Former FBI director James Comey received a standing ovation from at least some members of the audience when he spoke Monday morning as part of the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall series at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. That must have felt good to Comey, who was unceremoniously fired by President Donald Trump back in May 2017.
Comey, who has also served as a federal prosecutor, U.S. attorney and U.S. deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, addressed that firing in his talk—often with surprising humor—as he has done in his book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.
In a press briefing before his talk, which he delivered from center stage without notes, and in the question-and-answer session that followed, Comey spoke frankly about his concerns when it comes to leadership, ethics and partisan politics in today’s world. But he also joked about everything from his height (he’s 6 feet, 8 inches, but claims that he doesn’t “feel that tall” in his head) to the day of his firing to his hope that “this period of my life will go away and you will no longer recognize me going through the airport” as an “unemployed celebrity.”
He also commented on Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation regarding Russian interference and/or collusion leading up to the 2016 elections, which Trump has repeatedly characterized as a “witch hunt.” With 34 people so far charged in that investigation, they’ve “sure caught a lot of witches,” Comey said, adding, “This is a serious investigation conducted by serious people. And it really matters that people be held accountable for lying during a criminal investigation.”
Comey, who was appointed FBI director by President Barack Obama, said he aimed to keep the FBI nonpolitical, so that truth remains the touchstone of our country’s common values. Working under Presidents George W. Bush, Obama and Trump, he pointed out that lies have been told by all—in the case of Bush, regarding “weapons of mass destruction” leading to the war with Iraq, in the case of Obama, when promising that “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” regarding his health care plan. But he also praised Obama as the “best listener” he knew. “He never sat behind a desk at a meeting, he turned and faced you. He could be quiet for 10 minutes and he wasn’t thinking about golf, because then he could ask questions” about what he’d heard.
In contrast, Comey said, Trump is “one of the worst listeners, with no reference to anything but the center of his chest, and ‘How will I get what I want?’” In his meetings with Trump, he added “It was always him trying to pull me close, and me pulling away, because I’m not ‘on the team.’” A real leader, Comey said, is someone like former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, whom he admires and who would “never demand loyalty.”
In his book, Comey also described President Trump as a “forest fire” in terms of damage and destruction, but pointed out that after a fire, there is always new growth, referring to himself as an optimist who believes that as a country “Our glue is a set of values. What keeps me going is a sense of America...and a belief in truth and the rule of law.”
About that famous firing: Comey was meeting with FBI employees in Los Angeles that day in a large room where, at the back, there were three television sets. “You see where this is going?” he asked his audience. “I look up to see on the screens ‘Comey Resigns.’ Well, the FBI, they’re hilarious pranksters, so I thought it was a scam. Then I looked up again and saw ‘Comey Fired.’ I said to everyone, ‘I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I am going to find out.’” After calling his assistant back in Washington, he was told that someone was knocking at the FBI’s door with a letter making the news official.
“So I thought, how do I get home?” he joked. “I came on an FBI plane, but I’m not with the FBI anymore. And someone said to me, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you home on that plane if we have to take you in handcuffs.’” He didn’t need handcuffs, fortunately, but once aboard, he admitted, he did open a bottle of wine and drink some from a paper cup.
Remaining in the 2019 Town Hall series season are speakers Jimmy Wales, Caroline Kennedy and Ian Bremmer. Limited single tickets are available at rclassociation.org.