In 2002, when James Comey was merely the fresh-faced U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and not the focal point of unprecedented presidential fury, the future FBI director got his first exposure to the world of organized crime.
Weeks after the death of John Gotti, Comey led the dogged prosecution of 14 alleged members of the Gambino crime family on charges of extortion, robbery, and murder—and cautioned the public that the era of criminal syndicates and shadowy dons was far from over.
“Folks who think that organized crime is a thing of the past in New York are kidding themselves,” Comey said at the time. “These people are out there, and they are struggling to revive and to maintain these organized crime families.”
More than 15 years later, Comey spent the majority of a five-hour interview making the same point to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. This time, however, the alleged crime boss in his crosshairs wasn’t a capo in the Cosa Nostra but the president of the United States.
“I don’t do it lightly,” Comey grimly told Stephanopoulos of the comparison, but “that leadership culture constantly comes back to me when I think about my experience with the Trump administration.”
The week leading up to Comey’s sitdown with one of network television’s most aggressive interlocutors—an interview pegged to the upcoming publication of his memoir, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership—was peppered with tantalizing leaks from the tell-all relating to President Donald Trump’s hand size, height, and theoretical appearance in a Russian water sport video.
“I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey said. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”
Speaking with Stephanopoulos, Comey grabbed at a few of those low-hanging fruit: Trump’s mane was “impressively coiffed,” his tie “too long,” his face “slightly orange up close, with small white half-moons under his eyes.”
But despite Comey’s somewhat shady asides and evident fascination with the so-called pee tape (the former FBI director mentioned the subject, in unrestrained detail, 11 times over the course of the interview), his primary focus was linking Trump with the Mafia term amica nostra, “a friend of ours”—and what he sees as the president’s obsession with personal fealty.
“There’s an expression in the Mafia: There’s a distinction between a friend of yours and a friend of ours. A friend of yours is someone on the outside of the family, a friend of ours, an ‘amica nostra,’ is the way they talked about it in Sicilian, is part of the Family, capital F.
“It’s the family,” Comey said. “The family, the family, the family.”
In his book, the former prosecutor linked Trump’s impulses to those of Five Families enforcers even more explicitly: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
The Trump administration has sneeringly derided Comey’s book and the attendant media blitz as “nothing more than a poorly executed PR stunt,” as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Friday, perpetrated by a man desperate to rehabilitate his “tattered reputation and enrich his own bank account.”
That condemnation paled in comparison to that of Trump himself, who in a flurry of Sunday morning tweets denied that he ever asked the FBI director for an oath of loyalty and suggested that Comey should be imprisoned.
“The big questions in Comey’s badly reviewed book aren’t answered like, how come he gave up Classified Information (jail), why did he lie to Congress (jail), why did the DNC refuse to give Server to the FBI (why didn’t they TAKE it), why the phony memos, McCabe’s $700,000 & more?” Trump tweeted. “Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!”
Those tweets, Comey told Stephanopoulos, are just the most public glimpse of Trump’s authoritarian impulses.
Although the scope of the interview rarely widened beyond the current occupant of the White House, Stephanopoulos did broach the great irony of Comey’s time as the nation’s top law enforcement official: how his actions during the 2016 presidential campaign may have helped bring about the election of the man he now sees as a “morally unfit” to serve as president.
“It sucked,” Comey said of his feelings about reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server in the final days of the campaign. “I felt like I was totally alone, that everybody hated me. And that there wasn’t a way out because it really was the right thing to do.”
That excuse, former Clinton backers told The Daily Beast, is too little, too late.
“Why the fuck does he think it’s OK to just reopen an investigation 10 days before an election?” Philippe Reines, former adviser to Clinton, told The Daily Beast ahead of the interview’s broadcasting. “He feels a need to tell the country that Hillary Clinton is the most guilty innocent person that he’s ever looked into but neglects to mention to the same country that Donald Trump appears to be the most guilty guilty person he’s in the middle of looking at. Why?”
For his part, Comey acknowledged that in the moments after Trump’s election, he questioned his own role in the most stunning political upset in modern American history: “A whole lot of me was thinking, ‘Oh my god, did we have some role in this?’” Comey said. “I don’t know about the answer.”
Comey also touched on Trump’s increasingly public personal problems, as well as the numerous accusations of sexual impropriety lodged against the president, calling Trump a man “who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat.”
That kind of man, Comey said, “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.”
Trump’s persistent avoidance of the truth, from the size of the crowd at his inauguration to the motivations behind Comey’s own firing, the former FBI director said, make Trump “morally unfit to be president.”
And of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, and of potential Kremlin kompromat on the president?
“I think it’s possible—I don’t know,” Comey said. “These are more words I never thought I’d utter about a president of the United States, but it’s possible.”
Despite his own feelings about the president—and his acknowledgement that the source of the Steele dossier detailing alleged connections between Trump associates and the Kremlin was “credible”—Comey told Stephanopoulos that he does not believe Trump should be impeached.
“I hope not, because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook,” Comey said. “People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.”
The former FBI director, whose interview has already infuriated the most powerful man in the world, appeared to be at peace with his firing—and with having made a formidable enemy.
“The deputy director... looked at me and said, ‘You know you’re totally screwed, right?’” Comey recalled in the waning days of the campaign. “And I smiled, and I said, ‘Yup. Nobody gets out alive.’ And this may sound strange? That’s kind of freeing.”