“It is nerve-wracking, intimidating and an honor to be here on this stage in front of a room full of people who care about ideas, learning and this country,” James Comey said as he strode his 6-foot 8-inch frame onto the Boston Symphony Hall stage. “I wish the rest of this country could see this room and be inspired by and drawn to a place beyond the shouting that we do on Twitter or on panels on CNN and Fox (News) – and listen to each other.”
Comey, who led the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from 2013 to 2017, launched Lesley University’s 2018-19 Boston Speakers Series in Symphony Hall on Wednesday night to a sell-out crowd. Lesley’s Interim President Richard S. Hansen welcomed the audience, and moderator and WGBH Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen introduced Comey. (See more photos.)
Comey shared both humorous anecdotes and sobering reflections throughout the evening, and he continuously touched on the subject of leadership and his concern over the divisiveness eroding the country.
“It’s not about your views about guns or taxes or immigration. It’s about the thing that unites us,” said Comey, “We care about a set of values: the truth, the rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression – values in common that we cannot live without.”
His stories included an uncomfortable one-on-one dinner with President Donald Trump, his days as New York U.S. attorney when he prosecuted retail powerhouse and television personality Martha Stewart, and the time, as deputy attorney general, he injured himself on his way into a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room with President George W. Bush.
“I was late, but I wasn’t really late, because George Bush would start meetings early. Very disconcerting,” he quipped, “and I was late, although early.”
Comey ran into the room so quickly that “boom!” he cracked his head on the doorframe – the result of recently re-heeling his shoes, which made him just a little too tall for the doorway.
“Just a few seconds into the meeting, I feel warm liquid on my scalp. I’m bleeding,” he recalled. “And so I do what any normal person would do: I start tilting my head to keep the blood inside my hairline. … I hope I look contemplative, and I don’t know what the president thought was wrong with me, but he never saw my blood,” Comey said as the audience laughed.
Comey also discussed plenty of serious topics, including his agency’s controversial decision to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails less than two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, and reflected on whether it swayed the election results.
“I really, really hope not, and I secretly hope that some political scientist proves some day that I was irrelevant,” said Comey, recalling Oct. 28, 2016, when his investigative team discovered thousands of emails they hadn’t turned up in the original investigation. “People have to stare at the doors we stared at, as my general counsel said, ‘Both of which lead to hell, sir,’ and figure out what decision you would make given the values of the institution and what you do.
“I tried really hard not to consider the political impact of the decision,” he added. “Down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force.”
Dinner with Donald, the beginning of the end
From his first encounter with President-elect Trump in January 2017, the relationship was a “series of pushes and pulls,” Comey recalled.
“It was him trying to extract a pledge of loyalty, make me part of his personal squad,” he said, “and me trying to enforce what the American people have built since Watergate, which is an independence in the FBI, not out of the executive branch, but not entirely of the executive branch.”
The president invited Comey to the White House for dinner on Jan. 27, 2017 at the end of Trump’s first week in office, and Comey was uneasy when he arrived and saw a small table for two.
“I think what happened was he had figured out, or someone had told him, ‘You gave the guy the job for free, you ought to get something,’ and then he made it explicit,” said Comey, who had been appointed FBI director by President Barack Obama in 2013. “He looked at me, and he said, ‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,’ and that so surprised me that all I could do was stare at him.”
As the president spoke over the course of the dinner, Comey said he interrupted him at various points to explain the FBI’s impartiality. Comey felt desperate for the evening to end.
“I actually used the word ‘paradox,’ which may have been a mistake,” he quipped. “ ‘Mr. President, it’s a paradox. Presidents sometimes worry that troubles come from the FBI and Justice so they try to pull them close, but the closer you pull them, the worse it makes things. That distance is so important and serves you well.’
“In hindsight, I should have done something a little more blunt and direct, but I didn’t have the presence of mind in that moment.”
Even so, Comey never expected to be fired.
“I thought we reached a place where he didn’t like me, but he accepted me,” said Comey. “The second reason (I thought my job was safe) was that I was running the Russia investigation. How on earth could I get fired?”
Five months later, on May 9, 2017, Comey was speaking to a group of agents and FBI employees at the Los Angeles field office when the news headlines began flashing across three televisions at the back of the room that read, “Comey resigns.”
“I don’t know if you know anybody in the FBI, but it’s a pretty hilarious bunch, so I thought that it was a prank and turned to the leadership in LA and my staff and said, ‘That took a lot of work,’ ” Comey recalled. But it quickly became clear that the bulletin was real.
After he returned home and the stun and the sting wore off, his wife, Patrice, asked him what he was going to do.
“What she meant was something more serious than, ‘What’s your next job?’” he recalled. “My wife taught me that when bad things happen, as they always do to good people, you must make good follow.”
Comey recalled the tragic death of his newborn infant son in 1995, who died of a preventable bacterial infection, and the way his wife dedicated herself to advocacy and prevention so that other mothers would never experience the same pain.
“Nothing will ever bring our son back, and she would say that over and over again, ‘but I must make good follow bad if I am to go on living,’” he recalled her saying.
So after his firing, consumed with worry over “the epidemic of unethical leadership” and divisiveness, Comey resolved to “join the conversation to focus on those things that are above what we normally fight about, and maybe I can be useful that way.”
Leaders: Be kind and tough, be confident and humble
Less than a year after leaving the FBI, Comey published a book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” and he spoke to the Symphony Hall audience about the qualities of ethical leaders who knit people together, create vision and help people exceed their goals and expectations.
“Kind and tough, confident and humble. That’s it,” said Comey. “You’ve got those attributes, and all the rest will follow.
“You have to be comfortable enough in your own skin, confident enough to demonstrate humility, and shut up and listen to your people,” he said. “Learn from your people and take joy in your people’s achievements. Insecure people cannot do that.”
Comey said true leaders unite people, hold them to high standards, push them to do more and use humor to put people at ease.
“Everybody gets that toughness alone is dysfunctional,” he said, “but kindness alone is also dysfunctional because it’s a recipe for one of the great tragedies of our existence: unfulfilled potential.
“Real leaders never ask for anything except the best from their people.”
Comey talked about standing in the cafeteria line at the FBI with all the other employees, waiting for the slow panini machine, just like everyone else, to demonstrate that “I’m one of you. I’m not better than you. I’m going to wait for my sandwich.”
Similarly, President Obama always held meetings in the comfortable seating in the Oval Office, not from behind his desk, and faced people directly, Comey said.
Comey noted that presidents Obama and Bush are “very different people” but they both “used humor to relax, educate, to steer.”
From Jeff Sessions to Brett Kavanaugh
In addition to his prepared remarks, Comey fielded 15 questions from audience members, submitted on note cards for Bowen, the moderator, to read.
“You’re killing me,” Comey groaned jokingly to Bowen during the rapid-fire Q&A session. In addition to questions about Clinton’s email server, audience members asked about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the FBI investigation into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the recent anonymous New York Times Op-Ed by a Trump administration official, how to prevent future mass shootings and his opinions on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I’m not a big fan” of Sessions, he said, and then paused, considering his next words. “Yeah, I’m not a big fan. I don’t want to say anything gratuitously uncharitable.” However, he changed his mind after being egged on by Bowen, who said “I did read your book and you mentioned there were some looks on his face you couldn’t register, the way he darted his eyes?”
Caving, Comey quipped, “Ok, I’m going to be uncharitable. (Former Attorney General) Alberto Gonzales, who I worked for briefly as his deputy before leaving, was a lovely man who was over his head. Senator Sessions does not seem to have that loveliness part,” he said as the audience roared.
Fielding multiple questions about Clinton’s emails, he said, “I’ve thought about this 1,000 times and it caused me incredible pain, but I think I would do the same thing on the same facts again.”
Asked about preventing mass shootings, Comey criticized the gun lobby’s fear mongering and propaganda and called for better collaboration between law enforcement, educators and health care providers to work with young people exhibiting warning signs of instability or mental illness.
Comey said he did not find Justice Kavanaugh credible during his Senate testimony, and called the constraints on the FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations “idiotic.”
“If your goal is to find the truth, you don’t put a shot-clock on it,” said Comey. “You let the FBI follow logical leads. The bureau could do a lot in seven days,” noting that the FBI interviewed hundreds of people within 48 hours of the Boston Marathon bombings. “So we can do it, if allowed to.”
He concluded the evening with an anecdote from the day Martha Stewart was released from prison, when he was ambushed by a reporter and cameraman who posed, “Mr. Comey, Martha Stewart is getting out of jail today worth $200 million more than went she went there. How does that make you feel?”
“I said, deadpan, into the camera, ‘We at the Department of Justice are all about the successful reentry of our inmates into society…,’” as the audience laughed and applauded, giving him a standing ovation.