The Current

Biden should resist pursuing Trump once he leaves office: ex-FBI director James Comey

Former FBI director James Comey says U.S. president-elect Joe Biden should consider carefully the "collateral consequences" of pursuing criminal investigations against U.S. President Donald Trump once he leaves office or risk having Trump dominate his own presidency.

Investigation into Trump would dominate Biden's presidency for years: Comey

A Justice Department criminal investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump would not be in the nation's interest, says former FBI director James Comey. 'The United States versus Donald Trump would go on every day in the nation's capital for the next three or four years,' he told The Current. (Ralph Alswang/ABC/Associated Press)

Story Transcript

Former FBI director James Comey says U.S. president-elect Joe Biden should consider pardoning outgoing President Donald Trump if he ends up being convicted in any of the criminal investigations he could be facing after he leaves office and that it wouldn't be declaration of innocence if he did.

"Our Supreme Court, in 1915, said if you're pardoned and you accept that pardon, it's an admission of guilt," Comey said in an interview with The Current's Matt Galloway. "That's an important vehicle for accountability as well that people often don't talk about."

On the campaign trail in May, Biden said that he would not pardon Trump and would leave any investigations and prosecutions to the Department of Justice. Last week, he picked Merrick Garland as his attorney general, tasking him with restoring the independence of the department.

Comey described Biden's hands-off approach as "prudent."

The U.S. Justice Department has come to be seen as a partisan arm of the president, Comey said, "and that is a corrosive thing for an institution of justice."

Comey, who is promoting his new book, Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency, and Trust, led the FBI from 2013 until he was fired by Trump in 2017 in a public and acrimonious falling out over the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The book, which came out this week, examines Comey's role as FBI director in the early days of the Trump presidency and the erosion of faith in public institutions over the past four years.

WATCH | Trump should be impeached, not prosecuted, says Comey:

Why James Comey still thinks Trump should be impeached, not prosecuted

1 year ago
Duration 2:24
Former FBI director James Comey tells The Current's Matt Galloway he thinks it's better that Donald Trump be impeached for his role in the U.S. Capitol riot than to subject him to a criminal investigation.

Trump investigations would dominate Biden's presidency

Trump became the first U.S. president to be impeached for a second time Wednesday, charged with "incitement of insurrection" in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week. 

Pro-Trump rioters stormed the building on Jan. 6 in a bid to thwart Congress's official certification of the presidential election results after a rally where Trump called on them to "fight like hell." Lawmakers were rushed to safety, and five people died, including one police officer.

WATCH | How the attack on the U.S. Capitol unfolded:

How the siege on the U.S. Capitol unfolded

1 year ago
Duration 3:44
CBC News’ David Common breaks down what happened on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and how U.S. President Donald Trump stoked discontent among his supporters before he lost the election.

Comey said he was sickened by the attack. While he said he was not surprised at the violence, given the rhetoric of Trump's presidency, he was surprised the rioters successfully breached the building.

"We need a 9/11-type commission in the United States to understand what happened," he said.

"If there is a need for new authorities, for new guidelines, that's something we have to talk about. But let's gather the facts first."

The trial phase of Trump's impeachment is unlikely to reach the U.S. Senate before Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration. And in the days following the riot, the U.S. Justice Department said it did not plan to pursue criminal charges of incitement against the president.

A longstanding convention at the Justice Department states a sitting president cannot be indicted, but that will no longer apply when Trump leaves office next week.

He faces several legal challenges that relate to his taxes and financial dealings and matters that predate his presidency. There have also been calls for the Justice Department to investigate alleged criminality during his time in office. That could potentially include his role in inciting the Capitol attack and a call to Georgia's secretary of state in which Trump asked the official to "find 11,780 votes" that would help him win the state.

The United States versus Donald Trump would go on every day in the nation's capital for the next three or four years.- James Comey

Comey said the department should consider the "collateral consequences" of pursuing any criminal investigation.

"I'm not saying he shouldn't be held accountable. I think it was really important that he be impeached," he said.

But, he said, "it's not in the nation's interests to give this thug president, this nihilist, centre stage in America," by continuing to pursue him.

"Because that's what it would be. The United States versus Donald Trump would go on every day in the nation's capital for the next three or four years."

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's time should be spent trying to heal political divides, says Comey. (Kevin Lamarque/File Photo/Reuters)

The new president's time would be better spent trying to heal political divides in the U.S. and reach people in what Comey described as Trump's "fog of lies."

"Having Donald Trump centre stage lying every day in the face of a bank of television cameras would make that so much more difficult."

WATCH | Trump first U.S. president to be impeached twice:

Trump impeached for 2nd time

1 year ago
Duration 4:12
The U.S. House of Representatives has impeached President Donald Trump for a second time, over his role in last week's attack on Capitol Hill, but authorities across the country are now bracing for more possible violence from an Trump army of supporters, one week before president-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.

'Keep the receipts' on Trump allies: Comey

The attack on the Capitol prompted high-profile resignations from several Trump aides and cabinet members, but Comey expressed skepticism about the motives of former allies of the president taking a stand against him this late in his term.

He urged the public to "keep the receipts."

"People should remember what they did and keep that memory alive as a lesson," he told Galloway.

"Don't buy the re-chroming, the repositioning, the reframing — remember. It'll help us avoid putting people like that in positions of authority again and will help us in protecting our institutions."

He admitted that he himself "bent tactically a few times" while still FBI director, including when he promised "honest loyalty" to the president who asked him to quash an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn shortly after Trump took office.

"I did that convincing myself that I needed that tactic to avoid a war with the president," Comey said.

Comey was criticized for leaking details of his private conversations with Trump to news media and for his handling of the investigation into then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's emails but says history will vindicate his record. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Comey was criticized for leaking information about his private conversations with Trump, including by the president, who called it "cowardly." The Office of Inspector General found he improperly leaked information to news media, but the Justice Department decided not to prosecute.

Clinton decision still incites anger

The former director was also pilloried by supporters of then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for the FBI's decision to reopen the case into Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state in the Obama administration just 11 days before the 2016 election. The Department of Justice, which oversees FBI activities, bars employees from any action that could interfere with an election.

On Nov. 6, 2016,  two days before the election, the FBI announced the review warranted no further action.

WATCH | Comey defends decision on Clinton probe:

Comey: 'Concealing, in my view, would be catastrophic'

5 years ago
Duration 0:55
FBI director justifies pre-election actions to congressional hearing

In May 2017, just before he was dismissed as FBI director, he told a Senate judiciary committee that he felt "mildly nauseous" that his decision made an impact on the election.

In his interview with The Current, Comey said he knows people still harbour a lot of anger over that decision but that he stands by it and that it would be vindicated by history.

"Even those people on the left, I think, believe that I'm an honest person, I'm just an idiot." he said. "And so I think I'll be remembered as a public servant who tried to get it right."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?