Who Is James Comey?
Born in Yonkers, New York in 1960, James Comey began his rise as a government prosecutor after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1985. He was appointed U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in 2001, and in 2003 he became deputy attorney general. In 2013, Comey was confirmed as director of the FBI. However, he became embroiled in controversy due to his investigations of 2016 presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, leading to his termination by President Trump in May 2017.
Born on December 14, 1960, in Yonkers, New York, James Brien Comey Jr. came from a family dedicated to civil service and law enforcement: His grandfather served as Deputy Public Safety Commissioner of Yonkers in the late 1940s, and his dad, a real estate executive, became a councilman after moving the family to Allendale, New Jersey, in the 1970s.
Comey and his brother Peter endured a scary episode in October 1977, when they were held at gunpoint in their home by the so-called "Ramsey Rapist," before escaping and calling police. Comey later noted that the incident allowed him to empathize with crime victims.
After graduating from Northern Highlands Regional High School, Comey majored in chemistry and religion at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He then enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School, earning his J.D. in 1985.
Following law school, Comey clerked for a New York District judge and joined the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. In 1987, he became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, under Rudolph Giuliani, demonstrating a drive that saw him become lead prosecutor in a high-profile case against crime boss John Gambino.
Comey joined the Virginia-based law firm of McGuireWoods, LLP in 1993, rising to the rank of partner. In 1996, he was named deputy special counsel of a committee charged with investigating the Whitewater real estate dealings of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton.
That year Comey began a five-year stint as assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, his major cases including an investigation into the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.
Rise to FBI Director
In 2002, Comey’s career took a major step forward with his appointment to the post of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. His brief time there was marked by his prosecution of Martha Stewart over insider trading, resulting in prison time for the famed media personality.
Named deputy to U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft in 2003, Comey was involved in a showdown with top members of the George W. Bush administration after Ashcroft was hospitalized the following spring. As he later recalled in a Senate testimony, Comey raced to the hospital to head off White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card, who allegedly wanted Ashcroft to reauthorize an illegal domestic surveillance program. With the imposing Comey at his side, a weakened Ashcroft made it clear he would not grant his approval.
In 2005, Comey left his government position to become senior vice president and general counsel at Lockheed Martin Corp. Five years later, he joined the Connecticut-based investment company Bridgewater Associates as counsel.
Controversy and Termination
In July 2016, Comey was thrust into the middle of a vitriolic presidential campaign through the FBI’s investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. Ultimately electing not to recommend charges, he nonetheless raised eyebrows by publicly rebuking Clinton's actions.
Amid speculation about Russian attempts to influence the election, Comey in late October 2016 revealed that he had reopened the investigation into Clinton's emails. Although he later announced that his recommendation remained unchanged, he was blamed by Clinton supporters for tipping the balance ahead of Donald Trump's stunning Election Day victory.
Remaining in his post for the new administration, Comey was unable to steer clear of the spotlight. During an appearance before the House Intelligence Committee in March 2017, he refuted Trump's claims about being wiretapped by former President Obama and confirmed an investigation into the Trump campaign's connections with Russia. At a Senate hearing in early May, Comey noted that he felt "mildly nauseous" over the idea that he could have influenced the 2016 presidential race.
On May 9, President Trump abruptly fired Comey as FBI director. The White House initially pinned the decision on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, though the justification for the firing continued to change in following days. Trump later told reporters at the White House that he had fired Comey “because he wasn’t doing a good job,” and he told Lester Holt in an NBC News interview that his decision was not solely based on recommendations from Sessions and Rosenstein. "I was going to fire Comey," the president told Holt in the televised interview. "Regardless of the recommendation I was going to fire Comey."
President Trump further addressed Comey's firing in a May 12 tweet which suggested that he had taped his conversations with Comey although the White House did not deny or confirm the existence of tapes. "James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" the president tweeted.
There was more fallout a week after Comey's firing when the New York Times reported that President Trump had asked Comey to shut down the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. According to the New York Times, Comey wrote in a memo that the president told him in a meeting a day after Flynn resigned: "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."
The White House denied this claim in a statement: "While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn."
On May 17, Comey's predecessor at the FBI, Robert Mueller, was appointed special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to look into allegations of the Trump campaign's collision with Russians. It was believed that the investigation would veer into the terrain of whether the president obstructed justice by firing Comey.
Testimony Before Congress
Comey agreed to testify under oath before Congress about his interactions with President-Elect and then President Trump. In his opening remarks before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 8, 2017, Comey addressed his firing. “Although the law requires no reason at all to fire an FBI director the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the work force had lost confidence in its leader,” Comey said. "Those were lies plain and simple. And I am so sorry that the FBI work force had to hear them and I am so sorry that the American people were told them.”
During his testimony and in a prepared statement released prior to his testimony, Comey stated that he had assured Trump that he was not under FBI investigation related to alleged ties between his campaign and Russia. When the president repeatedly told Comey “we need to get that fact out,” Comey wrote in the statement: “I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.”
Comey also detailed that the one-on-one meetings he had with Trump compelled him to document their interactions in memos. “Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past. I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) — once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months — three in person and six on the phone.”
One such one-on-one meeting was a dinner Comey had with President Trump in the Green Room at the White House on January 27, 2017. Comey wrote that he had assumed there would be others at the dinner, but “It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room.”
“The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to,” Comey documented in his written statement. “He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.
“My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI's traditionally independent status in the executive branch.”
Comey also stated the the President asked for a pledge of loyalty: “’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.”
At the end of the dinner, Comey said the President reiterated “I need loyalty.” Comey described his response and the following interaction:
“’You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That's what I want, honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn't be productive to push it further. The term — honest loyalty — had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect."
Another one-on-one meeting prompted by President Trump occurred on February 14, 2017, following a scheduled counterterrorism briefing of the president in the Oval Office. According to Comey, the president ended the meeting by thanking all of the attendees and asking to speak to Comey alone. President Trump then brought up Michael Flynn, who had resigned as national security adviser the day before, as well as his concern over leaks of classified information.
In Comey’s account of the conversation, he said the president spoke of 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.’ (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would ‘let this go.’"
Following the meeting, Comey immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation and discussed it with FBI senior leadership. Comey also spoke to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in person “to pass along the President's concerns about leaks” and “to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me.”
Another conversation with the president which concerned Comey took place on March 30, 2017, when President Trump called him at the FBI. “He described the Russia investigation as ‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country,” Comey stated. “He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn't find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him."
Comey added: “He finished by stressing ‘the cloud’ that was interfering with his ability to make deals for the country and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn't being investigated. I told him I would see what we could do, and that we would do our investigative work well and as quickly as we could.”
Immediately following the conversation, Comey reported it to Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente because Sessions had recused himself on all Russia-related issues.
According to Comey, President Trump called him again on April 11 and in their last conversation he “asked what I had done about his request that I ‘get out’ that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that ‘the cloud’ was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. ...
“He said he would do that and added, ‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.’ I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’ I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended.”
When Comey was questioned if he shared the memos he wrote with anyone besides FBI officials, he said that he had asked a good friend who is a “professor at Columbia law school” to give them to the press. "My judgment was that I needed to get that out into the public square," Comey said, adding: "because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel."
Flynn's Guilty Plea
On December 1, 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI about his communications with Russians before Trump formally took office and said he was cooperating with Mueller's team. The media subsequently took notice of Comey's seemingly related tweet: “To paraphrase the Buddha — Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun; the moon; and the truth."
During the Sunday morning news shows that followed, it was suggested that Comey would soon be back in the spotlight. "I think given the plea deal with General Flynn, I think Comey will play another role in this," said former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers on CNN’s State of the Union. "I'm sure they'll bring him back [for more questioning], about that process of what he knew leading into the election."
A few weeks later, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told the House Intelligence Committee that Comey had informed him of the controversial conversations with President Trump earlier in the year, shortly after they took place. The testimony indicated that McCabe could corroborate Comey's account of Trump's request for loyalty, and thus potentially strengthen an obstruction of justice case against the president.
Book: 'A Higher Loyalty'
For much of the year following his dismissal from the FBI, Comey worked on a book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, occasionally surfacing to remind the president and critics that soon more would be revealed about his short and troubled tenure under the Trump administration. Anticipation for the memoir led to it becoming a best seller in mid-March 2018, one month before its scheduled April 17 release date, and beefed up sales for the accompanying book tour, with tickets for his April 19 stop in New York City reportedly costing as much as $850 on the secondary market.
A Higher Loyalty did not disappoint with its tell-all accounts of the Trump White House. Recalling his first impressions of the president in precise detail, Comey likened him to a mob boss who surrounded himself with men willing to service his lies. He also expanded on such previously reported encounters as when the president nudged him toward being lenient on Flynn, all part of the "forest fire that is the Trump presidency."
Additionally, Comey thoroughly rehashed his actions through the Clinton email scandal, including his describing her as "extremely careless" and his announcement that he was reopening the investigation just two weeks before Election Day. "I have read she has felt anger toward me personally, and I’m sorry for that," he wrote. "I’m sorry that I couldn’t do a better job explaining to her and her supporters why I made the decisions I made." He also described an emotional moment with President Obama after the 2016 election, when the outgoing president assured him that he knew Comey had tried to do the right thing.
Days after excerpts from the book were released, its author appeared in a taped 20/20 interview with George Stephanopoulos. Among the explosive moments, Comey described Trump as "morally unfit to be president" and as someone who will "stain everyone around him." He also indicated that his interaction with the president about the Flynn investigation amounted to "some evidence of obstruction of justice," though he cautioned against pursuing impeachment as a means to addressing the problems with the administration.
Meanwhile, Trump fired back on Twitter, calling his erstwhile FBI director a "weak and untruthful slimeball," while his supporters followed with a counterattack that portrayed Comey as a disgraced and disgruntled former employee.
Comey Memos & Justice Department Reports
On April 19, the Justice Department released to Congress the requested 15 pages of redacted and declassified memos taken by Comey after his meetings with Trump. Some of its descriptions were already known through reporting and excerpts from the just-released book, but new specific recollections also emerged, including Comey's interactions with former chief of staff Rance Priebus, as well as a meeting in which the president and FBI director shared their joint desire to rid the White House of its leaking problem.
Trump naturally jumped on Twitter to respond, declaring that the memos proved "NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION." Republican congressional leaders also jumped in the fray, saying that the memos proved Comey was "blind with biases" and demonstrated bad judgment. Democrats countered that the memos revealed the reasoned thoughts of a career law enforcement official, one who was so concerned about the unethical behavior of the new administration that he felt the need to take notes on his meetings.
In June 2018, the Justice Department's inspector general released his anticipated report on the Hillary Clinton email investigation. The report rebuked Comey for "violating FBI norms" by twice going public with announcements relating to the investigation, though it also revealed that no evidence was found of actions being influenced by political bias within the bureau.
In August 2019, the inspector general's office released another report which found that Comey had violated agency policies when he retained and leaked the memos documenting his meetings with President Trump. However, although the report cited the "dangerous example" the former FBI director set in an effort to "achieve a personally desired outcome," it also stated that there was no evidence of Comey revealing the classified information in the memos to members of the media.
Comey met his wife, Patrice, while a freshman at William & Mary. They married in 1987 and had six children, although son Collin died from strep infection at 9 days old in 1995.
In 2011, the William & Mary Law School awarded Comey one of its highest honors by naming him a Carter O. Lowance Fellow. He has also been honored with a fellowship from Columbia University, and has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
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