As the ousted FBI director prepares to address the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, in testimony expected to be watched by millions, James Comey takes center stage in the biggest political drama in decades.
Comey, 56, made headlines over the past several months for his handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton‘s use of a private email server, his role in the ongoing investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election, and his abrupt firing last month by President Donald Trump.
Comey’s recent role as one of the most powerful people in Washington is a far cry from his modest New Jersey upbringing in a family of civil servants.
Though Trump has publicly blasted Comey as a “showboat” and a “grandstander,” those who watched him grow up in the New Jersey hamlet of Allendale recently painted a very different portrait to NorthJersey.com of a man with “an honest character” and “the utmost integrity,” who regularly attended Mass at the local Catholic church with his parents, two younger brothers and older sister.
In an interview with CNN last month, Comey’s 86-year-old father, a Republican and a former borough councilman, described his son as a “straightforward and honest guy,” and claimed he was fired “because Jim tells the truth, [while] Trump runs around lying most of the day.”
J. Brien Comey also echoed what his son wrote in prepared testimony he’s expected to deliver to the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday.
“[Comey] didn’t give him 100% loyalty, and he demands that of people who work with him,” he told CNN. “[Comey] said he would give 100% honesty, but not loyalty.”
A Young Jim Comey Is Held Captive at Gunpoint
Comey’s path to civil service was shaped in part by a harrowing experience in his youth. When he was 16, he and his younger brother were held captive at gunpoint by a man known as “the Ramsey Rapist,” who at the time was suspected in multiple home invasions as well as the rapes of at least two teenage babysitters.
After breaking into the Comeys’ Allendale home, the gunman locked the boys in the bathroom, according to The Daily Beast. The brothers escaped and called the police, setting off a massive manhunt.
Comey has said the experience made him a better prosecutor and investigator because it gave him a “sense of what victims feel.”
“Even the notion that no one was physically harmed doesn’t mean no one was harmed, because I thought about that guy every night for five years,” Comey recalled in a 2014 interview with 60 Minutes.
Tragedy Strikes Comey’s Family
After graduating from high school, Comey attended the College of William & Mary in Virginia, where he studied chemistry and religion — and met his future wife, Patrice Failor.
The couple went on to have six children together: Kate, Maurene, Brien, Abby, Collin and Claire.
But in 1995, tragedy struck when their 9-day-old son, Collin, died from a Group B strep infection, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Comey’s wife, Patrice, later wrote a heart-wrenching op-ed for The Baltimore Sun about their son’s death, which she said could have been prevented with a screening for the infection during her pregnancy.
“My baby died a month ago today. He was nine days old. Collin Edward Comey was killed by a preventable infection,” she wrote. “I am sharing our tragedy so other mothers’ babies might be saved.”
James Comey with wife Patrice Failor in 2013
As the family weathered the tragedy together, Comey was already on a career trajectory that would eventually lead him to assume one of the most powerful posts in the world.
Comey Takes on the Clintons, Martha Stewart and the Infamous Gambino Crime Family
While working in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, Comey earned a reputation as a tough litigator when he prosecuted a high-profile case against crime boss John Gambino.
Deputy Special Counsel James Comey (left) and other members of the Special Senate Whitewater Committee staff gather in the hearing room on Capitol Hill on July 13, 1995
In 1996, he came up against a Clinton for the first time when he acted as deputy special counsel of the Senate Whitewater Committee investigating the real estate dealings of then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton.
James Comey (left), U.S. attorney for the FBI’s South District, discusses the charges being brought against Martha Stewart during a press conference at the FBI’s offices in New York City on June 4, 2003
After serving as assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia from 1996 to 2001, Comey’s career took a major step forward with his appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. During this time, Comey prosecuted another headline-making case, bringing charges against lifestyle guru Martha Stewart and seeing her convicted and imprisoned for insider trading.
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Comey’s next position was as U.S. Deputy Attorney General under President George W. Bush. Later, during a 2007 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey recounted the story of a dramatic standoff he had with members of the Bush administration in 2004.
Deputy Attorney General James Comey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2007
According to Comey, while then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was ill and incapacitated in a hospital intensive care unit, top White House lawyer Alberto Gonzales and Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card tried to get Ashcroft to sign off on an extension to the wiretapping program, which Justice Department attorneys had declared illegal.
With Comey, then Ashcroft’s top deputy, standing by to offer support, Ashcroft managed to express his refusal to Gonzales and Card.
Comey Becomes FBI Director Under President Obama
After a nearly decade-long stint in the private sector, Comey returned to civil service in 2013, when he was nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed Robert Mueller as FBI director.
President Barack Obama (right) announces FBI director nominee James Comey during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 21, 2013
In July 2013, the Senate almost unanimously confirmed Comey for a full, 10-year term.
FBI Director James Comey (third from left) participates in a ceremonial swearing-in at the FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 28, 2013
Comey Heads Up the Clinton Email Investigation
It would be two years before Comey found his name in the headlines again — and in the middle of the most contentious presidential election in history.
In Aug. 2015, in the thick of the 2016 campaign, the FBI confirmed it was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state.
One year later, Comey held a news conference announcing that the FBI would not be recommending charges against Clinton. But on a day of high drama in Washington, Comey also declared Clinton “extremely careless” in her handling of highly classified information, raising questions about her judgement that would continue to plague her campaign.
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Then, in a stunning turn of events that unfolded just 11 days before the presidential election, Comey announced that the FBI had discovered new emails on the laptop of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner (the estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin) that could be related to the Clinton investigation.
Two days before the election, Comey absolved Clinton again, saying in a letter to lawmakers that nothing new had been found in the emails. But according to the Clinton campaign — and several polls reflecting a major shift in undecided voters swinging toward Trump — the damage had already been done.
President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with FBI Director James Comey during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception at the White House on Jan. 22, 2017
Russia Probe and Firing
Two days after Trump was inaugurated as president in January, he and Comey interacted publicly for the first time during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception at the White House. In a bizarre and highly publicized moment, Trump singled out the then-FBI director and pulled him in for a hug. A friend of Comey’s would later say the FBI chief was “disgusted” by Trump’s embrace, which he allegedly saw as an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.
Real or affected, Trump’s admiration for Comey was short-lived. In March 2016, Comey announced that the FBI was investigating potential collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Two months later, Trump abruptly fired Comey, with the president’s staff saying he made the decision due to a Justice Department criticism of Comey’s performance.
Trump later contradicted his staff, claiming that it was his decision and deriding Comey as “a showboat” and “a grandstander.” He also claimed Comey told him on three occasions that he was not under investigation in the Russia case.
On the eve of his congressional hearing, Comey said in his prepared testimony that Trump had demanded his loyalty and urged him to drop an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“The President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,’ ” Comey said. “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed.”
Comey’s prepared statement, released Wednesday, set the tone for the testimony some are comparing to the Nixon Tapes that ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
On Thursday, the nation will be watching — and drinking — as the rest of this year’s biggest political drama plays out.