WASHINGTON — Donald Trump asked Director James Comey of the FBI to investigate and knock down a lurid but unverified report that placed Trump years earlier in a Moscow hotel suite with prostitutes, explaining to Comey that the fantastic story was untrue and was painful and distressing to his wife, Melania Trump.
Comey describes two January 2017 conversations between himself and Trump in "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership," Comey's new memoir, which is set to be released Tuesday. The New York Times acquired a copy of the book before its release, and accounts of the exchange appeared in reports by several other news organizations late last week.
By Comey's accounts, Trump, then the president-elect, disputed the so-called Steele dossier, a document compiled by a former British intelligence officer that detailed an allegation in which Trump watched prostitutes urinate on each other. Comey writes that Trump insisted that "there's no way I would let people pee on each other around me" in part because he is a self-professed germophobe. "No way."
Four months later, Trump abruptly fired Comey, setting in motion a cascade of political and legal consequences that led directly to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Comey and Trump have been engaged in a verbal war with each other, often on Twitter, since then.
The 304-page memoir by Comey is the only firsthand, insider account to emerge so far by a former Trump official describing what it was like to work in the chaotic early days of the administration. In it, Comey, a veteran law enforcement agent, writes unsparingly about Trump, calling him a tempestuous president whose connection to honesty was tenuous at best.
"This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values," Comey writes in the book, saying his service to Trump recalled for him the days when he investigated the mob in New York. "The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth."
With the book's release set for this week, Comey planned a media blitz, beginning with an intensely hyped interview with ABC News that was to air Sunday night. Republican allies of Trump's have already set in motion a counteroffensive, creating a "Lyin' Comey" website aimed at discrediting the former FBI chief.
Comey's book does not include dramatic new revelations about the Russia investigation itself, which is continuing. But Comey does not pull punches as he provides rigorous detail — pulled from his contemporaneous notes — about his charged interactions with Trump during the transition and in the White House.
Laced with excruciating detail, Comey — who is 6 feet 8 inches tall — describes meeting Trump for the first time, noting that the soon-to-be-president, at 6 feet 3 inches tall, appeared shorter than he had assumed.
"His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles," Comey writes of his impressions during that first in-person session. He said Trump had "impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his."
The book also serves as a platform for Comey to once again defend his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the decisions that for a time made him one of the most despised figures among political liberals and other supporters of Clinton.
However, Comey acknowledges that he thought Clinton would win the presidency and said it is "entirely possible" that he decided to reveal that the email investigation had started up again 11 days before the election because he was primarily concerned that if he concealed the renewed investigation, it would make her an "illegitimate president."
Would he have made a different decision if Trump had been ahead in the polls? "I don't know," Comey concedes.
The book is a personal memoir more than a direct attack on Trump, the 45th president, and many of the chapters do not mention him. Comey describes his upbringing and the path that led him to the Justice Department and the FBI. And he retells stories from his days working for President George W. Bush.
He offers less-than-flattering portraits of Bush's political and diplomatic advisers, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and David S. Addington, a top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. From their point of view, he says, "The war on terrorism justified stretching, if not breaking, the written law."
He writes more fondly of his time serving President Barack Obama, describing a scene in the Oval Office just after the 2016 election when Obama said he remained convinced of Comey's integrity and abilities despite the hatred coming from people who blamed him for Clinton's loss.
"I want you to know that nothing — nothing — has happened in the last year to change my view," Obama told him. "Boy were those words I needed to hear," Comey says he replied.
Comey is less gentle with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whom he skewers for suggesting that he refer to the Clinton email case as "a matter," not an "investigation." He says that he responded to her, "The FBI didn't do matters."
But the book, which soared to the top of best-seller lists well before its actual release, has not prompted intense interest because of Comey's efforts to put his spin on the historical record of his life in law enforcement. It is the chapters about Trump that has Washington on edge and the public keenly interested.
Comey reveals that after he was fired, he received what he calls "an emotional call" from John Kelly, who was then the secretary of homeland security and would go on to become Trump's second chief of staff.
During the call, Kelly said he was "sick" about the firing and intended to quit in protest, Comey writes, adding: "I urged Kelly not to do that, arguing that the country needed principled people around this president. Especially this president."
Comey has already told some of the stories about Trump that he writes about in the book, including descriptions of a January 2017 dinner in which the former FBI director says the president sought to extract a loyalty pledge from him.
He describes in detail the moment when he says Trump raised the issue of Michael Flynn, the onetime national security adviser who had been fired for lying. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Trump said, according to Comey.
"It was very concerning," Comey writes.
Comey devotes a good part of the book to his worry about the damage that Trump and his presidency are doing to the country's future.
"We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country," he writes, "with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized and unethical behavior is ignored, excused or rewarded."