President Trump is escalating his public feud with former FBI director James Comey.
Under siege in the media and on Capitol Hill, Trump on Friday morning lobbed a direct threat at the former director, tweeting that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
For days, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover building has been a sieve of leaks contradicting the president’s account of his decision to fire Comey, painting Trump as paranoid and vindictive. In a New York Times story Thursday night, allies of Comey said the president had summoned him to the White House for dinner and demanded that he vow political loyalty — but was rebuffed.
Trump in an interview with Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro denied demanding Comey’s loyalty, though he added, “I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask.”
The president has also said that Comey asked for the meeting and that during dinner, Comey told him he was not the subject of an investigation. The claim has been met with incredulity, as it would represent a major breach of ethics for the former FBI director.
Comey, meanwhile, has stayed staunchly silent, forcing Trump to shadow box with his opponent. The only glimpse of the towering former director has been paparazzi shots taken through his back fence in McLean, Va.
Trump has gotten little support as he has ramped up the fight.
On Capitol Hill, even Republican lawmakers have shifted in their seats, calling his dismissal of Comey “disturbing.” Democrats have labeled his actions “Nixonian.”
Former and current FBI officials have stood by Comey, even as the White House has scrambled to back up the president’s shifting account of the firing.
Former national intelligence director James Clapper on Friday afternoon corroborated the Times account of Comey’s January dinner with the president.
“He had mentioned that he had been invited to the White House to have dinner with the president and that he was uneasy with that because of compromising even the optics, the appearance of independence, not only of him but of the FBI,” Clapper told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
Associates reportedly say it’s highly unlikely that Comey — who was concerned with appearing too chummy with the White House even under former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama says US 'desperately needs' Biden legislation ahead of key votes Obamas to break ground Tuesday on presidential center in Chicago A simple fix can bring revolutionary change to health spending MORE — would ask for a meeting with Trump.
That he would discuss an ongoing investigation that implicates the president’s own associates, they say, defies belief.
“He tried to stay away from it,” a former official, who worked closely with Comey and stays in touch with him, told NBC News. "He would say, 'Look sir, I really can't get into it, and you don't want me to.’ ”
Trump’s “hyper-reactive and thin-skinned response on almost an hourly basis” hasn’t helped him win support in the feud with Comey, said Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist and former public affairs official in George W. Bush’s Justice Department.
“The effect has been is to lionize Comey and put the president in the difficult position of being defensive,” Madden said. “That just puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to how the public judges whether what took place was the right thing or the wrong thing.”
Comey was widely liked and respected within the FBI, contradicting a claim from the White House that he had lost the faith of the rank-and-file over his handling of the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE email probe.
The man who has temporarily taken over Comey’s job, deputy director Andrew McCabe, on Thursday morning gave testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee that included a hearty show of support for his former boss.
“Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe told the Senate Intelligence Committee, calling it the “greatest privilege” of his professional career to work with him.
The president’s relationship with his independent-minded FBI director had been steadily and publicly deteriorating since Trump took office on Jan. 20.
Although Trump had praised Comey during the election for pursuing the Clinton email investigation, the relationship quickly soured as news reports about the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the election trickled out.
In February, he blasted the bureau for being “totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers,’ ” following reports that officials refused to dispute a New York Times story that said agents had uncovered contact between Russian officials and his campaign.
And Trump was reportedly incensed by Comey’s refusal to defend his accusation that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower before the presidential election.
Comey testified in March that the Justice Department had “no information” to support Trump’s wiretapping allegation — the same hearing at which he made public that the FBI was investigating possible coordination between Trump campaign officials and Russia.
Some say the dismissal was likely inevitable, given the inherent tension between Comey’s independent streak and a president who values loyalty above all else.
“I think we probably should have seen this coming,” Madden said with a chuckle. “The culture of law enforcement and the celebrity culture that the president comes out of are very different.”
Trump’s tweet on Friday was widely perceived as an attempt to intimidate Comey into silence. But longtime Comey-watchers think there’s a good chance he will emerge to tell his side of the story.
He has declined — at least for the time being — an invitation to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify behind closed doors on Tuesday.
But Comey rarely shied away from media appearances when he felt it was in the public interest to speak — something some critics say was his critical failing. It has long been bureau practice for directors to stay out of the limelight, but Comey is now a household name.
“One thing I learned at DOJ about Comey: he leaves a protective paper trail whenever he deems something inappropriate happened,” former Obama Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller tweeted Thursday night about the White House dinner.