The 11 must-read moments from James Comey's private memos

Minutes after they were sent to Congress, former FBI Director James Comey's private memos on his interactions with Pr...

Posted: Apr 20, 2018 4:30 PM
Updated: Apr 20, 2018 4:30 PM

Minutes after they were sent to Congress, former FBI Director James Comey's private memos on his interactions with President Donald Trump leaked.

Capitol Hill's leakiness is our gain as the 15 pages of memos -- penned by Comey in the days leading up to and covering the early months of Trump's presidency -- paint a vivid picture of a chief executive flouting long-established norms of conduct, fixated on the ongoing Russia investigation and absolutely desperate to secure loyalty from Comey -- and everyone else. (It goes without saying -- though I am saying it -- that Comey's memos represent one side of what is a "he said/he said" story.)

I went through the memos and pulled out the 11 key passages that you absolutely shouldn't miss. (You can read the full memos here.)

1. "He said you saved her and then they hated you for what you did later, but what choice did you have? He said he thought very highly of me and looked forward to working with me, saying he hoped I planned to stay on."

This comes from the January 2017 meeting between Comey and Trump -- less than two weeks before his inauguration. It's worth noting that, at least in Comey's telling, Trump didn't always think he was a "liar" and a "leaker." The Trump portrayed here by Comey is solicitous and complimentary.

2. "He then started talking about all the women who had falsely accused him of grabbing our touching them (with particular mention of a "stripper" who said he grabbed her) and gave me the sense he was defending himself to me."

This is that same meeting -- January 2017 -- and comes just after Comey has briefed Trump on the Russian prostitution allegation. The transition from those allegations -- which Trump vehemently denies -- to a recitation of why he is innocent of all the other allegations against him is telling. Trump quite clearly feels as though he needs to prove himself to Comey, to show the director that he's not that kind of guy.

3. "The conversation, which was pleasant at all times, was chaotic, with topics touched, left, then returned to later, making it very difficult to recount in a linear fashion.....It really was conversation-as-jigsaw-puzzle in a way, with pieces picked up, then discarded, then returned to."

No observation anywhere in these memos rings truer of Trump than this one, which comes from the one-on-one dinner the two men at the White House eight days after Trump had been sworn in.

Watch any Trump press conference or speech and you are immediately struck by the massively haphazard nature of it. Trump can jump -- as he did earlier this week -- from his Electoral College win to the situation in North Korea without blinking an eye. To his supporters, it shows an able mind unbound by needing to stay "on message." To his critics it shows someone incapable of focusing on much of anything for any extended period of time.

Comey's recounting of the logical hops in the conversation -- from Trump's inaugural crowd size to the nastiness of the 2016 campaign to how tall his son, Barron, was is perhaps the most powerful moment in the memos. It captures Trump's approach and mindset perfectly.

4. "I said I don't do sneaky things. I don't leak. I don't do weasel moves."

Comey critics will fixate on these lines because we know that he leaked parts of these memos after he was fired in an attempt to have a special prosecutor appointed to examine whether -- among other things -- Trump was secretly taping conversations in the White House. By Comey's own standard -- as laid out above -- his purposeful leak was 'weasel move."

Trump has used Comey's willingness to leak parts of these memos as disqualifying for the broader account that Comey provides. It isn't that. But it does suggest that Comey wound up not being exactly who he presented himself to be with the President in that January 2017 dinner.

5. "At this point he asked me (and asked again later) whether 'your guy McCabe' has a problem with me, explaining that "I was pretty rough on him and his wife during the campaign."

This is one of at least three times in the memos that Trump brings up deputy FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe unprompted with Comey. Why? It's clear Trump is very worried that McCabe may have a vendetta against him because Trump repeatedly attacked McCabe's wife for running for the Virginia state Senate as a Democrat -- and accepting a large donation from then Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

That Trump is fixated on this fact -- and that he never really takes Comey's assertion that McCabe is a pro's pro and he has nothing to worry about to heart -- speaks to how he views the world: As a constant battle for control and power with vendettas being held and acted upon at all times.

6. "He then returned to loyalty, saying "I need loyalty." I replied that he would always get honesty from me. He paused and said that's what he wants "honest loyalty."

This back-and-forth sits at the root of so much that happened later -- including Comey's firing in May. Trump asks for "loyalty". Comey promises "honesty." Trump, ever the deal maker, tries "honest loyalty."

Comey writes at the time of the very real possibility that the two men are simply not understanding one another or that their understandings of what happened in that moment differ. What's clear -- from Comey's later memos -- is that Trump seizes on this exchange as a sort of handshake agreement that Comey will always be loyal. Comey, of course, believes he did no such thing.

7. "He then went on to explain that he has serious reservations about Mike Flynn's judgment....the President pointed his fingers at his head and said 'the guy has serious judgment issues.'"

Reminder: This comment by Trump comes just eight days after he has become President! Which means that he harbored doubts about Flynn long before January 20, 2017. And yet he still chose Flynn as a his national security adviser. Which is curious except when you remember that dogged loyalty is by far the most important thing to Trump. And there was no one more loyal to Trump in the campaign than Flynn.

8. "He then asked, 'Do you have a FISA order on Mike Flynn?' I paused for a few seconds and then said that I would answer here, but that this illustrated the kind of question that had to be asked and answered through established channels."

This exchange, between Comey and Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus in early February 2017, speaks volumes about both men. Priebus, a former Republican National Committee chairman, clearly has no idea of the proper bounds of how a White House communicates with the Justice Department about ongoing investigations. It also tells us that Priebus, like Trump, had an inkling that all was not well with Flynn from a very early date.

For Comey, his willingness to answer Priebus' question even while scolding the chief about how he shouldn't ask that sort of stuff is a pattern that played out throughout his interactions with the President and his administration. On any number of occasions, Comey could have told the President (or Priebus) "no" or made clear that his silence should be treated in no way, shape or form as assent. But, he didn't do hat. Not ever.

9. "The president said "the hookers thing" is nonsense but that Putin had told him "we have some of those most beautiful hookers in the world." (He did not say when Putin had told him this.)"

Uh, what? When did the Russian president pass along this key bit of information to Trump? Was it in one of the formal calls the two men exchanged post-election? Presumably it had to be because the day before his meeting with Comey, Trump said on Twitter, "I don't know Putin..." Regardless, that's sort of a weird thing for Trump to just bring up, no? (Nota bene: This back-and-forth occurred after Comey's meeting with Priebus in February; the chief of staff brought Comey by the Oval Office to chat with Trump.) Separately, and it's not clear if this is related, Trump's former bodyguard privately told the House Intelligence Committee that he nixed an offer by "a Russian" to send five women to then-Private citizen Trump's hotel room in Moscow in 2013. Keith Schiller said he made sure it didn't happen. And we don't know who the "Russian" is.

10. "He replied that we need to go after the reporters, and referred to the fact that 10 or 15 years ago we put them in jail to find out what they know, and it worked."

The context of this line from a February 14 meeting is that Trump is upset by the leaks of his less-than-great phone calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico. Comey is not a fan of leakers either and the two men find some common ground on it. It is somewhat chilling to hear that sentiment expressed by the President of the United States.

Then there is the fact that the case to which Trump appears to be referring is the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for the stories she wrote off of the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Know who was one of the people convicted in that leak investigation? None other than Scooter Libby, who Trump pardoned earlier this month!

11. "He said he was following up to see if I did what he had asked last time -- getting out that he personally is not under investigation....He then added 'Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.' I did not reply, or ask him what he meant by 'that thing.'"

What isn't said in this April 2017 phone call matters more than what is. Trump is obviously trying to dine out on the January dinner he and Comey had in which Trump asks for loyalty and Comey promises him honesty. Trump is forcing the matter, trying to take Comey's silence back then as a clear indicator that he would do what the President asked when he asked it -- including "getting out there" that Trump wasn't under investigation.

Comey, again -- as he did in that January dinner -- chooses to stay silent rather than correct the President. Imagine how things might have been different if the FBI director ad said in this moment: "Mr. President, I pledged honesty, not loyalty. And that's all I can or will do"? It's possible Trump might have fired him sooner, sure, (the ax fell on Comey less than a month later) but the ambiguity that governed so much of the relationship between the two men would have been very different.

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