Thursday evening, after a long legal battle, the Department of Justice turned over to Congress a set of memos written by FBI Director James Comey about his interactions with Donald Trump. And within about an hour, predictably, the memos had leaked to the press.
The documents are a fascinating read: a window into Comey’s mind at the moment of his encounters with the president-elect and then president, unmediated by either time or Comey’s consciousness of being an author writing for a public audience, unlike his new book A Higher Loyalty. In general terms, the content of the memos hews closely to what was publicly known about them, first via a Columbia Law professor with whom Comey shared them; then from Comey himself, in blockbuster congressional testimony in summer 2017; and more recently from his book.
This may disappoint anyone who expected or hoped the memos would reveal Comey as a fabulist—but it was always unlikely Comey would have lied under oath to Congress about the content of the memos. Nonetheless, the memos do provide some important and useful new pieces of information.
Leaks for Thee, Not for Me
Trump has repeatedly assailed Comey as a leaker and liar. The memos only offer Comey’s side of the story, so there’s no way to firmly adjudicate the latter claim based on the documents alone. As for the former, Trump comes across as not just amenable to but encouraging of leaks. Comey records several occasions where Trump effectively asked Comey to leak to the press that he, Trump, was not personally under investigation. After a March 30, 2017, meeting, Comey wrote this:
Comey had already informed Trump that any such move would have to be cleared through the Justice Department, so the president’s request—“get [it] out”—reads as a request for a leak. The following month, Trump again brought up the issue, and Comey deflected by insisting that any announcement would have to go through the acting attorney general:
Thursday evening, Trump allies emphasized that Comey never asserted in the memos that he felt his investigation was being obstructed, arguing that proved Trump had not obstructed justice. This defense has limitations: One, the memos don’t cover Comey’s firing, which is arguably the best evidence of obstruction, and second, the memos are almost entirely narrative, without such analytic detail.