Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Comey Rule

Showtime’s two-part miniseries sticks to the facts. Mostly.

Donald Trump, and Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump in The Comey Rule, with the Fact Versus Fiction logo
Donald Trump, and Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump in The Comey Rule. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Anna Moneymaker–Pool/Getty Images and Showtime.

The Comey Rule, writer-director Billy Ray’s two-part Showtime adaptation of James Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, is an exposition-packed retelling of extremely recent history in the style of Jay Roach and Danny Strong’s HBO movies Recount and Game Change. In this case, the history in question is Comey’s tenure at the FBI: his handling of the investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

Here’s what’s fact and what was invented for the series, as far as we can tell after consulting Comey’s book, Peter Strzok’s book, the inspector general report on the Clinton investigation, the Mueller report, contemporary news accounts, and the president’s Twitter feed. Since many of the incidents depicted in The Comey Rule are highly disputed by Donald Trump and his followers, we’ve offered Trump the opportunity to respond by tweet to the charges made on the show.

James Comey’s Encounter With the “Ramsey Rapist”

James Comey, and Jeff Daniels as James Comey in The Comey Rule.
James Comey, and Jeff Daniels as James Comey in The Comey Rule. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Showtime.

The Facts: Chronologically speaking, the earliest event in both A Higher Loyalty and The Comey Rule is sort of an origin story. In 1977, when he was 16, Comey and his younger brother were held captive at gunpoint by an alleged serial rapist who’d been preying on their New Jersey neighborhood. He locked the Comey brothers in a bathroom and captured them again after they snuck out a window, but he eventually fled into the woods after they escaped a second time. The Comey Rule has Comey telling a simplified version of the story to Obama during an Oval Office meeting in May 2013, when the president was deciding whether to nominate Comey to serve as director of the FBI. (Spoiler: He got the job.) Comey recounts the incident in A Higher Loyalty, but he does not say that he mentioned it to Obama. A contemporary account can be found in the Oct. 30, 1977 Hackensack Record.

A Response From the President:

The Comey Family

Patrice Comey, and Jennifer Ehle as Patrice Comey in The Comey Rule.
Patrice Comey, and Jennifer Ehle as Patrice Comey in The Comey Rule. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images and Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS Television Studios/Showtime.

James Comey’s wife, Patrice (Jennifer Ehle), and three of the couple’s children appear in the miniseries. Their opinions about Comey’s actions line up with A Higher Loyalty, as does the preelection scene in which someone approaches Comey and his family at a restaurant to express their displeasure at Comey’s handling of Operation Midyear Exam. The scenes of Comey explaining his actions to his wife and daughters are invented—if Patrice Comey tearfully begged her husband to consider the effect he might be having on the election, Comey didn’t write about it—but the women in Comey’s family did support Hillary Clinton, and Patrice has spoken publicly about being devastated by the election results. On screen, The Comey Rule’s Comey daughters include Maurene (Emmanuelle Nadeau), Claire (Isabella Pisacane), and Abby (Violet Brinson), but Kate and son Brien Comey don’t appear. A Higher Loyalty also includes a moving account of the death of the couple’s other son, Collin Comey, but this isn’t mentioned in the miniseries.

A Response From the President:

Barack Obama (Kingsley Ben-Adir)

Barack Obama, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Obama in The Comey Rule.
Barack Obama, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Obama in The Comey Rule. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jim Watson/Getty Images and Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS Television Studios/Showtime.

The Facts: The Comey Rule portrays Comey’s relationship with President Barack Obama exactly the way Comey does in his book: deliberately distant. The show depicts one of two Oval Office meetings Comey had with the president while being considered for the position of FBI director, and, except for that exposition dump about the Ramsey Rapist, closely follows Comey’s account of that meeting. In memoir and miniseries alike, Obama is mostly used as a counterpoint to Trump and his unethical attempts to manipulate the FBI for his own benefit.

A Response From the President:

The Hillary Clinton Email Investigation

Andrew McCabe, and Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe in The Comey Rule.
Andrew McCabe, and Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe in The Comey Rule. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Showtime.

The Facts: The first episode of The Comey Rule revolves around two investigations the FBI conducted in the closing days of the 2016 election, one of which was Operation Midyear Exam, the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified material while serving as secretary of state. Comey’s account of this investigation in A Higher Loyalty focuses on the scenes where he was directly involved: the July 2015 meeting in which FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano informed Comey that the bureau had received a referral from the Inspector General’s Office about Clinton’s emails and would have to open an investigation, a September 2015 meeting in which Comey updated Attorney General Loretta Lynch about the case’s progress during which he says she asked him to refer to it as a “matter” rather than an “investigation” (a claim Lynch disputes), and the disastrous public relations strategy that saw Comey first announce that the investigation was finished, then announce that the investigation was back on, then announce it was finished all over again.

The Comey Rule follows Comey’s memoir very closely when describing the high-level decision-making that went into the investigation, from the moment Giuliano told Comey he was “screwed” to the aftermath of election night and the backlash Comey faced from people who believed he’d thrown the election to Trump. But since Comey was not involved in the day-to-day grind of Operation Midyear Exam, the show also pulls from other sources to re-create the dynamics of the investigation, primarily the 2018 inspector general report, which has a stupefyingly detailed chronology.

Sally Yates, and Holly Hunter as Sally Yates in The Comey Rule.
Holly Hunter’s Sally Yates doesn’t have as big a role in the miniseries as the trailer might suggest, but Yates is depicted fairly accurately Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS Television Studios/Showtime.

Two departures from the record are worth noting. First, Lisa Page, special counsel to then–FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (Michael Kelly), was not involved in the early days of Operation Midyear Review; she came on board in February of 2016. (The IG report notes that senior FBI officials disliked Page for ignoring the chain of command, while McCabe valued her ability to “spot problems,” all of which is dramatized in The Comey Rule in a conversation between McCabe and Giuliano.) Second, the prosecutor played by Jonathan Potts, portrayed in The Comey Rule as a former employee of Clinton attorney David Kendall with a habit of crying in his office when more powerful lawyers yell at him, is a composite. The IG report doesn’t name the prosecutors assigned to the investigation, although it does note that the FBI was frustrated both by the time it took to assign prosecutors and the tactics Kendall used in response to the investigation. It’s also clear that Page and the prosecutors didn’t get along: The IG report includes an excerpt from a prosecutor complaining about her offering “opinions from the cheap seats.”

A Response From the President:

Lisa Page and Peter Strzok (Oona Chaplin and Steven Pasquale)

The Facts: Lisa Page and Peter Strzok’s extramarital affair has been exhaustively hashed over in a variety of official reports, congressional hearings, and dubiously sourced Facebook posts, but given that The Comey Rule gives the duo several hotel room scenes, it seems worth noting that Comey doesn’t talk about them in his memoir. In fact, he alludes to Page only once, as a “junior lawyer” on the Midyear Exam team whose frankness he valued despite her habit of annoying her colleagues with aggressive interruptions.

A Response From the President:

The Pulse Nightclub Shooting

The Facts: In the show’s single most questionable departure from the historical record, The Comey Rule has a scene of Comey visiting the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, after the 2016 mass shooting, looking sadly over a floor strewn with bodies and asking to gather the first responders so he could thank them. Comey did visit Orlando to thank first responders, but he did so days later, not in the immediate aftermath.

A Response From the President:

Trump and Russia

Robert Mueller, and Peter Coyote as Robert Mueller in The Comey Rule.
Robert Mueller, and Peter Coyote as Robert Mueller in The Comey Rule. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images and Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS Television Studios/Showtime.

The Facts: As with Hillary Clinton’s emails, The Comey Rule closely follows A Higher Loyalty’s narrative of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russians. It’s possible that, in real life, Mike Flynn came off a little better than he does on the show during his meeting with Vladimir Putin or his phone call with Sergey Kislyak or his FBI interview about those conversations, or that George Papadopoulos seemed less obviously sleazy while drunkenly bragging that Russia had offered the campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton. But the facts shown on screen line up with the details in both Comey’s memoir and the Mueller report, so why give anyone the benefit of the doubt? The show traces the Russia investigation from its early days to the appointment of a special prosecutor, and its portrait of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia lines up with what we know.

A Response From the President:

Trump and Comey (Brendan Gleeson and Jeff Daniels)

The Facts: Night two of The Comey Rule focuses on Comey’s relationship with the Trump administration in the months before Trump fired him. By now, you will not be surprised to hear that the show closely follows Comey’s memoir in portraying these events. Comey’s big scenes with Trump are the meeting at which the FBI briefed the campaign on the Russian efforts to elect Trump, the bizarre dinner Comey and Trump shared at the White House, and the unscheduled meeting Trump held with Comey in the Oval Office in which he tried to persuade Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. The show re-creates these scenes more or less beat for beat from Comey’s account, including the private briefing Comey gave Trump about the Steele dossier and the pee tape.

The primary difference between fact and fiction here is that Comey often summarizes Trump’s dialogue, writing, for instance, that he “began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorized their allegations.” On screen, we have to see Brendan Gleeson’s Trump actually run through several of these accusations, which is way more repulsive. (To add to the repulsion, Comey specifically writes that he didn’t tell Trump about the pee tape at his Trump Tower meeting, but in The Comey Rule, he does.) Finally, although Comey doesn’t confirm this one way or another, it seems extremely unlikely that Trump ended a meeting in 2016 by saying, “My behavior has been unimpeachable,” with a weird emphasis on the last word, as though future events would make that moment look weirdly prophetic.

A Response From the President:

Comey’s Firing

The Facts: This incident was exactly as shoddy and petty as it comes off in the miniseries, complete with Trump getting mad that the FBI let Comey fly home on an official plane instead of stranding him in Florida.

A Response From the President:

Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy)

Rod Rosenstein, and Scoot McNairy as Rod Rosenstein in The Comey Rule.
Rod Rosenstein, and Scoot McNairy as Rod Rosenstein in The Comey Rule. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Greg Nash—Pool/Getty Images and Showtime.

The Facts: Although it is based on James Comey’s memoir, The Comey Rule uses Rod Rosenstein as a pseudo-narrator, which gives the filmmakers a perspective from which to criticize Comey for his moralizing. As seen in the miniseries, Rosenstein wrote a memo about Comey’s performance that led to his firing, but Rosenstein was horrified and embarrassed by the way Trump used the memo, and he had an emotional meeting with Andrew McCabe about it in which he said he felt the administration had used him. The Comey Rule has Rosenstein offer to wear a wire and record Trump at that same meeting, an allegation Rosenstein has denied. Scoot McNairy’s Rosenstein comes across as perhaps a little more sympathetic than some might see the real man as being, but the facts are more or less accurate.

Donald Trump’s Election

The Facts: As seen in The Comey Rule, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on Nov. 8, 2016, an office he holds to this day.

A Response From the President: