Apr 15, 2018, 10:47 PM ET

Comey opens up about the shocking way he found out he was fired by Trump

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He was standing in the middle of the Los Angeles F.B.I. field office on May 9, 2017, thanking employees and the building’s support staff for their hard work, when he saw the televisions on the wall flash “Comey Resigns.”

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“One of the many great things about the F.B.I. is we have some hilarious pranksters in that organization, and so I thought it was a scam by someone on my staff. So I turn to them and I said, ‘Someone put a lot of work into that.’ And then I continued talking,” Comey told ABC News’ chief anchor George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview.

What Comey soon came to realize was that it wasn’t a joke, and that his tenure as Federal Bureau of Investigation director had come to an unceremonious end after President Donald Trump abruptly fired him.

As the televisions in the bureau started to show the news on other networks, he saw some were displaying the words “Comey Fired.”

“The audience could see my face change,” Comey said.

“I said, ‘Look, I don't know whether that's true or not. I'm gonna go find out,” he recalled telling the staff. “‘But what I want to say to you won't change whether or not that's true.’

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

“And then I finished talking about the mission of the FBI, how everybody has to be part of it,” he told Stephanopoulos. “And I thanked them for their work, I shook all their hands, then I went into a room to find out have I been fired, because I did not expect to be fired.” Comey opened up about the moment he learned he was fired in the interview with Stephanopoulos ahead of the release of his book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership” which goes on sale on April 17.

The news of the firing took Comey on a roller coaster of emotions that ended with him drinking a California pinot noir out of a coffee cup and sitting in the plane’s cockpit to see the nation’s capital as he hit the end of his career in public service.

Comey told Stephanopoulos the first official confirmation of his firing that he received was a letter from the White House hand-delivered to the FBI headquarters in D.C. His assistant had to arrange to get the letter picked up, scanned and emailed to him in L.A., which he said “took probably a half hour or so.”

He said his reaction to the news was disbelief.

“That’s crazy,” he said of finding out he was fired. “How could that be?”

“They also, I think, attached to it a letter from the attorney general and a letter from the deputy attorney general, purporting to lay out the reasons I was fired. And so I think … I saw those actually [at] the same time, and my reaction was, ‘That makes no sense at all,’” he told Stephanopoulos.

In addition to receiving a confused call from his wife Patrice, who had heard that he was fired before hearing it from Comey directly, and a friend, Comey said he also got a call from then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, who now serves as Trump’s chief of staff.

Kelly “was very upset,” Comey said. “He was very emotional and said he had seen the news and that he intended to resign because he wouldn't work for people who would treat someone like me in such a dishonorable way and that he was gonna quit.”

Comey said he urged Kelly to remain in the administration.

PHOTO: John Kelly testifies at a House Appropriations Committee Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on The Department of Homeland Security Fiscal Year 18 Budget Request on Capitol Hill, May 24, 2017.Nicholad Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
John Kelly testifies at a House Appropriations Committee Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on "The Department of Homeland Security Fiscal Year 18 Budget Request" on Capitol Hill, May 24, 2017.

“Please don't do that, John,” Comey recalled telling Kelly. “And I knew him well and still… thought highly of him then, still think highly of him, and I said, ‘Please don't do that. This president needs people of character and principle around him, especially this president. Please don't do that.’ And I said, ‘We need you to stay and serve for the country.’”

“If he called you today saying he intended to quit, what would you tell him?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“I understand. I think you've sacrificed as much as you really can of yourself for the country. And no one would begrudge you leaving. You've done your absolute best. It's come at a cost to you, but that no one can blame you,” Comey said.

The White House referred ABC News to the Republican National Committee for comment from Kelly.

“What’s dishonorable is that James Comey lied about leaking information to the media, consistently contradicted himself in testimony, and made a series of bizarre decisions as FBI director. That’s why Republicans and Democrats alike have said he has no credibility,” RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens said in a statement to ABC News.

While news of the firing still hadn’t sunk in, there were logistical hurdles Comey had to deal with immediately, like, since he was no longer a federal employee, whether he could take the same plane from California back to Washington.

“I actually gave thought to renting a convertible and driving almost 3,000 miles, something I've never done. I've had friends drive across country, but I'm not single or crazy so I didn't do it,” Comey told Stephanopoulos.

Comey’s security personnel also nixed the cross-country trip. He said they “figured out that they had an obligation to protect me and so they would bring me back on the plane.”

Comey said that he indulged a bit on the plane, saying he “broke FBI rules” but adding that “I was no longer an employee so I wasn't breaking the rules.”

“I took a bottle of red wine out of my suitcase that I was bringing back from California -- a California pinot noir -- and I drank red wine from a paper coffee cup and just looked out at the lights of the country I love so much as we flew home,” Comey said.

PHOTO: ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos sits down with former FBI director James Comey for an exclusive interview that will air during a primetime 20/20 special on Sunday, April 15, 2018 on the ABC Television Network.Ralph Alwang/ABC News
ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos sits down with former FBI director James Comey for an exclusive interview that will air during a primetime "20/20" special on Sunday, April 15, 2018 on the ABC Television Network.

He also took one other indulgence on that flight home, and asked a favor of the pilots.

“As we got close to the airport in Washington, I asked the pilots could I sit up with them, 'cause I'd never done it. Been all over the world with these pilots and [always] sat in the passenger's seat. Hundreds of flights, I'd never sat up there and watched them do their work. So they put the headphones on me and I sat on a jump seat between the two pilots and watched them land along the Potomac [River],” Comey said. “And then we shook hands with tears in our eyes and then I left and [got] driven home.”

Comey said that he doesn’t remember being angry in the immediate wake of his firing.

“I remember just thinking, ‘This is a lie.’ The stuff about, you know, being fired because of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, that makes no sense at all. And then, of course, I quickly saw on the news that, you know, the White House saying that the FBI was in tatters and the workforce -- it was relieved that I was fired. More and more lies. And so I was worried about the organization, worried about the people,” Comey told Stephanopoulos.

“I was a bit numb at the time,” he said.

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  • Samuel Weir

    Sad that Trump presented himself as a master businessman to get elected. I don't think that any good businessman would say that this is the proper, mature, and professional way to let someone go.

  • MandalayBay328

    So the Weasel in Chief doesn't have the balls to fire someone face to face. He either does it over Twitter or through the media. Spineless swamp creature.

  • Sal Monela

    Comey is such a nice, professional, soft spoken, family man. Even if you don't agree with what he is saying, he is deserving of your respect.
    Contrast that with Trump the blowhard. The contrast is striking.
    With Comey, you could have a nice respectful conversation; you probably couldn't stand to be in the same room with Trump for more than 2 minutes.

  • Independent

    Trump is such a chicken he cannot even fire someone face to face unless its on T.V. and well scripted. What a dishonest draft dodger.

  • Louis Wlosinski

    Comey needs to be indicted, tried, jailed and have his book renamed "The Higher Royalty".

  • Patrick M. Barnett

    Explosive! More like a wet fart.

  • Some guy

    It really is amazing that the president of the U.S. would fire the head of the FBI in such a manner as this. I work for an engineering and architecture firm and no engineer or architect would ever be fired in such an unprofessional manner. As a supervisor, I would call them into my office and discuss their termination with them. It is really amazing to me that Trump would not meet with the head of the FBI and discuss with them that he was going to fire him. Firing the head of the FBI by just sending out a message on Twitter is unbelievably unprofessional.

  • OMA44

    I'm not buying Mr Comey's book, but I do intend to read it. I'm number 147 out of 457 "holds" at my local library. So I'm wondering how much lower this administration will sink before I get my turn at the book. Aren't we up to at least 3 scandals per week now? And the firings/resignations just keep coming.

  • FAS

    Comey the Clown said he thought his job was to protect the FBI and the DOJ after lynch’s tarmac meeting with slick Willy. That’s the thinking of the deep state. Face it, he thought HilLIARy was going to win and he was going to get a bigger job.

  • gymlock

    LOVE this interview... full of "maybe" "I don't really know" "who can say" "if (fill in the blank)" "it might be true, it might not" and more conjecture and ambiguities. And an 'interviewer' with a left wing agenda was the perfect choice to lead the interviewee, and lead he did.

  • Scott Mills

    Everyone has a opinion, Mr. Comey is entitled to his, the way the media has given him 24/7 coverage of what 'he thinks' about being canned, I thinking his book has gotten a whole lot of 'free advertisement' just like he knew it would. President Trump is doing exactly what the American people who voted for him wanted him to do, shake things up and fire 'everybody'. The lib media (ABC included) loves a Trump burning every chance they get, no matter what the subject. Problem is for ABC and the others is no one listens to the lib media who has half a brain. Hillary Clinton is a shape shifting chameleon lying just to 'tell everyone and anyone what they want to hear' just to get elected 'no matter what' and I for one am certainly glad she didn't win, President Trump on the other hand 'is what you see is what you get' and in my opinion is exactly why he got elected and most likely will be the reason he will win re-election as well, no matter 'what the lib media does or says' or who they give a soap box to stand on to try to stop him. I will shed no tears for Mr. Comey.

  • Traveler1

    Jim Comey is, like everyone else on this planet, human. Meaning he has his good and bad days. Days where he's very sure what he's doing and days when it almost as if he has to flip a coin.

    We live in very complicated times. On the Weiner laptop email issues, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. Sadly the vast majority of people, particularly those feeding at the political trough, aren't so cerebral. Very little in these complicated times is as simple do or don't.

    Americans need to wake up to the fact that our valued institutions are at risk. We have a president who lies constantly all in an attempt to boost his already supersized ego and add to his coffers.

    I've lived through many struggles: ending the Vietnam war, civil rights, women's rights, etc., etc. But this is the first time since I was a child in a major US city thinking Russia was about to launch missiles have I so feared for our nation.

  • PER

    Who cares. The country survived Obama. It'll survive Trump.

  • TexasVulcan

    I don't know whether Comey should have been fired or not. Certainly the President has that authority. I do know that the way it was done was completely classless.

  • Personal

    Both this and the firing of McCabe 3 days before he could resign with full benefits are dick moves made by a dick president who enjoys making people squirm and wants others to live in fear if they don’t lick his feet. He wants to be an evil dictator and he’s halfway there. Trump is and always was a disgusting man and he is shaming the people of our great nation.
    Vote Democrat, but don’t stop there. Our politicians should answer to us.

  • Sbjork

    Mr. Comey, I can tell you are a man of integrity, I can tell because I see you struggle with the questions around the choices you've made. I see you consider other choices may have been better. I don't agree with all your choices, but I completely understand how you came to them. I also don't think you unprofessionally attacked the president by mentioning details of his appearance (orange skin, long tie, etc) - you're showing us that you were paying attention to details - all details - which as someone in your position is exactly what I'd expect and appreciate you doing. It makes your post-meeting memos that much more credible. Thank you for your service, thank you for continuing in service by teaching our leadership. Best to you.

  • GorillaMyDreams

    Even with what I said below, Breitbart's coverage of the interview is laughable. Just a few paragraphs. I think they only wrote any article at all so they could have a comment section, where people are leaving gems like this:

    "Let's ask Comey about his connection to MS13 and Seth Rich...."

    "Commey led to America's downfall. He must be tried."

    "Hillary had people murdered"

    And many others I can't print here; they would be banned.

  • GorillaMyDreams

    I must say ABC is playing up this interview a bit much. It was important, no question. But all these different articles about it? It's self-promotion. Every news outlet does it, but there really doesn't need to be this many articles here about the interview. Even CBS didn't overdo the Stormy Daniels interview on their web site this much.

  • peteto1

    This is the same James Comey who perjured himself, under oath, while testifying to Congress, right?.....

  • doug harmon

    after watching the ABC interview I can say I have a lot more respect for Comey. I think the man, is in general, a decent fellow that got put into a tight situation. I believe the guy just wants his name cleared from having anything to do with Trump. it's clear to me the guy despises Trump because in the end Trump is a vile person and Comey is not. and for the record I voted for trump so don't start with me on being a trump basher. I'm just stating what most people have come to realize now after putting that liar in office.

  • JDC1

    This is an odd situation. I like Comey. I think he’s an intelligent man in an impossible situation. That being said, honesty shouldn’t have a price tag. Doing this interview to push a book is disingenuous. Especially having George Stephanopoulos host. I’d like to see ABC post the unedited video of the interview. The 40 minutes that aired was heavily edited within topics. There’s a lot more that was said. And the way the interview was hyped, and the way it was aired, leads people to believe that the book is about Trump. Comeys own description is that it’s about leadership, and covers the three presidents he worked under. I think some folks will be disappointed.

  • leatherneckga

    What utter and complete balderdash.

  • BannedSimplyForPosting230

    “There are lots of reasons why an election like this is not successful,” Mrs. Clinton said, according to a donor who relayed the remarks. But, she added, “our analysis is that Comey’s letter raising doubts that were groundless, baseless, proven to be, stopped our momentum.”

    So, why do liberals believe what he says now?

  • Your Worst Nightmare

    Comey says there is evidence of obstruction of justice by Trump.

    LORDY, I hope that's true.