This piece has been adapted from "Donald Trump v. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President," by Michael S. Schmidt.
FBI Director Jim Comey's decision to re-open the Clinton email investigation 11 days before the 2016 election will likely go down in history as one of America's most dramatic October surprises. In the four years since that decision, it has become cemented in the minds of Clinton supporters and many political analysts as the turning point for her doomed campaign.
Much has been written and said about the consequences of Comey's decision — including by Comey himself. What Comey and his wife, Patrice, told me while I reported my book "Donald Trump v. The United States" is how Comey, tortured by deciding between bad and awful options, turned to her as he searched for answers.
Patrice was an ardent Clinton supporter and had long dreamt of seeing a woman elected president. She believed Trump was an existential threat and must never sit in the Oval Office. An argument between couples is normal. But in this argument, the Comeys — armed with knowledge that only a handful of Americans were privy to — had to weigh what felt like an incalculable decision.
And of course, the stakes felt impossibly high. And as it turns out, they were.
Oct. 27, 2016
THE COMEY HOME, McLEAN, VIRGINIA — Jim and Patrice Comey typically spoke either in the morning over coffee (half-and-half and no sugar for both), or after work over wine (pinot noir in colder weather, sauvignon blanc in the summer).
Their conversations typically centered on one of three topics: their kids, their jobs and their role as foster parents. With Patrice taking the lead, the Comeys specialized in caring for premature babies, who, because of the trauma of being separated from their birth mothers, constantly need to be held to prevent developmental issues. When the Comeys first welcomed a new baby from a local nursery or neonatal unit, Patrice would put her own life on pause and devote herself entirely to holding and caring for the child for weeks or months until the baby was placed with adoptive parents.
At night, the babies would sleep on her chest.
When Jim talked about work, he observed the bright line that separated the most sensitive parts of his job from the rest of his life.
Jim almost always focused on the softer sides of his job, not the ins and outs of high-profile investigations or navigating the complicated politics of the bureau, the Department of Justice, and the White House.
Over their coffees and wines, Jim had only brought up the Clinton email investigation in terms of his unusual July press conference in which announced that the FBI had not found enough evidence to bring a case against Clinton.
The response had surprised Patrice. She knew that Jim would be criticized. But it was the fervor and tenor of the criticism that stood out. He ignored the press and public opinion for a living. But Patrice read everything, from the damning op-ed by the former Justice Department official to all the comments sections, too, which is never a good idea. Maybe it was just the heat of an election year, she thought. Whatever it was, as the fall approached, the intensity had dissipated, and the focus shifted to the increasingly bizarre national election.
But, on a Thursday evening, just 12 days before the election, the issue that had created so much consternation in the summer came back. That evening, shortly after Jim got home from work, he and Patrice were alone in the kitchen when he told her that earlier that day he had been briefed by his deputies that agents investigating the disgraced former House member Anthony Weiner had made a startling discovery. Weiner was under a criminal investigation for sending explicit messages to a teenage girl over the internet, and on the devices he used to communicate with the girl, investigators had found an enormous number of Clinton's emails, including some that the bureau investigators thought they had not found during the original email investigation, which had been closed several months earlier. Complicating things even further, the investigators could not just look at the emails to ensure they contained no classified information. They would need to go to court to get a warrant.
There were less than two weeks to go before the presidential election, and now the Clinton email investigation that Comey had taken the rare step of personally and publicly closing in July was about to roar back to life.
"It's a s---show," he told Patrice. "They told me that there's thousands of emails."
It would fall to the director to make the final decision about what to do. Making it all the more complicated, he reminded Patrice that he would have to tell Congress. Over the summer he had pledged that if there were new developments in the email case, he would notify the leadership and pertinent committees.
This was a nightmare. And between Jim and Patrice, the looming dilemma would precipitate a kitchen conversation unlike any other in American history as they alone peered into what this could lead to for the country.
Of course Comey was talking to Patrice about it. And of course she was aghast — aghast that her husband and the country were in this position, and aghast that the renewal of the investigation just as the country was turning to decide what America would be for the next four years could hurt Clinton and help get Trump elected. As upset as she was getting, she knew that making a direct appeal to her husband about Clinton's political fate would be a losing argument, and so she shied away from mentioning Clinton's name as she pleaded with Jim.
"You can't do this this close to the election. You can't do this to a candidate," she said.
She peppered Jim with questions.
"What the hell are Hillary Clinton's emails doing on Anthony Weiner's laptop? How is Huma Abedin that incompetent with emails? Why is this coming out now?"
She asked why the FBI couldn't just go get the warrant without having to tell Congress.
"If we get the warrant, it will leak," he said.
If that occurred, he said, it would look as if the bureau had reopened the investigation and hidden it from Congress, after pledging transparency. That would compound the disaster.
"What is our relationship with Congress if we're going to lie to them and not say something?" he asked.
Patrice understood that logic. But she could not get past the fact that this could be severely damaging to Clinton and that her husband was again going to become a target — a target in a far bigger way than in the aftermath of the press conference. She believed Trump had proven throughout the campaign why he was an existential threat to the country. Everything needed to be done to ensure he never set foot in the White House. If the FBI decided it had to charge Clinton after the election, Patrice was fine with that — so long as Trump wasn't president.
"It's too close to the election. It's too close to the election," she said. "Don't you understand that?"
This irritated Comey. The timing had nothing to do with it. The FBI director was not supposed to factor partisan politics into his decision-making. If it had been any other time of year, he would have told Congress. He could not hide it from them now. Comey's dilemma was actually not without precedent.
At home, Jim laid out to Patrice how to him there was only one choice: disclosure. He would at least be transparent and honest and show that politics had not factored into the decision.
"What is the alternative?" he asked Patrice. He answered the question for himself. "The alternative is a f------ disaster," he said, explaining how the bureau would be accused of having covered up for a newly elected President Clinton.
Patrice believed that her husband wanted Attorney General Loretta Lynch to tell him not to send a letter to Congress, thereby relieving him of the burden of the decision. But she knew that was unlikely.
"But why do you have to keep stepping out front?" she asked.
The melding of her concerns as an American and a wife made for an extraordinary moment. The presidency was supposed to be in the bag for Clinton, she thought. The election, to Patrice, was supposed to be a formality, one where voters would denounce Trump and forever shun his brand of politics — "Trumpism" — from the civic life of America. Could her husband — someone she believed was a pillar of honesty and transparency in Washington — really be put in a position to alter the course of history like that?
"This is going to be awful for you," she said. "You just can't do it."
"Tricey, that's not helping me," he said. "That's not helping me."
If nothing else, talking to Patrice disabused Jim of any notion that this was going to be anything but awful. And as a small grace, that gave him a sense of liberation.
"I am screwed no matter what happens," he told Patrice. "If I disclose this, I'm screwed. If I don't disclose this, I'm screwed. And so it's freeing in a way."
What neither of them said was the significance the next day had in Jim's life. Thirty-nine years earlier, on Oct. 28, 1977, a fugitive rapist who had been scouting out the Comeys house saw that his parents had left the home one Friday evening, leaving Jim and his brother Pete by themselves. After his parents drove away, the rapist broke down the front door and held them at gunpoint. They managed to escape by crawling out of a bathroom window. Once outside, the rapist found them in the yard and held Pete again at gunpoint. A neighbor and a Siberian husky ran into the backyard, and Jim, his brother and the neighbor were able to escape back into the house where they locked the door.
What they failed to realize was that by ensconcing themselves inside they had left the neighbor's mother and wife outside. The rapist ended up running away but Jim lived with immense guilt for the rest of his life for leaving the women to fend for themselves.
In the hours after telling Patrice about reopening the Clinton investigation, Jim gave himself pep talks.
Look, you don't want to be anything else, he told himself. You're not going to go anywhere else, you have more money than you ever imagined, and you have a 10-year term — so what?
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The next morning, Comey sent a letter to select members of Congress notifying them of the situation; it immediately leaked, and the firestorm was just as Patrice expected — with Republicans reigniting their insistence that Clinton was a criminal all along and Democrats attacking Comey for abusing his power and inserting himself into a presidential election.
On Election Day, Jim would not vote. Long before the issues with Clinton arose, he had decided he would not vote as FBI director. It was important, he thought, not to take sides but rather to simply live with equanimity in the world that the voters chose.
Patrice, on the other hand, was excited to vote. She had waited decades to vote for a woman presidential candidate, and her eyes brimmed with tears as she selected Clinton.
She remembered a lifetime of conversations with other women about how they never thought they would see a woman president. A book club she had been part of had read Susan Faludi's "Backlash," published in 1991, about ways in which popular media narratives stunted the feminist movement. When her club met, Patrice remembered saying to the group that "every kind of man" would be president before a woman got elected.
She had voted for Clinton eight years earlier, during the 2008 primary, but Clinton failed to reach the general election. By 2016, another eight years after her prediction, it seemed as if she might finally be proved wrong. She couldn't wait for that to happen.
Patrice returned home nervous but excited for the results to come in. She kept a close eye on The New York Times online app containing a presidential forecasting needle that started the day predicting Clinton had an over 80 percent chance of winning. That evening, she watched the coverage with their youngest daughter. She texted their other children to see what they were thinking. Jim puttered about the house, watching little. He assumed that Clinton would win, and he found punditry and cable news off-putting. He had also been making a concerted effort for the months leading up to the election to stay as uninformed as possible about the presidential horse race.
After The Associated Press called Florida for Trump at 10:50 p.m., Jim went to bed, still thinking Clinton would win. At 2:30 a.m., when the AP called the race for Donald Trump, Patrice cried on the phone with her daughters, not giving voice to what she feared: that their father might be blamed for Trump's election.
Patrice finally went upstairs to their dark bedroom and woke up her husband to tell him the news. Jim sat right up.
"Oh, God," he said.
Copyright © 2020 by Michael S. Schmidt. Adapted from "Donald Trump v. the United States” by Michael S. Schmidt, published by Random House on Sept. 1, 2020. Printed with permission.