Comey was disgusted by Trump’s attempts to court his loyalty and his efforts to appear to be close to the FBI director to compromise him before Democrats who already distrusted him.
Benjamin Wittes, a friend of former FBI Director James Comey and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, reports that Director Comey was disgusted by attempts by Trump to court his loyalty and discredit him before Democrats.
Wittes described several conversations he had with Comey for several months leading up to Trump firing him last week in an explosive article on the legal website Lawfare.
Wittes begins his article with an excerpt from a New York Times article published Thursday evening:
President Trump called the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation, according to two people briefed on the call.
Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau’s investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquires to the Justice Department, according to those people.
After explaining to Mr. Trump how communications with the F.B.I. should work, Mr. Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line after a series of encounters he had with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardized the F.B.I.’s independence. At the time, Mr. Comey was overseeing the investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.
He goes on to explain that he was the source of that information:
I did not know this particular fact, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. The principal source for the rest of this story is, well, me—specifically a long interview I gave to reporter Michael Schmidt on Friday about my conversations with FBI Director James Comey over the last few months, and particularly about one such conversation that took place on March 27 over lunch in Comey’s FBI office.
Explaining his friendship with Comey, Wittes writes:
We’re friends. We communicate regularly, but I am not among his close intimates or advisers. I know nothing about the Russia investigation that isn’t public. Comey has never talked to me about a live investigative matter—and I’ve never asked him to.
That said, sometimes, as friends do, we have lunch, and when we do so, we talk about things of mutual interest, like how Lawfare is going or how life running the FBI is going. And those latter conversations necessarily involve President Trump—and President Obama before him.
He goes on to explain that Comey had serious concerns regarding Trump’s efforts to establish a relationship with him.
Comey was preoccupied throughout this period with the need to protect the FBI from these inquiries on investigative matters from the White House. Two incidents involving such inquiries have become public: the Flynn discussion and Reince Priebus’s query to Andrew McCabe about whether the then-Deputy FBI Director could publicly dispute the New York Times’ reporting regarding communications between Trump associates and Russian officials. Whether there were other such incidents I do not know, but I suspect there were. What I do know is that Comey spent a great deal of energy doing what he alternately described as “training” the White House that officials had to go through the Justice Department and “reestablishing” normal hands-off White House-Bureau relations.
Continuing, he writes that:
Comey understood Trump’s people as having neither knowledge of nor respect for the independence of the law enforcement function. And he saw it as an ongoing task on his part to protect the rest of the Bureau from improper contacts and interferences from a group of people he did not regard as honorable. This was a general preoccupation of Comey’s in the months he and Trump overlapped—and the difference between this relationship and his regard for Obama (which was deep) was profound and palpable.
He then discussed two incidents between Comey and Trump that concerned the Director, writing: “Comey described at least two incidents which he regarded as efforts on the part of the President personally to compromise him or implicate him with either shows of closeness or actual chumminess with the President.”
The first incident he told me about was the infamous “hug” from Trump after the inauguration. The hug took place at a White House meeting to which Trump had invited law enforcement leadership to thank them for their role in the inauguration. Comey described really not wanting to go to that meeting, for the same reason he later did not want to go to the private dinner with Trump: the FBI director should be always at arm’s length from the President, in his view.
There was an additional sensitivity here too, because many Democrats blamed Comey for Trump’s election, so he didn’t want any shows of closeness between the two that might reinforce a perception that he had put a thumb on the scale in Trump’s favor. But he also felt that he could not refuse a presidential invitation, particularly not one that went to a broad array of law enforcement leadership. So he went. But as he told me the story, he tried hard to blend into the background and avoid any one-on-one interaction. He was wearing a blue blazer and noticed that the drapes were blue. So he stood in the back, right in front of the drapes, hoping Trump wouldn’t notice him camouflaged against the wall. If you look at the video, Comey is standing about as far from Trump as it is physically possible to be in that room.
However, Trump eventually noticed Comey and “ultimately singled him out—and did so with the most damning faint praise possible: ‘Oh, and there’s Jim. He’s become more famous than me!'” – a reference to Comey’s decision to renew his agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server days before the 2016 presidential election.
Continuing Wittes writes:
Comey took the long walk across the room determined, he told me, that there was not going to be a hug. Bad enough that he was there; bad enough that there would be a handshake; he emphatically did not want any show of warmth.
Again, look at the video, and you’ll see Comey preemptively reaching out to shake hands. Trump grabs his hand and attempts an embrace. The embrace, however, is entirely one sided.
Comey was disgusted. He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him.
The second incident Wittes discussed was the now infamous loyalty dinner, wherein it is alleged that Trump attempted to solicit Comey’s loyalty to him.
Comey never told me the details of the dinner meeting; I don’t think I even knew that there had been a meeting over dinner until I learned it from the Times story. But he did tell me in general terms that early on, Trump had “asked for loyalty” and that Comey had promised him only honesty. He also told me that Trump was perceptibly uncomfortable with this answer. And he said that ever since, the President had been trying to be chummy in a fashion that Comey felt was designed to absorb him into Trump’s world—to make him part of the team. Comey was deeply uncomfortable with these episodes. He told me that Trump sometimes talked to him a fashion designed to implicate him in Trump’s way of thinking. While I was not sure quite what this meant, it clearly disquieted Comey. He felt that these conversations were efforts to probe how resistant he would be to becoming a loyalist. In light of the dramatic dinner meeting and the Flynn request, it’s easy to see why they would be upsetting and feel like attempts at pressure.
Wittes goes on to detail other conversations with Comey where the director discussed his continued unease with Trump’s efforts to buddy up to him.
He concludes, writing:
I don’t want to make a unified field theory out of these incidents, which are pieces of a much larger mosaic—a mosaic that surely includes whatever Comey knew about the Russia investigation, among many other things. But I am confident that these incidents tell a story about Comey’s thinking over the months that he and Trump were in office together. And I think they also sketch a trajectory in which Trump kept Comey on board only as long as it took him to figure out that there was no way to make Comey part of the team. Once he realized that he couldn’t do that—and that the Russia matter was thus not going away—he pulled the trigger.