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Five takeaways from the Comey interview

The Hill logo The Hill 4/16/2018 Niall Stanage

Photo Gallery by USA Today

Former FBI director James Comey's much-hyped interview with George Stephanopoulos aired on ABC's "20/20" Sunday night, with huge ratings guaranteed.

What were the big takeaways?

It's on - Comey hit Trump full-force

Comey threw big punches from start to finish, beginning with some derisive comments about the president's appearance and concluding with the assertion that Trump is "morally unfit" to sit in the Oval Office.

There were many other extraordinary moments, including Comey's assertion that it's possible Trump is compromised by Russia; an acknowledgement that he considered Trump an outright liar since their first private post-inauguration meeting; and his insistence there is "certainly some evidence" that the president has obstructed justice.

James Comey wearing a suit and tie © Provided by The Hill There was also a shrugging dismissal of Trump's denial that he told Comey that he hoped the then-FBI director could let the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn go.

When Stephanopoulos noted that the president had denied saying such a thing, Comey replied with evident disdain: "Yeah, well, what am I going to do? He did."

The president and the former FBI director are now in a state of virtual war.

Trump has assailed Comey on Twitter in recent days as "a weak and untruthful slimeball"; "slippery" and "the WORST FBI Director in history."

There will be no cessation of hostilities anytime soon.

Did he go too far?

Given how Comey holds himself out as a paragon of ethical leadership - his book is titled "A Higher Loyalty" - it seemed incongruous to hear him mock Trump's hairstyle and facial coloring.

Comey repeated the detail, included in the book, that he assumes Trump has small white circles beneath his eyes because of the use of tanning goggles. Of the famous Trump hairstyle, he told Stephanopoulos that "it looks to be all his" and added wryly that "it must take a heck of a lot of time in the morning."

On a human level, it's easy enough to see why Comey would bear enmity toward Trump (and vice versa). And the president is, of course, famous for the aggressiveness of his personal jabs.

Still, Comey's overall approach is discordant with former first lady Michelle Obama's famous maxim: "When they go low, we go high."

Comey's assertion that it is "possible" that Trump is compromised by Russia will also likely draw some hot comment in the next 24 hours.

He provided no specific evidence to back up that claim. Critics will contend that a former FBI director should not make such an incendiary charge without providing his basis for doing so.

Fresh ammunition for both sides

Those who like Comey and those who loathe him will both find enough in the ABC interview to reinforce their positions.

The former FBI director offered plausible, detailed recollections of his meetings with Trump - and appeared to say nothing substantively inconsistent with previous accounts.

He also has at least some capacity for self-criticism, acknowledging the validity of other points of view and the fact that he has struggled with his ego for much of his life.

For those less favorably disposed toward him - on the left as well as the right - it's easy to see how Comey's earnestness can seem sanctimonious.

It's also noticeable that, for all the times Comey is willing to publicly agonize over whether or not he did the right thing, he almost always concludes that he did.

No big regrets

Comey was forthright about how he felt in the closing stretch of the 2016 election campaign, after he made his bombshell announcement that the FBI had reopened its investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.

"It sucked," he told Stephanopoulos, adding that he "walked around vaguely sick to my stomach, feeling beaten down."

But he continues to defend his conduct in that regard, as he does his earlier public announcement that he had found nothing that would make a prosecutable case against Clinton. He also stands by his actions in relation to Trump.

In the full transcript of the interview, which includes many details that were not broadcast, he contends, "The honest answer is I screwed up a couple of things." But overall, he adds, "these were the decisions that were best calculated to preserve the values of the institutions. It was terrible for me, terrible. But I still think it was the right thing to do."

A shadow campaign is underway

The White House clearly sees the threat Comey poses. He has already proven himself to be perhaps Trump's most tenacious and dangerous adversary.

The pushback against him has come not only from the president's Twitter feed, but from the podium of the White House briefing room, where press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Comey "a disgraced partisan hack" on Friday.

Media commentators on both sides have also joined the fight with glee.

The situation was ramped up further on Sunday night.

Just before the broadcast ended, the Republican National Committee emailed reporters with a rebuttal of some of Comey's points - a tactic more characteristic of debate nights than TV interviews during a president's second year in office.

One other curious quirk came when viewers, at least in the Washington market, got to see a TV ad defending special counsel Robert Mueller in one of the commercial breaks. The ad was paid for by a group called "Republicans for the Rule of Law."

If it wasn't clear before, it is now: We are right in the middle of a quasi-election campaign.

Instead of conventional candidates, it is Comey, Mueller - and Trump himself - whose fates hang in the balance.

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