Nobody has greater cause than James Comey for wanting to see Donald Trump tried, convicted and imprisoned for crimes he committed as president. “If there were no other external considerations I’d love to personally prosecute the guy,” the former FBI director chuckled in a Zoom conversation from his suburban north Virginia home.
Comey may have inadvertently helped Trump win the presidency by reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified emails days before the 2016 presidential election, but Trump very publicly and humiliatingly fired him seven months later for refusing to stop the FBI investigating Russian support for his campaign.
Thereafter the president unleashed a relentless stream of Tweets denouncing Comey as the “WORST FBI Director by far”, a “total sleaze”, a “slimeball” and a “crooked cop” who should be locked up. Subtler forms of attack included the first audit of Comey’s tax returns in his 60-year life. At “this dark time in American history”, the 6’8” New Yorker said, he has to be “very careful” about his security, and would not appear publicly without protection in a “red” state.
Comey would also love to see Trump prosecuted because he spent his career enforcing the law, has just published a book (Saving Justice) about restoring faith in the US justice system and knows of no previous US president who has shown such contempt for the law – not even the Watergate villain, Richard Nixon.
“He’s gone beyond Nixon both in the depth and breadth of his conduct,” said Comey, who ticked off Trump’s potentially criminal actions: inciting the storming of Congress, pressuring election officials to “find” more votes, obstructing Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s alleged collusion with Trump’s election campaign and withholding US financial support unless Ukraine investigated Joe Biden’s son.
Proving Trump colluded with Russia to subvert US democracy would be much harder, Comey adds, but when I asked if Russia might have blackmailed Trump he replied flatly: “Yes. Of course.”
What to do about Trump is one of the more contentious issues Biden’s new administration will face, and the case for prosecuting him is powerful. Millions of Democrats want the former president held accountable for his transgressions. Nobody should be above the law. And why should the thugs who stormed Congress on 6 January be convicted while the man who incited them is spared?
But here’s the funny thing. Comey demurs. On balance he thinks “the best thing for this country as a whole would be not to grant Trump a platform on our television screens in the nation’s capital every day that the prosecution of US v Donald Trump would bring him”.
He continued: “Biden’s mission is to heal the country literally, with the virus, as well as spiritually, and it just gets so much harder to do that” if Trump holds daily press conferences outside the court. “The wiser thing would be to impeach him, convict him, bar him from holding future office and let local prosecutors in New York try to prosecute him for the criminal he was before he became president. Instead of giving him a platform in Washington, let him be on the lawn in Mar-a-Lago in his bathrobe screaming at cars.” It’s time to “break the grip of the Donald Trump show” and “turning off the lights is probably the greatest punishment you can inflict on him”.
Other factors militate against prosecution, Comey added. The process could last three years or more, swamping Biden’s presidency. Persuading 12 jurors in such a polarised nation to reach a unanimous verdict would be extremely hard. Conviction would render Trump a martyr to his supporters, acquittal a hero. President Ford was reviled for pardoning Nixon in 1974, but praised for his wisdom by later generations.
He is getting “lots of heat” from Democrats for this stance, he explained. Moreover, his arguments have obvious flaws. Unlike Trump, Nixon had resigned before Ford pardoned him. Impeachment is not a criminal trial. The divided Senate is unlikely to find Trump guilty, and even if it does his only punishment would be disbarment from further office. National healing without Trump being held to account might also prove impossible.
All of which demonstrates what an immensely fraught and emotional issue reckoning with the Trump presidency will prove to be.
Comey certainly doesn’t believe the abominations of Trump’s presidency should be forgotten. He foresees his enablers rushing to downplay their roles just as Senator Joe McCarthy’s did after his fall from grace in the 1950s. He believes, therefore, in “keeping the receipts” and singles out for particular opprobrium William Barr, the attorney general who made the US justice department the tool of a corrupt president and replaced Lady Justice’s blindfold with “a Maga hat”.
In his book, he writes compellingly about the culture of complicity, whereby Trump first sucked people into a “silent circle of assent” with his lies and menace, then demanded public shows of fealty, until finally they were bent, like Barr, “into a complete pretzel”.
But Comey prefers to look forwards. He believes the storming of Congress was an “inflection point” that finally alerted the American people to the threat Trump’s demagoguery posed to US democracy. He says Biden must build on that by leading “in an empathetic, competent, open and inclusive way”. He has to move “millions of otherwise good, non-violent people who believe the election was stolen and the virus is a hoax… out of that fog of lies”.
Comey has confidence in America’s elderly and low-key, but decent and moderate, new president. “They say the time somehow finds the right person,” he concludes. “This time found the right person in Joe Biden.”
Saving Justice by James Comey is published by MacMillan £20