totally understand. And when you’re the Justice Department, you’ve got to tell people, when you can, “This was done in the right way, and here’s what you should know–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But aren’t you concerned that that public trust has taken a hit because of the decisions you made?
JAMES COMEY: Oh, of course I am. Yeah, I’ve thought about it a lot. And I was going to say a million times. Probably haven’t thought about it a million times, maybe a thousand or more, and asked myself, “So should I have done something differently?” And I think it’s fair to say somebody else in my shoes might have done something differently.
The honest answer is I screwed up a couple of things, but in the main, I think given what I knew at the time, these were the decisions that were best calculated to preserve the values of the institutions. It was terrible for me, terrible. But I still think it was the right thing to do.
And my hope in this book is, not that people agree with me, y– they may still walk outta this thinking I’m an idiot, but I’m an honest idiot. And I really was deliberative, and didn’t do this alone. I had a team of very bright people who argued and fought and debated trying to figure out, “So what’s the right thing to do?”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Your general counsel, I believe, thought you shouldn’t release the letter, correct?
JAMES COMEY: No. There was o– there was one senior executive who thought we shouldn’t send the second letter, November the 8th, saying, “We have finished looking at these emails and it doesn’t change our result.” But other than that– I mean, we debated a ton of different options. The senior team of the FBI, including the general counsel, thought we have to.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Election Day 2016. You didn’t vote.
JAMES COMEY: No.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
JAMES COMEY: I’m the director of the FBI. I’m trying to be outside of politics so intentionally tried not to follow it a lot. And that I shouldn’t be choosing between the candidates. I’m trying to lead an institution that should be separate and other.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Were– were you aware– you say you try not to follow it, but you must have been aware of– what the candidates were saying about the letter in those final ten days.
JAMES COMEY: Yes, I was. Yeah. Because, again, I’m leading an institution that public trust and confidence in that institution really matters. So I try to keep track of, “So what are– what are folks saying about us and how we’re conducting ourselves?” ‘Cause even though I was raised not to care what other people think, when you’re the director of the FBI or the attorney general, you have to when it relates to the institution you lead.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And take us through that day. Where were you as the returns were coming in?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t even remember. I think I was home that day. Yeah, I think I was home that day, that night. ‘Cause I think it was a fairly late evening. And I was surprised that Donald Trump was elected president, as I think most– maybe Donald Trump was too, but as– as a whole lotta people were.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what part of you is thinking, “I helped elect Donald Trump”?
JAMES COMEY: Well, no part of me, ’cause I don’t know the answer to that. 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-a 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. It just makes it more painful to think that we might have had an–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It wouldn’t–
JAMES COMEY: –impact on the–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –change?
JAMES COMEY: It wouldn’t. I– even if I had a time machine, I can’t go back in time and as director of the FBI say, “I’m going to make this decision because I don’t think Donald Trump will be a good president of the United States.” That’s not the FBI’s role. And so I’m gl– I’m glad for a lotta reasons I don’t have a time machine, but that’s what I mean when I say it doesn’t– it doesn’t change the result.
We– we tried to, and I believe did, make these decisions without regard to political Russia. Without regard to how it would affect and who it would affect, based on, “So what’s the right thing to do? Should we speak, or should we conceal? And given the values and traditions of the institutions of justice, which is the right thing to do?”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You said you hoped it didn’t change the result, but what does your gut tell you?
JAMES COMEY: I really don’t know. I’ve read a fair amount, ’cause– ’cause I’m– again, I hope very much. I’d love to have a group of academics establish it had absolutely no impact on the election. I’ve read people argue that it had. I don’t know.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Nate Silver has a pretty persuasive– analysis that suggests it made a huge difference.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I– again, I don’t know the answer. And in a way, I care about the answer, and in a way it doesn’t matter at all.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And– just take us inside your house at that point. You– you’ve written about this. Your wife, Patrice, Hillary Clinton supporter.
JAMES COMEY: Oh yeah. And– and the– the– I didn’t take a poll among all the kids, but I’m pretty sure that at least my four daughters, probably all five of my kids, wanted Hillary Clinton to be the first woman president. I know my amazing spouse did. My)– my wife and girls marched in the women’s march the day after President Trump’s inauguration.
There was a lotta passion in this house for Hillary Clinton. And I– I get that. But again, I hope it illustrates to people that I really wasn’t making decisions based on political fortunes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: S– so what did she say to you? What did you say to her?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don’t– I– she knew enough, Patrice, the pain that I was in that– and how hard these decisions were that I don’t think she spent a lotta time– I think she got actually where I was. I d– she didn’t spend– she expressed frustration.
She hated the fact that I had to make these decisions, and ’cause she loves me dearly, she hated the fact that I personally was stepping in front of the institutions to get shot repeatedly. She would say, “Look, I get what you’re doing. I get that you’re trying to protect the institutions.
But why does it have to be you? Why do you have to be the one that everyone’s going to hate?” And my answer was– “‘Cause I’m stuck. I would rather not.” Like I said, I would rather Hillary Clinton have used the State Department for her email system. I would rather that Anthony Weiner have not had a laptop at all.
I would rather have had– I’ve still never met Hillary Clinton; I would rather never have been involved. But what am I going to do? We were involved. The inspector general sent us a referral, we had to open a case, and we were totally screwed.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If she were sitting right here today, what would you tell her?
JAMES COMEY: Hillary Clinton? I– I realize it sounds like I’m pumping my book, “I hope you’ll read those chapters of the book. Not so that you walk away agreeing with my decisions, but that you understand better where they came from. And– and frankly, the kinda person who was trying to make those decisions.
Even you think they’re wrong, that look at how we made those decisions and why.” And I– I think– look, I haven’t talked about this. I’ve gotten the daylights beat outta me– this is the first time I’ve talked about this. And I’m sure a whole lotta people have a view of me based on that.
And what I’d ask them to do is please try to come into those rooms. Read the book and come into those rooms and see how we tried to make these decisions. And if possible, ask yourselves, “What would I have done, and why?” And you may come out thinking, “I’dve done it differently,” but I don’t think you’ll come out thinking that– as Hillary Clinton wrote in her book, I shived her.
I mean, that sounds like I was trying to knife somebody, I was out to get her. And it’s illustration of our polarization here that you’ve got the Trump camp, which I guess thinks I was trying to save Hillary Clinton. They don’t quite explain what I was doing in October.
And then Clinton camp thinks I was trying to shiv Hillary Clinton. Both can’t be true, but in our polarized world, people live in separate bubbles. I would hope both camps will read this and, I hope, see a deeply flawed human surrounded by other flawed humans trying to make decisions with an eye, not on politics, but on those higher values.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you wouldn’t change the big decisions. What are you sorry about?
JAMES COMEY: Oh, I’m– well, I’m sorry about a number of thing– I’m sorry that Seacrest-ed the announcement. I’m sorry that I– caused all kinds of confusion and pain with the way I described her conduct that led people into all kinds of side roads. I’m deeply sorry that I was involved at all, but– that’s something I can’t avoid.
And I’m sorry there wasn’t an opportunity, especially with the second one, to explain more. To say, “Look, here’s what we’re doing.” ‘Cause I got that chance– the only time I’ve actually gotten that chance was in a private setting with the whole U.S. Senate where Senator Franken– we were th– I was there to talk about Russia.
But S– then-Senator Franken stuck his hand up and said, “Can we talk about the elephant in the room? What you did to Hillary Clinton?” And so I turned to Senate Majority Leader McConnell, who was running the meeting, and said, “Can I answer that?” And he said, “Yeah, take all the time you need.”
And so I answered, and I laid out what we’ve laid out. “Look, here’s where I was on July 5th and why. Here’s October 28th.” And– and Senator Franken actually interrupted and yelled, “But you didn’t find anything.” And I said, “Senator, you have hindsight bias.
I know now I didn’t find anything. But you have to come with me to the 28th of October. Sit there with me. What would you do? I see two doors. I can’t find a door that says, “No action.” I see two actions: speak or conceal. Speaking would be terrible. Concealing would be catastrophic.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Not necessarily. Tough it out and take your lumps?
JAMES COMEY: Take your lumps. I mean, y– you lead the institutions of justice that would be maybe forever, but certainly for a generation or more, be unimaginably damaged by conspiring to conceal that you had lied to the American people. And you had restarted the Hillary Clinton investigation in secret in a way that you thought might change the result.
Fair-minded people, and there are a lotta them in America, fair-minded people would look at that and say, I think, “How on earth could you do that? You told us we were done. You told us this was finished. And all of a sudden, it’s not finished, and not just in a small way.
You think the result could change. And you didn’t tell us that?” And so, again, people can weigh that differently, but that’s how I thought about it. And so again, in that– in that session with the Senate, I got the chance to lay that out. And I was most struck that Senator Chuck Schumer came up to me afterwards, who had been a very, very vocal critic of my decisions, and took my hand, and he had tears in his eyes, and he started poking me in the center of the chest.
He said, “I know you. I know you. You were in an impossible position.” He wasn’t telling me he agreed with my decisions, but I think once he came with me to October 28th, he understood better. I think President Obama understood it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You met with President Obama after the election?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, he held me back after one of the very last meetings I had with him, after the election, and said he didn’t want to talk to me about any particular case, ’cause he was very scrupulous about that. And he said, “But I want to just tell you something generally.
I appointed you to be FBI director because of your integrity and your ability.” And then he looked me in the eye and he said, “Nothing has happened, nothing, in the last year that has changed my view of that.” And, look, he wasn’t telling me, “I agree with what you did.”
He wasn’t telling me, “You made the right decision.” He was telling me, “I know where it came from. I know you’re not a partisan hack. I know you’re trying to do the right thing.” And it meant a lot to me. I mean, I had not been a political supporter of President Obama’s.
I came to deeply respect him, and his higher loyalty to the values I care a lot about. And I g– I almost got emotional in that moment ’cause, again, I’d been walking around like Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense.” And have the president of the United States say, “I still respect you for the reasons I did originally,” meant a lot to me.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That was a real, in some ways a very raw conversation, in your telling. What else did you tell him?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I said to him– “Mr. President,” first of all, I said, “Thank you, Mr. President. It has been a nightmare. I’m just– I’ve just tried to do the right thing.” And he said, “I know. I know.” And then I said, “I think my wife would kill me if I didn’t take this chance to thank you, and to tell you how much I’m going to miss you.
And– and also to t–” I told him that, “I dread the next four years. But in many ways, I feel great pressure to stay to try and protect the institution I lead.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What were you dreading?
JAMES COMEY: Well, I had some sense of the nature and character of the new president of the United States. And I worried very much that there would be an effort to erode the independence of the FBI. The FBI sits in the executive branch, it should.
The FBI director reports to the attorney general and the director of National Intelligence, and they report to the president.
They should. But the FBI always has to be a little bit alien to the executive branch ’cause we have to investigate the executive branch. It’s the reason Congress gave the FBI director a ten-year term, to signal that need for independence. Not– not total independence, but independence of spirit.
And I worried, given what I had seen during the campaign, that– that that effort to remain apart– might be challenged in– in a Trump administration. And– and I was right, but that’s what I worried about.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Even your harshest critics will concede what you’re just talking about right now– you’ve lived your life trying to be a person of integrity, trying to live by honesty, trying to protect the institutions you serve. But in the words of Eric Holder, you’re a good man; good men make mistakes.
JAMES COMEY: Oh, they sure do. And I– I’ve made a million of them. But again, I think, even with hindsight, that the process we used to make decisions in the email investigation, and the things we considered, and the ultimate decisions, were the best ones. I could be wrong about that; I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.
But– but I’m proud of the way we made those decisions. And I keep saying “we.” Again, they were my decisions; I’m accountable for them. But we made them by insuring there was a buncha of people banging it around and arguing with each other. And came to a result that we all thought, “Okay, this is the best thing to do in a terrible circumstance.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What did it cost you?
JAMES COMEY: What did it cost me? Well, (SIGH) I’m sure the respect of a lotta people that– who couldn’t see what I was seeing, couldn’t understand, couldn’t possibly understand why I was doing what I’ve done. It– in a way, I– it didn’t cost me much beyond that ’cause I don’t want to be anything else.
I– never going to run for office. I wanted to be the FBI director for another six years. It had no impact on my awesome family who still thinks I’m a knucklehead but loves me dearly. And– but I think that’s what it cost me, that it caused a lotta people to question whether I was a political hack.
Whether I was in some way– acting in an unprincipled way. And that’s painful. But at the end of the day, you have to make a decision and make it in a principled way. You can’t control what people think about you. You’d like people to understand your reasoning, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t hope people will come outta this thinking, “Oh, okay. I understand better.” But the end of the day, you gotta look at yourself in the mirror. And you’ve got to make the decision– the right decision, but most of all for the right reasons.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So– so it’s– January 2017. The intelligence community and the F.B.I. have reached their conclusions about what– what Russia did during the election and so you have to go tell the president-elect. But first, I guess, the day before–
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –you brief President Obama. Take us inside that room.
JAMES COMEY: Sure. It was right– January 5th in the oval office. Director Clapper, the head of the– the director of national intelligence, the head of the C.I.A., the head of the N.S.A., and myself met with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and their senior national security team in the oval office, sitting in the sitting area by the fireplace.
The president and the vice president in arm chairs with their back to the fireplace and I was sitting slightly off to the right so the president would have to look slightly left to see me. Director Clapper was sitting in the center and he briefed them on the findings of the joint intelligence community assessment and the conclusions about what Russia had done.
And there were a variety of questions, especially focused on, “So how do we stop it from happening in the future,” questions about sources and whatnot and how certain we were. And he conveyed that it was a joint high-confidence assessment, which is very unusual. From analysts from the– different agencies that the Russians had did this, their goals were to dirty up the American democracy, to hurt Hillary Clinton and to help elect Donald Trump.
And we were going to brief it– he explained that the next morning, to the gang of eight, the leaders of the House and Senate– intelligence committees and the speaker and majority leader and minority leader on both sides. And then we were going to New York and brief the president-elect and his team.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You say high confidence. That means you’re sure?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, that’s the closest the intelligence community– you never say you’re sure in the intelligence business. The top level is high confidence. There’s low confidence, medium confidence, high. This was the top of the chart. So you never say you’re sure in the intelligence business because you– you never want to be over-confident. But this was– their sense that given the variety of sources and methods we had, we had this nailed.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And in that meeting, that’s what Russia did. You also discussed with the president this information you had about the president-elect contained in the Steele dossier?
JAMES COMEY: Right. Director Clapper explained to the president and vice president that there was additional material that had– came from a reliable source and that we had included as an annex in the report, that it was sufficiently separate, that we didn’t integrate it into the report, but it was sufficiently reliable that we thought it oughta be part of the entire report.
And there was a portion of it that was particularly salacious that related to allegations around sexual conduct of– before– President Trump was a candidate. And the president asked– President Obama asked, “What’s the plan for briefing that material?”
And he explained that we had decided that Director Comey would meet with the president-elect privately after we briefed the president-elect and his team on the general findings so that he could review it– in a more private, more sensitive setting with the president-elect.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That was James Clapper. How did President Obama respond to that?
JAMES COMEY: He didn’t say a word. President Obama has a great poker face. But he simply turned– so if I’m President Obama, he turned slightly to his left, looked at me, and went like this– and looked back at Director Clapper. So kind of gave me a– Groucho Marx is how I thought of it, double eyebrow raise. Didn’t say a word, but communicated to me at least– and I could be misreading it, ’cause I don’t know President Obama’s eyebrow raises, that sort of– sympathy and concern. Like, “Good luck with that.” And– and that was it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Could it have been you again?
JAMES COMEY: It’s possible. But– you know, again, I could be misreading it. But I read it as, “You poor bastard.” And almost like, “Whoa,” and– but, you know, he didn’t explain it and so, like I said, I– I might be misinterpreting it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Was there any choice there? Why– if this was salacious and this particular part of the dossier– unverified– still unverified by the way?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. So far– when I got fired, it was unverified.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why tell him?
JAMES COMEY: Because we, the intelligence community, including the F.B.I., knew this information about allegations around prostitutes in Russia. We had been told by the press that they were about to run with it. And then two specific reasons. The– the way we work in the counterintelligence business is if a adversary has compromising information on someone that they might use, one of the ways we defeat the adversary is tell the person who might be blackmailed, “We– the government, we already know about this.
So you’re not going to be able to hide it so they don’t have leverage on you.” And then second, he’s going to be president of the United States and the head of the entire executive branch. How could we, the leaders of the intelligence community, know something– whether it’s true or not about him personally, that’s going to become public, that the Russians may have and not share it with him. And so the logic of it– was powerful that we should share it. And the logic, frankly, was powerful that I should do it alone, although I didn’t love the idea. And so we decided to do it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you all go up to New York the next day, January 6th, for the meeting in Trump Tower. You had– one more warning– from the secretary of Homeland Security.
JAMES COMEY: Right, as I explained in the book, Jeh Johnson, who’s been a friend of mine since we were federal prosecutors in Manhattan in the late ’80s, called me after the meeting in the oval office with President Obama. Jay had been in the meeting– and just to tell me that he was worried about this plan for me to brief the president-elect alone about this material.
And I said, “Me too.” And he said, “Have you ever met Donald Trump?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Be careful, Jim, be very careful.” And it’s one of those things that you appreciate a friend saying, it’s not really helping me, except to make me feel even more nervous, the lump in my stomach bigger. But, yeah, Jay called me– and I don’t know whether he was calling at President Obama’s request, but he seemed to be giving voice to the eyebrow raise.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So what does “be careful” mean in that context?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s why we– thanks, bud. It’s not really helping me. I– I took it as, “Just choose your words carefully. Don’t say more than you need to, less than you need to, try to get it just right, accomplish your goal, and then get outta there,” is how I took it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So as you headed into Trump Tower that day, were you nervous?
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What were you afraid of?
JAMES COMEY: Well, I’m about to meet with a person who doesn’t know me, who’s just been elected president of the United States. By all accounts, and from my watching him during the– the campaign, could be volatile. And I’m about to talk to him about allegations that he was involved with prostitutes in Moscow and that the Russians taped it and have leverage over him.
And I was worried that I’m about to have a situation emerge where the president-elect thinks the F.B.I.’s out to get him somehow. People, in my experience, tend to project onto you their worldview. And even though I did not intend to jam Donald Trump with this, my thinking was, given his approach to the world, he may think I’m pulling a J. Edgar Hoover and assume that I’m trying to dangle this over him to get leverage on him. And so I worried– I’m going to not only ruin any relationship I might have with the president, but more importantly, create a situation where the president and the– and the F.B.I. are at war even before he becomes president.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you head up to the top of Trump Tower– set the scene.
JAMES COMEY: We went in through the back entrance through– an entrance of– residences. So we snuck around– the press didn’t see us going in. We went up and met in a conference room somewhere within the Trump Organization. It was a conference room with a glass wall and they’d hung a big thick curtain to block the wall from the hallway.
And I walked in with the director of the C.I.A., the director of the N.S.A., and the director of National Intelligence. And we waited for the president-elect to come. A small conference room, looked kinda ordinary to me. And a few minutes later he walked in, President-elect Trump, along with the incoming vice president and their national security team.
And a group of them sat at the table with us and a group sat at the wall behind me, against the curtain. And Director Clapper ran the meeting and did it exactly as he had done it with the gang of eight earlier that morning on Capitol Hill and with President Obama the day before.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It was the first time you met Donald Trump. What was your impression?
JAMES COMEY: My impression was he looked exactly like he did on television, except he looked shorter to me than he did on television, but otherwise exactly the same. And the reason I say that is most people look slightly different in person. I don’t know whether that’s bad or good, but he looked the way I’d seen him look on television.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Which was?
JAMES COMEY: He had– impressively coifed hair, it looks to be all his. I confess, I stared at it pretty closely and my reaction was, “It most take a heck of a lot of time in the morning, but it’s impressively coifed.” He looked– his tie was too long, as it always is. He looked slightly orange up close with small white—half moons under his eyes, which I assume are from tanning googles. And otherwise looked as I had expected him to look from tele– as I thought he looked on television.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You even clocked the size of his hands?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. I– 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.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Then comes the briefing. What did you tell them, what was their reaction?
JAMES COMEY: Director Clapper laid out, as I said, exactly as he had for President Obama and the gang of eight. “Here’s what the Russians tried to do. They tried to hurt our democracy, they tried to hurt Hillary Clinton, they tried to help elect you. We–” he– was very specific about this, “We did no analysis, because the intelligence community doesn’t, of American politics.
We found no impact on the vote count but we didn’t– we don’t have an opinion to offer on whether the Russian effort had an impact on the election.” And he laid it all out and the– the– President Trump’s first question– President-elect Trump’s first question was to confirm that it had no impact on the election.
And– and Director Clapper explained, as I think he already had, “No, we didn’t do that analysis. We found no Russian manipulation of vote count. We didn’t do an analysis of whether their work was effective in changing votes, changing the– the sentiment of the electorate.”
And then 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. They actually started talking about drafting a press release with us still sitting there. And the reason that was so striking to me is that– that’s just not done.
That the intelligence community does intelligence, the White House does PR and spin, and the searing lesson, as I explained in the book, of the Iraq war is you don’t mix the two. That we give you facts and then we leave and then you figure out what you’re going to tell people about them, if anything. But it moved right into this, “Let’s figure out what to say about it,” kinda deal.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You also said you were struck by what they didn’t ask?
JAMES COMEY: Very much. 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.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You– you said as this was happening, you had a flashback to your early days as a prosecutor?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Again, I– put this in the book ’cause it’s the truth. I had a flashback to my days investigating the Mafia, La Cosa Nostra. And– and I couldn’t figure out why when it first pushed into my head, so I pushed it away, saying, “That’s crazy.” And then it came back again.
And I pushed it back and it came back again. And I think what it was was the nature of La Cosa Nostra is an effort to make everyone part of the family. There’s an expression in the Mafia– there’s a distinction between a friend of yours and a friend of ours. A friend of yours is someone on the outside of the family, a friend of ours, a “amica nostra” is the way they talked about it in Sicilian, is part of the Family, capital F.
And I think the reason it was coming into my head was I felt this effort to make us all– and maybe this wasn’t their intention, but it’s the way it felt to me, to make us all “amica nostra.” We’re all part of the messaging, we’re all part of the effort. The boss is at the head of the table and we’re going to figure out together how to do this. And I think that’s why it brought that strange memory back into my head.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think you shoulda said something then?
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. I mean, I– I– I think that’s a reasonable question. I should’ve said, “Hey– Mr. President-elect, the way it works is we in the intelligence community shouldn’t be here for this.” I– I guess that’s a reasonable question. I think the reason I didn’t, I hope is obvious to folks, is that I was about to– we had just delivered, “The Russians tried to help get you elected.”
And I was about to stay behind to talk about allegations of the president being involved with prostitutes in Moscow. And I thought, “That’s gotta be my focus.” And so I didn’t– I didn’t know where it entered my mind consciously. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking, “Should I be giving them a lesson about how to interact with the intelligence community.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think that briefing convinced the president that the Russians did interfere in the election?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t– I don’t know. I don’t think so, given things he’s said thereafter and some of the things he’s said about the intelligence community after that. I think it convinced members of his staff, but as to him, I– given what he said afterwards, I don’t think so.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did he say anything else about the broader briefing?
JAMES COMEY: In that session? No. Not that I remember.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then you went– everybody else left the room–
JAMES COMEY: Yeah– Director Clapper– I call him General Clapper, ’cause he was a retired general. General Clapper said– and– “Mr. President-elect, there’s some additional material that we think it makes sense of Director Comey to brief you on– privately. And– and we’ll all excuse ourselves in a small group.”
And the president-elect then said to me, “Okay, how small.” And I said, “Well, I was thinking just the two of us, sir.” And then his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said, “How about me, Reince Priebus, and the vice president?” And I said, turning to President-elect Trump, “It’s up to you, sir. I wanted it to be a small group, but it’s entirely up to you.” And then he said– I don’t know whether he knew what I was going to talk about it, but he said– “No, no, just the two of us, just the two of us, thanks everybody.” And then the group filed out.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Just the two of you. What do you tell him?
JAMES COMEY: I didn’t tell him anything. First he began by telling me– saying nice things to me about how he thought I’d conducted myself honorably during the Clinton e-mail investigation and that he knew that people at the F.B.I. thought very highly of me and he hoped very much that I was going to stay as F.B.I. director.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Unprompted?
JAMES COMEY: Un– oh, unprompted. And I didn’t say, “Thank you,” because my view was I already have the job. Congress states a ten year term in order to ensure continuity. And so I appreciate the nice words, but I didn’t want to make it seem like I was applying for a job that I already had and intended to have for another six years.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So to be clear, at that point, he was happy with how you had handled the Clinton e-mail investigation?
JAMES COMEY: Well, at that point, he said that. Now, whether– whether that– I came to conclude that a lot of times what he said was just kind of pleasantries to begin a conversation, so I don’t know whether he really thought I had handled it well. But he said, in substance, “You handled it well, you conducted yourself honorably.
And I know the people at the F.B.I. really like you. And I really hope you’re going to stay as director.” And that– when that was finished, I then turned to the topic and said, “Sir, there’s a portion of the material that we wanted to brief you privately to make sure you’re aware of it because– the– we understand the media may be– gonna publish it very soon.”
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?”
And I assumed he was asking that rhetorically, I didn’t answer that, and I just moved on and– and explained, “Sir, I’m not saying that we credit this, I’m not saying we believe it. We just thought it very important that you know.” And I explained, “One of the F.B.I.’s jobs is to protect presidency from coercion. And if there is any effort, one of the things we do is a defensive briefing to let the person who might be the target of that coercion know that this is out there, better equip us to defend ourselves against the adversary.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him you thought it wasn’t true or you didn’t know if it was true or not?
JAMES COMEY: I said, “We’re not saying that– I’m not saying that I believe the allegations, I’m not saying that I credit it.” I never said, “I don’t believe it,” because I– I couldn’t say one way or another. But I said, “We are not– I’m not saying we believe the allegations,” or I might’ve used the word “credit the allegations.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How graphic did you get?
JAMES COMEY: I think as graphic as I needed to be. I did not go into the business about– people peeing on each other, I just thought it was a weird enough experience for me to be talking to the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow. And so I left that part out. I thought I’d given enough to put him on notice as to what the essence of the material was.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was the look on his face?
JAMES COMEY: He was very defensive and started to launch into– for reasons that I don’t understand, started going into the list of people who had accused him of touching them improperly, sexual assault and how he hadn’t done this, he hadn’t done that, he hadn’t done that.
And I worried the conversation was about to crash, because I was reading that he was reacting like, “We’re investigating you and we’re going to go figure out whether you were with prostitutes in Moscow.” And– and so I said something in substance about how we don’t– it– “We’re not investigating you, sir. This is not something that we’re– we care about, except that you know that this is out there.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you believe his denial?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t– I don’t know. I don’t– the nature of an investigator is you don’t believe or disbelieve. You ask, “What’s my evidence? What is the evidence that establishes me whether someone’s telling me the truth or not. And ask this allegation–” I honestly never thought this words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the– the– current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It’s possible, but I don’t know.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How weird was that briefing?
JAMES COMEY: Really weird. I mean, I don’t know whether it was weird for President-elect Trump, but I– it was almost an out-of-body experience for me. I was floating above myself, looking down, saying, “You’re sitting here, briefing the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in Moscow.” And of course, Jeh Johnson’s voice is banging around in my head. President Obama’s eyebrow raise is banging around in my head. I just wanted to get it done and get out of there.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him that the Steele Dossier had been financed by his political opponents?
JAMES COMEY: No. I didn’t– I didn’t think I used the term “Steele Dossier,” I just talked about additional material.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did he– but did he have a right to know that?
JAMES COMEY: That it’d been financed by his political opponents? I don’t know the answer to that. I– it wasn’t necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information. Again, I was clear on whether it’s true or not, it’s important that you know, both because of the counterintelligence reason and so you know that this maybe going to hit the media.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So how did it end?
JAMES COMEY: It ended not long after I said– it only took a few minutes after I made clear to him, “We’re not investigating you.” And– I think he asked something like, “Is there anything else?” And I said, “No, sir.” And then we shook hands and I walked out.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You had been warned, at least by some people on your staff, not to tell him, “We’re not investigating you.” Was that a mistake?
JAMES COMEY: It might have been– a mistake. The general counsel of the F.B.I. had argued, “Look, it’s literally true that we don’t have a case open on President-elect Trump. We’re looking at other people.” And– and– but his argument was, “There’s a problem with you saying that for two reasons. First, inevitably as we move along in the investigation as– as to whether anyone was working with the Russians, the campaign’s going to have to be a focus and the candidate’s always the head of the campaign, so inevitably we’re going to have to look at him. And second, you’re going to create a duty to correct. But if you tell him he’s under investigation and that changes, don’t you have to go back and tell him-“
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you thought that was a reasonable prospect?
JAMES COMEY: I didn’t know at that point in time whether that would change or not. But– and I said to the general counsel, look, I get that, that makes sense to me. But I’m very worried about beginning a new administration with the president thinking the F.B.I. is out to get him.
Now in hindsight, given the challenges I had with President Trump and his frustrations that I wouldn’t publicly say he’s not under investigation, I think the better argument is it was a mistake, I should’ve listened to the general counsel. But anyhow, that’s how I think about it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President Trump thought you were shaking him down?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know that. But I– it seems reasonable, given his view of the world. Remember, that was what I worried about is that he would think I was pulling a J. Edgar Hoover, to come in there and jam him by raising the prospect of salacious, compromising material.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you felt you had no choice?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I thought the logic was too strong that– how could we have this information and conceal it from the incoming president of the United States? And look, if it’s true– again, we don’t know whether it’s true or not. But if it’s true, and as odd as it sounds, it could possibly be true, we have to protect him. We have to protect the presidency. And so part of our– our role as the F.B.I. is let him know that they may come at you with this.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If it’s true, how can you protect him?
JAMES COMEY: Well, if it’s true– if someone knows something bad about you that they’re going to maybe use against you and you’re in the government and– and I’m the F.B.I., if I come to you and tell you, “We know all about this,” it’ll make it harder for them to get you to do stuff based on this secret. Because you know that we know. And so it makes– it reduces the leverage of the adversary.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Sure enough, a few days later, it does become public.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Buzzfeed– publishes the entire– Steele “dossier”– as you all had feared it would happen. And that’s when you get your first phone call from President Trump.
JAMES COMEY: Yes, that’s right. So the following week, the– as you said, the– the media published the entire– thing and President Trump called me at my office at the F.B.I. and he was very upset about the leak of this material and wanted to express his concern about it.
And I explained to him that it wasn’t– that it wasn’t government material. That it had been prepared by private parties, the F.B.I. hadn’t paid for it, the F.B.I. hadn’t commissioned it, and it was all over Washington. “And as you’ll remember, sir, as we told we, the media has this and is close to reporting it. So we shouldn’t think of it as a leak of– of classified information. It wasn’t classified and it– that it wasn’t government information.”
And then he launched into– I didn’t ask about the business with the prostitutes, but he launched into an explanation as to how I should know that wasn’t true and that he remembered now, from talking to friends who had been with him, that he’d never stayed overnight at the hotel, he’d just changed clothes there and went to the Miss Universe pageant.
I don’t know whether any of this true, but this is what he said. And then went right back without staying overnight. And then he said, “Another reason you know it’s not true is I’m a germaphobe. There’s no way I’d let people pee on each other around me.” And that me caught me so much by surprise I actually let out an audible laugh and– ’cause 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 F.B.I. 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 F.B.I. 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.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And in fact, he did stay overnight in Moscow.
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. But– but again, I– I– I don’t know those facts. But he told me he did not.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So– so– at– at– at this point, you’ve had– two substantive conversations with the president. The bulk of it is about his alleged activities with prostitutes in Moscow.
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And as you say, that seems a little crazy.
JAMES COMEY: It did to me. You could’ve asked me, when I became F.B.I. director, if I could imagine those conversations. Like, it’s hard to imagine them even sitting here. But– it is– it is reality today.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The president is inaugurated a week later. I want to try to get inside your head again at that moment, because now you’ve had these encounters with the president. He’s taken the oath of office, you’re thinking–
JAMES COMEY: I’m thinking I need to be very careful to protect the independence of the F.B.I. Because I now know– I’ve had two one on one conversations with the president of the United States, which is a very unusual thing. Both of them touched on his conduct personally and implicated the F.B.I.
I need to make sure to keep that distance to protect the F.B.I.’s independence, which had been built since Hoover. I mean, Hoover was always over having drinks with presidents and doing all kinds of stuff– that was– not appropriate. Gathering information, all that sort of thing on political figures. And the F.B.I., since Watergate, had created itself as an independent force in American life, so I need to be a guardian of that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And that affected you– a couple of days later when you got invited to the White House. You’d been invited for a reception?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, the– the– the weekend of the inauguration, on Sunday, which was also the day of the National Football League Conference Championships. I remember that because of the time of the event. At 5:00, the president posted the law enforcement leaders of the agencies that had helped protect the inauguration, which is a really nice thing to do. And it was at 5:00 in the blue room at the White House.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You didn’t want to go?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I didn’t want to go for two reasons. First, I worried very much about that independence of the F.B.I. And, remember– and I’m sure everyone listening remembers, there were a whole lot of people who thought that I had helped elect Donald Trump by what I had done at the end of October.
And so why would I want to go to a public reception– a potentially public reception with the president two days after he takes office? And then second, I wanted to watch football and the championship games were on and 5:00 was right in the middle– I’d miss the end of one game and the beginning of another.
My staff said, “No, you have to go. You’re the director of the F.B.I. It would be an insult to the other agencies– secret service, park police, if you don’t go. And you can tape the football games and just don’t talk to people about them.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And so you–
JAMES COMEY: And so I went.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –you do go and you walk in. You’re there as the president walks in. What happens next?
JAMES COMEY: I walked into the blue room, which is a big blue oval room. And I quickly looked around, trying to figure out where– which way the president would enter and I figured where the doors were. And so I went to the far opposite end, right at the window, where you can look out and see the Washington monument. And I– so I was now as far away as physically possible without going out the window from the president. And I resolved to stay there and–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Hard for you to hide?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, and I almost got away it here though. And– the– you would think that you would notice me, this giraffe standing at the end of the room. But I was standing next to the head of the secret service, who is a normal sized person, and the president and vice president come in and the– the staff has set up these klieg lights, so I know the media is coming.
And then the media group comes in and the president starts speaking on camera and his eyes start sweeping the room. And I remember the movement of his eyes ’cause I was– obviously, thought I was going to be spotted. And he went past me with his eyes and settled on the man right next to me, the head of the secret service.
And I was relieved and surprised. And he called the director of the secret service forward, made a big– display, hugged him, and then had him stand with him in front of the cameras. And then he began talking. And, I know this seems crazy to people, but I was sitting there thinking, “So how did he miss me?”
I’m 6’8″. And then I– I look and right next to me is this blue curtain. And I’m wearing a blue suit the doesn’t match perfectly, but close enough. So I’m thinking, “How great is that? I got a little camouflage.” And so I start moving over and I pressed myself against the blue curtain, true story.
Thinking — this is my save. This will save me from having this public embrace with the president. And so then he starts speaking again and his eyes start going again. And my camouflage worked until the very moment it didn’t and he sees me and says, “Jim, he’s more famous than me,” and then calls me forward. And I remember the walk, it seems like a thousand yards across the– the– the– blue room– the oval blue room. And my family’s had a lot of fun watching my face as I walk across, ’cause they know that’s my “oh no” face.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, that’s not exactly what Patrice said, is it?
JAMES COMEY: Well, I didn’t want to say it on television. She said, “That’s Jim’s ‘oh shit’ face.” 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.”
And I’m thinking all this as I’m walking and I have this awkward look on my face. But I was determined there’s not going to be a hug, ’cause I’m not a master of television but I knew that would be a real problem. And so I extend my hand and he grabs my hand and he pulls in and back. So he–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So he was going to hug you?
JAMES COMEY: He was going for the hug, going for the hug. And so I’m not an unusually strong person but I work out and so I tighten my abs and my core and I’m thinking, this– “Unless he’s a lot strong than he looks, he’s not getting a hug.” And so he pulls and he doesn’t get the hug.
Our arms are tense and he gets just far enough that I get something worse than a hug. Because he’s just able to lean up to put his face by my right ear– unfortunately, the cameras were on the left side of my face. And so the whole world saw him kiss me. And he didn’t kiss me, he said, “I really look forward to working with you. But the whole world, including my beloved family, saw the president of the United States kiss the man who helped get him elected.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So– and I know this is speculative, but what do you think is going through his mind? You’ve briefed him twice, you’ve spoken with him twice. We know what the subject has been. You’ve been talking to him about Moscow. Has he forgotten that?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. ‘Cause I don’t– I worked with him for five months, I have some insight into the mind of Donald Trump. And so I’ll give you my best guess as to it– what I think it is. I think it’s about establishing dominance and making everyone part of the family.
And so, although there would be hits from embracing him, he would embrace me– he’s embracing me, making me his F.B.I. director. He had made the secret service director stay with him up there, almost on display. And after the alleged kiss, which wasn’t a kiss, he tried to get me to stay as well, almost to show, “These are my people.”
And I backed off, like, “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy,” which inside my head, I was thinking, “I’m not suicidal.” And so then I backed, backed, backed up to the end. But if I had to guess– and I could be wrong. But– my guess is it’s about establishing, “These are my people.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He follows up with an invitation on January 27th?
JAMES COMEY: Yup. I’m at lunch. I almost never went to lunch as F.B.I. director. I would walk up to the cafeteria and get a sandwich and eat it at my desk. So I’m at my desk, eating my lunch and working. And my assistant, Althea James, says, “There’s a call– coming from the White House.” And they put it through and it’s the president asking me if I want to come over for dinner that night. And I said– I had a date with Patrice to get Thai food that night, but I didn’t tell him that. I said, “Sure, sir.” And he said–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not say no?
JAMES COMEY: Well, it’s the president of the United States calling to ask me to a dinner. And I was assuming it was a group dinner that– ’cause it– it actually didn’t enter my mind that the president would meet alone, again, with the F.B.I. director.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, but you had been pretty scrupulous. You wouldn’t play basketball with President Obama, you only met with him on a non-policy issue once and that was before you were F.B.I. director. You really wanted to keep a wall–
JAMES COMEY: Yup.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –between the F.B.I. and the White House. Can’t you just say no?
JAMES COMEY: Maybe? Although, part of the environment was I had– I remember, I had this concern about having a war with the president and I’d done the brief on hookers thing privately. And so I knew that there would be a worry about, “Where is the F.B.I.?”
Plus, I assumed it would be a group event. And I had been to group events with President Obama. He would have a annual dinner for the senior appointees in the administration. I was one, the director of National Intelligent is another. So I had gone to those.
And so it actually didn’t occur to me to say no. I was uncomfortable, but it didn’t occur to me. And so I just said to him, “Sir– certainly, sir.” And he said– “6:00 or 6:30?” And I said, “It’s up to you, sir.” And he actually say, “And if you’re– if you’re busy tonight, I can do it tomorrow. I’m here all weekend.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you knew then it wasn’t a group dinner?
JAMES COMEY: Well no, ’cause I assumed he must be having leaders over to get to know them in groups. And the– and so I said, “Sir, whatever you– whatever you like.” And he said, “Well, why don’t we make it 6:30?” And I said, “Sure.” And then I called Patrice, broke our date, and– as luck had it, I had– an encounter with Clapper, who had left the government but we were giving him a recognition as honorary F.B.I. agent.
And I told him about this invitation and he told– comforted me by saying, “Yeah, I’ve heard lots of other people are getting calls to come for dinner.” And so then in my head I was– “Okay, so it’s a group thing. He must be having a group thing tonight, a group thing tomorrow night. That’s fine.” And so I went over there expecting– a crowd of people.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what did you find?
JAMES COMEY: I stood in the entrance to the green room, which is next to the blue room, and chatted with two Navy stewards who were there.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: This is the residence?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, in the residence. And looked around the room and quickly saw that all the furniture had been moved in the– in the center of the room. There was a small oval table and there were only two chairs and I could see two place cards. And I could see from where I was standing, one said, “Director Comey.” I assume the other was the president. And so that’s when I knew that it wasn’t a group dinner to get to know the leaders of our different agencies, that it was just the two of us.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What did you think was going on?
JAMES COMEY: Something that made me uncomfortable and my best intuition at that point was it’s part of an effort to make me part of the team, to make me “amica nostra.” And that it made me deeply uncomfortable. And so I just waited. There was no– there was no saying no at this point.
And the president showed up and had me sit down and it turned out just to be the two of us and that the purpose of the meeting, the dinner was for him to extract from him a promise of loyalty. That instinct was right, it was to make me a friend of ours.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: As you were witting with him, he– he was just getting used to the trappings of–
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –of the White House?
JAMES COMEY: I think he was. I think he was. He– he was– he took on– on the plates was a card– a calligraphy card, so– very nice script. You always see these at the White House. And it listed the menu for the dinner we were about to have.
And so he– I remember, he held his up and said, “They write these by hand.” And I said, “A calligrapher?” And he kind of gave me this look and he said, “They write them by hand.” And so I– I kinda let it go. And– and then he talked about– one of the things he said was how luxurious the White House was, the residence. And he said, “I– and I know luxury.” And– which I credit. And– he said, “It’s– it’s really beautiful.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How long did it take to get down to business?
JAMES COMEY: Not long. I think it was probably during the salad, before the shrimp scampi. He redirected the conversation– I think we started talking about how the beautiful the White House was. He redirected the conversation by saying, “So what do you want to do?”
And I kinda gave him this look and then he explained what he meant. And he said, “You know, a lot of people would want to be F.B.I. director and given all you’ve gone through, I would understand if you want to walk away but it would look like you’d done something wrong if you did that. But I figured I should meet with you and– and see what you want to do,” which was really odd because I think, by that point, at least three times, he had said he hoped I was staying and looked forward to working with me. But there was no acknowledgment of that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think he wanted you to walking away?
JAMES COMEY: No. No, I think he wanted me to say, “Sir, I’d very much like to continue to serve and be your F.B.I. director.” And then he would say, “Okay, but I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” which is exactly what he did say, the– the second part. So I think it was about– again, this is just a guess but it’s an educated guess, that someone had told him or he had concluded that he gave the F.B.I. director job away for free by telling this guy you hope he’s going to stay. You oughta get him in front of you and make sure he’s a friend of ours. And– and have him promise he’s going to be loyal, ’cause the F.B.I. is a dangerous organization.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So he asks you what you want and says what he wants?
JAMES COMEY: Correct.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Which was?
JAMES COMEY: He said, “I expect loyalty, I need loyalty.” And I did not reply. I just– we’re– actually, the– we were probably just about as close as you and I are now, probably exactly the same at this small table. And I just stared at him and had this little narrative with myself inside, saying, “Don’t you move, don’t you dare move. Don’t even blink.” Because I was so struck by– caught by it, but I knew I couldn’t say yes, I couldn’t nod, and so I just froze and stared at him.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not say no?
JAMES COMEY: That’s a fair question. I think because I was caught totally by surprise. And again, I’m operating in an environment where I don’t want– I’m going to be director for another six years. This man’s the new president of the United States, I do not need a war with him.
I have to find a way to work with this administration and protect the values of the F.B.I. And so– and part of it was just sheer surprise. I couldn’t think of a clever response. And by the second time he came back to it, he didn’t respond at all. We just stared at each other and then he went on eating. And then he came back to– he didn’t– he noticed that I didn’t answer. He came back to it later in the dinner. And by then, I had my wits about me and had a better answer. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was the second time?
JAMES COMEY: The second time was later in the conversation. He said, again, “I need loyalty.” And I said, “You will always get honesty from me.” 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.” And, of course, in between those two– the loyalty sandwich, in between those two, I had– I had an opportunity to explain to him the F.B.I.’s role and how important it was for the F.B.I. to be independent and how I thought about it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But did you cross a line there– did you cross a line when you promised him honest loyalty? Did– would it be fair for him to think, “Wait, I have a deal here.”
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I– I don’t think so. Given the context and the other things I’d said, I thought– and look, it was a compromise on my part to try and avoid a really awkward conversation, get out of an awkward conversation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Was it a mistake?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don’t know. But– maybe, maybe. And maybe I should’ve said in the moment, “Sir, as I told you, the F.B.I. has to be–” and then give him the speech again, maybe. But– and so maybe I should’ve been– yeah, that’s fair feedback. Maybe I should’ve been tougher or more direct, especially given what I know now.
At the time, I obviously couldn’t see the future. But given what I know now, maybe it would’ve been better to give a more explicit– say, “Sir, I can’t promise you loyalty. Given the nature of my role, I can promise you I always tell you the truth,” which I had already told him. “That’s my role. And that I’m not part of it.”
I should’ve given that whole speech then. But in the moment, frankly, it didn’t occur to me. And I– maybe I didn’t have the guts to do it. I wanted to get out of this conversation without compromising myself. And I felt like, given all I’ve told him already, he has to understand what I mean by honest loyalty and he’s kidding himself if he thinks I just promised that I’m– I’m “amica nostra.” But– in hindsight, you’re probably right. I probably should have done it differently.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How strange is it for you to sit here and compare the president to a mob boss?
JAMES COMEY: Very strange. And I don’t do it lightly. I– and I’m not trying to that, 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 center 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?” It’s all about here.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was the rest of the able talk like?
JAMES COMEY: I think I described it in the book as, like– watching a jigsaw puzzle contest with a shot clock, that the president would– it wasn’t a conversation in any meaningful sense, ’cause a conversation’s what we’re having where you do some talking, I do some talking.
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.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You call them baffling, unnecessary lies.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, that’s the things that’s– especially to someone who’s– who’s been involved in investigation in the justice system my whole life, is– to give you an example, he– at the beginning of the meeting, he tells us– tells me Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, does not know we’re meeting, which I thought was st– I remember it because I thought, “How could the chief of staff not know the president’s meeting with the F.B.I. director?”
And then later in the same meal, near the end, he says, “Reince knows we’re having dinner, so follow-up with Reince.” Just– so one of those things is not true. One of those things is a lie, but it reminded me of the inauguration crowd thing. Right, that it’s– his inauguration crowd was bigger than that Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
That’s just not true. That’s not a perspective, that’s not a view, that’s just a lie. And– and yet he would say it and, “Everyone agrees, everyone says, everyone believes,” and the– the danger sort of occurred to me is– ’cause you don’t have a chance to speak. That’s washing over you, washing over you, washing over you.
Did you just agree to that? Did you just agree that he didn’t make fun of a disabled reporter because you– because you didn’t speak? Well, you did have a chance to speak because there was no gap at all in the words. But I– I have an encounter with him two weeks later where I learn from that and try to interrupt him to tell him I don’t agree with him. But in this conversation, my first detail conversation, he’s just rolling on, talking about all kinds of things.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re listening. Are you thinking, “President Trump’s a liar?”
JAMES COMEY: Yes, yeah. I– and I– and I had, obviously, concerns about that earlier, having watched him on the campaign that he is someone who is– for whom the truth is not a high value. And– and obviously, there were examples of that in the dinner.
The Priebus thing is– is an example of it. The– the inauguration thing is an example of it. I’m sure there are others in the conversation. But yes, that he is– that sometimes he’s lying in ways that are obvious, sometimes he’s saying things that we may not know are true or false and then there’s a spectrum in between.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then unprompted, he brings up the golden shower again.
JAMES COMEY: Correct, yeah. He brings it up and says he may want me to investigate it to prove that it didn’t happen. And then he says– something that distracted me. ‘Cause he said, you know, “If there’s even a 1 percent chance my wife thinks that’s true, that’s terrible.”
And I– and I remember thinking, “How could your wife think there’s a 1 percent chance you were with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow?” I’m a flawed human being, but there is literally zero chance that my wife would think that was true. So what kind of marriage to what kind of man does your wife think there’s only a 99 percent chance you didn’t do that?
And the reason I’m recounting this is I remember– I wasn’t listening to him, ’cause I’m running this through my head, like, how could that possibly be true? And I said to him, “Sir–” 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.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And did he accept that?
JAMES COMEY: He said he would think about it. And he said, “I hope you’ll think about it too.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You notice something else– during that dinner. You say the president didn’t laugh.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, not at all. And I was struck by it. So struck by it, it stayed with me, that I’ve never seen him laugh. Not in public, not in private. And at a dinner with someone– I mean, I’m not a comedian but I occasionally say something that’s funny that people chuckle with each other.
But I never saw anything that resembled a laugh. And I could over interpret that, I could be– also we’re missing something that– that maybe he’s– he’s breaking up in stitches with other people other than the F.B.I. director, but I also tried– after I got fired, I thought– that stayed with me. And so I went and tried to find examples of videos where he’s laughing and I could only find that really wasn’t a genuine laugh.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The dinner ends, you immediately write it up. Why?
JAMES COMEY: Because I knew, given the nature of the conversation and the nature of the person I was talking to, that to protect the F.B.I. and to protect myself, I would need to remember very accurately what we talked about it. And as the F.B.I. director, you have thousands of conversations.
And– and so the detail can get lost over time. I knew that, given that I worried he might not tell the truth about our encounter and given that it touched on him personally, that I thought, “You know, I need to have a written record of this.” And so I went home, on my personal computer, and created a memo and kept a copy of it in my personal safe at home and left another copy of it at the F.B.I. Because it was about both protecting the F.B.I. and protecting me.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think President Trump got what we wanted out of that dinner?
JAMES COMEY: No. And I think he knew that because it was a later point when he was frustrated with me that I wouldn’t get out– as he said, get out that I’m not under investigation, where he tried to recall the loyalty pledge, I think, from the context. Where he said, “You know, I’ve been very loyal to you, ’cause we had that thing.”
And I– I think what he was doing was trying to recall our encounter at that dinner and it coming up in his memory as, “Actually, the guy didn’t promise to be loyal to me. He promised me honest loyalty and– and that’s actually what he’s giving me now by telling me, ‘You oughta have your lawyer call the Department of Justice.’”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: About 10 days later you’re back in the White House. You’re– meeting with Reince– previously the chief of staff– when he suggested you go meet with the president again.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. This was a follow-up meeting to the dinner from the 27th. And it’s us talking about a variety of topics, some of which were classified, but one of which was, so how should it work? How does the F.B.I. appropriately interact with the White House. And I was explaining it has to be through the Justice Department, it’s important that there be a regular channel, except for national security emergencies or national security policy issues.
And at the end of that conversation, which was designed to explain– and Priebus, to his credit, seemed to want to get it right. But at the end, he asked me whether I wanted to see the president. And I said, “No, that’s okay. I’m sure he’s got plenty to do.” And he said, “I’m sure he’d love to see you.” And I said, “No, n– that’s fine.”
He said, “Sit. Sit.” And then he left and– went down the hall, apparently to the Oval Office, and came back and said, “He’s in the Oval. He’d love to see you.” And I said, without expression, “Great.” And then he takes me down to the Oval Office and the president was just finishing a conversation with the then-s– Press Secretary Sean Spicer. And I came in and sat down.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me stop you there. You’ve been in the Oval Office several times in your career. You served several presidents. How is it different?
JAMES COMEY: It was different– well I noticed right away the curtains were different. He had hung bright, gold curtains, which I found out later were actually Bill Clinton’s Oval Office curtains, excuse me, since changed. And– but most striking was that he was sitting behind the resolute desk, the big– the president’s desk, which I had actually never seen Presidents Bush or Obama do during a meeting.
They would be there sometimes for phone calls, I gather, but when I was there they always sat in the open sitting area, which made sense to me as someone who tries to get people as a leader to tell you the truth. It’s much easier in an informal setting. But I noticed he was behind the desk with– both arms on the table top, on the desktop. And so I sat– so there’s a gigantic block of wood between us, I sat in a little wooden chair right up against the desk. And the conversation started and– and Reince was trying to steer it, in part, towards the Steele dossier, and the president wasn’t interested in that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why did Reince want to talk about that?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know for sure. I don’t– I don’t know. He seemed to want to bring the topic up. I– I don’t– I don’t know exactly. I–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, you mentioned something about– since you brought up the Steele dossier again, you mentioned that the parts about– the prostitutes was– unverified. You don’t know whether they’re true or not. What about the rest of the Steele dossier? Has it checked out? Is it a credible document?
JAMES COMEY: The answer is, I don’t know. When I left the F.B.I when I was fired in early May of last year, an effort was underway by the F.B.I. to try to verify as much as pos– rule in or rule out what– and that work was still ongoing. So I don’t know what the answer is. It came from a credible source.
And as I said, its central premise was corroborated, that there was an effort by the Russians to influence the election and that there had been some connections between people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian effort, in particular the Papadopoulos information that started the F.B.I.’s investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So connections between the Trump campaign and Russia had been corroborated by the time you left the F.B.I.?
JAMES COMEY: I think all I can say is that– the– the work was still underway, the investigation began because of inf– reliable information that George Papadopoulos was having conversations about obtaining information from the Russians. That’s probably as far as I can go at this point.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So where did the conversation go?
JAMES COMEY: The president was talking about something that had happened during an airing of a interview he did with Bill O’Reilly on Fox–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh the Super Bowl interview —
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. The Super Bowl pre-game show where– and I hadn’t asked any questions about this, but the president was just talking about it, he had given an answer to Bill O’Reilly that had been much criticized across the political spectrum when he had said, in response to a question, that he respected Vladimir Putin and said, “That doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him.”
And then O’Reilly responded, “But he’s a killer.” And the president responded, in substance, “But we’re killers, too. You think our country’s so innocent.” I forget the exact words, but that’s the gist of it. And that moral equivalence, between the people of our government and Putin’s thugs, had generated a lot of controversy.
And so the president was, as I said when I described the dinner, just in a monologue talking about how that was a great answer, what was he supposed to do, it was a hard question, he gave his best answer. And just going on and on and on. Basically we’re all agreeing with this if we don’t speak.
And having seen it happen during the dinner I thought, “I can’t let that happen,” ’cause I don’t think it was a hard question. I think the second part of his answer is terrible. And so he gave me an opening at some point by saying like, “Yeah, you agree it was a good answer–“
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So the president wants you to say this was a good answer.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. In fact, he was telling me it was a good answer and then said– gave me an opening by saying, “You think it was a great answer. You think it was a good answer.” And then he was starting to move on. And I jumped in and I said, “Mr. President, the first part of the answer was fine, not the second part. We’re not the kind of killers that Putin is.”
And when I said that, the weather changed in the room. And like a shadow crossed his face and his eyes got this strange, kinda hard look. And I thought in that moment, “I’ve just done something unusual maybe.” And then (SNAP) it passed and the meeting was over. And, “Thanks for coming in,” and– and Priebus walked me out. It was like–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You had another mob flashback.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I did. Although in that moment I was thinking, “I just succeeded,” although I hadn’t intended to, in ending any personal relationship between me and the president by th– by interrupting him and also criticizing him to his face. And I went back and told my staff that it happened, and then I thought– and told them, “That’s not a bad thing, because it will help us keep a distance that we need to keep from him.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You– you saw it right there, and we talked about this earlier– why is President Trump so reluctant to call out Vladimir Putin?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. I’m struck by it and I’m struck by it both in public and in private. Because I can understand the arguments why the president of the United States might not want to criticize the leader of another country because there’s always good reasons to try and build better relationships, I suppose, even when that other leader is someone who is killing his own citizens and engaging in– in attacks against our country. But you would think that in private– talking to the F.B.I. director, whose job it is to thwart Russian attacks, you might acknowledge that this enemy of ours is an enemy of ours. But I never saw. And so I don’t know the reason. I really don’t.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump?
JAMES 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.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s stunning. You can’t say for certain that the president of the United States is not compromised by the Russians?
JAMES 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 woulda been able to say with high confidence about any other president I dealt with, but I can’t. It’s possible.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: February 14th, you’re back in the Oval Office?
JAMES COMEY: Back again. Valentine’s Day. For–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?
JAMES COMEY: We were there for a briefing, which was a very good idea, to give the new president an understanding of the terrorism threat in the United States, which is the F.B.I.’s primary responsibility. And so I was there was the vice president and leaders of the counter terrorism agencies in a horseshoe of chairs ar– again, he’s behind the desk, in a horseshoe of chairs around the desk to tell him, “Look, here’s what we’re worried about in the United States.”
And– so I did most of the talking during that briefing and gave some, I thought, some pretty eye-opening insight into some threats that we don’t talk about a lot, but the president was kind of quiet, which is unusual, and unengaged. And– and then ended the meeting by thanking everybody and s– and pointing at me saying, “I just want to talk to Jim.” And excused everyone, including the vice president.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn’t want to leave.
JAMES COMEY: Well I know the attorney general didn’t want to leave because– he ac– he was– I’m sitting here, he was sitting off to my right and the door by the grandfather clock was off to my left. President was sitting where you are. And the attorney general came around and stood right by my chair and lingered. Clearly, his body language leads– to my mind said he didn’t want to leave.
And then the president said, “Thanks, Jeff. I just want to talk to Jim. Thank you.” And then he walked off. And then staff had been sitting on the couches and chairs behind us, and one of the people back there, been– Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law, and he came to my left elbow and stood after the attorney general left and started chatting with me about the e-mail investigation, just pleasantries about how hard that must have been, and lingering as well. And then the president said, “Thanks, Jared. Thank you. Just want to talk to Jim.” And so– he was excused.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’re alone in the Oval Office?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What happens next?
JAMES COMEY: I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but I knew that whatever it was, it was really, really important that I remember everything that was said, and as best I could the exact words that were said. Because why would you kick out the attorney general, who’s my boss, and the vice president of the United States to speak to me? Something was going to happen that was going to be important to remember–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He knows he’s going to say something that others shouldn’t hear.
JAMES COMEY: That was my read, that it’s– it’s so unusual that– first of all, it’s unusual for the attorney general– excuse me, for the F.B.I. director and the president to be alone at all. But to kick out the vice president of the United States and the attorney general, who I work for, so you could talk to me alone, something was up that was really important. And that it might well be that he knew what everybody was going to talk about was something that he shouldn’t be talking about with the others. And so my antennae were up and I just– listened.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what he wanted to talk about was Mike Flynn.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. That’s how he began it. “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” And he started explaining to me– that Flynn was a good guy and that he had to be let go ’cause he was– had lied to the vice president and he– said he had other concerns about him, which he didn’t in that meeting spell out.
And then he– got a little bit distracted, the conversation moved off to leaks a little bit. And he talked about how bad leaks were of classified information. And I agreed. And we talked about that for a bit. And while that conversation was going on, Reince Priebus opened the door to my left, by the grandfather clock, and I turned and I can see standing waiting was a big group of people, including the vice president. And the president– waved him away and had him close the door. And then after the interruption came back to Flynn.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So that– that prompted him to get back to business.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Get back to the point. He– he had wandered off on an important topic of leaks and– and urging me to talk to the attorney general about being more aggressive in pursuing leaks of classified information, all of which is fine. And then the interruption got him back to Mike Flynn, and that’s when he asked me– said he hopes I can let it go.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And when he said that, you thought?
JAMES COMEY: He’s asking me to drop the criminal investigation of his, now former, national security advisor.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Direction?
JAMES COMEY: I took it as a direction. He’s– his words were, though, “I hope you can let it go.” But the context where I’ve been– where everyone’s been kicked out, and it was just the two of us, the president of the United States, I took the expression of hope as, “This is what I want you to do.” This–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The president says he didn’t say that.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Well what am I going to do? He did. That’s why I was– when he tweeted that there might be tapes, I was– I meant what I said when I said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes because I know what happened in that– in that meeting.” And I testified about it under oath thinking there might be tapes. And so I’d be a crazy person to make it up. And I wrote it down immediately after that meeting.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He– he– he later said there weren’t tapes in a tweet several weeks later after it hung out there for a long, long time. Which statement do you believe?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. I– I mean, I would assume one of the reasons, although it was a delayed revelation, that I wanted to get out into public in– that he had– that we had had this encounter, he’d asked me to let it go, is that if there were tapes only a special prosecutor was going to go get ’em. And so I don’t know. I have no insight into whether Former Director Mueller and his team subpoenaed the White House for tapes. I have no idea.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So he says, “I hope you can let it go.” What do you say?
JAMES COMEY: He had said, “He’s a good guy, I hope you can let it go,” I think those are the exact words. But he said– and I just said, “I agree he’s a good guy,” or I said, “he’s a good guy.” And so then full-stop. And there was a brief pause. And then the meeting was over.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Should you have said more there? Should you have said, “Mr. President, I can’t discuss this with you. You’re doing something improper?”
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. I mean, that– that’s also a fair criticism. Maybe I should have. Although, as I’ve thought about it since, if he didn’t know he was doing something improper, why did he kick out the attorney general and the vice president of the United States and the leaders of the intelligence community? I mean, why am I alone if he’s– doesn’t know the nature of the request?
But it’s possible that in the moment I shoulda– you know, another person would have said, “Sir, you can’t ask me that. That’s a criminal investigation. That could be obstruction of justice.” Again, it’s one of these deals where I’m so– even though I knew something important was going to happen, it didn’t occur to me he was going to ask me to drop a criminal investigation. And so a little bit of it is the shock of it, and part of it is just from the environment I think I had a good gut sense that he knows what he’s doing.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: With that direction, was President Trump obstructing justice?
JAMES COMEY: Possibly. I mean, 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.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I wonder if you even should have agreed at that point that Flynn is a good guy. By February 14th, did you know that Mike Flynn had lied to the F.B.I.?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So was it a mistake to even agree with the president on that point?
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. I mean, I– I actually– good people do lie, and my sense of Flynn was he was a good guy, that I sat with him and chatted with him when he was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. And so the fact that someone lies doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. But I think mostly it was me trying to get outta the conversation, give him a piece of what he said that’s harmless so that I cannot give him the rest.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you knew at this point that Mike Flynn was in some jeopardy.
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Serious jeopardy.
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did the president know that?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. That is obviously an area that a special prosecutor would want to investigate. I don’t know the answer to that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: There’s been some reporting that– at– at– at one point you told the Congress that the agency who interviewed Mike Flynn didn’t believe that he had lied.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I saw that. And that– I don’t know where that’s coming from. That– unless I’m– I– I– said something that people misunderstood, I don’t remember even intending to say that. So my recollection is I never said that to anybody.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So at this point– the president is now, given what you thought was a direction– you didn’t step in and say, “Listen, you shouldn’t do that, Mr. President,” at some point in your mind, as you’re writing these notes, have you shifted to collecting evidence of a possible crime?
JAMES COMEY: Well, yes, in a sense. I mean, I am recording it bec– for the s– same reason I recorded the earlier one, but it’s even more important that I record this one because the conversation will likely come back some day and he may well lie about it. And so I need to remember exactly what was said there. It could be evidence of a crime. It was really important that it be well documented.
I shared it with– my colleagues at the F.B.I. But something else was true, it was important that we did not intend to abide his direction, we were not going to let it go, no matter what he said. And so it was really important that we not let the investigators yet know this had happened, because we worried it might chill them in some way if you hear the president wants your case to go away.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re holding this evidence. You share it with your deputy, your general counsel.
JAMES COMEY: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You don’t share it with the attorney general.
JAMES COMEY: No.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
JAMES COMEY: We thought– rightly, he was about to recuse himself on anything related to Russia and so that didn’t make sense. The harder question was, should we tell the person who is acting in the role as deputy attorney general, which was a U.S. attorney who was there temporarily? And decided that didn’t make any sense either, that we would wait until we got a new– there’s nothing to be done, since there was no way to corroborate it, the idea of tapes didn’t occur to us, that we would be getting new leadership a that deputy attorney general level. And then the department would figure out how they were going to supervise all the Russia stuff.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So at this point it’s almost as if there’s an investigation within the investigation.
JAMES COMEY: Well there’s a box within the investigation where we’re holding a piece of information so that we can figure out what to do about it later. So it’s– we are walling it off, since we couldn’t think– the leaders of the F.B.I. couldn’t think of what logical investigations you would do now, that you needed to do right now, so there would be no harm in holding it and then figuring out what to do with it as the investigation went on.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So i– i– i– if the president hadn’t fired you, would that information still be boxed up?
JAMES COMEY: Oh no. No. ‘Cause we’d have– we’d have gotten guidance at some point as to how they were going to lead the Russia investigation and then have to figure out what investigation we could do to try to corroborate that. What would we do with that? But firing me certainly accelerated it, in a way it wouldn’t have been accelerated before.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What were you thinking as you left the Oval Office that day?
JAMES COMEY: That something really important just happened and that I was a little– another one of those outta-body experiences, like, “Really? The president just kicked out the attorney general to ask me to drop a criminal investigation.” Wow, the world s– continues to go crazy.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Calls you been– calls you back a couple weeks later. The next phone call was– and that was just kind of a check-in. Right?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Said the world had gone crazy. I was about to get on a helicopter and the president called me just to, he didn’t say this, but I heard it in my own head as just, “Hey, what’s up?” And it was to find out, “So how are you doing?” I said, “Great, sir. How are you doing?” And it was just a check-in.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And that was March 1st. Did you ever look back– at– at the day and– and– get any sense of what might have prompted that phone call?
JAMES COMEY: No, I never did.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He then called you again– it was actually a few weeks later– March 30th. He’s more agitated now–
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?
JAMES COMEY: I think two reasons. M– most prominently that there had been a hearing where, at the Department of Justice direction, I had confirmed for the first time that we had open– counter intelligence investigation to understand whether any Americans associated with the Trump campaign were working with the Russians. And– and so that obviously caught his attention.
And then I think there continued to be a lotta stuff in the news about the Russia investigation. So he was calling me to tell me how frustrating he found that and it was getting in the way of his ability to make deals for the country. And he wanted to lift the cloud, he called it a cloud. And so wanted me to get out that he wasn’t under investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So if he’s not under investigation, you’ve told him, why not tell the country?
JAMES COMEY: Well for– for the reasons that the F.B.I. general counsel was concerned about me in the first instance telling then President-elect Trump he wasn’t under investigation, it– it was– potentially misleading and also would create a duty to correct that. And there was a challenge also with, so what’s the limiting principle? If they ask, “Is the vice president under investigation,” do you answer that?
And then if they say, “Is the attorney general under investigation,” do you answer that? And– where do you stop? And so the Department of Justice was thinking about it and had decided, in connection with my testimony, that they would only authorize me to say there was an investigation but not to comment on who was under investigation. But they did one other thing, they had me tell the leaders of the intelligence committees exactly who we were investigating, the– which is unusual, the identities of the Americans which did not include the president.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What part of you is thinking also, “I am collecting evidence on the president”?
JAMES COMEY: Well part of me is thinking that because of the obstruc– potential obstruction issue, but also I continued to believe that there was force to the F.B.I. general counsel’s argument that we’re going to have to look at the president. I– even if you– even if you took the– the f– my conversation with him about Flynn as a potential obstruction, you put it off to the side and said, “Well that’s different than the Russia investigation,” even on the Russia investigation there was continuing s– and stronger force to the argument that you’re inevitably going to look at his conduct, ’cause he’s the head of the campaign.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And for at least a period of time they’re trying to build a tower in Moscow.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: April 11th. Final phone call.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. This was a follow-up where he’s– I think it’s the only phone call or contact that I had with him that involved no preamble talking about how awesome I am and how great it is– or he just began by expressing his frustration– no. His voice was frustrated, his– he began by asking, “So what did you do with my request to get out that I’m not under investigation, to lift the cloud?”
And I explained to him that I had referred it to the acting deputy attorney general and I hadn’t heard back. And that– that was frustrating to him. And then I explained to him how it should work. He should have the White House counsel contact the Justice Department if he wants to find out– he has a request to make. And that was the last time I spoke to him.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But isn’t that where he said, “We had that thing”?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. He said, “‘Cause I’ve been very good to you. I’ve been loyal to you,” words like that. “We had that thing. You know?” And then he pulled up short, because the– there was no pledge of loyalty.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: In his mind when he says, “We had that thing,” does he think he made you F.B.I. director, kept you F.B.I. director, that’s why you owe him?
JAMES COMEY: I– I– I could be wrong about this, but I’ll tell you what my reaction was, he’s reaching for the– the goal of that loyalty dinner, that he’s remembering that he had a dinner with me and he’s starting to say, “I’ve been very loyal to you and you promised to be loyal to me.”
And then he pulls up short because if he’s replaying the dinner in his head, he remembers the awkward stare and then he remembers that weird formulation about always be honest and then honest loyalty. And again, I could be wrong about that, but my gut told me that’s what he’s reaching for and he’s pulling up short because, “We both know I never promised to be loyal to you, in the way you understand it.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then on Friday, May 9th, your tenure as F.B.I. director– excuse me– then on May 9th your tenure as F.B.I. director ends.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. When I’m in Los Angeles at the– F.B.I. field office in Los Angeles, about to go to a diversity recruiting event.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what happened?
JAMES COMEY: I was doing what I did many, many times visiting F.B.I. offices, I was walking around thanking everybody personally. And there was a group of employees who didn’t have desks that I could visit, they were the custodial employees and then the communications room employee. And so they were all s– in a group in a big, central room and I was standing talking to them.
And the room had televisions on the wall at the very back. And I was in the middle of thanking them for being part of the F.B.I. and its mission and explaining everybody owns the mission, they are no support employees. And I saw, “Comey resigns,” on the back screens. And one of the many great–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Resigns?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, it said, “Resigns.” And one of the many great things about the F.B.I. is we have some hilarious pranksters in that organization, and so I thought it was a scam by someone on my staff. So I turn to the– them and I said, “Someone put a lotta work into that.” And then I continued talking.
And then the– that changed on the screens, which showed the different networks, changed to, “Comey fired.” And the– now I’m staring it and the– the audience could see my face change, so they start turning around looking at the back. And I said, “Look, I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I’m going to go find out.”
“But what I want to say to you won’t change whether or not– that’s true.” And then I finished talking about the mission of the F.B.I., how everybody has to be part of it. And I thanked them for their work, I shook all their hands, then I went into a room to find out have I been fired, because I did not expect to be fired.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And who told you?
JAMES COMEY: Eventually my assistant, Althea James– there was an actual person down on Pennsylvania Avenue knocking on the front door of the F.B.I. with a letter from the president. And she somehow got the F.B.I. police to go down and get it, scanned it, e-mailed it to me. And this took probably a half hour or so. Said, “Yeah,” I’ve been fired. “President of the United
States, there’s a letter from him saying I’m fired effective immediately.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re looking at that letter, what’s your first thought?
JAMES COMEY: That’s crazy. How could that be? But they also, I think, s– attached to it a letter from the attorney general and a letter from the– the deputy attorney general, purporting to lay out the reasons I was fired. And so I think it at– I think I saw those actually the same time, and my reaction was, “That makes no sense at all.”
And– and then I took a call from Patrice who called saying the kids and she had seen it, “What’s going on?” I said, “I don’t know. We’re trying to find out.” My friend Pat Fitzgerald called from Chicago, I said the same thing. And then John Kelly, who was then the secretary of Homeland Security, called me.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Now White House chief of staff.
JAMES COMEY: Now White House chief of staff.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What did he say?
JAMES COMEY: He was very upset. He was very emotional and said he had seen the news and that he intended to resign because he wouldn’t work for people who would treat someone like me in such a dishonorable way and that he was going to quit.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What did you tell him?
JAMES COMEY: Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that, John. And I knew him well and still– knew– thought highly of him then, still think highly of him, and I said, “Please don’t do that. This president needs people of character and principle around him, especially this president. Please don’t do that.” And I said, “We need you to stay and serve for the country.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If he called you today saying he intended to quit, what would you tell him?
JAMES COMEY: I understand. I– I think you’ve– you’ve sacrificed as much as you really can of yourself for the country. And– no one would begrudge you leaving. You’ve done your absolute best. It’s– it’s come at a cost to you, but– that no one can blame you.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to get back to the story — but one more question. I think it’s to an important point that– when you’re talking about being an ethical leader, at what point do people serve in order to protect the institution, to protect the country, and at what point does it cross over into enabling bad behavior?
JAMES COMEY: That is the question that people have to ask themselves. And– and there’s no easy way to define it in the abstract, that you– 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. And it– it– it would be hard for anybody to answer that. But everyone’s gotta answer that individually.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Could you imagine if you hadn’t been fired on May 9th– if you hadn’t been fired on May 9th, would you still be working for President Trump?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. I– I would– yes, I would. I– as I told President Obama, I was dreading it and I– I would be im– an unhappy F.B.I. director, but in a way proud of the organization and in my role in trying to protect it. And the current F.B.I. director is a friend of mine, is an honorable person.
I’m so glad that he’s serving, ’cause I know he cares about the institutional values the way I do. It’s hard, you gotta constantly worry about efforts to compromise you and compromise your institution. But in the end, to answer your question, that’s– that is question and that’s one that everybody has to answer individually.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You say you were surprised as you read the letter. Weren’t you angry?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don’t remember being angry. I remember just thinking, “This is a lie.” The stuff about, you know, being fired because of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, that makes no sense at all. And then, of course, I quickly saw on the news that, you know, the White House saying that the F.B.I. was in tatters and the workforce– it was relieved that I was fired. More and more lies. And so I was worried about the organization, worried about the people– who I’m supposed to meet with right after that and confused. I don’t remember being angry in that moment.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Also had to find a way to get home.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. It– ’cause I’m no longer F.B.I. director, so how do I get home? I– I actually gave thought to renting a convertible and driving almost 3,000 miles, something I’ve never done. I’ve had friends drive across country, but I’m not single or crazy so I didn’t do it. And I left it to the– who– my deputy, who immediately had become the acting director of the F.B.I., to figure that out.
And the– the head of my security detail, who’s an amazing person, said, “Sir, we’re going to figure this out. But if I have to put you in handcuffs, we’re taking you back on the F.B.I. plane.” And I said, “Well look, I want to do whatever is appropriate under the law and the regulations, so you all figure that out.” And they figured out that they had an obligation to protect me and so they would bring me back on the plane.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re in that private jet basically alone.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What did you do?
JAMES COMEY: I broke F.B.I. rules. I was no longer an employee so I wasn’t breaking the rules. So I took a bottle of red wine out of my suitcase that I was bringing back from California, a California pinot noir, and I drank red wine from a paper coffee cup and just looked out at the lights of the country I love so much as we flew home.
And then I– as– we got close to the airport in Washington, I asked the pilots could I sit up with them, ’cause I’d never done it. Been all over the world with these pilots and sat in the passenger’s seat. Hundreds of flights, I’d never sat up there and watched them do their work. So they put the headphones on me and I sat on a jump seat between the two pilots and watched them land along the Potomac. And– and then we shook hands with tears in our eyes and then I left and get driven home.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s it. The pinnacle of your professional career, it’s over–
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Yeah. Over in a flash. Yeah. Makes no sense at all. But–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you– realize then, or could you realize then, the consequences of you being fired?
JAMES COMEY: No. I was a bit numb at the time. And I thought, “It’s crazy to fire me.” I’m leading the investigation of Russian influence and particularly whether the– anyone in the Trump orbit had coordinated and conspired with the Russians. That makes no sense at all. And the reasons they’ve given make no sense at all, are clearly a pretense.
But I was numb enough that I just thought, “Well that’s the president’s legal right to fire me and so I gotta figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.” And so I was trying to put it out of my mind and just sleep and exercise and hang out with my wife and kids. And it wasn’t until the president tweeted at me that Friday morning after I was fired that, “James Comey better hope there aren’t tapes of our conversations,” that I sorta snapped back to the present.
In fact, it wasn’t even then. I snapped back three days later in the middle of the night. I woke up in the middle of the night and the thought hit me like a lightening bold, like, “Wait a minute. If there are tapes, he will be heard on that tape in the Oval Office asking me to let it go. There is corroboration or could be corroboration for the thing we thought we’ll never be able to corroborate.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Of a possible crime.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Of possible obstruction of justice. Somebody’s gotta go get those tapes. I trust the F.B.I., right, ’cause they’ll see what I see. But I don’t trust the leadership of the Department of Justice to do it. And so–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
JAMES COMEY: Well the attorney general was recused and the deputy attorney general, in my view, had acted dishonorably by putting out this pretext about why I was fired. So I thought, “Well he’s ‘amica nostra.’ Right? He’s part of the family now. I can’t trust him.” And so what can I do? I can do something now.
I’m a private citizen and I have in my safe downstairs an unclassified memo about that conversation. And I’m a private citizen, I can tell people about conversations with the president that are unclassified. And so I’m going to do it. And so I asked a friend of mine to get it out to a reporter. And my goal was to prompt the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor, go get the tapes. That’s all I was thinking about was the tapes. Go get the tapes. Go get the tapes–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You– you documented every encounter you had with President Trump going back to the time he was president-elect from the Trump Tower meeting.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. I think there’s a written record of– we– and I’ve left it out, we– he and I had one conversation on the phone, it was about a classified topic that was totally appropriate and– and so I don’t know whether I did a memo on that. But nearly every encounter I documented, either with a memo– and some of them were classified– memos and so I obviously created them at the F.B.I. and left them at the F.B.I.
But for the unclassified encounters, I wrote them up on my personal computer, printed them on my printer, with my paper, and kept a copy here. But because I also want to protect the bureau, I left a copy at the F.B.I. But thank goodness I kept a copy here, because I was banned from the property.
One of the orders that was issued is I was never to be allowed back on F.B.I. property, like I had killed somebody. So my staff had to box my stuff up and send it home. But I had the memo in my safe, my unclassified memo. And I thought, “If I get that out, that’ll put tremendous pressure on the Department of Justice to have somebody go get the tapes before President Trump could destroy them–“
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And those tapes, in your mind, would be evidence of a possible crime.
JAMES COMEY: Yes. And I would be heard on those tapes in that conversation with the president, and he would be heard saying, “I hope you can let it go.” And I would be heard saying, “I agree he’s a good guy.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President’s tweeted innumerable times calling you a leaker– because of that. First of all, what’s your response to President Trump?
JAMES COMEY: Look, it’s true, I mean, I’m the one who testified about it, that’s how people know about it, that I gave that unclassified– this is a whole nother conversation about whether you can leak unclassified information, I don’t want to get involved in that. I gave that unclassified memo to my mind, who was also acting as my lawyer, but this wasn’t a lawyer task, and asked him to give it to a reporter. That is entirely appropriate.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not do it yourself? Why not do it openly, transparently?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. For one very practical reason. At the end of my driveway was a horde or media and my thought was, “If I do it myself, it’ll be like feeding seagulls at the beach.” That if I give it to one reporter then what’s my answer to all the others about why I won’t answer their questions? How do I fence it off–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But– but how do you– how do you weight that inconvenience against the ethics of being more open?
JAMES COMEY: I– well I– I guess that’s fair criticism, but my reaction was, “I’m going to get the information out.” I know the information is true and if I’m ever asked about it, of course I’ll tell the truth about it. Which is– the first time I was asked about it I did.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President also– several different tweets calls you a liar.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And?
JAMES COMEY: What am I going to do? Yeah. People have to make their own judgments about other people. I would ask people– when I– whenever we would evaluate a witness you’d always say, “So what’s their body of work? So what are they like? What’s their pattern and practice? Is their story internally consistent? Did they document it?” All of those questions. But I’m not going to make that argument for myself.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The day after you were fired– president is meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister. Calls you a nut job. Says the pressure’s been relieved now, the pressure on him has been relieved. What did you think when you saw that?
JAMES COMEY: Wow, was my reaction. First of all, what are the Russians doing in the Oval Office? One, as a counter intelligence person I’m thinking, “That’s crazy–” without any Americans being present, one. And, two, it– the pretense is melting away, the bit about, “You were fired because of how you handled the e-mail investigation,” is melting away. You were fired because of the Russia investigation. That’s the substance of what I heard those words as.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then that Lester Holt interview.
JAMES COMEY: Right. Same thing. The pretense has now melted.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So if there is evidence of a crime, you want it out there, you want there to be an investigation, you wanted a special counsel.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I did.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why exactly?
JAMES COMEY: Because I wanted someone without political conflict, someone who is not “amica nostra,” to find the facts. And I don’t know what they’ll find. I don’t know whether Bob Mueller s– and his people will conclude that President Trump committed a crime or not. I don’t really care, so long as it’s done in the right way, confidently, honestly and independently.
And I know the F.B.I. would be that way, and now I know the prosecutors will be that way. And whatever they find, the American people can rely on because they will find the truth. Again, I don’t sit here saying, “I hope the trust is that,” or, “I hope the truth is this.” I just want them to find the truth. And I’m confident that they will, unless he’s interfered with in some way.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve been interviewed by Robert Mueller?
JAMES COMEY: I’m not going to talk about my contact with the special counsel.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’re free to do to that. Correct?
JAMES COMEY: Yes, but I also want to make sure that I– don’t– I don’t do anything that might get in the way of their ability to be effective.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think there’s any chance that– that writing this book will get in the way?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. I hope not. I mean, because I’ve tried to be consistent. What you worry about with interviews or with– with– with a witness writing a book is, does their story change? And again, that’s the virtue of the memos, is that I’ve tried to be true to the memos and not create inconsistent statements.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you also had to testify to Congress about all that– a few weeks later. That was a dramatic moment– for the country, it appeared to be a powerful, personal moment for you. What were you trying to do there?
JAMES COMEY: I was trying to speak at the beginning of that to the people of the F.B.I., because one of the things that happened with me being banned by the president from the property is I never got to say, “Goodbye,” to those people. And when I said the stuff was lies about the F.B.I. being in tatters and being glad to get rid of me, I meant it.
I was very, very close to that workforce and they were very close to me. And I know this ’cause of the boxes and boxes of letters and cards they’ve sent me. But I never got a chance to say, “Thank you,” and to frame it and say, “keep up with your mission,” those kinds of things. And so I thought, “This is the chance.”
And I wrote the substantive information that the Senate committee wanted in advance so that I could talk in my opening to the people of the F.B.I. And I wanted to do it from heart, and so I didn’t use any notes. A s– decision I was regretting standing there with butterflies in my stomach before walking out. And it was emotional for me because I love that organization, I love the mission, I love those people.
And– and so saying, “Goodbye,” to them was an emotional thing for me. And I almost didn’t get through it. I started to choke up talking about them. But I knew it would mean a lot to them, and I knew it would offer me a measure of closure. And it just really wasn’t what the Senate committee wanted to hear, but I thought, “I have an opportunity now,” and so I took it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It is so clear how much you love the F.B.I. Are you convince you didn’t hurt it?
JAMES COMEY: No. I’m convinced– well I guess it’s easy to convince yourself, but I’m convinced that it was hurt as little as possible by virtue of what I did and that it would have been hurt more in other ways. But no, I– I think making the decisions I had to make hurt the organization.
The F.B.I.– you know, and the presidency of Donald Trump hurts the organization. The organization’s not politicized, that stuff is all nonsense. It’s an apolitical organization, but it’s subject now to extraordinary attack. And I trace that all the way back to the beginning of the e-mail investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And can it survive the attacks?
JAMES COMEY: Yes, it can survive the attacks. It’ll take a while to recover, and damage will be done to the country, because the essence of the F.B.I. is a special agent knocking on a door and talking to a crime victim and convincing them to come forward or standing up in a courtroom and telling a jury, “I found this in the left-hand drawer of this fraudster’s desk,” and being believed at the door and in the courtroom.
And the constant attacks, constant attacks, risks undermining that. And that’s why– my concern about the attacks on the F.B.I. is not a political thing, we all need that organization as a country. Everyone should want the F.B.I. to be that other in American life. And right now it’s the Republicans who are attacking it.
Democrats are doing a whole lot of attacking last year because the teams are on different sides. We have to recognize, we want an organization that is not on anyone’s side. That’s in the national interest. And I hope people can rise above, come back to the title of the book, have a higher loyalty above your tribe to the things that matter for the country.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Before we broke, you mentioned that they didn’t trust the Justice Department. What do you make of the attorney general?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know what to make of him. I mean, I only worked with him very briefly before I was fired. My sense of him, maybe it’s unfair to him, was that he was over matched for the job. And– that the job was f– much, much bigger than he was. And that he was going to struggle in it. That’s my sense.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you also said that the deputy attorney general, who’s now running the Russia investigation, you said what he put out in support of your firing was just a pretext, and the pretense then fell away. So can the American people have confidence in the man who’s supervising the Russia investigation?
JAMES COMEY: Yes, in this sense. First of all, the American people can have complete confidence in Robert Mueller. As I said– earlier, he and I are not close friends, but I’ve known him and watched his work–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve had dinner, played golf?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. I think we played golf once in our 25 years. And– sorry, and– and I’ve had dinner with him maybe once or twice. So I know him and I can s– and I– we’re friendly. But I know his work most of all. And I’ve watched it closely. He’s not on anybody’s side. He does not care about anything except the truth. And so they can have great confidence if Bob Mueller is let– left in place to do his job, he will find the truth.
And again, I don’t know what that will be. He may conclude that there is nothing that touches President Trump or any of his senior people. And that’s fine, so long as he’s able to find that truth. And so that’s the most important thing. And I also think the deputy attorney general– I don’t know this, but has likely learned a painful lesson from the way he handled my firing. And so it gives him all the more reason to act honorably in overseeing Director Mueller.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What will– what will it mean if President Trump is tries to fire Robert Mueller?
JAMES COMEY: It would, I hope, set off alarm bells that this is his most serious attack yet on the rule of law. And it would be something that our entire country– again, Democrats and Republicans, that is higher than all the normal fights about policy. That is about the values of this country and the rule of law. And it would be to the everlasting shame of partisans if they were unable to see that higher level and to protect it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the deputy attorney general’ll carry out that order?
JAMES COMEY: No. I don’t. I think, given his experience with me, that– that he has an opportunity in overseeing Bob Mueller to restore some of his professional reputation. And I’m m– highly confident that he would refuse to abide that order.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And if Robert Mueller decides to bring a case, would you be a witness for the prosecution?
JAMES COMEY: Sure, if he asked me to be. I’m a fact witness. That relates to– I’m sure, to an obstruction investigation. Where that’s going to go, I don’t know. But potentially, I’d be– I’d be a witness.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Are there things you don’t know that you haven’t said that could damage President Trump?
JAMES COMEY: Things that I don’t know that I haven’t said?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Thing– I’m sorry. Are there– are there things that you know but haven’t said that could damage President Trump?
JAMES COMEY: That’s a good question. I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m holding back on you. I’m not talking about the details of investigations. But I left a long time ago. And there’s been a lotta work done since the day I was fired. And so I don’t– I have no idea what Bob Mueller has.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you read the papers. You follow the investigation. Do you think people tied to President Trump colluded with the Russians?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know is the honest answer. That– that was th– what we were trying to investigate at the time. Was anyone aiding the Russians, conspiring with the Russians? There’s no doubt there was smoke around that. Whether there’s fire, I– I didn’t stay long enough to know.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You write that President Trump is unethical, untethered to the truth. Is Donald Trump unfit to be president?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. But not in the way m– I often hear people talk about it. 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.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’re the former director of the F.B.I. You’ve served in senior positions in the Department of Justice for Republican and Democratic presidents. And you think Donald Trump is unfit– s– the bottom line standard, unfit to be president?
JAMES COMEY: I do. I do. And I– I– I hope one of the things that comes outta the Trump administration his first term is a recognition that, as much as we fight about those policy issues in this country, what’s at the core of this nation, we are just a collection of ideas. And at the core of those ideas is that there is a thing called truth.
There is the rule of law. There is integrity. Those things matter before any fights about policies. And people who tell themselves, “Well, yes, Donald Trump is unethical but I’m getting the right Supreme Court justice or the right regulatory rollback,” are kidding themselves because if we lose that tether to the truth, if that stops being the norm at the heart of our public life, what are we?
Where are we as a country? So I worry sometimes people think I’m talking about politics. Not in the way we normally talk about in this country. But I hope in the most important way. Values matter. This president does not reflect the values of this country.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If you are right, what is the remedy? Should Donald Trump be impeached?
JAMES COMEY: Impeachment is– is a question of law and fact and politics. And so that’ll be determined by people gather–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’re a citizen. You have a judgment.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I’ll tell you, I’ll give you a strange answer. I hope not because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.
We’ll fight about guns. We’ll fight about taxes. We’ll fight about all those other things down the road. But 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. That is the core of this country. That’s our foundation. And so impeachment, in a way, would short circuit that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But– but if Robert Mueller finds evidence of obstruction of justice, what is the remedy?
JAMES COMEY: Well, sure. Tha– I– I didn’t mean to say that I want them to stop doing their investigation or whatever flows from that. But in a way, as a citizen, I think we owe it to each other to get off the couch and think about what unites us. I think about the people who supported Trump, and continue to support Trump.
A lotta them come from families with a proud history of military service. And that’s a wonderful thing. What did their fathers and grandfathers fight and die for? Not for immigration policy. Not for a tax policy. Not for Supreme Court justice. They fought and died for a set of ideas. The rule of law. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. The truth.
That’s what they fought and died for. And at some point, we have to focus on that and make sure that whoever’s leading us embodies those and we judge that leader by their tether to those values. Then we’ll go back to fighting like cats and dogs about all the things we normally fight about.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I’ve talked to a lotta people who’ve watched you for a long time– worked with you, admire you. And some of them come out with– with this storyline on James Comey. “Here was a guy who loved being F.B.I. director. He wanted to keep that job more than anything else in the world. That’s why he didn’t speak up on several different occasions when he should’ve spoken up– about President Trump. And that’s why he’s speaking out now. He got fired. He’s angry.”
JAMES COMEY: I get that. I mean, I get why people would think that. That’s just not right though. I mean, if all I cared about was getting the job and going along, getting along, it’s hard to explain some of the things I did during 2016. My goal with President Trump was to try and find a way to work with a new administration and protect the integrity of the F.B.I. That was my goal. I’m sure I did it imperfectly. You’ve pointed out w– I think reasonably ways in which I could’ve done it better or differently. That was my goal.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: At any point did you think, “I should resign”?
JAMES COMEY: No. In fact, at any point I thought, “I have to stay to protect this institution.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you braced for a s– tweet storm from President Trump?
JAMES COMEY: Sure. I don’t follow him on Twitter, but I’m sure it’s going to come. And that’s okay. I mean, that’s okay.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You close the book with a very vivid image describing the Trump presidency. What is that?
JAMES COMEY: I think of it as a forest fire. That forest fires do tremendous damage. His presidency is doing, and will do, tremendous damage to our norms and our values, especially the truth. And so that’s bad. And terrible things happen in forest fires.
But I’m an optimistic person. And so I choose to see the opportunity in a forest fire ’cause what forest fires do is allow things to grow that never could’ve grown. Were crowded out, didn’t have the light or the water to grow. And so I see already things growing and flourishing that didn’t before this fire.
I see the kids marching in the streets, including my own kids, about guns. I see all kinds of civil society getting engaged. I see parents talking to their kids about truth telling and prejudice and bias and respect. That was not happening three or four years ago. And so there’s a lot of good growing.
And I also see the Courts and Congress getting involved in ways they hadn’t before. So I choose to see opportunity. I think this forest fire will leave us better and stronger, as did the last forest fire. Watergate was a forest fire. It re-balanced power among the branches of government. I think we’re going to see that. And I think we’re going to be better for it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Couple years back, you gave a speech I think to the F.B.I. personnel saying, “If we fall in love with our own virtue, we can go sideways.” At any point over the last two years, did you fall prey to that? Did you fall in love with your own virtue?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t think so. But I worried about it constantly. And– and the guardrail for that, because that’s a big worry I have about myself, was to surround myself with people who will hit that. Hit at the certainty. Hit at the pride to make sure I’ve thought about things well.
I hope people read the book for a number of reasons. It’s about leadership and shows the importance of surrounding yourself with people who will poke at you, who will insist that you see the truth about other stuff. But most of all, about yourself ’cause I have a lotta strengths, I have a lotta weaknesses. And I want to make sure the people around me know that and help me guardrail against those weaknesses.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How does this end?
JAMES COMEY: How does– you mean m– how does my involvement end?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let’s say two th– f– first of all, for the country, how does this end?
JAMES COMEY: I think most likely, in a very important presidential election– the next presidential election, where I do hope people of all political stripes will realize what unites us is actually more important than what divides us. And that we have to choose a leader– I don’t care what party a leader’s from. We have to choose a leader who will embody the s– values– the values of this country. That’s how I hope it ends.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And for James Comey?
JAMES COMEY: I’m going to teach. I’m going to travel around and speak about leadership. I want to be useful, especially to young people. It’s really fun to engage with young people. Talk about people who will poke and prod you. But I want to offer them a vision of here’s what it should look like.
I’ve never quite gotten there, but here’s what it should look like. Don’t withdraw. Get into the public square. Be part of the life of this country ’cause we need you so badly. And when you do it, think about what matters most of all. And that is the values involved in your institutions.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Thanks very much.
JAMES COMEY: Thanks, George.