WASHINGTON – James Comey looked straight into the camera in June 2017 as he uttered his first public denunciation of President Donald Trump. “Those were lies, plain and simple,” the former FBI director said, as millions of Americans watched his dramatic testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Comey still uses that word – “lies” – when he talks about Trump, most recently on Thursday in a CNN town hall where he called Trump a “chronic liar” who should not be in office.
His penchant for metaphors came through in a recent New York Times op-ed in which he described the president as an “amoral leader” who devours the souls of better men. And in a scathing interview with USA TODAY last year, he declared Trump “morally unfit to be president.”
Comey's outrage has spilled onto the party to which he once belonged – he has urged Americans to vote for Democrats in 2020. He’s a quirky Twitter celebrity whose page is an amalgam of pensive nature photos, dad jokes and urgent calls for the public to remove the president who removed him.
The CNN forum, which coincided with the second anniversary of his firing by Trump, was only the latest instance in which he garnered the spotlight. Though the town hall format is usually reserved for presidential candidates, Comey dismissed the notion that he is considering a run for public office, saying he'd "never" do so.
Still, Comey's immersion into politics is a stark contrast to the world of secrecy and discreetness at the FBI, making him a more polarizing figure in the Trump era. Supporters see his voice as a check on a commander-in-chief whose behavior they find disturbing. But Comey's detractors believe the former FBI director's disdain for Trump influenced the counterintelligence investigation on Russia and the president's campaign. They contend the FBI was biased against Trump.
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Comey isn't just a former FBI director. He's a former FBI director whose actions are consequential to the president. He wrote memos detailing his private conversations with Trump, some of which he found troubling. He orchestrated the release of those memos' contents, hoping to prompt a special counsel's appointment. And those memos became part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation that ultimately begat a damaging inside account of Trump's behavior. During the CNN town hall, Comey said Trump would have been prosecuted for obstruction of justice if not for the office he holds.
For Comey’s critics, every public condemnation risks reinforcing the perception that he – and therefore the FBI – played in favor of one side over the other. And every criticism places the bureau in a perilous place: in the cross hairs of partisan politics.
“He is telling the world now that he thinks the president is amoral. That opinion just didn’t come out of thin air on the day he was fired,” said Mark Morgan, a career FBI official who was an assistant director under Comey. “As a former director of the FBI, when he speaks, he still brings the full force of credibility of that position, and so he’s not an average citizen when he speaks, and he knows that … Every time he speaks, every time he does an op-ed, he continues to do damage to the FBI.”
Comey declined to be interviewed. His supporters say he found himself in unchartered waters from the moment the president asked him to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation that has loomed over the administration. A voice like Comey’s, supporters say, is critical at a time when the president attacks and spreads falsehoods about the country’s institutions, including the FBI.
“Clearly, he could stay out of the spotlight. He didn’t have to write a book, doesn’t have to write speeches, doesn’t have to speak out,” said Greg Brower, who was the FBI’s assistant director for the Office of Congressional Affairs. But, Brower said: “He just feels strongly that people need to know what he knows and what he experienced.”
“I admire the fact that he’s not afraid to be public about this,” Brower said.
Friction between Comey and Trump has only intensified. Views on whether the public needs to keep hearing from the controversial FBI director is just as divided as today’s partisan government.
Where there seems to be consensus is that Comey’s post-FBI persona could have a lasting impact on the institution he once led, whether or not he intended to.
A ‘self-serving’ endeavor or a public service?
Comey was a beloved FBI director lauded by rank-and-file employees, according to an annual survey of employees. Even for some of his harshest critics, he was a decent leader.
He valued diversity in hiring and won the support of women and minorities at the agency, said Bobby Chacon, a former special agent who retired in 2014, during Comey’s second year as director. He was intelligent, affable, and an effective communicator, said Morgan, who left the bureau in 2016 and whom Trump recently tapped to lead the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The turning point, at least for some, happened on July 5, 2016, when Comey departed from FBI policy by delivering a blistering criticism of Hillary Clinton, even as he announced that the then-Democratic presidential candidate would not face charges for her use of a private email server as secretary of state. Comey's decision to share his memos with a friend, who then shared their contents to a reporter, is “when he absolutely lost me,” said Morgan, who sees his former boss's public life as a “self-serving” endeavor.
Comey town hall: 'No doubt' Trump would be charged with obstruction if not president
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“I have no problem with him pushing back on Trump’s criticism of the FBI, but he has taken it way, way beyond that point,” Chacon said.
Comey defended the FBI again on Thursday, pushing back against notion that the bureau spied on the Trump campaign, a claim that president had made repeatedly. Attorney General William Barr recently claimed that “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign in 2016.
“The FBI doesn't spy to begin with. The FBI investigates,” Comey said.
To stay silent about a mercurial president, who expects people and institutions to bend to his will and attacks those who don't, would have been a disservice, Comey's supporters say.
“When one joins politicized conversations, given his background, there is a risk that leaders of the bureau in the future would be seen as political actors,” said Daniel Richman, a Columbia Law School professor and Comey friend. “But there’s an even greater risk when the work of the bureau had no defenders.”
To fulfill that public service, one must be political, said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution and editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, referring to Comey's call to vote for Democrats.
“If you believe, as I do, that the president is a threat to the rule of law and a threat to the national security of the country, in a two-party system, the only way to respond to that as a voter is to vote for the other party,” Wittes said, noting that he doesn't speak for Comey. “Jim, for the first time in his life, made some political statements. I think that was deliberate and calculated.”
Comey would’ve preferred to leave the spotlight, said Richman, the friend whom he asked to share his memos’ contents to the media.
But not just yet.
“I think he’d be quite pleased to retreat from his political profile come November 2020,” Richman said.
To understand Comey, one needs to look at how he was forced out of government, said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian.
Trump stunned the world when he unceremoniously fired Comey on May 9, 2017 and claimed his decision was based on recommendations by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that Comey be fired for his handling of the Clinton email investigation. But Trump later said he did so because of the Russia investigation the FBI launched in secret months earlier.
“The circumstances of his firing are so unusual that it makes sense that he chose to take a public opinion,” Naftali said.
Comey said during the town hall that he hadn't expected to be fired and his removal “still feels a little bit numbing” two years later.
One also needs to look at how Comey approached his leadership of the FBI, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. He was an outspoken FBI director, and remains so as a private citizen.
“He was speaking out on issues of race and law enforcement. He distinguished himself as being very different for a federal official and seeing his role almost as a bully pulpit one,” Wexler said. “Comey, for better or worse, was going to distinguish himself as breaking with the past and speaking out on issues.”
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Comey is not the only FBI director to clash with the president.
William Sessions was fired in 1993 by President Bill Clinton after Sessions refused to resign. Clinton then appointed Louis Freeh, whose tenure was consumed with criminal investigations of the president and who later published a book criticizing Clinton.
But unlike Comey, Sessions' and Freeh’s post-FBI careers were not saturated with a steady stream of public disputes with the president. Unlike Comey, they did not serve under a president who has publicly expressed his anger and frustration over his own law enforcement agencies and officials, Naftali said.
Comey also is not the only former high-ranking law enforcement or intelligence official who found his voice in the Trump era. James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, John Brennan, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, all eviscerate Trump on cable news. Chuck Rosenberg, Comey’s former chief of staff, has also been critical of Trump.
That these men have been so public is, in itself, unusual, Naftali said.
“What is it about the Trump era that has motivated these men of discretion to be so public?” Naftali said.
Even as Comey takes sides, many still aren’t sure where he actually belongs, or where he fits in this era of political tribalism.
“He’s politically homeless,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman under the Obama administration. “That’s probably where he’s most comfortable.”
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: James Comey called Trump a 'chronic liar.' What his anti-Trump politics mean for the FBI