Former FBI Director James Comey has seemingly attempted to set a record for most book tour interviews in the shortest time. His publicity campaign for A Higher Loyalty has included sitdowns with NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, NPR, the New York Times, and even theSkimm. “I don’t crave to be known,” he said at a live taping of the New Yorker Radio Hour podcast last night. He then schlepped a few blocks north in Manhattan to appear on The Rachel Maddow Show.
It is tempting, given the shady circumstances around Comey’s firing by President Donald Trump, to view the onetime FBI director as a media ally. Comey has long framed his mission in noble terms that journalists love: speaking truth to power and holding government accountable. And he’s collaborated closely with the press in amplifying this (coincidentally self-serving) message, as his marathon of mostly friendly interviews this week shows.
But Comey’s memos from his early interactions with Trump in 2017, first obtained by the Associated Press last night, paint a different picture. By the then-FBI director’s own, potentially sanitized accounts, he’s just as antagonistic toward journalists as anyone else in power.
Take Comey’s memo dated Feb. 14, 2017, less than two weeks after news of Trump’s rocky phone calls with leaders from Australia and Mexico were leaked to the press. Here’s the then-FBI director recalling a portion of his conversation with the president in the Oval Office (emphasis mine):
I explained that the FBI gathers intelligence in part to equip the President to make decisions, and if people run around telling the press what we do, that ability will be compromised. I said I was eager to find leakers and would like to nail one to the door as a message. I said something about it being difficult and he replied that we need to go after the reporters, and referred to the fact that 10 or 15 years ago we put them in jail to find out what they did, and it worked. He mentioned Judy Miller by name. I explained that I was a fan of pursuing leaks aggressively but that going after reporters was tricky, for legal reasons and because DOJ tends to approach it conservatively. He replied by telling me to talk to “Sessions” and see what we can do about being more aggressive. I told him I would speak to the Attorney General.
Trump has fixated on leaks since his presidential campaign, often claiming that reporters conjure anonymous sources out of thin air. And later that night in the Oval Office, Comey wrote, the president returned to the topic (emphasis mine):
The President then wrapped up our conversation by returning to the issue of finding leakers. I said something about the value of putting a head on a pike as a message. He replied by saying it may involve putting reporters in jail. “They spend a few days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk.” I laughed as I walked to the door Reince Priebus had opened.
Here we have the FBI director, by his own recollection, laughing at an apparent prison rape joke about journalists.
It could have been a nervous laugh in an uncomfortable situation. The more plausible explanation is that Comey, like other top law enforcement officials throughout history, harbors deep animosity toward the press’ motives when they don’t suit him. He was an appointee of the Obama administration, whose Justice Department pursued criminal leak investigations more aggressively than any other in U.S. history. Comey’s more recent boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has since promised to ramp up the government’s war on journalists’ sources even further.
Comey has deftly used the press to burnish his own image since his firing, sharing information about his meetings with Trump with a personal friend and Columbia Law School professor, who subsequently passed it along to the New York Times. He was one of the people—to use his own memo’s words—“running around telling the press what we do.” He did so because it suited his interests at that particular moment, just as his openness to the press suits him now.
My only request, as the former FBI director continues his book tour, is that the reporters whose mission he once derided in the Oval Office ask him to explain his change of heart.