The nation’s intelligence chiefs had just finished briefing Donald Trump on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election when FBI Director James Comey stayed behind to discuss some especially sensitive material: a ‘‘widely circulated’’ intelligence dossier contained unconfirmed allegations that Russians had filmed Trump interacting with prostitutes in Moscow in 2013.
The president-elect quickly interrupted the FBI director. According to Comey’s account in a new memoir, Trump ‘‘strongly denied the allegations, asking — rhetorically, I assumed — whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorized their allegations.’’
The January 2017 conversation at Trump Tower in Manhattan ‘‘teetered toward disaster’’ — until ‘‘I pulled the tool from my bag: ‘We are not investigating you, sir.’ That seemed to quiet him,’’ Comey writes.
Trump did not stay quiet for long. Comey describes Trump as having been obsessed with the prostitutes portion of the infamous dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, raising it at least four times with the FBI head. The document claimed that Trump had watched the prostitutes urinate on themselves in the same Moscow suite that President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stayed in previously ‘‘as a way of soiling the bed,’’ Comey writes.
Trump offered varying explanations to convince Comey it was not true. ‘‘I’m a germaphobe,’’ Trump told him in a follow-up call on Jan. 11, 2017, according to Comey’s account. ‘‘There’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me. No way.’’ Later, the president asked what could be done to ‘‘lift the cloud’’ because it was so painful for first lady Melania Trump.
Then, on May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey, leading to the Justice Department special counsel’s Russia investigation.
The discussions about the Steele dossier - which Comey recounts for the first time in his book - are among a number of explosive revelations in ‘‘A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership,’’ a 304-page tell-all in which the former FBI director details his private interactions with Trump as well as his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
The Washington Post obtained a copy of the book before its scheduled release on Tuesday.
In his memoir, Comey paints a devastating portrait of a president who built ‘‘a cocoon of alternative reality that he was busily wrapping around all of us.’’
Comey defends his handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and for the first time details a private assurance he received from President Obama following Clinton’s defeat. Many Democrats blame Comey for announcing less than two weeks before the election that the FBI was examining a new trove of Clinton emails for possible classified material.
Comey writes that Obama sat alone with him in the Oval Office in late November and told him, ‘‘I picked you to be FBI director because of your integrity and your ability. I want you to know that nothing - nothing - has happened in the last year to change my view.’’
On the verge of tears, Comey told Obama, ‘‘Boy, were those words I needed to hear . . . I’m just trying to do the right thing.’’
‘‘I know,’’ Obama said. ‘‘I know.’’
Comey narrates in vivid detail, based on his contemporaneous notes, instances in which Trump violated the norms protecting the FBI’s independence.
Interacting with Trump, Comey writes, gave him ‘‘flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. 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 result, in Comey’s telling, is ‘‘the forest fire that is the Trump presidency.’’
‘‘What is happening now is not normal,’’ he writes. ‘‘It is not fake news. It is not okay.’’
Comey describes a Feb. 14, 2017, meeting in the Oval Office where Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to clear the room so he could bring up the FBI investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn directly with Comey — a key event in special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation of whether Trump sought to obstruct justice.
‘‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,’’ Trump said, according to Comey’s account of the meeting, some of which he first shared in Senate testimony last year. ‘‘He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.’’
Comey writes that he regrets not interrupting Trump to explain that his plea was wrong. He recalls later confronting Sessions, whom he describes as ‘‘both overwhelmed and overmatched by the job.’’
‘‘You can’t be kicked out of the room so he can talk to me alone,’’ Comey told Sessions, according to the book.
Comey also recounts new observations: ‘‘Sessions just cast his eyes down at the table, and they darted quickly back and forth, side to side. He said nothing. I read in his posture and face a message that he would not be able to help me.’’
Comey stops short of outlining a legal case against the president, explaining that because he does not know all the evidence he cannot determine whether Trump intended to obstruct justice by firing him and by asking him to back off the FBI’s investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
‘‘I have one perspective on the behavior I saw, which while disturbing and violating basic norms of ethical leadership, may fall short of being illegal,’’ he writes.