16 Feb 2021

Former FBI director James Comey

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 16 February 2021

From the moment Donald Trump became president, the career and legacy of Former FBI director James Comey became inextricably linked to the man who fired him. Comey is calling for a truce with the former president.

He talked to Afternoons about his time as director under Trump and why respect for the truth must be restored in America.

Former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 8, 2017.

Photo: AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

Comey tells programme host Jesse Mulligan that he discovered he was fired while speaking to new recruits at a Los Angeles office after seeing it was on television. He thought it was a practical joke the office had played on him because the chyron stated that he had resigned.

“The FBI is a very serious place but it lives on dark humour, so I thought it was a bit of a prank at first. I knew I hadn’t resigned because I planned to serve another six years and fill out my 10-year term.

“I assumed it was a joke and turned to the leadership at Los Angeles and said 'that took a lot of work' and chuckled, then I went back to talking. Then the chyron at the bottom of the news station changed and said ‘Comey fired’ and I knew they wouldn’t joke about something like that.”

He says he continued with his talk but was thrown off, and the employees could tell. On his way to an office to find out what had happened, a security guard handed him his phone with his wife on the line.

“She wanted to know if I’d been fired and I said 'I don’t know, I’ll call you back'. Then I went and found out it was true.”

When he returned to the training room, it had filled up with people, some of whom were crying.

“When I saw that, a literal wave of emotion hit me and my steps stuttered a little bit and I started to choke up. I managed to speak to them and tell them, the reason I was sad was them - I was really going to miss working with people of that quality. I knew they’d be fine without me, but it hurt a lot to leave them.”

He says that in the years since, his family has been under threat from people who believed Donald Trump's lies about him and the FBI organisation.

“It brought a lot of nuts into our lives that increased the burden on my family. I’m optimistic it will go away now because I’m not going to be a public figure but it’s painful to think about the people you love having to deal with that.”

Comey says Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly called him when he heard about the firing to say he was going to resign because he didn’t want to work with people who would do such a thing and act so dishonourably.

“I said 'please don’t do that John. We need people of quality, people of integrity now more than ever, please try to hang in there'. That was our brief conversation.”

Comey says he has no regrets about reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails prior to the 2016 election, which many people believe swayed the vote in Trump’s favour.

“When you’re on the pitch and you have the whistle and you have to make a call, you make the best call you can, even if it’s in the last minute stoppage time. We had to make that call and, even with the benefit of hindsight, I believe we made the right call.

“I actually think political scientists may conclude, given the way 2020 went, that it had no impact at all but either way it doesn’t matter; you couldn’t have the FBI making the other call. I understand why people get upset about it, but I just urge them to dive into it and really understand the facts and ask yourself what you would have done if you had the whistle in that particular time period.”

He says he has never met Clinton and has no desire to meet with her and bury the hatchet.

“I feel badly for her in a lot of different ways. I feel badly about the way she’s been lied about. As someone who’s been lied about a fair amount, I feel a certain sense of empathy for her. I feel a regret that she appeared to think that I somehow intentionally ‘shivved’ her, that’s unfortunate.

“I have no personal relationship with Clinton and I certainly have no animosity towards her, I’m grateful for her service and I’m sorry for what she went through, but I don’t feel the need to bury any kind of hatchet.”

He did, however, meet with then-sitting president Barack Obama after the 2016 election.

“He held me back after a meeting to do a very rare thing, which is him to speak alone to the FBI director. He wanted to tell me that nothing that had happened - meaning, the decisions I had made, [had not] changed his view of me and of my integrity.

“That meant a lot to me because this was a hard time, when the whole world thinks you’ve somehow intended to influence the presidential election to help one candidate and hurt the other, which was of course not true but I couldn’t really explain that to people. So, his vote of confidence meant a lot to me.”

Comey says the biggest threat from Trump’s presidency was that for apolitical public servants telling the truth was made to seem partisan.

“What I said to myself and to others was that there’s no alternative but to stand straight. If Donald Trump wants you to bend - and he bent a lot of people into pretzels, but what’s the alternative - how are you going to explain to your children and grandchildren or to a classroom of students someday why you bent, why you sacrificed the idea that truth has to be at the centre of a democracy and the centre of a justice institution.

“In my case, I didn’t last very long. But I can’t imagine having conducted myself in a different way.”

As for the future, Comey says he will never go back to being a public servant – particularly after his criticisms of Trump.

“I’ve become, in the last four years, a partisan – something I never thought I would be, but I felt like I had to speak out, I had to speak about what this president was doing to our country and our institutions.

You can’t have a partisan leading justice institutions and, besides that, I’m never going to run for elective office so I’m not going to return to government but I will find ways to be useful to my community and my country, but it’s not going to involve the government.”

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