WASHINGTON (AP) — James Comey cut an unorthodox path as FBI director, time and again compelled by what he described as strongly held convictions to speak with unusual candor and eloquence about the bureau’s work.
It’s a combination of qualities that may come back to haunt the president who fired him.
Comey’s ouster Tuesday, while his FBI led an investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, raises the potential that a man long defined by his independent streak, willingness to buck protocol and even a flair for the dramatic could resurface to publicly rebut White House efforts to smear his reputation.
“He’s not shy, and he’s got a tremendous moral compass,” said former FBI assistant director Jim Yacone. “Above all, he will want to see the truth come out.”
Comey’s reputation for independence predated his tenure as director and famously manifested itself in a 2004 hospital room clash with fellow Bush administration officials over a domestic surveillance program. It was a moment in history that he recounted three years later to a captivated congressional audience.
At the FBI, he occasionally got ahead of Obama administration messaging or sometimes split with it altogether, by injecting himself into weighty public policy discussions.
And Comey’s reputation most obviously, and most damagingly, was borne out last summer with his unusual public announcement that the FBI was not recommending criminal charges against Hillary Clinton in an email server investigation.
The news conference was held without Justice Department approval, strayed from standard protocol and led to criticism of Comey’s moral certitude and go-it-alone inclinations.
Democrats lambasted him for it, and for his equally unorthodox move to alert Congress just before Election Day that the FBI was revisiting a once-closed investigation.
His testimony to Congress this month that he would make the same decisions again was cited in a Justice Department memo that laid the groundwork for his firing, though Trump has since said he had already made up his mind to dismiss Comey.
“I think he showed us again and again, ‘I’m independent, damn it, and that’s what you want me to be,'” said Ron Hosko, another former FBI assistant director. “And I know some will interpret that as he got too big for the job — certainly with this president.”
Only one other FBI director, William Sessions, has been fired, with President Bill Clinton citing “serious questions” about Sessions’ conduct and leadership. That dismissal took place in 1993. Clinton spent the final seven-plus years of his presidency at odds with Sessions’ successor, Louis Freeh, but never moved to fire him. FBI chiefs are appointed to 10-year terms on the theory that this kind of job security removes them from political sway.
Coupled with Comey’s independence in his nearly four years as director was an unusual openness about the FBI’s work.
A Comey mantra when discussing reconciliation between police and minorities — “It’s hard to hate up close” — also reflected his conviction that public skepticism of the bureau could be lessened by greater transparency and a better explanation of FBI actions. After learning that an FBI clerical error helped enable a gun purchase by the man later accused in the South Carolina church massacre, Comey called reporters to FBI headquarters to discuss the mistake.
He staked out public and sometimes unpopular positions on contentious social and policy issues while leading an agency historically focused solely on law enforcement.
During a tense dialogue with Silicon Valley over smartphone encryption and the balance between privacy and national security, Comey wrote opinion articles, delivered speeches and pressed his case for access to devices. His voice was louder on this issue than anyone else in the Obama administration.
He floated the disputed idea that a violent crime spike might be linked to police officers peeling back from their duties out of fear of being caught on video. Even after the Obama White House and Justice Department leaders said there was no evidence to support the assertion, Comey repeated it as a possibility.
In a speech where he quoted the lyrics of the musical “Avenue Q,” he declared that the U.S. was at a crossroads on matters of race and policing. He said minorities in poor neighborhoods often inherit a “legacy of crime and prison” while officers in those same neighborhoods may take “lazy mental shortcuts” in dealing with suspicious situations.
Comey’s outspokenness sometimes rankled Obama administration officials. The president himself in a November interview implicitly criticized Comey’s actions in the Clinton email case by asserting that when it comes to investigations, “we don’t operate on innuendo” and “incomplete information.”
Into the mix came Trump, an attention-grabbing leader who, in addition to professing frustration with “this Russia thing,” apparently loathed sharing the spotlight with Comey. In explaining the firing, the president told NBC News he considered Comey a “showboat.”
Comey declined an invitation to testify at a closed Senate committee hearing Tuesday and it’s not clear when he’ll speak publicly. But elements of his accounts are emerging.
Comey said that Trump requested that he pledge to the president his loyalty during a January dinner, according to a person close to the former director. Comey offered honesty instead. When Trump then asked for “honest loyalty,” Comey told him he would have that, said the Comey associate, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. The White House has disputed that characterization.
The firing has roiled the FBI, where Comey was generally well-regarded and praised for his leadership. Andrew McCabe, Comey’s deputy and the FBI’s current acting director, told a Senate panel Thursday that Comey enjoyed “broad support.”
Hosko said just before his 2014 retirement, he was called into the director’s office, arguably the most buttoned up inner sanctum of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency. He recalls the gregarious, 6-foot-8 director sitting in a “stuffed chair and literally slumped in the seat like a kid would, with his butt barely on the chair, his knees touching the coffee table and just in a very relaxed way.”
“Tell me again,” Comey asked him, “what you’re going to do in your retirement.”
While it’s not yet known what Comey himself plans to do in his post-FBI life, he’s unlikely to retire from public view.
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Associated Press writer Jake Pearson in New York contributed to this report.
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