James Comey’s memoir: Trump fixates on proving lewd dossier allegations false
5 takeaways from James Comey’s new book
Former FBI director James B. Comey details his conversations with President Trump in his new book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)
The nation’s intelligence chiefs had just finished briefing Donald Trump on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election when FBI Director James B. Comey stayed behind to discuss some especially sensitive material: a “widely circulated” intelligence dossier containing unconfirmed allegations that Russians had filmed Trump interacting with prostitutes in Moscow in 2013.
The president-elect quickly interrupted the FBI director. According to Comey’s account in a new memoir, Trump “strongly denied the allegations, asking — rhetorically, I assumed — whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorized their allegations.”
The January 2017 conversation at Trump Tower in Manhattan “teetered toward disaster” — until “I pulled the tool from my bag: ‘We are not investigating you, sir.’ That seemed to quiet him,” Comey writes.
Trump did not stay quiet for long. Comey describes Trump as having been obsessed with the portion dealing with prostitutes in the infamous dossier compiled by British former intelligence officer Christopher Steele, raising it at least four times with the FBI director. The document claimed that Trump had watched the prostitutes urinate on themselves in the same Moscow suite that President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama had stayed in “as a way of soiling the bed,” Comey writes.
Comey writes that Trump asked him to have the FBI investigate the allegations to prove they were not true, and offered varying explanations to convince him why. “I’m a germaphobe,” Trump told him in a follow-up call on Jan. 11, 2017, according to Comey’s account. “There’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me. No way.” Later, the president asked what could be done to “lift the cloud” because it was so painful for first lady Melania Trump.
Then, on May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey, leading to the Justice Department special counsel’s Russia investigation.
The discussions about the Steele dossier — which Comey recounts for the first time in his book — are among a number of explosive revelations in “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” a 304-page tell-all in which the former FBI director details his private interactions with Trump as well as his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
The Washington Post obtained a copy of the book before its scheduled release on Tuesday.
In his memoir, Comey paints a devastating portrait of a president who built “a cocoon of alternative reality that he was busily wrapping around all of us.” Comey describes Trump as a congenital liar and unethical leader, devoid of human emotion and driven by personal ego.
FBI Director James B. Comey appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3, 2017. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Comey narrates in vivid detail, based on his contemporaneous notes, instances in which Trump violated the norms protecting the FBI’s independence in attempts to coerce Comey into being loyal to him — such as during a one-on-one dinner in the White House residence.
Interacting with Trump, Comey writes, gave him “flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
The result, in Comey’s telling, is “the forest fire that is the Trump presidency.”
“What is happening now is not normal,” he writes. “It is not fake news. It is not okay.”
‘Surviving a bully’
Comey describes a Feb. 14, 2017, meeting in the Oval Office where Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to clear the room so he could bring up the FBI investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn directly with Comey — a key event in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of whether Trump sought to obstruct justice.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to Comey’s account of the meeting, some of which he first shared in Senate testimony last year. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey writes that he regrets not interrupting Trump to explain that his plea was wrong. He recalls later confronting Sessions, whom he describes as “both overwhelmed and overmatched by the job.”
“You can’t be kicked out of the room so he can talk to me alone,” Comey told Sessions, according to the book. “You have to be between me and the president.”
Comey also recounts new observations: “Sessions just cast his eyes down at the table, and they darted quickly back and forth, side to side. He said nothing. I read in his posture and face a message that he would not be able to help me.”
Then-FBI director James B. Comey appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3, 2017. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
A lifelong Republican until recently, Comey delivers an indirect but unmistakable rebuke of the GOP’s congressional leaders as well: “It is also wrong to stand idly by, or worse, to stay silent when you know better, while a president brazenly seeks to undermine public confidence in law enforcement institutions that were established to keep our leaders in check.”
Comey stops short of outlining a legal case against the president, explaining that because he does not know all the evidence he cannot determine whether Trump intended to obstruct justice by firing him and by asking him to back off the FBI’s investigation of Flynn.
“I have one perspective on the behavior I saw, which while disturbing and violating basic norms of ethical leadership, may fall short of being illegal,” he writes.
Still, the book is an indictment of Trump’s presidency as well as of his character. Each chapter can be interpreted as an elaborate trolling of Trump, starting with the title, “A Higher Loyalty,” a subtle reference to the loyalty pledge that Trump sought and did not receive from Comey.
Comey describes being bullied as a child growing up in Allendale, N.J. — taunted, body slammed into lockers and given “wedgies.” Bullies, he writes, “threaten the weak to feed some insecurity that rages inside them. . . . Surviving a bully requires constant learning and adaptation. Which is why bullies are so powerful, because it’s so much easier to be a follower, to go with the crowd, to just blend in.”
Comey also ruminates on the psychology of liars in an apparent nod to the current occupant of the Oval Office.
“They lose the ability to distinguish between what’s true and what’s not,” Comey writes. “They surround themselves with other liars. . . . Perks and access are given to those willing to lie and tolerate lies. This creates a culture, which becomes an entire way of life.”
‘Trying to do the right thing’
Comey defends his handling of the Clinton email investigation, and for the first time details a private assurance he received from Obama following Clinton’s defeat. Many Democrats blame Comey for announcing less than two weeks before the election that the FBI was examining a new trove of Clinton emails for possible classified material.
Comey writes that Obama sat alone with him in the Oval Office in late November and told him, “I picked you to be FBI director because of your integrity and your ability. I want you to know that nothing — nothing — has happened in the last year to change my view.”
On the verge of tears, Comey told Obama, “Boy, were those words I needed to hear. . . . I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
“I know,” Obama said. “I know.”
Comey also writes that in a post-election briefing for senators, then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) confronted him about “what you did to Hillary Clinton.” Comey responded, “I did my best with the facts before me.” A teary-eyed Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) grabbed him by the hand afterward and said, “I know you. You were in an impossible position,” Comey writes.
Clinton wrote in her campaign memoir, “What Happened,” that she felt “shivved” by Comey. Two days before the election, Comey announced that the FBI had reviewed the new emails and found nothing to change its view that Clinton should not be prosecuted. But in Clinton’s assessment, the damage already had been done.
Comey, who says his wife and daughters voted for Clinton, includes a message in his book to the would-be first female president: “I have read she has felt anger toward me personally, and I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do a better job explaining to her and her supporters why I made the decisions I made.”
Comey is critical of then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, saying she had a “tortured half-out, half-in approach” to the Clinton investigation and that he considered calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
One day shortly before the election, Lynch and Comey met privately. Comey writes that the attorney general wrapped her arms around him and implied that she thought he had done the right thing.
But as their meeting ended, Comey writes, “She said, with just the slightest hint of a smile, ‘Try to look beat up.’ She had told somebody she was going to chew me out for what I had done. What a world.”
‘I need loyalty’
The first time Comey met Trump was at the pre-inauguration intelligence briefing. Comey, who is 6 feet 8 inches tall, writes that the 6-foot-3 president-elect looked shorter than he did on television. “His face appeared slightly orange,” Comey writes, “with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his.”
“As he extended his hand,” Comey adds, “I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.”
Trump was accompanied at the Trump Tower session by his national security team, as well as by political aides Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, who were slated to become White House chief of staff and press secretary, respectively. Trump asked only one question, Comey writes: “You found there was no impact on the result, right?”
James R. Clapper Jr., then the director of national intelligence, replied that the intelligence community did no such analysis.
Comey recalls being struck that neither Trump nor his advisers asked about the future Russian threat, nor how the United States might prepare to meet it. Rather, he writes, they focused on “how they could spin what we’d just told them.”
With Clapper and then-CIA Director John O. Brennan — both Obama appointees — still in the room, Priebus and other Trump aides strategized for political advantage, Comey writes. The Trump team decided they would emphasize that Russian interference had no impact on the vote — which, Clapper reminded them, the intelligence community had not determined.
When the meeting ended, Comey stayed behind with Trump to discuss the salacious dossier. The day before, as Clapper and Comey briefed Obama about Russian interference, the president asked who planned to tell Trump about the Moscow prostitute allegations. Clapper replied that Comey would.
Obama “turned his head to his left and looked directly at me,” Comey recalls. “He raised and lowered both of his eyebrows with emphasis, and then looked away. . . . To my mind his Groucho Marx eyebrow raise was both subtle humor and an expression of concern. It was almost as if he were saying, ‘Good luck with that.’ ”
A week after the Trump Tower meeting, on Jan. 11, Comey writes that Trump called him and said he was concerned about the dossier being made public and was fixated on the prostitutes allegation. The president-elect argued that it could not be true because he had not stayed overnight in Moscow but had only used the hotel room to change his clothes. And after Trump explained that he would never allow people to urinate near him, Comey recalls laughing.
“I decided not to tell him that the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants,” Comey writes. “In fact, though I didn’t know for sure, I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity.”
After one week as president, Trump invited Comey to dinner. Comey describes the scene on Jan. 27: The table in the Green Room was set for two. The president marveled at the fancy handwriting on the four-course menu placards and seemed unaware of the term “calligrapher.” White House stewards served salad, shrimp scampi, chicken Parmesan with pasta, and vanilla ice cream.
Comey writes that he believed Trump was trying “to establish a patronage relationship,” and that he said: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”
“I was determined not to give the president any hint of assent to this demand, so I gave silence instead,” Comey writes. “I stared at the soft white pouches under his expressionless blue eyes. I remember thinking in that moment that the president doesn’t understand the FBI’s role in American life.”
Trump broke the standoff by turning to other topics, Comey writes, speaking in torrents, “like an oral jigsaw puzzle,” about the size of his inauguration crowd, his free media coverage and the viciousness of the campaign. He talked about the Clinton email investigation as in three phases, as if it were a television series: “Comey One,” “Comey Two” and “Comey Three.” Trump also tried to convince Comey that he had not mocked disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski at a campaign rally, and then turned to the detailed allegations of sexual assault against him.
“There was no way he groped that lady sitting next to him on the airplane, he insisted,” Comey writes. “And the idea that he grabbed a porn star and offered her money to come to his room was preposterous.”
And then Trump brought up “the golden showers thing,” Comey writes. The president told him that “it bothered him if there was ‘even a one percent chance’ his wife, Melania, thought it was true.” Comey writes that Trump told him to consider having the FBI investigate the prostitutes allegation to “prove it was a lie.”
As the dinner concluded, Trump returned to the issue of loyalty.
“I need loyalty,” Trump tells Comey, according to the book.
“You will always get honesty from me,” Comey replies.
“That’s what I want, honest loyalty,” Trump said, reaching what Comey writes was “some sort of ‘deal’ in which we were both winners.”
‘Lift the cloud’
The two men were back together at the White House a couple weeks later. Comey had dropped by the chief of staff’s office to explain to Priebus — whom he describes as “both confused and irritated” — the appropriate way for the White House to interact with the FBI. When they finished, Priebus asked if Comey wanted to say hello to Trump — an ironic gesture, Comey recalls, considering he was just explaining the importance of the bureau’s independence.
Comey demurred, but Priebus insisted and brought him to the Oval Office, where Trump was stationed behind the Resolute Desk. The president, Comey recalls, “launched into one of his rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness monologues” — this time about a recent Super Bowl interview with then-Fox News Channel personality Bill O’Reilly in which Trump complimented Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“But he’s a killer,” O’Reilly told Trump.
The president’s reply: “There are a ton of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
Trump fumed to Comey about the media criticism he received.
“I gave a good answer,” Trump said, according to Comey. “Really, it was a great answer. I gave a really great answer.”
Trump sought validation: “You think it was a great answer, right?”
Comey replied, “We aren’t the kind of killers that Putin is.”
Trump apparently did not take the correction well. Comey writes that the president’s eyes changed and his jaw tightened, and Priebus escorted him out.
The next month, Trump called Comey to complain about the Russia investigation as a “cloud” that was impairing his presidency and, again, brought up the Moscow prostitutes allegation.
“For about the fourth time, he argued that the golden showers thing wasn’t true, asking yet again, ‘Can you imagine me, hookers?’ ” Comey writes of their March 30, 2017, call. “In an apparent play for my sympathy, he added that he has a beautiful wife and the whole thing has been very painful for her. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ ”
Comey recalls telling the president the FBI was investigating it as quickly as possible, and that he had told Congress that Trump was not personally under investigation, to which the president repeatedly told him, “We need to get that fact out.”
Two weeks later, on April 11, Trump called Comey again to check on his request to “get out” that he is not under investigation, Comey writes.
“He seemed irritated with me,” Comey recalls.
“I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know,” Trump told him, according to the book, apparently referring to the loyalty dinner.
That was the last time the two men spoke. On May 9, as Comey was talking with FBI employees in the Los Angeles field office, he peered at a television screen and saw a news alert: “COMEY FIRED.”
Comey describes soon receiving an “emotional call” from John F. Kelly, then the Homeland Security secretary.
“He said he was sick about my firing and that he intended to quit in protest,” Comey writes. “He said he didn’t want to work for dishonorable people who would treat someone like me in such a manner. I urged Kelly not to do that, arguing that the country needed principled people around this president. Especially this president.”
Kelly did not resign. Two and a half months later, he was named White House chief of staff.
Philip Rucker is the White House bureau chief for The Washington Post. He previously has covered Congress, the Obama White House, and the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. He joined The Post in 2005 as a local news reporter. Follow @PhilipRucker