The Current

James Comey says Trump's presidency is like a 'forest fire' but after that comes a chance for regrowth

Former FBI director James Comey says the destruction of Donald Trump's presidency will be followed by a period of new growth. He wants the conversation of what that looks like to start now.

Former FBI director discusses Donald Trump's presidency, Hillary Clinton's emails in wide-ranging interview

Former FBI director James Comey speaks to The Current's Piya Chattopadhyay in his only Canadian broadcast interview. (CBC)

Read Story transcript

Donald Trump's presidency is "a forest fire," says fired FBI director James Comey, who outlines his criticism of the U.S. president in a new book.

There will be a period of destruction, but after that comes a chance for regrowth, he told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay in his only Canadian broadcast interview. Comey has clashed with the president several times during Trump's tenure.

"What I'm trying to be part of is making sure we have a conversation today," he said, "so that we emerge from this period … [and] we minimize the damage and accelerate the healing."

Comey said that U.S. President Donald Trump has a leadership style similar to that of a mob boss. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Comey was appointed to lead the FBI by former president Barack Obama in 2013, commanding the respect of both Republicans and Democrats at the time. When Trump fired him — one year ago this week — he left the office as one of the most polarizing FBI directors in the bureau's history.

He describes what he learned over those years in his book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, which sparked debate and reaction in Washington when it launched in April. In a wide-ranging interview, he spoke to Chattopadhyay about his tenure, American resilience and Hillary Clinton's emails — read more below.

'Truth is getting overwhelmed'

America can measure its leaders by their distance from the truth, Comey told Chattopadhyay. 

This "touchstone of truth is getting overwhelmed, almost like a wave hitting a sandcastle on the beach" with Trump as president.

"When our president lies so much, we can become numb to it," he said. 

"We are overwhelmed with falsehoods, and there's a risk we will stop measuring our leaders by their distance from that truth."

"If we ever stop — and there's a risk we will stop — I worry we've lost something essential."

Comey describes his experiences as FBI director in his book A Higher Loyalty. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press, Flatiron Books)

Comey was once a Republican, but no longer identifies with either of the main U.S. parties. He worries about the long-term rule of law, and said he's concerned that more people aren't standing up for the truth.

"It deepens my frustration that more people, especially Republicans, aren't saying: 'You know what? We ought to knock this off. Yeah, there are important policy gains we hope to get, but I want to be able to look my grandkids in the face and say I stood for something, and I protected something, that has been at the spine of this country since its founding,'" he said.

"I don't see that … and so it deepens my worry."

Trump's leadership style compared to mob boss

Before becoming FBI director, Comey was a prosecutor in New York who chased mob bosses. In his book, he compared Trump's leadership with that of a mob boss.

"I don't mean that he's out sticking up shopkeepers and extorting money from gamblers," he said.

With a mob boss, Comey explained, leadership is all about "me, the leader." It's about "what do you bring to me, how are you serving me, what's your loyalty to me personally — sometimes at the cost of your life."

He said he was struck by a similar mentality with Trump.

Comey has previously alleged that the president asked him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying: "I need loyalty; I expect loyalty." The president did not acknowledge the accusation, but called the leaking of Comey's testimony before a Senate hearing "cowardly."

Asking for loyalty reflects "that I care about you, only insofar as you give me what I want," Comey said. 

Ethical leaders, Comey said, build environments where the people find meaning in their work, and help them develop their skills. Do that and your subordinates will reciprocate, the former FBI director explained.

Former president Barack Obama announced Comey as his choice to replace Robert Mueller as FBI director on June 21, 2013. (Jason Rose/Reuters)

Fallout from Clinton email case

Comey also spoke about the his role in the FBI's decision to reopen the case into Clinton's emails, just 11 days before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees FBI activities, bars employees from any action that could interfere with an election.

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

His wife and children were Clinton supporters, but he said the incident didn't put a strain on their relationships.

Comey's wife and children were supporters of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

His children understand that he had no choice, he said, but the political fallout still bothers his wife Patrice.

"There's a character in Game of Thrones who keeps a list … of people that she's going to kill," he joked, referring to Maisie Williams's character Arya Stark. "I think Patrice has [her own version of] that list."

Comey reflects on the impact of his decision to reopen the Clinton email case.

'It was a nightmare for me': Comey on the Clinton emails case

4 years ago
Duration 1:29
Former FBI director James Comey reflects on the decision to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.

Learning from 'painful lessons'

Comey said that the "final test" for Trump is yet to come, but that eventually he will "pass from the scene in the United States."

"The question is what have we learned from this time, and how have we made ourselves better as a result of some of the painful lessons of this time."

Democratic institutions in the U.S. are performing "surprisingly well," he said. Their resistance to change is part of how they keep power in check.

"That inertia, the difficulty in changing, is the ballast for America," he said.

"No president serves long enough to screw it up."

Regarding his own tenure, he has a piece of advice for the freshly appointed James Comey of 2013.

"Drive over to the State Department, and tell Hillary Clinton she ought to be using the State Department system for her communications."

Comey considers what he would tell himself if he could go back in time.

What advice would Comey tell a past version of himself?

4 years ago
Duration 0:50
James Comey reflects on what he would say to a past version of himself in 2012 just as he started his role as FBI director

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Written by Padraig Moran. This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.


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?