Comey on whether President Trump is compromised by Russia:
In an even more explosive comment, Comey said it would be less than honest to rule out the possibility that Trump had been compromised by one of the United States' primary foreign adversaries.
"It's hard to explain some things without at least leaving your mind open to that being a possibility," said Comey, who has served three presidents in senior posts. "There's a non-zero possibility that the Russians have some, some sway over him that is rooted in his personal experience, and I don't know whether that's the business about the activity in a Moscow hotel room or finances or something else."
Comey on Trump's refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin, even in private:
Comey didn't claim to have hard evidence that Trump had been compromised by Moscow, describing the prospect as possible but not likely. His suspicions had been raised by Trump's reluctance to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, even for Moscow's aggressive efforts to meddle in the American election. Trump's attitude in private conversations was even more perplexing, he said.
"At least in my experience, he won't criticize Vladimir Putin even in private," he said. "I can understand why a president...might not want to criticize publicly another leader" in the interests of forging a good relationship. "But privately? Sitting with the person in charge of countering the Russian threat in the United States? Privately not being willing to do that? That always struck me."
The suggestion that a president had been compromised by a foreign power "are words I never thought would come out of my mouth," he added.
"It would be an attack on the rule of law that we have not seen in our lifetime," Comey said. He called it "a wake-up call, a blaring alarm for everybody, regardless of your political affiliation, that that is something the American people and their representatives should care deeply about, because that is an attack on who we are."
He declined to say whether another firing would cross a "red line" for impeachment. While he said he saw evidence of obstruction of justice in Trump's treatment of him, he said he didn't know if it reached the threshold of a criminal violation. And he wouldn't engage when asked whether the Russia investigation, while he was running it, had found evidence of collusion by Trump's team with Moscow.
Firing either Rosenstein or Mueller wouldn't end the the investigation that has so vexed the president, he said. "In a way, he'd have to fire everyone in the FBI and the Justice Department because of the nature of those organizations. There are no indispensable people. Firing me did not change the nature of the FBI. Those folks will pursue the truth."
Former FBI Director James Comey's much-anticipated ABC News interview aired Sunday night, and the following excerpts from the full interview transcript deal directly with Russia and the Russia investigation.
On why the FBI opened an investigation into the Trump campaign:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: While this is all going on in July of 2016, the FBI also opens an investigation into the Trump campaign. Why?
JAMES COMEY: Well-- to be more clear, we opened an investigation into whether there were any Americans associated in any way with the Trump campaign who were working with Russia as part of Russia's effort to influence our election. And so in late July, the FBI got information that there was somebody who had had-- was a foreign policy advisor named Papadopoulos to the Trump campaign.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: George Papadopoulos.
JAMES COMEY: Right, who had been talking to someone in London about getting dirt that the Russians had on Hillary Clinton as part of their effort to influence our campaign-- the-- our election. And the reason that was important was that was long before the-- there was any public indication that the Russians had material they were going to dump, which they started dumping in mid-June.
And so we opened, our counterintelligence division, in late July, an investigation to try and figure out-- we know the Russians are trying to mess with our election. Are any Americans working with them, trying to help them?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You also had had your eye on Carter Page, who had also been working with the Trump campaign.
JAMES COMEY: Correct.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what was your concern there?
JAMES COMEY: Similarly, trying to figure out is he in any way coordinating with the Russians, as part of their effort to influence our-- our election? We hear the word "collusion" all the time. "Collusion" is not a word that's familiar to me from my work. The question is, is anybody conspiring or aiding and abetting, helping, the Russians accomplish their goal of interfering in the American election? That's what the counterintelligence investigation was about.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: S-- so what impact did the Steele-- the so-called Steele dossier have on the FBI investigation? Did that trigger the FBI investigation in any way?
JAMES COMEY: No. No, in fact, as I said, the information that triggered it was the Papadopoulos information that came in late July. The FBI didn't get any information that's part of the so-called Steele dossier, as I understand it, until after that. And so the investigation was triggered entirely separately from the Steele dossier.
On President Trump inviting Russia to look for Hillary Clinton's email and refusing to criticize Vladimir Putin:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So the FBI is investigating Russian interference in our campaign, and whether or not any individuals associated with President Trump are cooperating with that interference. What are you thinking then? As you see President Trump invite the Russians to release Hillary Clinton's emails, as you see him refuse to criticize Vladimir Putin?
JAMES COMEY: I'm thinking the questions that we're asking ourselves, which is, is anybody-- is the Trump campaign in any way working directly with the Russians? Is there-- because the-- the fact that the president is calling for the release of the emails could cut both ways.
You could argue it's an indication that they don't have a secret channel with the Russians, or you could argue it means they're in bed with the Russians and there must be connections that we can find. And so it was obviously of interest to us, but we already had the investigation underway.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And the refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin?
JAMES COMEY: I don't know what's behind that. I mean, that's-- that mystified me even after President Trump became president 'cause I discovered that he wouldn't criticize him even in private, which-- I can understand a president making a geopolitical decision that, "I ought not to criticize an adversary country's leader for some reason publicly." But I discovered President Trump wouldn't even do it privately, and I don't know why that is.
On the Christopher Steele dossier:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You first were briefed on the Steele dossier in August of 2015. What did you make of it?
JAMES COMEY: That it, at its core, was consistent with the other information we'd gathered during the intelligence investigation. That there was a massive Russian effort underway to interfere with our election with three goals: to dirty up the American democracy so it's not a shining light for others around the world; to hurt Hillary Clinton, who Vladimir Putin personally hated; and to help Donald Trump become elected president.
Th-- those allegations are at the core of the Steele dossier, and we already knew that was true from totally separate information. And so at its core, it said something that was consistent with what we believed. It was coming from a credible source, someone with a track record, someone who was a credible and respected member of an allied intelligence service during his career. And so it was important that we try to understand it, and see what could we verify, what could we rule in or rule out?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you think it was a credible document?
JAMES COMEY: Well, certainly the source was credible. There's no doubt that he had a network of sources and sub-sources in a position to report on these kinds of things. But we tend to approach these things with a bit of a blank slate, trying to figure out, "So what can we replicate?" This guy, who's credible, says these things are true. Okay. That means we should try and replicate that work to see if we can develop the same sources.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: A-- and at the time, did you know it had been financed at the beginning from President Trump's-- by President Trump's political opponents?
JAMES COMEY: Yes, I-- I was told at some point that it was-- the effort had originally been financed by a Republican source to develop-- material-- opposition research on Donald Trump. Then after the Republican nominating process ended, the effort was taken up and funded by a Democratic aligned group trying to get opposition research on Trump. I never knew which-- who the groups were, but I knew it started with Republicans paying for it and then Democrats were paying for it.
On the decision-making that went into what to tell - and not tell - the public during the 2016 election about Russian interference:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And-- and all through August and September-- there's a great debate going on inside the Obama administration: What to reveal about Russia (SIC) was doing, what to reveal about your investigation. Describe that.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Not the second part. Y-- actually was not a hard question about whether to talk publicly about the fact that we'd opened in-- counterintelligence investigations on a small number of Americans because it was far too early. We didn't know what we had, and we didn't want to tip them off that we were looking at them.
So consistent with our policy-- again, very different than the Hillary Clinton case, which began with a public referral. Everybody knew we were looking at her emails. So when we confirmed it three months later, there's no jeopardy at all to the investigation.
This was very different. We did not want these Americans to know that we had reason to believe they might be working with the Russians 'cause we gotta run this down and investigate it. So actually what was debated was a different and harder question which is what should we tell the American people about the fact that the Russians are messing with our election?
Trying to hurt our democracy, hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. What should we do about that? And one of the options debated was should we inoculate the American people in some way by telling them, "The Russians are trying to mess with you. You should know that so you can take that into account when you see news or see particular approaches to things."
On Comey's plan to tell the public about Russian interference via an op-ed:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: W-- we-- we know that-- there were s-- there were strong objections in-- by Republicans in the Senate to being public about this. But at one point, you actually volunteered to put it all on paper?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah-- I think it was in August, I volunteered that-- that I would be-- I remember saying that I'm a little bit tired of being the independent voice on things, after the beating I'd taken after the July 5th announcement. But I said in a meeting with the president, "I'm willing to be the voice on this and help inoculate the American people.
But I also recognize why this is such a hard question, because if you announce that the Russians are trying to mess with our election, do you accomplish their goal for them? Do you undermine confidence in our election by having the president of the United States, or one of his senior people, say this publicly?
Will the Russians be happy that you did that?" And so I-- I wrote an op-ed, was going to go in a major newspaper that laid out what was going on. Not the investigation, 'cause that was too sensitive to reveal, but that, "The Russians are here and they're screwing with us. And this is consistent with what they've done in the past," and they never took me up on it. The Obama administration deliberated until the beginning of October.
On why the Obama administration did not rush to inform the public about Russian meddling:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And-- and one of the things you write that was influencing the president and his administration was the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win.
JAMES COMEY: I think so. In fact, I heard the president say, as-- as I recount in the book, "Putin backed the wrong horse." That is, all of us were operating in a world where the polls were showing that Donald Trump had no chance. So I think what the president meant by that was the Russian effort is wasted, and so why should we help them by announcing what they're doing when their work is not going to achieve their goal?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And it would give people reason to question the outcome of the election.
JAMES COMEY: Right. Donald Trump was already saying, "If I lose, that means the system is rigged." And so if the Obama administration comes out saying, "The Russians are trying to help elect Donald Trump," that walks right into his narrative that's, "See, I told ya," that the whole system is fixed and you can't trust the American democratic process. And the Russians would have accomplished their goal.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Eventually the-- administration does announce-- that they've found that Russia is interfering-- yet, and this is-- this confounds me. I-- I'm-- I'm puzzled by this. Yet, when they decide to come out with a joint statement of the intelligence committees, you as the FBI director refused to sign it. Why?
JAMES COMEY: Because of the way we approach action in the run-up to an election. The-- it's not written down, despite what you might have heard, but there's an important norm that I've lived my whole government career-- obeying. If you can avoid it, you should not take any action in the run-up to an election that could have an impact on the election.
By that, I mean the FBI or the Department of Justice. And so we were being asked, in October, to sign onto a statement that says, "The Russians are messing with our election." In my view and the view of the FBI leadership was it's too late. And we can avoid action here.
Because the goal's already been accomplished. The American people already know this because lots of government officials have been on background talking to the press about this, members of Congress have been talking about it, the candidates are talking about it. So the inoculation has already been achieved, and it's October. So we can avoid action here consistent with our policy that, whenever possible, we try and avoid action. So we won't sign this.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But doesn't that undercut the weight of the statement?
JAMES COMEY: I don't think so. I mean, coming from the director of National Intelligence, I don't think anybody noticed at the time that the FBI wasn't on the statement. It was the secondly of Homeland Security, and the director of National Intelligence, my boss. I reported to the attorney general and the director of National Intelligence.
And so I don't think it un-- undercut the statement. But it allowed us to be consistent with our standard which is, if possible, we should avoid action in the run-up to an election that might have an impact. Here, it is possible because the goal's been achieved already.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did anybody try to convince you to sign it?
JAMES COMEY: I think I was asked to sign it-- by the director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper. And I think I explained why-- I thought the FBI shouldn't sign up at this point. I don't remember any pushback on that.
On briefing the Obama administration on Russian election interference:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So-- so it's-- January 2017. The intelligence community and the F.B.I. have reached their conclusions about what-- what Russia did during the election and so you have to go tell the president-elect. But first, I guess, the day before--
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: --you brief President Obama. Take us inside that room.
JAMES COMEY: Sure. It was right-- January 5th in the oval office. Director Clapper, the head of the-- the director of national intelligence, the head of the C.I.A., the head of the N.S.A., and myself met with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and their senior national security team in the oval office, sitting in the sitting area by the fireplace.
The president and the vice president in arm chairs with their back to the fireplace and I was sitting slightly off to the right so the president would have to look slightly left to see me. Director Clapper was sitting in the center and he briefed them on the findings of the joint intelligence community assessment and the conclusions about what Russia had done.
And there were a variety of questions, especially focused on, "So how do we stop it from happening in the future," questions about sources and whatnot and how certain we were. And he conveyed that it was a joint high-confidence assessment, which is very unusual. From analysts from the-- different agencies that the Russians had did this, their goals were to dirty up the American democracy, to hurt Hillary Clinton and to help elect Donald Trump.
And we were going to brief it-- he explained that the next morning, to the gang of eight, the leaders of the House and Senate-- intelligence committees and the speaker and majority leader and minority leader on both sides. And then we were going to New York and brief the president-elect and his team.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You say high confidence. That means you're sure?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, that's the closest the intelligence community-- you never say you're sure in the intelligence business. The top level is high confidence. There's low confidence, medium confidence, high. This was the top of the chart. So you never say you're sure in the intelligence business because you-- you never want to be over-confident. But this was-- their sense that given the variety of sources and methods we had, we had this nailed.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And in that meeting, that's what Russia did. You also discussed with the president this information you had about the president-elect contained in the Steele dossier?
JAMES COMEY: Right. Director Clapper explained to the president and vice president that there was additional material that had-- came from a reliable source and that we had included as an annex in the report, that it was sufficiently separate, that we didn't integrate it into the report, but it was sufficiently reliable that we thought it oughta be part of the entire report.
And there was a portion of it that was particularly salacious that related to allegations around sexual conduct of-- before-- President Trump was a candidate. And the president asked-- President Obama asked, "What's the plan for briefing that material?"
And he explained that we had decided that Director Comey would meet with the president-elect privately after we briefed the president-elect and his team on the general findings so that he could review it-- in a more private, more sensitive setting with the president-elect.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That was James Clapper. How did President Obama respond to that?
JAMES COMEY: He didn't say a word. President Obama has a great poker face. But he simply turned-- so if I'm President Obama, he turned slightly to his left, looked at me, and went like this-- and looked back at Director Clapper. So kind of gave me a-- Groucho Marx is how I thought of it, double eyebrow raise. Didn't say a word, but communicated to me at least-- and I could be misreading it, 'cause I don't know President Obama's eyebrow raises, that sort of-- sympathy and concern. Like, "Good luck with that." And-- and that was it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Could it have been you again?
JAMES COMEY: It's possible. But-- you know, again, I could be misreading it. But I read it as, "You poor bastard." And almost like, "Whoa," and-- but, you know, he didn't explain it and so, like I said, I-- I might be misinterpreting it.
On why the decision to brief the president-elect on the dossier:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Was there any choice there? Why-- if this was salacious and this particular part of the dossier-- unverified-- still unverified by the way?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. So far-- when I got fired, it was unverified.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why tell him?
JAMES COMEY: Because we, the intelligence community, including the F.B.I., knew this information about allegations around prostitutes in Russia. We had been told by the press that they were about to run with it. And then two specific reasons. The-- the way we work in the counterintelligence business is if a adversary has compromising information on someone that they might use, one of the ways we defeat the adversary is tell the person who might be blackmailed, "We-- the government, we already know about this.
So you're not going to be able to hide it so they don't have leverage on you." And then second, he's going to be president of the United States and the head of the entire executive branch. How could we, the leaders of the intelligence community, know something-- whether it's true or not about him personally, that's going to become public, that the Russians may have and not share it with him. And so the logic of it-- was powerful that we should share it. And the logic, frankly, was powerful that I should do it alone, although I didn't love the idea. And so we decided to do it.
On briefing president-elect Trump on Russian election interference:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you all go up to New York the next day, January 6th, for the meeting in Trump Tower. You had-- one more warning-- from the secretary of Homeland Security.
JAMES COMEY: Right, as I explained in the book, Jeh Johnson, who's been a friend of mine since we were federal prosecutors in Manhattan in the late '80s, called me after the meeting in the oval office with President Obama. Jay had been in the meeting-- and just to tell me that he was worried about this plan for me to brief the president-elect alone about this material.
And I said, "Me too." And he said, "Have you ever met Donald Trump?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Be careful, Jim, be very careful." And it's one of those things that you appreciate a friend saying, it's not really helping me, except to make me feel even more nervous, the lump in my stomach bigger. But, yeah, Jay called me-- and I don't know whether he was calling at President Obama's request, but he seemed to be giving voice to the eyebrow raise.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So what does "be careful" mean in that context?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don't know. That's why we-- thanks, bud. It's not really helping me. I-- I took it as, "Just choose your words carefully. Don't say more than you need to, less than you need to, try to get it just right, accomplish your goal, and then get outta there," is how I took it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So as you headed into Trump Tower that day, were you nervous?
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What were you afraid of?
JAMES COMEY: Well, I'm about to meet with a person who doesn't know me, who's just been elected president of the United States. By all accounts, and from my watching him during the-- the campaign, could be volatile. And I'm about to talk to him about allegations that he was involved with prostitutes in Moscow and that the Russians taped it and have leverage over him.
And I was worried that I'm about to have a situation emerge where the president-elect thinks the F.B.I.'s out to get him somehow. People, in my experience, tend to project onto you their worldview. And even though I did not intend to jam Donald Trump with this, my thinking was, given his approach to the world, he may think I'm pulling a J. Edgar Hoover and assume that I'm trying to dangle this over him to get leverage on him. And so I worried-- I'm going to not only ruin any relationship I might have with the president, but more importantly, create a situation where the president and the-- and the F.B.I. are at war even before he becomes president.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you head up to the top of Trump Tower-- set the scene.
JAMES COMEY: We went in through the back entrance through-- an entrance of-- residences. So we snuck around-- the press didn't see us going in. We went up and met in a conference room somewhere within the Trump Organization. It was a conference room with a glass wall and they'd hung a big thick curtain to block the wall from the hallway.
And I walked in with the director of the C.I.A., the director of the N.S.A., and the director of National Intelligence. And we waited for the president-elect to come. A small conference room, looked kinda ordinary to me. And a few minutes later he walked in, President-elect Trump, along with the incoming vice president and their national security team.
And a group of them sat at the table with us and a group sat at the wall behind me, against the curtain. And Director Clapper ran the meeting and did it exactly as he had done it with the gang of eight earlier that morning on Capitol Hill and with President Obama the day before.
On the Trump team's reaction to the Russian interference briefing:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Then comes the briefing. What did you tell them, what was their reaction?
JAMES COMEY: Director Clapper laid out, as I said, exactly as he had for President Obama and the gang of eight. "Here's what the Russians tried to do. They tried to hurt our democracy, they tried to hurt Hillary Clinton, they tried to help elect you. We--" he-- was very specific about this, "We did no analysis, because the intelligence community doesn't, of American politics.
We found no impact on the vote count but we didn't-- we don't have an opinion to offer on whether the Russian effort had an impact on the election." And he laid it all out and the-- the-- President Trump's first question-- President-elect Trump's first question was to confirm that it had no impact on the election.
And-- and Director Clapper explained, as I think he already had, "No, we didn't do that analysis. We found no Russian manipulation of vote count. We didn't do an analysis of whether their work was effective in changing votes, changing the-- the sentiment of the electorate."
And then the conversation, to my surprise, moved into a PR conversation about how the Trump team would position this and what they could say about this. They actually started talking about drafting a press release with us still sitting there. And the reason that was so striking to me is that-- that's just not done.
That the intelligence community does intelligence, the White House does PR and spin, and the searing lesson, as I explained in the book, of the Iraq war is you don't mix the two. That we give you facts and then we leave and then you figure out what you're going to tell people about them, if anything. But it moved right into this, "Let's figure out what to say about it," kinda deal.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You also said you were struck by what they didn't ask?
JAMES COMEY: Very much. No one, to my recollection, asked, "So what-- what's coming next from the Russians?" You're about to lead a country that has an adversary attacking it and I don't remember any questions about, "So what are they going to do next, how might we stop it? What's the future look like? Because we'll be custodians of the security of this country." There was none of that. It was all, "What can we say about what they did and how it affects the election that we just had."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You-- you said as this was happening, you had a flashback to your early days as a prosecutor?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Again, I-- put this in the book 'cause it's the truth. I had a flashback to my days investigating the Mafia, La Cosa Nostra. And-- and I couldn't figure out why when it first pushed into my head, so I pushed it away, saying, "That's crazy." And then it came back again.
And I pushed it back and it came back again. And I think what it was was the nature of La Cosa Nostra is an effort to make everyone part of the family. There's an expression in the Mafia-- there's a distinction between a friend of yours and a friend of ours. A friend of yours is someone on the outside of the family, a friend of ours, a “amica nostra” is the way they talked about it in Sicilian, is part of the Family, capital F.
And I think the reason it was coming into my head was I felt this effort to make us all-- and maybe this wasn't their intention, but it's the way it felt to me, to make us all “amica nostra.” We're all part of the messaging, we're all part of the effort. The boss is at the head of the table and we're going to figure out together how to do this. And I think that's why it brought that strange memory back into my head.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think you shoulda said something then?
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. I mean, I-- I-- I think that's a reasonable question. I should've said, "Hey-- Mr. President-elect, the way it works is we in the intelligence community shouldn't be here for this." I-- I guess that's a reasonable question. I think the reason I didn't, I hope is obvious to folks, is that I was about to-- we had just delivered, "The Russians tried to help get you elected."
And I was about to stay behind to talk about allegations of the president being involved with prostitutes in Moscow. And I thought, "That's gotta be my focus." And so I didn't-- I didn't know where it entered my mind consciously. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking, "Should I be giving them a lesson about how to interact with the intelligence community."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think that briefing convinced the president that the Russians did interfere in the election?
JAMES COMEY: I don't-- I don't know. I don't think so, given things he's said thereafter and some of the things he's said about the intelligence community after that. I think it convinced members of his staff, but as to him, I-- given what he said afterwards, I don't think so.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did he say anything else about the broader briefing?
JAMES COMEY: In that session? No. Not that I remember.
On Comey staying behind to brief the president on the dossier:
JAMES COMEY: Yeah-- Director Clapper-- I call him General Clapper, 'cause he was a retired general. General Clapper said-- and-- "Mr. President-elect, there's some additional material that we think it makes sense of Director Comey to brief you on-- privately. And-- and we'll all excuse ourselves in a small group."
And the president-elect then said to me, "Okay, how small." And I said, "Well, I was thinking just the two of us, sir." And then his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said, "How about me, Reince Priebus, and the vice president?" And I said, turning to President-elect Trump, "It's up to you, sir. I wanted it to be a small group, but it's entirely up to you." And then he said-- I don't know whether he knew what I was going to talk about it, but he said-- "No, no, just the two of us, just the two of us, thanks everybody." And then the group filed out.
And that-- when that was finished, I then turned to the topic and said, "Sir, there's a portion of the material that we wanted to brief you privately to make sure you're aware of it because-- the-- we understand the media may be-- gonna publish it very soon."
And then I started to tell him about the allegation was that he had been involved with prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow in 2013 during the visit for the Miss Universe pageant and that the Russians had-- filmed the episode. And he interrupted very defensively and started talking about it, you know, "Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?"
And I assumed he was asking that rhetorically, I didn't answer that, and I just moved on and-- and explained, "Sir, I'm not saying that we credit this, I'm not saying we believe it. We just thought it very important that you know." And I explained, "One of the F.B.I.'s jobs is to protect presidency from coercion. And if there is any effort, one of the things we do is a defensive briefing to let the person who might be the target of that coercion know that this is out there, better equip us to defend ourselves against the adversary."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him you thought it wasn't true or you didn't know if it was true or not?
JAMES COMEY: I said, "We're not saying that-- I'm not saying that I believe the allegations, I'm not saying that I credit it." I never said, "I don't believe it," because I-- I couldn't say one way or another. But I said, "We are not-- I'm not saying we believe the allegations," or I might've used the word "credit the allegations."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How graphic did you get?
JAMES COMEY: I think as graphic as I needed to be. I did not go into the business about-- people peeing on each other, I just thought it was a weird enough experience for me to be talking to the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow. And so I left that part out. I thought I'd given enough to put him on notice as to what the essence of the material was.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was the look on his face?
JAMES COMEY: He was very defensive and started to launch into-- for reasons that I don't understand, started going into the list of people who had accused him of touching them improperly, sexual assault and how he hadn't done this, he hadn't done that, he hadn't done that.
And I worried the conversation was about to crash, because I was reading that he was reacting like, "We're investigating you and we're going to go figure out whether you were with prostitutes in Moscow." And-- and so I said something in substance about how we don't-- it-- "We're not investigating you, sir. This is not something that we're-- we care about, except that you know that this is out there."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you believe his denial?
JAMES COMEY: I don't-- I don't know. I don't-- the nature of an investigator is you don't believe or disbelieve. You ask, "What's my evidence? What is the evidence that establishes me whether someone's telling me the truth or not. And ask this allegation--" I honestly never thought this words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the-- the-- current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don't know.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How weird was that briefing?
JAMES COMEY: Really weird. I mean, I don't know whether it was weird for President-elect Trump, but I-- it was almost an out-of-body experience for me. I was floating above myself, looking down, saying, "You're sitting here, briefing the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in Moscow." And of course, Jeh Johnson's voice is banging around in my head. President Obama's eyebrow raise is banging around in my head. I just wanted to get it done and get out of there.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him that the Steele Dossier had been financed by his political opponents?
JAMES COMEY: No. I didn't-- I didn't think I used the term "Steele Dossier," I just talked about additional material.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did he-- but did he have a right to know that?
JAMES COMEY: That it'd been financed by his political opponents? I don't know the answer to that. I-- it wasn't necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information. Again, I was clear on whether it's true or not, it's important that you know, both because of the counterintelligence reason and so you know that this maybe going to hit the media.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So how did it end?
JAMES COMEY: It ended not long after I said-- it only took a few minutes after I made clear to him, "We're not investigating you." And-- I think he asked something like, "Is there anything else?" And I said, "No, sir." And then we shook hands and I walked out.
On Comey telling Trump he personally was not under investigation:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You had been warned, at least by some people on your staff, not to tell him, "We're not investigating you." Was that a mistake?
JAMES COMEY: It might have been-- a mistake. The general counsel of the F.B.I. had argued, "Look, it's literally true that we don't have a case open on President-elect Trump. We're looking at other people." And-- and-- but his argument was, "There's a problem with you saying that for two reasons. First, inevitably as we move along in the investigation as-- as to whether anyone was working with the Russians, the campaign's going to have to be a focus and the candidate's always the head of the campaign, so inevitably we're going to have to look at him. And second, you're going to create a duty to correct. But if you tell him he's under investigation and that changes, don't you have to go back and tell him-“
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you thought that was a reasonable prospect?
JAMES COMEY: I didn't know at that point in time whether that would change or not. But-- and I said to the general counsel, look, I get that, that makes sense to me. But I'm very worried about beginning a new administration with the president thinking the F.B.I. is out to get him.
Now in hindsight, given the challenges I had with President Trump and his frustrations that I wouldn't publicly say he's not under investigation, I think the better argument is it was a mistake, I should've listened to the general counsel. But anyhow, that's how I think about it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President Trump thought you were shaking him down?
JAMES COMEY: I don't know that. But I-- it seems reasonable, given his view of the world. Remember, that was what I worried about is that he would think I was pulling a J. Edgar Hoover, to come in there and jam him by raising the prospect of salacious, compromising material.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you felt you had no choice?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I thought the logic was too strong that-- how could we have this information and conceal it from the incoming president of the United States? And look, if it's true-- again, we don't know whether it's true or not. But if it's true, and as odd as it sounds, it could possibly be true, we have to protect him. We have to protect the presidency. And so part of our-- our role as the F.B.I. is let him know that they may come at you with this.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If it's true, how can you protect him?
JAMES COMEY: Well, if it's true-- if someone knows something bad about you that they're going to maybe use against you and you're in the government and-- and I'm the F.B.I., if I come to you and tell you, "We know all about this," it'll make it harder for them to get you to do stuff based on this secret. Because you know that we know. And so it makes-- it reduces the leverage of the adversary.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Sure enough, a few days later, it does become public.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Buzzfeed-- publishes the entire-- Steele “dossier”-- as you all had feared it would happen. And that's when you get your first phone call from President Trump.
JAMES COMEY: Yes, that's right. So the following week, the-- as you said, the-- the media published the entire-- thing and President Trump called me at my office at the F.B.I. and he was very upset about the leak of this material and wanted to express his concern about it.
And I explained to him that it wasn't-- that it wasn't government material. That it had been prepared by private parties, the F.B.I. hadn't paid for it, the F.B.I. hadn't commissioned it, and it was all over Washington. "And as you'll remember, sir, as we told we, the media has this and is close to reporting it. So we shouldn't think of it as a leak of-- of classified information. It wasn't classified and it-- that it wasn't government information."
And then he launched into-- I didn't ask about the business with the prostitutes, but he launched into an explanation as to how I should know that wasn't true and that he remembered now, from talking to friends who had been with him, that he'd never stayed overnight at the hotel, he'd just changed clothes there and went to the Miss Universe pageant.
I don't know whether any of this true, but this is what he said. And then went right back without staying overnight. And then he said, "Another reason you know it's not true is I'm a germaphobe. There's no way I'd let people pee on each other around me." And that me caught me so much by surprise I actually let out an audible laugh and-- 'cause it was just one of those-- I was startled by it.
And-- and I remember thinking, "Well, should I say that, 'As I understand the activity sir, it doesn't require an overnight stay. And given that it was allegedly the presidential suite at the Ritz Carlton, I would imagine you could be at a safe distance from the activity--'" all these things are bouncing around my head. But instead of saying it, it just led me to think, "The world's gone crazy.
I'm the director of the F.B.I. and I'm standing at my window, looking out on the darkened Pennsylvania Avenue." And I remember this moment like it was yesterday. And I can see the lit-- Washington Monument that's rising from my vantage point of the F.B.I. just over the Trump-- new Trump hotel. And I just remember thinking, "Everything's gone mad." And then, having finished his explanation, which I hadn't asked for, he hung up. And I went to find my chief of staff to tell him that the world's gone crazy.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And in fact, he did stay overnight in Moscow.
JAMES COMEY: I don't know. But-- but again, I-- I-- I don't know those facts. But he told me he did not.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So-- so-- at-- at-- at this point, you've had-- two substantive conversations with the president. The bulk of it is about his alleged activities with prostitutes in Moscow.
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And as you say, that seems a little crazy.
JAMES COMEY: It did to me. You could've asked me, when I became F.B.I. director, if I could imagine those conversations. Like, it's hard to imagine them even sitting here. But-- it is-- it is reality today.
On Comey's one-on-one dinner with the president on January 27th:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So he asks you what you want and says what he wants?
JAMES COMEY: Correct.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Which was?
JAMES COMEY: He said, "I expect loyalty, I need loyalty." And I did not reply. I just-- we're-- actually, the-- we were probably just about as close as you and I are now, probably exactly the same at this small table. And I just stared at him and had this little narrative with myself inside, saying, "Don't you move, don't you dare move. Don't even blink." Because I was so struck by-- caught by it, but I knew I couldn't say yes, I couldn't nod, and so I just froze and stared at him.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not say no?
JAMES COMEY: That's a fair question. I think because I was caught totally by surprise. And again, I'm operating in an environment where I don't want-- I'm going to be director for another six years. This man's the new president of the United States, I do not need a war with him.
I have to find a way to work with this administration and protect the values of the F.B.I. And so-- and part of it was just sheer surprise. I couldn't think of a clever response. And by the second time he came back to it, he didn't respond at all. We just stared at each other and then he went on eating. And then he came back to-- he didn't-- he noticed that I didn't answer. He came back to it later in the dinner. And by then, I had my wits about me and had a better answer. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was the second time?
JAMES COMEY: The second time was later in the conversation. He said, again, "I need loyalty." And I said, "You will always get honesty from me." And he paused and then he said, "Honest loyalty," as if he was proposing some compromise or a deal. And I paused and said, "You'll get that from me." And, of course, in between those two-- the loyalty sandwich, in between those two, I had-- I had an opportunity to explain to him the F.B.I.'s role and how important it was for the F.B.I. to be independent and how I thought about it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But did you cross a line there-- did you cross a line when you promised him honest loyalty? Did-- would it be fair for him to think, "Wait, I have a deal here."
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I-- I don't think so. Given the context and the other things I'd said, I thought-- and look, it was a compromise on my part to try and avoid a really awkward conversation, get out of an awkward conversation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Was it a mistake?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I don't know. But-- maybe, maybe. And maybe I should've said in the moment, "Sir, as I told you, the F.B.I. has to be--" and then give him the speech again, maybe. But-- and so maybe I should've been-- yeah, that's fair feedback. Maybe I should've been tougher or more direct, especially given what I know now.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then unprompted, he brings up the golden shower again.
JAMES COMEY: Correct, yeah. He brings it up and says he may want me to investigate it to prove that it didn't happen. And then he says-- something that distracted me. 'Cause he said, you know, "If there's even a 1 percent chance my wife thinks that's true, that's terrible."
And I-- and I remember thinking, "How could your wife think there's a 1 percent chance you were with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow?" I'm a flawed human being, but there is literally zero chance that my wife would think that was true. So what kind of marriage to what kind of man does your wife think there's only a 99 percent chance you didn't do that?
And the reason I'm recounting this is I remember-- I wasn't listening to him, 'cause I'm running this through my head, like, how could that possibly be true? And I said to him, "Sir--" when he started talking about it, "I may order you to investigate that," I said, "Sir, that's up to you. But you'd want to be careful about that, because it might create a narrative that we're investigating you personally. And second, it's very difficult to prove something didn't happen."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And did he accept that?
JAMES COMEY: He said he would think about it. And he said, "I hope you'll think about it too."
On why Comey made notes after dinner:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The dinner ends, you immediately write it up. Why?
JAMES COMEY: Because I knew, given the nature of the conversation and the nature of the person I was talking to, that to protect the F.B.I. and to protect myself, I would need to remember very accurately what we talked about it. And as the F.B.I. director, you have thousands of conversations.
And-- and so the detail can get lost over time. I knew that, given that I worried he might not tell the truth about our encounter and given that it touched on him personally, that I thought, "You know, I need to have a written record of this." And so I went home, on my personal computer, and created a memo and kept a copy of it in my personal safe at home and left another copy of it at the F.B.I. Because it was about both protecting the F.B.I. and protecting me.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think President Trump got what we wanted out of that dinner?
JAMES COMEY: No. And I think he knew that because it was a later point when he was frustrated with me that I wouldn't get out-- as he said, get out that I'm not under investigation, where he tried to recall the loyalty pledge, I think, from the context. Where he said, "You know, I've been very loyal to you, 'cause we had that thing."
And I-- I think what he was doing was trying to recall our encounter at that dinner and it coming up in his memory as, "Actually, the guy didn't promise to be loyal to me. He promised me honest loyalty and-- and that's actually what he's giving me now by telling me, 'You oughta have your lawyer call the Department of Justice.'"
On the veracity of the Steele dossier:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, you mentioned something about-- since you brought up the Steele dossier again, you mentioned that the parts about-- the prostitutes was-- unverified. You don't know whether they're true or not. What about the rest of the Steele dossier? Has it checked out? Is it a credible document?
JAMES COMEY: The answer is, I don't know. When I left the F.B.I when I was fired in early May of last year, an effort was underway by the F.B.I. to try to verify as much as pos-- rule in or rule out what-- and that work was still ongoing. So I don't know what the answer is. It came from a credible source.
And as I said, its central premise was corroborated, that there was an effort by the Russians to influence the election and that there had been some connections between people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian effort, in particular the Papadopoulos information that started the F.B.I.'s investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So connections between the Trump campaign and Russia had been corroborated by the time you left the F.B.I.?
JAMES COMEY: I think all I can say is that-- the-- the work was still underway, the investigation began because of inf-- reliable information that George Papadopoulos was having conversations about obtaining information from the Russians. That's probably as far as I can go at this point.
On criticizing Trump to his face in a conversation about Putin:
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. The Super Bowl pre-game show where-- and I hadn't asked any questions about this, but the president was just talking about it, he had given an answer to Bill O'Reilly that had been much criticized across the political spectrum when he had said, in response to a question, that he respected Vladimir Putin and said, "That doesn't mean I'm going to get along with him."
And then O'Reilly responded, "But he's a killer." And the president responded, in substance, "But we're killers, too. You think our country's so innocent." I forget the exact words, but that's the gist of it. And that moral equivalence, between the people of our government and Putin's thugs, had generated a lot of controversy.
And so the president was, as I said when I described the dinner, just in a monologue talking about how that was a great answer, what was he supposed to do, it was a hard question, he gave his best answer. And just going on and on and on. Basically we're all agreeing with this if we don't speak.
And having seen it happen during the dinner I thought, "I can't let that happen," 'cause I don't think it was a hard question. I think the second part of his answer is terrible. And so he gave me an opening at some point by saying like, "Yeah, you agree it was a good answer--"
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So the president wants you to say this was a good answer.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. In fact, he was telling me it was a good answer and then said-- gave me an opening by saying, "You think it was a great answer. You think it was a good answer." And then he was starting to move on. And I jumped in and I said, "Mr. President, the first part of the answer was fine, not the second part. We're not the kind of killers that Putin is."
And when I said that, the weather changed in the room. And like a shadow crossed his face and his eyes got this strange, kinda hard look. And I thought in that moment, "I've just done something unusual maybe." And then (SNAP) it passed and the meeting was over. And, "Thanks for coming in," and-- and Priebus walked me out. It was like--
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You had another mob flashback.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I did. Although in that moment I was thinking, "I just succeeded," although I hadn't intended to, in ending any personal relationship between me and the president by th-- by interrupting him and also criticizing him to his face. And I went back and told my staff that it happened, and then I thought-- and told them, "That's not a bad thing, because it will help us keep a distance that we need to keep from him."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You-- you saw it right there, and we talked about this earlier-- why is President Trump so reluctant to call out Vladimir Putin?
JAMES COMEY: I don't know. I'm struck by it and I'm struck by it both in public and in private. Because I can understand the arguments why the president of the United States might not want to criticize the leader of another country because there's always good reasons to try and build better relationships, I suppose, even when that other leader is someone who is killing his own citizens and engaging in-- in attacks against our country. But you would think that in private-- talking to the F.B.I. director, whose job it is to thwart Russian attacks, you might acknowledge that this enemy of ours is an enemy of ours. But I never saw. And so I don't know the reason. I really don't.
On whether Comey believes the Russians have something on President Trump:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump?
JAMES COMEY: I think it's possible. I don't know. These are more words I never thought I'd utter about a president of the United States, but it's possible.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That's stunning. You can't say for certain that the president of the United States is not compromised by the Russians?
JAMES COMEY: It is stunning and I wish I wasn't saying it, but it's just-- it's the truth. I cannot say that. It always struck me and still strikes me as unlikely, and I woulda been able to say with high confidence about any other president I dealt with, but I can't. It's possible.
On the February 14th Oval Office meeting during which the president wanted to talk about Michael Flynn:
JAMES COMEY: We were there for a briefing, which was a very good idea, to give the new president an understanding of the terrorism threat in the United States, which is the F.B.I.'s primary responsibility. And so I was there was the vice president and leaders of the counter terrorism agencies in a horseshoe of chairs ar-- again, he's behind the desk, in a horseshoe of chairs around the desk to tell him, "Look, here's what we're worried about in the United States."
And-- so I did most of the talking during that briefing and gave some, I thought, some pretty eye-opening insight into some threats that we don't talk about a lot, but the president was kind of quiet, which is unusual, and unengaged. And-- and then ended the meeting by thanking everybody and s-- and pointing at me saying, "I just want to talk to Jim." And excused everyone, including the vice president.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn't want to leave.
JAMES COMEY: Well I know the attorney general didn't want to leave because-- he ac-- he was-- I'm sitting here, he was sitting off to my right and the door by the grandfather clock was off to my left. President was sitting where you are. And the attorney general came around and stood right by my chair and lingered. Clearly, his body language leads-- to my mind said he didn't want to leave.
And then the president said, "Thanks, Jeff. I just want to talk to Jim. Thank you." And then he walked off. And then staff had been sitting on the couches and chairs behind us, and one of the people back there, been-- Jared Kushner, the president's son in law, and he came to my left elbow and stood after the attorney general left and started chatting with me about the e-mail investigation, just pleasantries about how hard that must have been, and lingering as well. And then the president said, "Thanks, Jared. Thank you. Just want to talk to Jim." And so-- he was excused.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You're alone in the Oval Office?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What happens next?
JAMES COMEY: I didn't know what was going to happen next, but I knew that whatever it was, it was really, really important that I remember everything that was said, and as best I could the exact words that were said. Because why would you kick out the attorney general, who's my boss, and the vice president of the United States to speak to me? Something was going to happen that was going to be important to remember--
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He knows he's going to say something that others shouldn't hear.
JAMES COMEY: That was my read, that it's-- it's so unusual that-- first of all, it's unusual for the attorney general-- excuse me, for the F.B.I. director and the president to be alone at all. But to kick out the vice president of the United States and the attorney general, who I work for, so you could talk to me alone, something was up that was really important. And that it might well be that he knew what everybody was going to talk about was something that he shouldn't be talking about with the others. And so my antennae were up and I just-- listened.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what he wanted to talk about was Mike Flynn.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. That's how he began it. "I want to talk about Mike Flynn." And he started explaining to me-- that Flynn was a good guy and that he had to be let go 'cause he was-- had lied to the vice president and he-- said he had other concerns about him, which he didn't in that meeting spell out.
And then he-- got a little bit distracted, the conversation moved off to leaks a little bit. And he talked about how bad leaks were of classified information. And I agreed. And we talked about that for a bit. And while that conversation was going on, Reince Priebus opened the door to my left, by the grandfather clock, and I turned and I can see standing waiting was a big group of people, including the vice president. And the president-- waved him away and had him close the door. And then after the interruption came back to Flynn.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So that-- that prompted him to get back to business.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Get back to the point. He-- he had wandered off on an important topic of leaks and-- and urging me to talk to the attorney general about being more aggressive in pursuing leaks of classified information, all of which is fine. And then the interruption got him back to Mike Flynn, and that's when he asked me-- said he hopes I can let it go.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And when he said that, you thought?
JAMES COMEY: He's asking me to drop the criminal investigation of his, now former, national security advisor.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Direction?
JAMES COMEY: I took it as a direction. He's-- his words were, though, "I hope you can let it go." But the context where I've been-- where everyone's been kicked out, and it was just the two of us, the president of the United States, I took the expression of hope as, "This is what I want you to do." This--
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The president says he didn't say that.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Well what am I going to do? He did. That's why I was-- when he tweeted that there might be tapes, I was-- I meant what I said when I said, "Lordy, I hope there are tapes because I know what happened in that-- in that meeting." And I testified about it under oath thinking there might be tapes. And so I'd be a crazy person to make it up. And I wrote it down immediately after that meeting.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He-- he-- he later said there weren't tapes in a tweet several weeks later after it hung out there for a long, long time. Which statement do you believe?
JAMES COMEY: I don't know. I-- I mean, I would assume one of the reasons, although it was a delayed revelation, that I wanted to get out into public in-- that he had-- that we had had this encounter, he'd asked me to let it go, is that if there were tapes only a special prosecutor was going to go get 'em. And so I don't know. I have no insight into whether Former Director Mueller and his team subpoenaed the White House for tapes. I have no idea.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So he says, "I hope you can let it go." What do you say?
JAMES COMEY: He had said, "He's a good guy, I hope you can let it go," I think those are the exact words. But he said-- and I just said, "I agree he's a good guy," or I said, "he's a good guy." And so then full-stop. And there was a brief pause. And then the meeting was over.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Should you have said more there? Should you have said, "Mr. President, I can't discuss this with you. You're doing something improper?"
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. I mean, that-- that's also a fair criticism. Maybe I should have. Although, as I've thought about it since, if he didn't know he was doing something improper, why did he kick out the attorney general and the vice president of the United States and the leaders of the intelligence community? I mean, why am I alone if he's-- doesn't know the nature of the request?
But it's possible that in the moment I shoulda-- you know, another person would have said, "Sir, you can't ask me that. That's a criminal investigation. That could be obstruction of justice." Again, it's one of these deals where I'm so-- even though I knew something important was going to happen, it didn't occur to me he was going to ask me to drop a criminal investigation. And so a little bit of it is the shock of it, and part of it is just from the environment I think I had a good gut sense that he knows what he's doing.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: With that direction, was President Trump obstructing justice?
JAMES COMEY: Possibly. I mean, it's certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice. It would depend and-- and I'm just a witness in this case, not the investigator or prosecutor, it would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I wonder if you even should have agreed at that point that Flynn is a good guy. By February 14th, did you know that Mike Flynn had lied to the F.B.I.?
JAMES COMEY: Yes. Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So was it a mistake to even agree with the president on that point?
JAMES COMEY: Maybe. I mean, I-- I actually-- good people do lie, and my sense of Flynn was he was a good guy, that I sat with him and chatted with him when he was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. And so the fact that someone lies doesn't necessarily make them a bad person. But I think mostly it was me trying to get outta the conversation, give him a piece of what he said that's harmless so that I cannot give him the rest.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you knew at this point that Mike Flynn was in some jeopardy.
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Serious jeopardy.
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did the president know that?
JAMES COMEY: I don't know. That is obviously an area that a special prosecutor would want to investigate. I don't know the answer to that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: There's been some reporting that-- at-- at-- at one point you told the Congress that the agency who interviewed Mike Flynn didn't believe that he had lied.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I saw that. And that-- I don't know where that's coming from. That-- unless I'm-- I-- I-- said something that people misunderstood, I don't remember even intending to say that. So my recollection is I never said that to anybody.
On why he wrote down notes after the Oval Office meeting:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So at this point-- the president is now, given what you thought was a direction-- you didn't step in and say, "Listen, you shouldn't do that, Mr. President," at some point in your mind, as you're writing these notes, have you shifted to collecting evidence of a possible crime?
JAMES COMEY: Well, yes, in a sense. I mean, I am recording it bec-- for the s-- same reason I recorded the earlier one, but it's even more important that I record this one because the conversation will likely come back some day and he may well lie about it. And so I need to remember exactly what was said there. It could be evidence of a crime. It was really important that it be well documented.
I shared it with-- my colleagues at the F.B.I. But something else was true, it was important that we did not intend to abide his direction, we were not going to let it go, no matter what he said. And so it was really important that we not let the investigators yet know this had happened, because we worried it might chill them in some way if you hear the president wants your case to go away.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're holding this evidence. You share it with your deputy, your general counsel.
JAMES COMEY: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't share it with the attorney general.
JAMES COMEY: No.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
JAMES COMEY: We thought-- rightly, he was about to recuse himself on anything related to Russia and so that didn't make sense. The harder question was, should we tell the person who is acting in the role as deputy attorney general, which was a U.S. attorney who was there temporarily? And decided that didn't make any sense either, that we would wait until we got a new-- there's nothing to be done, since there was no way to corroborate it, the idea of tapes didn't occur to us, that we would be getting new leadership a that deputy attorney general level. And then the department would figure out how they were going to supervise all the Russia stuff.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So at this point it's almost as if there's an investigation within the investigation.
JAMES COMEY: Well there's a box within the investigation where we're holding a piece of information so that we can figure out what to do about it later. So it's-- we are walling it off, since we couldn't think-- the leaders of the F.B.I. couldn't think of what logical investigations you would do now, that you needed to do right now, so there would be no harm in holding it and then figuring out what to do with it as the investigation went on.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So i-- i-- i-- if the president hadn't fired you, would that information still be boxed up?
JAMES COMEY: Oh no. No. 'Cause we'd have-- we'd have gotten guidance at some point as to how they were going to lead the Russia investigation and then have to figure out what investigation we could do to try to corroborate that. What would we do with that? But firing me certainly accelerated it, in a way it wouldn't have been accelerated before.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What were you thinking as you left the Oval Office that day?
JAMES COMEY: That something really important just happened and that I was a little-- another one of those outta-body experiences, like, "Really? The president just kicked out the attorney general to ask me to drop a criminal investigation." Wow, the world s-- continues to go crazy.
On a phone call the two men had a couple weeks later.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He then called you again-- it was actually a few weeks later-- March 30th. He's more agitated now--
JAMES COMEY: Yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?
JAMES COMEY: I think two reasons. M-- most prominently that there had been a hearing where, at the Department of Justice direction, I had confirmed for the first time that we had open-- counter intelligence investigation to understand whether any Americans associated with the Trump campaign were working with the Russians. And-- and so that obviously caught his attention.
And then I think there continued to be a lotta stuff in the news about the Russia investigation. So he was calling me to tell me how frustrating he found that and it was getting in the way of his ability to make deals for the country. And he wanted to lift the cloud, he called it a cloud. And so wanted me to get out that he wasn't under investigation.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So if he's not under investigation, you've told him, why not tell the country?
JAMES COMEY: Well for-- for the reasons that the F.B.I. general counsel was concerned about me in the first instance telling then President-elect Trump he wasn't under investigation, it-- it was-- potentially misleading and also would create a duty to correct that. And there was a challenge also with, so what's the limiting principle? If they ask, "Is the vice president under investigation," do you answer that?
And then if they say, "Is the attorney general under investigation," do you answer that? And-- where do you stop? And so the Department of Justice was thinking about it and had decided, in connection with my testimony, that they would only authorize me to say there was an investigation but not to comment on who was under investigation. But they did one other thing, they had me tell the leaders of the intelligence committees exactly who we were investigating, the-- which is unusual, the identities of the Americans which did not include the president.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What part of you is thinking also, "I am collecting evidence on the president"?
JAMES COMEY: Well part of me is thinking that because of the obstruc-- potential obstruction issue, but also I continued to believe that there was force to the F.B.I. general counsel's argument that we're going to have to look at the president. I-- even if you-- even if you took the-- the f-- my conversation with him about Flynn as a potential obstruction, you put it off to the side and said, "Well that's different than the Russia investigation," even on the Russia investigation there was continuing s-- and stronger force to the argument that you're inevitably going to look at his conduct, 'cause he's the head of the campaign.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And for at least a period of time they're trying to build a tower in Moscow.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: April 11th. Final phone call.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. This was a follow-up where he's-- I think it's the only phone call or contact that I had with him that involved no preamble talking about how awesome I am and how great it is-- or he just began by expressing his frustration-- no. His voice was frustrated, his-- he began by asking, "So what did you do with my request to get out that I'm not under investigation, to lift the cloud?"
And I explained to him that I had referred it to the acting deputy attorney general and I hadn't heard back. And that-- that was frustrating to him. And then I explained to him how it should work. He should have the White House counsel contact the Justice Department if he wants to find out-- he has a request to make. And that was the last time I spoke to him.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But isn't that where he said, "We had that thing"?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. He said, "'Cause I've been very good to you. I've been loyal to you," words like that. "We had that thing. You know?" And then he pulled up short, because the-- there was no pledge of loyalty.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: In his mind when he says, "We had that thing," does he think he made you F.B.I. director, kept you F.B.I. director, that's why you owe him?
JAMES COMEY: I-- I-- I could be wrong about this, but I'll tell you what my reaction was, he's reaching for the-- the goal of that loyalty dinner, that he's remembering that he had a dinner with me and he's starting to say, "I've been very loyal to you and you promised to be loyal to me."
And then he pulls up short because if he's replaying the dinner in his head, he remembers the awkward stare and then he remembers that weird formulation about always be honest and then honest loyalty. And again, I could be wrong about that, but my gut told me that's what he's reaching for and he's pulling up short because, "We both know I never promised to be loyal to you, in the way you understand it."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then on Friday, May 9th, your tenure as F.B.I. director-- excuse me-- then on May 9th your tenure as F.B.I. director ends.
On the aftermath of his being fired:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you-- realize then, or could you realize then, the consequences of you being fired?
JAMES COMEY: No. I was a bit numb at the time. And I thought, "It's crazy to fire me." I'm leading the investigation of Russian influence and particularly whether the-- anyone in the Trump orbit had coordinated and conspired with the Russians. That makes no sense at all. And the reasons they've given make no sense at all, are clearly a pretense.
But I was numb enough that I just thought, "Well that's the president's legal right to fire me and so I gotta figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of my life." And so I was trying to put it out of my mind and just sleep and exercise and hang out with my wife and kids. And it wasn't until the president tweeted at me that Friday morning after I was fired that, "James Comey better hope there aren't tapes of our conversations," that I sorta snapped back to the present.
In fact, it wasn't even then. I snapped back three days later in the middle of the night. I woke up in the middle of the night and the thought hit me like a lightening bolt, like, "Wait a minute. If there are tapes, he will be heard on that tape in the Oval Office asking me to let it go. There is corroboration or could be corroboration for the thing we thought we'll never be able to corroborate."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Of a possible crime.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. Of possible obstruction of justice. Somebody's gotta go get those tapes. I trust the F.B.I., right, 'cause they'll see what I see. But I don't trust the leadership of the Department of Justice to do it. And so--
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
JAMES COMEY: Well the attorney general was recused and the deputy attorney general, in my view, had acted dishonorably by putting out this pretext about why I was fired. So I thought, "Well he's ‘amica nostra.’ Right? He's part of the family now. I can't trust him." And so what can I do? I can do something now.
I'm a private citizen and I have in my safe downstairs an unclassified memo about that conversation. And I'm a private citizen, I can tell people about conversations with the president that are unclassified. And so I'm going to do it. And so I asked a friend of mine to get it out to a reporter. And my goal was to prompt the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor, go get the tapes. That's all I was thinking about was the tapes. Go get the tapes. Go get the tapes--
On the president calling him a leaker:
JAMES COMEY: ... One of the orders that was issued is I was never to be allowed back on F.B.I. property, like I had killed somebody. So my staff had to box my stuff up and send it home. But I had the memo in my safe, my unclassified memo. And I thought, "If I get that out, that'll put tremendous pressure on the Department of Justice to have somebody go get the tapes before President Trump could destroy them--"
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And those tapes, in your mind, would be evidence of a possible crime.
JAMES COMEY: Yes. And I would be heard on those tapes in that conversation with the president, and he would be heard saying, "I hope you can let it go." And I would be heard saying, "I agree he's a good guy."
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President's tweeted innumerable times calling you a leaker-- because of that. First of all, what's your response to President Trump?
JAMES COMEY: Look, it's true, I mean, I'm the one who testified about it, that's how people know about it, that I gave that unclassified-- this is a whole nother conversation about whether you can leak unclassified information, I don't want to get involved in that. I gave that unclassified memo to my mind, who was also acting as my lawyer, but this wasn't a lawyer task, and asked him to give it to a reporter. That is entirely appropriate.
On President Trump meeting with Russians in the Oval Office the day after he fired Comey:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The day after you were fired-- president is meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister. Calls you a nut job. Says the pressure's been relieved now, the pressure on him has been relieved. What did you think when you saw that?
JAMES COMEY: Wow, was my reaction. First of all, what are the Russians doing in the Oval Office? One, as a counter intelligence person I'm thinking, "That's crazy--" without any Americans being present, one. And, two, it-- the pretense is melting away, the bit about, "You were fired because of how you handled the e-mail investigation," is melting away. You were fired because of the Russia investigation. That's the substance of what I heard those words as.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And then that Lester Holt interview.
JAMES COMEY: Right. Same thing. The pretense has now melted.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So if there is evidence of a crime, you want it out there, you want there to be an investigation, you wanted a special counsel.
JAMES COMEY: Yeah, I did.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why exactly?
JAMES COMEY: Because I wanted someone without political conflict, someone who is not “amica nostra,” to find the facts. And I don't know what they'll find. I don't know whether Bob Mueller s-- and his people will conclude that President Trump committed a crime or not. I don't really care, so long as it's done in the right way, confidently, honestly and independently.
And I know the F.B.I. would be that way, and now I know the prosecutors will be that way. And whatever they find, the American people can rely on because they will find the truth. Again, I don't sit here saying, "I hope the trust is that," or, "I hope the truth is this." I just want them to find the truth. And I'm confident that they will, unless he's interfered with in some way.
Comey will not say if Special Counsel Robert Mueller has interviewed him:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You've been interviewed by Robert Mueller?
JAMES COMEY: I'm not going to talk about my contact with the special counsel.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You're free to do to that. Correct?
JAMES COMEY: Yes, but I also want to make sure that I-- don't-- I don't do anything that might get in the way of their ability to be effective.
On Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you also said that the deputy attorney general, who's now running the Russia investigation, you said what he put out in support of your firing was just a pretext, and the pretense then fell away. So can the American people have confidence in the man who's supervising the Russia investigation?
JAMES COMEY: Yes, in this sense. First of all, the American people can have complete confidence in Robert Mueller. As I said-- earlier, he and I are not close friends, but I've known him and watched his work--
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You've had dinner, played golf?
JAMES COMEY: Yeah. I think we played golf once in our 25 years. And-- sorry, and-- and I've had dinner with him maybe once or twice. So I know him and I can s-- and I-- we're friendly. But I know his work most of all. And I've watched it closely. He's not on anybody's side. He does not care about anything except the truth. And so they can have great confidence if Bob Mueller is let-- left in place to do his job, he will find the truth.
And again, I don't know what that will be. He may conclude that there is nothing that touches President Trump or any of his senior people. And that's fine, so long as he's able to find that truth. And so that's the most important thing. And I also think the deputy attorney general-- I don't know this, but has likely learned a painful lesson from the way he handled my firing. And so it gives him all the more reason to act honorably in overseeing Director Mueller.
On what it would mean if Trump fired the special counsel:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What will-- what will it mean if President Trump is tries to fire Robert Mueller?
JAMES COMEY: It would, I hope, set off alarm bells that this is his most serious attack yet on the rule of law. And it would be something that our entire country-- again, Democrats and Republicans, that is higher than all the normal fights about policy. That is about the values of this country and the rule of law. And it would be to the everlasting shame of partisans if they were unable to see that higher level and to protect it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the deputy attorney general'll carry out that order?
JAMES COMEY: No. I don't. I think, given his experience with me, that-- that he has an opportunity in overseeing Bob Mueller to restore some of his professional reputation. And I'm m-- highly confident that he would refuse to abide that order.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And if Robert Mueller decides to bring a case, would you be a witness for the prosecution?
JAMES COMEY: Sure, if he asked me to be. I'm a fact witness. That relates to-- I'm sure, to an obstruction investigation. Where that's going to go, I don't know. But potentially, I'd be-- I'd be a witness.
On whether he believes the Trump campaign colluded with Russia:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Thing-- I'm sorry. Are there-- are there things that you know but haven't said that could damage President Trump?
JAMES COMEY: That's a good question. I don't think so. I don't think I'm holding back on you. I'm not talking about the details of investigations. But I left a long time ago. And there's been a lotta work done since the day I was fired. And so I don't-- I have no idea what Bob Mueller has.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you read the papers. You follow the investigation. Do you think people tied to President Trump colluded with the Russians?
JAMES COMEY: I don't know is the honest answer. That-- that was th-- what we were trying to investigate at the time. Was anyone aiding the Russians, conspiring with the Russians? There's no doubt there was smoke around that. Whether there's fire, I-- I didn't stay long enough to know.
On the power of democracy, truth, and the rule of law:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But-- but if Robert Mueller finds evidence of obstruction of justice, what is the remedy?
JAMES COMEY: Well, sure. Tha-- I-- I didn't mean to say that I want them to stop doing their investigation or whatever flows from that. But in a way, as a citizen, I think we owe it to each other to get off the couch and think about what unites us. I think about the people who supported Trump, and continue to support Trump.
A lotta them come from families with a proud history of military service. And that's a wonderful thing. What did their fathers and grandfathers fight and die for? Not for immigration policy. Not for a tax policy. Not for Supreme Court justice. They fought and died for a set of ideas. The rule of law. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. The truth.
That's what they fought and died for. And at some point, we have to focus on that and make sure that whoever's leading us embodies those and we judge that leader by their tether to those values. Then we'll go back to fighting like cats and dogs about all the things we normally fight about.