Inside the Trump-Comey face-offs
WASHINGTON — The setting: the Green Room, dinner for two. No witnesses but the Navy stewards shuttling in and out with food and drinks.
The president demands loyalty. The FBI director offers honesty.
The two extricate themselves from a “very awkward conversation” by agreeing on “honest loyalty” — whatever the heck that means.
Fired FBI Director James Comey’s gripping written account of his private encounters with Donald Trump since January reads like a movie script, giving Americans a rare fly-on-the-wall view as the president and the FBI director parry like two alpha males warily circling each other.
Their three one-on-one meetings are a study in the arts of implied pressure, passive-aggressive resistance, awkward silences and conversation exit strategies.
A look at their face-offs — in Trump Tower, the Oval Office and Green Room — told from Comey’s side of the conversations, as bit players pop in and out, the grandfather clock ticks off the minutes in the Oval Office, and Comey wishes never to be alone with the president again:
TRUMP TOWER, Jan. 6: Salacious secrets
Comey stays behind in a conference room to speak privately with Trump after intelligence officials brief the president-elect in his New York headquarters about explosive findings that the Russians tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
It is Comey’s job to warn Trump that a dossier containing salacious and unverified allegations about the president-elect is floating around.
Comey skips over Trump’s exact response, but says that “based on President-elect Trump’s reaction,” he assures Trump that his personal conduct isn’t under investigation.
Comey starts writing up a record of the encounter on a laptop in the car as soon as he gets out of the building.
GREEN ROOM, Jan. 27: “Honest loyalty”
Comey gets a midday phone call from now-President Trump inviting him to dinner at the White House that night. Comey’s not sure who else is invited, but he assumes other people are coming.
It turns out it’s just the two of them, at a small oval table.
The conversation is strange from the start: Trump asks whether Comey wants to keep his job even though the FBI director had twice before told Trump he wanted to stay on.
This makes Comey uncomfortable, because it feels like Trump is creating a “patronage” situation in which Comey will owe Trump for his job.
Things get stranger from there, when Trump tells Comey: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
“I didn’t move, speak or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey writes. “We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on.”
Trump returns to the salacious allegations against him, calling them disgusting and saying he’s considering ordering Comey to investigate and disprove them. Comey warns that such an investigation could “create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t.”
The president circles back to loyalty.
Trump: “I need loyalty.”
Comey: “You will always get honesty from me.”
Trump: “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.”
Comey: “You will get that from me.”
Comey writes up the whole exchange, and concludes: “It is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently.”
OVAL OFFICE, Feb. 14: “Let this go.”
Comey is part of a group giving Trump a counter-terrorism briefing, but the president asks him to stay behind at the end.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions lingers, and Trump shoos him away. Senior adviser Jared Kushner lags behind, too, and Trump sends him on his way.
Alone at last, Trump gets right to the point: “I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” the president’s fired national security adviser. Trump says he fired Flynn for misleading the vice president about his contact with the Russians but nonetheless calls Flynn a “good guy” and urges Comey to “let this go.” To Comey, it’s a not-so-veiled request that the FBI drop any investigation of Flynn regarding false statements about his contact with the Russians.
To Comey, the president’s request was “very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”
At some point, chief of staff Reince Priebus sticks his head in the door by the grandfather clock, a group of people waiting behind him, and Trump waves him off.
Comey offers only that Flynn is a “good guy.”
He adds: “I did not say I would ‘let this go.’”
Comey exits the Oval Office through the door by the grandfather clock, making his way through the crowd of people just outside.
After Comey writes up his latest encounter, he implores Sessions “to prevent any further direct communication between the president and me.”
That turns out to be the last meeting between Trump and Comey, but the two talk by phone at least twice more before Trump fires Comey on May 9.