The United States is in sore need of ethical leadership, former FBI director James Comey said Monday during a talk at the Ambassador Auditorium in West Pasadena as part of the 23rd season of the Distinguished Speaker Series.
“We must make sure good follows bad,” said Comey before an audience of more than 1,200 people. “I’m so worried that the picture of leadership today — not just in our national government, although that’s deeply concerning to me without regard to policy differences but in terms of values — but also in sports, entertainment, religious institutions, nonprofit organizations and corporations. The vision of leadership is so unethical that I worry people are going to say, ‘That’s just the way it is’ and especially young people will just step away from it, and then we’re going to be deeply sorry.”
His wide-ranging remarks covered his hiring by President Obama (who he said is the best listener he’s ever met), his firing by President Trump (which he said was tacky and tasteless), the death of his 9-day-old son Collin, his role in the Russia investigation, Trump’s request for loyalty from him and how important kindness, toughness, confidence, humility, humor and listening are to ethical leadership.
“Trump doesn’t know anything about leadership,” Comey said. “I’ve never ever heard Trump laugh. It is a deeply concerning absence and a sign of insecurity in a leader. And to tell that man important stuff you almost always have to interrupt him. He’s a deeply insecure person.”
In 2013, President Obama appointed Comey as the seventh director of the FBI, succeeding Robert S. Mueller III, who now serves as the special counsel investigating whether there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump obstructed justice of that investigation. Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017, shortly after Comey was unceremoniously fired by Trump.
Before leading the FBI, Comey served as counsel for private law firms, Lockheed Martin and Bridgewater Associates. He also served as a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft in the Bush II administration.
Comey has a complicated legacy. His actions as FBI director during the 2016 election left both Democrats and Republicans upset with him. On July 5, 2016, he unexpectedly went around Justice Department leadership and recommended that no criminal charges should be brought against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State but added that she had been “extremely careless.”
On October 28, 2016, just days before the election, Comey announced that the FBI had found new Clinton emails and was reopening the investigation. The emails turned out to be duplicates, but the damage was done. Meanwhile, Comey kept silent on the fact that Trump and his associates were being investigated by the FBI for their potentially criminal interactions with Russians, seen by some as a double standard on Comey’s part. On Monday, Comey said he regrets having to be a part of that process, but thinks he made the right decisions under difficult circumstances.
“I don’t know [if my actions helped elect Trump],” he said. “I really, really, really hope not. But it doesn’t change how I think about my decision—it just increases the pain. The FBI wasn’t on anybody’s side and it also wasn’t out to get Trump.”
‘I Expect Loyalty’
On Jan. 27, 2017, Trump invited Comey to dinner at the White House, an unusual situation for a president and an FBI director. Comey wrote in his book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” that the move made him feel uncomfortable because “the president of the United States had invited me to dinner and decided my job security was on the menu.” He said that Trump told him, “I need loyalty [from you]. I expect loyalty.” The request reminded Comey of tactics employed by Cosa Nostra bosses, whom he helped prosecute in the 1990s.
“A real leader never asks for loyalty,” Comey said in Pasadena. “All they do is give.”
Trump also told Comey he hoped the FBI would let go of the investigation against his then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in December 2016, during the transition. It was then that Flynn told the Russians not to overreact to Obama’s sanctions as punishment for meddling in the election because Trump would soon be president and overturn them.
Flynn was fired in February 2017 and soon began cooperating with Mueller. Former New Jersey Governor and Trump supporter Chris Christie wrote in a new book that Trump and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner naïvely believed firing Flynn would end the Russia investigation.
Because Comey declined to admit publicly that Trump was not personally under investigation at the time, Trump fired Comey on May 9, 2017. Comey learned about his dismissal by seeing a headline on TV as the director was speaking to FBI agents at a field office in Los Angeles. He said in Pasadena on Monday that he felt both numb and stunned.
The White House’s official line was that Comey was fired because of the way he mishandled the Clinton email investigation, citing a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But one day after firing Comey, Trump invited Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov into the Oval Office at the White House, where he told them, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
And during a televised interview with NBC’s Lester Holt two days after firing Comey, Trump said, “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’” Trump later claimed Holt doctored the footage of that interview.
Trump also said he would have fired Comey whether or not Rosenstein wrote that justification memo, and in an upcoming book by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who was also fired under pressure from Trump just hours before he would be eligible for retirement benefits, McCabe wrote that Trump ordered Rosenstein to write that memo against his wishes.
Trump has called Comey an “untruthful slime ball” and a “showboat.” Comey’s “aww shucks” demeanor strikes some as genuine and others as not so much. After Comey had a friend deliver the contemporaneous memos he wrote after his awkward meetings with Trump to the media, Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” When questioned during a congressional hearing about the existence of such tapes, Comey said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
A lifelong Republican, Comey has since his firing turned his ire on Trump and congressional Republicans. The latter have hauled Comey before Congress several times in the past two years. After the most recent hearings in December, Comey tweeted that it “wasn’t a search for truth, but a desperate attempt to find anything that can be used to attack the institutions of justice investigating this president. They came up empty today but will try again. In the long run, it’ll make no difference because facts are stubborn things.”
Comey told reporters that Republicans were “talking again about Hillary Clinton’s emails, for heaven’s sake,” and called Republicans’ silence in the face of Trump’s attacks on the FBI and other US institutions “shameful.”
“I’ve been a Republican most of my adult life,” he said in Pasadena. “What I say to my Republican colleagues is, imagine the next president’s a Democrat and she starts calling for the jailing of private citizens, attacking the intelligence agencies and the FBI and calling for criminal investigations of her political opponents. What’s your reaction going to be? Your head’s going to explode. So why is it not exploding now? This is about America’s values. I get why Donald Trump is doing it; in a way, it’s kind of his thing. What’s most disturbing is, Republicans are standing there with their hands in their pockets looking at their shoes.”
He added that Trump is trying to burn down the FBI because he sees it as a threat, but that in the long run the institution and the country will survive the Trump presidency.
“We are going to be OK. All of this will pass,” he said. “But we need a moment of inflection in this country. If Trump were removed from office by impeachment, a whole lot of people would believe that there’d been a coup. We need to vote the values that glue us together. We need to remove him from office using that mechanism, so we send a message that we will not have a leader who does not embody those values.”
Learn more about the Distinguished Speaker Series at speakersla.com.