ABC News aired an hourlong “20/20” interview on Sunday with James B. Comey, the FBI director fired by President Trump last year. George Stephanopoulos spoke with Comey, who is promoting his new book, “A Higher Loyalty,” for five hours in all. Here are highlights and analysis of the conversation.
‘He is morally 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. 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, 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. And that’s not a policy statement. Again, I don’t care what your views are on guns or immigration or taxes.
“There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.”
During much of the interview, Comey seems disciplined and almost dispassionate. But at the end, he lets loose in a remarkable way. It is hard to think of a time that such a senior official of the government has gone on to so directly question the moral fitness of the sitting president. He said that he hopes Trump is held accountable for his lies, but that impeachment would be a cop-out for a public that should also be held accountable for electing Trump in the first place.
‘The loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant center of everything.’
Stephanopoulos: “How strange is it for you to sit here and compare the president to a mob boss?”
Comey: “Very strange. And I don’t do it lightly. I — and I’m not trying to, by the way, suggest that President Trump is out breaking legs and — you know, shaking down shopkeepers. But instead, what I’m talking about is that leadership culture constantly comes back to me when I think about my experience with the Trump administration. The — 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. That’s why it reminds me so much and not, ‘So what’s the right thing for the country and what are the values of the institutions that we’re dealing with?’ ”
The comparison to the mob is sure to be one of the more controversial takeaways of Comey’s new book. But it is one that Comey repeatedly defends in the interview.
‘How could he think this is a good idea?’
“And so I’m walking forward thinking that, thinking: ‘How could he think this is a good idea? That he’s going to try to hug me, the guy that a whole lot of people think, although that’s not true, but think I tried to get him elected president and did. Isn’t he master of television? This is disastrous.’”
One of the enduring images of Comey was captured by television cameras shortly after Trump became president and held a reception at the White House for law enforcement officials. Trump calls to Comey, who walks across a room to shake the president’s hand, and Trump appears to lean over and almost kiss his cheek. The moment was one of many that Comey describes in which he believes the president is trying to intimidate him into understanding that they are both on the same side, part of the same team.
‘It seemed like he had average-sized hands.’
“I say that in my book because I’m trying to be honest, because that’s the truth. There had been all this controversy and mocking about hand size; I can’t remember the details. But as I shook his hand, I made a note to check the size, and it seemed like he had average-sized hands.”
Comey describes his book as an attempt to have a thoughtful discussion about ethics, values, honesty and other serious topics. But he also includes a few salacious details that he — and his publishers — know will help sales. He says that Trump was shorter than he thought (coming from a man who stands 6-foot-8). He notes that Trump’s tie was too long and that his hair was perfectly coifed. But perhaps the observation about his hands is most likely to get the president riled up. After Senator Marco Rubio mocked Trump in a debate, Trump declared, “Look at those hands; are they small hands?”
Comey said in the interview that he recalled those moments as he shook the president’s hand for the first time.
‘It was him talking almost the entire time.’
“It was him talking almost the entire time, which I’ve discovered is something he frequently does. And so it would be monologue in this direction, monologue in that direction, monologue in a different direction.
“And a constant series of assertions that — about the inauguration crowd, about how great my inauguration speech was, about all the free media — earned media, I think was his term, that I got during the campaign. On and on and on and on. Everyone agrees, everyone agrees, I did this, the — I never assaulted these women, I never made fun of a reporter.
“And — I’m sure you’re wondering what question did I ask that would prompt those? None, zero. I didn’t ask any questions that I recall.”
One of the most interesting observations by Comey during the interview was that Trump delivers monologues that are intended to leave the impression that those listening agree completely with him. Comey notes on several occasions that in private conversations, the president simply makes assertions — often falsely — without giving the people he’s talking to a chance to interject or object. It’s an interesting observation because it is similar to what Trump does in public.
When he is giving remarks to a small group around a table at the White House, he often rambles from one topic to the next, making assertions that often are not true but cannot be challenged at the time because they come in such rapid-fire fashion.
And Comey notes that the president often says contradictory things in the same monologue. He noted that over dinner, the president told him that Reince Priebus, the chief of staff at the time, didn’t know they were having dinner together. But later, Trump told Comey to follow up with Priebus, who knew they were having dinner together.
“One of those things is not true. One of those things is a lie,” Comey says in the interview.