Ex FBI head talks about his Trumpian 'nightmare' as TV series is launched

Former FBI director James Comey — whose book is now a TV series called 'The Comey Rule' — is spilling the beans on Hillary's e-mails, Russia's meddling, and Trump's mafioso tendencies

25 October 2020 - 00:01 By Margaret Gardiner
James Comey, former FBI director, was fired by Donald Trump after he, as some see it, helped him win the election.
James Comey, former FBI director, was fired by Donald Trump after he, as some see it, helped him win the election.
Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"Our current president of the United States doesn't accept accountability and rejects transparency." So says James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who some think was influential in the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal, a contributing factor in her losing the 2016 US presidential election to Donald Trump.

It was Comey's decision to release information regarding the investigation into the former secretary of state and first lady's e-mails right before the election that played into Trump's "Lock her up!" refrain and pushed some voters away from the Democrats.

That Comey was then fired by Trump, and that he failed to flag Russian interference in the election prior to the result, are some of the issues explored in Showtime's limited series The Comey Rule, based on Comey's book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.

Brendan Gleeson is superb as Donald Trump and Jeff Daniels plays James Comey. The two actors walk the viewer through the second-guessing and the attempts of some involved in the mess that is US politics to do the right thing. Whether you're pro or anti either party, this is a must-watch show.

WATCH | The trailer for 'The Comey Rule'

In an exclusive interview for Lifestyle, organised by Showmax, Comey answers some of the questions the public has wanted to ask.

In hindsight, knowing what he knows now of the world under Trump and the effect of his actions on the perception of Clinton, Comey is unequivocal.

"If I had a magic wand, I would have it so that the FBI wasn't involved at all; it was a living nightmare. But on the big things — I see how people can see it differently — I don't think knowing what I knew at the time I'd have made different decisions. I did lots of things wrong. I would have explained things differently. But in the main, given that we were stuck, we were the referee in a soccer match in stoppage time and we had to make a call. We made the best call we could and now this is where we are."

In the hopes of preventing a repeat of the quandary in future, Comey pushed to have the inspector general of the department of justice review his conduct.

"And they ripped my butt," he says without rancour. "They saw it completely differently. They said I faced difficult choices, but I chose wrong. I accept that — even when I disagree with them. That's what it means to be a leader: to make the best decision you can for the right reasons. I promise you we didn't make a decision to help or hurt a political candidate, and then we accepted accountability and offered transparency so reasonable people in the future can make their own judgments. I think that's the essence of leadership."

He adds: "Our current president violates both of those tenets, does not accept accountability, and rejects transparency."

But why did the bureau not alert the public to Russian interference?

"We didn't know whether we had anything. What made the Russian investigation so tricky was we knew the Russians were attacking us, but all we had was some smoke, some whiff in the air that maybe Americans were connected to that. Starting at the end of July 2016, we tried to figure it out." He stresses: "We weren't investigating Trump. People say we were investigating both candidates. No, we weren't. We were at open investigations on four Americans who we thought could be acting as a conduit to the Russians. None of these four guys was the candidate himself."

Jeff Daniels as Comey in 'The Comey Rule'.
Jeff Daniels as Comey in 'The Comey Rule'.
Image: Supplied

Given it's accepted there was and continues to be Russian meddling in the 2020 election, how can it be prevented?

"The FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the major members of the American intelligence community, are working hard to figure out what the Russians are doing and how we might stop them. But the response of these government agencies is going to be inadequate when the commander in chief doesn't recognise that the threat even exists. So by definition it will lack the kind of power, focus and drive that an investigation like that requires."

As to why Trump lacks the willpower to intercede on Russian influence, Comey's position is clear.

"I was struck when I was there as the FBI director and even more after I left that Donald Trump won't criticise Vladimir Putin, even in private. I find this really striking. I think that the final straw leading to my being fired was when I interrupted him to disagree with him about his characterisation of America as similar kinds of killers to Russia."

The following scene is pivotal in the series: a private dinner between Trump and Comey where dominance and compliance are tested.

"I know what I see, which is a president acting in striking ways to take the side of the Russian authorities over his own intelligence community, but I can't explain why. I learnt from a book that recently came out that no-one actually did the counterintelligence investigation to understand whether there was some connection, financial or otherwise, between Donald Trump and Russia."

He drops this bomb without emphasis. "The work was never done. Bob Mueller [director of the FBI from 2001 to 2013] thought the FBI was doing it; the FBI thought Bob Mueller was doing it. I don't know when, if ever, we are going to know the answer to that question. But whether it's treasonous or not, it's not consistent with the role the president has with his duty to the American people. "

When asked about the private Trump, Comey reverts to script.

"I did a lot of organised crime investigation prosecution in my career in New York ... he reminds me of a mob boss. The leaning in, the almost extortionate nature of the conversation. The reason it threw me so early, when Trump began our dinner by asking me, 'What do you want to do?' It made no sense because he'd already said to me three times, 'I hope you're going to stay as FBI director.' So I knew instantly this was about something he wanted. It was an extortionist conversation ... that reminded me of La Cosa Nostra [the Sicilian Mafia]. It reminded me of an organised crime boss."

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