Former FBI director James Comey compares the devastating impact of outgoing US President Donald Trump on America, “culminating in the Trump-incited January 6 mob assault on the Capitol”, to the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.
In an interview today with the Guardian, Comey says the US always had a “radioactive stew” of violence, but it was held in check by a containment building (the law) and tamed by control rods (cultural expectations, including the N-word becoming taboo).
“What Donald Trump has done for the last five years is attack the building from the outside to weaken its foundation,” Comey tells the British paper. “He’s withdrawn the control rods, and that’s a recipe for a nuclear disaster, a radioactive release. That’s what you saw on Capitol Hill, our own Chernobyl, when the ugly radioactive violence and racism of America explodes in public view.”
Comey, who was sacked by Trump in May 2017, says he was “sickened” on January 6 “to watch an attack on the literal and symbolic heart of our democracy,” but also “mystified and angry that Capitol Hill wasn’t defended.
“It’s a hill! If you wanted to defend it, you could defend it, and for some reason it was not defended. I think that’s a 9/11-size failure and we’re going to need a 9/11-type commission to understand it so that we don’t repeat it,” he warns.
Based on his direct dealings with Trump, Comey muses in the interview on how and why so many people have proved ready to embrace and enable the US president’s false narratives.
“He rarely stops talking in a way that not only is filled with constant lying, but draws those to whom he’s speaking into an involuntary circle of assent,” Comey suggests. “He has this way of lying and saying: ‘Everybody agrees and of course we all agree,’ and a wave of lies hits you.”
Complicating all this, he adds, is that “the person speaking is in some sense an object of reverence in the American civic religion: he’s sitting in the Oval Office and he’s the president of the United States, so you want to believe him and respect him.”
That combination “makes him uniquely able to bend people – and he has bent a lot of people. It’s a really hard thing to resist. I bent in small ways that I convinced myself were tactical,” Comey recalls. “I gave silence in response to a request for loyalty and I said: ‘I’ll be honest,’ and then when I got ‘honest loyalty’ I agreed to that to get out of that conversation.”
He claims Trump tends to attract people who lack a solid moral framework: “They tell themselves stories like: ‘I’ve got to deal with this to protect the country; because I’m so important to the nation, I’ll make these compromises.’ And then he’s eaten your soul, it’s too late, and then you’re the attorney general of the United States marching across Lafayette Square thick with choking pepper smoke after protesters have been cleared so the man can hold the Bible up. That’s where you end up.”
He also says that the Republican Party “needs to be burned down or changed” and hopes a break is nearing “between the Trumpists and those people who want to try and build a responsible conservative party.”
In the interview, Comey again defends his actions in the run-up to the 2016 elections, and specifically his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, while acknowledging that Clinton blames him for her defeat to Trump. He says he has never met Clinton, but if he did, “I think I would tell her that I’m sorry for her pain. I remember reading that she said I shivved [stabbed] her. I’m sick of talking about it, but if she wanted to, I would try to have her understand why we made the decisions we made.”