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Comey-Trump feud takes a vicious turn

The Hill logo The Hill 4/14/2018 Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers
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Former FBI Director James Comey's public feud with President Trump is growing strikingly personal.

In a tell-all book set for release on Tuesday, Comey writes that Trump wanted him to disprove allegations he had a salacious encounter with prostitutes in Moscow, in an effort to reassure his wife, Melania Trump.

Comey also writes dismissively of Trump's appearance, recalling white bags under his eyes, contrasting with orange skin, that he surmised came from wearing goggles during tanning sessions.

The vindictive tone of Comey's observations stunned Washington, raising concerns even among those who know and respect the former FBI director.

"I'm troubled by it," said Ron Hosko, a former FBI official who worked under Comey. "It seems very, very personal, vengeful ... even if true."

The new book has reignited the feud between Comey and Trump that has raged for more than a year, since Comey first confirmed the existence of the investigation into Russian interference in the election and whether there was collusion between Trump's campaign and Moscow.

Trump has gone on offense, labeling Comey an "untruthful slimeball" and a "leaker" deserving of prosecution.

Republicans, meanwhile, are mounting an all-out campaign against the former FBI director, attacking his credibility.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) told reporters Friday his opinion of Comey has changed in light of the new excerpts, saying they reveal a "personal vendetta against the president."

"Comey's saying all these things about the president. ... To me it is not justified at all — it shows to me a bit of pettiness or b----iness on Comey's part," King said. "I had a much higher regard for Jim Comey before all of this."

Democrats disagree.

"There's no low blows when it comes to this president," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). "He's lowered the bar so far that he doesn't deserve the same amount of respect that other presidents have in the past. So I'm not going to criticize somebody for not holding back."

The drama is creating a new distraction for a White House that is frequently engulfed by controversy. Comey's book dominated the White House press briefing on Friday, during which press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders labeled the fired FBI director a "disgraced partisan hack."

Alex Conant, communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) 2016 campaign, said the White House has lacked a messaging strategy in recent weeks, forcing aides to be reactive.

"They sold a lot of Michael Wolff's books for him," quipped Conant, now a partner at Firehouse Strategies. "Given their frontal attacks on Comey already, they're going to sell a lot of his books as well."

During his tenure at the FBI, Comey, a Republican, earned respect from inside and outside the bureau and was, by many accounts, a capable director. Before being nominated by former President Obama to lead the FBI, his reputation for independence was solidified by a famous confrontation with officials in the George W. Bush White House over a surveillance program.

But Comey became enshrouded in political controversy in his final months over his handling of the investigations into Hillary Clinton and Trump, drawing the ire of both parties.

The president abruptly fired Comey last May, a move his aides initially pinned on a recommendation from the Justice Department but that the president later suggested he did at his own accord, motivated in part by the Russia investigation.

Comey first heard the news about his firing while addressing FBI employees in Los Angeles, initially shrugging off the reports as some sort of prank before the official termination letter arrived at his D.C. office, according to reports.

He became the second director in the FBI's history to be fired; the move cut short Comey's 10-year tenure by six years.

It was Comey's firing that ultimately led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the now-sprawling probe, which most recently ensnared Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Last June, Comey provided dramatic testimony to Congress on the circumstances of his dismissal.

Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said Trump directed him to end the investigation into Michael Flynn, the president's onetime national security adviser who has since pleaded guilty in Mueller's probe to lying to FBI agents. Trump says Comey is lying.

Since that testimony, Comey has largely been silent, apart from the occasional tweet, while working on his book.

The release of the book now affords Comey a fresh opportunity to step into the spotlight and tell his version of events, addressing his relationship with Trump as well as his controversial handling of the Clinton email investigation.

In the book, Comey expresses regret for his explanation of the investigation into Clinton's use of a private server for government business. Clinton and her aides have argued Comey's decision to revive the probe days before the election contributed to her loss.

"I'm sorry that I couldn't do a better job explaining to her and her supporters why I made the decisions I made," he writes.

He also says his handling of the Clinton investigation was likely affected by his expectation that she would win the White House.

Comey's promotional tour will begin with an interview on ABC Sunday night, followed by a flurry of other media appearances.

Hosko, who worked for eight months under Comey and describes him as a "smart, articulate, experienced engaging person," nevertheless raised questions about the potential impact on the bureau and on Comey's reputation.

"Is it the right thing for the FBI director whether you have been escorted out of the premises ... or served a full term?" Hosko said. "Does that elevate him or diminish him? And I think some of that depends on how you see Comey to begin with."

Mike Lillis contributed

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