Recollections of the former FBI director differ sharply with the assessment of President Trump, who fired him.
Hometowns speak to us in unique ways.
In the case of the recently fired FBI director, James Comey, the portrait that emerged in conversations in the streets and taverns of Allendale, the northern New Jersey hamlet where he grew up, conflicts starkly with the harsh assessment that President Trump offered after dismissing him.
Trump called Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander.” In Allendale, however, residents who knew Comey, 56 — including his father — described a man who always had a basic sense of right and wrong and regularly attended Mass at the local Catholic church with his parents, two younger brothers and an older sister.
“Anyone from Allendale that knows the family and grew up around him knows that he is a good person and has an honest character and has the utmost integrity, ” said Patty Corn, who runs an online women’s clothing business and was a classmate of Comey’s at Northern Highlands Regional High School. “That doesn’ t leave you.”
“There’s nothing phony about him, ” added Molly Kissel Patrick, a real estate agent who graduated from Northern Highlands several years after Comey. “He’s real.”
Comey’s father turned Trump’s harsh opinion of his son against him, calling the president’s credibility into question.
“I never was crazy about Trump, ” J. Brien Comey, 86, a Republican and a former borough councilman, said in an interview. “I’ m convinced that he’s nuts. I thought he belonged in an institution. He was crazy before he became president. Now he’s really crazy.”
In the coming months, as investigations mount in Washington over allegations that Trump’s presidential campaign may have colluded with Russia — and that Trump may have even tried to derail the FBI investigation that Comey was leading into those alleged Russian links — the conflicting portraits of Comey will likely be on full display.
Which portrait emerges as the most credible could become an important factor in resolving a political maelstrom that threatens to paralyze the president’s legislative agenda and perhaps upend his entire administration. Was Comey so inept that Trump had to fire him? Or was he a diligent lawman, just trying to do his job under intense pressure from a brazen president who had crossed an ethical line?
Comey first courted controversy last July — in the midst of a tense presidential campaign — when he took the unusual step of publicly announcing that he would not recommend that Hillary Clinton be charged for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Republicans fumed at Comey. Democrats, in turn, praised him. Then, in late October — this time with Republicans lauding him and Democrats lambasting him — Comey announced that the FBI was reopening the Clinton email investigation on the eve of the election.
Comey explained that he was trying to be transparent. Trump praised him for his courage and “guts, ” adding this cryptic piece of advice: “He’s got to hang tough, because there’s a lot of people want him to do the wrong thing.”
Comey’s announcement was widely viewed as contributing to Clinton’s narrow election defeat 11 days later. The Justice Department has since launched an internal investigation into whether Comey followed proper FBI procedures.
Now Comey is at the center of an even larger dispute — with Trump.
In firing Comey, Trump initially cited the FBI director’s handling of the Clinton email probe. Then, in an interview with NBC News two days later, the president appeared to modify his rationale — and indicated that Comey’s support of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia links was also a factor in the firing.
On Tuesday, the dispute widened yet again when The New York Times reported that Comey had drafted a memo after meeting with Trump in February in which he said the president had pressured him to drop an investigation of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, over possible collusion with Russia. Sources said Comey created similar written records of every meeting and phone conversation he had with Trump.
The leak of that memo and other reports of Trump appearing to pressure and demand loyalty from Comey raised questions that the president may have breached longstanding legal protocols and may even have tried to block an FBI investigation, allegations that Trump emphatically denies. On one occasion, after Trump telephoned him directly to ask about the status of the FBI investigation, Comey reportedly told the president that he should refer such questions to senior Justice Department officials.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department appointed a special counsel — Robert Mueller, Comey’s predecessor as FBI director — to lead an investigation that Trump labeled a “witch hunt.”
On Friday, The New York Times reported on a leaked White House memo describing an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials a day after Comey’s firing in which the president referred to the former FBI director as “crazy” and “a real nut job.”
“I faced great pressure because of Russia, ” the White House memo quotes Trump as saying. “That’s taken off.”
Back in Allendale, normally a Republican bastion, the election turned out to be something of an aberration; Clinton beat Trump by just three votes — 1,759 to 1,756. Election officials say at least one write-in vote was cast for an undeclared, yet popular candidate: James Comey.
Many borough residents believe Comey has been harshly treated — and largely misunderstood.
“There’s nobody in Washington that I respect more for his integrity, ” said former Mayor Vincent Barra, a Republican. “I think it’s unfortunate that he got caught in this whirlwind of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.”
That James Comey was fired was painful enough. But what many in Allendale find even more troubling is that their favorite son’s character, credibility and judgment as a law enforcement official have been called into question.
Comey’s grandfather, William, rose from a beat cop to become commissioner of the Yonkers Police Department. Before taking the job as FBI director in 2013, Comey was widely respected as a federal prosecutor in New York City who led investigations of organized crime, terrorism and bank fraud. Later, in Washington as a high ranking official in the Justice Department, Comey drew praise from civil libertarians for opposing efforts by President George W. Bush to expand domestic surveillance and allow so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques, ” such as waterboarding of suspected terrorists.
Comey has not commented publicly since his firing on May 12. But his hometown is hardly reticent.
“Every decision Jim has ever made is with a moral compass, ” said Chris Kunisch, whose family has run the Allendale Bar and Grill, one of the borough’s prime watering holes, for three generations. “Jim would never do anything against that compass.”
That Allendale would find itself associated with a controversy of any sort, even tangentially, is unusual. The borough, which covers only 3 square miles and is home to about 6,500 people, was once considered so quiet that Babe Ruth regularly sought refuge in a hotel there to get away from the frantic pace of New York City.
The main thoroughfare, Allendale Avenue, is bookended by symbols of stability — a church at one end, a train station at the other. The borough’s winding streets are lined with Victorian homes, many with inviting porches that look out on tall maples and oaks that cast deep and calming pools of shade on lush lawns.
If there is a unifying factor now among residents, it’s their belief that Trump treated their favorite son unfairly.
“Watching what he is going through turns my stomach, ” said Judy Bruinooge, who lives around the corner from the single-story home where Comey grew up.
Like many others in town, Bruinooge said the rest of the nation does not understand James Brien Comey Jr. Former friends — Democrats and Republicans alike — depict him as a thoughtful, quiet man who goes out of his way to listen and does not trumpet his status as a respected federal prosecutor and FBI director.
Bruinooge adds one more character trait: an ability — perhaps unexpected, given Comey’s strait-laced public persona — to make people laugh in tense times.
Two months ago, Bruinooge’s doorbell rang unexpectedly. It was Comey, who was in town to visit his father and was immersed in the early stages of his conflict with Trump that led to his eventual firing.
“I’ m collecting for The Record, ” Comey announced — a reference to his days when he delivered the paper to Bruinooge’s door each day.
“He gave me a big hug, ” Bruinooge said.
In his hometown, Comey was never seen as the sort of person who would seek attention for himself — even though, at 6-foot-8, he was hard to miss. He was in the news only once — in October 1977, when the so-called “Ramsey rapist” broke into the family’s home, forcing Jim, then 15, and brother Peter, 13, to hide in a bathroom.
Even in later years, after Comey had built a reputation for prosecuting mob and anti-terror cases, he rarely talked about his own brief brush with a notorious criminal who had much of Bergen County on edge – and was never caught.
Comey’s father, a widower who still lives in the home on a cul-de-sac near the center of town, said that his son did not even call to say Trump had fired him from his FBI post.
“He and I have an unwritten secret agreement that I don’ t talk about his job, ” said J. Brien Comey Sr., who retired as a vice president of the Curtiss-Wright Corp. “It’s just a father-son relationship. We never talk about what he does. I read it in the papers.”
But the elder Comey, a Republican who served several terms on the Allendale council in the 1990s, was hardly shy about what he thinks of Trump, especially in light of how the president has treated his son. And while Comey voted a straight GOP line in last November’s election, he did not cast a vote for any presidential candidate.
“I just couldn’ t vote for Trump, ” he said.
As for James Comey Jr., more than a few Allendale residents said they would like to see him run for public office.
“We haven’ t seen the last of Jim Comey, ” Chris Kunisch said as he finished serving the lunch crowd at the Allendale Bar and Grill on Thursday. “Who’s not to say he could be president someday? I think he’s going to emerge out of this and be whatever he wants to be.”
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