WASHINGTON – James Comey has a story to tell. If there was any doubt that the former FBI director, sacked by President Donald Trump on May 9, was getting cold feet ahead of his Thursday morning testimony on Capitol Hill, it was dashed — sensationally so — on Wednesday afternoon.
In a riveting account of the exchanges that preceded his dramatic dismissal, Comey unveiled a trove of deeply uncomfortable, weird conversations and odd or suggestive interactions. But for all its colorful turns, Comey’s opening statement, which he’ll read to kick off his Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, ultimately yields more questions than answers.
Here are 10 of its most curious anecdotes — and the new mysteries they bring to light:
1. “In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.”
Comey says here that Trump did not specifically seek the “assurance,” but his “reaction” prompted Comey to offer it. So what exactly was that reaction?
2. “The President and I had dinner on Friday, January 27 at 6:30 p.m. in the Green Room at the White House. He had called me at lunchtime that day and invited me to dinner that night, saying he was going to invite my whole family, but decided to have just me this time, with the whole family coming the next time. It was unclear from the conversation who else would be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others.
It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.”
This anecdote is straight out of a pulpy political thriller. Invited by the President to the White House … expecting a crowd … unclear on the particulars … and then, there he is, just him and you. To the point, though, what exactly was Trump trying to draw out of the FBI director? Comey says in the next few lines that Trump asked if he wanted to stay on in the job — a question to which Comey had already made expressly clear he enjoyed and hoped to keep. Why continue asking?
3. “He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘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.”
‘Honest loyalty’? Given this makes no sense in any objective construction, it would still be interesting to know what it effectively signaled to Trump (and Comey, beyond being an off ramp from a terrible situation).
4. “During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6, and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them. He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative.”
First off, this underlines how truly baffled Trump must be by the core allegations. For a president to consider ordering an investigation into his own behavior is profoundly weird. But the bigger irony or question here — did Trump, the former birther champion, really not get this logic? The impossibility of proving a negative is what breathes life into birtherism, and any of a hundred other conspiracy theories every day.
5. “The President signaled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone. I stayed in my chair. As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the attorney general lingered by my chair, but the President thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me. The last person to leave was Jared Kushner, who also stood by my chair and exchanged pleasantries with me. The President then excused him, saying he wanted to speak with me.”
As colorful as this account is, Comey does not seem to be one to include a flourish for aesthetic purposes. Given that, why did he choose here to note that Kushner lingered even after Trump had asked his aides to clear the room. It could just be an attempt to display just how detailed his recollection is, but could this also be a prompt for senators on Thursday to ask him about the President’s son-in-law?
6. “The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the President’s request, which we did not intend to abide. We also concluded that, given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account. We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.)”
Slow down here. WHY exactly did Comey expect that to happen? Sessions recused himself soon after it was revealed he had not given the full account of his pre-election contacts with the Russian ambassador. What information was the FBI sitting on two weeks earlier that created this expectation?
7. “Shortly afterwards, I spoke with Attorney General Sessions in person to pass along the President’s concerns about leaks. I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened — him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind — was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.”
Again, Comey is such a purposeful writer, it seems unlikely he would drop the hammer on Sessions like this (suggesting the attorney general had essentially ignored his concerns about Trump) without having a bigger point to make — what exactly is it?
8. “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.”
Comey had briefed him in — as noted earlier in the statement — on the dossier that included this particular allegation. Why did Trump continue bringing it up and why does Comey believe it necessary to mention here?
9. “Then the President asked why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week — at which I had, as the Department of Justice directed, confirmed the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. I explained…”
Is Trump — as suggested here — so oblivious to the politics of Washington and the broader concern about Russia that he truly did not understand the reasons those hearings took place?
10. “I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel. 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.”
What was “that thing”???