A friend of James Comey is speaking out about the relationship between the former FBI director and President Donald Trump — including how Comey felt about a now-infamous hug shared between the two of them after the 2016 election.
Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, published a revealing essay on his site on Thursday based on former conversations he had with Comey.
Among his many revelations was the claim that Comey was “disgusted” when President Trump hugged him at a reception for Inauguration Day law enforcement officers and first responders at the White House in January — in what Comedy allegedly saw as an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.
Recounting the incident on PBS NewsHour on Thurdsay, Wittes said Comey “really did not want to go to that meeting” and wore a dark blue suit so that he might blend into the similarly-colored curtains in the back of the room in hopes that the 70-year-old former businessman would not spot him.
All of this was to ensure the FBI’s independence from the White House, Wittes explained on his blog, as “the FBI director should be always at arm’s length from the President.”
“There was an additional sensitivity here too, because many Democrats blamed Comey for Trump’s election,” Wittes added. “So he didn’t want any shows of closeness between the two that might reinforce a perception that he had put a thumb on the scale in Trump’s favor.”
Trump did, in fact, end up spotting Comey — who is 6 feet 8 inches tall. He called Comey out across the room, saying, “Oh, and there’s Jim. He’s become more famous than me!”
It was a fashion Comey allegedly regarded as “sort of calculated.”
Watching video of the event, Comey can be seen standing on the opposite side of the room from the president. When called out, he approaches Trump with his arm extended to shake hands — but Trump pulls Comey into a hug.
“The hug is entirely one-sided,” Wittes wrote. “Comey was disgusted. He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him.”
On May 9, Trump fired Comey — who was leading the FBI’s still-active investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election.
In a statement released that day, the White House said Trump’s decision to fire Comey was based on the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
In an interview just two days later, Trump seemed to contradict the information from his own administration — saying he was planning to fire Comey even before he received the recommendations from his top Justice Department officials.
“I was going to fire Comey. My decision,” Trump told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an interview that aired May 11. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”
“He’s a showboat, he’s grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” the president continued. “You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.”
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Wittes also spoke with The New York Times on Thursday, where he detailed a phone call Comey allegedly accepted from the president on March 1 under the guise of “urgent” matters. But when they got on the phone, Wittes said the president just wanted to “chit chat” with Comey.
In Comey’s eyes, these were all Trump’s attempts to build a personal relationship, Wittes claimed. He told The Times Comey allegedly did not want to be friendly with the president and thought any personal conversations were inappropriate.
The Times reported on Thursday that Trump had previously called Comey to ask when federal authorities were going to put out word that he was not personally under investigation — and that Comey had educated the president under the proper procedures the White House counsel should follow to send inquiries to the Justice Department.
There was also reportedly a meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump told Comey he hoped the investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, would be shut down, and a dinner in which associates of Comey claimed Trump asked the former FBI director to pledge his loyalty.
The White House has denied that President Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty. Throughout his interview with NewsHour, Wittes cautioned that his insights into Comey’s state of mind were only based on their conversations together. He stressed that in some cases, he was drawing his own conclusions.
Still, he couldn’t help but point out the possibility that Trump fired Comey as a form of retaliation.
“Trump fired Jim Comey because the most dangerous thing in the world — if you’re Donald Trump — is a person who tells the truth, is dogged, you can’t control, and who is as committed as Comey is to the institutional independence of an organization that has the power to investigate you,” Wittes told the NewsHour’s William Brangham.