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James Comey sat down with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday for a hard-hitting interview centered on the former FBI director’s best-seller A Higher Loyalty and its allegations about President Donald Trump, who served only as a “counterpoint” in the book, Comey maintained, not its subject.
At the outset of the special edition of The Lead With Jake Tapper, Tapper asked Comey about two breaking news stories CNN was reporting: that the Justice Department had submitted a criminal referral on former Deputy FBI Director and Comey colleague Andrew McCabe, and reports that the Department of Justice would soon begin sharing with Congress Comey’s memos of meetings with Trump.
Responding to the news of McCabe’s criminal referral, Comey said that he could “potentially” be a witness to the prosecution if the reporting on the referral were accurate. When asked if he thought reports that the Justice Department would begin sharing memos of his Trump meetings with Congress were “right,” Comey said, “I don’t know, because I don’t know what considerations the department has taken into account. It’s fine by me.” He also specified that there were somewhere between five and 10 memos, and that he couldn’t detail the nature of the classified documents.
Tapper also brought up reporting that Trump believes he has “weathered,” or made it through unscathed, Comey’s book tour. When Tapper asked Comey whether he thought that assessment is accurate, the former FBI director replied, “I have no idea. The book tour’s not about the president, the book’s about … starting a conversation about our values. Trump figures into it.”
Tapper pressed Comey on his response, saying that his encounters with Trump figure in a large part of the book. “I think he is a counterpoint [to the subject of ethical leadership], that’s why he’s in there,” Comey said. “I couldn’t write about ethical leadership without … illustrating someone who I think fails to demonstrate those values.” He refused to answer Tapper’s question of whether Hillary Clinton would have been a better president, and said that he thought Trump was “legitimately elected.”
Tapper also took issue with Comey’s assertion that he didn’t know that Clinton would make a better president, noting that Comey encourages readers of his book to vote. Why ask readers to vote, Tapper asked, if you weren’t implying vote against Trump? Comey responded that he hoped that he wasn’t enjoining readers to vote “against” but rather vote “for” someone whose values reflect one’s own. Comey said he hoped readers would take his prompt as a suggestion to not “shrug” at irregular behavior from a leader “but realize that’s not okay, that’s not normal.”
When asked if he thought painting the book’s portrait of President Trump would sully his brand as a nonpartisan leader with integrity and the FBI’s brand, Comey told Tapper that he hoped not because he wasn’t criticizing Trump for his political views but “on the grounds of values,” which he called “more important than partisan politics.”
Tapper repeatedly challenged Comey to confront how people might take his assertion in press appearances that it’s “possible” the Russians had leverage with Trump, and to substantiate his claims. Comey refused to discuss what he learned in the investigation, which is classified. After multiple back-and-forths, Comey said, “There’s a reason I say it’s possible. One thing is that the president is constantly bringing [it] up to me to deny it. … Second, I’ve always been struck in my encounters with him that he refuses to criticize [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin even in private. … There are things that lead my common sense to believe it’s possible.”
Tapper asked if the former FBI director thought the president was a “bully,” given his criticism of bullies in the book. Comey replied that Trump exhibited “bully-like behavior” but that he doesn’t hate, or even dislike, the president.
When asked about leaked text messages from FBI Agent Peter Strzok, who investigated Clinton’s email server and began investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election before the texts were revealed, which were critical of Trump, Comey took responsibility for the leak: “I’m responsible for the senior members of my team. I tried to model a certain way of acting that did not include that kind of behavior. … I’m responsible for their actions and their poor judgment.”
Later in the day, Comey also sat down with Rachel Maddow on her eponymous MSNBC show. Just before the appearance, news broke that the Associated Press had obtained memos of Comey’s visits with Trump. Of the memos, he said he wrote them because he “was concerned” about meeting alone with the president, and was worried that Trump would deny their meetings and he wanted “a written record” of the encounters and to “bolster my recollections” of them.
Maddow also pressed him on a number of other points related to the Russia investigation. When asked if there is a duty to the FBI to warn the public about these investigations and the players involved, Comey said, “In general it depends on the facts and what you’ve learned. The goal is to always defeat the adversaries’ actions.”
As for his reaction to the news that former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is joining Trump’s legal team and wants to end the Mueller investigation, Comey said he didn’t think the investigation could be ended by firing Mueller. “I don’t think you can accomplish it by firing Mueller, you’d have to fire everyone in the FBI. It would be hard to kill, maybe not impossible, but very hard to kill.”
The former FBI director punted many of Maddow’s questions as well, saying in a lot of cases that he could not answer her questions for national security reasons. At the end of her show, she thanked him for allowing her to “ask you a million questions you couldn’t answer.”
Trump has, in turn, fired back multiple times on Twitter, saying that the former FBI director and others have “committed many crimes,” and insulting Comey.
April 19, 7 p.m. Updated to include Comey’s appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show.
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