May 1, 2018

Comey: Trump should submit to Mueller interview

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

James Comey told me last night during an hourlong, onstage conversation that President Trump should submit to an interview by special counsel Robert Mueller, but is skeptical that will happen.

What he said: "[I]t is hard in almost all investigations to imagine getting to that without some interaction with the subject. But whether [Mueller] gets it or not, I hope he's free to get to the truth."

  • "In a normal world, it would be very hard for the President of the United States not to submit to an interview in connection with an investigation that touches upon ... his conduct and that of people around him."
  • "In a normal world, the American people would find that very, very difficult to accept."
  • "I'm only hesitating because we don't live in that world. ... [S]o many norms have been broken that disturb me greatly ... On a regular basis, the president tweets that I should be in jail, and even I go, 'Eh.' [Shrugs.] And that's crazy, right?"
  • Comey on the numbing effect of these times: "I keep saying to Republicans, 'Close your eyes and imagine Barack Obama waking up some morning and saying that somebody he doesn't like should be in jail.' Republicans would freak out about that."
  • "So, that's a long way of saying ... I don't know. In a normal world, everyone would freak out [if he didn't submit to an interview], but I don't know."
  • What Comey, as a prosecutor, would insist on in the interview: "Unlimited time ... and I would look to negotiate away any boundaries, because I need to be able to ask any follow-up questions that I wish. And then, I'd want to make sure there was a clear understanding on the part of the subject of the interview that, whether or not it was within the grand jury, still a false statement would be prosecutable."
  • "Those would be the key things: open-ended as to time; open-ended as to subject; and a clear understanding that you are obligated to tell the truth, and failing to do so will be at your peril."

Comey spoke at a book-signing event for "A Higher Loyalty" at George Washington University, presented by Axios and Politics and Prose bookstore, and carried live by C-SPAN.

  • My favorite quote: "I'm kind of like a breakup that [President Trump] can't get over for some reason. ... I'm out there living my best life, and he wakes up tweeting at me."

Other quick hits by Comey:

  • On the repercussions if Trump were to fire Mueller: "[I]t would be utterly ineffective in practice, that you'd have to fire the entire FBI and the entire Justice Department ... I don't know that if the President followed the normal course, he would be able to find an executive who would carry out an order to fire Robert Mueller. And so, then maybe he does away with the regulation that appointed Mueller and then fires him."
  • "But something really interesting might happen, then, because there is no deep state, but there's a deep culture and commitment to the rule of law that runs all the way down through not just the Department of Justice and the FBI, but the military services and the intelligence community."
  • "It would be interesting to see what would happen next, because I could imagine U.S. attorney's offices picking up pieces of it, different FBI offices picking up pieces of it."
  • On his message to Trump about firing Mueller: "I would hope it would be disastrous in the eyes of the American people without regard to their political affiliation, but it would also be ineffective. So, don't do disastrous things at all. Don't do disastrous things that won't make a difference."
  • On whether he wishes Hillary Clinton had won: "That's one I'm not going to answer."
  • On what his life would be like if she had: "I think I would still be the FBI Director." [Laughter and applause.]

Comey's drop-the-mic moment ... From today, it's 189 days until midterms. I asked if Mueller will likely take the election into account in his timing:

  • Comey said the special counsel "likely will because of the norms of the Department of Justice. Despite what you've read or you've heard, there aren't any rules around how we act in the run-up to an election. ... There's a norm: You avoid any action in a run-up to an election that might have an impact if you can."
  • Then I asked him what his advice would be to Mueller about coming out and saying something:
  • "It's worked well for me." [Laughter and applause.]

Go deeper: Thank you to the hundreds of Axios AM readers who suggested questions — I used a bunch of them. See more of the interview here.

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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