Former FBI director James Comey kicked off his book tour yesterday with a prime-time interview on ABC with George Stephanopoulos that ran two hours. Most of the highlights had either already been leaked by ABC or pre-empted by pre-release excerpts from A Higher Loyalty, but it contained a few surprises — and not all of those positive for Comey, either.
One surprise was in Comey’s warning about impeachment, even after calling Donald Trump “morally unfit to be president.” American voters made their choice, Comey told Stephanopoulos, and it should be left to the American voters to clean up the mess:
James Comey: Trump shouldn't be impeached. He should be voted out. pic.twitter.com/xooLsROoNL
— Axios (@axios) April 16, 2018
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If you are right, what is the remedy? Should Donald Trump be impeached?
JAMES COMEY: Impeachment is– is a question of law and fact and politics. And so that’ll be determined by people gather–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’re a citizen. You have a judgment.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I’ll tell you, I’ll give you a strange answer. I hope not because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.
We’ll fight about guns. We’ll fight about taxes. We’ll fight about all those other things down the road. But you cannot have, as president of the United States, someone who does not reflect the values that I believe Republicans treasure and Democrats treasure and Independents treasure. That is the core of this country. That’s our foundation. And so impeachment, in a way, would short circuit that.
That doesn’t exactly make Comey a Trump defender. He later argued, toward the end of the interview, that ideas floated a while back to remove Trump as mentally unfit went far wide of the mark. Trump’s mental fitness is fine, Comey tells Stephanopoulos, but it’s his “moral fitness” that’s the problem:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You write that President Trump is unethical, untethered to the truth. Is Donald Trump unfit to be president?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. But not in the way m– I often hear people talk about it. I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia. He strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president. I think he’s morally unfit to be president.
A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds. And that’s not a policy statement. Again, I don’t care what your views are on guns or immigration or taxes.
There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.
Interestingly, Stephanopoulos doesn’t ask Comey to comment on Hillary Clinton’s moral fitness for office, but perhaps we’ll save the Hillary parts of the interview for another post. Comey comes across pretty well for most of the interview, but at times undermined his gravitas with observations better left for late-night comics. When Stephanopoulos asks him about meeting Trump for the first time, Comey joins the 4-H Club — hair, height, hue, and hands:
JAMES COMEY: My impression was he looked exactly like he did on television, except he looked shorter to me than he did on television, but otherwise exactly the same. And the reason I say that is most people look slightly different in person. I don’t know whether that’s bad or good, but he looked the way I’d seen him look on television.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Which was?
JAMES COMEY: He had– impressively coifed hair, it looks to be all his. I confess, I stared at it pretty closely and my reaction was, “It most take a heck of a lot of time in the morning, but it’s impressively coifed.” He looked– his tie was too long, as it always is. He looked slightly orange up close with small white—half moons under his eyes, which I assume are from tanning googles. And otherwise looked as I had expected him to look from tele– as I thought he looked on television.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You even clocked the size of his hands?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. I– I say that in my book ’cause I’m trying to be honest, ’cause that’s the truth there had been all this controversy and mocking about hand size, I can’t remember the details. But as I shook his hand I made a note to check the size and it seemed like he had average-sized hands.
The Hill’s Niall Stanage was unimpressed with those choices, although Stanage believes the overall effect of Comey’s interview will be a wash:
Given how Comey holds himself out as a paragon of ethical leadership — his book is titled “A Higher Loyalty” — it seemed incongruous to hear him mock Trump’s hairstyle and facial coloring.
Comey repeated the detail, included in the book, that he assumes Trump has small white circles beneath his eyes because of the use of tanning goggles. Of the famous Trump hairstyle, he told Stephanopoulos that “it looks to be all his” and added wryly that “it must take a heck of a lot of time in the morning.” …
Comey’s assertion that it is “possible” that Trump is compromised by Russia will also likely draw some hot comment in the next 24 hours.
He provided no specific evidence to back up that claim. Critics will contend that a former FBI director should not make such an incendiary charge without providing his basis for doing so.
And critics would be correct to do so, but both sides have made this personal for almost a year. Firing Comey was probably a mistake in the first place, and the president made Comey into a personal punching bag long before this. It’s a little unfair not to note that context when criticizing Comey’s public pushback, but Stanage is correct that this is a little “incongruous” to have someone lecturing on higher ethics while making cracks about orange skin and hand size.
Having read through the transcript and watched some of the reaction, the interview leaves the same impression that Comey’s book transcripts have. He has an interesting perspective on events, and the animus between Trump and Comey will make the latter a very popular figure on the talk-show tour. (Comey will be on Jake Tapper’s show live on Thursday afternoon, rather than in a pretape, by the way.) Nothing in this interview changes much politically for Trump, and may not for Comey either. It certainly won’t change anyone’s minds on impeachment, on either side of the aisle.