James Comey Met President Trump on His Own Terms – and Came Away Looking Smaller

6 minute read

James Comey’s splashy interview Sunday night with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News’s 20/20 showed the fired former FBI director, promoting his new memoir, as a man at ease in front of cameras. That should come as little surprise to anyone who’s followed the news since the 2016 election.

His highlight reel of TV appearances stacks up well against those of many in the uniquely TV-friendly Trump Administration – if not that of our former Apprentice-hosting commander-in-chief. And on ABC, the lawman met President Donald Trump on his own reality-TV-ready terms.

Comey, dressed flashily – especially by the standards of a lifelong fed – in a cerulean plaid blazer with naggingly eye-catching gold-stitched label buttonhole, described his first impressions of the President this way: “He had impressively coiffed hair: It looks to be all his. … 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.” This was the interview’s opening; at the end of a frantically paced hour, Comey declared that Trump was “morally unfit” to be President.

Both angles—the petty jibes over appearance and the high-flying discussion of moral fitness — suit the TV personality from whom viewers know by now to expect a flair for a certain self-dramatizing rectitude. In his July 2016 appearance before cameras to announce the FBI was not recommending criminal charges against then-candidate Hillary Clinton, Comey began, “This will be an unusual statement in at least a couple ways.”

Eleven months — and an era — later, Comey made headlines after his assiduously camera-ready declaration before the Senate Intelligence Committee that “Lordy,” he hoped “there are tapes” of his private conversations with Trump.

It would seem that Comey, now free to express his disdain for Trump, would have a special power as Trump’s exact opposite, not just a nemesis but someone whose core traits are diametrically opposed to the President’s own. And yet much in ABC’s special conspired to make him seem less like the avenger prepared to take the President down than just another player in a game whose rules Trump himself has set forth. Comey, a giant of a man (he’s 6-foot-8) who dominated the frame on ABC as elsewhere, has seemed odd before, but he’d never before seemed quite so small.

To wit: Comey’s first briefing with Trump, in which Comey says the two men discussed a purported dossier about Trump’s time with prostitutes in Moscow, was “really weird.” Before that, his time immediately following sending a letter to Congress about re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton that may have clinched the election for Trump? “It sucked.” (He invites his critics to “come with me to October 28,” when the letter was sent, by reading his book.)

Throughout, Comey seemed blessed by the same terse certitude as the man he now derides, along with the same ease with promoting wares for sale in the midst of doing other business. Referring to the disdain with which both Trump and Clinton hold him today, Comey pushed them toward his memoir, A Higher Loyalty, on sale Tuesday: “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.”

The ABC special was too rushed to do more than flick at the values in question; contrast this strange, clipped, clearly heavily edited hour with the mere two segments on a recent 60 Minutes in which Stormy Daniels’s answers were allowed space to breathe, and her character allowed time to reveal itself. But Daniels is also a true media natural, someone born to tell her story.

Comey is ultimately not. His interview was vastly more about pleading his own case than it was about making an affirmative one in any direction; two massively heralded claims in the interview, that Trump was “possibly” obstructing justice and that he is “morally unfit to be President,” are both heavily qualified, as Comey seems to have little real standing to make a judgment on either. (In the former example, Comey cites “some evidence” but notes he’s not a prosecutor in the case and so can’t really comment; in the latter, Trump’s purported unfitness is owed to issues including his treatment of white nationalist riots in Charlottesville, Va., and his treatment of women as “meat,” which are of concern to many but entirely unrelated to Comey’s own work with the man.)

It’s hard to know what treatment of this widely-speculated-about figure would have worked for TV. Comey’s actual case hinges on a few specific meetings that have by now been parsed before the Senate. And yet inviting him to weigh in on the President, from his looks to his general fitness for service, based on traits that we the audience know as well as Comey does, seems somewhat petty. The moments I wanted more of were ones in which Stephanopoulos moved beyond Trump—beyond either candidate in 2016, really. Towards the end of the special, he asked Comey if he’d fallen “in love with [his] own virtue.” Comey’s quarterback-after-winning-the-Super-Bowl certitude in saying he hadn’t, but he “worried about it constantly” was unnerving. Comey is among the most consequential figures in recent history. At some point, a good interviewer should show us what he thinks of himself, not just what he thinks of Trump.

Liberal viewers likely watched this interview in hopes that Comey would reveal himself as holding some secret information that could topple the President. None seemed forthcoming; if Comey had any intel that would help his book beyond exhorting viewers to buy his book, he’d have used it. But just inviting him to sit in judgment with limited moments of real self-reflection brought out a tendency in Comey that’s been there throughout his TV career — his tendency towards sheer unfettered self-confidence. It’s, unfortunately, a look that’s very in step with an era Comey professes to deplore, one that’s made for quick and satisfying jibes on TV but little lasting, nourishing insight.

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