James Comey: ‘We weren’t trying to hurt Hillary. Or help her’

The former FBI director on Donald Trump, the 2016 US election, and history’s verdict

James Comey’s head, shoulders and reputation precede him. Ducking forward instinctively to get through the Berlin hotel door, Comey, at 6ft 8in, looks like a very tall Republican congressman on an away day.

Dressed in blue-grey plaid jacket, open-necked shirt, dark trousers and black Chelsea boots, he folds his long frame into a chair after pouring himself a coffee – which he abandons after a few sips.

The ex-FBI director's brew, it seems, is a far cry from the "damn fine coffee" favoured by fictional special agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.

After starring in a surreal real-life drama, James Comey is in Europe to promote his book A Higher Loyalty, including a public interview last night with The Irish Times in Dublin.


By a freak of scheduling the 57-year-old's visit to the Irish capital coincides with that of a woman he has never met, but will never forget: Hillary Clinton.

Given she says he “shivved” (stabbed) her just before the 2016 US election, more on which later, does Comey think the town is big enough for the two of them? A quick, loud laugh.

“I’ve never been to Dublin but we both lived and worked in New York city, so I think Dublin is big enough for both of us,” he says eyes scanning his interlocutor behind a smile of professional geniality.

The ice is slow to melt, so I tell him of finishing his book, then taking a walk to clear my head. Listening to music, on came Cole Porter's Anything Goes with Ella Fitzgerald crooning how "times have changed": "the world has gone mad today and good's bad today and black's white today and day's night today."

Is that a fair description of the fake news Trump era he had a role in creating?

“I don’t believe that black is white and day is night or other Orwellian expressions,” he said. “There are things that are objectively true or false. There are things that are lies. And we have to make sure that we don’t stop noticing that.”

With that, we are straight into the prologue of his absorbing book: three acts of high drama told in his calm voice and framed as an intellectual call to arms to defend what he calls “higher loyalty” to morals and values.

For James Comey it is the inheritance from his Irish-American family in Yonkers, New York, in particular his beloved grandfather William J Comey.

The rule of law and integrity matter more than friendship, your love of beer or anything else

The child of Irish emigrants, William Comey rose to Yonkers police commissioner after a lively career in the force. One story often told around the Comey dinner table is of William’s battle with bootleggers funnelling contraband beer in fire hoses between Yonkers and the Bronx.

“Even though my grandfather liked beer, he ordered his men to cut the fire hoses with axes and let the beer run into the sewers,” says Comey, a move that prompted death threats and an armed guard on the family home. The moral of the story, he adds: the rule of law and integrity matter more than friendship, your love of beer or anything else.

“My grandfather is as an early hero of mine,” he said, “because of a commitment to higher values.”

With a prosecutor daughter and police officer son among James Comey’s six children, is public service a family tradition? It’s “addictive work”, he nods, “to do good for other people”.

‘Not confident I did right’

After studying chemistry and religion, then law school, Comey joined the US attorney's office in Manhattan for six years until 1993, returning as its head in 2002 for a year until the George W Bush administration came calling.

His time as deputy justice minister and then as deputy attorney general in the post-9/11 era was a fraught and troubling time and easily the toughest phase in his career, he says, with White House hawks leaning on legal minds such as his to legitimise their so-called “war on terror”.

“I am not confident I did it right,” he says, looking back on a legacy of policies such as domestic wiretapping and torture of terrorist suspects.

In hindsight he wishes he’d done more to go beyond his legal brief and to try and influence policy.

“Everything that is legal doesn’t mean those things should be done,” he says. But his regrets only go so far. They don’t extend to wanting to see any Bush administration officials prosecuted for attempts to legalise torture?


‘I hope it wasn’t decisive’

He left the White House in 2005 for the private sector but returned to public life when President Barack Obama appointed him, then a card-carrying Republican, as FBI director in 2013.

Looking back, he views Bush and Obama as men who both “radiated a respect for the office”, the mechanisms of government and the rule of law. “That,” he says, “is what is so stark about how President Trump handles the role.”

As FBI director Mr Comey pushed diversity at the bureau and, in a lauded July 2015 address on the fraught issue of racial bias and policing, said his Irish-American police officer family knew both sides.

“Law enforcement’s biased view of the Irish lives on in the nickname we still use for the vehicles we use to transport groups of prisoners ... the ‘paddy wagon’,” he says.

Three days after that speech, the curtain rose on a drama that will define his legacy and dominates his book: an FBI investigation into whether Hillary Clinton broke federal law as US secretary of state by using a private email server to transmit and store classified information.

She hadn’t, Comey announced when he closed the case almost a year later during the heated presidential campaign.

Then a laptop surfaced belonging to the disgraced partner of a Clinton aide. On it: tens of thousands of further state department emails that shouldn’t have been on the Clinton servers.

The choice

Comey says he faced a choice: reopen the probe and risk influencing the election result, or keep quiet and – if she were elected – explain why he concealed the renewed probe into President Hillary Clinton. He chose the former, considering the latter “the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life”.

“If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost,” he wrote.

Almost two years on, we all know the outcome of the election but it is “unfair”, he says, to suggest he was covering his back. He defends his decision to investigate without the involvement of either the US attorney general or department of justice, framing it as an attempt to boost public trust that the sensitive probe was politically independent.

By the time the FBI closed the email case file for a second time – with two days to polling day – the Clinton camp believe the damage had been done and the race lost.

A new report into the affair has criticised Comey as “insubordinate” for bypassing the US attorney general, but said the probe was free of political bias. But for decades to come, people will argue whether James Comey’s actions swung the election in Donald Trump’s favour.

We were going to get hammered no matter what happened

In his book, Comey hopes the FBI investigation “wasn’t a decisive factor”.


“I don’t have the evidence to say it was a deciding factor in the election – could have been, I don’t know,” he says. “We were going to get hammered no matter what happened.”

Closure of a kind came in his final meeting with Obama, when the departing president reportedly said the email drama and devastating election result for the Democrats hadn’t changed his high opinion of Comey.

“His saying that gave me a sense of gratitude and relief; it just touched a storehouse of pain I was carrying around,” said Comey quietly. “We Irish are not really introspective, that’s as far as I get.”

‘A vertigo-like feeling’

So what would he have to say, I wonder, if I put him in a Dublin hotel lift with Hillary Clinton and cut the power for an hour? He hopes she read the section of the book that deals with her, the circumstances and his motivations.

“I hope what she takes away from my book is the sense that we weren’t trying to hurt her or help her or hurt or help anyone else,” he says.

For all his professions of clear conscience, it’s clear he hasn’t put the episode to bed, given what followed.

On election night, fears over whether the FBI had affected the result, prompted a queasy “vertigo-like feeling”.

In his book Comey describes his first meeting with the president-elect: a security briefing in Manhattan’s Trump Tower that ended with Comey informing Trump about a Russian dossier doing the rounds.

A week after Trump entered the White House, the president invited Mr Comey for a private dinner

For Comey, a volunteer Sunday school assistant, talking to a man he had just met – who would soon be US president – about his alleged meetings with prostitutes that, potentially, could be used as blackmail, became an out-of-body experience.

“I was speaking,” he says, “but could actually look down at myself almost like an observer saying, ‘What are you doing and how did you end up here – and be careful’.”

Trump’s defensive reaction left him on guard thereafter for what Mr Comey – a veteran of New York mob trials – saw as repeated attempts to bring him into the Trump “family”.

Trump told me: ‘I expect loyalty’

A week after Trump entered the White House, the president invited Mr Comey for a private dinner. Over plates of chicken parmesan, he reportedly told him: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”

The FBI chief was scandalised at what seemed to him like a brazen attempt to capture the federal police chief. To fend him off, he promised instead “honest loyalty”.

But Comey increasingly viewed President Trump as having an “entirely personal and transactional” understanding of loyalty, with no interest in the constitution or his independence as FBI director, just four years into his 10-year term.

“Loyalty … can be an important and laudable attribute,” said Comey. “But this was about ‘I need you to be my guy’.”

That suspicion hardened further in their final White House meeting on February 15th, 2017, when Comey claims the president raised the subject of Mike Flynn, who had resigned a day earlier as national security adviser after Flynn was caught lying about contacts to Russian officials.

Does he view Trump’s actions in relation to Russia as obstructions of justice that will lead to impeachment? Comey says he isn’t sure, but hopes for clarity from special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into any Russian or other foreign interference in the 2016 election campaign.

That probe was triggered in part when Comey released memos he had kept of his Trump meetings, his parting shot to the White House after he was fired in May 2017 while addressing FBI employees in Los Angeles.

Forced departure

More than a year on, Comey still regrets his forced departure from the bureau and misses the people he worked with. He does not miss Trump’s attempt to “wrap a cocoon” of words around him – or the billionaire’s “bottomless hunger” for affirmation.

“I’ve never seen that in an adult before, this constant need to be reaffirmed,” he says, “to convince everyone around him that ‘I am the greatest and the thing I did was the greatest’ over and over again.”

Despite warning of the Trump "forest fire", Higher Loyalty ends optimistically by expressing the hope that the damage done by this presidency can be repaired: internally and with its western partners. Why is he so sure?

“The issues, norms and values the president is able to touch are too long-standing to be susceptible to destruction in a four- or eight-year term,” he said.

The ex-FBI director, whose own ego is a running theme in the book, knows already how he wants to be remembered in this drama: to not be remembered.

“It would be wonderful,” he says, “if it was established I was irrelevant to the course of history.”

Bouncing from his seat as the interview ends, he jokes that he has a more pressing concern for now: “How am I going to avoid Hillary Clinton in Dublin?”