Just conversations between friends

Another Times piece that made a splash yesterday: Michael Schmidt on Comey’s uncomfortable relations with Trump.

President Trump called the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation, according to two people briefed on the call.

Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau’s investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquiries to the Justice Department, according to those people.

It’s Trump, so it’s not a surprise, but it is. How can he be dumb enough to think that if he were under investigation by the FBI it would work to keep pestering the head of the FBI to shut that whole thing down? How can he not have realized that the head of the FBI is the last person to pester to do anything about that?

But maybe other people can pester the FBI director on Trump’s behalf?

The day after the Flynn conversation, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, asked Mr. Comey to help push back on reports in the news media that Mr. Trump’s associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign.

Oh dear god. No. Why would they think Comey would help them with their PR at all, let alone in that situation?

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said in a statement on Thursday that “the sworn testimony” of both Mr. Comey and Andrew G. McCabe, the F.B.I.’s acting director, “make clear that there was never any attempt to interfere in this investigation. As the president previously stated, he respects the ongoing investigations and will continue working to fulfill his promises to the American people.”

Well that’s an enormous lie.

The F.B.I.’s longest-serving director, J. Edgar Hoover, had close relationships with several presidents. But in the modern F.B.I., directors have sought an arm’s length relationship with the presidents they serve and have followed Justice Department guidelines outlining how the White House should have limited contact with the F.B.I.

Those guidelines, which also cover the F.B.I., prohibit conversations with the White House about active criminal investigations unless they are “important for the performance of the president’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.” When such conversations are necessary, only the attorney general or the deputy attorney general can initiate those discussions.

But reality tv stars don’t know anything about guidelines and wouldn’t care if they did. They’re amateurs, intent on 1. enriching themselves and 2. trashing the joint.

Mr. Comey has spoken privately of his concerns that the contacts from Mr. Trump and his aides were inappropriate, and how he felt compelled to resist them.

“He had to throw some brushback pitches to the administration,” Benjamin Wittes, a friend of Mr. Comey’s, said in interviews.

Mr. Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the editor in chief of the Lawfare blog and a frequent critic of Mr. Trump, recalls a lunch he had with Mr. Comey in March at which Mr. Comey told him he had spent the first two months of Mr. Trump’s administration trying to preserve distance between the F.B.I. and the White House and educating it on the proper way to interact with the bureau.

Mr. Wittes said he never intended to publicly discuss his conversations with Mr. Comey. But after The New York Times reported earlier this month that shortly after his inauguration Mr. Trump asked Mr. Comey for a loyalty pledge, Mr. Wittes said he saw Mr. Trump’s behavior in a “more menacing light” and decided to speak out.

So let’s read the post Wittes wrote last night, after the Times story appeared, since the rest of the article is based on Schmidt’s interview with Wittes. The post is riveting.

A few words of elaboration are in order.

I called Schmidt Friday morning after reading his earlier story, which ran the previous evening, about Comey’s dinner with President Trump and the President’s demands at that dinner for a vow of loyalty. Schmidt had reported that Trump requested that Comey commit to personal loyalty to the President, and that Comey declined, telling the President that he would always have Comey’s “honesty.” When I read Schmidt’s account, I immediately understood certain things Comey had said to me over the previous few months in a different, and frankly more menacing, light. While I am not in the habit of discussing with reporters my confidential communications with friends, I decided that the things Comey had told me needed to be made public.

I think he’s right about that. They are of public interest, to put it mildly, plus there’s Trump’s bullshit about “leaks.”

I did this interview on the record because the President that morning was already issuing threatening tweets suggesting that Comey was leaking things, and I didn’t want any room for misunderstanding that any kind of leak had taken place with respect to the information I was providing. There was no leak from Comey, no leak from anyone else at the FBI, and no leak from anyone outside of the bureau either—just conversations between friends, the contents of which one friend is now disclosing.

Comey was preoccupied throughout this period with the need to protect the FBI from these inquiries on investigative matters from the White House. Two incidents involving such inquiries have become public: the Flynn discussion and Reince Priebus’s query to Andrew McCabe about whether the then-Deputy FBI Director could publicly dispute the New York Timesreporting regarding communications between Trump associates and Russian officials. Whether there were other such incidents I do not know, but I suspect there were. What I do know is that Comey spent a great deal of energy doing what he alternately described as “training” the White House that officials had to go through the Justice Department and “reestablishing” normal hands-off White House-Bureau relations.

Teaching the clueless tv star and his hacks how to do their jobs, in short. Imagine how trying that would be to someone who has other things to do.

Comey understood Trump’s people as having neither knowledge of nor respect for the independence of the law enforcement function. And he saw it as an ongoing task on his part to protect the rest of the Bureau from improper contacts and interferences from a group of people he did not regard as honorable. This was a general preoccupation of Comey’s in the months he and Trump overlapped—and the difference between this relationship and his regard for Obama (which was deep) was profound and palpable.

See all three are people who give a damn about the law, while Trump and Co are the opposite of that.

That’s one of the things I hate most about Trump and people like him – this refusal to respect knowledge and expertise no matter how significant and valuable it may be. I hate this cynical, frivolous, contemptuous indifference in people who know nothing but how to Market.

Second, Comey described at least two incidents which he regarded as efforts on the part of the President personally to compromise him or implicate him with either shows of closeness or actual chumminess with the President.

The first incident he told me about was the infamous “hug” from Trump after the inauguration

Which despite its infamy I didn’t know about. I’ve seen the clip of the final few seconds many times lately, but I didn’t know it was the end of any infamous hug. The story is fascinating.

The hug took place at a White House meeting to which Trump had invited law enforcement leadership to thank them for their role in the inauguration. Comey described really not wanting to go to that meeting, for the same reason he later did not want to go to the private dinner with Trump: the FBI director should be always at arm’s length from the President, in his view. There was an additional sensitivity here too, because many Democrats blamed Comey for Trump’s election, so he didn’t want any shows of closeness between the two that might reinforce a perception that he had put a thumb on the scale in Trump’s favor. But he also felt that he could not refuse a presidential invitation, particularly not one that went to a broad array of law enforcement leadership. So he went. But as he told me the story, he tried hard to blend into the background and avoid any one-on-one interaction. He was wearing a blue blazer and noticed that the drapes were blue. So he stood in the back, right in front of the drapes, hoping Trump wouldn’t notice him camouflaged against the wall. If you look at the video, Comey is standing about as far from Trump as it is physically possible to be in that room.

And for a long time, he reported, Trump didn’t seem to notice him. The meeting was nearly over, he said, and he really thought he was going to get away without an individual interaction. But when you’re six foot, eight inches tall, it’s hard to blend in forever, and Trump ultimately singled him out—and did so with the most damning faint praise possible: “Oh, and there’s Jim. He’s become more famous than me!”

Comey took the long walk across the room determined, he told me, that there was not going to be a hug. Bad enough that he was there; bad enough that there would be a handshake; he emphatically did not want any show of warmth.

Again, look at the video, and you’ll see Comey preemptively reaching out to shake hands. Trump grabs his hand and attempts an embrace. The embrace, however, is entirely one sided.

Comey was disgusted. He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him.

The loyalty dinner was five days after that.

Comey never told me the details of the dinner meeting; I don’t think I even knew that there had been a meeting over dinner until I learned it from the Times story. But he did tell me in general terms that early on, Trump had “asked for loyalty” and that Comey had promised him only honesty. He also told me that Trump was perceptibly uncomfortable with this answer. And he said that ever since, the President had been trying to be chummy in a fashion that Comey felt was designed to absorb him into Trump’s world—to make him part of the team. Comey was deeply uncomfortable with these episodes. He told me that Trump sometimes talked to him [in] a fashion designed to implicate him in Trump’s way of thinking. While I was not sure quite what this meant, it clearly disquieted Comey. He felt that these conversations were efforts to probe how resistant he would be to becoming a loyalist. In light of the dramatic dinner meeting and the Flynn request, it’s easy to see why they would be upsetting and feel like attempts at pressure.

I have a guess at what he meant by “in a fashion designed to implicate him in Trump’s way of thinking.” It’s what Trump does to all of us, in a way, but no doubt more so: he talks as if we all share his assumptions, no matter how crass and disgusting they are. My guess is that he says revolting things that Comey won’t feel he can dispute or rebuke, and that’s designed to implicate him in Trump’s way of thinking. We all feel slightly dirtier after watching Trump talk, I think?

There’s another story about Trump’s calling Comey up just to chat – as if they were chat-bros.

What bothered Comey was twofold—the fact that the conversation happened at all (why was Trump calling him to exchange pleasantries?) and the fact that there was an undercurrent of Trump’s trying to get him to kiss the ring.

Or maybe just to buy an overpriced condo in Boca del Vista.

He said one other thing that day that, in retrospect, stands out in my memory: he expressed wariness about the then-still-unconfirmed deputy attorney general nominee, Rod Rosenstein. This surprised me because I had always thought well of Rosenstein and had mentioned his impending confirmation as a good thing. But Comey did not seem enthusiastic. The DOJ does need Senate-confirmed leadership, he agreed, noting that Dana Boente had done a fine job as acting deputy but that having confirmed people to make important decisions was critical. And he agreed with me that Rosenstein had a good reputation as a solid career guy.

That said, his reservations were palpable. “Rod is a survivor,” he said. And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises. “So I have concerns.”

In retrospect, I think I know what Comey must have been thinking at that moment. He had been asked to pledge loyalty by Trump. When he had declined, and even before, he had seen repeated efforts to—from his point of view—undermine his independence and probe the FBI’s defenses against political interference. He had been asked to drop an investigation. He had spent the last few months working to defend the normative lines that protect the FBI from the White House. And he had felt the need personally to make clear to the President that there were questions he couldn’t ask about investigative matters. So he was asking himself, I suspect: What loyalty oath had Rosenstein been asked to swear, and what happened at whatever dinner that request took place?

And under all this…there’s the fact that Comey himself may be the reason Trump is president.

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