The James Comey saga, in timeline form
Updated on June 13, 2018, at 9:36 p.m. ET
Two months after a book tour that saw his face plastered on network television, former FBI Director James Comey will be in the spotlight again with significantly less control of the narrative.
Thursday, the Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is expected to release his report regarding his investigation into Comey's handling of the 2016 Hillary Clinton email probe.
President Trump — who has frequently belittled Comey on Twitter and has sought to use Comey's actions as evidence that Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian election interference is a "witch hunt" targeting Trump and his inner circle for political reasons — is likely to point to the IG's findings and mount more criticism of the department, the FBI and the Mueller probe.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR's budget year comes to a close on June 30. Help us close the gap by becoming a Sustainer today. When you make a recurring monthly gift, your gift will be matched by the MPR Member Fund for a whole year!
Democrats are likely to be parsing the IG report too, as many, including Clinton herself, have blamed her loss to Trump at least partially on Comey's decision to announce the reopening of the email server probe less than two weeks before Election Day in 2016. It's been more than a year since his abrupt firing by Trump, and Comey has regularly been in the headlines since his ouster. His book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, was an instant blockbuster, doubling the first week sales of Clinton's 2016 election memoir. In it, Comey reflects on the circumstances surrounding his dismissal, reveals further insights into his fraught conversations with the president and examines his own controversial decisions — namely how he handled the investigation into Clinton's private email server and whether he impacted Clinton's chances against Trump in the 2016 presidential election. At the time of his firing, Comey was leading the Justice Department's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. Mueller is now leading that investigation, and he is said to be interested in whether the decision to fire Comey amounts to obstruction of justice. President Trump has made veiled threats about potential recordings of Comey and contradicted his own staff as well as the vice president. In testimony before the Senate intelligence committee in June 2017, Comey upped the ante when he said the president had lied about him and the FBI.
After much of the content of Comey's new book found its way into media reports prior to its scheduled release date and as Comey was about to begin a weeklong media blitz, Trump took to Twitter to once again condemn Comey.
"I never asked Comey for Personal Loyalty. I hardly even knew this guy. Just another of his many lies. His 'memos' are self serving and FAKE!" the president posted online April 15. "Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!" Trump said in another tweet the same day. Responding to yet another tweet by Trump posted April 15, Comey decried the possibility of normalizing Trump's behavior. "The president of the United States just said that a private citizen should be jailed," Comey told NPR's Steve Inskeep and Carrie Johnson in an interview on Morning Edition. "And I think the reaction of most of us was, 'Meh, it's another one of those things.' This is not normal. This is not OK. There is a danger that we will become numb to it and we will stop noticing the threats to our norms, the threats to the rule of law and the threats, most of all, to the truth."
Here's a timeline of key Comey-related events:
Oct. 1, 2015: Comey tells reporters that FBI investigators looking into possible compromise of information on Clinton's private email server would be fiercely independent, because they "don't give a rip about politics." "Part of doing our work well is to make sure we don't talk about it," he said, approximately a year and 27 days before talking about the FBI's work in a pretty public way. June 27, 2016: Former President Bill Clinton drops in to the aircraft of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch for an unscheduled meeting at an airport in Phoenix.
Although both Clinton and Lynch insist they did not discuss the ongoing investigation involving Clinton's wife (Lynch told reporters the conversation "was primarily social and about our travels"), Republicans, including Trump, jump on the opportunity to sow doubt about whether the Justice Department can truly make an unbiased decision to recommend charges or not.
July 2, 2016: Trump tweets that it "is impossible for the FBI not to recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton," setting up a major conflict when Comey goes public with his investigation announcement just a few days later. Trump's theme continues throughout July, as the Republican National Convention is peppered with "Lock her up!" chants.
July 5, 2016: Comey announces that the FBI is recommending the Justice Department not bring charges against Clinton for her handling of classified data. Still, Comey says Clinton and her staff were "extremely careless" in using a private email server and adds that he thinks it's possible classified information on the server could have been hacked by "a hostile actor." The appearance at the FBI headquarters in Washington gives ammunition to the Trump campaign and sets Comey up to serve as Trump's latest political foil. Aug. 22, 2016: Trump makes news at a rally in Akron, Ohio, when he argues a special prosecutor is needed for the Justice Department to "investigate Hillary Clinton's crimes." "The Justice Department is required to appoint an independent special prosecutor because it has proven itself to be really, sadly, a political arm of the White House," Trump says.
Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University and author of two books on special prosecutors, spoke to NPR's Carrie Johnson at the time. "If you look at the chronology, pretty much the political party that does not control the White House tends to want special prosecutors and independent counsel laws," he said. "As soon as the party is in the White House, they don't want it anymore."
The message would become relevant again when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats began calling for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia's meddling in the U.S. election after news broke that Comey had been fired by Trump. Oct. 28, 2016: In a letter to the leaders of congressional oversight committees, Comey notifies Congress that the FBI is reopening the investigation into the handling of classified information in connection with Democratic presidential candidate Clinton.
"The FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation," Comey writes. "I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation."
Republicans quickly jumped on the opportunity to bash Clinton. At a rally in New Hampshire, Trump said, "Hillary Clinton's corruption is on a scale we have never seen before." And the Republican National Committee added that the FBI's decision to reopen the investigation ahead of the election "shows how serious this discovery must be."
No information was revealed about the content of the newly uncovered emails. But by the end of the day, sources had confirmed to NPR the emails were found through an unrelated criminal investigation of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former representative who was married to a top Clinton aide at the time.
Oct. 30-31, 2016: The FBI obtains the search warrant necessary to examine the newly found emails. At this point, there's still no confirmation of whether the emails contained any new information or even whether they were sent or received by Clinton.
During this time, the assistant attorney general writes a letter to Democratic senators assuring them that the Justice Department is dedicating "all necessary resources" to go through the emails as quickly as possible.
These stories illustrate the vague daily news dribble, spurred by Comey's announcement, that helped get the words "Clinton" and "email" back into headlines just a week before voters went to the polls. Nov. 6, 2016: Comey announces that the new trove of emails doesn't change the FBI's recommendation that the Justice Department not charge Clinton for her handling of classified information.
"Since my letter, the FBI investigative team has been working around the clock to process and review a large volume of emails from a device obtained in connection with an unrelated criminal investigation," Comey writes to 16 chairmen and ranking members of relevant House and Senate committees. "Based on our review, we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton."
Sources told NPR that almost every email the FBI reviewed in the new batch was a duplicate of an email the bureau had already seen.
Trump uses the news to call the FBI, and Comey by extension, "rigged."
"Right now, [Clinton's] being protected by a rigged system," Trump told a crowd in Michigan. "You can't review 650,000 new emails in eight days — you just can't do it, folks. Hillary Clinton is guilty."
Nov. 8, 2016: Trump defeats Clinton in the presidential election, with an Electoral College victory of 306 to 232. Clinton wins the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. Trump will become the next president of the United States.
Neither Clinton nor Trump mentions Comey or the Oct. 28 letter in election night speeches.
Jan. 22, 2017: Two days after Donald Trump becomes President Trump, Comey and the president meet at a reception for law enforcement and security officials in the White House Blue Room. Trump calls Comey over and they hug. "He's become more famous than me," Trump said with a chuckle, according to Reuters. March 8, 2017: At a cyber conference in Boston, Comey reiterates that he intends to serve the entirety of his 10-year term. "You're stuck with me for about 6 1/2 years," he says. The comments follow Comey's urging the Justice Department for days to issue a public denial of Trump's accusations of wiretapping against President Barack Obama.
NPR's Carrie Johnson reported at the time that Comey "has demonstrated a nearly unique ability to draw critics from both ends of the political spectrum."
March 20, 2017: Comey confirms that the FBI is investigating "whether there was any coordination between the [Trump] campaign and Russia's efforts" to interfere in the 2016 election. He made the statement during the first open hearing on Russian meddling, held by the House intelligence committee. May 2, 2017: Clinton says that if it weren't for Comey's Oct. 28, 2016, letter, she would be president.
"It wasn't a perfect campaign — there's no such thing — but I was on the way to winning until a few things happened," Clinton tells CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour at a women's leadership luncheon.
"If the election was on Oct. 27, I'd be your president," Clinton added.
Trump fired back later that night, tweeting "FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!" May 3, 2017: The FBI director testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee and tells Congress that it makes him "mildly nauseous" to think his late October decision could have swung the election.
Still, he defends himself.
"Lordy, has this been painful," he told committee members. "I've gotten all kinds of rocks thrown at me, and this has been really hard, but I think I've done the right thing at each turn."
He also has an exchange with Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, about whether senior Justice Department officials can "halt" an FBI investigation if they oppose it. "In theory, yes," it can happen, Comey says. "Has it happened?" Hirono asks. "Not in my experience," Comey responds. May 9, 2017: Trump suddenly fires Comey on a Tuesday afternoon. May 11, 2017: Trump contradicts his White House staff as well as the vice president over the reasoning. At first, staffers said Trump acted on the assessment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, but in an interview with NBC News, Trump says he was going to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein's advice.
"It was set up a while ago," Trump told Lester Holt on May 11. "And frankly, I could have waited, but what difference does it make?"
Just before the firing, the FBI sent a letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley correcting aspects of Comey's May 3 testimony. The letter came after ProPublica first reported inaccuracies in Comey's statements to Congress.
From ProPublica's Peter Elkind:
"In [the letter], the FBI acknowledged that only a 'small number' of more than 49,000 'potentially relevant' emails found on Weiner's laptop had been forwarded from Clinton deputy Huma Abedin to Weiner, her husband, not hundreds or thousands as Comey had stated. The FBI said just two of those messages contained classified information."
May 12, 2017: Trump tweets on Friday, "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" The following Monday, journalists in the White House briefing continue to ask press secretary Sean Spicer to comment on the implication of a taping system in the Oval Office. Spicer does not clarify. May 16, 2017: Two sources close to Comey say that Trump asked him to close down the FBI's investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn a day after Flynn was fired. Comey, who was still FBI director at the time, wrote a memo about the exchange immediately after the Oval Office conversation in February, an associate of Comey's told NPR.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, sends a request to acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe for "memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings referring or relating" to communications between Comey and Trump, setting a deadline of May 24.
The White House has denied that the president ever asked for the investigation to end. The FBI would not comment, but McCabe testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 11 that "there has been no effort to impede our investigation to date." May 17, 2017: The Senate Intelligence Committee invites Comey to testify in open and closed sessions. It also sends a request to McCabe "seeking any notes or memorandum prepared by the former Director regarding any communications he may have had with senior White House and Department of Justice officials related to investigations into Russia's efforts." The Senate Judiciary Committee is also seeking the alleged memos and related documentation. Rosenstein appoints former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the Russia investigation as a special counsel. May 18, 2017: Trump denies asking Comey to shut down the Flynn investigation during a joint news conference with the president of Colombia, responding curtly to a reporter with: "No. No. Next question." He also changes his rationale for firing Comey again, saying he based his decision on Rosenstein's recommendation. Rosenstein briefs senators the same day, saying he knew that Comey would be fired before he wrote the memo. May 19, 2017: Rosenstein talks to members of the House, later releasing his opening remarks to lawmakers, in which he says he stands by the memo he wrote about Comey and that he "thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader." The Senate intelligence committee says Comey will testify in an open hearing, to be scheduled after Memorial Day (the committee later announced it would take place on June 8). Comey turns down the Senate Judiciary Committee's request. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Trump told Russian officials during a May 10 meeting that he fired "nut job" Comey to ease the pressure of the mounting investigation into the election and his team's potential ties to Russia. Spicer does not dispute the account. May 22, 2017: In addition to reportedly pushing Comey on the Russia investigation, Trump asks top U.S. intelligence chiefs to push back against the FBI's investigation, The Washington Post reports.
A White House spokesman says in a statement, "The White House does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals." Asked about the report in later testimony, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats says that he does not "feel it's appropriate to characterize discussions with the president."
May 25, 2017: Chaffetz, the House oversight chairman, says the FBI declined to release documents his panel had requested regarding communications between Comey and the president. Reuters reports: "The FBI said it was still evaluating the request ... in light of the appointment of a special prosecutor" to lead the Russia probe. June 7, 2017: Trump announces he is nominating Christopher Wray to be FBI director. Wray is a former Justice Department official who currently works in the private sector. Ahead of its hearing the next day, the Senate Intelligence Committee releases Comey's opening statement. In it, Comey corroborates much of what has been reported in The Washington Post and New York Times, saying the president asked him for "loyalty" and to let the Flynn investigation "go." Comey also says he had an awkward dinner with Trump on Jan. 27 at which the president asked whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director. Read NPR's analysis of the comments. June 8, 2017: Comey testifies before the Senate intelligence committee, in his first public comments since his dismissal. The hearing is one of the most closely watched testimonies in recent memory, even prompting bars in D.C. and beyond to open early and host watch parties.
Comey says the Trump administration "chose to defame" him by saying the FBI was "poorly led" under him. He adds that the White House lied in arguing he was let go for any reason other than the ongoing Russia investigation and that he documented his conversations with Trump because he "was honestly concerned [Trump] might lie" about their meetings.
He says plainly that he told his friend to release his memos to the New York Times, specifically hoping they would lead to the appointment of a special counsel.
And that's just the hearing that was open to the public. Comey continues to speak to senators in a closed afternoon session.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders tells reporters after the testimony that she "can definitely say the president is not a liar." And Trump sends out his personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, to make a statement on his behalf.
"[Comey] also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference," he says. He also claims Trump never told Comey he needed loyalty from him "in any form or substance," even though the president "is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration."
June 9, 2017: In a joint news conference with the president of Romania, Trump says he would be willing to testify under oath about his interactions with Comey.
"Frankly, James Comey confirmed a lot of what I said — and some of the things that he said just weren't true," Trump says in his first on-camera remarks following Comey's testimony. He doubles down on Kasowitz's claim that he never asked Comey for a loyalty pledge or urged him to do away with an investigation into former national security adviser Flynn.
When asked whether he would be willing to speak with Mueller under oath about his conversations with Comey, Trumps responds: "100 percent."
June 13, 2017: Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate intelligence committee. It's his first public appearance before Congress since Jan. 10, when he said he "did not have communications with the Russians." It was later reported that Sessions had in fact met twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in 2016, though Sessions insists those meetings were part of his role as a senator at the time and were not about the Trump campaign. Sessions recused himself in March from any investigations into Russia's actions in the 2016 election. At the time, Sessions said he was recusing himself because he was an adviser for the campaign. Comey's testimony on June 8 cast doubt on that reasoning, when the former FBI director said he had thought Sessions would recuse himself weeks before he did because of reasons that were classified. Testifying before his former colleagues in the Senate, Sessions denies any suggestion that he was involved in any collusion with the Russians. The attorney general calls such allegations "an appalling and detestable lie." With regard to Comey's firing, Sessions says he agreed with the assessment provided by Rosenstein. Furthermore, Sessions explains, "It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations." June 14, 2017: Mueller is investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice, the Washington Post reports. Comey's firing is a "central moment that's being looked at" in Mueller's investigation, the Post's Devlin Barrett tells NPR's Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered, "but it's not the only thing." Investigators are also considering the conversations Comey and the president had leading up to the firing. June 15, 2017: Trump takes to Twitter following the Post's report and calls the Russia inquiry "the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history ...." "They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story," Trump also says on Twitter, "found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice" June 16, 2017: Trump tweets, "I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt." Within hours, people close to the president seek to clarify the tweet. A person close to the president's legal team tells NPR's Scott Horsley that the tweet referred to the Wednesday Washington Post report regarding possible obstruction of justice. The tweet was not confirmation that the president or his attorney has been informed by the Department of Justice or Mueller that Trump is the subject of an investigation. June 22, 2017: After dangling the threat over Comey about tapes of their conversation — a prospect the former FBI director memorably said he would relish during his testimony before the Senate — Trump finally concedes over a month later that, as most people expected, he did not make and does not have any such tapes. "With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are 'tapes' or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings," the president tweets. The White House would not elaborate why Trump waited 41 days to clarify his mysterious tweet that suggested otherwise. June 29, 2017: The denial a week earlier from the president about the existence of tapes wasn't enough for the House intelligence committee, which threatens to subpoena any tapes to "ensure a satisfactory response" over their possible existence. "By only referring to the President's statement, the White House's letter stops short of clarifying for the Committee whether the White House has any responsive recordings, memoranda, or other documents," Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., say in a joint statement. Oct. 23, 2017: After posting a few cryptic tweets under the pseudonym Reinhold Niebuhr, and after former Gizmodo, now Huffington Post reporter Ashley Feinberg does some digital snooping, Comey reveals himself the author of a secret Twitter account. Over the next few months, he uses the platform to jab Trump. Late in 2017: Mueller interviews Comey, as well as Sessions, as reported by NBC News.
"The focus of Comey's interview was the memos he wrote after his private meetings with the president," according to a source that spoke to NBC.
Feb. 27, 2018: Comey tweets "Lordy, this time there will be a tape" alluding to his upcoming book and accompanying audiobook. March 16, 2018: Trump fires outgoing FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, even though he was close to retiring and receiving his pension after two decades of service to the bureau. Trump calls it a "great day for democracy" on Twitter and calls Comey "sanctimonious James Comey."
The next day, the former FBI director responds.
"Mr. President, the American people will hear my story very soon" Comey tweets. "And they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not."
April 12, 2018: Multiple media outlets obtain Comey's book early before its scheduled April 17 release date. In the memoir, Comey says, "This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values" and that "[Trump's] leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty." April 13, 2018: In his review of A Higher Loyalty, NPR's Ron Elving calls the Comey memoir "by far the most consequential book yet in the literature of the Trump presidency." Of the long-awaited book, Elving concludes: "It is far from clear what effect Comey's book will have on public attitudes toward Mueller's work. It may be equally hard to assess what impact it will have on attitudes toward Comey or Trump.
"But it is not likely to convert the committed partisans on either side, or in either party. Instead, it may well cause further entrenchment, with both sides burrowing deeper into their respective certainties."
April 15, 2018: In a series of tweets prior to Comey's heavily promoted TV interview with ABC News, the president once again takes aim at Comey. "I never asked Comey for Personal Loyalty. I hardly even knew this guy. Just another of his many lies. His 'memos' are self serving and FAKE!" Trump tweets. "Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!" the president also posts online.
Without referencing Trump by name or any of the president's tweets, Comey appears to respond with a tweet of his own: "3 presidents are in my book: 2 help illustrate the values at the heart of ethical leadership; 1 serves as a counterpoint. I hope folks read the whole thing and find it useful."
That same day, in an interview with ABC News, Comey defends his handling of the Clinton private email server investigation. He tells George Stephanopoulos he hoped people would see "I'm not trying to help a candidate or hurt a candidate; I'm trying to do the right thing."
"And you can come up with different conclusions. Reasonable people would've chosen a different door for reasonable reasons," he said. "But it's just not fair to say we were doing it for some illegitimate reason."
April 16, 2018: Trump takes another shot at Comey on Twitter, the day before Comey's memoir is set for its formal release. "Disgruntled, [Comey], McCabe, and the others, committed many crimes!" the president posts online. April 17, 2018: In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Comey says the reputation of the FBI "would be worse today had we not picked the least bad alternatives." He adds: "I saw this as a 500-year flood, and so where is the manual? What do I do?"
And responding to another personal attack from the president delivered via Twitter, Comey warns against becoming desensitized to Trump's transgression of norms.
"The president of the United States just said that a private citizen should be jailed," Comey tells NPR's Steve Inskeep and Carrie Johnson. "And I think the reaction of most of us was, 'Meh, it's another one of those things.' This is not normal. This is not OK. There is a danger that we will become numb to it and we will stop noticing the threats to our norms, the threats to the rule of law and the threats, most of all, to the truth." Read a transcript of the entire Morning Edition interview. April 17, 2018: In an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Comey defends the FBI against charges of partisanship. "People love the FBI when they think it's on their side," Comey says. But, he adds, "We were not — and are not — on anybody's side. ... That is not how we looked at the world and not how the FBI looks at the world today." April 19, 2018: Redacted copies of the memos Comey drafted regarding his interactions with Trump, including one describing his fateful dinner with the president, become public.
New details included a moment in which Comey says Trump pointed his fingers at his own head and said then-national security adviser Michael Flynn has "serious judgment issues," and Comey says he warned President Trump about appointing an attorney general he was too close to.
"Because [presidents] reason that problems for a president often come from Justice, they try to bring Justice close, which paradoxically makes things worse because an independent DOJ and FBI are better for a president and the country," Comey said, according to the memo.
Comey described the entire conversation as "conversation-as-jigsaw puzzle in a way, with pieces picked up, then discarded, then returned to."
April 20, 2018: As Comey's book tour continues, the possibility that Comey may have to testify against his onetime deputy Andrew McCabe comes into focus. As NPR's Carrie Johnson tells All Things Considered, the two are at odds because of a Justice Department inspector general report about who disclosed sensitive information to The Wall Street Journal in 2016.
"Comey sided with the inspector general and seemed to say that McCabe had lied to investigators," Johnson said. "Comey went on to say there's a need for accountability, even for good people who happen to do the wrong thing."
But, McCabe's attorney countered that Comey has his facts wrong and McCabe definitely told Comey he was going to authorize the disclosure to the Journal before the story was published. May 31, 2018: The Washington Post reports that Comey was recently interviewed by the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office after the IG referred its findings about McCabe to federal prosecutors. June 14, 2018: Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is expected to release his findings after an internal review of the department's and the FBI's handling of the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state. The full IG report is expected to include more details about Comey and McCabe's interactions. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
(2018-04-17 04:00:00 UTC):
A previous version of this story misspelled George Stephanopoulos' last name as Stephanopolous.