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Could James Comey's book threaten credibility as chief prosecution witness?

James Comey's explosive book not only represents a new crisis for a reeling White House but also is raising questions about the former FBI director's credibility as a critical witness against President Trump.


When James Comey sat down with USA TODAY to talk about his new book 'A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,' he made explosive comments about President Trump. He also delved into the Russia investigation, the Clinton investigation and more. USA TODAY

This June 8, 2017, file photo shows former FBI director James Comey testifying before Senate Intelligence panel on Capitol Hill on June 8, 2017.(Photo: Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – When James Comey was fired by President Trump last year, the former FBI director quickly assumed the mantle of chief prosecution witness for Russia special counsel Robert Mueller.

His written accounts of several encounters with Trump while FBI director — including the president's requests for loyalty and for the FBI to drop its investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn — are at the heart of Mueller's investigation into whether Trump sought to obstruct the examination of Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election.

The witness is now an author.

His book, in which Comey compares Trump to the Mafia bosses he once prosecuted, not only represents a new crisis for the White House but also raises questions about the former director's credibility as a critical witness against the president.

"The book amounts to a new 300-page witness statement, and if it differs at all from what he provided the special counsel, you can be sure that there will be a challenge if this case moves to an impeachment or a trial," said Jack Sharman, a former special counsel in the Whitewater investigation involving President Clinton. "This will be, at least, a pain (for Mueller) to deal with."

Former FBI director James Comey told USA TODAY the president lacks the "external moral framework" required of his position. He also says he was struck by the president's apparent unwillingness to criticize Vladimir Putin, even in private. USA TODAY

The Republican National Committee launched an offensive against the book, challenging the former director's credibility with a feature on its website titled "Lyin' Comey." The site includes critical tweets from Trump and comments from lawmakers questioning Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server when she was secretary of State. 

Former FBI assistant director Ron Hosko said the book probably will open the door to criticism that Comey penned the dramatic account merely to enrich himself.

"You can see that coming," said Hosko, who worked for the former director and has supported him. "You can almost hear the defense lawyer saying, 'This witness has a motive to sell books.' "

Comey testifies during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on June 8, 2017.  Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images

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Comey is sworn in during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 8, 2017.  Andrew Harnik, AP

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James Comey arrives before testifying in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, 2017.  Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Network

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Comey walks at his home in McLean, Va., on May 10, 2017, a day after being fired by President Trump.  Sait Serkan Gurbuz, AP

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Comey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on May 3, 2017.  Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images

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Comey listens to Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak about organized gang violence at the Department of Justice on April 18, 2017, in Washington.  Mark Wilson, Getty Images

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Comey delivers the keynote remarks at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance Leadership Dinner on March 29, 2017 in Alexandria, Va.  Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

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Comey arrives to speak on national security challenges at the University of Texas on March 23, 2017, in Austin, Texas.  Drew Anthony Smith, Getty Images

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Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers testify during a House Intelligence Committee hearing concerning Russian meddling in the 2016 election on March 20, 2017.  Zach Gibson, Getty Images

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Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers arrive to speak during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian actions during the 2016 campaign on March 20, 2017, on Capitol Hill.  Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images

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Comey leaves a closed-door meeting with senators at the U.S. Capitol on March 15, 2017.  Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

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In an interview with USA TODAY, Comey characterized the book project as "an obligation to try to drive a healthy conversation" about leadership and ethics.

"I learned from my wife long ago that when something bad happens, you should try to make something good come from it," Comey said, referring to the loss of a young son to a preventable infection. "This is nowhere near that. ... I was fired from a job that I loved in a place that I loved working. And the good I hope to come out of it is for me to offer a vision to people, especially young people, about what ethical leadership is."

In the book, A Higher Loyalty:Truth Lies, and Leadership, he defended the timing of the book's publication in the midst of the  Russia inquiry and before the release of a Justice Department inspector general's examination into the FBI's handling of the Clinton email investigation, which Comey oversaw. 

Comey told USA TODAY he did not consult Mueller about the timing of the book's publication. 

"It is wrong to stand idly by, or worse, to stay silent when you know better, while a president brazenly seeks to undermine public confidence in law enforcement institutions that were established to keep our leaders in check," Comey wrote.

Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor, said that although there is less risk in limiting a witness's public statement about an ongoing case, Comey's story has been the subject of a full, public Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

"Unless there are glaring inconsistencies in his testimony and what he told the special counsel and in his book, I don't see a problem," Cotter said. "It appears to me that what I know about the book is that he is sharing his inner monologue about his interactions with the president that he already has testified about. He's not changing the facts."

Cotter said any argument related to a financial incentive could fall flat. "As far as I know, everybody does what they do for money. I thought the Republicans were in favor of capitalism.

"In a perfect world, you would put witnesses in a cryogenic chamber and only let them out when it's time to testify," Cotter said. "That's not the world we live in." 

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