Aspen Ideas Fest: former FBI director Comey defends his decisions, slams Trump

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Former FBI Director James Comey speaks at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday in the Greenwald Pavilion at the Aspen Institute with moderator Katie Couric.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Former FBI director James Comey spent nearly an hour Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival defending his controversial actions before the 2016 presidential election and likening President Donald Trump to a forest fire that must be “contained.”

In an interview with journalist Katie Couric before several hundred-audience members, Comey said he believes history will vindicate him in the Hillary Clinton email controversy.

“Whether you agree with them or not, they were good decisions in the way that they were made and values that guided them,” Comey said. “I actually think in the long run people will see that.”

Comey took the rare step of the FBI taking the lead over the Attorney General’s office in announcing the outcome of an investigation. He announced in July 2016 that the FBI would recommend that no charges be filed against Clinton for her handling of sensitive emails while she was Secretary of State.

“I’ve succeeded in pissing off everyone.” — James Comey

Then, just 11 days before the November presidential election, Comey informed Congress by letter that the FBI had reopened an investigation of Clinton’s emails after new information was uncovered. The disclosure was immediately leaked to the public.

Clinton’s lead evaporated in the polls and she lost to Trump. Democrats blamed Comey for handing the election to Trump.

Trump, who fired Comey in May 2017, has accused Comey of being on Clinton’s side. Trump regularly tweets that Comey should be in jail.

Comey has left the Republican party and said many of his former GOP friends don’t talk to him any more.

“I’ve succeeded in pissing off everyone,” he quipped.

“I really hope that in the long sweep of things, it will be clear that we weren’t on anybody’s side,” Comey said when Couric asked him what he “realistically” thinks will be his legacy.

He claimed vindication isn’t important to him. He cares more about being a good husband, dad and grandfather, but it was clear from the interview that he wants to be viewed as a man of values and principles.

Comey portrayed his announcement that the FBI didn’t feel charges should be pursued against Clinton as the best of bad options. He went with the one he felt would best protect the integrity of the country’s legal institutions. Questions had been cast about the objectiveness of then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch after she talked with former President Bill Clinton during the investigation.

“If I do the normal thing and stand up next to the attorney general (during an announcement of no charges), a corrosive doubt creeps in as to whether this was a political hit job to can an investigation into one of the two candidates for president of the United States,” he said.

Reasonable people would have asked what the attorney general was doing by meeting privately with Bill Clinton right before announcing the results of the criminal investigation, he said.

Comey said he thought he could protect the integrity of the FBI and Department of Justice by announcing the FBI recommendation, even if he took a hit personally for straying from standard procedure.

Couric spurred laughter from the audience when she asked why, if the act was so noble, it’s been so roundly criticized, most recently by an U.S. Inspector General’s report. He said he disagreed with the report but understood how the inspector came to the conclusions.

“The most important thing about the Inspector General’s report, I believe for the institution, is we made decisions in an apolitical way,” Comey said.

Regarding the decision to tell Congress shortly before the election that an investigation had been reopened into Clinton’s handling of sensitive emails, Comey said the FBI had to be transparent for the sake of institution’s integrity.

Comey claimed his staff didn’t dwell on whether the decision would assist Trump’s election odds or whether Clinton’s presidency would be tainted if news of an investigation was disclosed after she was elected.

Couric pressed Comey on the point that many people feel his actions helped Trump win election.

“I get that. I hope and pray that’s not true,” Comey replied. “I don’t mean this sound dismissive, it doesn’t change how I think about the result. As painful as it is, even in hindsight, I think I made the right choice.”

Couric circled back to the issue a short time later, asking Comey bluntly (and again spurring audience laughter), “Do you feel responsible for the election of Donald Trump and the current state of the union?”

Comey said he doesn’t feel responsible, but the possibility leaves him “mildly nauseous.” He said he has worked his entire career in institutions of justice that want nothing to do with elections and aim to act with a blind eye on the effects on elections.

“I believe that to my core,” he said. “My problem was I couldn’t find a door marked ‘no action’ on Oct. 28. There were just two actions and they were both really bad.”

He said he is at peace with the decisions because he feels he did the best he could do in the situation.

“If I could change time, you would never have heard of me,” Comey said.

Many in the audience let out a mild groan when Comey said he couldn’t explain the delay for the start of the second Clinton email investigation until right before the election, but Comey’s comments also drew applause on a several occasions.

There was a loud cheer when he said he hopes special investigator Robert Mueller is able to pursue the truth about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Comey, who has called Trump morally unfit to be president, said his opinion of Trump has become worse over the past year.

“It’s gotten worse because I’ve seen more of the behavior that I think whether you are a Republican, Democrat or Independent, you should care deeply about — the erosion of the central norm of the United States of America, the truth, (and) an attack on the rule of law that I’ve never imaged before.

“The attacks on our norms and our values, it’s only gotten more serious,” Comey continued. “Everybody should care about them regardless of where you are on a policy spectrum.”

Comey noted that in his recent book, “A Higher Loyalty,” he likened the president to a forest fire. The fire causes damage, he said, but also creates conditions for new growth. That’s his hope for the country.

“I hope in the next presidential election people will vote their values,” Comey said.

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