The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Jim Comey: Upward Sloping Line
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to the Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I am honored to be your host for a series of fascinating conversations with interesting people from the world of public service. Today, Jim Comey, the former director of the FBI, is back. If you haven’t heard my first interview with Jim, please go back and listen to learn more about his formative experiences as a young prosecutor in the storied Southern District of New York office in Manhattan where he prosecuted the mafia. Today, we pick up with Jim in 1993. He has just returned to public service, this time in the U.S. attorney’s office in Richmond, Virginia, where he confronted one of the highest per capita murder rates in the nation.
Jim Comey: I was on my way to breakfast with the deputy chief of the police department one morning and he got a call over the radio and asked me whether I would mind stopping at a crime scene with him. So, I said “sure,” and we stop in an intersection in Richmond, and there’s a new pickup truck sitting at a stop sign and there’s a woman in the driver’s seat looks like she’s napping leaning back against the headrest. And as we get closer, we see that she has a small hole in her left temple and a much bigger hole on the other side of her head where the bullet exited. She had stopped on her way to work to buy drugs, gotten into some sort of argument with the dealer who shot her in broad daylight at his spot. It makes no sense for all kinds of reasons, but these were the kind of killings we’re seeing all over Richmond. And it was murder as an afterthought. And so, I was part of an effort with federal state and local law enforcement to see if we couldn’t change the behavior of criminals in Richmond to drive down the murder rate. And it focused on trying to make them think more about their possession of firearms because there are no carefully planned murders in Richmond–it was all what would you say would you do, and then it would be a shootout. We were trying to use federal sentencing to scare them into being away from their guns, keeping a distance from their guns, and we thought that might drive down homicide.
Rosenberg: You call this “Project Exile.”
Rosenberg: Where do you get the name from?
Comey: The notion that this was about taking criminals who were terrorizing the community and removing them from the community, exiling them from the community. And a big part of the campaign was to scare them. And one of the elements of that scaring was the prospect of going far away from where you would normally go, which is the Richmond City Jail. We’re going to send you to South Dakota. We’re going to send you to Big Ben, Texas.
Rosenberg: So is the notion, even though you’re working with state and local partners, of federalizing gun violence.
Comey: Right. Using federal punishment for gun possession crimes to impose stiff penalties, which they weren’t getting in the state system, and to remove them from the community physically in a way that was a source of deterrence, it scared people.
Rosenberg: Do you think it worked?
Comey: I think it surely contributed to a significant drop in Richmond’s homicide from the kind of cases that the Richmond PD was reporting, where they were seeing a drop in homicides, it was all of those happenstance homicides. But the drug related crime dropped significantly.
Rosenberg: Not all of our federal judges were enamored with Project Exile.
Comey: No. Some of them embraced it and understood that although these weren’t the typical cases that would be brought in federal court, these were still federal crimes. And the goal was one that there wasn’t anything more important than saving human lives. That was at one end of the spectrum, the other end of the spectrum was some open hostility to it in a sense that this was a failure of the local courts and prosecutors to handle this well. And so, it ought not to be the problem of federal judges and federal prosecutors.
Rosenberg: But they have sort of less to do with how you charge. And so, in the end, federal prosecutors, if they perceive a particular problem in a particular jurisdiction, have enormous power to address it.
Comey: Yes. And the decisions in the federal system about what to investigate, what charges to bring, are all in the hands of the prosecutor. And although I was probably a little bit arrogant and neglected, the importance of the personal relationship, especially in a small jurisdiction with the judges, because they can bring you a lot of pain if they think you’re not treating them with the appropriate respect. So, I if I had to do over again I’d be a little more attentive to that because my attitude was: look we’re trying to save lives here. Screw them. And not every federal judge reacts well to that kind of approach.
Rosenberg: Right. The second problem that you confronted in Richmond was a public corruption. And you tell a very interesting story about the former mayor of Richmond, a gentleman named: Young. Can you talk a little bit about that, and why that troubled you so?
Comey: Leonidas Young was the mayor of Richmond and the senior pastor at one of Richmond’s most important and largest historically black congregations. And he was also simultaneously carrying on multiple sexual affairs with people not his wife, and the costs of that: dinners and hotel rooms and gifts, was overwhelming him. And so, he decided to use his role as mayor to try and get some money illicitly.
Rosenberg: And one method involved the privatization of city cemeteries.
Comey: Yep. And so, they entertain bids from companies and the companies were told on the side: if you want to get this contract, you need to hire as consultants the following people. And these were people who were simply fronts for Mayor Young. The company would write a check to the consultant who would cash it and turn the money over to Mayor Young. One of those consultants was a junior minister who worked at Young’s church, and young arrange for him to be a consultant on the cemetery deal. And we brought him in to talk to him about that and we had the goods on, and we could see where he cashed the money, then we could see deposits at Young’s bank in close proximity we could almost draw dots on a map to connect it, and the guy knew nothing about cemeteries. And he started to lie to us, and I begged him not to lie.
Rosenberg: Why did you beg him not to lie?
Comey: Because he seemed like such a good person. Look, sometimes good people do bad things, especially when they’re under the control, or in the sway of a powerful figure they look up to. And here was the senior pastor, the mayor told him to do this. And so, he did it and he felt like he had to protect this mayor, this minister, this boss.
Rosenberg: And he was getting very little of the cut.
Comey: He was getting nothing. He was doing it because this was something that Leonidas Young wanted him to do. And, and I just thought the guy’s gonna ruin his life for this, this corrupt mayor. We’re going to make against case against the corrupt mayor anyway. And I told him and you know what’s gonna happen. He’s going to sit in the same chair you’re in and tell me that you lied today, and then you know what I’m going to have to do? I’m gonna have to prosecute you because lying in a federal criminal investigation must be taken seriously. So, I said: please, please, please just tell me the truth. We’re not gonna prosecute you, just tell me the truth. And he wouldn’t. And unfortunately, that future I predicted came true. We indicted Leonidas Young for racketeering, all kinds of corruption offenses, he pled guilty
Rosenberg: And he cooperated against the junior minister.
Comey: He flipped on the junior minister as we predicted, and said: “of course he lied. Of course he didn’t–he wasn’t a consultant of course he gave me the money. Yes, all these deposits you see here from the money he gave me.” And then we prosecuted the junior minister and he went to jail for 15 months. And I don’t use his name, and I don’t use it his name now because I hope he’s made a good life for himself, but to me it illustrated a lot of things, but the most important thing is: our criminal justice system, our investigations, are based on an honor system that witnesses will tell us the truth, the witnesses when they’re given subpoenas, will give us documents even if those documents may hurt them. And because it’s an honor system, when there’s a violation that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. As prosecutors, we have to bring those cases to send a message of deterrence and reinforcement to that honor system, or the system doesn’t work.
Rosenberg: Right. But, the odd thing here is that you’re cooperating witness was senior to the person who was cooperating against. Usually, we work in the other direction, ideally.
Rosenberg: Did that trouble you?
Comey: Yeah. Which is why I was trying so hard to get this guy just to tell me the truth because I knew there would come a day when to try and reduce his sentence, Mayor Young would try to offer us all kinds of information, but I knew one of the things he would tell us is this guy committed a crime in your office, and we couldn’t let that go.
Rosenberg: You later moved back to New York City. You in fact became the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, a storied office, the legendary federal prosecutor’s office, and you had the biggest job in it. I know it’s a great honor because I had the privilege of doing something like that at a point in my career. How did it feel to go back to New York as the boss?
Comey: I felt like an imposter, which I think is a healthy reaction. That I kept thinking: what am I doing here. And I would actually refer to the U.S. attorney’s private bathroom as Rudy’s bathroom and I would tell people: “you wanna use Rudy’s bathroom?” And it’s just hard to realize you’re not only a grown up, you’re now the boss of this place where you came up. And so, it’s a, it’s a bit disorienting and leaves you with a sense that they’re all going to figure out that I’m not what they think I am.
Rosenberg: You’ve spoken eloquently about the imposter syndrome in many different contexts. In fact, you speak about it later in your book and I’ll ask you. But when you do, you say it’s something that leaders should have, at least good leaders, in your experience. Do they?
Comey: All good leaders. I think all people, except for a very small slice of unbelievable jerks, feel a sense of the imposter complex, that is the notion that if you really knew me the way I know me, you would think less of me. That’s healthy. It can be disabling because there are some people who are—who feel themselves such imposters that it hurts them, but that sense that I am not all that, I’m not as cool as they think I am…that’s humility, and that’s really, really important in a leader.
Rosenberg: And how do you overcome it, then, when you are perhaps chairing a meeting, and people are sitting around the table waiting for something brilliant to come out of your mouth. How do you, how do you surmount that imposter syndrome?
Comey: By not trying to be something other than what you are. That is, by showing them yourself, by giving them transparency into your strengths and weaknesses. Sure, they may, they may think less of you in some senses than they did. They may realize you don’t speak 17 languages, or something, but they’ll come to realize you’re comfortable enough in your own skin to talk about yourself in an honest way. And that creates an environment of extraordinary trust, and in my experience, productivity. People want to work hard in that kind of environment, and want to have a boss like that.
Rosenberg: And in fact, humility is a sign of confidence, not a lack of confidence.
Comey: A recognition that I am flawed, it takes confidence to admit that. And it also forces me and everybody else around me to create an environment where I get a better view of the truth. Where I hear things I might otherwise have heard because the boss is admitting that he can’t see every perspective, he misses things, he’s weak in a lot of ways, but his strength is he sees that, and he wants us to help guard rail against that.
Rosenberg: One of the interesting stories you tell in your book occurred on your watch as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, the Martha Stewart case. What I found particularly intriguing is that you drew a lesson from the junior minister in Richmond, who you didn’t want to have lie to you, to the Martha Stewart prosecution.
Comey: I drew it in a moment of realization about that I was a bit of a coward. The Martha Stewart case came on my desk early in my tenure as U.S. attorney in New York, and she had lied her rear end off in an investigation of insider trading, and I was hesitating to bring the case.
Rosenberg: Well, and in a case in which I believe the insider trading netted her only, and I say only somewhat ironically, 50,000 dollars, a small fraction of her fortune, right.
Comey: She avoided a loss of fifty thousand dollars on some stock by selling it based on information that was non-public, so she avoided a small loss. And honestly, I expected that what she would say is: yeah I sold my stock because I found out that the CEO was selling his stock, and I didn’t know that was wrong, and so I’ll pay back the 50 grand.
Rosenberg: And what would you have done if she said that?
Comey: Nothing, nothing to her. Maybe it would have been some civil issue with this S.E.C. that’s not my business, but it wouldn’t be a prosecution of Martha Stewart for admitting that she had done something like that, but instead she lied in a complex and ultimately easily dis-provable way claiming, that she had a prior agreement with her broker and a bunch of other nonsense. The problem wasn’t the case. The problem was that I, as the chief prosecutor, was hesitating to bring it because I thought people would say mean things about me. That people would say he’s just bringing this case because he wants to run for office, he’s celebrity hunting, he’s–it’s about trying to put a pelt on a wall. And, and I was pulling back for fear of all this criticism. I had no idea what real criticism would be until much later.
Rosenberg: You know now.
Comey: I do know now, yes thank you, Chuck. I’ve got a pretty good sense now, but this was, this was sort of Double A or Single A ball when it came to criticism, but it seemed big to me at the time, the pitching seemed fast. And so, I was hesitating, looking out the window, I can remember I was I was standing in my office Rudy’s bathroom to my right, looking out the window at the Brooklyn Bridge where I was seeing the Manhattan side of it, where it landed in Manhattan, and I remembered this guy from Richmond, and I thought what a fool you are. You lock that guy up for 15 months for doing exactly what Martha Stewart did. How could you possibly lock up an African-American minister who no one on the island of Manhattan is ever heard of except you, and let Martha Stewart go because she’s rich and famous, because that’s the reason people criticize you. And then I asked David Kelly who was my deputy then, can you get the stats on how many people were prosecuted last year for lying during an investigation nationwide. And he came back, the answer was 2,000. 2,000 other people you’ve never heard of.
Comey: Federally, and so, I just thought: what a fool you are you have to bring this case. Now look, she lied in a way we could easily prove in a criminal investigation. We had to bring that case.
Rosenberg: You said earlier that lying in a federal prosecution must be taken seriously. Why must lies be taken seriously? Because not all lies are of the same magnitude. There are small lies and small cases like in Richmond and there are big lies in big cases like we see currently. Why must all lies be treated the same way?
Comey: Anytime somebody lies in a material way, a legal term meaning in a way that matters to an investigation, it has to be prosecuted, or entire rule of law collapses and that may sound like hyperbole. It’s not, the justice system depends upon a central touchstone which is the truth, that the truth exists, and that we should investigate to try and find it. And if people lie, if they depart from the touchstone that is the truth, and they’re not held accountable for it, a system based on truth melts away. Interviews and subpoenas for records sound muscular and scary, but it’s an honor system. We’re counting on people to tell the truth even when it may make them look bad or to give documents over even to make them look bad. And if they won’t do those things, that they violate the honor system, and we don’t hold them accountable, what do we have left? That’s the end of a rule of law in the United States. And so, it has to be taken seriously. And one of the many depressing parts about our public life, at least in my adult life has been: political people seem to think that lying by the other team is really bad. But when it’s somebody associated with my team, it’s a process crime. When Bill Clinton lies under oath in a grand jury proceeding, Republicans believe he should be indicted for it. When Scooter Libby, who is the vice president’s chief of staff in a Republican demonstration, lies in a grand jury as well, that’s a process crime and not to be taken seriously. The Democrats positions of course were precisely the reverse and we see that going on today. I hope people who are not part of those partisan tribes can see clearly enough to understand: it doesn’t matter who it is, if someone lies in a way that matters to a criminal investigation, they must be held accountable for it.
Rosenberg: Then in your view, Jim, is there such a thing as a process crime? No. The term just doesn’t make sense.
Comey: It doesn’t make sense. The process you’re talking about is the criminal justice system of the United States of America. I take by the use of process crime they mean to say it’s, it’s not that big a thing. There is no bigger thing than that. That rule of law is at the center of our country.
Rosenberg: When I was a baby prosecutor, somebody lied in a grand jury in a case I was investigating and we could prove it quite easily. It was not a very skillful liar and not a very difficult lie to unearth. I remember speaking with a supervisor at the time who said don’t bother charging a perjury. Everybody lies. Get over it, move on. Get to the heart of the case. And it always struck me as wrong. That’s what I did. I followed that supervisor’s suggestion, but it struck me as wrong because not everybody lies and many people do produce documents on the honor system. In fact, when the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0, that executive privilege wouldn’t shield Richard Nixon’s documents and tapes from production to the special prosecutor. The Richard Nixon White House produced those tapes. Of course, that was led to his downfall. So I’m not quite sure that I know what process crimes are either.
Comey: Yeah. It means an allegation against someone on my team. Because all you need do is lay side by side with the same partisan said about the same kind of conduct when it was someone on the other side. So, these aren’t principled people, and so I hope focusing just push that to the side for the garbage that it is and focus on the fact that look, it matters that people tell the truth in our justice system. The truth is real, it exists, and we need to find it if we’re gonna be just. And if people obstruct that, they have to be held accountable.
Rosenberg: Yeah, I made plenty of mistakes as a federal prosecutor but one that still bothers me to this day was not pushing back on the notion that the perjurer deserved a pass because everyone lies.
Rosenberg: I just don’t think that I made the right choice there and I don’t think I pushed hard enough for what I should have done.
Comey: Look, everybody lies. The question is: what are you lying about, when, and where. Lying again, in a material way, in a criminal justice investigation, has to be taken seriously or we lose everything.
Rosenberg: You had an extraordinary episode when you served as the deputy attorney general involving a very sensitive signals intelligence program that had to be certified as lawful and reauthorized by the president of the United States periodically. And one of those certifications came do when John Ashcroft, your immediate boss, and the attorney general the United States, was very ill in the hospital with pancreatitis, and you became briefly the acting attorney general the United States and responsible for the recertification of that program.
Comey: It was the longest week of my life I think
Rosenberg: For what little it’s worth, and I think it’s worth little, I was your chief of staff at that time.
Comey: I was going to say I found out I was the acting attorney general the United States because you called me.
Rosenberg: You were in Phoenix, as I recall.
Comey: You just landed in Phoenix. You called and said I had to come back, that they were sending a plane for me because the attorney general was in intensive care very seriously ill. And I don’t think people appreciate just how ill he was during that time. And then over the next week or so, I dealt with a collision with the White House, especially the vice president and his chief lawyer over their belief that we should recertify this program.
Rosenberg: But you were not new to this issue. I mean, you had been working on this very issue even before John Ashcroft became ill.
Comey: Yeah. When I became deputy attorney general, the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, that you sometimes hear referred to as the OLC, said to me cryptically, basically I really need to talk to you about some stuff and work to try and get me read in, which means given access to the classified information that connect connected to this NSA program. And he succeeded in February of 2014. And then for the next few weeks worked with me and others to evaluate the program and came to the conclusion that we can’t certify to its lawfulness because there are big parts of this that aren’t supported by the law. And actually, there are parts of this that go beyond what the president has even authorized. And so, we can’t. And to make a long story short, we communicated that to the folks at the White House that we can’t sign off on this.
Rosenberg: Now, the president didn’t technically need your certification to authorize the program. He has that authority as commander in chief under Article 2 of the Constitution.
Comey: Absolutely, I believe that and they had adopted a practice where each of the authorizations for this program, which was called Stellar Wind, had a signature line that said approved as to form and legality, and was signed by the attorney general. And so, they didn’t need to start that because the president could do that and say he doesn’t want the department Justice’s view on this. But they had sought it. And so they–I think they felt kind of stuck that they needed for each reauthorization, that signature line. The attorney general is in intensive care. I briefed him, by the way, the day he was stricken and taken to intensive care and laid out the problem for him, which he understood and had taken from him the instruction to go fix it. And, and then he was stricken and I ended up in charge and refused to sign off on it.
Rosenberg: Right. But that wasn’t the end of the story, Jim, in some ways that was either the beginning or the middle because there was a confrontation at the hospital in John Ashcroft’s hospital room between you and some of your staff at the Department of Justice and two emissaries from the White House who were seeking General Ashcroft’s certification of the program.
Comey: Yeah, yeah. I was on way home that night
Rosenberg: As was I.
Comey: It was Wednesday March the 10th of 2004, Not that I remember the day, and I was alerted that Mrs. Ashcroft had taken a call at her husband’s bedside and refused to put the president through to her husband who was too sick to have visitors which he had banned or take calls, and she had been told that the president was sending over his chief of staff to the White House counsel about an urgent national security matter to see the attorney general. When I learned that, I told the driver I need to get to George Washington Hospital right now and those guys are awesome they live for those moments, and so he drove like crazy with the lights and siren on. Then I started alerting people, including my beloved chief of staff, who’s sitting here with me now, you, and asked that we get everyone–you get everybody to the hospital, as many as we could get. An instinct I think I had just to have witnesses there and to have support there. I called Director Mueller, Bob Mueller, the director of the FBI…
Rosenberg: I’ve heard of him.
Comey: He was out at dinner with his family. And I told them what was happening and that I needed him to come to George Washington Hospital. He said I’ll be right there. He ran out of a restaurant, jumped in his armored suburban, lights and sirens started heading there and a race started. Mueller in a car, I in a car, staff members in cars. And these guys come from the White House. And I got there first and ran up the stairs to Ashcroft’s suite. They cleared one end of a hallway for attorney general security and I went in and there in a darkened room was the attorney general and his wife. And I tried to orient him as to time and place. I said: it’s Jim and tried to get him to focus and said some guys are coming to talk to you about that thing. So, I couldn’t go into the details. It was a classified program and I’m in a hospital room. And so, I tried to orient him and to tell him what it was about. And I got no indication that he was tracking me. And he looked much sicker than I had expected. And so, I called Mueller who is still on the way. And I asked him to direct the agents from the FBI who are there protecting the attorney general not to allow me to be removed from the room because I feared, it sounds crazy from this distance, but I feared that the White House guys would arrive with Secret Service agents. And what if they forcibly try and clear the room to get the attorney general to sign a document. And so then Bob Mueller said put the lead agent on the phone. I handed the phone to the agent. I just heard his end of it. He said: yes sir. And then he turned to me and said: sir this is our scene you will not leave that room. And then I went back in and I sat down. Two of the lawyers who had worked on this conflict with me from the Office of Legal Counsel, one of them and one from my staff came in and stood behind me, and we waited sitting in the dark. And I was as close to John Ashcroft’s bed as I am to you now. I could reach out and touch him
Rosenberg: Three feet away.
Comey: And I was just by his left arm and his wife was holding his right arm. She had her hands on his arm standing on the other side of his bed. And the two DOJ lawyers were behind me when the door opened and in came the White House chief of staff and the president’s White House counsel, and the White House counsel was holding a manila envelope at his waist with two hands. They stopped at the foot of the bed, and the White House counsel said: how are you General. And Ashcroft mumbled: not well. And then the White House counsel began to explain why they were there. They needed his authorization. It’s really important. And I didn’t know what was gonna happen next. And I I didn’t know–should I try to physically stop these guys from getting this deathly ill man to sign a document. And then I didn’t have to do anything as John Ashcroft stunned me. He pushed himself up on his elbows up off the pillow and he blasted them and said—
Rosenberg: This is a man with no strength in his body.
Comey: –the note taker behind me–I didn’t know the Department Justice lawyers were writing everything down, but one of them wrote it: he looks near death. Gray, labored breathing, and he pushed himself up. It was it was one of the most extraordinary acts of strength I’ve ever seen. He pushed himself up and he said that he had been misled, that he had been cut off and limited in the advice he could see–he could get, that he now believed they had gone beyond their authorization, and he started to summarize what the concerns were about the program, and then he exhausted, he fell back down, and the pillow and said:
but none of that matters because I’m not the Attorney-General. And he extended his left hand a shaky hand and pointed at me next to him and said: there’s the attorney general. And then he was done and there was a beat of silence and then neither of the men looked at me. I was close enough I was looking at them, they looked straight at him, and said–the White House counsel said be well. And they pivoted and walked out of the room and as they walked out Mrs. Ashcroft, who is in her own right a formidable person, a lawyer, a successful academic–she stuck her tongue out at the back of their heads. She captured how we all felt and then they were gone.
Rosenberg: And now you probably don’t know this. I’m not sure I ever told you, but I had arrived just a few moments before. I remember seeing them leave the room. Bob Mueller also said something to the attorney general as you and he left the room.
Comey: Yep. I mean he–Bob arrived moments later. I couldn’t tell what was going on in the hallway and I was under so much stress and not sure I would have remembered the order, but probably about the time shortly after you got there, after they left, Bob Mueller arrived and he came in spoke to me and spoke to the attorney general and what he said at the attorney general was, there comes a time in every man’s life when the good Lord tests him, you passed your test tonight. And even now, a wave of emotion hits me when I say that. A wave hit me and I began–I didn’t cry openly, but my eyes filled with tears because I thought you know, this institution held, the rule of law held, because of people like John Ashcroft and Bob Mueller and you and me and the others standing around me. But a group of people insisted that it hold.
Rosenberg: But that’s precisely the point. The rule of laws as I’ve often said, i just a construct it’s not immutable. The law of gravity is immutable, but the rule of law is not. It’s simply something that men and women have built and that men and women can easily destroy. Well perhaps not so easily, but it’s a construct. Is that a fair way to think of it?
Comey: It is. What, what should console people, especially today, is it’s a construct that is part of the core, the identity of so many people, that it’s very hard to destroy
Rosenberg: The president of the United States, at the time, George W. Bush, met with you and with Bob Mueller separately the next day. And as you’ve told me and I’ve heard you described many times, had been ill served in some ways, didn’t know the full contours of the problem, but when it was explained to him told you what.
Comey: We told Bob Mueller first, tell Jim to do what needs to be done to make this right. That once he understood exactly where we were and why, that this was about a fundamental problem with the rule of law, President Bush did the right thing, and said to Bob Mueller: tell Jim to do what needs to be done to make this right.
Rosenberg: And you did.
Comey: And we did. And, and the crisis was averted. And it got to a crisis point because the president was so poorly served by the people around him, but because he got involved in–people can disagree or George Bush or Barack Obama on policy grounds–they’re both institutionalist. Once it got to a president who understood the institutional values at stake, he did the right thing.
Rosenberg: We hear that term: institutionalist a lot these days. What do you mean by institutionalist?
Comey: Institutionalist is someone who believes that there are pillars of the American democracy that are more important than any one person, or more important than the urgent, the angry, the political at hand–these are the things that embody our values. Department of Defense is incredibly important institution and represents a lot of our most cherished values. The Department Justice is the only department with a moral virtue, and its name as John Ashcroft, we used to say, and it represents the rule of law and our commitment to hold the truth at the center of our national life. And so, an institutionalist is someone who recognizes the value of those things to this great experiment of ours, this United States of America.
Rosenberg: All human beings are flawed, we’re all fallible, and I know you’ve admitted your own faults and you’ve pointed out many of mine over the years. But is it fair to say that you thought that George W. Bush was a fundamentally decent man and a good leader?
Comey: Yes, as was Barack Obama. And if there’s been any–a lot of silver linings about the current administration but an appreciation by some for one or the other of those men in a way they didn’t, is one of the blessings of this time. They, like I am, they’re flawed people, but they were people who understood the values at the heart of this country, and, and understood those things were above politics.
Rosenberg: Take each man in turn, if you will. What would George Bush’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader?
Comey: George Bush, again in my exposure which is not, not as complete as other people work more closely with him, was an institutionalist as I said understood the importance of the principles that were protected by our institutions and had external reference points in making decisions. He thought about the Constitution, the rule of law, I think he drew on faith traditions, he drew on history and practice. He looked outside himself to make decisions. I think that’s a great strength. I think Barack Obama shares that strength. I think his weakness was: a little a little out of balance in that combination of confidence and humility we talked about earlier. I suspect he felt a bit of an imposter complex and rather than—
Rosenberg: Most good leaders do.
Comey: Yeah, but rather than embracing it, and, and being transparent about it, and comfortable with it, I have a sense of that he would compensate. That is, when you would brief George Bush he was a good listener, but not a great listener because he would often interrupt you to show you that he had done the homework, that he knew this subject, that he had read the stuff you sent ahead. And I remember he was seeing him do that. Why on earth would the president need to show us he’d done the homework? I think it was a measure of not fully being comfortable with that imposter complex, it sits with all of us. This contrast is Barack Obama. That president was so comfortable that he could sit quiet and listen for 10 minutes, not have to show you he done the work, listen, listen, listen and then ask you questions, which is extraordinary from any leader especially the president of the United States. 10 minutes doesn’t seem like a longtime, but close your eyes and try to imagine the president not saying–it’s impossible today given who our president is. But imagine a president not interrupting, not cutting off–an extraordinary amount of confidence was required to be that kind of listener. Now if I had to worry about it, Barack Obama seemed to me to be so supremely confident that it must have some impact on his decision making. Well, I didn’t see it. I saw him in the national security law enforcement area, but it’s a worry whenever someone is so confident in themselves, that they believe they can solve all the hardest problems. But again, that’s a that’s a red flag for me. But I can’t point to a time when I saw it.
Rosenberg: It must be hard to run for president and not be confident. It must be even harder to be the president and not be confident, and one of your criticisms of both men is that they seemed rather confident. Doesn’t that just come with the territory?
Comey: I think it does in two ways. First, there’s so much criticism of someone running for office, or sitting in a president’s seat, that there has to be a natural tendency to harden your shell, to project an air of confidence: I don’t care. You can’t damage me, 1. And 2, to have it reinforced by those around you who will suck up to you all the time. And that, that’s dangerous in any leadership job, especially in the presidency. People are rising, they’re playing fanfare when you walk in the room, that–they are not going to tell you the truth about yourself unless you go and seek it from them. And so, there’s a danger that both–the natural need to protect yourself, and being surrounded by people who will tell you that you’re awesome all day long will generate a confidence that can become dangerous.
Rosenberg: Is that a danger for the FBI director? Because, as I recall, you were the FBI director.
Comey: There was a time I was. Yeah, I remember it. People rise when–you wouldn’t, unfortunately, Chuck. People would rise when I came in the room, they’d have a little catch in their throat when they spoke to me, they’d be dressed like they were going to a funeral.
Rosenberg: So how do you overcome that? I mean, you see it happening right. You understand the dynamic. How do you cut through that?
Comey: I would I thought of it as I sit at the top is incredibly steep hill and everybody’s downhill from me. I have to flatten the hill, and so you flatten the hill in all kinds of ways. First, by opening up about your own strengths and weaknesses. Second, by things that seem silly: where you sit, how you dress. I would try, as you know, to do things to get people to show me personal sides of themselves. When someone would criticize me, I would embrace it and tell the story over and over again about how this person was right and I was wrong all in an effort to signal, signal, signal, the hill is flatter than you think. Just contrast Barack Obama with the current president. Barack Obama never, at least to my mind, had a meeting in the Oval Office where he sat behind the desk. He always sat in the soft chairs over by the fireplace and he would have us sit and couch cushions around him. Trying to flatten the hill is how I read that, we’re comfortable, we’re just some people sitting around.
Rosenberg: And you think it was by design.
Comey: Yes, I do. And George Bush did the same thing. They knew how dangerous it would be when they sit at the top of a steep slope and all the rest of us are downhill to put a block of wood on the slope that gets in the way, first. Second, he was silent except Barack Obama is the best listener I have ever seen as a leader. He wasn’t silent. He was making little sounds that were designed to encourage you. And he was nodding his head: “hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm,” basically saying: tell me, tell me, tell me. You’re OK, you’re safe, tell me. Now, he is removing physical obstacles, he’s removing the obstacles of fear that are inside me by getting me to relax and he would use humor. Also, George Bush did this to further flatten the Hill get us to relax get us to open up. Contrast that again to our current president. Very hard to tell him something important because he’s talking the whole time.
Rosenberg: You’ve described to me and you describe in your book that you had attended meetings with the president where you really didn’t get a word in edgewise.
Comey: Yeah. Again, and maybe this maybe he’s a reflective thoughtful leader and listener when I’m haven’t been around. But my experience was he was constantly talking wrapping a cocoon around everybody in the room about his view of the world. And if you wanted to tell him something important you almost always had to interrupt him. So, think about that for a second. You’re downhill. There’s a block of wood between you and the person you’re trying to speak to. And his words are coming downhill at you the whole time. That is not so we’re not a recipe for the president hearing the truth because it’s going to require someone to interrupt the president of the United States to tell him something that matters.
Rosenberg: Did you try and do that?
Comey: I did, but I knew it’s not going to happen a lot.
Rosenberg: Did you succeed?
Comey: I think I succeeded in ending any personal relationship with the president, which was not a bad thing.
Rosenberg: Seems that way.
Comey: Yeah, I mean it’s worked out pretty well since then. But at the time, I mean, I can remember being with him the beginning of February, so beginning of his first full month in office, and him wrapping a cocoon around all of us were sitting there about how he’d given a great answer when he said Vladimir Putin is not a killer. And in an interview, and I had to interrupt to say: no sir we’re not the kind of killers that Putin is. And I remember when I said that, a shadow crossed his face and the meeting was over then. I went back to FBI and told my staff I think I just ended any personal relationship with the president, which is a good thing because I can’t be close to a president of the United States.
Rosenberg: In fact, Barack Obama was sensitive to that when he asked you to serve as the director of the FBI. He understood that there would not be a personal relationship.
Comey: He did, as did George Bush, and Barack Obama invited me to come back to the Oval Office. We’re even–and these times, he had his White House counsel sit in just before he announced that he was going to nominate me just to have a conversation and we had a wide-ranging conversation. And he said: I just want to talk to you. I won’t be able to talk to you like this once you’re the FBI director. Meaning, there has to be a distance less than the American people learned at Watergate, between the investigative authority resident and the FBI director and the executive authority and the president. Of course, I worked for the president, but I can’t be his buddy I can’t be on his team, I can’t be one of his inner circle.
Rosenberg: You had occasion to talk with Barack Obama several times, of course when you were FBI director. One of those conversations struck me as particularly interesting and something you can talk about publicly. You had given a speech at Georgetown University about relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. It was a very blunt speech. I thought it was a very good speech. After you gave it, the president invited you to the White House.
Comey: You were chief of staff of the FBI and I was director then, and we were struggling with what contribution can we make at the FBI to this painful national discord, demonstration, disagreement, anger, and separation that was occurring between uniformed law enforcement and the black community in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and other publicized incidents. And we decided that the contribution that we could make is maybe I could talk as a white, federal, law enforcement leader and say some things that would be harder for others to say, especially critical of law enforcement.
Rosenberg: You could talk as a white, federal, law enforcement leader. What made you think you would be listened to as a white, federal law enforcement leader?
Comey: I didn’t know. And I remember you and I talking about this–whether people are gonna freak out about this or listen to us. And I think the reason–I thought people would listen because I walked in to that hall at Georgetown to give a speech that I’m really proud of–I think it was a great speech. And I, I wrote a good speech. You, I won’t embarrass you on your own Podcast: you made it a great speech.
Rosenberg: I’m not so sure that’s true, and you’re not allowed to embarrass me on my own Podcast.
Comey: Yeah, there we go. And so, I knew that the words were so powerful that, that people would pay attention, especially coming from a white FBI director, and they did. And, and then, we didn’t just drop the mike, you remember that we asked each of the FBI field offices, so 56 of them around the country, to use our convening authority. The FBI doesn’t do policing, but we’re in every community in the country. Let’s take these words and drive a conversation where we use the fact that we are everywhere in the country, to bring together law enforcement and communities of color. And so, we did that all around the country and by that, became part of the solution to this pain.
Rosenberg: Well, you called the speech “Hard Truths.”
Comey: Well, there were four of them. I think most important, and hardest for a lot of law enforcement leaders to say, were two things: first, that we in law enforcement have a history where we’ve been the enforcers of a status quo that has been brutal to disfavored groups–the history of the United States including the Irish–but especially brutal to the African-American community. And second, we have to recognize that something happens to people whose life experiences, police officers involves policing in neighborhoods where they lock up almost only young men of color. It can warp their view of all young men of color and lead to shortcuts that lead to tragedy. And there were others about the ways in which we need to talk to each other, but those truths about law enforcement we’re truths. And I know this happened to you probably dozens of times. I had law enforcement leaders take me aside around the country and say: you said what I would want to say. That, that something may be changing in law enforcement, that we have a difficult history to look at, but I can’t say given my political position or my relation with the union or whatnot. But, lots of police chiefs had their roll calls watch the speech because at the FBI we were able to say what they couldn’t.
Rosenberg: President Obama. Watched the speech too. He asked you to come talk to him about it.
Comey: He asked me to come speak to him in the fall of 2015, I think sparked by the fact that given a follow-on speech I continued to talk about that something is happening in the United States: a separation between law enforcement, uniform law enforcement, and the black community.
Rosenberg: So you got called to the principal’s office, the principal is the president of the United States. Did you think you were in trouble?
Comey: Yeah, I thought I was gonna get my butt chewed. And because I knew people at DOJ were mad at me because I was talking about this issue and highlighting what I think was really important to talk about, that homicide, murder was jumping in most of the country’s largest cities in ways that were really hard to explain, but awkward to be talking about while the Obama administration was trying to see criminal justice reform. And so, I thought: the president’s gonna be mad at me and it’s going to kick my butt, but he summoned me, so I’m going over to the Oval Office.
Rosenberg: And he wasn’t mad at you.
Comey: He wasn’t, if he was, he concealed it really well, but I don’t think he was. It was one of the very few conversations I ever had with Barack Obama alone. He sat and talked to me and gave me his thoughts on what I’ve been talking about. And we had a conversation for almost an hour that wasn’t about him chewing my rear. He began by saying: I know your head and I know your heart. And so, I want to see and hear what it is you’re worried about.
Rosenberg: Barack Obama used the term that you didn’t like, or at least that didn’t resonate with you, and used the term that he didn’t like, or at least didn’t resonate with him. “Mass incarceration” and “Weed and Seed.” And why don’t you explain what those two terms are, and where the two of you were sailing past one another.
Comey: To me, it was a great example of leadership by him. He really wanted both to share a concern and to hear my reaction to it. And so, we touched it in two ways. Weed and Seed was a program begun in the Bush, George H.W. Bush administration in the late 80s early 90s that was designed to do two things in communities that were experiencing a lot of, especially drug related, violent crime. First, “weed,” by that term, the government meant pull out the predators, the bad actors, the gang bangers and the killers and the rapists.
Rosenberg: This is what you did in Richmond, Project Exile.
Comey: Yup. Pull out the bad ones. But second, because we all recognize, anybody who’s been law enforcement knows this, you can’t arrest your way to a healthy community, you arrest for a purpose, so you weeded for the purpose of seeding, that in the space created by the removal of these bad guys, try to grow something healthy, so you don’t have to keep locking up people. And so, it involved investment, investment and after school programs and drug treatment and all kinds of community activity designed to grow something healthy in that space. And it was a program that was very big in the 90s, have been deemphasized by the time Barack Obama was president. And so, I’m not sure he’d ever heard the term before. And he said to me–
Rosenberg: But you used it in the meeting.
Comey: –yeah. And I and I had used it in the in my speech talking about race and law enforcement in the speeches since the Georgetown speech. And he said: I just want you to try to understand how that term may sound to black years. That you’re speaking about people in our community, especially young men in our community, as though they’re non-human.
Rosenberg: As if they are weeds that need to be simply plucked and removed.
Comey: A piece of trash. You got to throw it out. And he was saying in substance, look I know what’s in your heart, but think about how that’s the reaction of someone who grew up in a very different circumstance might be. And it was actually the first time I had ever thought of the Weed and Seed term that way. And in my head, I want to be defensive and say but there were lots of black ministers and black chiefs involved in this. But so what? He was right that I had actually never seen it from that perspective before and got what he was talking about. And so, I took the opportunity to share with him one of his terms that he may not understand how it strikes ears of people of good faith and law enforcement.
Rosenberg: And that term that he used that didn’t resonate with you is mass incarceration. Actually, a term we hear a lot these days. How did it hit your ears?
Comey: As I told President Obama, it–to my mind, to my ears as someone who’s spent a lot of time trying to rescue communities trapped in poverty and violence, who in Richmond, Virginia and so many other cities around the country, tend to be overwhelmingly African-American. So as someone who’s spent so much time trying to save and protect innocent African-American citizens, I hear in “mass incarceration,” an unfair indictment of that entire effort. I hear a suggestion of an intentionality that is akin to the roundup of Japanese Americans and interning them at the outbreak of World War 2. An intentional effort to massively incarcerate young, black men. And as I said to the president: there was no such thing. There was an effort to save thousands and thousands and thousands of innocent lives. And yes, it resulted in thousands and thousands of young black men going to jail. But there was nothing mass about it in the sense that I hear that word every case was brought individually. Everybody was represented individually. It added up to a whole lot of young men of color going to jail, but there was nothing intentional about it on scale and frankly nothing mass about it. That term is unfair, and yes, we have a problem with so many people being locked up. But to indict an entire life’s work to protect the very communities that you and I both care about so much, to my ears it has a discordant sound.
Rosenberg: And how did he react to you describing what mass incarceration meant to you?
Comey: He asked questions to try to understand it. He wasn’t offended by it. We had a little bit of a back and forth where he said: basically, you’re making good points, but something else you ought to consider is the frustration in the black community, that we are faced with a choice: yes, we support your law enforcement. Yes, we want cops on the beat, we want prosecutors are locking up the bad guys. So, we want it, and at the same time we resent it, that it’s necessary. And he said, I know that may be hard for you to see given where you’ve grown up but try to imagine yourself. Yes, I want to be able to sit on my front stoop in this otherwise-dangerous neighborhood, I want cops there, but, but also to have a profound sense of regret that it’s necessary, that we’re in such a situation, and that I told him, I said: that’s a useful perspective for me as well.
Rosenberg: You wrote in your book at page 148: “we then spoke with each other for about an hour.” And I use the word with which you didn’t put in quotations intentionally. There was a true conversation with pushing and pulling pushing and pulling. That’s rather remarkable to have a conversation like that with the president of the United States.
Comey: Yeah, it’s extraordinary. And it’s a demonstration of his essential security, his confidence–he’s confident enough to be humble and want to learn because just being quiet. Just asking a question and shutting up. Is it admission that threatens an insecure person. Because President Obama asking me what should I know is a confession that he doesn’t know everything. And you have to be comfortable in your skin to do that.
Rosenberg: You write about another extraordinarily painful chapter of your life in your book. While you were living in Richmond after the birth of your third child, your only son, you had a second son, Colin. Can you talk about Colin?
Comey: Yeah. We moved to Richmond and found a house that we thought we would stay in forever. Patrice–we had my son. Then she got pregnant in early 1995 and had a baby in late summer of 1995, who was born healthy, a beautiful baby boy, and died nine days later of a preventable bacterial infection.
Rosenberg: There’s something called Group B streptococcus.
Rosenberg: What is that?
Comey: It’s a bacteria that about a quarter of all women carry naturally, and their babies are exposed to during delivery harmless to the woman, but can kill their child, which is why American medical practice was testing for group B strep in pregnant women and treating those children during delivery with antibiotics. In many places in the United States when our son was born, to my still lasting pain, the doctor who was Trice’s OBGYN, and didn’t believe in testing, and the hospital didn’t require that all its docs test. So, Patrice wasn’t tested for group B strep and delivered our son and he died. And when Patrice found out that this was a preventable death, she was–you can’t break a heart twice, but she was devastated, and said: I can’t bear the thought of another mother feeling this pain. I can’t describe this pain. I can’t I can’t let anyone else feel it. And so, she and a bunch of other mothers and docs and researchers and amazing people at the Center for Disease Control, Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, set out to make sure that American Medical Practice finish the turn so that everybody tested and treated. But the most important lesson that leadership that I’ve ever learned was watching Patrice take indescribable, unjustifiable loss, and insist that something good follow it. And as she would say, not to make it worth it, I can’t bring my son back. But if I’m going go on living, if I’m to find meaning in my life, I must make good follow this, and I know what that good should be. And so, like you, I worked with victims of 9/11, people whose loss simply could not be described, justified, talked away. But I learned from this to say to them, Look I can’t explain that I’m so sorry for your loss, but we have to make something good follow this if we’re gonna go on living. Not to justify your loss, but because that’s what it means to be human: not to let evil hold the field. And I learned that from that really difficult time.
Rosenberg: Thank you for sharing your story about Colin with me. You kept on your desk when you were director of the FBI an extraordinary document. It was the one page order permitting the FBI to wiretap Martin Luther King. Signed by then Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. I know, having worked both for Bob Mueller and for you at the FBI, that wiretap orders or orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are as thick as your wrist. And they go through many, many layers of review before a director certifies them, before the attorney general signs them, before a judge authorizes them. This was a one page wiretap order and the probable cause section of that order, and I’m vastly overstating its legal weight, was just a couple of sentences. Describe it and tell us why you kept it there.
Comey: You’ve painted an accurate picture of it, it was from October of 1963, a single page–memo is too strong a word, but a single page almost like a little letter from director of the FBI J Edgar Hoover to Robert F. Kennedy Attorney General, saying we’ve got to wiretap this King guy there’s a communist influence in the racial situation, and that’s really it. No, no restriction is the time, place, facility and then we were off to the races.
Rosenberg: I remember it at your vast FBI director desk, which had a large piece of glass on top of it, that you kept it off to the right.
Rosenberg: You could easily see it as you’re sitting at your desk. It wasn’t hidden in any sense.
Comey: Yeah, I put it there. You’re right. The desk–this gigantic desk had this glass covering and I think so I didn’t screw it up for the next director, and that right corner of the desk, you know because you were there so many mornings, that’s where I would put the big stack of documents that represented our requests that were gonna be made to a federal judge to wiretap international security cases. And they were incredibly thick, as you said. And so, I put the King application, which strains the meaning of the word application, put it under the glass because that’s the spot where the stack goes and the stack represents constraint and oversight. It’s a pain in the butt to get permission to wiretap somebody in the United States. Great. It should be, but there’s another reason I put it there is you know: is I know that it’s, it’s really important as a leader to say stuff about our history, that we have to focus on diversity is a core value, that we need to stare at the things the FBI has done if we’re going to improve and attract people of a wide variety of backgrounds to come here, especially people of color, all that’s great. I can give great speeches about that. But there’s nothing quite like doing something that people can find out about and gossip about and sort of, pull to themselves. I knew that if I put that under the glass there, sooner or later, everybody in the FBI would hear about it and remember it because they found it, right, they heard this story about the director and I wanted everybody to hear about it because I was trying to send a signal in addition to giving a lot of nice speeches, and the signal is: owning our history, embracing our mistakes, and treasuring oversight really matters. And there’s no better way for a boss to demonstrate that something matters than through making it part of their life, so that people can see it and copy it and talk about it.
Rosenberg: Jim, on May 9th 2017, President Trump fired you as the director of the FBI. I don’t want to rehash how that happened. I’d like to know how it made you feel.
Comey: Stunned and numb. That is, I, I really did not expect to get fired as director of the FBI. And it seems a little silly in hindsight, but I thought I’d gotten to a place where the president didn’t like me, which is OK with me, but that would accompany that, was a separation and distance between the White House and the FBI that was healthy and consistent what we’ve done as a country since Watergate. And second, I was overseeing the Russia investigation. And so, who would fire the guy in charge of the Russian investigation? And so, when I saw it on the TV screens behind the group of employees, the janitors in the communications room folks in L.A., I was stunned.
Rosenberg: You were in L.A. visiting the FBI field office.
Comey: Yeah, I was out there to do a diversity event to try and recruit more men and women of color to join the FBI special agents. And so, I was stunned and because it–because I was stunned, it felt like being pushed off a bullet train and the train’s gone and you’re standing on the platform, and it’s totally silent, which is disorienting and numbing. And so, I, I was a little bit numb.
Rosenberg: Were you sad?
Comey: Yes. I walked out. I didn’t know how sad I was because I was trying to figure out: have I really been fired? It was done in such a way that took me a while to figure out whether it was real. The media learned it long before I did and I had been talking to a group of employees in a big training area. There was a small group at one end of the training area and then when I walked out of a small office that adjoined the training area after figured out I really had been fired, that area was filled with L.A. FBI employees: agents, analysts, accountants, people of all stripes, and a lot of them were crying. And when I stepped out, that wave of emotion hit me when I opened the door, and so I started to say to them that I am–I’m so sorry. I said I’m very sad to leave you, and I started to cry and I stopped and I said the reason I’m so sad is, you, the nature and quality of you. It’s the people that I get to work with here that I’m so sorry to be leaving, but I know the institution will be fine because one of the reasons I’m so sad to leave you is you’re the kind of people who reflect the values of this institution.
Rosenberg: Do you know the institution will be fine?
Comey: Because there is no deep state in the United States, there is a deep culture generally. And specifically, in institutions like the FBI, it runs down into bedrock, a commitment to a political law enforcement, a commitment to finding and telling the truth. There’s, there’s always problems in any institution, but those values are at the heart of that place. And no president serves long enough to screw that up. If this president was gonna be here for a decade now longer than it would take 20, 25 years generation or more, maybe I’d be more worried. But in four years, or God forbid, eight years, not possible to change the culture of the military, the intelligence agencies, or the Department of Justice as a whole.
Rosenberg: If you can’t change the culture of these institutions, it seems that one could certainly change how these institutions are viewed popularly. Is that a risk?
Comey: Yeah, but only in the short run. I mean I don’t mean to suggest there’s no damage and no risk. There’s plenty in the short run that, look, it seems so obvious, but when the president of the United States says something, millions of people believe the president. So, when our president lies about the FBI, millions of good Americans believe him, that it’s a den of corrupt vipers, that it’s incompetent, the organization was happy to get rid of me. Good people believe this kind of thing. And so that affects the work of the FBI and the morale of the FBI. The work of the FBI in that those people are gonna sit on juries or gonna be witnesses. And if they don’t trust the FBI, that, that affects the FBI ability to do its work. And second, it affects morale in that you’re at ballgames as an FBI employee or at cookouts or conferences where people who’ve heard these lies and believe them, have doubts about you, and you’re constantly having to answer questions about it, that runs you down. So, there is danger in the short run. It’s one of the reasons that I’m talking and writing. I think all of us who have breath and know that institution have to speak to defend it. To cabin the damage, to limit the damage in the short run. In the long run, the institution in this country will be OK.
Rosenberg: Ironically, you were in Los Angeles in part for a recruiting event. Is some of the damage to this institution and its efforts to recruit, not just men and women of color, but men and women to come work as an analyst or as a chemist or as a special agent at the FBI. Is there a danger there?
Comey: I don’t know. Certainly, it’s a reasonable question. I don’t know whether that’s borne out in the, in the recruiting data. I could imagine other things like the federal government not paying people for a month having an impact. I don’t know, it’s something you’d have to worry about. And it’s—again, it’s one of the reasons it’s so important that those of us who know the institution get out there and talk about it, so that young people will follow the great people who were they are now into that work. And so, that they’ll be trusted and believed by people of all stripes around the country.
Rosenberg: You said you were sad, that you started to cry when you saw the emotion among the men and women of the L.A. Field Office. That sadness ever turned to anger? Are you angry?
Comey: Actually, not in connection with my firing.
Rosenberg: Are you angry generally?
Comey: Yeah, I’m angry, sure I’m angry about the lying that goes on that attacks not just that institution, but all the parts of our country that reflect our values and our–the rule of law, the truth, all of the–we have a president now, and I hope even if you are a supporter of President Trump, you believe what I’m about to say is the truth. We have a president now who is a chronic liar. That is a really bad place to be. And it makes me angry to see him attacking innocent people by name and attacking the institutions of justice.
Rosenberg: The FBI and the Justice Department have been under tremendous scrutiny. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad.
Comey: Scrutiny is good. The media is a pain in the rear and essential. I can remember as deputy attorney general when we were working together, I would complain about, I think as all leaders do in government, leaks. Leaks of classified information are bad. We have to investigate them and prosecute government people who steal secrets if we can. But they’re also part of making me a better leader because I knew that in every meeting we had at the Justice Department, the Washington Post, and The York Times, The Wall Street Journal were there. Eventually, what we talked about was gonna become public and bringing that into the room forced the perspective on all of us who were exhausted or angry or confused. That was really useful to making good decisions because we’re gonna have to explain this to the American people at some point. And so, on balance, the scrutiny is really good, that the media today, in my view, is much better than it was when I was a kid, we were kids, right, three white men decided what we learned each evening.
Rosenberg: For 30 minutes.
Comey: And today it’s chaotic and it’s messy and sometimes it’s wrong, but it is wonderful.
Rosenberg: But, didn’t the fact that there was much less news mean that there was more of a common narrative? And isn’t that, in some ways, helpful?
Comey: Maybe. But I, I choose to be an optimist and to say we were able to find things out today as in citizens to be informed citizens in a way we couldn’t before. And yeah, we’re going through a period where we have to figure out how to navigate all the B.S. that’s out there. But I think we’re going to settle on a place where we are better served by having more sources of information more triangulation on hard problems, that we will be a more informed and more engaged citizenry than we could have been in the 1960s.
Rosenberg: But isn’t it ironic. Maybe I shouldn’t ask a leading question, that there’s less public trust among more triangulation. Wouldn’t you expect that the more sources we have and the more we triangulate stories, the more confidence we would have in those stories.
Comey: Yeah, you would think so. And maybe it’s because we’re still in the working out phase because we’re all so trapped in our confirmation bias, constructed bubbles. And so, I, I there is irony there. But as I always try to remind people, we’ve been so much more screwed up than this in the past. You think about our—the–our sainted founders, right. Madison and Jefferson secretly funded a newspaper to attack Washington and Hamilton. Hamilton responded by secretly funding and writing anonymous pieces to attack them. Jefferson accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite. Adams then accused Jefferson of sleeping with his slaves. At least half of those allegations are accurate. So, this is anonymous, poorly sourced, lying, attacking, personal attacks. It’s been part of us forever, and so that, maybe it shouldn’t, but that kind of consoles me.
Rosenberg: And it just seems more immediate because we’re in it.
Comey: Yeah, we’re in it. But the progress of this country. Is an upward-sloping line. If you graft us against our ideals, we always fall short of them because we hold truths to be self-evident while holding humans as slaves. But our line is always sloping up, we’re always making progress. But if you stare at it closely, it’s a jagged line. We go up, we go down, we go up, we go down. The slope continues positive we’re in a downward jag that’s becoming an upward jag because the giant is awakening in response to the lying and the misogyny and the racism, and so that line will continue to go upward. We’re in the middle of it a downward jag becoming an upper jag, so it seems dark and deep, that we’re in the Mariana Trench, we’re not. We’re gonna be OK.
Rosenberg: I tend to be an optimist. I agree with you that we are and always have been part of an upward sloping line with fairly significant and precipitous declines along the way. You are not a fan of impeachment. You think that’s a bad idea. Is that right?
Comey: Yeah, in this sense. I am not, because I’m such a believer in the rule of law, if the facts and the precedent are there to drive the process laid out in our Constitution, fine. What I mean when I say that, is I hope it doesn’t happen because if Donald Trump is impeached and convicted and removed from office, one third of this country would think there was a coup, and they’ll be able to nurse and distort that grievance forever. I think what we need instead is a moment of inflection where we speak our values in the voting booth. We are really important disagreements about all kinds of things that matter, but none of them matter quite so much as our values. We got to vote our values and insist that the president reflect them, especially the core values and we’d be, we’d be let off the hook if there was an impeachment. And I don’t want to let off the hook. I want America to stand up and say: not just to Donald Trump, but to ourselves and to the world, this is who we are.
Rosenberg: You ever want to serve again Jim in some capacity in government. Or are you done?
Comey: I think I’m done in governments, certainly in an appointive role, I would never run for office, but an appointed role in government.
Rosenberg: Why do you say you would never run for office? Because never is a big word. I’m not being cute or coy.
Comey: It’s just not who I am. It’s just not something I’m comfortable with. I’m, I’m glad that good people do it. I don’t–I think I would really dislike it. I don’t think I’d be particularly good at it. And so, it’s just not something I’m interested in, but–so I don’t know what I’ll be in government again. I hope to be useful and to serve in all different kinds of ways. You can be useful to your country without serving in office. So, I don’t know exactly what that look like, but I think there’ll be opportunities.
Rosenberg: You taught last year at your alma mater, at William and Mary. Did you like that?
Comey: I did. The year after I got fired, I taught at Howard University and then that next year which of them still in the middle of, I taught at William. I really enjoyed it. First time teaching undergraduates, I’d always taught law students and I found it really stimulating and interesting. I hope they found it the same.
Rosenberg: So, Jim, in light of all the public criticism you’ve taken, and you’ve taken your fair share…
Comey: You’ve heard some?
Rosenberg: I’ve heard some.
Rosenberg: I’ve heard—well–
Comey: I don’t know who you talked to.
Rosenberg: I’ve heard rumors that you’ve been criticized publicly. Why aren’t you more screwed up than you are?
Comey: I think because first of all, I’m surrounded by people who center me, friends who make fun of me, for example, but a family that is a is my bedrock, that doesn’t care all that much about Dad’s work, but cares deeply about me and every other part of the family. They really, really helped me. And the second is: a long perspective that the things the Ramsey rape is lying on that bed. As a senior in high school knowing I about to die changed me and it helped me take the long view of things. And in the long-view the criticism of me and all the noise will go away and doesn’t matter much
Rosenberg: Has it quieted?
Comey: Yeah, I think so. I think, I think you know as a student ask me really hostile question, I thought was a great question, that some speaking about recent, why are you still even relevant? And my answer was…
Rosenberg: Well first of all, it assumes that you were.
Comey: Yeah, I guess that’s a compliment, but I said look, great question. I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me you read my book and listen to me talk and tell me if you think I’m still relevant. I’d like not to be relevant that it not be necessary for me to be speaking about our values and the institutions of justice and the rule of law. Because we don’t have a president who attacks those things on every single day. And so, I taking the long view, I know eventually they’ll come a day when people don’t recognize me in airports. I don’t crave that. It’ll be a good day when that goes away. So, this too will pass. So, having that perspective and also being surrounded by these incredible people in my life I think is the reason I’m not more screwed up. My wife is a trained therapist so there’s that.
Rosenberg: You have that going for you.
Comey: It’s free.
Rosenberg: Jim, we are at the very end. Who is your favorite television legal analyst?
Comey: On an MSNBC?
Comey: Anywhere in the world, I’d have to go to Chuck Rosenberg.
Rosenberg: OK that’s the right answer. And has my Podcast so far?
Comey: It’s outstanding, I worry about the quality of your guests, honestly, but, but I think you’ll turn that around.
Rosenberg: Upward sloping line.
Rosenberg: Thank you so much for coming by, Jim I really appreciate it.
Comey: Thanks for having me.
Rosenberg: I would like to thank my guest today: Jim Comey. Jim has been a friend and a mentor a colleague and a boss for a very long time. His wonderful book, A Higher Loyalty, is available everywhere. The Oath Podcast succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Our success is due entirely to your support. You should know we are closing in on 1.5 million downloads. That’s a remarkable number. Thank you for that. Your feedback throughout our first season has helped us to shape the show in countless ways. As we develop and record interviews for Season 2 this fall, please continue to send me any suggestions you may have. I would love to know what people and topics you would like for us to explore in the future. If you like what we are doing, let us know. If you have thoughtful criticisms, feedback, or questions, please let us know that too. Email us at email@example.com. That’s all one word: firstname.lastname@example.org. Though I cannot personally respond to every email, please know that I read them, and I definitely appreciate it. My sincere thanks to all of you for making The Oath such a success.
The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the backing of executives at NBC News and MSNBC. Thank you to Andy Lack, Phil Griffin, Noah Oppenheim, Jonathan Wald, Ali Zelenko and Elena Nachmanoff.
Thank you to the podcast department of Steve Licktieg, Barbara Raab, and Fannie Cohen of FannieCo, and her marvelous team of Nic Bannon and Rob Hebert who produced this podcast weekly.
We had help from Lauren Chadwick, Laurel Hyneman, Kate Robbins, Chelsea Kroeker, Paul Mastroianni, Magdelena “Mana” Hill, Marie Dugo, Jori Robbins, Emily Passer, Jesamyn Sam Go, Claire Tighe, and Gordon Miller.
Thanks to Paul Perret the good folks at Clean Cuts Studios in Washington DC for hosting today’s interview, and many others throughout the series. I would also like to thank Frank Verderosa at Digital Arts. And Paul Ruest at Argo Stutios in New York City.
We are busy at work on season two of The Oath, we hope to be back in the fall. Make sure you are subscribed for that.
This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.