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New Yorkers lined up to hear James Comey — but they still want answers about Hillary Clinton

“I want to have respect for him.”

New Yorker editor David Remnick (left) and former FBI Director James Comey.
Janice Yi/The New Yorker Radio Hour
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

“Do I wish he had been our savior? Maybe I wish he had been our savior,” Bette Randazzo said, as if letting free a confession.

Former FBI Director James Comey was not a savior, not for Randazzo, or for many who attended a taping Thursday night of an interview between New Yorker editor David Remnick and Comey at the Town Hall, a venue off Times Square in New York City.

It is one stop of many on Comey’s book tour for his new memoir, A Higher Loyalty. But this event, live and away from the cable news cameras, had been a coveted ticket — rumored to be going for as much as $850 on resale sites.

No one I talked to paid, or at least admitted to paying, that much for a chance to see Comey not answer the questions they most wanted answered. Because of this, people are certain: Comey, studied and precise, will not give them what they want. The former FBI director and seasoned prosecutor, will not break and spill about Donald Trump. He will not say he regrets sending that letter about Hillary Clinton’s emails less than two weeks before the election or give a new answer for why he did what he did.

Yet people still want to hear Comey out. It’s why some lined up overnight in advance of Comey’s first public appearance Wednesday, at Barnes & Nobles in Union Square. It’s why the crowds stretched down 43rd Street on Thursday night. Many, as they were Thursday in Manhattan, are Trump opponents, and they’re grappling with two different Comeys — the one whose memos helped set the Robert Mueller investigation in motion and the other who wrote a letter in October 2016 that may have brought them Trump in the first place.

People are frustrated by Comey, but they believe him. They don’t worship him, but they do want to understand him, the former FBI director who is somehow both a casualty and creator of this moment in American politics.

“What could he have been thinking?”

The need for Comey to decode himself and his decisions seemed to matter more to attendees than the details about Trump, about whether the president obstructed justice, or about the pee tape.

Many in the crowd, informed and well-versed in the daily dramas of Trumpworld, took a longer view. As they saw it, the 2016 election, the Trump presidency, and the Mueller investigation represent major historical moments being written in real time. Seeing Comey, intertwined or implicated in the events, is a chance to be a witness to it all — no matter the outcome.

“What could he have been thinking?” Randazzo said, referring to the infamous letter. She attended the taping with her husband, Steven, both of them photographers from Manhattan. Back in October 2016, they heard about the letter, and knew Hillary was done.

“I want to have respect for him,” Randazzo added. She wants something, a way to understand Comey’s reasoning for the Clinton letter, about his interaction with Trump and the “honest loyalty” pledge. She, like others, had a sense that Comey owed them — America, really — an explanation, an insight, anything to help make sense of the Trump era.

It’s very confusing, Rosemary Lavan said, standing outside the venue before the event. She campaigned for Clinton in Pennsylvania, after seeing Trump sign after Trump sign on a 60th birthday trip. “I have mixed emotions about the guy because of what he did, and I’m furious,” Lavan said of Comey and the letter-that-must-not-be-named. “On the other hand, I do think he stood up to Donald Trump, whom I despise with every ounce of my being.”

She’s still waiting for him to apologize about his handling of the Clinton emails investigation. “Which I know he will never do,” she said. And she’d like Comey to talk more about his feelings — not the book feelings, his real feelings — about Clinton, and Trump, and his former deputy Andrew McCabe, who now might face criminal charges for misleading investigators against leaks. “Which,” she said, resigned, “I seriously doubt he will.”

He’s a “central figure to the story of our time — probably the most important story of our time,” said Andrew Longstreth, of Brooklyn, about Russian meddling into the 2016 election. He described Comey as a tragic figure. “He comes from a good place, he wanted to do the right thing, but got in his own way.”

“But it’s complicated,” Longstreth added. “He’s complicated.”

Does Comey live up to his own ideals?

The only person who appeared convinced of Comey’s true character was the guy relentlessly handing out fliers from a plastic bag claiming that Comey allowed Jamaican gangs to smuggle drugs into the country — an almost quaint conspiracy in this era of fake news. He was joined in his efforts by another man alleging cover-ups by Robert Mueller. This wasn’t his audience. “Hope springs eternal,” he said.

But the rest of the attendees struggled with a more complicated view of Comey. Longstreth articulated one element of that: Comey’s emphasis on the rightness of his personal judgment. Would Comey, Longstreth wondered, be as comfortable with another leader acting on those same instincts? Comey wasn’t infallible, as Longstreth pointed out.

Alexander Gladstone, a financial journalist, thought Comey, by not fully acknowledging some of his actions in 2016, “contradicted the ideals in his book.”

Rachel, an 18-year-old from New Jersey, said she’d read the first few chapters of Comey’s book, and thought that he did strive for ethical leadership — abstaining from voting, for example.

Her father, Marc Halpern, saw Comey and the events around it as “important historical time for our country.” Whatever the outcome, he hoped that, when it was over, a sense of decency and democracy would be restored.

Until then, what’s left is Comey and Remnick, facing each other on a stage, illuminated by a spotlight on a dark stage.

Remnick skillfully tried to find ways to crack open and challenge Comey. Comey, careful and diplomatic, budged only a few times — when he described Trump as having an “emptiness” inside him, and when Comey said, with emotion in his voice, that he would ask Republican leaders, “What are you going to tell your grandchildren?” But the former FBI director remained convinced he had no good options with Hillary Clinton’s letter; the outcome, and what came after, would not change anything.

At one point, Remnick asked Comey why he wrote a tell-all, what he wanted from the exposure. “I do not crave to be known,” Comey replied, maybe oblivious, or maybe all too aware, that the audience craved to know him.