The most revealing thing about the memos former FBI Director James Comey wrote about his dealings with President Trump is that he felt compelled to write them in the first place.
Comey wrote the first of them on a laptop in an FBI vehicle on January 6, just minutes after finishing his first meeting with the president-elect at Trump Tower in New York.
“Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward,” Comey said in a written statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee. “This had not been my practice in the past.”
Unsaid, but strongly implied, is that Comey, a former federal prosecutor, had a bad feeling about Trump from the beginning and wanted to have contemporaneous records of their dealings in case things went south.
In the end, Comey’s gut was right. When he testifies Thursday before the Senate panel, it will be about the increasingly tense dealings he had with Trump in the months before the president abruptly fired him.
The pivotal moment in Comey’s relationship with Trump, in his own words
Comey’s written statement includes a remarkably detailed account of each of Comey’s meetings and calls with Trump, including the pivotal February 14 session in the Oval Office where Trump asked Comey to stop the FBI’s probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
That conversation has led lawmakers of both parties to accuse Trump of obstruction of justice, with several openly saying it’s an impeachable offense.
Here’s the scene, in Comey’s novel-like recounting:
The door closed. The president then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the vice president. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.”
I did not say I would “let this go.”
In the aftermath of the Oval Office meeting, Comey told his top advisers that Trump had asked him to drop the Flynn investigation, which Comey found so unsettling that he tried to ensure almost no one else in the FBI found about it.
“The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the president’s request, which we did not intend to abide,” he writes.
That’s strong language, but it’s in keeping with the feelings of barely concealed anger and unease that permeate the written statement. From the first meeting at Trump Tower onward, Comey saw a pattern of behavior that left him doubting that Trump understood, or cared, that the FBI wasn’t supposed to take direct orders from the president.
Trump put Comey in an impossible position. Then he fired him.
On January 22, two days after Trump took office, Comey discovered just how hard it is for a 6-foot-8 man to hide in plain sight.
The new president had invited the then-FBI chief to the White House for an event honoring the law enforcement personnel involved in security for the inaugural. Friends say Comey didn’t want to go because he felt FBI directors needed to avoid having — or being perceived as having — overly close relationships with the White House.
In the end, he decided to go, but tried to avoid Trump by literally blending into the background. Comey was wearing a dark blue suit, and some of the drapes in the room were a similar color. He stood against the curtains, hoping Trump wouldn’t notice him. Unfortunately for Comey, who stands a towering 6-foot-8, the president did, and promptly called him over.
In an interview with the New York Times, Benjamin Wittes, a close Comey friend who edits the Lawfare blog, recounts what happened next:
“Comey said that as he was walking across the room he was determined that there wasn’t going to be a hug,” Wittes told the newspaper. “It was bad enough there was going to be a handshake. And Comey has long arms so Comey said he pre-emptively reached out for a handshake and grabbed the president’s hand. But Trump pulled him into an embrace and Comey didn’t reciprocate. If you look at the video, it’s one person shaking hands and another hugging.”
Comey’s next interaction with Trump was far more fraught. On January 27, he was invited to the White House for a private dinner, which quickly took an alarming turn. Trump began by asking Comey if he wanted to keep his job, a question that deeply alarmed the then-FBI head.
“My instincts told me that the one-on-one meeting ... was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask or my job and create some sort of patronage relationship,” Comey writes in his statement.
The New York Times has already reported what happened next: Trump asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to him, something Comey refused to do.
Even though we’ve known about the conversation for weeks, though, there is still something bracing about reading Comey’s account of what took place and knowing that he will be repeating it Thursday under oath:
A few moments later, the president said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.
Comey, a man who literally ran an agency dedicated to criminal investigations and counterespionage, left the dinner with Trump feeling that something was very wrong, and wrote another memo to protect himself. Trump fired him less than three months later.