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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Town Hall Meeting with Former FBI Director James Comey. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired May 9, 2019 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
COOPER: Good evening. Welcome to the 360 Town Hall with former FBI Director James Comey. I'm Anderson Cooper.
Director Comey spent his career in the justice system, working as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, then as the deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration. He was appointed director of the FBI by President Barack Obama in 2013 and led the bureau's investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails. They cleared her of criminal wrongdoing, but not without extraordinary controversy that still goes on today.
President Trump fired Mr. Comey two years ago today -- about an hour ago two years ago. That firing and the events surrounding it triggered the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose redacted report has almost 650 mentions of Director Comey's name. And so the assembled group here has nearly that many things to ask him.
The audience is made up of students and professionals from more than a dozen states living in the D.C. area, and their questions are all their own. We also want to mention that Director Comey is the author of the book "A Higher Loyalty," which is just out in paperback and has a new forward.
So with that, I want to welcome former FBI Director James Comey.
COOPER: Have a seat.
COOPER: So I want to get to the questions in a second, but I just want to start out with two questions for you. It was two years ago tonight, I believe it happened in the 7 o'clock hour on the East Coast of the U.S., that you were fired. And I -- if the reporting is correct, you were at an FBI bureau, I think, in Los Angeles, and you actually saw it on CNN that you had been fired. I'm wondering, two years later, with all that's happened, how do you look back on that moment?
COMEY: I was numb, because I didn't expect to be fired. I was actually in a room about this size talking to custodial staff employees about the importance of the FBI's mission. I looked over their heads and saw -- first it said, "Comey Resigns," which I thought was probably a prank, and then it said, "Comey Fired."
And I know this may sound strange, but I didn't expect to be fired. It never entered my mind. I knew by that point the president didn't like me, but I thought that's OK, because that will keep a separation. So it still feels a little bit numbing, frankly, and like it happened yesterday and a lifetime ago.
COOPER: And what happens when you see that you've been fired on television? Like, who do you call? What do you do?
COMEY: Well, first of all, you finish -- I finished what I was saying to these folks and shook each of their hands. And then I said to them, I'm going to go find out whether that's true. And the first call I took was from my wife as I walked across the room. And she said, have you been fired? She said, the kids say it's all over the internet. And I said, I have no idea.
And then, with the help of my assistant in Washington, I figured out that a guy was actually down knocking on the door of the FBI in Pennsylvania Avenue saying he had a letter for me from the president that I was fired. Now, long before I got the letter, the media was told. But that's how it happened.
COOPER: Before we go to questions, President Trump today talked about you. He said that Bob Mueller is, quote, "in love with James Comey. He likes James Comey. They were very good friends, supposedly best friends. Maybe not, but supposedly best friends. You look at the picture file and you see hundreds of pictures of him and Comey." Um, is Mueller in love with you?
COMEY: I respect him. I don't think we have that kind of relationship.
COOPER: You just want to be friends with him.
COMEY: He's certainly not -- yeah. He's certainly not obsessed with me in the way some others seem to be.
COOPER: Uh-huh. All right. Let's go to the first question. This is Zack Schonfeld. He is a student at the George Washington University where he works in the school's newspaper and he's from Virginia. Zach?
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for taking my question. So with your knowledge of president and experiences in the FBI and with Bob Mueller, does anything in the Mueller report surprise you?
COMEY: No. There were a lot of facts in the Mueller report that I didn't know, but I knew it would be high-quality work if we got a chance as a country to read it. And what he describes about Russia's intervention in our election didn't surprise me at all, confirmed what I knew from when I was at the bureau. And what he laid out about the president's efforts to obstruct justice
was broader in scope than I personally knew, but given what I had seen, it didn't surprise me, honestly.
COOPER: The references to you, do you think Mueller got the parts about you right?
COMEY: I think so, because the record was fairly clear with me. I tried to write down everything important that happened, and so he had the benefit of those things and my testimony under oath. So I think -- yeah, I think it's right.
COOPER: Do you feel the Mueller report vindicated you? Because some of the things that President Trump said you were lying about, Mueller backed you up on, said that they weren't lies.
COMEY: I knew I was telling the truth the whole time.
I basically told that same story under oath in front of the Senate at a time when the president was hinting that there were tapes of my -- of our conversations together. So I knew I was telling the truth. I think the country knew I was telling the truth. And Mueller simply confirmed that.
COOPER: The president keeps making the point that the Mueller report found "no collusion." Is that something you accept?
COMEY: Well, that's actually not what the report says. Mueller says, first of all, as you know, Anderson, collusion is not a term that lawyers use or should use. He found there was not sufficient evidence to charge a conspiracy between Americans and the Russian effort. That strikes me as a reasonable conclusion, and I accept it.
COOPER: The next question is from Sabren Wahdan, she's from Virginia, student at Marymount University who will be starting law school this fall. Sabren?
QUESTION: Good evening, Mr. Comey. The New York Times reported that the FBI sent an investigator posing as an assistant to meet with a Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, in 2016. Does that qualify as spying?
COMEY: Yeah, I'm not going to comment on a particular investigative step, because that's for the bureau to do, and I'm not in the government any longer. But the FBI doesn't spy to begin with. The FBI investigates.
And you got to remember where we were in the end of July of 2016. We knew the Russians were engaged in a massive effort to attack our democracy, and then we learn from an allied ambassador that one of President-elect Trump's -- or candidate Trump's advisers had been talking to a Russian representative long before that about dirt they had on Hillary Clinton that the Russians wanted to make available. We all should have been fired if when we learned that we didn't
investigate to figure out, is there a connection between any Americans and this Russian effort? And the FBI, in my view, took very reasonable steps, careful steps to try and understand, is that true? And I can't believe Republicans would have wanted it any other way. And we acted in a responsible, limited, and constrained way. I'm proud of the way we conducted ourselves.
COOPER: You said it's not spying. Why do you think Attorney General Barr used the word spying, which is obviously a word that the president has used, as well?
COMEY: I can't explain it. I mean, the only explanation I can think of is he used it because the president uses it, which is really disappointing. He knows better than that and knows that the FBI conducts electronic surveillance by going to federal judges and getting warrants based on probable cause.
COOPER: But sending an investigator undercover to meet with somebody who is connected to the campaign, they claimed he was later on just a coffee boy, that is an extreme step, no?
COMEY: No, it's a reasonable -- that was the guy, Papadopoulos, who was the subject of the information we got from the Australians, that he had talked to the Russians.
COOPER: Did you sign off on the investigator going?
COMEY: I don't remember talking about that particular step with my team. I knew they were trying to see if they could check it out. That's a totally normal step, see if you can get somebody close to the person and see if they'll confirm what we heard from the Australians.
COOPER: How involved were you overall overseeing the investigation? Because, again, this is an investigation where at this point, on the Papadopoulos -- you know, the -- Donald Trump had already been named the candidate for the Republican Party.
COOPER: Yeah, I was involved the way the director should be involved, briefed on it on a regular basis, but the director never runs an investigation. But they kept me closely informed, because I had told them this is important, I want it kept very close hold, but do what you need to do under our authorities to figure out whether there's something...
COOPER: So you're saying you're not sure if you knew they were sending somebody under cover to talk to Papadopoulos?
COMEY: Well, I don't want to confirm. I want to leave to the FBI to confirm what investigative steps they took. That news article wasn't, I don't think, based on an official release. So I don't want to comment on particular steps. But in general, they would tell me we're following through to try and understand whether there's evidence to establish this.
COOPER: The inspector general, the attorney general, they're obviously now looking into the origins of the investigation of the president and his campaign. Are you confident you did everything by the book, and that the FBI, the people around you, did everything by the book?
COMEY: Yes. That doesn't...
COOPER: No doubt?
COMEY: No doubt in my mind. But that doesn't mean I'm against review of it. That's totally fine.
COOPER: So you think the inspector general will find nothing inappropriate?
COMEY: I don't think so. At least not that I know of. But if they do, they do. And they should be transparent about it.
COOPER: CNN has spoken to people within the FBI who say that they have concerns that the inspector general could find something and that they are bracing for what may be uncovered.
COMEY: Again, I'm a big believer in the truth. If the truth is there was there was something concerning, then let's hear it. I don't know of anything like that.
COOPER: All right. I want you to meet -- this is Trevor Lyons. He is from Connecticut, a graduate student at Georgetown University studying chemistry. Trevor?
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Comey. My question is, based on your firing and the attempted firing of other DOJ officials and the debate over whether or not this constitutes obstruction of justice, as a former prosecutor and FBI director, where do you think the line should be drawn between executive power and obstruction of justice?
COMEY: Well, hard to say in the abstract, except maybe this, that the president is not above the law and I don't accept the notion that because the president is the head of the executive branch he can't ever obstruct justice in connection with executive branch activities.
That's just crazy and a recipe for lawlessness.
So the question is, did the president act in a way that manifested a corrupt intent, not the discharge of his constitutional duties, but a corrupt intent to interfere with an ongoing proceeding or to intimidate or tamper with a witness? That's a factual question. There is a whole lot of facts laid out in Bob Mueller's report that raise serious questions about whether there's a chargeable case for obstruction and witness tampering against this president.
COOPER: Do you think he had criminal intent, based on what you have seen now in the Mueller report?
COMEY: It sure looks like he did in connection with a couple of episodes. The direction to Don McGahn to get the special counsel fired is to my mind a flaming example of...
COOPER: Of corrupt intent?
COMEY: Yes, of corrupt intent. And I know even the attorney general has said, well, what the president meant was he wanted Don McGahn to convey his concerns. Well, really? Don McGahn went and called his lawyer, packed his office, and said he was going to quit. I don't think that's the reaction of the White House counsel when it's about "conveying concerns."
COOPER: So in your opinion, there was corrupt intent, at least in several of those episodes by President Trump?
COMEY: It sure looks that way from the reports, factual recitation.
COOPER: If, you know, they're now -- what, I think it's up to 800 former federal prosecutors who have worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations who have signed a statement saying that Mueller's findings would have produced obstruction charges against President Trump if he weren't president. Do you agree?
COMEY: Yeah, I agree.
COOPER: No doubt?
COMEY: No doubt. Again, there's 10 different episodes. I actually think the ones that would be most likely charged are not necessarily the ones that involved me, but particularly this McGahn episode and another episode where he was trying to get the attorney general to limit the investigation only to future elections, are examples that any reasonable prosecutor would charge.
COOPER: Mueller basically was operating and going by Department of Justice guidelines that a sitting president can't be indicted. Was he right to do that?
COMEY: I don't know. He was trying to as best -- I haven't talked to him, but reading his report...
COOPER: But he "loves you."
COMEY: I keep forgetting that. I can't wait to see all the pictures of us hugging and kissing.
Because they're not in my iCloud account. Maybe somebody else has them. Send them if you have them. The -- he was trying, I think, to do something principled and fair. And I can tell you from personal experience, sometimes when you try to do that, people misunderstand you.
He said, I can't indict the president because of Department of Justice policy. And given that, it would be unfair to accuse him of a crime in a document when he can't vindicate himself through a trial. So what I'll do is look at it and say, could I say there is nothing there, which I could clear him? But if I can't say that, I ought to just lay out the facts for a future prosecutor -- it's often overlooked that he says that in the report -- so that a judgment can be made after he is president about whether to charge him, and so the Congress can discharge its duties.
Now, the problem is, that's very nuanced and principled in an effort to be fair that the attorney general distorted with the way he described it and that confused a lot of people.
COOPER: Do you think he should be charged when he's out of office?
COMEY: I think...
COOPER: Based on what Mueller has shown?
COMEY: Well, I think the Justice Department will have to take a serious look at that. Whether it's a wise thing to do to a former president, I don't know, that's a harder question, a much bigger question than the facts of the case.
COOPER: But you think the evidence is there to prosecute?
COMEY: Sure looks like it's there, with respect to at least a couple of those episodes of obstruction.
COOPER: I want you to meet Andrey Strakhov. He works here in Washington as a program director for the Grant Training Center, which is an organization helping professionals obtain federal and foundation grant funding. Andrey, your question?
QUESTION: Hi, Director Comey. Having lived in Russia, I can tell you that the public opinion of President Trump there is lukewarm to negative at best. It also seems that the personal relationship between Putin and Trump has cooled. So personal collusion is pretty hard to buy into.
As such, do you think there are other Russian goals behind U.S. election interference beyond trying to destabilize our faith in American democracy and undermine our world leadership geopolitically?
COMEY: Well, they had three goals last election cycle, and Donald Trump was actually third on the list. The first, as you said, was they want to dirty up this democracy so it's not an example for other nations around the world.
Second, they wanted to hurt Hillary Clinton, who Vladimir Putin hated.
And last, they wanted to help Donald Trump, who even they weren't sure could win the election. So going into 2020, their goals -- my common sense tells me -- will be to continue their overarching goal, which is to damage the United States of America, and then to support President Trump, because surely they think they'll do better with someone who jokes on the phone with Vladimir Putin that the Russia thing is a hoax than they will with whoever else might be president. COOPER: President Trump says -- and just very recently blamed the
Obama administration saying they didn't do enough about Russian interference.
What should have been done more? Could more have been done? I mean, you were at the FBI at that point.
COMEY: That's a hard question. President Obama faced a very difficult choice. The number-one goal for the Russians is to damage our democracy and undermine faith in our electoral process. If he makes an announcement that the Russians are coming for the election, has he just accomplished their goal for them? And has he given Donald Trump an excuse to say "Obama fixed the election"?
So I get why he struggled with it. He did a very sensible thing. He tried to get the bipartisan leaders of Congress to jointly tell the American people this is going on. And in my view, to their everlasting shame, the Republicans refused.
COOPER: You offered to write an op-ed, didn't you?
COMEY: Yep. The summer...
COOPER: Warning the American public about Russian interference and that they -- what was it, the administration said no?
COMEY: Yeah, I offered it to the administration, saying if you decide to try and inoculate the American people, I'm happy to do it. Here is what I would tell the American people. But I get why President Obama hesitated, and I agreed with his concern about not accomplishing the Russian goal for them.
COOPER: This is Josh Kutner. He is from New Jersey. He is now studying political science at the George Washington University. He is director of political affairs of the school's College Republicans. Josh?
QUESTION: Thank you for being here, Director Comey. When many Americans go to the ballot box next November, they'll have to make a judgment call on whether or not the economic benefits of the Trump presidency outweigh Trump's purported misbehavior as outlined in the Mueller report. You've previously called on Americans to vote Trump out of office in 2020. Why do you think that voters should prioritize Trump's personal flaws over their own economic well-being?
COMEY: Well, actually, I wouldn't -- thank you for the question, but I wouldn't frame it that way. I think we should start where I thought Republicans always said we should start, with the nature and character of the leader and his respect for or attacks on our values, truth, and the rule of law among them. That's the most important level in American politics.
The level down from that is important policy questions. To my mind, this question at the top level is so obviously answered. You cannot have a president who's a chronic liar. I don't care what your passions around tax cuts or regulation or immigration. I respect difference there. The president of the United States cannot be someone who lies constantly.
I thought Republicans agreed with that. It's one of the reasons I'm no longer a Republican. I hope the American people will realize we have to start at that values level, no matter what our political background, and answer that question first. And if that's a close question in an election, then get to the important policy differences.
COOPER: Are we in a constitutional crisis, as Jerry Nadler...
Are we in a constitutional crisis, as Jerry Nadler and House Speaker Pelosi say we are?
COMEY: I actually don't think so. I think we're in a time where our constitutional design, the genius of our founders is going to be tested. And I think it's up for it. Right?
Congress has made demands, the newly awakened Congress. Thank goodness they're living out the design of the founders, trying to conduct oversight. The executive is resisting. And that battle is going to be fought out in the courts. All three branches of our government are going to be involved.
A crisis would be if the United States courts say, no, Mr. President, you must comply with this demand, and he says no then. We're not there. Our system is being stress-tested, but it's up for it.
COOPER: We've got a question -- I want to preface a little bit just for our viewers at home, in case they haven't been following it. The question is going to be about Peter Strzok and Lisa Page and Andrew McCabe. Just for folks at home, Strzok and Page are former FBI officials who exchanged texts bashing then-candidate Trump in 2016, raising questions of bias.
Strzok played a key role in the Hillary Clinton investigation, worked briefly on Mueller's team. Strzok was eventually fired. Page resigned. McCabe was Direct Comey's deputy at the FBI, lied to internal investigators about leaking information to the press. He was fired last year.
So I want to go to our questioner. This is Christy McCampbell. Christy worked for more than 30 years in law enforcement, including roles at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, state of California. She currently works as a strategic consultant for law enforcement agencies.
QUESTION: Good evening. Considering the high standards that we set for law enforcement, what do you think should have been the consequences for Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Andrew McCabe?
COMEY: I thank you for the question. I think, given the standards that we have, and especially we in the FBI have, there should have been and was severe discipline around their behavior, as Anderson said, very different episodes of behavior.
Everyone has opinions about political issues and religious issues and sports issues. You can't bring them to work and have them affect your work. There have to be severe consequences.
FBI employees must tell the truth always. And if they don't, I don't care what it's about, it's going to be investigated, and there will be severe consequences. That's the way it should be. In an organization of 38,000, people are going to do stuff they shouldn't do, and a message has to be sent to them and to everybody who follows them. So I have no problem at all with severe discipline.
COOPER: Andrew McCabe has said that he didn't know about the text between Strzok and Page.
He was their boss. He obviously worked closely with them. Do you believe it's possible he wasn't even aware of their opinions? He may not have seen text messages, but that he wasn't aware of the opinions that they held about then-candidate Trump?
COMEY: Yeah, that strikes me as reasonable, because...
COOPER: It's reasonable that he wouldn't...
COMEY: No, that they would never let him see that, just as they would never let me see that, because...
COOPER: You never heard from them anything negative about President Trump?
COMEY: Never. Never. And if they had those opinions, which they clearly did in the texts, they would be risking their careers to let me hear about it, because they understood how I approach the job.
COOPER: If you had heard or if Andrew McCabe had actually heard them expressing those things, what action would have been taken?
COMEY: I'm confident they certainly wouldn't be working on investigations that touched the candidates or the political process at all, and they probably would have been disciplined...
COOPER: So do you acknowledge that this whole episode with Strzok and Page, that it damaged the reputation of the FBI and perhaps tarnished the investigation?
COMEY: Definitely. Yeah, very painful. It was important that it be investigated and important that there be discipline that follows it, but, yeah, it made us all look bad. Peter Strzok is a very talented agent. It's a personal tragedy for him. But as much as I care about individuals, I care about the institution more. It hurt the institution.
COOPER: All right. We're going to be back with our 360 Town Hall with former FBI Director James Comey. Back in a minute. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
COOPER: Welcome back to our 360 Town Hall with former FBI Director James Comey. He is also the author of a book, "A Higher Loyalty," which is now out in paperback with a whole brand-new forward.
We've been getting questions from our audience. We'll go back to the audience in just a second. I want to ask you about the Steele dossier. Just today, Rudy Giuliani was raising questions about how well you, the FBI, vetted the dossier. Giuliani tweeted, quote, "Comey told @realdonaldtrump that Steele dossier was unverified, but he had it for five months after and never tried to verify it. If he did, he would have found out that Steele had not been in Russia for at least seven years. He deliberately avoided discovering the truth."
A, what do you think about what he says? And how much work did the FBI do to verify that dossier?
COMEY: Yeah, it's false in two respects. First, I told President Trump that the particular allegation about him being involved with prostitutes in Moscow was unverified, but I felt it important that he know about it.
More broadly, the bureau began an effort after we got the Steele dossier to try and see how much of it we could replicate. That work was ongoing when I was fired. Some of it was consistent with our other intelligence, the most important part. The Steele dossier said the Russians are coming for the American election. It's a huge effort. It has multiple goals that I laid out for the audience. And that was true.
There were a lot of spokes off of that that we didn't know whether they were true or false, and we were trying to figure out what we could make of it.
COOPER: You said that you had told President or then President-elect, I guess, Trump that it was unverified, the salacious aspects about the tapes.
COOPER: George Stephanopoulos interviewed you two years -- or a year ago, when your first book came out, and I just want to play something you said about those -- about those tapes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you believe his denial?
COMEY: I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: So, I mean, the investigation is over now. Nothing in the Mueller report corroborated that salacious claim about the tapes and prostitutes. Do you regret making those comments, which some would see as sort of stoking the fires, or leaving it as an open question?
COMEY: No, I was trying to give an honest answer, and my answer would be the same today.
COOPER: But you could have just said, well, those were unverified.
COMEY: I thought that's what I was saying, that I don't know whether it's true or not. It's a crazy thing to have to say, because any other leader I would think I would say that's preposterous, it couldn't possibly be true.
There's a footnote in the Mueller report that actually makes potentially oblique reference to these tapes, where someone in Russia is alerting -- I think with Michael Cohen in October, late October, "we stopped the flow of the tapes." I don't know exactly what he means by that. But Mueller seems to connect it in some way to that allegation.
Again, Mueller didn't say it wasn't the case. He didn't disprove it, but he also didn't establish that it was the case.
COOPER: Right, and I think that person said that those tapes were false.
COMEY: Yeah. Another important thing is the counterintelligence part of this work, which is what -- whether the Russians had leverage over the president, that would be part of the counterintelligence investigation. Mueller left that with the FBI. His document is about a prosecutor's look at whether there are crimes to be prosecuted.
COOPER: Do you think the Russians have leverage over President Trump?
COMEY: I don't know the answer to that.
COOPER: Think it's possible?
COOPER: Our next question comes from Idris O'Connor, who works at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a question about the Department of Justice's policy not to indict a sitting president. Idris?
QUESTION: Hi, Director Comey. Do you think the policy for not indicting a sitting president should be revised by Congress?
COMEY: The answer is, I don't know. The policy on its face seems reasonable to me. Its primary motivation is to make sure you don't put yourself in a situation where you distract a president when our founders set up a mechanism to sanction or remove a president, which sits with Congress and the impeachment process.
And second, you don't create the very strange situation of the executive branch indicting its own leader, which sets up really interesting legal questions. So I'm not sure that it should be revisited. I think we have the mechanisms in place in our Constitution to respond to presidential misconduct if Congress wants to take advantage of them.
COOPER: If you had been running the investigation, would you have subpoenaed the president?
COMEY: I don't know. I think...
COOPER: Or at least figured out a way to demand that he actually come for an interview?
COMEY: Yeah, I'd really want to interview him, which is one of the things that surprised me about the attorney general's judgments about the president's intent. How does he know that? We haven't interviewed the man. I would have pushed for it. And I think I understand. It will be important for Bob Mueller to testify and clarify this.
COOPER: You think Mueller should testify?
COMEY: Oh, yeah, of course, and explain his thinking in a lot of these areas. I think his judgment was, look, we can't indict him anyway. We've got lots of evidence of obstruction of justice. We're compiling it for a future prosecutor, so why engage in a really long battle over forcing him to give us answers? We'll collect this information, preserve it for the future, and not waste the time with that battle. I don't know in hindsight whether that was the right call or not.
COOPER: Has Mueller made a mistake by not speaking out, by remaining silent and allowing, essentially, Attorney General Barr to define the report or the narrative?
COMEY: I don't know whether it's a mistake by Bob Mueller, because I don't know whether he anticipated the way in which the attorney general would act and the things he would say. In hindsight, maybe Bob Mueller would have approached it differently.
But, look, the president says this report is a complete exoneration of him. So why on Earth wouldn't the special counsel be permitted to testify? He will give us important insight into exactly what his thinking was, because I could be wrong about it, but exactly what he was collecting the evidence for and his assessment of it.
COOPER: What do you think of the way Attorney General Barr has behaved? Because you had talked earlier, I think, right when -- before the summary came out or right after the summary came out that you needed to give him the benefit of the doubt. COMEY: Yeah, and I said that because I think his career had earned
that. And so I tried to withhold judgment. He did a very good thing in offering transparency. Most of the report is unredacted, so we could see it.
And then I think he acted in a way that's less than honorable in the way he described it in writing and described it during a press conference, and continues to talk as if he's the president's lawyer. That is not the attorney general's job. It's a political appointment by the president, but you lead an institution that belongs to the American people and not the president.
COOPER: You think he's behaving less than honorably?
COMEY: I do. Yeah, look, I'm sorry to...
He's an accomplished and very smart person and who had nothing to lose in taking this job but his reputation, but I really -- it doesn't make me happy to say this, but I think he has lost most of his reputation with the way he's conducted himself.
COOPER: Do you know why he's doing it?
COMEY: I don't. I can speculate, but I don't know. People are complicated, but it is deeply concerning.
COOPER: The -- Attorney General Barr said to Congress the letter is a bit snitty, talking about the letter that Mueller had written him with his concerns about the way Barr had portrayed the report. He said the letter is a bit snitty, and I think it was written by one of his staff people. You know Bob Mueller. Would he sign off on some letter that a staffer had written that he did not 100 percent agree with?
COMEY: No. To the extent the attorney general is suggesting that Bob Mueller is a captive of his "snitty" staff...
... it's inconsistent with everything everybody knows about Director Mueller. And what's interesting is Bill Barr knows Bob Mueller better than most people. He knows better than to say that.
COOPER: I want you to meet Vasiliki Topping. She's from Virginia studying law and society at American University. Vasiliki?
QUESTION: Good evening. My question is about Attorney General William Barr, who has come under a lot of heat because of his testimony before Congress. And he's actually been -- the Judiciary Committee has voted to hold him in contempt of court -- in contempt of Congress, my apologies. So, in your opinion, what is the best course of action to deal with the situation if he actually did lie to Congress?
COMEY: Well, those are two separate things. If someone lies to Congress, the appropriate course is for Congress to make an official referral to the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia. If it relates to the testimony by the attorney general, there will probably have to be some separation where the attorney general is recused from it and professional prosecutors take a look at it.
Contempt, as I understand it, the issue here is separate. Is he refusing to testify and abide by subpoenas from Congress? There is also a mechanism for enforcing those things, but it's a separate question from this question of perjury. I'm not suggesting that the man committed perjury, but that's how it would go.
COOPER: Do you think he did commit perjury?
COMEY: I -- I don't know. He certainly gave misleading testimony.
COOPER: Because he was asked -- he was asked by Senator Van Hollen, did Bob Mueller support your conclusion? That was on the 4/20/19. Barr said, "I don't know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion." And we now know that, March 27th, Mueller wrote him a letter saying that the summary did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of the findings.
COMEY: Well, I think there's room. Perjury is a hard thing to prove, and it should be. It requires a very specific intent. You know you're lying when you utter those words, and it leaves lots of room below that for people to give lawyerly, narrow answers. My view of it is, I think the most reasonable conclusion is he was giving a very lawyerly, narrow answer, and he wasn't violating the perjury statute. But again, it's not my case...
COOPER: So you don't think he lied?
COMEY: On the face of it, it doesn't look to me like he committed perjury. But I hope that's not the standard for the attorney general testifying in front of Congress. The Department of Justice has a duty of candor to the courts and to Congress. The testimony was not candid. Whether it was perjurious is a much higher bar, and it doesn't look to me like he's across that.
COOPER: I want you to meet Vaibhav Vijay, a student at the George Washington University, studying political science and public policy. He's from Washington state. What's your question?
QUESTION: Hi, Director Comey. Based on the things that you've found, do you think the U.S. government is doing enough to protect our election infrastructure? And I was also wondering, do you think the U.S. is adequately equipped for this kind of cyber warfare that the Russians are engaging us in?
COMEY: Thanks for that question. No and no is the answer.
To take the election, protecting our election, the president is the commander-in-chief. The president denies that the Russians attacked us in 2016. How can we possibly be adequately prepared to protect ourselves if our leader won't acknowledge that it happened? That's the first thing.
I know there is lots of work being done at lower levels to try and protect us, but it's being done out of the sight and without the direction of the president. And I heard leaders of the NSA and other agencies say we're not doing enough. If we were given authorities, were given permission, there is more we could do. So the answer is we're not doing enough.
The good news for all of us is, our election machinery is a total hairball, and there is comfort in that. It's decentralized. It's some nice old lady putting a voting machine under the basketball hoop. It's not connected to the internet. It's very hard to attack.
So I don't feel worried about that. I worry very much about the kind of intervention we saw last time, to confuse us, to drive us apart, to make us even more polarized than we are now. We're not equipped to respond.
COOPER: And you have no doubt they're going to try again?
COMEY: Of course. They exceeded their wildest expectations in 2016. Look at us. We're at each other's throats. We have a president who is denying what his own intelligence community says is true. They will be back to build on that success.
COMEY: There was an extraordinary report in the New York Times that in the months before Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign as director of homeland security, she tried to get the White House to focus on preparing for any future attempts by Russia to meddle in an election. She was, according to the New York Times, was told by Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, not to talk about it in front of the president because it would upset him, because, as Hope Hicks told Mueller, that is his Achilles' heel. He believes it reflects poorly on the legitimacy of his election or raises questions about legitimacy.
Does it really matter, though, if the president is not holding cabinet-level meetings about Russian interference as long as the folks in the FBI and the Department of Justice and the State Department are working to prevent interference?
COMEY: Of course it matters. Because the president is in charge of the executive branch. And so if you're trying to protect the American people by sneaking around so the boss doesn't find out what we're doing, you're going to be dysfunctional by definition. And you're never going to get the resources and the authorities you need, because those come from the top.
So it's a crazy situation to be in where the president is the only person in the executive branch who denies that the Russians attacked us, but it has really important consequences.
COOPER: Our next question is from Brian Callahan. Brian works as a congressional lobbyist for a nonprofit which is focused on addressing global poverty and hunger. He's also a graduate student at George Washington University. Brian?
QUESTION: Hi, Director Comey. If you could, would you go back in time to July 5, 2016, and not hold your press conference? Or would you rephrase your words describing the conclusion of the FBI's investigation into Secretary Clinton?
COMEY: Yeah, that's a great question. If I could go back in time, I would find a way not to be involved at all.
But if I don't have that magic wand, I think I'd likely do it the same way. Here was my problem. I and the FBI needed the American people to trust that this wasn't a political fix job, that this was done in a credible, fair, independent way.
Secretary Clinton had engaged in conduct that was way beyond what the normal carelessness was. And so how do we explain to the American people that it's not the ordinary stuff, but it doesn't rise to the level that you would be locked up for it? So I have to characterize the behavior in some way, not to attack her, but so the American people would understand this is the basis for their judgment. It's not criminal, but it's not the ordinary stuff.
I probably should have said really sloppy or something, but I had to characterize it. The goal was to offer transparency to foster trust. I actually think you've seen it now. We all realize the importance of it now with the Mueller report. The Mueller report contains far more detail about individuals who are not charged than we ever even considered offering in the Clinton case, but it's important for all of us to understand the basis of the decisions being made.
COOPER: So you would have used words other than "extremely careless"?
COMEY: Yeah, only because -- this is a technical thing, but the Republicans in Congress got all wrapped around the axle on those words, because they said, ah-ha, that sounds like gross negligence, which is a violation of the law that was passed in 1919. I would have said something more plainspoken and say really sloppy.
COOPER: The inspector general, though, called your decision not to inform the bosses about the Clinton press conference, they called it extraordinary, insubordinate. They also said your letter to Congress about reopening the Clinton e-mails investigation to the e-mails was based on your personal views, even if it meant rejecting longstanding department policy or practice.
COMEY: Yeah, that's fair criticism. The first part...
COOPER: Is it true?
COMEY: Is it true? COOPER: That it was insubordinate -- extraordinary and insubordinate
and that it rejected longstanding department policy or practice?
COMEY: Yes, except for the insubordinate part. It was -- we were facing a 500-year flood. We had never been in a situation like this. And we were put, the FBI, in a position where we had to do something I never imagined before...
COOPER: But isn't that why policies and procedures are in place, for exactly 500-year floods?
COMEY: No. Policies are great because they reliably produce good results in most situations. Norms are great because they reliably guide you in most situations. This was not most situations.
We would -- we had a little bit of gallows humor. We would say get me the book that explains how we deal with this. We were in a situation none of us ever imagined. We did our best to try to act in the interests of the institutions.
And as painful as it is to me, even today, I think I would do the same thing again. And if I had in October concealed from the American people that we'd restarted that investigation in a way that might lead to a different result, I think I would be criticized as brutally as I've been criticized, even more brutally for that decision.
COOPER: I want you to meet -- this is Victoria Ortega. She is a lawyer here in Washington and a board member of the Hispanic Bar Association. Victoria?
QUESTION: Good evening. Have you seen Hillary Clinton face-to-face since the election? And if so, can you describe the experience?
COMEY: No. I've never met Secretary Clinton ever. And so I've never been...
COOPER: You've never, ever met her?
COMEY: Ever. I've never been in her physical presence. Actually never have spoken to her on the phone or otherwise.
COOPER: What would you say?
COMEY: Well, I would hope that I could have a conversation with her. Look, I feel badly that she feels like -- she said in her book I think that I shivved her. I would hope to give her the chance...
I would hope to give her the chance to understand why we made the decisions we made. It wasn't about trying to hurt her or hurt Donald Trump or help Donald Trump. I was married to an amazing -- still married to an amazing woman who really wanted a woman to be elected president of the United States, and she did not get it at all.
Once she understood, I was able to tell my wife why we made these decisions, her reaction, which was the reaction of a lot of people when they finally see it was, oh, I get it. I would hope I could have that conversation with Secretary Clinton.
COOPER: All right. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back with more from our 360 Town Hall with former FBI Director James Comey.
COOPER: And welcome back to our 360 Town Hall with former FBI Director James Comey. He's the author of the book "A Higher Loyalty," which is now out in paperback with a new forward. Our next question comes from Jason Brown. He is an elementary school teacher. He interned for former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, and in her Washington office. Jason?
QUESTION: Good evening. As an educator, I cringe on a seemingly weekly basis now as I see school shooting after school shooting being reported on the news, including the most recent one in Colorado this week. What can be done to stop this endless -- these senseless acts of murder? And is there a bipartisan solution?
COMEY: Yeah, incredibly difficult question. I can speak as a former law enforcement leader, one of the things we can do much better at is connecting our educators, our law enforcement, and our public health, mental health community.
I've learned from educators and cops and docs all over the country that there is all kinds of impediments to sharing information in a good way so we can identify troubled souls earlier and get them the help they need, the intervention they need much more quickly. The answer in my experience as someone who has been around firearms most of my life is not to arm teachers.
FBI -- to carry a firearm on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, you have to train and qualify every three months. You have to shoot hundreds of rounds to be trusted with that weapon on the streets of America. To trust someone with a weapon in a classroom filled with children would require, in my view, far more training and certification than that. It's just not a workable solution.
COOPER: Our next question comes from Melody Magly. She is a student at the George Washington University studying political communication, currently interning for the nonpartisan Women's Congressional Policy Institute. Melody, welcome.
QUESTION: How do you believe the Trump presidency has affected political corruption and the ability for bad actors to get away with corruption?
COMEY: I think the Trump presidency risks sending a message that leadership doesn't have to have a moral component, that it's not important in this country for a leader to have external ethical reference points, and that it's OK for a leader to only have one reference point, which is, "What will be good for me?"
Leaders matter because of what they say, but most importantly, they matter like parents do, because of the way in which they're watched. And the way in which they're watched, as a parent, you shape a family. As a leader, you shape a company, a part of a government, or the entire country. We really risk sending a message that it is OK to act in the way this president acts.
We are becoming numb to the fact that the leader of the free world lies constantly. And even if you support him, you have to look in the mirror and say, yeah, he lies constantly. We're so numb to it that we're forgetting it's not OK. And that's a recipe for a melting of our standards much more broadly.
COOPER: I want to follow up on that, because you wrote something that I found really interesting. You wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last week. It's called "How Trump Coopts Leaders like Big Barr."
And in it, you said, part of it, you said, quote, "Accomplished people lacking inner strength can't resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump, and that adds up to something they will never recover from. It takes character, like Mr. Mattis', to avoid the damage because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites."
I mean, explain how you believe the president of the United States is eating peoples' souls and how that process takes place.
COMEY: Yeah. And it doesn't make me happy to write that, but it's what I believe. This president, because he's an amoral leader, shapes those around him. And that shaping sometimes pushes out someone who is a strong person of integrity who stands up and says, "Not going to have it," but far more often, it shapes and bends and pulls in weaker souls.
And he does it. I've seen him -- it's happened to me. The man lies constantly. In public, you've seen it. In private, the same thing happened. And he talks constantly. And so I sat there at dinner with him and he went on about how he had the biggest inauguration crowd in history, he didn't make fun of a disabled reporter, and all of these lies are coming at you. And you're sitting there over your salad, thinking, "That's not true, that's not true, that's not true."
But you don't interrupt the president of the United States and say, "Mr. President, I saw the tape, you made fun of a disabled reporter." Instead, it washes over you. And all of a sudden, you finish the dinner or the meeting and you realize, "Oh, my god, I'm part of a silent circle of assent. Did I just agree that that's true because I didn't speak?" And then there are ritual -- these rituals of praise of the leader. And pretty soon you're wrapped so tightly in this web that there's no way out for you.
COOPER: Were you aware of that in that moment? I mean, when you left the dinner, that, wow, my silence seems like assent?
COMEY: Yes. And so the next time I was alone with him, and he told something that was obviously false, which was very, very important, he was saying in the Oval Office -- a torrent of words coming at me. I remember the day, February 8th of 2017, a torrent of words. And among the words were his saying, "We are the same kind of killers that Vladimir Putin is." He was defending his moral equivalency between us and Putin.
And I interrupted and said, Mr. President, no, we're not the kind of killers that Putin is. And when I said that, a shadow crossed the president's face, and the meeting was over, because I just popped that cocoon he was trying to draw around us. And so I knew at that point, I went back to the FBI, and said my relationship with this man is over, and that's not a bad thing.
COOPER: So, I mean, it's -- so you said it starts with silence. It's then the president seeking praise -- making everybody around him praise him, which we've seen actually in cabinet meetings, where he has people go around. But why do so many people want to stay? I mean, you look at Rod Rosenstein. I mean, the White House tried to -- according to Mueller -- tried to get him to lie, the president tried to get him to lie, and say that he was the one who was wanting you fired and is the one who brought it up. He refused to do that. But then in his speech, as he's leaving, he praises the president for respecting the rule of law.
COMEY: I think people like that, like Rod Rosenstein, who are people of accomplishment but not real sterling character, strong character, find themselves trapped. And then they start telling themselves a story to justify their being trapped, which is, yeah, he's awful, but the country needs me.
The Republicans are doing this in Congress now. Yeah, it's awful, but if I speak I'll get defeated, and this nation needs me here right now, and so they start to make little compromises to stay on the team, echo his words, use the term "spying," talk about collusion, or just be silent, thinking that's what I need to do to survive, and in the process, he has eaten their soul. They're lost.
And so that's what explains what happens to so many of these people. They become trapped. They're not strong enough to push out of it. And they end up making compromises that they lose everything.
COOPER: So Rod Rosenstein, you're saying, is a person not of a strong character?
COMEY: Yeah, I don't think he is. Of accomplishment, very bright. But he's not strong enough. Jim Mattis, our former secretary of defense, go back and look at tapes. When they would go around the table and praise the president ritually, the only person who didn't was Mattis. General Mattis always said, Mr. President, it's an honor to represent the men and women of the United States military. Never said it's an honor to work for you.
And I don't know whether President Trump noticed it. But in this current administration, that's the exception. The rest are -- the web is tied around them, tight around them, they tell themselves all kinds of stories, and they make compromises that destroy, I believe, their own reputations and don't serve the rest of us well.
COOPER: We should point out Mattis is no longer serving this administration.
COMEY: Secretary of defense, that's correct.
COOPER: We'll be right back with more from our 360 Town Hall from former FBI Director James Comey.
COOPER: Welcome back to our 360 Town Hall with former FBI Director James Comey, the author of "A Higher Loyalty," which is now out in paperback with a new forward.
We're going to get more questions. I do need to ask you, though, about something that Sarah Sanders said that was in the Mueller report, because it's directly about you. The report reads, and I'm quoting from the Mueller report, "When a reporter indicated that the vast majority of FBI agents supported Comey, Sanders said, 'Look, we've heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things.' Following the press conference, Sanders spoke to the president who told her she did a good job and did not point out any inaccuracies in her comments. Sanders told this office that her reference to hearing from, quote, 'countless members of the FBI' was a 'slip of the tongue.' She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made 'in the heat of the moment' that was not founded on anything."
When you read that, what did you think?
COMEY: I wasn't shocked. I mean, I knew it was a lie when it was first said at the time. And it was, I guess, gratifying to see the special counsel have her admit that it was. But I gather she's back on saying it was a slip of the tongue again. And if I need to explain to you what her deal is, I can't help you.
(LAUGHTER) COOPER: Why don't you meet James Smathers, a student at the George Washington University, who also works on a student-run political action committee. He's from California. James?
QUESTION: Hi. In your book, "A Higher Loyalty," you talk about the importance of political norms in our government. Do you think if House Democrats don't move towards impeachment for obstruction of justice, they will be putting politics over principles?
COMEY: It's a very hard question. I don't know what the right answer is, and I'm not qualified to answer it, because I think it's only people in the House that can answer that question.
I hope they'll stare closely at the facts and at their responsibilities under our Constitution. But I've said this before. I kind of hope there isn't an impeachment, because I think it will leave us in a situation where we're kind of off the hook. We need an election where the American people stand up and say, look, we got important differences over immigration and guns and abortion, really important issues that we should respect difference, but we have something in common that's nonnegotiable: Our president must reflect the values of this country. Our president must tell the truth.
And there's a lot of pain and polarization in this country, but I hope that's something that can unite Democrats, Republicans and independents. And so there ought to be a moment of inflection that falls on us, the American voters, and in a way, an impeachment process might derail that and let us off the hook. And we don't deserve to be let off the hook.
COOPER: The counterargument to that is one made by Senator Elizabeth Warren right now, who said that not only is it Congress's constitutional duty, but that every member of Congress should have to go on the record for -- you know, for our democracy and for history to vote as to whether or not they think this kind of behavior from a president is acceptable. Is there value in that idea?
COMEY: There is certainly value in the second part of that. I think everybody in leadership roles in American life ought to read the Mueller report and then answer this question: Is that behavior consistent with what we should expect from the president of the United States?
Republicans should be able to answer that and Democrats. There's great value in that. Again, because it will elevate the conversation to focus on values, which are the things most at risk with this president.
COOPER: The majority of people -- the American people have not read the full Mueller report, 448 pages. Should McGahn, Mueller, should there be -- do you want to see them all testify? Because that's another argument some Democrats are making, which is there's a lot of power in having public hearings in which people can watch it on television and actually hear from these people? COMEY: I believe transparency is always good for democracy. And so
the more information the American people can get about how the government's working and how this president is acting, the better off we'll be. And so I think we ought to have as full a development of the facts as possible.
COOPER: I want you to meet Garret Hoff. He's from California studying political communication at the George Washington University. Garret?
QUESTION: Thank you. What do you think is the biggest misconception that has been spread about you in the media? And why do you think that misconception has resonated?
COMEY: Hmm. Probably the biggest misconception is that I was on somebody's side during the 2016 election. Now, it's a weird thing where the Trump people say I was on the Clinton and the Clinton people say I was on the Trump side. But that idea that I and the FBI must have been acting with a partisan bias is disturbing, but also understandable, because so much of our country is divided. We're seeing the world with these partisan lenses. So it's almost impossible to imagine a group of people not on anybody's side.
And so I get why that sense has been fostered, but it's painful and damaging to the institution.
COOPER: I want you to meet Yolanda Hawkins-Bautista. She's an attorney and president of the Women's Bar Association in D.C. Yolanda, welcome.
QUESTION: Good evening. Are you considering running for public office? And if so, which office and under what party? I'm assuming it won't be the Republican Party.
COMEY: Well, actually the question is easier to answer than that. No, never.
I admire good people who run for office. We need good people on both sides of the aisle running for office. It's not my thing, but there are lots of ways to contribute, to serve your community and your country without running for office.
COOPER: You canvassed for a Republican candidate in Virginia in...
COMEY: Democratic candidate.
COOPER: For a Democratic candidate in Virginia, excuse me. Would you canvas for Democrats in the upcoming election?
COMEY: Yes. I think it's very important that -- first of all, I thought it very important that one House of Congress be in the hands of the opposition party, so the design of the founders would work, it would actually be oversight intention, and I think it's very, very important that Donald Trump -- again, not because of his policy positions but because he is amoral -- is unfit to lead this nation that somebody else be elected president.
COOPER: To Yolanda's question, though, if things are as bad as you have been saying they are with this administration, if the threat to the country is as serious as you say it is, why not do more than write occasional op-eds and then, you know, have your voice out there? Why not take another step and run for something?
COMEY: Yeah, it's just not -- it doesn't suit me for a bunch of different reasons. It's just not my thing. But I think there are plenty of ways to contribute. Look, I'm not loving this phase of my life.
COOPER: I thought this was going...
COMEY: Well, no -- I -- sorry.
COOPER: I'm kidding.
COMEY: I correct -- I love being with you.
COOPER: Yeah, yeah, sure, sure.
COMEY: And obviously, I love Bob Mueller, I found out tonight.
But I -- this isn't fun. But I can't do anything else. After the election...
COOPER: What is the next phase, then, for you?
COMEY: I don't know. But probably involving students and teaching, which I love doing. But I have to try to contribute to a conversation, which I hope will urge Republicans and Democrats to elevate the conversation and say, so what's the glue that holds America together? It's not our belief about taxes or it's not our belief about regulation. It's our values. We care about the truth and the rule of law.
Our leader has to reflect that common glue, that set of values, and we have to start there when we choose a leader. And we will get there, but I think we have to shorten this period where we've lost that focus on values in the White House. And there has to be inflection point in November of next year.
COOPER: I want to introduce Juliet Sanchez. She has one of the most important jobs in America. She's a public schoolteacher in Washington. She's originally from Colombia, came to the U.S. seven years ago. Julia? QUESTION: Buenas noches. Good evening, Mr. Comey. You lost one of your children when he was an infant. Your wife and yourself have been foster parents. You come from Irish descendent. What is your personal take on how immigrants -and especially immigrant children -- are being treated by the current administration?
COMEY: Every so often in our nation's history, the giant, which is the great lump in the middle of America where a bell curve stirs -- in 1963, little girls were murdered at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Sunday school and the giant stirred. And Republicans and Democrats voted for the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and changed our country.
The images and the reality of children in cages at our border is a stain on this country. And if there's anything good that can come from that, it will be a stirring of the giant. Torches in Charlottesville, children in cages, wake up. Think about what America is and vote those values.
COOPER: Our next question comes from Joshua Duboise, a law student at Howard University. He's from Georgia, served in the Army for seven years. Thank you for your service. Appreciate it. And what is your question, Joshua?
QUESTION: Thank you. What is your advice to those who are interested in joining the FBI or CIA, but seek to do so with no political affiliation or allegiance?
COMEY: Come. We don't want your political affiliation or allegiance. We need character, we need integrity, ability, and physicality.
One of my proudest achievements at the FBI was in four years attracting a broader swath of America to thankless, stressful, underpaid work that's addictive. Come. You won't regret it. It's a resolutely apolitical organization where you do good for a living. Nobody leaves, because once you taste work with moral content, it never lets you go and you never want to let it go. So come, is what I would say.
COOPER: Former FBI Director James Comey, thank you very much. Appreciate it.
COMEY: Thank you, Anderson.
COOPER: That's it for our audience here in Washington. A reminder, the book, "A Higher Loyalty," now out in paperback. "Cuomo Primetime" starts right now. Chris?