It's been almost a year since since James Comey first learned that President Trump had fired him. The former FBI director was in Los Angeles visiting the field office for a diversity event when a ticker announcing his ouster scrolled across the bottom of a TV screen.
"I thought it was a scam," Comey says. "I went back to talking to the people who were gathered in front of me."
But it was true. Comey later told the Senate intelligence committee that he believed he had been fired for leading the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the election and potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. But Trump gave conflicting reasons for the dismissal — including the claim that Comey had mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server that she used as secretary of state.
Now Comey shares his story in his new memoir, A Higher Loyalty. In it, he explains his handling of the Clinton investigation and sounds the alarm about the Trump presidency. He also defends the FBI against charges of partisanship.
"People love the FBI when they think it's on their side," Comey says. But, he adds, "We were not — and are not — on anybody's side. ... That is not how we looked at the world and not how the FBI looks at the world today."
Hear the full Fresh Air interview with James Comey at the audio link above, and read on for highlights.
On his first awkward public encounter with Trump on Jan. 22, 2017
I was really keen not to be in a picture with the president or have him attempt to hug. ... He called me across the room. ... The walk across the room probably took me five strides. It seemed like a half hour and my wife ... seeing that ... she said, "That's Jim's 'Oh s***' face."
I'm walking forward and I'm just thinking, "There's no way I'm hugging this guy. That is not going to happen." So I reach out my hand to keep it in front of me to make it a handshake, and he grabs my hand and he pulls in and down. He's going for the hug. So I thought I'm going to resist this; unless he's a lot stronger than he appears, he's not going to be able to get me to hug him. And so I tighten my whole core, and I stiffened up and he didn't get the hug.
He couldn't pull me in close enough, but I actually got something worse. He pulled me down as far as he could and then he put his lips by my right ear, which obscured them from the camera. What he said was, "I really look forward to working with you." But of course the whole world, including my wife and children, saw Donald Trump kiss me. There was no kiss, but that's what it looked like. Far worse than a hug.
On his claim that President Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty during a private dinner on Jan. 27, 2017
He looked at me and said just that, "I need loyalty. I expect loyalty." And I just looked at him and I didn't blink and I didn't move. ... I was stunned by what he was asking and didn't want to give him any indication of ascent.
Again, I'm the director of the FBI. That's an organization that is in the executive branch but must always be, in a way, apart from the executive branch, because we have to investigate executive branch officials. We often have to investigate a White House, and so the distance is at the core of the FBI's credibility, and here's the president asking me for personal loyalty. And so I just stared at him and he stared at me. It seemed like forever. It was probably two seconds, and then he looked back down at his food and the conversation moved on.
But he surely noticed that I hadn't answered or even moved, because he came back to it near the end of the conversation. ... He came back to loyalty again and said, "I need loyalty." And I paused and I said, "I will always be honest with you," and he said after a pause, "That's what I want. Honest loyalty."
And I paused, desperately looking for a way to get out of this incredibly awkward conversation. I said, "You'll get that from me," knowing what I meant and believing that, given the conversation that had happened since we started the meal, he understood what I meant by that. And then we were out of that particular part of the conversation.
On his decision to hold a press conference to announce the end of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails on July 5, 2016
It is absolutely the normal practice that when we complete a criminal investigation the Justice Department finishes and there is no statement at all. Sometimes there's a statement that we're finished. Sometimes just the person being investigated is notified privately, sometimes nothing is said at all.
But there are occasions, and this has been a long tradition of the department, where the Department of Justice's policies acknowledge that the public interest demands more than that. I was making this statement in an effort to demonstrate to the American people that we had done a competent, honest and independent investigation and there was no "there" there. ... I believe that without transparency and some level of detail that the credibility of the conclusion would be undermined and accomplishing the goal of showing the American people, "Look, we did this in a fair and independent way," would be we'd fall short of that goal if we weren't honest about what we found in characterizing it. Again, that happens very, very rarely, but it happens when it has to.
On his decision to notify Congress that the FBI was reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails 11 days before the 2016 presidential election
The Clinton email investigation was a series of no-win decisions where people were going to be mad at you no matter what you did. That was true in July when I thought that the matter was over, and boy, it was sure true in late October.
Here's how I thought about it: The FBI and the Department of Justice had told Congress and the American people repeatedly since early July that this investigation was done well and it's over: "You can rely on that. Move on. There's nothing to see here."
Now we were restarting it in not some frivolous way, but in a hugely significant way. We're talking hundreds of thousands of emails and maybe the emails from the first three months [of Clinton's term as secretary of state], the result could change here. And so what do you do?
Despite what folks may have heard, there actually aren't any rules about how you conduct yourself in the runup to an election. I keep hearing stuff about a 30-day rule or a 60-day rule; that's nonsense. But even though there aren't any rules, there's a really important norm that I've lived my entire career in the Department of Justice under and still believe in: that if you can avoid action, you avoid action that might have an impact on the election.
But as I sat there on the 27th and 28th of October, I couldn't find a door that said "no action," I could only see two actions:
I could speak. I could tell Congress what we had discovered — that would be terrible. It might have an impact on the election. Speaking would be really bad.
How would concealing be? And all of us kept coming to the same conclusion: Concealing would be catastrophic for the institutions of justice. It would undermine confidence and faith in these institutions, maybe forever, certainly for a generation.
So as between "really bad" (speaking) and "catastrophic" (concealing), we've got to go with the really bad option.
On why the FBI didn't make public before the 2016 election that it was investigating Russia's interference in the election and possible ties with the Trump campaign
We don't confirm the existence of an investigation until there are important public interest reasons to do so and the investigation itself will not be jeopardized. Russia was engaged in an extensive effort to interfere in our election, that the intelligence committee got onto beginning in June of 2016. Separately, in late July, the FBI got information that there may be Americans associated on the periphery and associated with the Trump campaign who may be — although we don't know this — helping the Russians or in some way conspiring with the Russians. And so we, the FBI, in late July, opened counterintelligence investigations to try to figure out whether that might be true, as to four different Americans — not President Trump, not his entire campaign.
So there was a discussion throughout the summer and into the fall in the Obama administration as to what to tell the American people about the broader Russia effort. There was actually never serious consideration given by anybody inside the Justice Department about disclosing that we had brand new criminal counterintelligence investigations on American citizens for a couple of reasons. First, we didn't know what we had. It was just beginning. The last thing we want to do is tip off people that we're looking at them. And what exactly would we say in the months after that investigation? We've opened counterintelligence investigations of people who are not the candidate but they somehow may be connected, we just don't know?
It didn't meet the bar for disclosing [an] active investigation until the following spring. The Justice Department confirmed the investigation, then, only in a general way. So our treatment of the two actually illustrates our consistent policy.
Separately, it's a really good question as to whether the Obama administration should've said more about the broader Russian effort. I offered to be the voice of inoculation to the American people in August. I drafted an op-ed to say, "Hey, the Russians are coming for our election. Here's what we think they're doing. It's part of a broad pattern. ... American people be warned." The administration never took me up on that and didn't get around to making a decision about disclosing the broader Russian effort until October.
On President Trump's recent tweet suggesting that Comey should be in jail
Think about how far the erosion of our norms has come in just a year that that's not shocking to people. Because he's threatened to jail — and order the Department of Justice to jail — lots of others before me. And the good news is, it's noise. And those institutions follow the facts and the law and the facts here are clear: He's just making stuff up.
But it's a sign of the danger from this forest fire. We can't become numb to that, and we have to point it out when it happens and not say, "Oh, that's just another one of those," because it is not normal. It is not OK for the president of the United States to say that a private citizen should be in jail. I happen to be that private citizen, so it actually does not bug me much, it doesn't freak me out, but the fact that it doesn't is a sign of the way our norms have changed.
On why he's speaking out now
I think [my role is] to remind people that there's something in this country that we actually all have in common. As ferocious as our disputes can be about guns or about taxes or about immigration, we share a set of values. Really that's all America is, is a collection of ideas, and that people ought to look above their fights about policy and realize this presidency threatens something very fundamental that is above partisanship.
Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Dana Farrington adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I recorded an interview with former FBI Director James Comey yesterday, and we're about to hear it. His new memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," was published today.
Comey was appointed by President Obama in 2013. FBI directors are appointed for 10 years to insulate them from political pressure. That would have theoretically taken him to 2023. But last year, on May 9, President Trump fired Comey, who was leading the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the election and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Comey learned he was fired when he saw it on a news report on a TV screen while he was in the FBI's LA field office. Eight days later, Robert Mueller, who had preceded Comey as FBI director, was appointed special counsel to investigate connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. There's lots to talk about so let's get to it.
James Comey, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want you to read a paragraph from the epilogue of your book.
JAMES COMEY: OK. I got it. (Reading) Donald Trump's presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation. We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election, and our country is paying a high price. This president is unethical and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego-driven and about personal loyalty. We are fortunate some ethical leaders have chosen to serve and to stay at senior levels of government, but they cannot prevent all of the damage from the forest fire that is the Trump presidency. Their task is to try to contain it.
GROSS: It sounds to me like you are trying to sound the alarm. Do you see that as your role, to sound the alarm?
COMEY: I think so. And, I think, to remind people that there is something in this country that we actually all have in common, as ferocious as our disputes can be about guns or about taxes or about immigration. We share a set of values. Really that's all America is, is a collection of ideas. And that people ought to look above their fights about policy and realize this presidency threatens something very fundamental that is above partisanship and hope, by talking about it, to energize people to focus on that and rise above the normal policy fights.
GROSS: If Robert Mueller is fired or if Rod Rosenstein is fired, and Rosenstein's replacement tries to limit the scope of the investigation or cover up any of its findings or just kind of hide its findings in a drawer someplace, what do you feel is his constitutional responsibility or your constitutional responsibility to say what you know if you feel information has been covered up? And I know you can't speak for Mueller, but maybe you have a sense of what his options would be, in the sense that I think there are people who are concerned that if the president tries to stop the investigation, what happens to all of the information that has been compiled?
COMEY: That's a good question, and hard to answer in the abstract. Maybe I'll give you two answers, first, about Bob Mueller. Robert Mueller is an institutionalist who cares deeply about the institution, the rule of law and the values at the heart of the Justice Department. And so he will do whatever he can within the law to make sure that those values are protected.
Second, I don't see firing Rod Rosenstein or Robert Mueller, frankly, as effective. If the president's goal is to shut down an investigation, he would literally have to fire everyone in the Department of Justice and the FBI to accomplish that. And that's impossible because someone will replace those people, and some agents will continue the work.
And the good news for people about the institutions of the Department of Justice and the FBI is that they are ballasts. They are incredibly difficult to change. And that's frustrating when you're a leader trying to change some aspect of the culture, but it's reassuring today. Those people do not care about partisan politics. And if seven people are fired, the eighth person will pick up the shield and march on and do the job. So he'd literally have to fire everyone in those organizations to accomplish his goal.
GROSS: But my understanding is that the acting director overseeing the investigation can take the final report and basically put it in his drawer and leave it there.
COMEY: I guess in theory. I would think that would be very, very hard in practice, given the institutional interests of Congress. Even though they've been slow to awaken, I know people in Congress on both sides of the aisle care deeply about finding the truth. And so I think in theory, but it'd be very difficult in practice.
GROSS: So President Trump has tweeted many times about you. He accused you of leaking classified information for which you should be prosecuted. On Sunday, he tweeted (reading) the big questions in Comey's badly reviewed book aren't answered, like, how come he gave up classified information (jail)? Why did he lie to Congress (jail)?
He's saying that you should be in jail. At least, that's how I interpret what he's saying. Is that dangerous when the president says that the former FBI director should be put in jail?
COMEY: Yes. And think about how far the erosion of our norms has come in just a year that that's not shocking to people. Because he's threatened to jail and ordered the Department of Justice to jail lots of others before me. And the good news is it's noise. And those institutions follow the facts and the law, and the facts here are clear. He's just making stuff up. But it is. It's a sign of the danger from this forest fire.
We can't become numb to that, and we have to point it out when it happens and not say, that's just another one of those because it is not normal. It is not OK for the president of the United States to say that a private citizen should be in jail. Now, I happen to be that private citizen, and so it actually does not bug me much. It doesn't freak me out. But the fact that it doesn't is a sign of the way our norms have changed.
GROSS: So the day after you were fired, the president was in the Oval Office meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Kislyak, and he told them, I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken a lot of heat off. I'm not under investigation.
Do you think that saying that to the Russians was a violation of any law?
COMEY: I don't know. It obviously is an encounter that will be of interest to a special prosecutor investigating obstruction of justice, and so I can't answer that from this vantage point. And I know of that only through news accounts. And if the news accounts are accurate, it's frankly shocking. It's shocking that there weren't other Americans in the Oval Office with the Russians and the president. But that's about all the vantage point I have on it.
GROSS: Take us into the room with you when you're meeting with President Trump. Let's choose the time that he invited you to dinner. You'd hoped others would be there. But you see the table set just for two. It's just the two of you. He starts by complimenting you and then goes into the stream of consciousness monologue. You say he spoke in torrents. Give us a sense of what he was saying.
COMEY: Well, yeah, that's a dinner from January the 27, which was a Friday, at the end of his first full week as president. And my assistant called and said the president was calling for me. And he called and said, do you want to come over for dinner tonight? And I said, certainly, sir. It's up to you. And he said, how's 6 or 6:30? And then he fixed on 6:30. And I said, certainly, sir. And I went that evening to the White House. I was very concerned after that phone call because it's an extraordinary thing for the president of the United States to socialize alone with the director of the FBI, given the way in which the FBI and our entire country has tried to keep that organization separate from the presidential power and politics since Watergate.
So I was very nervous about it. Was reassured, though, when I saw Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence, later that day, who assured me there must be others at the dinner. So I thought it would be a group dinner, probably with other leaders, the president just trying to get to know people. I show up at the White House and stand in the doorway to the Green Room, just chatting with two Navy stewards, and I look into the Green Room, and the furniture has all been moved off to the sides and there's a small oval table in the center with just two place settings. And I can see from my vantage point that the one closest to me says Director Comey. So suddenly I know it's a one-on-one, which was very concerning because of the norm that I described.
The president arrives. We sit down. And he makes very clear right at the beginning that the purpose of this is for me in essence to ask for my job, which was bizarre because he had, several times, in previous conversations over the prior three weeks, said he hoped I was going to stay and really looked forward to working with me. None of that was acknowledged, and the conversation begins with him saying, in substance, so what do you want to do, meaning do you want to stay as FBI director? And then he moved through the salad and then shrimp scampi to asking me for an explicit pledge of loyalty, which was extraordinary and deeply troubling.
GROSS: Describe how he asked you for the pledge of loyalty.
COMEY: He looked at me and said just that - I need loyalty. I expect loyalty. And I just looked at him, and I didn't blink, and I didn't move. There was a little voice inside my head ordering me, don't you move, don't you say anything, don't you give any signal, because I was stunned by what he was asking and didn't want to give him any indication of assent. Again, I'm the director of the FBI. That's an organization that is in the executive branch but must always be in a way apart from the executive branch because we have to investigate executive branch officials. We often have to investigate a White House.
And so the distance is at the core of the FBI's credibility. And here's the president asking me for personal loyalty. And so I just stared at him, and he stared at me. It seemed like forever. It was probably two seconds. And then he looked back down at his food, and the conversation moved on. But he surely noticed that I hadn't answered or even moved because he came back to it near the end of the conversation.
GROSS: And he asked for your loyalty again, and how did it end?
COMEY: He came back to loyalty again and said, I need loyalty. And I paused, and I said, I will always be honest with you. And he said, after a pause, that's what I want - honest loyalty. And I paused, desperately looking for a way to get out of this incredibly awkward conversation. I said, you'll get that from me, knowing what I meant and believing that given the conversation that had happened since we started the meal, he understood what I meant by that. And then we were out of that particular part of the conversation.
GROSS: That's one example of the times that you compare the president's behavior to the Mafia. And you're familiar with the Mafia because you prosecuted them when you were in the New York office. So usually with the Mafia, there's transactional relationships. You know, I'm going to give you this. I expect something in return. I expect your loyalty. But beneath all of that is a threat. Like, if you don't give me your loyalty or if, you know, in spite of all my compliments to you, you betray me in some way, something's going to happen. Did you sense that beneath this conversation there was any kind of threat?
COMEY: Well, certainly not the kind of threat that La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia, would make explicit or implicit. And I don't mean by comparing Donald Trump's leadership culture to that of a Mafia boss to suggest he's out there breaking legs or, you know, bombing shops when people don't make their payments. And I didn't get a sense of any kind of dark threat like that. But what I mean by the comparison is they're strikingly similar in the centrality of the boss and in there being no external reference points other than the boss.
Most ethical leaders make judgments, hard judgments, by calling on some external reference points - a religious tradition, philosophy, logic, history, practice, something external to the leader but in the Mafia, and in my experience in Donald Trump's world, there are no external reference points. It's what is best for the boss? What will serve the boss best? How do we get the boss what he wants? It's all about me as the leader. And so I was very struck by and I - look, I tried not to reach that comparison because it seemed crazy when it first popped in my head. Really? La Cosa Nostra and the president of the United States? But it kept coming back to me because that style seemed familiar, and that's why it kept popping back into my head.
So to answer your question, though, Terry, I didn't take it as a threat - any threat underneath the conversation, but I knew that I was going to be estranged to one degree or another from this president by virtue of my refusal to pledge loyalty. And honestly that was OK with me because it kept me as the leader of an organization that's supposed to be philosophically independent within the executive branch at a distance from the president. It was OK with me that I was not going to be, as I say in the book, a friend of ours, amica nostra, part of the circle.
GROSS: My guest is former FBI Director James Comey. His new memoir is called "A Higher Loyalty." We'll be right back after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is former FBI Director James Comey. His new memoir has just been published. It's called "A Higher Loyalty." OK. There's another scene you describe in the book where you reluctantly go to a reception for the leaders of the Justice Department and security agencies. And this is - you don't really want to be at this event, but you go. And the president walks in, surrounded by the press, and there's lights and cameras. And you're trying to, like, stand in the back and, like, hug the curtain (laughter), you know?
COMEY: (Laughter) Yes, yes.
GROSS: ...And not be noticed because your suit matches the curtain. And Trump calls you up, and what happens?
COMEY: Well, he first doesn't see me, and I've been much teased, especially by family and friends, about my effort to blend into the curtain. But it was real. I entered the Blue Room for a reception for law enforcement, as you said - one - I didn't want to go to for two reasons. I didn't want to appear close to this president. I had a lot of people, reasonable people, thought that I had had some hand, whether intentionally or not, in him getting elected president by virtue of decisions I'd made right before the election. And so I thought it's a terrible idea for me to be appearing with this president. And second, I wanted to watch the football playoffs. But my staff convinced me, you got to go. You're the leader of the FBI. The other leaders of the other organizations will be there. They're colleagues of yours. You don't want to show them any disrespect. And so I went.
I go to the far end of the Blue Room. And the president comes in, klieg lights surrounding him, and his eyes begin sweeping the room. And they sweep right past me and settle on the Secret Service director, who's standing next to me. And my reaction is, how did he not see me? And then I looked to my - right to my left shoulder, there's a blue curtain that doesn't perfectly match my suit, but it's pretty close. And so I move closer to the curtain and press myself back. I know that sounds crazy, but I was really keen not to be in a picture with the president or have him attempt a hug. And I thought it was genius until it wasn't. His eyes swept the room again and settled on me and my curtain and announced, you know, Jim, he's more famous than me, and then called me across the room.
And as I explained in the book, the walk across the room probably took me five strides. It seemed like a half hour. And my wife, as described to friends, seeing that - and she's known me since she was - since I was 19 - she said, that's Jim's oh [expletive] face. And I'm walking forward, and I'm just thinking, there's no way I'm hugging this guy. That is not going to happen. And so I reach out my hand to keep it in front of me to make it a handshake, and he grabs my hand and he pulls in and down. He's going for the hug. And so I thought I'm going to resist this. Unless he's a lot stronger than he appears, he's not going to be able to get me to hug him. And so I tightened my whole core, and I stiffened up, and he didn't get the hug.
He couldn't pull me in close enough, but I actually got something worse. He pulled me down as far as he could, and then he put his lips by my right ear, which obscured them from the camera. And what he said was, I really look forward to working with you. But, of course, the whole world, including my wife and children, saw Donald Trump kiss me. There was no kiss, but that's what it looked like - far worse than a hug. And then I pull back, and he invites me to stay with them up on this - at the front of the room. And I waved it off trying to signal, you know, I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy. In my head, I'm thinking, I'm not suicidal. And so I backpedal, backpedal, backpedal, and I go back to my curtain.
And then when this thing is over, I pretend I'm getting on the end of the line after the press leaves to get a picture with the president. And then I slip out through the Green Room. And on my way out, I hear the score to the football game I was taping, so it was a complete disaster.
GROSS: So I'm going to be honest here with about what this reminds me of. As a woman, this reminds me of when somebody who is powerful inappropriately gives you a hug, and you don't know what to do. It seems inappropriate to say something about it at that moment. You don't want to read more into it than is there, but you don't know what to do, and it's incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, and you wish it never happened. Then it also reminds me of, like, you walk into a room and it's like it's dinner for two (laughter). You're going to be alone with the guy. I don't know if that has any resonance for you.
COMEY: It does. I didn't - because I'm maybe not as reflective as I need to be, I didn't see that immediately. But my wife and daughters and then some people I saw in commentary online saw exactly what you saw, which is Comey just experienced what it's like to be a woman often in the presence of a powerful male leader. And that should open the minds of a whole lot of men who otherwise wouldn't see it. And I was one of those men who didn't see it because I was focused on me, but I think that's a fair take.
GROSS: My guest is former FBI Director James Comey. His new memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," was published today. After a break, we'll talk about the criticism that he used a double standard in making public the Hillary Clinton email investigations but not the investigation into Russia's attempt to hurt the Clinton campaign and help the Trump campaign. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with James Comey, the former FBI director who was fired by President Trump last May. Comey's new memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," was published today.
Let's move on to the Hillary investigation, the Hillary Clinton investigation. You made a statement yourself at the end of the first round of the investigation saying there would be no criminal charges but that she was extremely careless. Actually, let me play the tape. Let me play the tape of what you said at the press conference announcing the results of the investigation.
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COMEY: Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information. For example, seven email chains concern matters that were classified at the top secret Special Access Program at the time they were sent and received. Those chains involved Secretary Clinton both sending emails about those matters and receiving emails about those same matters. There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton's position or in the position of those with whom she was corresponding about those matters should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.
GROSS: OK, it's my understanding that when an investigation is closed and there's no charges made that all the FBI is supposed to say is case closed, as opposed to characterizing the person who was investigated or, you know, describing errors that they made along the way. So why did you decide to describe her and others as extremely careless and to characterize them in further ways that you did?
COMEY: Yeah, that's a great question. It is absolutely the normal practice that when we complete a criminal investigation, the Justice Department finishes and there is no statement at all. Sometimes there's a statement that we're finished. Sometimes just the person being investigated is notified privately. Sometimes nothing is said at all. But there are occasions, and this has been a long tradition of the Department, where the Department of Justice's policies acknowledge that the public interest demands more than that.
And I was making this statement in an effort to demonstrate to the American people that we had done a competent, honest and independent investigation and there was no there there. And I believed - and reasonable people can disagree about this, obviously - but I believe that without transparency and some level of detail that the credibility of the conclusion would be undermined and accomplishing the goal of showing the American people, look, we did this in a fair and independent way - we'd fall short of that goal if we weren't honest about what we found in characterizing it.
Again, that happens very, very rarely but it happens when it has to.
GROSS: So you decided to make this announcement yourself and you felt it would be inappropriate for Loretta Lynch to do it for a couple of reasons. One, you thought that she might look compromised after the now famous tarmac meeting that she had with President Clinton. And also, there was some classified material relating to her that you thought might eventually come out and cast doubt.
And so I want to read a paragraph from your book. You write (reading) a development still unknown to the American public to this day. At that time, we were alerted to some materials that had come into the possession of the U.S. government. They came from a classified source. The source and content of that material remains classified as I write this. Had it become public, the unverified material would undoubtedly have been used by political opponents to cast serious doubt on the attorney general's independence in connection with the Clinton investigation.
So this was kind of surprising to me because you're casting doubt on Loretta Lynch through a classified document that you can't reveal. So is that being fair to her to cast doubt on her without saying what the alleged infraction was?
COMEY: Yeah, no, I get that question. I hope so, given the way I've written it. I tried very hard in at least two places in the book to explain that I don't believe Loretta Lynch acted improperly in overseeing this investigation. I saw no indication that she was shaping it, steering it or in cahoots with the Clinton campaign. And I try to explain that.
But even though I never saw that, there was material - and I get the frustration but I'm limited by what the FBI will let me say, given the classification - there was material that would allow that to be doubted and a corrosive concern about whether the investigation actually was independent to creep in.
GROSS: There is speculation in the press that the classified document that you're talking about is an email that had said that Loretta Lynch had promised to go easy on Hillary Clinton in the email investigation. And there's also speculation that that email in question was a fake. It was released during the time of the hack of the DNC and John Podesta, who's the head of the Hillary campaign.
Can you say anything to clarify this?
COMEY: Not much, Terry. I guess I can say this. The underlying material was genuine. Whether its content was true or not is a different question. And we never found any indication, as I said, that Loretta acted improperly. And so it's much more about perception than about any actual concern that Loretta was acting improperly.
GROSS: When you were deliberating with the FBI leadership about if and how to announce your findings to the public about the Hillary email investigation and her use of a private server, you write (reading) I didn't want the Department of Justice to know what we were doing. The most aggressive step to demonstrate the independence of our investigation would be for the FBI to announce something without involving the Justice Department at all.
They might well direct me not even to consider such a thing, and I would be bound to follow that order. Did you distrust the Department of Justice leadership?
COMEY: No, not personally. But I was concerned that given - I think they were people of integrity. But given the circumstances, they were adding up to my worry that the Department of Justice leadership could not credibly close this investigation, that I needed to at least have an option to do something separate to try to protect the institutions. It seemed to me a crazy idea, and I wasn't going to do it. But to preserve the ability to do it, I wanted to keep it close-hold inside the FBI.
Now, I ended up doing that thing that I once thought was crazy because of the things that happened, especially Loretta Lynch's meeting with Bill Clinton on the airplane, and then more than that, frankly, her decision not to recuse herself but instead to, as she publicly said, to accept my recommendation and that of the career prosecutors. And so that's why I wanted the discussions to be kept separate. It wasn't a personal distrust of the leadership.
GROSS: Loretta Lynch released a statement on Sunday saying at no time did I ever discuss any aspect of the investigation with anyone from the Clinton campaign or the DNC. I've known James Comey almost 30 years throughout his time as director. We spoke regularly about some of the most sensitive issues in law enforcement and national security. If he had any concerns regarding the email investigation, classified or not, he had ample opportunity to raise them with me both privately and in meetings.
He never did. Does that contradict anything that you've said?
GROSS: My guest is James Comey. His new memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," was published today. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS (FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with James Comey. His new memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," was published today. I want to ask you about the Hillary Clinton emails that were found on Anthony Weiner's computer. Clinton's aide Huma Abedin had backed up her files on her husband, Anthony Weiner's, computer. So in a separate investigation into Anthony Weiner, those emails between Huma Abedin and Hillary Clinton were discovered on Anthony Weiner's computer.
And 11 days before the election, you notified Congress that those emails were discovered and now you had to investigate what was said in them. Andrew McCabe, who was then the FBI's deputy director, had been told about these emails by the New York office about three weeks before your announcement. When did you find out? Did McCabe tell you as soon as he knew?
COMEY: Somebody told me. And I think it was Andrew McCabe, but I'm not certain of that. But someone at the FBI told me I think in the first week of October that there may be some connection between Anthony Weiner's laptop that was seized in a criminal case in New York and the Midyear investigation, which was the code name that the FBI had for the Clinton email investigation.
I don't remember that conversation clearly. And that makes sense to me because how on earth could there be a connection between Anthony Weiner's laptop and the Clinton investigation? And so I don't remember it clearly. I remember clearly that Andrew McCabe emailed me at 5:30 in the morning on October 27 telling me that the Midyear team needed to meet with me. And later that morning, the team told me that they had found hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner's laptop, didn't know how they got there.
And as you said, it turned out later that she backed up her devices. That accounted for nearly all of them. But she also forwarded manually some emails to Weiner. And most importantly, they also saw thousands and thousands of emails from the blackberry.net domain that Hillary Clinton was using at the beginning of her tenure as secretary of state, which was incredibly important because we had never found any emails from that blackberry.net domain that she used for the first few months as secretary of state.
So if there was going to be an indication of her criminal intent, which was at the center of the investigation, it might well be in the early months as secretary of state. Maybe someone said, don't do that or she said, I'm going to do it. I don't care what you say. But they said hundreds of thousands of emails and thousands of emails from the blackberry.net domain. We think we need to go get them.
And so I remember some vague alerting to Anthony Weiner, some connection in the early October and then the briefing on October 27.
GROSS: Why do you think it took so long between the initial discovery and the announcement? What happened in those three weeks?
COMEY: I don't know. And as I say in the book, I don't know. And one of the questions I've asked myself - and I've asked myself a million questions in retrospect, what could I have done differently - is should I have pushed harder for them to move faster in evaluating those emails? And the answer is, yeah, maybe, although I didn't index on it, again, likely because it made no sense that there's a connection to Anthony Weiner and that I would expect the team to bring it to me if it was significant.
But I honestly don't know the answer to that as to what the delay was, what the factors were that went into that delay, those three weeks.
GROSS: You know, in your book, you describe how when you learned about the emails on Anthony Weiner's computer, you had a choice, to speak or conceal. You chose to speak. Could you explain why you chose to speak?
COMEY: Yes, sure. The Clinton email investigation was a series of no-win decisions where people were going to be mad at you no matter what you did. That was true in July when I thought the matter was over and it was - boy, it was sure true in late October. Here's how I thought about it. The FBI and the Department of Justice had told Congress and the American people repeatedly since early July that this investigation was done well and it's over. You can rely on that.
Move on, there's nothing to see here. And now we were restarting it in not some frivolous way but in a hugely significant way, we're talking hundreds of thousands of emails and maybe the emails from the first three months. The result could change here. And so what do you do? And despite what folks may have heard, there actually aren't any rules about how you conduct yourself in the run up to an election.
I keep hearing stuff about a 30-day rule or a 60-day rule. That's nonsense. But even though there aren't any rules, there's a really important norm that I've lived my entire career in the Department of Justice under and still believe in that if you can avoid action, you avoid action that might have an impact on the election. But as I sat there on the 27 and 28 of October, I couldn't find a door that said, no action. I could only see two actions. I could speak.
I could tell Congress what we had discovered. That would be terrible and might have an impact on the election. Speaking would be really bad. How would concealing be? And all of us kept coming to the same conclusion. Concealing would be catastrophic for the institutions of justice. It would undermine confidence and faith in these institutions maybe forever, certainly for a generation. So as between really bad, speaking, and catastrophic, concealing, we've got to go with the really bad option.
We have to speak. We can't conceal. There is no take-no-action option.
GROSS: So you released the letter to Congress explaining that you were going to look into these new emails. That was leaked to the public immediately, as you knew it would be. And that same day, candidate Trump was at a rally in Manchester, N.H. This is October 28, 2016. And he started talking about this reopening of the investigation. Let's hear him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The FBI has just sent a letter to Congress informing them that they have discovered new emails pertaining to the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's investigation.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Lock her up. Lock her up. Lock her up.
TRUMP: And they are reopening the case into her criminal and illegal conduct that threatens the security of the United States of America. Hillary Clinton's corruption is on a scale we have never seen before. We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.
TRUMP: I have great respect for the fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made.
GROSS: OK, James Comey, you wanted to avoid having the investigation affect the election, and then Donald Trump used your note to Congress informing them of the reopening of the email investigation - he weaponized that. Were you expecting that? You know, again, like, you're trying to not influence the election, and here's your statement to Congress being totally weaponized.
COMEY: Well, as I said, the norm is, we try to avoid any action that might have an impact on an election. Here, I couldn't find an option like that, and so I had to speak, although it would be really bad. And part of it being really bad - I just heard in my headset - is someone weaponizing it. And, of course, what - it - that's painful to listen to for a number of reasons, but one is, it just reflects this business that people love the FBI when they think it's on their side. And we were not and are not on anybody's side. People kept switching positions on us based on whether they liked the result. That is not how we looked at the world and not how the FBI looks at the world today.
GROSS: My guest is James Comey. His new memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," was published today. We'll take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is former FBI Director James Comey. His new memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," was published today. When we left off, we were talking about his decision to reveal, just 11 days before the election, the discovery of Hillary Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner's server.
So when I interviewed Hillary Clinton when her book was published, she told me that she thinks that you cost her the election - she told me and a lot of people that - but that her loss was also aided and abetted by Russia and WikiLeaks. And I want to play you something else that she said to me, and this is from September 18, 2017, and she's talking about you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
HILLARY CLINTON: Where I part company with him and think he violated every rule in the book as a FBI director was what he did on October 28 because what he did then was to send a letter, acting like he was reopening an investigation that had been closed to Congress, knowing it would be immediately leaked. And later on, when asked, well, weren't you also conducting an investigation into the Trump campaign and their connections with Russia? Yes. Well, why didn't you tell the American people that? Because it was too close to the election. I think the American people deserve to know there was an FBI investigation that had started in early 2016. Americans never knew that.
GROSS: OK, so I'd like your reaction to what she said. Were you using a double standard in saying that it was too close to the election to release information about the Russia investigation and the investigation into any possible ties between Trump, his campaign and Russia, while 11 days before the election releasing the information that you were reopening the investigation into Clinton's emails? Is that a double standard?
COMEY: Yeah, it's a great question. The answer is no. But I totally understand why people are confused by it, and so let me let me try to explain it. I actually think our treatment of the two illustrates the rule we followed as investigators. We don't confirm the existence of an investigation until there are important public-interest reasons to do so and the investigation itself will not be jeopardized. Russia was engaged in an extensive effort to interfere in our election that the intelligence community got onto beginning in June of 2016. Separately, in late July, the FBI got information that there may be Americans associated on the periphery and associated with the Trump campaign who may be - although we don't know this - may be helping the Russians or in some way conspiring with the Russians.
And so we, the FBI, in late July opened counterintelligence investigations to try to figure out whether that might be true as to four different Americans, not President Trump, not his entire campaign. And so there was a discussion throughout the summer and into the fall in the Obama administration as to what to tell the American people about the broader Russia effort. There was actually never serious consideration given by anybody inside the Justice Department about disclosing that we had brand-new criminal and counterintelligence investigations on American citizens for a couple reasons.
First, we didn't know what we had. It was just beginning. The last thing we want to do is tip off people that were looking at them. And what exactly would we say in the months after that investigation - we've opened counterintelligence investigations of people who are not the candidate, but they're somehow - they may be connected; we just don't know? It didn't meet the bar for disclosing a active investigation until the following spring. The Justice Department confirmed the investigation then only in a general way. So our treatment of the two actually illustrates our consistent policy.
Now, separately, it's a really good question as to whether the Obama administration should have said more about the broader Russian effort. I offered to be the voice of inoculation to the American people in August. I drafted an op-ed to say, hey, the Russians are coming for our election; here's what we think they're doing; it's part of a broad pattern, longstanding pattern by the Russians; American people, be warned. The administration never took me up on that and didn't get around to making a decision about disclosing the broader Russian effort until October.
Remember, I said the norm the FBI operates under is, if we can avoid it, we take no action in the runup to an election. And here, by the time they got around to making the - wanting to make an announcement, the judgment of the FBI senior leadership was, the goal of inoculation has been achieved. The whole world is talking about the Russian effort. The candidate is. Public officials are. Members of Congress are. The FBI adding onto the statement adds nothing. The statement itself, frankly, is a nothing. And so we can abide our standard. We take no action if we can avoid it in the runup to an election.
GROSS: I think your book is really well-written. And I just found the language in it - some of your colloquialisms - really interesting because one of the words you're famous for using is lordy. Like, lordy, I hope there are tapes. And lordy sounds like such a almost prudish, you know (laughter), kind of...
COMEY: (Laughter) Yeah, I know. I know.
GROSS: ...Colloquialism, but in your book you say things like, this is really going to suck. And you say, like, there's no freaking (ph) way I'm going to hug him - the president. (Laughter) And so talk about the difference in the language that you've used in your official capacity and the language that you're using now as a civilian - as, you know, just a citizen.
COMEY: Yeah. You can't say suck as FBI director. What I'm trying to do in the book - and I've never been an author before; this is my first try - is take the reader with me. And my editor kept saying, let the reader into your head, let the reader into your head. And so I'm trying to share with the reader exactly how I thought about things, and so I'm trying to use the language that would be running around my head. I might not share it as FBI director, but I'm trying to be transparent and share that. Now, you mentioned the lordy thing. I have no idea how that came out of my mouth.
COMEY: And then I figured it out. I'm married to an amazing woman from Iowa. And sometime after that testimony, she was looking for something, and I heard her say, lordy, where is that book? That's where I got it from. It's contagious. I got it from my amazing spouse.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. James Comey, thank you so much.
COMEY: Thanks for this, Terry, appreciate the chance.
GROSS: My interview with former FBI Director James Comey was recorded yesterday. His memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," was published today. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER BOI")
STEPHEN GLOVER: (Rapping) Paper Boi, Paper Boi, all about that paper, boy.
GROSS: My guest will be Brian Tyree Henry, who co-stars in the FX series "Atlanta" as Alfred Miles, who goes by his rap name, Paper Boi. Henry is also starring on Broadway in the show "Lobby Hero." He won an Emmy for his guest appearance on "This Is Us" in which he sang very soulfully. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Roberta Shorrock directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.