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On Clinton email revelations, ‘there was no good option’ for FBI, says James Comey

Facing the storm over Hillary Clinton's email amid the 2016 election, James Comey said he and the FBI "were screwed honestly either way." The former FBI director and author of “A Higher Loyalty” joins Judy Woodruff for part two of their interview, in which they discuss Loretta Lynch’s encounter with former President Bill Clinton and his decision to announce the reopening of the Clinton probe.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, as we just heard, James Comey is at the center of many of what are reported to be Robert Mueller's questions for the president.

    I sat down with the former FBI director yesterday, before those questions were release. We aired the first part of that interview last night.

    So, tonight, we delve into the 2016 election, the investigations that Comey led, and why he went around then Attorney General Loretta Lynch in announcing the end of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation.

    Comey has been promoting his new memoir, "A Higher Loyalty."

    You write about the encounter on former Attorney General Loretta Lynch's plane she had with former President Bill Clinton. If they had not had that meeting, if she had refused to see him, would your role in all this never have been?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Might have been very different, yes, because that was the capper for me, when she — in the wake of all the controversy over that meeting, she — someone I respect and like, but she made an announcement that was strange, where she said, I won't recuse myself, but I will accept Jim Comey's recommendation and that of the career prosecutors.

    That was the capper for me in deciding I have to step away to protect the integrity of the institutions. Had that not happened, maybe we'd be in a very different place. Maybe you and I wouldn't have met today. Much as I have enjoyed meeting you, that might have been a nice place to be.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In a larger sense, was there a huge disconnect between giving more attention to the Clinton e-mails than to whether there was a Trump-Russia connection?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    I don't think so, because of the nature of the two investigations.

    The Clinton e-mail investigation was public almost from the beginning. The subject of it was the secretary, the candidate herself. And we closed it publicly.

    The Russia counterintelligence investigations had just started in the summer of 2016. We didn't know whether we had anything. Trump wasn't the subject of that investigation. And so we actually never seriously considered making a statement, in part because what would we say at that point in time?

    We didn't know whether we had anything at all. And so I think the two of them are very distinct. I also understand why people ask that question.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You have referred multiple times to classified information about former Attorney General Loretta Lynch that leaves the impression that she was compromised by her personal loyalty to Hillary Clinton.

    You say she wasn't compromised, but you can't explain why not. The friends of both of you are saying that you have been very unfair to her.

    Can you resolve this once and for all?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    I can't.

    And, look, I get that. I like Loretta very much and respect her. And I saw no evidence at all that she was compromised or feeding information to the Clinton campaign or something like that.

    My worry was — and I had to write about it, because it was a key factor in my decision to step away from her in July and announce separately. My worry was that information was about to become public that would allow people to reasonably question whether that was true, whether she really was acting appropriately.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But wasn't that — excuse me — wasn't that information known to be false?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    No.

    Now, this is a tricky thing. The information was legitimate. Now, whether what it said was true about Loretta was a very different question.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That's hard to understand. The information was legitimate.

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Yes, I know. I'm stuck, because I have gone as far as I can go in the book in describing classified material. But people have said, you know, it was forgeries or bogus. Not true.

    But whether the substance of the information was accurate or not, I saw no reason to believe that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, that leaves her hanging.

  • JAMES COMEY:

    It does. And I get that.

    But I couldn't — and I did this in my testimony when I was asked what the reasons were you made your decision. This was a significant factor. And I feel badly that it puts Loretta in a tight spot. But it's the truth that it was an important factor.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You mentioned you might not be sitting here. Do you have concerns at this point, in this long public tour, with what is perceived as your very tough critiques of President Trump — whether they're in the book, you have said them in interviews — sharing details of your interactions with him?

    All this has the effect of making it look as if the FBI has it in for the president of the United States. And this is at a time when Robert Mueller is conducting an investigation. Doesn't this, in effect, undermine the credibility of the entire bureau and of what the Department of Justice and of what Mr. Mueller is doing?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Yes, I don't think so, for two reasons.

    First, my testimony, if it's ever needed, has been locked down since last summer, when I testified under oath. And even before that, I wrote detailed memos. So what I have to say, unless I lose my mind and start making stuff up, has been set in concrete for many, many months.

    But, more importantly, I would actually turn it around. The president of the United States is attacking the Justice Department and the FBI as partisan organizations, as corrupt. And I think I have a role to play in trying to explain to the American people, that's nonsense.

    This organization is not politicized. It's being politically attacked. And so I think I can do something useful. That won't have any reasonable prospect of hurting the special counsel's operation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But you have attacked or criticized him back. You have said he's untethered from the truth. You have been very critical of him, not just in the book, but in interviews.

    And my question is the perception that the man who ran the FBI, was formerly the number two person at the Department of Justice, is so critical of the United States — the president of the United States, how can we trust what anybody associated with the Department of Justice is doing?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Yes, I would hope folks would read the book, because you will see, yes, I'm critical of President Trump. I'm also critical of myself.

    And I'm trying to tell the truth. And I couldn't tell the truth about what ethical leadership looks like without telling the truth about Donald Trump being unethical.

    But, again, the facts are sticky and stubborn things. And so I lay out the facts of my encounters with President Trump in the book. I wrote them down at the time. And so I do think they fairly support the characterizations that I'm offering.

    People can disagree, but I don't think you can walk away from this saying either that I'm, in a partisan way, trying to attack the president, or that I have somehow let the FBI down. I actually see it as the reverse.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, in connection with all of this, you have said that — I mean, it's part of the premise of the book — you would love to keep politics out of the FBI.

    And yet you're very open in saying it was the polls, that, in part, you were watching the polls. Hillary Clinton was so far ahead. You ended up being influenced by politics.

    So, did you end up doing the exact thing you didn't want to do to the agency?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    I don't think so.

    In fact, what I say in the book is, I actually don't remember consciously thinking about the polls, and tried very hard to push that out of my thought process and make the decisions without regard to it.

    What I do in the book, which maybe is a mistake in a Washington book, but I try to be introspective and ask myself hard questions. Could it have influenced me? And the answer is, of course it could have. The whole world was assuming Hillary Clinton would be elected.

    But the bottom line doesn't change. I had two choices. One was bad. One was catastrophic. I could speak in October, or I could conceal that something was no longer true that I and the attorney general have said during the summer was true. I have to choose the bad option over the catastrophic.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Do you think you would've done the same thing had Donald Trump been well ahead in the polls?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Yes, I think so. I think so, again, because you can't choose the catastrophic option.

    Forget the July press conference. We told the American people and Congress, we being the leadership of the FBI and the Justice Department, this was done well. There's no there there. Move on.

    And now we know that's not true in a huge way. What do you do? You can speak about that, which is a bad thing. You could conceal that, which is a nightmare, catastrophic. And so I think, no matter where the polls stood, you would still have to choose the speak option.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I'm asking in part because even your very good friend Benjamin Wittes, editing Lawfare, has written, "The steps one takes to keep the bureau out of politics, however sincere, however open, become politicization."

    He was analyzing the decisions you made.

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Yes. And that's fair, because you're stuck in the middle of an election that is uniquely and viciously partisan.

    You have conducted a criminal investigation of one of the two candidates for president, and now that investigation is restarting. There is no good outcome.

    If I had made the opposite choice and concealed, probably different groups of people would hate me, but the storm over that would be enormous. And I knew that going in, that there was no good option for me and for the FBI.

    And, in a way, that's freeing, because that frees you up to just say, you know what, what's the right thing to do here, and make that call.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How do you answer the nonpartisan critics out there who say that, in trying to describe ethical leadership, which is what you say the theme of your book is, you failed, yourself, at your own moment of testing, that at the precise moment when you should have let the professionals do their work, let the chips fall where they may, you decided, Jim Comey, to step up and take an action; in other words, you inserted yourself into the process very publicly, thus undercutting what you say is your is your mission, your goal?

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Look, people, if they read the book, can walk away with whatever good-faith conclusion they want to reach. That's up to them.

    But I really do think it's hard to say, if you look at the facts, that the FBI and I — it wasn't just me alone — chose to be involved in this situation. We were stuck in the middle of a no-win situation. And I hope what you see — and the reason those stories are in the book is they illustrate the challenge of making hard decisions in the middle of a partisan environment.

    What do you think about? What are your North Stars in that situation? And, there, I think we thought about the right things. And it wasn't about us. It was about us doing our job in the middle of a tremendous storm, where we were screwed, honestly, either way.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Does it give you some kind of comfort that your critics are coming from both sides, or…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JAMES COMEY:

    No, because I could still be wrong. I mean, there is this old saying, if everybody hates you, you must be right. Not necessarily. I could still be wrong.

    But it is — to me, it's a depressing illustration of our polarization that the Clinton people think I'm on Trump's side, the Trump people think I'm on Clinton's side. Those two things cannot both be true. The truth is, we're not on anybody's side.

    Reasonable people might have made different decisions. Got it. And I respect that. But it's not fair to say that we at the FBI made these decisions because we were on anybody's side.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    James Comey.

    The book is "A Higher Loyalty" — Truth, Lies, and Leadership."

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Thanks for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Thank you.

  • JAMES COMEY:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Thank you very much.

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