In his written testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, James Comey made a point of saying that he wrote memoranda documenting all of his conversations with Donald Trump, something he didn’t feel compelled to do regarding his (very few) conversations with Barack Obama. In his appearance before the committee, Comey broadened this claim to include President George W. Bush, under whom he served as Deputy Attorney General. The reason, he explained, was that Trump was the only one of the three presidents whom he considered untrustworthy. This was his exchange with Senator Warner:
WARNER: And so, in all your experience, this was the only president that you felt like, in every meeting, you needed to document, because at some point, using your words, he might put out a non-truthful representation of that meeting?
COMEY: That’s right, Senator.
And I — I — as I said in my written testimony, as FBI director, I interacted with President Obama. I spoke only twice in three years, and didn’t document it. When I was deputy attorney general, I had one one-on-one meeting with President Bush about a very important and difficult national security matter.
I didn’t write a memo documenting that conversation either — sent a quick e-mail to my staff to let them know there was something going on, but I didn’t feel, with President Bush, the need to document it in that way, again (ph), because of — the combination of those factors just wasn’t present with either President Bush or President Obama.
WARNER: I — I think that is very significant.
The one-on-one meeting with President Bush concerned the reauthorization of the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program, a drama in which Comey played a key role. As Deputy Attorney General, he refused to sign the reauthorization order on behalf of DOJ, and he was one of those who rushed to John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside.
A sharp-eyed reader pointed out that, as it happens, Comey has left behind an account of that meeting with President Bush. It is recounted in Angler, a book-length attack on Dick Cheney by Barton Gellman. Comey was one of Gellman’s chief sources.
Angler includes a description of Comey’s meeting with Bush that obviously came from Comey. It is strikingly similar to Comey’s description of his critical meeting with Donald Trump in his written Intelligence Committee testimony.
From Comey’s written testimony:
The President signaled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone. I stayed in my chair. As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the Attorney General lingered by my chair, but the President thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me. …When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.”
Bush stood as the meeting ended, crossing behind Cheney’s chair. Comey moved in the opposite direction, on his way out. He had nearly reached the grandfather clock at the door when the president said, “Jim, can I talk to you for a minute?” … This time the vice president was not invited.
In Comey’s account, as transmitted by Gellman, he was a hero, telling the president something that other aides had kept from him: that the Department of Justice was in revolt over the surveillance program, and mass resignations, including his, were imminent. Comey claims to have quoted Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, as he explained that as a man of principle he would have no choice but to resign rather than execute an order he believed to be illegal. One of Comey’s colleagues, who also was about to resign, was Comey’s good friend Bob Mueller, who waited for Comey downstairs at the White House while Comey had his dramatic conversation with President Bush.
Comey brought this episode up last week in order to paint himself, not as a sneak who dictated a memo to cover himself every time he had a conversation with a president, but rather as an honest man who was uniquely concerned about Donald Trump’s trustworthiness.
But Comey’s Senate testimony was untruthful. He told the committee that he didn’t document his important meeting with President Bush, but only “sent a quick email to my staff to let them know there was something going on.” Gellman reproduces that email in Angler. He got it from one of the recipients. Written immediately after the meeting, this is what it said:
The president just took me into his private office for a 15 minute one on one talk. Told him he was being misled and poorly served. We had a very full and frank exchange. Don’t know that either of us can see a way out. He promised he would shut down 5/6 if Congress didn’t fix FISA. Told him Mueller was about to resign. He just pulled Bob into his office.
Comey’s assertion that this “quick email” just told his staff “there was something going on” was false. The email was substantive: it documented Comey’s account of the conversation he had with the president. Comey didn’t wait five minutes to create a record of what he said to the president, and what the president said to him.
More important, he also made an extensive report on the conversation. Gellman’s book is footnoted. This is where Gellman says he got his account of Comey’s meeting with Bush:
317 “You don’t look well”: Quotations from the Bush-Comey conversation are taken verbatim from unclassified notes describing Comey’s report of the meeting shortly afterward.
Gellman’s account of the conversation is two pages long and includes the following quotes attributed to Comey or Bush:
“You don’t look well.”
“Well, I feel okay.”
“I’m worried about you. You look burdened.”
“I am, Mr. President. I feel like there’s a tremendous burden on me.”
“Let me lift that burden from your shoulders. Let me take that from you. Let me be the one who makes the decision here.”
“Mr. President, I would love to be able to do that.”
“I decide what the law is for the executive branch.”
“That’s absolutely true, sir, you do. But I decide what the Department of Justice can certify to and can’t certify to, and despite my absolute best efforts I simply cannot in the circumstances.”
“As Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ I’ve got to tell you, Mr. President, that’s where I am.”
“I just wish that you weren’t raising this at the last minute.”
“Oh, Mr. President, if you’ve been told that, you have been very poorly served by your advisers. We have been telling them for months that we have a huge problem here that we can’t get past. We’ve been working this, and here I am, and there’s no place else for me to go.”
“I just need you to certify it. Give me six weeks. If we don’t have it fixed in six weeks, we’ll shut it down.”
“I can’t do that. You do say what the law is in the executive branch, I believe that. And people’s job, if they’re going to stay in the executive branch, is to follow that. But I can’t agree, and I’m just sorry.”
“I think you should know that Director Mueller is going to resign today.”
“Thank you very much for telling me that. I really appreciate it, Jim. I’ll talk to him. I’m going to talk to him.”
All of that dialogue comes verbatim from “unclassified notes describing Comey’s report of the meeting shortly afterward.” Gellman’s phrasing is clumsy; it isn’t clear whether the notes were Comey’s or someone else’s. But it is crystal clear that Comey rendered a “report” on his meeting that included these extensive, self-serving quotes, and that Comey’s side of the story was preserved in notes–unclassified notes, that sounds familiar!–against any possible future contingency.
In short, Comey’s statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee that “I didn’t feel, with President Bush, the need to document it in that way” was false. He did document his story about his meeting with President Bush, in great detail, in a “report” that was turned into “unclassified notes.”
James Comey says there is a pattern to his dealings with presidents: he is an honest man who only needed to create memos to document his conversations with Donald Trump, because Trump is untruthful. But that isn’t the real pattern. The real pattern is that Comey is a snake in the grass who creates tendentious, self-serving memos that can later be used to cover his own rear end or to discredit presidents, but only if they are Republicans.
UPDATE: The same eagle-eyed reader found this tweet by Barton Gellman that nails it down:
In 2004, Comey left a 1-on-1 with Bush and sent time-stamped notes from the hallway outside the Sit Room. There will be more. From ‘Angler’: pic.twitter.com/y76CctRsIZ
— Barton Gellman (@bartongellman) May 17, 2017
So that’s it: Comey, who testified under oath that he “didn’t feel, with President Bush, the need to document it in that way,” told Gellman that he “sent time-stamped notes from the hallway outside the Sit Room.” What a liar.