Former FBI Director James Comey cut an impressive figure during his sworn testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. His presentation was poised, low-key, and almost cold-blooded as he laid out what amounted to a meticulously constructed case against President Donald Trump. Two overflow rooms and multiple live network broadcasts suggested that Comey’s mastery of public relations and the theater of government rivaled that of his former boss. The image of a decent government man dutifully saying his piece stood in defiant contrast to the atmosphere of vulgarity and naked self-interest that Trump has brought to the Oval Office.
But the character who appears in Comey’s written accounts of his meetings with Trump — the James Comey who the former FBI director asked the committee to believe — was a far humbler man than the one who showed up for the hearing. Despite Comey’s self-reported concerns that Trump’s pattern of inappropriate and possibly illegal conduct was a threat to the independence of the FBI, he never fully voiced those concerns to Trump’s face while he was among the nation’s top law enforcement officials. Instead, he wrote them down.
Today, Comey revealed that his release of details from his conversations with Trump was carefully timed to trigger the appointment of a special counsel, a development that could bring about the end of Trump’s presidency. Beneath the mask of the by-the-book, duty-driven Comey was a more cunning man, an operator who quickly identified a dangerous adversary and plotted several moves ahead in order to get the best of him.
Comey’s private accounting began on January 6, when he met Trump for the first time in a conference room at Trump Tower. Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence at the time, asked Comey to stay behind and brief Trump on a dossier of salacious allegations that had been circulating in the media. Comey wrote, “I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the president-elect in a memo.” Today, he offered the committee a more detailed account of his motives. It was “a combination of things,” Comey said. “I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with.”