Transcript: James Comey's Interview With ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos

JAMES COMEY: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for coming.Sponsored: Gambar Koala

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Simple start. Why did you write this book?

JAMES COMEY: I r-- I was never going to write a book. But I decided I had to write this one to try and be useful. That was my goal after I was fired, to be useful. And it occurred to me maybe I can be useful by offering a view to people, especially to young people, of what leadership should look like and how it should be centered on values. And so--

PHOTO: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James ComeyFlatiron Books

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

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GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You lay out qualities of an ethical leader. What are they?

JAMES COMEY: First and foremost, it's someone who realizes that lasting values have to be at the center of their leadership. Whether they're in government or in the private sector or leading a university, they have to focus on things like fairness and integrity and, most of all, the truth. That the truth matters.

James Comey gives first interview since President Trump fired him

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have-- there's almost a sense of-- of alarm underneath the whole book. You say it's a dangerous time in our country?

JAMES COMEY: I think it is. And-- I chose those words carefully. I was worried when I chose the word, "Dangerous" first. I thought, "Is that an overstatement?" And I don't think it is because--


JAMES COMEY: I worry that the norms at the center of this country-- we can fight as Americans about guns or taxes or immigration, and we always have. But what we have in common is a set of norms. Most importantly, the truth. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," right? Truth is the fourth word of that sentence. That's what we are. And if we lose that, if we lose tethering of our leaders to that truth, what are we? And so I started to worry. Actually, the foundation of this country is in jeopardy when we stop measuring our leaders against that central value of the truth.

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JAMES COMEY: I think we are in part. But I think the strength of this country is that we're going to outlast it. That there will be damage to that norm. But I liken President Trump in the book to a forest fire. Going to do tremendous damage. Going to damage those important norms. But a forest fire gives healthy things a chance to grow that had no chance before that fire.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How do we put it out?

JAMES COMEY: We put it out in two ways. We put it out first by not becoming numb to the fact that the truth is being assailed every day. By not deciding that it's just too much to pay attention to because that's the path to losing truth as the central value in this country. So all of us have to constantly be involved and call it out when we see the truth endangered, when we see lying. And then next, we need to get involved. The American people need to stand up in the public square and in the voting booth and say, "Look, we disagree about an awful lot. But we have in common something that matters enormously to this country. And our leaders must reflect those values."

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And-- and why the title, “A Higher Loyalty?”

JAMES COMEY: Well, in part, the title comes from a bizarre conversation I had with the president in dinner at the White House in January of last year, where he asked for my loyalty personally as the F.B.I. director. My loyalty's supposed to be to the American people and to the institution. But more than that, it grows out of a lifetime of my trying to be a better leader and figure out what matters in a leader, and realizing from a whole lot better leaders than I, that there must be a loyalty to something above the urgent, above the political, above the popular. We have to think, "What are the values that matter in the institution I'm involved with and in the country that I care a lot about?"

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You look at your career over the last four decades, you're like the Zelig of modern law enforcement?

JAMES COMEY: I stick out 'cause I'm so tall. I appear in every picture--

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Y-- that's only part of it. You've taken on the mob, Martha Stewart, right in the middle of huge controversies over government surveillance, over torture. What are the big lessons you take away from that?

JAMES COMEY: The big lesson from that-- and I've had a strange and wonderful career. And I don't know how I've ended up in all these spots. But the lesson I've learned is that it's important when you're involved in a difficult situation with loud voices to in your mind, rise above it and ask, "So what matters in the long run? What does this institution stand for? What does my country stand for?"

It helps you see things more clearly and realize things like truth matters, integrity matters. Those ethical values are what are going to last. And when you have to explain what you've done someday to your grandchildren, that's what will matter. Your grandkids won't understand that people-- angry at me, or the vice president of the United States was telling me people were going to die because of me.

What they'll want to know is, "What was your North Star? Why did you make the decision you made?" And I hope your answer's going to be, "'Cause I took the time to think about what matters. What my institution stands for and what my country stands for."

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Right at the beginning of your career, you're involved in prosecution of major mafia figures. How does that form you?

JAMES COMEY: Well, it's a tremendous education to get-- a view inside La Cosa Nostra, the mafia, both in the United States and in Sicily. And to realize that the mafia is an organization like any other organization. Has a leader, has underlings, has values, has principles. They're entirely corrupt. And it is the antithesis of ethical leadership.

But I didn't know it at the time. But it was forming my view that the truth has to be central to our lives and that leadership has to be focused on important and ethical values. And not what's good for the boss, how do I accomplish what's good for the boss and get the boss what he wants.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Truth at the center of our lives. That's the-- at the center of the Martha Stewart case as well?

JAMES COMEY: Yes. The Martha Stewart case was a case that I initially hated.


JAMES COMEY: And didn't want any part of. We had a lot of big cases going on at that point in time. WorldCom, Adelphia. Enron was going on. We were trying to investigate corporate fraud, massive corporate fraud, and send a message to the American people that the system isn't rigged, the rich aren't going to get away with frauds, and that's really hard and important work.

And in the middle of this, walks on this case involving a famous person who appears to have lied during an investigation of insider trading. And my initial reaction was, "You know, that's kind of a small thing. That'll be a big distraction. People will throw rocks at me. But more than that, it'll take away from this other work we're doing."

And folks don't realize this, but I almost hesitated and almost didn't bring the case against Martha Stewart, in hindsight, because she was rich and famous. And decided that if she were anybody else, any other ordinary person, she would be prosecuted. And what helped me come to that conclusion was I remembered a case I'd been involved in against an African American minister in Richmond when I was a federal prosecutor there, who had lied to us during an investigation.

And I begged this minister, "Please don't lie to us because if you do, we're going to have to prosecute you." He lied. And at the end of the day, we had to prosecute him. And he went to jail for over a year. And as I stood in my office in Manhattan, I'm looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge, I remember this moment. And I'm thinking, "You know, nobody in New York knows that guy's name except me.

"Why would I treat Martha Stewart differently than that guy?" And the reason would only be because she's rich and famous and because I'll be criticized for it. The truth matters in the criminal justice system. And if it's going to matter, we must prosecute people who lie in the middle of an investigation.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't lie to investigators, you don't lie under oath?

JAMES COMEY: You can't or the rule of law breaks down. And there once was a day when people were afraid of going to hell if they took an oath in the name of God and violated it. We've drifted away from that day. And so in its place has to be a fear that if you lie and the government can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, they will prosecute you in order to send a message to all the others who might be called upon to give evidence. You must tell the truth. It matters enormously.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You mentioned that Vice President Cheney-- at one point said, "People are going to die because of what you're doing right now." Take us inside that room?

JAMES COMEY: It was the chief of staff's room in the West Wing of the White House. And we were engaged-- I was at the Justice Department, the number two person at the Justice Department then, the deputy attorney general. And we were in a dispute with the White House about whether there was a lawful basis for surveillance activities that the president had authorized the NSA to engage in in the United States.

And we had concluded, very smart lawyers working for me had concluded and I agreed, that there wasn't a lawful basis for a big part of these activities. And so we were not going to sign onto it. And there was a meeting to pressure me to change my view. And Vice President Cheney presided at the meeting. He sat at the head of the table.

I sat just to his left. And he looked me in the eye and said, "Thousands of people are going to die because of what you're doing." W-- what he meant was, "Because you are making us stop this surveillance program," because there was no lawful basis for it, "people are going to die 'cause of what you're doing."

And my reaction was, and I said it to him, "That's not helping me. That makes me feel badly. I don't want people to die. I've devoted my life to trying to protect innocent people. But I have to say what the Justice Department can certify to, what we find lawful. And that you really want it or that it's important doesn't change the law. And so I-- I can't my view." And so it was thick with tension and it was-- I felt like I was going to be crushed like a grape, frankly. But in a way, there was no other way I could act. The law was clear. And so how could I possibly, as the leader of the Justice Department, sign up to something that we had no lawful basis for. And so we stood our ground.

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