JUDY WOODRUFF: We take a closer look now at James Comey’s final months at the FBI through the lens of a friend.
William Brangham sat down with Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare.com, to gain some insight into the former FBI director’s dealings with the president during that volatile period of time.
William began by asking Wittes about the nature of his relationship with Comey.
BENJAMIN WITTES, Editor-in-Chief, Lawfare: Well, it’s really simple.
We’re friends. We have been friends for a long time. And contrary to a sort of mythology that has developed, I’m not among his closest friends by any means, or one of his sort of intimate advisers.
So, I am in no sense talking at his behest. I’m talking about it because I read The New York Times story the other day that the president had asked for a loyalty oath from him.
And that story put, in frankly, sharply menacing terms a set of comments and anecdotes that he had told me. And I saw them, in light of that story, very differently than the way I had seen them before.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sharply menacing?
BENJAMIN WITTES: Yes, I think so.
And so I thought about it overnight on Thursday night, and I decided that the public should know about what he had told me. He really spent an enormous amount of energy in the period in which both he and Trump were in office trying to protect the FBI from political interference from the White House.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You described Comey’s concerns as — quote — “improper contacts and interferences from a group of people he, Comey, didn’t regard as honorable.”
What gave you that sense that he didn’t view these people as honorable people?
BENJAMIN WITTES: It was written on every line in his face. It was evident in the disapproving tone that he took when he described them.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Including the president?
BENJAMIN WITTES: Oh, very much so.
The color of wallpaper was that these were not honorable people, and that protecting the FBI from them was his day job.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You write about the famous hug, when Comey was asked to come with a bunch of different law enforcement agents to the White House soon after the inauguration.
BENJAMIN WITTES: Yes.
So, Comey really didn’t want to go that meeting. And there were a lot of Democrats who kind of blame him for Trump. So, he was particularly sensitive to the idea of a sort of show of intimacy or closeness with Trump.
That said, he didn’t feel that he could say no to an invitation from the president, particularly one that went generally to law enforcement senior officials. He really wanted to kind of blend in and not be singled out. And he’s 6’8”. So, when you’re…
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Kind of tough to do that.
BENJAMIN WITTES: And when you’re 6’8”, it’s really hard to blend in. And he stands in the part of the room that is as far from Trump as I is physically possible to be, and also against blue drapes.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He chose that spot?
BENJAMIN WITTES: He chose that spot because it was — almost like a chameleon.
And then, at the end, right at the end, Trump singles him out in a fashion that he regarded as sort of calculated to maximally drive home this sensitivity of Democratic voters.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He’s become more famous than me.
BENJAMIN WITTES: And he extends his hand kind of preemptively, and Trump grabs the hand and kind of pulls him into a hug, but the hug is entirely one-sided. And Comey was just completely disgusted by the episode.
He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public, in a way that would sow and emphasize concerns that half of the electorate had about him and the bureau.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You also recount a story of when Rod Rosenstein, who is now the deputy attorney general, was being nominated or about to have his hearings.
Can you explain?
BENJAMIN WITTES: Rod Rosenstein is a respected career prosecutor who’s been in government a long time, and served in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
And I was rather surprised at how unenthusiastic Comey was that there was going to be a Senate-confirmed deputy attorney general. And what he specifically said was — and I will never forget it — he said, “Rod is a survivor.”
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meaning he’s lived through Democratic and Republican administrations.
BENJAMIN WITTES: Yes.
And, you know, you don’t get to survive that long without making some compromises. And so he said, “I have — so, I have concerns.”
And I think what he was thinking at that moment was that: If I was asked to give a loyalty oath, and the president has done these things to undermine me and to sort of bring me into the fold, what was he asked to do?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What do you make of the criticism that many people have made about Comey, that, if all of these things were happening to you, if you were asked for a loyalty oath, if the president had approached you about dropping the Flynn investigation, if you felt like they were treading uncomfortably on your territory, why not blow the whistle? Why not quit? Why not raise more hell about this, if it was so bad?
BENJAMIN WITTES: Well, so, first of all, one possibility is that it wasn’t so bad, that it was — and I actually think there’s some evidence of this — that this was a situation that he thought he was going to have to manage, but that he could handle that.
And I think he thought he had it under control. And, look, each individual one of these incidents is an egregious impropriety, but they are much, much worse in light of the fact that we know that, when he didn’t get the loyalty oath from Comey, and these efforts to kind of bring him into the fold failed, that he then turned around and fired him.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, in the end, why do you think Trump fired Comey?
BENJAMIN WITTES: Trump fired Jim Comey because the most dangerous thing in the world, if you are Donald Trump, is a person who tells the truth, is dogged, you can’t control, and who is as committed as Comey is to the institutional independence of an organization that has the power to investigate you.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Benjamin Wittes, thank you very much.
BENJAMIN WITTES: Thanks for having me.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch William’s extended interview with Benjamin Wittes online at PBS.org/NewsHour.