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James Comey, former FBI director, strong-willed prosecutor and paragon of controversy, is ready to tell his story

James Comey sits silently in a new promo video for his first interview ahead of his new book, shifting with a stern e...

Posted: Apr 14, 2018 8:19 AM
Updated: Apr 14, 2018 8:19 AM

James Comey sits silently in a new promo video for his first interview ahead of his new book, shifting with a stern expression as he faces questioning from an interviewer.

It's the most we've seen recently of the former FBI director, whose firing at the hands of President Donald Trump in May sparked a blaze in Washington that still smokes today. It's also just about all we've heard from him after he receded into private life following a Senate testimony in June that poured fuel.

On Thursday, that changed as excerpts from the book were published online and the first clips from that ABC interview aired. On Sunday, as Comey's full sit-down with George Stephanopolous rolls out, he'll set off on a book tour bonanza with stops at talk show tables, late night armchairs, and live on a stage at a CNN town hall.

Comey, 57, is looking forward to telling his story, a person who has spoken to him recently said.

His past few months have been quiet, spent with family, taking in theater and writing his book, "A Higher Loyalty," and popping up occasionally on Twitter to respond to the latest drama at the White House.

"He's ready to be able to counter a lot of the lies and to help set the record straight," this person said.

Being outside of the public view is not something the 6'8" Comey is used to.

Honing his style

Before he inserted the bureau's tradecraft into the 2016 election and was called a "showboat" by the President on primetime TV, Comey was known by FBI special agents as a proud spokesman and booster of the law enforcement agency. (He was also derided by some on the inside as "St. Jimmy," for his priestly self-confidence.)

He visited all 56 field offices in his first year and would make sure his staff cleared his schedule for graduations at the FBI academy, where he would take pictures with the family members of each new recruit. He often gave speeches, educating audiences about the bureau's top priorities, like terrorism and cybersecurity.

He cut his teeth, however, on smaller potatoes. As a line prosecutor in the Manhattan US attorney's office in the 1980s and '90s, Comey, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, appeared on dockets including USA v. Friedman, a liquor racketeering case, and USA v. Candelario, over transported stolen property.

As he rose the ranks, joining the special counsel team that investigated President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, as a deputy in the Whitewater probe, and later serving as a top assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, Comey honed a reputation as a strong-willed prosecutor.

In 2002, months after the September 11 attacks, he returned to New York's Southern District, this time as its chief federal prosecutor.

Harry Sandick, then a junior attorney in the narcotics unit, recalled a meeting of the full criminal division that Comey addressed early in his posting.

"He said 'who here has never lost a trial?'" asking people to raise their hands, said Sandick, a partner now at a Manhattan criminal defense firm. "He said, 'those of you who are raising your hands, you're in the chickenshit club because you've never taken a case to trial that you've ran a risk of losing.' He said 'if you've lost a trial, then I know that you've approached this job the right way: to do justice, even when it's not easy, even when the easier course would have been to look the other way.'"

After a successful tenure in New York, which included bringing charges of insider trading that would later be proven against Martha Stewart, Comey was called to Washington by President George W. Bush, where he served as the second in command at the Department of Justice.

People who know Comey, and those who write about him, often tell the story from this time of Attorney General John Ashcroft, on his sickbed, in 2004. Comey was the acting attorney general, given his boss' incapacitation, and was refusing the Bush administration's request to reauthorize a domestic surveillance program that he thought was unlawful. Top White House aides raced to the hospital to persuade the ill Ashcroft to sign off. Comey, tipped off, arrived minutes before and thwarted the plan.

The story is an indicator, they say, of his integrity.

Leading the FBI

In 2013, Comey was sworn in as the 7th director of the FBI -- a lifelong Republican, appointed by a hero of the left, President Barack Obama.

His time atop the bureau was punctuated by law enforcement events that impacted the nation: a wave of homegrown terrorists inspired by ISIS messaging were drawing blood on American soil; so too were police officers who killed a number of unarmed black men, spurring mass protests and riots across the country.

Comey's FBI helped arrest dozens of young men accused of plotting attacks and providing support to foreign terror groups. And in 2015 in a speech entitled "Hard Truths," he admitted that unconscious racial bias was a problem that had to be addressed in American policing.

"Whether it's Hillary Clinton, whether it's San Bernardino, whether it's race and law enforcement, he recognized the issues before him," said Josh Campbell, Comey's former special assistant at the FBI and now a CNN analyst. "Understanding the symbolism of his role as FBI director rather than retreat as many in Washington do when faced with tough issues, he realized that a true leader has to work their in-box and they have to make tough decisions."

When Comey in 2015 embraced the idea that an uptick in urban violent crime could be attributed to restraint by cops in the wake of "Black Lives Matter" criticism -- a tacit endorsement of the so-called "Ferguson effect" -- he drew criticism from civil rights activists and his own White House.

Inserting himself into the 2016 election

But his decisions in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election and after made him the paragon of controversy, as the FBI investigated the conduct of the two main party nominees.

In July of 2016, Comey made an announcement that the FBI would not recommend charges against Clinton, the Democratic contender, for using a private email server as secretary of state, despite her being "extremely careless." It was an unusual critique and public acknowledgment, which Comey has said was necessary given the circumstances. The case flared up again briefly in the days before the November vote when new emails were found on the laptop of a Clinton aide. Powerful lawmakers said they had lost confidence in the FBI chief.

After Trump's election victory, reports of an FBI investigation into his campaign and collusion with the Russian government dominated headlines. In May 2017, after receiving letters recommending he do so from the leaders of the Justice Department, Trump fired Comey, less than four years into his ten-year term.

Comey learned of his fate from cable news while he was speaking to FBI personnel on a visit to the Los Angeles field office.

He left the towering white building in a state of uncertainty to return to Washington. As he walked across the tarmac at LAX towards an idling plane, live video from hovering news helicopters showed Comey break ranks from his detail to shake the hands of the local law enforcement officers who had helped protect him, a ritual he had practiced on every trip.

Quiet reflection in academia

Howard University senior Jordan Jean has interacted with Comey a half dozen times since one of the nation's top law enforcement officers was fired. Comey in August was named the Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy by the historically black college, and Jean has spoken alongside him on panels and met with him in private as the president of a political discussion student group, Howard United.

"He doesn't switch up. He's Jim Comey behind the scenes and on camera. He believes in what he believes in and he sticks to that. But he also allows there to be room for change," Jean said.

In September, Comey was shouted down by protestors upset with his stance on the Ferguson Effect, among other things, as he spoke at Howard's convocation ceremony. For fifteen minutes, he stood in near-silence as students yelled "I love being black" and "Get out James Comey -- you're not our homey." Eventually, he finished the speech.

Since then, Comey has spoken at political science classes and a series of lectures at the university, including one, on Wednesday, about race and policing. After the end of an event, he often will stay behind to answer questions from students, Jean said.

"You don't get the feeling that he was the former FBI director. He doesn't come in the room like 'the man.' He honestly comes in the room like a big tall giant, a gentle giant," Jean said.

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