WebHeader_Grove.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Join as a $13-a-month sustainer and get the retro NHPR t-shirt!

Comey Argues DOJ Shouldn't Prosecute Trump After He Leaves Office

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After all that's happened just over the last few days, it might seem difficult to remember the scandals that erupted during the first few months of the Trump administration. Chief among those scandals was the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey. The stated reason for ousting him was Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. Well, shortly after all that went down, President Trump told NBC's Lester Holt that he fired Comey because he saw the Russia investigation as a made-up thing. Now, with just eight days left in Trump's presidency, as the country is still trying to understand last week's violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, James Comey is out with a new book. It's called "Saving Justice." Director Comey joins us now.

Welcome.

JAMES COMEY: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So I want to just start by asking you, when you were watching the riots unfold last Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, what went through your mind at the time?

COMEY: Two different but related emotions. I was sickened, as I hope all Americans were, watching an attack on the center of our democracy. And I was also angry as someone who spent a lot of a career in law enforcement. I was angry that it was being allowed to happen and that the Capitol was not being adequately defended. It just mystified me and angered me.

CORNISH: You know, there were warnings that something on that scale was going to happen at the U.S. Capitol. How concerned are you that law enforcement, potentially even including the FBI, just were not ready for what happened?

COMEY: Well, that was the source of my anger as I watched it because we were faulted as a government after 9/11 by the 9/11 Commission for a failure of imagination, not imagining how the terrorists might attack us. This required no imagination at all. This was just a failure because they were announcing they were coming. They were literally walking slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue. I don't know how the Capitol was not fortified in an adequate way. And I think it'll be really important for all of us to find that out with a commission-type examination.

CORNISH: You do make the case at the end of your book that the Justice Department should not spend its time trying to prosecute Donald Trump after he leaves office for the sake of rebuilding national unity and moving on. But let me ask you, do you still believe that, given last week's events, that Donald Trump should not be prosecuted?

COMEY: Yeah, that was a very close call when I wrote about it and finished the book back in the fall. It's even closer now. But I think it's still the best thing for the country not to have Donald Trump on our television screens every day for the next three or four years as part of United States v. Trump in the District of Columbia. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to try to heal a country. And I just think Donald Trump's craving for attention is something we don't want to accommodate now. We don't want him center of our lives. I'd rather him in his bathrobe yelling at cars on the lawn at Mar-a-Lago with the camera lights off. I think that's the best thing for the country now. But look. I'm not sure that I'm right.

CORNISH: But, I mean, do you think he should at least be investigated for his role in what happened at the U.S. Capitol?

COMEY: Oh, I think that - yeah, I think the Congress has important interests. I think he ought to be impeached. And ideally, he would be convicted by the Senate and barred from further office. I also think that the local prosecutors in New York should continue their work to hold him accountable for his life of being a garden variety criminal before he became president.

CORNISH: You mentioned the impeachment process, but impeachment is a political process, right? And you write in your book that for people to trust in the legal system, everyone needs to be held accountable under the law. So how does the country move on when you don't hold the president of the United States accountable under the law and you rely on a political process, assuming that states don't end up prosecuting?

COMEY: Well, look. That's what makes it such a close question. But I think slightly differently about the impeachment process. It's a deeply legal process embedded in our Constitution, and it's about the American people, through their representatives, holding accountable the chief executive. And so I don't think of that, if there were no federal prosecution, as not holding him accountable. I think it's actually the most important form of accountability right now.

CORNISH: I want to turn now to the Justice Department, where most of your book is centered. You know, throughout the book, you talk about this reservoir of trust that's necessary for the Justice Department to function. You write, quote, "effective law enforcement depends on public trust." And I want to focus here on the Mueller report. In what way do you believe former Attorney General Bill Barr eroded this trust you speak of when the Mueller report was released?

COMEY: Well, by lying to the American people about it in both written and in a brief press conference, that misleading of the American people allowed the Trump administration and their enablers to proclaim full vindication, complete vindication. This thing is over when anyone who took the time to read the report knew that that was false.

CORNISH: And what's very striking in your book is you argue that special counsel Bob Mueller, someone who's widely respected among Justice Department lawyers, you argue that Mueller left himself wide open to having his findings distorted by Bill Barr and others. You say that that was Mueller's fault. Can you just briefly explain that point?

COMEY: Sure. I think the world of Bob Mueller and have worked with him and considered him a friend for a long time. Bob did the old-school thing. He prepared a very long report in single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman with, I think, thousands of footnotes. Well, that's not how Americans consume information. And that allowed the attorney general to go to the keyboard and write pithy letters and offer snapshots in a statement at a press conference to the American people, which drove the entire narrative.

CORNISH: OK. I hear you. I hear you saying that Mueller left room for Barr and others to spin the report in the way that they chose to spin it. But as I was reading, you make this argument in the book, it did make me wonder if that's kind of what happened to you when you announced in a letter to Congress just days before the 2016 presidential election that you were restarting the Hillary Clinton email investigation because of a new batch of emails that was discovered. Do you think that you also left room for people to distort what you were, in fact, saying in that letter?

COMEY: Oh, yeah. I think that's fair. I mean, it's a different kind of situation, but it's the same basic challenge. How do you provide information that fosters the trust and the knowledge of the people that you're working for, the American people? The challenge there in late October was there was nothing we could say beyond that sparse letter that wouldn't magnify the harm that was flowing from our doing the notice in the first place. If I had included in there that we found hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton's emails on Anthony Weiner's laptop, I think I would have increased the harm. And so we wrestled with it. But there was no way to do less harm by speaking more at that point.

CORNISH: I want to turn you now to the ultimate question that you pose in your book, and that is, how do you restore faith in the Justice Department given all that's happened the last four years? Let me ask you, how optimistic are you that restoring that trust is possible?

COMEY: I'm very optimistic. It will take time. The easiest part is going to be restoring the morale and the operations of the Department of Justice because the culture is solid. The hard part is going to be reaching those Americans, the tens of millions literally, who are trapped in a fog of lies. But it will happen. The work will prove itself. And the pick of Judge Garland, who I don't know, seems to be the perfect person, as Ed Levy was when he became attorney general after Watergate, to restore not just the internal operations of the department, but the way in which the American people see it as something nonpartisan, something above the tribal scrum in our country.

CORNISH: James Comey's new memoir is called "Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency And Trust."

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

COMEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.