James Comey’s new memoir is already a pre-publication media hit, but the former FBI director’s tell-all assault on President Donald Trump also poses major risks — not only for Comey’s personal reputation but for the wider Russia investigation he helped launch.
Trump and his allies bombarded Comey with insults Friday, targeting his credibility and seeking to undermine his image as a nonpartisan law enforcement professional. On Twitter on Friday, Trump called Comey an “untruthful slime ball,” while White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders branded him a “discredited partisan hack.” Other critics accused Comey of cashing in on his celebrity to an unseemly degree.
But far more significant could be the implications of Comey’s written words and upcoming media interviews for special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty,” represents an official statement on key parts of the federal Russia probe — including the question of whether Trump may have sought to obstruct justice, a question Mueller is investigating. Legal experts warn that Comey’s own words could complicate court proceedings or a congressional impeachment debate triggered by Mueller’s findings.
Prosecutors like Mueller generally cringe when a witness speaks at length in public before a case has wrapped up. Comey’s blockbuster book and accompanying media tour, which kicks off in prime time on Sunday, will also expose him to the watchful eye of Trump allies and defense lawyers ready to exploit any inconsistencies in his accounts to their clients’ benefit.
“I’d have a conniption if I knew one of my witnesses was going to be writing a book,” said Nick Akerman, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Watergate prosecutor.
“From a prosecutor standpoint, you want a witness who hasn’t gone out and made lots of statements that can be used to cross examine him,” Akerman added. “What he puts in there, he’s got to realize that’s his story and that’s what he’s sticking by.”
Comey is hardly the first major figure in the Russia saga to make his views widely known. Former Trump associates with knowledge of Mueller’s investigation — including Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Carter Page and Sam Nunberg — have all publicly spoken about it at length.
But none are known to be cooperating with Mueller, as Comey is. And Comey’s memoir carries a special weight, given that its author has inside knowledge about the FBI’s investigation into Trump. Comey also had direct interactions with the president that Mueller is examining for potential obstruction of justice.
In historical terms, Comey’s account comes unusually early for someone who plays such a central role in an ongoing investigation of a president.
John Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel whose congressional testimony helped bring down Nixon’s presidency, heeded pleas from federal Watergate prosecutors and turned down seven-figure offers to write a book until the scandal had run its course. Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky published her story about her affair with President Bill Clinton only once his impeachment trial ended. Iran-Contra figure Oliver North’s memoir was released after federal criminal charges were dismissed against the retired Marine lieutenant colonel.
Some Trump allies in Congress are already vowing to hold Comey to account for statements in his book. Accusing Comey of false statements in his Senate Intelligence Committee testimony last June, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said he’s eager to bring Comey back before Congress for sworn testimony.
“I don’t think he wrote this book under oath,” Gaetz said.
Others involved in the Russia probe called Comey’s payday distasteful. He inked a multimillion-dollar advance, and the book has already hit the No. 1 ranking on Amazon’s best-seller list
“It’s going to make him money. It’s not going to help his public image. I think people are going to see it as a sanctimonious attempt to paint himself as some sort of hero,” said Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department spokesman in the George W. Bush administration who last year also served briefly handling press inquiries for Trump’s personal legal team.
“There are many people facing huge legal fees and tremendous disruption to their lives who are not in a position to write books or do high-profile celebrity tours of national television interview shows,” added a defense lawyer working on the Russia investigation.
Like all former FBI employees, Comey was required to share his book before publication with the Justice Department to allow it to look for classified material or anything related to an ongoing investigation, said DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores. An FBI official confirmed the bureau reviewed a draft “and concluded that none of the FBI information presented fell within a restricted area of disclosure.”
One question is whether Comey’s book could provide Mueller with any new leads.
Defense lawyers say Mueller got fresh material from Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” an inside account of Trump White House turmoil that was published in January. Both Nunberg and Bannon, for example, were questioned by the special counsel about quotes and other anecdotes tied to them in the book.
“The Comey book, like the Wolff book, could impact the pace of the office of special counsel investigation in that it may require them to call new witnesses or recall previous witnesses,” said Ty Cobb, who leads the White House’s legal response to the Russia probe. “But of course that’s solely up to them.”
Others said that, because Mueller has already interviewed Comey, the book isn’t likely to present the special counsel with new information. “It may surprise us, but it won’t surprise Mueller,” said a defense lawyer working with a senior Trump official.
Comey’s memoir might have other practical uses for Mueller’s team, however. Witnesses who have been in interviews with the special counsel have said they were asked questions based off previously published material — both in books and media clips. The strategy lets the special counsel’s team mask what it knows and prompt wider conversations without also seeing its closely guarded information leaked to the press.
Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, declined comment about the release of the Comey book. Comey’s attorneys also declined comment.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
Politico · by Darren Samuelsohn · April 14, 2018