James Comey was worried that President Donald Trump was trying to get a little too chummy with him, potentially hindering the independence of the FBI.
But he says that changed after one quick interaction with the President.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News’ chief anchor George Stephanopoulos ahead of the April 17 release of his book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership,” Comey recounted a visit he made to the White House in early February as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to speak with then-chief of staff Reince Preibus.
A little more than a week earlier, Comey had joined Trump for a private dinner in the White House and, according to Comey, Trump had told him: “I need loyalty.”
Comey says that after meeting with Priebus, the chief of staff asked him if he wanted to say hello to the president.
Comey said he tried to decline the offer, but Priebus said the President would love to see him and ultimately accompanied Priebus to the Oval Office to speak with Trump. When they walked in, he said, the president wanted to talk about a recent interview with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, in which Trump had said he respected Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump believed he was being unfairly criticized by Democrats and Republicans, Comey said, for refusing to criticize Putin for being, as O’Reilly phrased it, “a killer.”
“You think our country is so innocent?” Trump had asked during the O’Reilly interview, sparking immediate backlash.
Comey told Stephanopoulos: “That moral equivalence, between the people of our government and Putin's thugs, had generated a lot of controversy.”
“The president was … just in a monologue talking about how that was a great answer, what was he supposed to do, it was a hard question, he gave his best answer. And just going on and on and on,” Comey said of the Oval Office interaction.
“He was telling me it was a good answer and then … gave me an opening by saying, ‘You think it was a great answer. You think it was a good answer.’ And then he was starting to move on. And I jumped in and I said, ‘Mr. President, the first part of the answer was fine, not the second part. We're not the kind of killers that Putin is,’” Comey told Stephanopoulos.
“When I said that, the weather changed in the room. And like a shadow crossed his face and his eyes got this strange, kinda hard look. And I thought in that moment, ‘I've just done something unusual, maybe,’” Comey said.
“And then, it passed and the meeting was over,” Comey, snapping his fingers, added. “And, ‘Thanks for coming in,’ and Priebus walked me out.”
“In that moment I was thinking, ‘I just succeeded,’ although I hadn't intended to, in ending any personal relationship between me and the president by interrupting him and also criticizing him to his face,” Comey said. “And I went back and told my staff that it happened, and then I thought, and told them, ‘That's not a bad thing, because it will help us keep a distance that we need to keep from him.’”
Trump unceremoniously fired Comey one month later.
Another takeaway that Comey noted from that Oval Office meeting was that it was an instance where Trump refused to criticize Putin, even behind closed doors.
"I don't know what's behind that. I mean, that's mystified me even after President Trump became president 'cause I discovered that he wouldn't criticize him even in private, which, I can understand a president making a geopolitical decision that, 'I ought not to criticize an adversary country's leader for some reason publicly.' But I discovered President Trump wouldn't even do it privately, and I don't know why that is,” Comey said.
In his book and in the exclusive interview with Stephanopoulos, Comey said that his handful of interactions with Trump prompted him to have flashbacks to earlier points in his career when he built cases against notorious mafia ring La Cosa Nostra.
“The nature of La Cosa Nostra is an effort to make everyone part of the family,” Comey said, adding that he believed Trump and his team were taking steps to build a similar type of loyalty.
“I'm not trying to … suggest that President Trump is out breaking legs and, you know, shaking down shopkeepers,” Comey said. “The loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant center of everything, it's all about how do you serve the boss, what's in the boss' interests.
“It's the family, the family, the family, the family,” he said. Comey noticed another telling detail in Trump’s demeanor during that February Oval Office meeting. He recalled that Trump “was sitting behind the resolute desk, the big … president's desk, which I had actually never seen Presidents Bush or Obama do during a meeting.”
“They would be there sometimes for phone calls, I gather, but when I was there they always sat in the open sitting area, which made sense to me as someone who tries to get people as a leader to tell you the truth. It's much easier in an informal setting,” Comey said.
Instead, Trump “was behind the desk with both arms on the table top, on the desktop,” Comey said.
“There's a gigantic block of wood between us,” Comey, who sat in the chair besides the desk, told Stephanopoulos.
Physical impressions of Trump
The Oval Office meeting wasn’t the first time Comey had remembered details about Trump’s physical appearance.
When he first met Trump during a January visit to Trump Tower during the transition, he took stock of the man he had seen so often on television, noting how he “looked as I had expected him to look.”
“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,” Comey said.
“He had impressively coiffed hair. It looks to be all his,” Comey told Stephanopoulos. “I confess, I stared at it pretty closely and my reaction was, ‘It must take a heck of a lot of time in the morning, but it's impressively coiffed.’”
“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 goggles,” Comey said.
“There had been all this controversy and mocking about hand size … but as I shook his hand I made a note to check the size and it seemed like he had average sized hands,” he said.
While Comey writes in his book that he finds Trump to be unethical and untethered to the truth, he does not think that he’s mentally unfit to be president.
“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,” Comey told Stephanopoulos. “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,” Comey said, referring to the president’s defense of white supremacists after racial unrest in that Virginia city, “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.”
“A forest fire”
Comey said in addition to finding similarities between Trump and a mob boss, there’s another destructive entity that Trump reminds him of: a forest fire.
“His presidency is doing, and will do, tremendous damage to our norms and our values, especially the truth. And so that's bad. And terrible things happen in forest fires,” Comey said. “But I'm an optimistic person. And so I choose to see the opportunity in a forest fire 'cause what forest fires do is allow things to grow that never could've grown.”
“I see already things growing and flourishing that didn't before this fire. I see the kids marching in the streets, including my own kids, about guns. I see all kinds of civil society getting engaged. I see parents talking to their kids about truth telling and prejudice and bias and respect. That was not happening three or four years ago. And so there's a lot of good growing. And I also see the courts and Congress getting involved in ways they hadn't before. So I choose to see opportunity,” he said.
“I think this forest fire will leave us better and stronger, as did the last forest fire. Watergate was a forest fire,” Comey added, citing the scandal that ultimately brought down President Richard Nixon. “It rebalanced power among the branches of government. I think we're gonna see that. And I think we're gonna be better for it.”