Commentary: No matter what you think of his ego, James Comey’s ABC interview was fascinating and entertaining TV

Television Critic

Former FBI Director James Comey’s first television interview since being unceremoniously fired by President Trump in May was billed by “20/20” as an “explosive” interview that might “change everything.”

But measuring change in a political climate where upheaval is the norm and business as usual is anything but usual is no easy task. Since the Comey exclusive with ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos was first teased by the network, allied forces bombed Syria, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby received a presidential pardon, Comey’s forthcoming book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” was leaked, Trump and his unofficial media arm Fox News launched a Comey offensive, new reports emerged of another National Enquirer “catch-and-kill” deal, and we learned that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was reportedly in Prague when he said he was not.

The Sunday evening interview did, however, change the perception that a stoic lawman whose specialty is working in the shadows wouldn’t out-dazzle the reality showman in the Oval Office. Comey’s odd mix of G-man dispassion, unexpected emotion and very un-FBI-ish high-school slang made for a fascinating and downright entertaining TV event.


Trump, of course, spent the week before the Comey interview trying to discredit the man he fired through a now-familiar method: governance by TV and Twitter. Forget complex Capitol Hill negotiations and all that outdated rule-of-law stuff. Television and social media supply Trump’s presidential podium and unofficial advisers. Where better to appeal directly to the people? Trump’s combined presidential addresses over the airwaves and Twitter categorized Comey as a “slippery” “slimeball,” “not smart” “liar” who “will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!”

Surely, the reserved and somewhat socially awkward investigator could never live up to the drama his name alone triggers at Fox News and on conservative websites. After all, as the Sean Hannity-endorsed theory goes, Comey the Republican and former mafia prosecutor is, in fact, part of a Deep State conspiracy against Trump that’s so complex it involves the Clintons and Whitey Bulger.

Like a previous “60 Minutes” interview with another presidential nemesis, Stormy Daniels, Trump the TV master was beat at his own game Sunday.

Consider Comey’s description of his first impressions on meeting with Trump: The president had “impressively coifed hair [that] looked to be all his,” Comey said with a straight face. Trump was also “slightly orange up close, with small, white half-moons under his eyes, which I assume are from tanning goggles.”

And here’s what he said it was like to be James Comey during the 2016 election: “It sucked. Everyone hated me.” After all, half the country thought the then-FBI director handed Trump the election by announcing that Hillary Clinton’s email investigation was being reopened days before the election.

He could tell when the bureau was “totally screwed” by partisan politics. And in commenting on an old photo of himself as a teen with a bad haircut, he said, “I was rockin’ the bangs.”

Spilling out of a standard-sized chair, the 6-foot 8-inch Comey spoke of another time that he unsuccessfully tried to “blend in.” It was shortly after Trump’s inauguration, in an Oval Office press op where he hoped his blue suit would melt into the blue curtains he inched toward. The president then called him in front of the cameras in an awkward kiss-the-ring type of display. “20/20” played the footage, and Comey’s comment was bleeped.

When asked what he did after he heard, through news reports, that he’d been fired, Comey said he drank red wine out of a paper coffee cup on the plane ride back to D.C., and looked down on the lights of the country he loves so much.

The candid interview was the first of a media blitz surrounding the April 17 release of his book, a tour that will take him to a CNN town hall, a chat on “The View,” National Public Radio, “The Rachel Maddow Show” and more.

Comey appeared relaxed in the nearly 60-minute interview, which was edited down from a five-hour discussion. He wore a blue suit but no tie, and a button-down dress shirt with the top button undone. In conventional FBI terms, it was as if he’d worn board shorts and flip-flops to a briefing. And when asked by Stephanopoulos what he thought of Trump calling him names such as “liar,” Comey shrugged: “What am I gonna do?”

The bombshells dropped during the interview had already partially exploded last week when similar book passages were divulged by anchors and reporters across various news outlets. For instance, Comey said Sunday that Trump was “morally unfit” to lead the country; in the book, he refers to Trump’s presidency as a “forest fire.” He also writes, ‘‘What is happening now is not normal. It is not fake news. It is not okay.’’

Comey thoughtfully, and sometimes with an anguished candor, responded to an exhaustive line of questions about what he should and should not have done during the 2016 election and the early days of Trump’s presidency.

He also peppered his answers with the detail of a seasoned investigator. He described trying to discuss the Steele dossier in which Trump was alleged to have had relationships with Russian prostitutes. Comey admitted it was so far outside the types of presidential conversations he’d had in previous administrations that it was an “out of body” experience.

“[Trump] started talking about it, you know, ‘Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?’ I didn’t answer that, and I just moved on….” He then looked stunned when he said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t know whether the current president of the United States had prostitutes in Moscow peeing on each other.”

The “20/20” special often lapsed into quick Q&A sessions.

Question: Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump?

Answer: “It’s possible. I never thought I’d utter those words … It’s possible.”

Question: Was the president obstructing justice?

Answer: “Possibly.” Comey nodded yes.

The exclusive came on the heels of that other frank and highly rated Sunday news event based on the nonpresidential behavior of POTUS: Stormy Daniels’ “60 Minutes” interview in March. It was one of the long-running show’s highest-rated programs in years. The Comey interview was watched by 9.8 million viewers, ABC News’ biggest audience since the 2015 Caitlyn Jenner interview. It was significantly lower than the 21.3 million who watched Daniels, but given that illicit affairs and porn stars tend to grab more headlines than camera-shy law enforcement officers, it was still an impressive showing for ABC, given its airing in the 10 p.m. hour.

The most indelible moment of the ABC broadcast Sunday came when Stephanopoulos asked Comey directly whether he thought Trump was fit to be president.

“I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia,” he said. “He strikes me as a person of above-average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president. I think he’s morally unfit to be president.

“A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it — that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.”

Trump, of course, countered on Twitter, accusing Comey “and others” of committing “many crimes,” thus ensuring that the interview would stay relevant for another news cycle.

The interview might not have changed politics or the world as we know it, but it did change perceptions of the former FBI man known as James Comey — and the president he refused to obey.


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