James Comey Continues to Argue With Himself

In an interview with Katie Couric, the ousted FBI director excoriated Trump for undoing America’s norms—but let himself off the hook for slipping out of the FBI’s.

James Comey
Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

In a sustained and challenging interview with Katie Couric on Saturday, James Comey defended his apparent flouting of FBI standards in the lead-up to the election of President Trump, saying that, in the “500-year flood” that was 2016, the only way to save the credibility of the institution was to break with convention.

“Norms … produce reliably good results in normal circumstances,” Comey said on Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. But he said it was unreasonable to expect that “in every circumstance you would do what you would always normally do.”

As Couric pointed out, a 500-page report published earlier this month by the DOJ’s inspector general described Comey's October 28, 2016, letter to Congress about new emails that had surfaced from Hillary Clinton as a deliberate choice to disregard institutional policy. But Comey said he felt that his choice came down to speaking or concealing information, not obeying or defying protocol. And keeping the new emails quiet, Comey said, was just too great a risk: What if Clinton won, and the FBI “concludes she’s criminally culpable after the election?”

“The most powerful norm I’ve lived under is you take no action in the run-up to the election that could affect the outcome,” Comey said on Saturday. “I couldn’t find a door labeled ‘no action’ on October 28.”

“If I follow the norm,” he said, “what happens to the institution I love?”

Yet later in the interview, Comey’s harshest criticisms of President Trump—the man that some see as having been elected as a result of Comey’s norm-defiance—were aimed at Trump’s  “attacks on our norms and values,” which “have only gotten more serious.”

“Whether you’re Democrat, Republican, or Independent,” Comey said, “you should care deeply about the erosion of the central norm of the United States of America: the truth.”

Comey described truth as “the central touchstone of American public life,” arguing that “we always measure our leaders by the force of their tether to the truth.” Yet that shared more of American life could “melt like a sand castle at the beach,” he said, in the face of lies from Trump and other government officials.

Trump, according to Comey, also poses a great threat to the rule of law and justice in the United States—which Comey also described as a “norm.” He cited as an example Trump’s tweets alleging that Comey should be in jail, which Comey said he reacted to initially with laughter, then by chastising himself for “becoming numb to something that is profoundly threatening to the rule of law.”

“That norm, the rule of law in this country, the lady justice with a blindfold, is all we are as a country,” Comey said. “All we are in this country is a collection of values ... We’re not united by religion, by ethnicity … by anything except our values.” Because of that, he said, “You should never trade what is essentially American.”

Comey said that many Republicans—Comey was once a Republican, but is no longer—are indeed making such a trade. “They convince themselves that the Supreme Court or a tax cut or something is worth it,” he said. He would urge them—and the nation’s voters—to “take the long view,” to be “loyal first and foremost” to the norms that the United States as a whole has always held paramount.

“I hope in the next presidential election, people will vote their values,” Comey said. “We have to restore the presidency”—which he insisted he did not want for himself—“as the representative, the embodiment … of those values.”