The sit-down comes ahead of the publication of his new book, A Higher Loyalty, on Tuesday.
Read the full transcript of Comey’s interview:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Thank you for doing this.
JAMES COMEY: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for coming.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Simple start. Why did you write this book?
JAMES COMEY: I r– I was never going to write a book. But I decided I had to write this one to try and be useful. That was my goal after I was fired, to be useful. And it occurred to me maybe I can be useful by offering a view to people, especially to young people, of what leadership should look like and how it should be centered on values. And so–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You lay out qualities of an ethical leader. What are they?
JAMES COMEY: First and foremost, it’s someone who realizes that lasting values have to be at the center of their leadership. Whether they’re in government or in the private sector or leading a university, they have to focus on things like fairness and integrity and, most of all, the truth. That the truth matters.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have– there’s almost a sense of– of alarm underneath the whole book. You say it’s a dangerous time in our country?
JAMES COMEY: I think it is. And– I chose those words carefully. I was worried when I chose the word, “Dangerous” first. I thought, “Is that an overstatement?” And I don’t think it is because–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
JAMES COMEY: I worry that the norms at the center of this country– we can fight as Americans about guns or taxes or immigration, and we always have. But what we have in common is a set of norms. Most importantly, the truth. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” right? Truth is the fourth word of that sentence. That’s what we are. And if we lose that, if we lose tethering of our leaders to that truth, what are we? And so I started to worry. Actually, the foundation of this country is in jeopardy when we stop measuring our leaders against that central value of the truth.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Are we losing it?
JAMES COMEY: I think we are in part. But I think the strength of this country is that we’re going to outlast it. That there will be damage to that norm. But I liken President Trump in the book to a forest fire. Going to do tremendous damage. Going to damage those important norms. But a forest fire gives healthy things a chance to grow that had no chance before that fire.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How do we put it out?
JAMES COMEY: We put it out in two ways. We put it out first by not becoming numb to the fact that the truth is being assailed every day. By not deciding that it’s just too much to pay attention to because that’s the path to losing truth as the central value in this country. So all of us have to constantly be involved and call it out when we see the truth endangered, when we see lying. And then next, we need to get involved. The American people need to stand up in the public square and in the voting booth and say, “Look, we disagree about an awful lot. But we have in common something that matters enormously to this country. And our leaders must reflect those values.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And– and why the title, “A Higher Loyalty?”
JAMES COMEY: Well, in part, the title comes from a bizarre conversation I had with the president in dinner at the White House in January of last year, where he asked for my loyalty personally as the F.B.I. director. My loyalty’s supposed to be to the American people and to the institution. But more than that, it grows out of a lifetime of my trying to be a better leader and figure out what matters in a leader, and realizing from a whole lot better leaders than I, that there must be a loyalty to something above the urgent, above the political, above the popular. We have to think, “What are the values that matter in the institution I’m involved with and in the country that I care a lot about?”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You look at your career over the last four decades, you’re like the Zelig of modern law enforcement?
JAMES COMEY: I stick out ’cause I’m so tall. I appear in every picture–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Y– that’s only part of it. You’ve taken on the mob, Martha Stewart, right in the middle of huge controversies over government surveillance, over torture. What are the big lessons you take away from that?
JAMES COMEY: The big lesson from that– and I’ve had a strange and wonderful career. And I don’t know how I’ve ended up in all these spots. But the lesson I’ve learned is that it’s important when you’re involved in a difficult situation with loud voices to in your mind, rise above it and ask, “So what matters in the long run? What does this institution stand for? What does my country stand for?” It helps you see things more clearly and realize things like truth matters, integrity matters. Those ethical values are what are going to last. And when you have to explain what you’ve done someday to your grandchildren, that’s what will matter. Your grandkids won’t understand that people– angry at me, or the vice president of the United States was telling me people were going to die because of me. What they’ll want to know is, “What was your North Star? Why did you make the decision you made?” And I hope your answer’s going to be, “‘Cause I took the time to think about what matters. What my institution stands for and what my country stands for.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Right at the beginning of your career, you’re involved in prosecution of major mafia figures. How does that form you?
JAMES COMEY: Well, it’s a tremendous education to get– a view inside La Cosa Nostra, the mafia, both in the United States and in Sicily. And to realize that the mafia is an organization like any other organization. Has a leader, has underlings, has values, has principles. They’re entirely corrupt. And it is the antithesis of ethical leadership. But I didn’t know it at the time. But it was forming my view that the truth has to be central to our lives and that leadership has to be focused on important and ethical values. And not what’s good for the boss, how do I accomplish what’s good for the boss and get the boss what he wants.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Truth at the center of our lives. That’s the– at the center of the Martha Stewart case as well?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. The Martha Stewart case was a case that I initially hated.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?
JAMES COMEY: And didn’t want any part of. We had a lot of big cases going on at that point in time. WorldCom, Adelphia. Enron was going on. We were trying to investigate corporate fraud, massive corporate fraud, and send a message to the American people that the system isn’t rigged, the rich aren’t going to get away with frauds, and that’s really hard and important work.
And in the middle of this, walks on this case involving a famous person who appears to have lied during an investigation of insider trading. And my initial reaction was, “You know, that’s kind of a small thing. That’ll be a big distraction. People will throw rocks at me. But more than that, it’ll take away from this other work we’re doing.”
And folks don’t realize this, but I almost hesitated and almost didn’t bring the case against Martha Stewart, in hindsight, because she was rich and famous. And decided that if she were anybody else, any other ordinary person, she would be prosecuted. And what helped me come to that conclusion was I remembered a case I’d been involved in against an African American minister in Richmond when I was a federal prosecutor there, who had lied to us during an investigation. And I begged this minister, “Please don’t lie to us because if you do, we’re going to have to prosecute you.” He lied. And at the end of the day, we had to prosecute him. And he went to jail for over a year. And as I stood in my office in Manhattan, I’m looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge, I remember this moment. And I’m thinking, “You know, nobody in New York knows that guy’s name except me.
“Why would I treat Martha Stewart differently than that guy?” And the reason would only be because she’s rich and famous and because I’ll be criticized for it. The truth matters in the criminal justice system. And if it’s going to matter, we must prosecute people who lie in the middle of an investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You don’t lie to investigators, you don’t lie under oath?
JAMES COMEY: You can’t or the rule of law breaks down. And there once was a day when people were afraid of going to hell if they took an oath in the name of God and violated it. We’ve drifted away from that day. And so in its place has to be a fear that if you lie and the government can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, they will prosecute you in order to send a message to all the others who might be called upon to give evidence. You must tell the truth. It matters enormously.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You mentioned that Vice President Cheney– at one point said, “People are going to die because of what you’re doing right now.” Take us inside that room?
JAMES COMEY: It was the chief of staff’s room in the West Wing of the White House. And we were engaged– I was at the Justice Department, the number two person at the Justice Department then, the deputy attorney general. And we were in a dispute with the White House about whether there was a lawful basis for surveillance activities that the president had authorized the NSA to engage in in the United States. And we had concluded, very smart lawyers working for me had concluded and I agreed, that there wasn’t a lawful basis for a big part of these activities. And so we were not going to sign onto it. And there was a meeting to pressure me to change my view. And Vice President Cheney presided at the meeting. He sat at the head of the table. I sat just to his left. And he looked me in the eye and said, “Thousands of people are going to die because of what you’re doing.” W– what he meant was, “Because you are making us stop this surveillance program,” because there was no lawful basis for it, “people are going to die ’cause of what you’re doing.” And my reaction was, and I said it to him, “That’s not helping me. That makes me feel badly. I don’t want people to die. I’ve devoted my life to trying to protect innocent people. But I have to say what the Justice Department can certify to, what we find lawful. And that you really want it or that it’s important doesn’t change the law. And so I– I can’t my view.” And so it was thick with tension and it was– I felt like I was going to be crushed like a grape, frankly. But in a way, there was no other way I could act. The law was clear. And so how could I possibly, as the leader of the Justice Department, sign up to something that we had no lawful basis for. And so we stood our ground.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That same issue led to a now famous confrontation in the hospital room of the attorney general at the time, John Ashcroft. You sped to that room. Why?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I did. I think it was the next day after the meeting with Vice President Cheney when I was on the way home, driving along Constitution Avenue. So on my left, I could see the Washington Monument. On the right, we’re coming up on the ellipse where you can see the White House. And the phone rang. It was– the attorney general, my boss was John Ashcroft. He was in intensive care. Very, very seriously ill at George Washington Hospital. And his chief of staff was on the phone, telling me that although we had told the White House we can’t certify to this, I’m the acting attorney general, we can’t certify to its lawfulness. And so it has to stop. He was calling to alert me that the president was sending two of his top people, the White House counsel and the chief of staff, to the intensive care unit at George Washington Hospital to see the attorney general. And so I hung up the phone, told the driver, “Ed, I have to get to George Washington Hospital immediately.” And he didn’t need to hear more than the tone in my voice. And so he turned on the lights and siren and drove this armored vehicle like it was a NASCAR race to George Washington Hospital. We pulled up in front. I jumped out with my security detail. And I ran into the hospital and ran up the stairs. Didn’t wait for the elevator to get to that floor because I needed to be there to make sure a desperately ill man wasn’t asked to sign something when he wasn’t competent to sign it and I was the acting attorney general.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And in the end, he didn’t sign it?
JAMES COMEY: In the end, he was remarkable. I went into that hospital room and got there before they did. And I tried to orient Attorney General Ashcroft as to time and place. And he didn’t seem to be following me. He looked gravely ill, gray and lying in his bed, barely conscious. And I then sat down next to him as close to him as I am to you. His wife stood on the other side of the bed the entire time and never let go of his arm. And I waited. And two of my staff members stood behind me. I didn’t know that one of them was taking notes the whole time. But in came the White House chief of staff and the– the– the White House counsel. And they were carrying an envelope. And they were going to try and get John Ashcroft to sign off on this program that we had said couldn’t continue because it didn’t have a lawful basis. And they started speaking to him. And he shocked me by pushing himself up on his elbows and blasting them. And telling them he had been misled, he hadn’t understood what they were doing. They had deprived him of the legal advice he needed. And then exhausted, he fell back. And as he fell back, he said, “But that doesn’t matter because I’m not the attorney general.” And then he pointed at me and said, “There’s the attorney general.” And the two men didn’t acknowledge me. They just turned. One said, “Be well” to the attorney general, and then they walked out.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And in the book, you describe an incident after that, a tender moment between Robert Mueller and Mr. Ashcroft?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. I called Bob Mueller– as the armored vehicle was being driven like it was a NASCAR race to the hospital, I called Bob Mueller, then the F.B.I. director. He was out at dinner with his family. And I told him what was happening. He had been following the conflict with the White House. The F.B.I. was a key participant in the program. And so Bob Mueller’s view was, “If the F– if the Justice Department can’t find a lawful basis for this, there’s no way the F.B.I. is participating.” The F.B.I., as folks may know, is a separate organization, but it sits within the Justice Department. And so I called Bob and told him what was happening. And I wanted him to know about it because of his stature and his ability. He and I weren’t close, we weren’t friends in any social sense. But I knew he saw it the way I did. And I knew that his gravitas, his– his experience, his weight, would be important. And he said, “I’ll be right there.” And then he started a race to the hospital. He didn’t get to the hospital until after the two senior White House officials had turned and left. But he came in moments later and he stood and s– leaned down and spoke to the desperately ill attorney general and told him that, in every man’s life, there comes a time when the good Lord tests him. And then he said, “You’ve passed your test tonight.”
And I was– it was a really hard time. And I was overcome with emotion, hearing that. And– had this sense that the law held. The law held. It– it felt like a dream to me, that we were in a hospital room with senior officials trying to get the desperately ill attorney general to sign something. But it wasn’t a dream. And the law held.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: In that same administration– you had the controversy over torture, whether or not it could be justified and legal. And there’s– a remarkable moment with your wife, Patrice. She doesn’t know all the details of what you’re going through, but she says?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, that was remark– it actually irritated me a little bit. I love her desperately. But she’s great at giving me feedback. And she had seen on the news– didn’t know what I was working on, but had seen on the news all the controversy around the treatment of prisoners at a U.S. prison in Iraq called Abu Ghraib. And there was a great deal of news and debate about whether the American government was engaged in torture. She knew that and she also knew I was under some sorta great stress. This is after the stress of the surveillance battle. And she said to me one evening, “Don’t be the torture guy.” And I said, “Wha– you know I can’t talk to you about that kinda stuff.” And she said, “I don’t want to talk about it. Just don’t be the torture guy.” And she repeated that periodically thereafter. And I’ve since told her, “Look, that was not helpful except your voice echoed around my head an awful lot during that.” What she meant was, “Rise above and remember, someday you’re going to explain to your grandchildren how you conducted yourself.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You still think it wasn’t helpful?
JAMES COMEY: Oh, it was helpful. In the moment– it w– it was helpful. In– in the moment, it was irritating because I wanted to say, “You have no idea how hard these legal issues are. You have no idea that Congress defined torture in American criminal law differently than you and I would understand it. So saying, ‘Don’t be the torture guy,’ I don’t want to be. But my job as a lawyer is to say, ‘Here’s what the statute means.'” And there’s a whole lot that would pass muster under the statute, that I would think that any normal person would think is torture.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Explain that to– to everybody watching at home because I think that it would be hard for people to understand. You really can’t talk to your wife about the things you’re working on?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. It adds to your level of stress. The– the way the rule works– the rules are, if you’re dealing with a classified matter, you may only discuss it with someone who has a need to know it, a work related need, and the appropriate clearance. Well, your spouse has neither– I guess unless your spouse works with you in the government, on that particular matter.
But as much as I loved her and as important as an advisor she’s been to me my whole life, she didn’t have a need to know anything about the classified topics I worked on. And she didn’t have the appropriate clearance. She’s an extraordinarily trustworthy person, but she doesn’t have the appropriate clearance.
And so she would know, during surveillance and during torture, something was disturbing my sleep. Something was making me come home very late at night, leave very early in the morning. But she could only guess what it was. In the surveillance fight she couldn’t guess ’cause it was totally secret. In the torture battle, she could have some idea ’cause she could see it on the news.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Right at the top of the book, y– you write that you’re aware that it could be seen as an exercise in vanity.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What are you worried about there?
JAMES COMEY: Well, that’s why I was never going to write a book. It always felt like an exercise in ego. And one of the things I’ve struggled with my whole life is my ego and– and a sense that I– I have to be careful not to fall in love with my own view of things. And so that battle with ego and my sense that memoirs are an exercise in ego convinced me I was never going to write a book.
And I’m sure friends of mine from college and law school are out there laughing right now, saying, “Ah-ha, he wrote a book.” I never wanted to write a memoir. And I hope folks will read the book ’cause my goal was to be useful. It’s not a memoir. Lots of stories about my life that aren’t in there, important stories. But I tried to pick stories that relate to leadership to try and explain, including mistakes I’ve made, how I think about ethical leadership and what I think it ought to be.
I’m not a perfect leader. There– I don’t think there are any perfect leaders. But I’ve learned from working with great people, from making a lot of mistakes, and from working for people who aren’t effective leaders, here’s what I think it should be. And so that’s what I’m trying to offer in the book.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: As you say, no one’s perfect. What’s James Comey’s rap on James Comey?
JAMES COMEY: How much time do you have? Yeah. My rap on myself is that– is that ego focus. That I– since I was a kid, I’ve had a sense of confidence. That I know I’m good at certain things. And there’s a danger that that will bleed over into pride, into not being open minded to the fact that I could be wrong and other people could have a better view of it.
And so I think that’s my primary worry about myself, is an overconfidence that can lead to that– that pride, that closed mindedness. I’ve tried to guardrail that my whole life. First of all, by marrying someone who will tell me anything at any time.
But then also surrounding myself with people who will cut through that and say– “No, no, no, no. Slow down. Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don’t mind– and you write this as well, the uncomfortable questions?
JAMES COMEY: I have to have them because, again, if what I worry about myself most is that I’ll be– convince myself that I’m doing the right thing, if I don’t have people who will push through that, who will try and pierce whatever certainty I’m feeling, I may make a bad decision. I may make a big mistake. And part of that is just aging and getting to realize that doubt is not a weakness. Doubt is a strength. Always remembering I could be wrong until the moment you make a decision is important. And that’s great to tell yourself. But it’s also important to have people around you who will poke at you, poke at you, poke at you.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Another short chapter in your career, you were part of the Senate Whitewater investigation of the Clintons. Wha– what exactly did you do?
JAMES COMEY: I worked for five months as a staff lawyer on the banking committee’s special committee I think they called it on the Whitewater investigation. My role was to focus on the suicide of a White House official who was the deputy White House counsel–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Vince Foster?
JAMES COMEY: –named Vincent Foster, yeah. And whether any documents were taken from his office and mishandled. I was only there five months. Patrice and I had a personal tragedy. We had a healthy baby boy, Collin Comey. Was born after I’d been there five months and died unfortunately of a infection that was preventable. And so I never went back.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And later, you also were involved in– the prosecution or at least investigating whether Bill Clinton as president did anything improper in the pardon of Marc Rich?
JAMES COMEY: That’s right. When I became U.S. attorney in Manhattan after 9/11, I inherited from my predecessor, Mary Jo White, an investigation into whether there was any corruption associated with a pardon that President Clinton had given to a fugitive named Marc Rich and his codefendant, Pincus Green.
These were guys who had been charged with a massive tax fraud case and– and trading with the enemy and had fled to Switzerland and had been there for many years. And President Clinton, on his way out the door, pardoned them, which was extraordinary.
Actually, I’ve never heard of another case where a fugitive from justice was pardoned. And so the F.B.I. and the U.S. attorney’s office were investigating were there promised contributions made to the Clinton Library or something else to secure that pardon. And so as the new boss in Manhattan, I oversaw that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what you found?
JAMES COMEY: Concluded there was not sufficient evidence to bring any charges in that case. And so we closed it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you draw any conclusions about the Clintons, about Hillary Clinton, from those experiences?
JAMES COMEY: No.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: None at all?
JAMES COMEY: No. I had– first of all, I’ve never met her. And my engagement was very limited. The five months on the Whitewater case was focused on Vince Foster and his office. One of the questions was had the– the then first lady, Hillary Clinton, caused anyone to go remove documents from his office. I don’t remember what the conclusion was, but I didn’t re– reach any conclusion about her.
And same with the pardon business. President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich took my breath away. Th– the notion that the president of the United States would pardon a fugitive without asking the prosecutors or the investigators, “What do you think,” was shocking to me. But it didn’t give me any view of Hillary Clinton.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So what did you think of Hillary Clinton before the email investigation began?
JAMES COMEY: Seemed like a smart person, very hardworking. Had been obviously a U.S. senator and had a reputation– again, I get only this– I get this from the media, as a very hardworking person. Had worked very hard as secretary of state. That was really about it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then on July 6th, 2015, there’s a referral about her email case. What do you do?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, in early July the inspector general for the intelligence community, which is an– an organization that looks for fraud, waste and abuse or violation of standards in the intelligence community, sent a referral that was public actually to the Department of Justice and the F.B.I., raising concern that there might’ve been mishandling of classified information on Hillary Clinton’s email server, which was a personal email server device she had in her basement. And that came in in early July. I didn’t focus on it. Shortly thereafter, the F.B.I. opened a criminal investigation. And I didn’t know when we’d opened it. I was b–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So this was far below your level?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. F.B.I.’s an enormous organization. It was opened in the ordinary course in our counterintelligence division. Then eventually, it got briefed up to me by the deputy director, who’s the senior agent in the organization, telling me that we’ve opened this criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But that’s the kinda thing that gets briefed up pretty quickly, doesn’t it?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, yeah. I’m just saying, I didn’t know– I didn’t know bef– as I recall, I didn’t know before they opened it that they were opening it, but nothing untoward about that–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And it wasn’t your order to open the investigation–
JAMES COMEY: Correct. Correct.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And describe what exactly was at issue, what you were looking at?
JAMES COMEY: The question was, was classified information mishandled. And what that means is did anybody talk about classified information outside of a system that you’re supposed to talk about classified information on? Did anybody give classified documents to someone who shouldn’t have them? What it centered on there was Secretary Clinton used this personal email domain to conduct all her business as secretary of state. She didn’t use government email. And what the inspector general raised was in emailing, in doing her work on that unclassified system, did she and those around her talk about classified topics? Classified information is either the lowest level confidential, the next level secret, the top level top secret. And there’s rules about how you can email about that information and where you should talk about it. And the question was did they talk about topics on an unclassified system that shouldn’t have been on an unclassified system?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And this had come right on the heels of a very famous case– involving General David Petraeus for his mishandling of classified information. Something that was– prosecuted. He eventually had a plea. As you know, many of your conservative critics– say that the David Petraeus case was far [less] serious than the Hillary Clinton case. Yet, you chose not to prosecute. Answer that.
JAMES COMEY: Well, the David Petraeus case was, to my mind, not a close case at all. He was the director of the C.I.A. He was having a romantic relationship with a woman who was also an author, going to write a book about him. He had taken home and stored in a backpack notebooks full of notes about some of the government’s most sensitive secrets. Classified at the top level in the government, including conversations with President Obama about special access programs, some of our– our most closely guarded secrets.
And he had given these notebooks to this person who had neither a need to know, nor the appropriate clearance. And he’d actually allowed her to photograph pages containing top secret information. And then, when the F.B.I. interviewed him about it, he lied about it. And so you had clearly intentional misconduct by a guy who’s in charge of the country’s secrets as the director of the C.I.A., involving huge trove of our top level classified information. And then obstruction of justice.
It was not a close call. In fact, I thought David Petraeus should’ve been prosecuted not just for the mishandling of the classified information, but also for lying to the F.B.I. because lying is– strikes at the heart of our rule of law in this country. And in the end, the attorney general at the time, Eric Holder, decided he would be charged only with the misdemeanor mishandling of classified information.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Y– you also write that you– you knew from the start that the Clinton case was unlikely to be prosecuted. Some of your critics, including President Trump, think that– that you brought a prejudgment to the case?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. There’s wrong– what– what the F.B.I. brought to the case– folks forget I didn’t actually do this investigation. I supervised an organization that did it, is a knowledge about how these cases are handled in the counterespionage world. That’s the world where mishandling of classified information is investigated. And so we have a 50 year history of knowing what will the Department of Justice prosecute?
They’ll prosecute cases like David Petraeus’. But they’re very unlikely to prosecute a case unless you can show the person, like Petraeus, clearly knew they were doing something they shouldn’t do. There’s evidence of obstruction of justice or disloyalty to the United States, spy– indications.
But without those, sloppiness, even extreme sloppiness, is handled through administrative discipline. Somebody is not prosecuted. And I’ve gone through 50 years of cases. I don’t know of a case where anyone has ever been prosecuted for just being careless, even extremely careless. And so when the case was open, we know that history.
And so the investigators knew that, unless they found something that was a smoking gun, where someone told Secretary Clinton, “You know, you shouldn’t be doing this,” or where she acknowledged it or where somehow there’s an indication of her obstructing justice, the case was unlikely to be prosecuted.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the things that President Trump and his allies bring up is that at some point, her staff smashed Blackberries, also whitewashed the server?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. There was evidence that old Blackberries, after she was finished with them, they destroyed them, which I think a fair number of people do to make sure that if it’s resold, someone doesn’t end up with your information. And that after they produced information back to the d– to the Department of State, they used– a software program to clean the server to make sure there was nothing on it, or clean laptops to make sure there’s nothing on them.
They did that. But as investigators, our question is, when they did that, are they trying to obstruct justice in some ways? And we could never establish, develop the evidence– evidence is a different thing from what people say. Evidence that anybody who did that did it with a corrupt intent. And most importantly, any indication that Secretary Clinton knew that was happening and knew that it was an effort to obstruct justice.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You did know from the start that this case was going to be trouble for you. You tell of a scene with your deputy director?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. I knew this was a no-win situation, this case. America is in an unusually polarized state. We’ve just opened a criminal investigation of one of the people who will likely be candidate for president of the United States in the middle of that viciously partisan atmosphere. One half of the partisan divide is going to be angry at us no matter what we do. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that I could make both halves angry at us, but we’ll come to that later. But the deputy director who was a great deputy director and a longtime special agent, looked at me and said, “You know you’re totally screwed, right?” And I smiled. And I said, “Yup. Nobody gets out alive.” And, of course, it was gallows humor. And it was funny because it was an actual gallows.
If we decide there is no criminal case there and we recommend no prosecution, the Republicans will be screaming that we let, you know, the greatest crime go since the Rosenbergs were executed for selling our nuclear secrets. And if we prosecute her, the Democrats will scream that we’re just doing it out of some sort of partisan bias because I’m a former Republican appointee and so the system is rigged against Hillary Clinton. Either way, we were going to be attacked.
And this may sound strange, that’s kind of freeing. If you know you’re totally screwed and you know that people are going to be angry at you no matter what you do, y– you can’t do anything about it. And so you just put your f– head down and you do your job. And you let the facts and the law decide what you should do.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: First big controversy comes up– late that summer, September, 2015. You have a meeting with the attorney general Loretta Lynch because you’ve decided to say publicly there is a criminal investigation– of Hillary Clinton, which many considered a break with precedent?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, it was not a break with precedent, but y– you’re right. In the late summer after the investigation had been opened for three months and the whole world was talking about it, ’cause you remember, it began with a public referral from the inspector general. So the candidates were talking about it. Congress was talking about it. The people we were out there interviewing were talking about it.
I went to the attorney general and said, “You and I are both going to have public events coming in the next–” I think it was a few days later. “Do you think it’s time to do what the Department of Justice policy permits, in the appropriate case where there’s a public interest that justifies it, confirming that you have an investigation?” And she agreed.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: She– but– she agreed. But you write that she didn’t want to call it an investigation?
JAMES COMEY: That’s right. She agreed. Loretta Lynch I had a great relationship with and still have a lot of respect for. And she said, “I agree. But call it a matter.” And I said, “Why would I do that?” And she said, “Just call it a matter.” And I didn’t know exactly why she was doing that, but I decided in that moment that the whole world would miss the distinction between investigation and matter. And so I dropped it at that point. At my press event, I said– used the term matter, and I was right, the press missed it and said we’d confirmed an investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did– did you think she was doing that to protect Hillary Clinton?
JAMES COMEY: I didn’t know. It worried me. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling because the Clinton campaign, since the matter had come in, the investigation had started in July, had been trying to come up with other words to describe it. They had used “Review” I think, “Security referral,” things like that. And it did worry me that the attorney general’s direction was tracking that effort to avoid using the word “investigation.” And so, to be honest, it gave me a bad feeling. And maybe I should’ve pushed harder in the moment.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, did you push her on it?
JAMES COMEY: I didn’t because I’ve known Loretta for a long time. We worked a case together in the early 1990s. And she’s a very smart person. And if she’d had a reason that I couldn’t see in Justice Department policy or something, she’da given it to me. But her answer, “Just do it,” told me this is an order from the attorney general. So it’s not improper, it’s a little bit off axis from the actual facts. But people are going to miss the distinction. And so I’m not going to fight this new attorney general. This is not going to be our first battle.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You think you should have?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I probably should have. Given that I respect Loretta, I probably should’ve pushed harder in the moment.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The investigation proceeds. And your initial instinct– is confirmed by the investigation. So that by– I guess it is by spring, 2016, you’re pretty clear you’re not going to prosecute– Hillary Clinton. And you say you took one weekend, I think it was in May, 2016, and began to draft– a statement explaining the decision. Again, President Trump looks at that and says you were “Writing the r– the conclusion even before you interviewed Hillary Clinton. That is just wrong.”
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I’ve heard that an awful lot, not just from President Trump, but from a lot of former prosecutors and former government people saying, “This shows that you had prejudged the matter.” Here’s my reaction. And the reason I smile a little bit is anybody who’s actually done investigations knows that if you’ve been investigating something for almost a year and you don’t have a general sense of where it’s likely to end up, you should be fired because you’re incompetent.
If you’ve been investigating for a year, you know that, unless things change, we’re going to head in this direction. Prosecutors and investigators all the time draft indictments before they finish the investigation. Their mind is open that if they find something that changes their view, they won’t bring an indictment. But they know where it’s headed after a year of investigation. Same thing here.
We had looked all around and scrubbed thousands and thousands and thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. We had a very clear picture after nine or ten months of investigation of this case. Our mind was open to a couple of facts. Maybe something will change in the final month of the investigation. Or maybe she’ll lie to us during the interview, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Or maybe we’ll need to do additional investigation.
But after nine or ten months of investigating, it looked like on the current course and speed, this is going to end without charges. And so what will we do? Smart people, competent people plan ahead. If you’re going to charge, you plan ahead. If you’re not going to charge, you plan ahead. And the hard part about this investigation was going to be not charging because the Obama Justice Department could bring charges against Hillary Clinton without claim of bias, political bias, because they’re Democrats. What would be hard for the Obama Justice Department for a bunch of reasons is not to bring charges about Hillary Clinton. That will be hard to do without jeopardizing the reputation of the institutions of justice. So it required thought to think about, “So how will we end this in a way that maximizes confidence that we did it in the right way, that the system was not rigged?” So that’s what I’m doing in the beginning of May, is trying to think through, “So how will this end if it continues on this course that it’s on now?”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And to those who say you should’ve brought Hillary Clinton before a grand jury?
JAMES COMEY: Look, I understand why people ask that. We would actually prefer– most people haven’t been in front of a grand jury. We would prefer with a subject of an investigation to do an informal interview. Lot more flexibility there. You can bring a lot more people and have a lot more people involved in the questioning. And it offers us an opportunity in a less formal setting to poke at someone. They’re still required to tell the truth. That’s another thing that gets lost–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, President Trump says you should’ve put her under oath.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. President Trump’s not– I’m– I’m sure his lawyers, given his situation, are focusing him on this. It’s still a crime to lie to the F.B.I. and federal prosecutors, whether or not you’re under oath. It doesn’t matter. If you knowingly tell a false statement to the F.B.I., as Martha Stewart did, as David Petraeus did, as so many others have, you will be prosecuted for it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re under oath or not.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You interview Hillary Clinton I guess it was July 2nd– 2016. But actually, you’re not there?
JAMES COMEY: No ’cause I’m the dir– at that point, the director of the F.B.I. Only on TV is the director jumping out of helicopters and conducting interviews. My job is to make the final decisions. The pros will do the interview, the agents who had actually been investigating her and crawling all around her life for a year. And that’s the way it should be.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And after the interview, what did you learn?
JAMES COMEY: Spent a lotta time on the phone with the team that afternoon and learned that we didn’t find anything, the team didn’t, that changed their view of the case. That this was a case that the Department of Justice would never prosecute. And, most importantly, they didn’t want to do additional investigation. There was nothing she said that they believed we could prove was false. And there was nothing else they needed to run down to see if she was testifying to us falsely. And so the view of the team was, “We’re done here. Our view of this case is firm. No prosecutor would prosecute this case.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So if no prosecutor would prosecute this case, why not put out a one line statement, “We decline to prosecute”?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. It’s a great question and a reasonable question. And the reason I thought that would be inappropriate is the faith and confidence of the American people in the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. are at the core of those organizations. If they’re not believed to be honest, independent and competent, they’re done. If you issue a one liner from the Obama Justice Department about one of the two candidates for president of the United States, in this case the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, and say, “We’re done here,” in the absence of any kind of transparency, corrosive doubt creeps in that the system is rigged somehow. And so my view was– and this is a longstanding practice of the Department of Justice, that in rare cases, you should offer transparency so the American people can take a look at what you did and know that it was done in an honest, competent, independent way.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The Department of Justice, but not the F.B.I. director?
JAMES COMEY: That’s right. What was unusual about this, in fact unprecedented in my experience, is that I decided it was important that I speak separately from the attorney general. In the– in the ordinary case, what we’d do is what I said publicly, we’d have sent that to the Department of Justice. And the attorney general could announce it in any way the attorney general chose.
What was different here is I decided, given some things that had happened, that to protect the institutions, we actually had to step away from the Department of Justice and tell the American people, “Look, here’s what we did. Here’s what we found. Here’s what we think. You can count on the fact this was done in an apolitical way. Your organization of justice acted the way you’d want it to be. And that if I’d done the normal thing, that wouldn’t have happened and the institutions would’ve been damaged.”
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Your critics say this is where your ego got the best of you. This was your original sin?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I hear that. And, look, there’s always a risk that I’m blind to how I’m acting. I don’t think so. I knew this would be terrible for me personally. So if it was about ego, why would I step out in front of the organization and get shot a thousand times?
I actually thought, as bad as this’ll be for me personally, this is my obligation, to protect the F.B.I. and the Justice Department. Given all that had gone on, the attorney general of the United States could not credibly announce this result. And if she did, it would do corrosive damage to the institutions of justice.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Dig into that. Why could the attorney general not credibly announce the results of this investigation?
JAMES COMEY: Well, for a bunch of reasons. And it sort of built over the course of the investigation. First of all, we had the problem that President Obama had twice publicly basically said, “There’s no there, there.” In an interview with– on Fox, an interview on 60 Minutes I think, both times he said that. So that’s his Justice Department.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did that surprise you?
JAMES COMEY: It really did surprise me. He’s a very smart man and a lawyer. And so it surprised me. He shouldn’t have done it. It was inappropriate–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you think he was trying to color the case?
JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. I don’t think so. He didn’t have any insight into the case, at least as far as I know, more than anybody reading the newspaper did, which was zero ’cause there were no leaks. I think he felt a pressure in the political environment because he wanted Hillary Clinton to be elected, to give her a shot in the arm. And so he spoke about an investigation. And he shouldn’t have done that. But that, as you can imagine, created this drumbeat that the Obama Justice Department, the fix is in because the president has told them what result they should reach.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So that’s one reason that the Justice Department is compromised. What’s reason number two?
JAMES COMEY: Reason number two. And I have to talk about it very carefully. Classified information came into the possession of the U.S. intelligence community in the early part of 2016 that indicated there was material out there that raised the question of whether Loretta Lynch was controlling me and the F.B.I. and keeping the Clinton campaign informed about our investigation. Now, I don’t believe that. And I don’t believe that’s true. But there was material that I knew someday, when it’s declassified, and I thought that would be decades in the future, would cause historians to wonder, “Hmm, was there some strange business going on there? Was Loretta Lynch somehow in — carrying water for the campaign and controlling what the F.B.I. did?”
Again, it wasn’t true. But there was material that would allow that to come out someday in the long future when it’s declassified. That all changed when someday, in my mind, became maybe tomorrow. That was in the middle of June, when the Russian government, using some fronts, started dumping stolen material that had been hacked from organizations associated with the Democratic party in the United States. And all of a sudden, it dawned on me that that someday decades from now when this material comes out actually may be now, tomorrow. And again, even though I didn’t believe it, the material was real. Whether what it said was true or not, I didn’t know. But it would allow people, partisans and even people who were partisans, to strongly argue that something was wrong with the way the investigation–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you investigate it?
JAMES COMEY: We did.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what did you find?
JAMES COMEY: Found no indication that it was true.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Boy. So– so– so you find no indication this is true. And yet– you write that this is the reason you went out on your own–
JAMES COMEY: One of the reasons.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the reasons. Doesn’t that cast a cloud over the attorney general, an unjustified cloud over the attorney general?
JAMES COMEY: In a way, yeah. I mean, I like Loretta. As I said, I respect her even today. And so in a way, it’s unfair to her. But when you’re in the business of running a Justice Department institution, what people think matters. Public faith and confidence is everything to the Justice Department.
And so whether or not it was true, the fact that it would be out there and allow people to argue that something terrible was going on in this investigation cut in favor of more transparency. I’m not saying it’s true. But because it will undermine confidence in our work, the way to react to that is show people your work. And again, Justice Department policy allows for this. What made it different was the separation between the F.B.I. and the Justice Department. Now, that– of course, that material– so– I’m talking about it carefully because it’s still classified, that was just one brick in the load. The– the major brick in the load happened just before–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: H– how–
JAMES COMEY: –the Clinton email–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –yeah, and I want to get to that–
JAMES COMEY: –entered.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: –in a second. But I know you can’t talk about it, but I’ve read about it. I think a lotta the country has read about it as well. These are emails or memos released by the Russians. The F.B.I. knows they’re junk. How can you then allow that to influence this decision?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, that’s tricky for me ’cause– ’cause the F.B.I.’s told me that I have to be very careful speaking about this ’cause it’s still classified. What I can say is the material is legitimate. It– it is real. The content is real. Now, whether the content is true is a different question. And again, to my mind, I believed it was not true. I– I didn’t see any indication that Loretta Lynch was trying to cover this investigation for the Clinton campaign or direct me in any way. She stayed away from it as far as I could tell. But the point of it is I knew there was material that might hit the public square any moment, that would allow people to argue powerfully that there was monkey business going on–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But then wouldn’t– your obligation then be you get up and say, “No, there’s no monkey business. I know that. I’ve investigated it. I’ve looked into it. It’s not true”?
JAMES COMEY: Well, sure, if I could do that, given the rules of classified information, but I couldn’t. But what I could do instead is offer unusual transparency to the American people about the investigation. Tell them, “Here’s what we did, here’s what we found, here’s what we think about it. You can trust us because we’re showing you our work.” Again, which Department of Justice policy permits in an unusual case.
And so, it was frustrating. I’m sure it’s frustrating to Loretta Lynch that– that this material was out there. But it– to my mind, it added to the case that we need to do something unusual to offer the American people transparency. And then the capper happened at the end of June.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, I want to get to that in one second. One final point on this. The New York Times quoted former dus– Department of Justice officials saying, “The F.B.I. never uncovered evidence tying Ms. Lynch and the document’s author and are convinced that Mr. Comey wanted an exers– wanted an excuse to put himself in the spotlight.” JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Look, I– I understand why people say that. That’s just not true. I’m telling you how we evaluated the information. We didn’t have any reason to believe that what the document said was accurate. That is, that Loretta Lynch was a channel to the Clinton campaign and controlling us. But there’s no doubt that it would’ve allowed people to argue strongly that that was the case.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Di– d– did you tell– Congressional officials in a classified setting that this was not true?
JAMES COMEY: That what was not true?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That thi– that this information was not true? That you’d investigated, looked into it and it was not– it was– it was not valid?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I c– I can’t say what I said in a classified setting, so let’s set that aside. I can tell you right now– we looked into it and found no evidence to support its truth.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Third brick. The tarmac meeting.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, the biggest brick of all. Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton had a conversation on an F.B.I. plane which transported the attorney general in Phoenix in late June. And I didn’t pay much attention to it. I saw news accounts of it early on. And it quickly blossomed into a very big deal the last week of June.
I don’t know what they talked about. I credit Loretta Lynch ’cause I think she’s an honest person, saying, “We talked about grandchildren and other things.” I find it hard to believe that Bill Clinton would’ve tried to obstruct justice by walking across the tarmac in front of–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Kind of public.
JAMES COMEY: –in front of a bunch of F.B.I. agents up the s– up the stairs and onto an F.B.I. plane. And so, look, I– I credit Loretta’s account that– what they talked about. I think she’s telling the truth about that. But again, the confidence of people that the system is working in a fair way, that Lady Justice has kept her blindfold on, matters.
And so what happened the last week of June is a big storm blew up about what was going on there. And the attorney general did something that, to my mind, was strange. At the end of that week– so I think Friday, July the 1st, she put out a public statement which I didn’t know was coming, saying, “I’m not going to remove myself from the investigation.” “Recuse” is the official word. “I’m not going to step outta the investigation. But I will accept Jim Comey’s recommendation and that of the career prosecutors.” And at that moment, I decided I have to step– as much as I like her, I have to step away from her and show the American people the F.B.I.’s work separately.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Wasn’t there another route? Couldn’t you have just gone to her privately, personally and said, “You’ve gotta recuse. You’ve gotta get out of this completely”?
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. But she’s my boss, one. Two, w–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve stood up to bosses before.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so that’s why there’s a two. Two, she announced publicly what she was doing before talking to me. And so I really didn’t think there was a prospect that, having announced publicly, she would accept my recommendation and that of the career prosecutors, that I would be able to convince her to recuse.
Now, what I did think about was, “Should I call for the appointment of a special prosecutor?” Someone outside the normal chain of command who can then take our work and announce it separately from– so I don’t have to do this, can do it separately from me. And I decided that would be brutally unfair to the subject of the investigation, Hillary Clinton. And that’s not a political judgment, that’s an ethical judgment.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: No, but there’s a third route. You– you– you push her to recuse and then it goes through the normal Justice Department channels. The deputy AG, Sally Yates, makes the decision, makes the announcement?
JAMES COMEY: Sure, maybe. Maybe. And– and I– I suppose a reasonable person might have done that. But my judgment was she’s just announced publicly that she’s not going to recuse herself. And she’ll accept my recommendation that of the career prosecutors. And so what more is there to do at that point?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you make the decision to make a public statement– July 5th. Take us inside your head. Tell us what you were thinking.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, my goal was to try to offer as much transparency as I could, consistent with the law and policy, to the American people, with the goal of convincing them, first of all, that we’re not on anybody’s side. We’re not on the Democrat side or the Republican side. That we did this in a competent way, an honest way, an independent way.
And there’s no there, there. That no reasonable prosecutor would prosecute this case. And you can rely upon that ’cause we did this well and in an apolitical way. And so we crafted a statement that we worked on endlessly to get it right. And I decided that I would read it, say it out loud, so that people could hear the tone in my voice. But that I wouldn’t take any questions. And that was the goal, to give a report to the American people and then step away from it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You even thought about the tie you’d wear that day?
JAMES COMEY: I did. We’re in such– we’re still in such a vicious partisan time. I don’t know whether folks notice this, but in Washington Democrats tend to wear blue– men tend to wear blue ties. Republicans tend to wear red ties. And so I chose a gold tie that morning ’cause I didn’t want to wear either of the normal gang colors.
Which seems crazy that I have to think about that, but given the times we were operating in and we’re still in, I was hoping the American people would see us as apart from this craziness. That these are people I can trust. And part of that was not just the way I dressed. But by offering them a lot of information. Sh– let me show you my work so you can understand we did this in the way you would want us to do it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Your critics say you offered way too much information. The way they put it, “Listen, in the F.B.I. we simply do not bloody up people we choose not to prosecute.”
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, and I get that. Look, that’s fair criticism. But here– here’s my response to it. The Department of Justice has long done that in the appropriate case, where it’s necessary to the credibility of the work. There was controversy for the first couple years of my time as director over whether the IRS had targeted Tea Party groups.
And the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. did a criminal investigation and in a detailed report that was public as to what we had done– the department did this, they criticized people but said no criminal case was warranted. This is just consistent with that practice. What I’d ask those people is would the work really have been credible if I wasn’t honest? That– that Hillary Clinton’s c– conduct on that personal email server was extremely careless. It just was. And if I wasn’t honest about that, how am I achieving the goal of showing the American people this is your justice system working in the right way?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Y– you– you cited her for extreme carelessness. In an original draft of your statement– the words, “Gross negligence” were there instead of “Extreme carelessness.” And– and President Trump’s allies say that’s a sign that you personally went easy on her.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don’t. All these allies who think I went easy on her have a hard time explaining so why did I do what I did in October, but I’ll stay in July. I wasn’t trying to go easy on her or hard on her. I was trying to be honest and clear with the American people. What she did was really sloppy.