Accused by Hillary Clinton of ushering Donald Trump into the White House, then fired after refusing to pledge his loyalty to the President, former FBI director James Comey has been vilified on both sides of America's deep political divide. He talks to Martin Fletcher.

Surprisingly, given all James Comey's recent experiences, the most controversial FBI director since J Edgar Hoover arrives alone in his outsized Lincoln Navigator SUV for our rendezvous at a private home in Washington DC's Virginia suburbs. There is not a bodyguard in sight.

He is dressed casually, in an open-necked shirt and jacket. He is slim, immensely tall at 6ft 8in [2m] — he calls himself a "giraffe" — and looks younger than his 57 years. He is genial, chatty and amused by a tweet he has seen earlier in the day: above the words "just saying ..." it compared the packed crowds at the recent royal wedding with Donald Trump's sparsely attended inauguration. All in all, he is remarkably relaxed considering that since 2016 he has been at the heart of some of the most bitterly contentious events in modern US politics.

Comey is the man accused of handing the Oval Office to Trump by announcing, less than two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, that the FBI had reopened its criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton's mishandling of classified emails.

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Seven months later, Trump fired Comey in the most public and humiliating manner, seemingly for refusing to drop the FBI's investigation into Russia's suspected support for Trump. He has denounced Comey as a "slimeball", a "grandstander" and the "worst FBI director in history", and declared that he should be jailed.

Trump fired Comey in the most public and humiliating manner. Photo / Getty Images
Trump fired Comey in the most public and humiliating manner. Photo / Getty Images

Since leaving the FBI, Comey has published a spectacularly damning indictment of the President, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, which has topped America's best-seller lists. He is now recognised wherever he goes, and respected and reviled in equal measure. He describes the past 18 months as "vertigo-inducing".

"The whole experience has been surreal and slightly disorientating," he concedes at the start of a conversation that is itself, by any standards, surreal. For the next hour, the man who once led America's foremost domestic-intelligence and law enforcement agency proceeds to tell me that it is conceivable that the President of the United States is being blackmailed by Moscow; that Trump might indeed have engaged in perverse sexual practices with Russian prostitutes; that he could be impeached before he finishes his term; that he is "morally unfit" to occupy the Oval Office, and poses the gravest threat to America's values and institutions that Comey can remember.

Comey's foes regard him as arrogant, vain and sanctimonious, and there is certainly a high-minded, slightly puritanical side to this devout Christian, father of five children and occasional foster parent.

Trump denounced Comey as a
Trump denounced Comey as a "slimeball", a "grandstander" and the "worst FBI director in history", and declared that he should be jailed. Photo / Getty Images

"Saint Jimmy," as Comey is sometimes known, likes to recall how he inclined towards a career as a prosecutor after a notorious rapist broke into his family's New Jersey home when he was 16 and held him and his younger brother at gunpoint. His college thesis was on "The Christian in Politics". In response to endless comments that a man of his height must surely have played college basketball, he used to reply simply, "Yup," to avoid having to explain why he did not. One day he realised he was lying and wrote to all those he had misled to tell them the truth.

As a US attorney in New York in 2003, he successfully prosecuted the lifestyle guru Martha Stewart for lying to investigators in a stock case. As deputy US attorney-general from 2003 to 2005, a quote from his Senate confirmation hearings was stuck on his fridge door: "I don't care about politics. I don't care about expediency. I don't care about friendship. I care about doing the right thing."

Although appointed to that post by President George W Bush, he enraged the White House by doggedly opposing the administration's use of untrammelled electronic surveillance and torture in the "war on terror". Quoting Martin Luther, he told Bush, "Here I stand, I can do no other."

He got on well with President Obama, who appointed Comey FBI director in 2013 — he likes to cite a tweet that complained, "That Comey is such a political hack. I just can't figure out which party." But he resisted President Trump's repeated attempts to compromise the Bureau's independence — which is why, he believes, his 10-year term was abruptly curtailed after just four.

The FBI began investigating Clinton's misuse of her private email server in July 2015. A year later Comey announced, to Republican fury, that she had been "extremely careless" but would not be charged. Then, 12 days before the 2016 election, he reopened the investigation following the discovery of a huge new batch of Clinton's emails on the laptop of Anthony Weiner (the estranged husband of a Clinton aide and a former congressman, who had resigned for sending sexually explicit pictures of himself to women).

Clinton's narrow lead evaporated, and although the FBI exonerated her a second time two days before the vote, Trump won. She and her husband, Bill, both blamed Comey for her defeat.

Comey announced, to Republican fury, that Clinton had been
Comey announced, to Republican fury, that Clinton had been "extremely careless" but would not be charged. Photo / Getty Images

He tells me he found it painful even to write about that episode. "I still feel sick to my stomach about the notion we had any impact [on the election], and I secretly hope that someday academics will demonstrate we had no impact whatsoever."

But he continues to believe he did the right thing, and strenuously denies any political motivation — his own wife and daughters were ardent Clinton supporters. He had to choose between speaking and concealing, he explains. "One option was bad and the other was terrible." Had he not revealed the reopening of the investigation after publicly clearing Clinton, and had she been found to have committed a criminal offence after winning the election, the consequences for the FBI would have been "catastrophic".

It remains to be seen whether an imminent report on the FBI's handling of the email investigation, from the Justice Department's Inspector-General, will exonerate Comey, but millions of Democrats found it impossible to forgive him — especially as the FBI had said nothing before the election about its investigation of Russia's suspected support for the Trump campaign. That was because the Clinton investigation had become common knowledge, Comey writes, whereas the Obama White House — confident of a Clinton victory — did not want to undermine public confidence in the electoral process by acknowledging the Russia investigation.

Then Comey tangled with Trump

On January 6, 2017, two weeks before the inauguration, America's intelligence chiefs met the President-elect at Trump Tower in New York to tell him of their unanimous assessment that Russia had interfered extensively in the election to influence the result.

Comey then briefed Trump one-to-one on a dossier compiled by a former British MI6 officer named Christopher Steele, which the media had got wind of. Among other things, the dossier alleged that Moscow had cultivated Trump for five years and that in a bizarre sexual escapade during a visit to the Russian capital in 2013, he had paid prostitutes to urinate on a bed in the Ritz-Carlton's presidential suite, once used by the Obamas.

Comey chuckles at the memory. "It was an out-of-body experience," he recalls. "I remember almost looking down on myself. Some voice inside me was saying, 'What are you doing? How did we end up here? Are you really briefing an incoming President of the United States about this?'"

I ask Comey whether the so-called "golden showers" story could possibly be true. "I don't dismiss it," he replies. He considers Steele to be "a reliable individual with a proven track record". He continues, "If someone said there was an allegation that George W. Bush was in a hotel in Moscow with prostitutes peeing on each other, I would laugh and say that's impossible, but I can't say that in this instance."

A fan with Comey's top seller which he says he wrote because
A fan with Comey's top seller which he says he wrote because "it is wrong to stand idly by, or worse, stay silent ... while a president brazenly seeks to undermine public confidence in law-enforcement institutions that we established to keep our leaders in check". Photo / Getty Images

Comey notes in his book that Trump did not react to the claims of Russia's electoral interference by asking the obvious question: how should the US respond to such an assault on its democratic process? He also wonders why — as President — Trump has offered "constant equivocation and apologies for Vladimir Putin" instead of condemning his many transgressions.

Could Trump possibly have been compromised and subjected to blackmail? Remarkably, Comey does not scoff at the idea. "I don't know," he replies. "These things are all curious.
I can't say it's impossible. The same thing about prostitutes in Moscow. If you asked me that about Barack Obama I would say it's impossible, but I can't give you that answer [in this case]."

As Comey tells it, Trump then set out to co-opt him, to entice him into his inner circle and subvert the independence of the FBI and its director. He embraced Comey at one of his first White House receptions. He invited him to a one-to-one dinner and demanded his "loyalty" — Comey declined to give it. On another occasion, having ejected everyone else from the Oval Office, Trump raised the subject of the FBI's ongoing investigation of Michael Flynn, who had just resigned as national security adviser over his secret contacts with the Russian ambassador. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Trump said in an intervention that could, Comey believes, constitute obstruction of justice.

After each encounter, Comey immediately wrote down the details. He would never have done that with Bush or Obama, he tells me, "but the nature of this person [Trump] put me in a position where I never thought I'd be. I was having conversations with the President of the United States that I believed he might lie about, so I needed to protect myself and the FBI."

In March 2017, as the FBI's Russia investig-ation began to ensnare Trump's campaign aides, the president called Comey to ask whether he could "lift the cloud", presumably by shutting down the investigation. Trump repeated the request two weeks later, noting that, "I have been very loyal to you, very loyal."

Trump eventually lost patience

On May 9 he fired Comey, who learned of his dismissal when a newsflash appeared on a television screen while he was addressing FBI staff in Los Angeles. Trump was so furious that Andrew McCabe, the FBI's deputy director, had let Comey fly back to Washington on an FBI plane that he called McCabe to protest. McCabe's wife, a Democrat, had recently lost an election to the Virginia State legislature. Before ringing off, Trump said to McCabe, "Ask her how it feels to be a loser." Comey still finds that shocking. "That is the President of the United States," he says. "Take a deep pause on that one."

Trump completed what Comey calls a "blizzard of awful behaviour" by prohibiting him from entering FBI headquarters — even to say goodbye or collect his things. "It was a terrible thing to do."

Comey did not go quietly, however

A sly operator despite his professed disdain for Washington's political shenanigans, he leaked the fact that Trump had urged him to drop the Flynn investigation. A furore ensued. The Justice Department appointed a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, to investigate Russian interference in the presidential election.

I ask Comey if he believes Trump will complete his term of office. "I don't know. There's a range of possible outcomes," he replies. "The most likely is that he will, but the second most likely is that he is impeached and removed from office on the basis of what Mueller discovers."

Comey has absolute confidence in Mueller, another former FBI director. "He's a guy who doesn't give a rip about politics. He just wants to find out the facts and if he's allowed to complete his work he will find those facts."

Trump now routinely denounces Comey, the FBI, the Justice Department and Mueller in his tweets, evidently seeking to discredit them by portraying them as some sort of "deep state" and accusing them of conducting "the greatest witch hunt in American history".

I observe that for an American president to wage war on his country's top law enforcement agency is an astounding situation. "Correct," Comey replies.

"It's unprecedented, certainly in my memory and study of history, and deeply, deeply regrettable, and something the country, no matter what one's political views, should be very, very concerned about."

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Can he remember the last time the core American values of truth, justice and the rule of law were so threatened? "Probably nothing similar in my lifetime," he replies, before invoking the presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s.

Comey also excoriates Republican congress-people for their complicity in Trump's destructive behaviour. "There are some so tribal that maybe they don't even realise the damage they are doing, but others know better and are doing it anyway because they like their jobs. They have to ask themselves what they tell their grandchildren. 'I did what? So I could stay in office? So the base would not be angry with me?' 'You did what, exactly, Grandpa?'"

Comey's book accuses Trump of presiding over
Comey's book accuses Trump of presiding over "a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalised, and unethical behaviour is ignored, excused or rewarded". Photo / Getty Images

He used to be a Republican himself, but no longer. "The Republican Party left me," he says. "It doesn't resemble in any way my belief in American values and our commitment to law and truth and our role in the world."

In his book, Comey accuses Trump of presiding over "a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalised, and unethical behaviour is ignored, excused or rewarded".

But he is scathing not just about Trump the president, but also Trump the man. In the book he portrays him as deeply insecure, a congenital liar, narcissistic, incapable of accepting criticism, a bully who thinks nothing of causing pain, a man who inhabits a "cocoon of alternative reality" and, curiously, never laughs. He compares Trump to a mafia boss who insists on total control and absolute loyalty (Comey knows all about mafia godfathers; he helped prosecute New York's Gambino crime family earlier in his career).

Is Trump mentally unfit to be president, I ask? "I think he's morally unfit," Comey replies, adding, "I don't think he has the capability to be an effective leader in any environment because essential to being a leader is having a balance of confidence and humility that allows you to listen and learn and seek the truth."

Comey misses the FBI

"My overwhelming sense is of sadness," he says. "I loved the job because I loved the work. It had moral content, and the people were flawed like I am but amazing people."

But he denies that he wrote the book to settle scores. He insists he wants Trump to succeed as president. "I don't actually hate Donald Trump," he says. "I feel sorry for him on a human level because I think he's a fundamentally unhappy person. He has a bottomless craving for affirmation, and that's a pit that can never be filled."

He regrets some of the more personal potshots in the book — including a description of Trump's orange complexion, with "bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assume he placed small tanning goggles". Those details "became a handhold for people who had not read the book and just wanted to criticise it", he explains, adding somewhat disingenuously that he never expected the media to seize on them.

Nor, Comey insists, did he write it for the money, though he reportedly received a $2 million advance. He claims he wrote it because, as a Christian, he believes it is his duty to remain involved in public life and because "it is wrong to stand idly by, or worse, stay silent ... while a president brazenly seeks to undermine public confidence in law-enforcement institutions that we established to keep our leaders in check".

He tells me he wants to wake the "sleeping giant" that is the silent majority of decent, moderate Americans. He wants to stop his compatriots from becoming "numb" to what is happening in their country because "there's a danger that norms will be eroded and the next president will think, 'I can wake up in the morning and declare that certain citizens should be in jail. I can wake up and lie all day long and won't be accountable for it, and do all manner of things incompatible with our values.'"

He plans to use his book for a course on ethical leadership that he will be teaching this autumn at the College of William and Mary, his alma mater, though he insists he will be giving his students copies rather than making them pay for them.

Comey poses affably for photographs, and then it is time for him to go — he needs to be home for his youngest daughter's high school prom night, and is using the free time he now has to improve his golf and learn the piano. I like the man. In general I find his assertions plausible, but about one I remain doubtful.

He ends his book on the sort of optimistic note expected of America's public figures. He compares the Trump presidency to a forest fire that causes great damage but permits vigorous new growth. "I already see new life — young people engaged as never before, and the media, courts, academics, non-profits, and all other parts of civil society finding reason to bloom," he writes. A forest fire? I wonder. Or a volcano that erupts and destroys everything around it forever?

*A HIGHER LOYALTY: TRUTH, LIES, AND LEADERSHIP BY JAMES COMEY (MACMILLAN, $38).