McLEAN, Va. — In an extraordinary interview, former FBI director James Comey called Donald Trump "morally unfit to be president" and said he believed it was possible the Russians were holding compromising personal information over the head of the commander in chief.
Comey's comments and his new book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, are fueling a combustible moment in Washington that could become a constitutional crisis. At the White House, Trump has unleashed a barrage of angry tweets against Comey — calling him an "untruthful slime ball," among other insults — amid reports he was poised to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for his role in the Russia investigation that Comey once headed.
Never before in American history has a current or former director of the FBI, the nation's principal law-enforcement agency, publicly described a president in such a scathing manner.
Listen to the extended interview with James Comey in the player below.
"I actually believe he's morally unfit to be president," Comey told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview Friday at his home in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington. He called that characterization appropriate for "someone who is able to see moral equivalence in (white nationalist protests in) Charlottesville or to speak and treat women like they're pieces of meat and to lie constantly and who appears to lack an external moral framework" of religion or philosophy or history.
In an even more explosive comment, Comey said it would be less than honest to rule out the possibility that Trump had been compromised by one of the United States' primary foreign adversaries.
"It's hard to explain some things without at least leaving your mind open to that being a possibility," said Comey, who has served three presidents in senior posts. "There's a non-zero possibility that the Russians have some, some sway over him that is rooted in his personal experience, and I don't know whether that's the business about the activity in a Moscow hotel room or finances or something else."
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The "Moscow hotel room" refers to unsubstantiated allegations of a salacious 2013 tryst with prostitutes by Trump.
With the benefit of hindsight, the former FBI director said, he may have made a "mistake" in assuring the president-elect at their first meeting, two weeks before the inauguration, that he was not being investigated. "It caused all kinds of issues," he said.
Comey said he gave the assurance to take Trump's "temperature down" after briefing him on the alleged encounter with prostitutes, material that was contained in a so-called dossier prepared by a former British intelligence agent.
"It might have been a mistake," he said. "It led the president to want to get that fact out (publicly), which I was resisting." But he said the consequences of taking a different course were impossible to know. "The problem is that I can't live the other imagined life."
Trump has dismissed the dossier as a fabrication designed to damage him. Comey said that while he didn't know how much of the document remains unverified, its "central premise" that Russia sought to interfere with the 2016 election was "corroborated and consistent with utterly independent intelligence."
Comey didn't claim to have hard evidence that Trump had been compromised by Moscow, describing the prospect as possible but not likely. His suspicions had been raised by Trump's reluctance to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, even for Moscow's aggressive efforts to meddle in the American election. Trump's attitude in private conversations was even more perplexing, he said.
"At least in my experience, he won't criticize Vladimir Putin even in private," he said. "I can understand why a president...might not want to criticize publicly another leader" in the interests of forging a good relationship. "But privately? Sitting with the person in charge of countering the Russian threat in the United States? Privately not being willing to do that? That always struck me."
The suggestion that a president had been compromised by a foreign power "are words I never thought would come out of my mouth," he added.
A SURPRISE FIRING
Comey's blockbuster book and his comments could create complications for special counsel Robert Mueller, who is pursuing the Russia investigation the FBI director once led.
When Trump unceremoniously fired Comey — to his surprise, he said — Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia inquiry and Rosenstein then appointed Mueller to take it over. Since then, Mueller's investigation has been the source of open frustration for the president, who repeatedly has denounced the idea of collusion with Russia by his campaign as outrageous and politically motivated "fake news."
Now Comey's book, topping best-seller lists even before the official publication date on Tuesday, has triggered fresh attacks from Trump and probably will bring new attention from Mueller as well. Comey already has been interviewed by Mueller and turned over personal memos and other documents to him.
Comey said that he did not seek Mueller's approval for the book and did not provide the special counsel with a draft of its contents before it was published by Flatiron. The FBI did review the book before it was published to exclude references to classified information, but the former director said "very little" was removed.
All the furor he has sparked since early copies of the book leaked Thursday was nowhere apparent in the living room of Comey's home, which sits on a quiet cul-de-sac in a leafy suburb. A squirrel scampered across the railing of the back deck, which has a view of a bluff of trees showing the first signs of spring. During an hour-long interview, only the second he had given, Comey, 57, was relaxed in shirt-sleeves — and braced for the onslaught he knew was ahead.
"I think it's 'lyin' with no 'g,'" he said with a small laugh, referring to a website, www.lyincomey.com, sponsored by the Republican National Committee and devoted to attacking his credibility. Many of the derogatory comments it features are from Democrats who have blasted Comey's disclosures about an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. Clinton herself wrote that she felt "shivved" by him, saying his last-minute announcement that the inquiry had been reopened cost her momentum and perhaps the White House itself.
In his book, Comey, who has a reputation for self-righteousness, didn't apologize for the decisions he made in the Clinton case or, really, anything else. When he faced a quandary over whether to announce days before the election that the email investigation had been reopened, he described his options as "really bad" on one hand and "catastrophic" on the other. He said he picked the "really bad" choice, to reveal.
"I even hope that Hillary Clinton at least reads those parts of the book, because I think she will walk away saying, 'You know what? I still think that guy is an idiot, but, you know, he's kind of an honest idiot," he said. "He's trying to do the right thing here.'" (Interviews with Hillary Clinton when her post-campaign book was published, including one in USA TODAY, makes it seem unlikely she will come around to that view.)
In a cryptic passage, Comey wrote that his decisions had been affected by classified information, not yet made public, that could be used to cast "serious doubt" on the independence of then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch toward the Clinton investigation. He refused to answer questions about the nature of that material.
In the USA TODAY interview, the former director addressed allegations that two FBI officials assigned to the case may have compromised the investigation by exchanging disparaging text messages about Trump. "I had no idea," Comey said of the actions by Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. "It really bugs me. I think it's terrible judgment."
Since the disclosure of the text messages in December, House Republicans have seized on them as evidence that Clinton inquiry was politically tainted.
"It doesn't change my view of the case, but the FBI is a public-trust organization," Comey said. "That they are bad-mouthing candidates using FBI (phones) is terrible."
The disappointment over Clinton's defeat struck close to home, he said: His wife and daughters cast their ballots for the Democratic nominee. "She very much wanted a woman president; she very much wanted Hillary Clinton to be the first woman president," he said of his wife, Patrice. That said, "I don't think they blamed me. They blamed circumstance."
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'A BLARING ALARM'
The biggest headlines from Comey's re-emergence into the public spotlight aren't about the candidate who lost in 2016. They are about the candidate who won, and they come as associates say Trump is weighing whether to fire Rosenstein or Mueller.
"It would be an attack on the rule of law that we have not seen in our lifetime," Comey said. He called it "a wake-up call, a blaring alarm for everybody, regardless of your political affiliation, that that is something the American people and their representatives should care deeply about, because that is an attack on who we are."
He declined to say whether another firing would cross a "red line" for impeachment. While he said he saw evidence of obstruction of justice in Trump's treatment of him, he said he didn't know if it reached the threshold of a criminal violation. And he wouldn't engage when asked whether the Russia investigation, while he was running it, had found evidence of collusion by Trump's team with Moscow.
Firing either Rosenstein or Mueller wouldn't end the the investigation that has so vexed the president, he said. "In a way, he'd have to fire everyone in the FBI and the Justice Department because of the nature of those organizations. There are no indispensable people. Firing me did not change the nature of the FBI. Those folks will pursue the truth."
In the most provocative imagery in his 290-page book, Comey likens Trump to one of the Mafia bosses he had pursued as a young prosecutor.
"The comparison to the leadership of a Cosa Nostra family, a Mafia family, actually started to hit me right away," at his first meeting with the president-elect. "And I thought it was so dramatic that I thought, 'That can't be so — push it away, push it away, push it away' — and it kept coming back." The parallels weren't that he suspected Trump of violent crimes; it was a reference to his style of leadership and demands for personal loyalty, from the FBI director and others.
James Comey speaks out about his book, 'A Higher Loyalty'
"It's all focused on the boss," Comey said. "What is done in this family must serve the boss. And you are judged entirely by your fealty, your loyalty to that boss, and we will do anything, say anything in service to the boss and the family."
That same pressure, Comey said, is now being applied to the top Justice officials who played a role in his firing last year. They include Rosenstein, who wrote a critical memorandum Trump cited when he fired the FBI director.
Nevertheless, Comey said that he has been encouraged in recent weeks by Rosenstein's conduct in the face of Trump's fierce criticism of the Mueller investigation and the Justice Department. "What I've seen him do, which is to stand up for the rule of law and the Justice Department and the need for independent law enforcement to resist the president...has been really good, really important," he said.
Asked what advice would give Rosenstein if Trump does fire him — having faced precisely that situation himself — Comey demurred. But for Americans in general and Republican congressional leaders in particular, he said, that would be a moment "to get off the couch and show the country and the world we have something that unites us," that "we aren't going to accept a leader who does not accept the values of this country."