James Comey was operating under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump in the 2016 election – and he wasn’t the only who thought Clinton was a shoe-in, he said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.
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Beyond that, he says that the assumption of a Clinton victory “must have” influenced his actions in the email investigation, though he says not consciously.
Comey told ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos that he believes former President Barack Obama, possibly Russian President Vladimir Putin and even Trump, then the Republican nominee thought Clinton was going to win, too.
“I was surprised that Donald Trump was elected president, as I think most -- maybe Donald Trump was too, but as a whole lotta people were,” Comey said.
Comey, who is promoting his book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” gave an example of an interaction he had with Obama that led him to believe they were on the same page.
“I heard the president [Obama] say, as I recount in the book, ‘Putin backed the wrong horse.’ That is, all of us were operating in a world where the polls were showing that Donald Trump had no chance,” Comey said.
Obama’s remark was made in relation to when and if the intelligence community and the White House should go public with their findings about Russian interference in the election.
“I think what the president meant by that was the Russian effort is wasted, and so why should we help them by announcing what they're doing when their work is not gonna achieve their goal?” Comey said.
Stephanopoulos pointed to the line of thinking that such an announcement would give people a reason to question the outcome of the election.
“Right,” Comey said. “Donald Trump was already saying, ‘If I lose, that means the system is rigged.’ And so if the Obama administration comes out saying, ‘The Russians are trying to help elect Donald Trump,’ that walks right into his narrative that's, ‘See, I told ya,’ that the whole system is fixed and you can't trust the American democratic process. And the Russians would have accomplished their goal.”
In the lead up to the election, Comey was around Clinton supporters in his own home, too, saying that in addition to his wife, Patrice, “at least my four daughters, probably all five of my kids, wanted Hillary Clinton to be the first woman president.”
“There was a lotta passion in this house for Hillary Clinton. And … I get that. But again, I hope it illustrates to people that I really wasn't making decisions based on political fortunes,” he said, in reference to criticism from Democrats that his public announcements as then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of emails may have cost her the election.
Comey said in testimony on Capitol Hill in 2016 that he had been a registered Republican for most of his adult life but wasn’t any longer. He told Stephanopoulos he did not vote in the election later that year.
“I'm the director of the FBI,” he said during the Capitol Hill appearance. “I'm trying to be outside of politics so [I] intentionally tried not to follow it a lot. And that I shouldn't be choosing between the candidates. I'm trying to lead an institution that should be separate and other.”
How his assumption of a Clinton victory may have impacted his actions
Comey said some of his actions in connection to the email investigation “must have been” influenced, though not consciously, by his assumption that she was going to win the election.
“I don't remember consciously thinking about that, but it must have been ‘cause I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was gonna beat Donald Trump. And so I'm sure that it was a factor. Like I said, I don't remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That she's gonna be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she'll be illegitimate the moment she's elected, the moment this comes out,” he told Stephanopoulos.
Still, Comey said the same thinking did not apply in his decision to keep private until months after the election the fact that the FBI was investigating interactions between a “small number of Americans” from the Trump campaign and Russians.
And he said the decision was a no-brainer.
“That was actually not a hard call, given the sensitivity of the matter and that it was ongoing. We didn't wanna tip anybody off,” he said.
“With respect to the decision by President Obama, as to how to talk about the Russian interference with the American people… he was clearly thinking, ‘I don't want to, given that Trump's gonna lose … look like I'm putting my finger on the scale,’” Comey said.
What Comey has to say to Clinton
In her book, Clinton said that she “felt I’d been shivved” by Comey “three times over the final five months of the campaign.”
When Stephanopoulos asked Comey how he’d respond to Clinton’s assertion that she would be president if not for the Oct. 28 release of a letter in which he announced that the FBI would be looking into more emails, this time from former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s computer, Comey replied: “I hope not.”
“But the honest answer is, it wouldn’t change the way I think about it,” he added.
To those like Clinton who argue that there was a double standard with Comey’s revelations – since he disclosed a great deal of information about the investigation into Clinton’s emails but did not immediately release information about the probe into some members of Trump’s team and their alleged contacts with Russians -- he believes the differences in actions stem from differences in the cases.
“The Clinton email case … was public, and we were actually investigating the candidate herself; and the counterintelligence investigations trying to figure out whether a small group of people, not Donald Trump -- we were not investigating Donald Trump,” he said.
“I get the initial reaction. It seems inconsistent,” Comey acknowledged. “But if you take the time and look at the posture of the two cases, they're very, very different. And actually illustrate the rule that we're following.”