“You’ve Got to Tell the Truth, Whatever It Is”

Lanny Davis—defender of the Clintons, Penn State, and various dictators—on the advice he gave to Steve Bannon.

Lanny Davis attends the Newsweek and The Daily Beast 2012 Hero Summit on Nov. 14, 2012, in Washington.
Lanny Davis attends the Newsweek and The Daily Beast 2012 Hero Summit on Nov. 14, 2012, in Washington.
Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

Over the past several decades, the Clinton family has had no more loyal friend than Lanny J.
Davis. A Washington lawyer and lobbyist, Davis once served as special counsel to Bill Clinton, and became well-known for defending him on television; meanwhile, he once wrote to Hillary Clinton that “The honest to goodness truth is … aside from Carolyn, my four children, and my immediate family, I consider you to be the best friend and the best person I have met in my long life.” To say that Davis is fanatically committed to all things Clinton would probably be considered a compliment by the man himself.

Davis has been known to wade into even murkier waters. He was on the payroll of the former president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, who tried to steal an election that he had already delayed to keep himself in power. (Thousands died in the ensuing conflict.) He also worked for the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, who has committed major human rights violations for almost four decades. Other Davis clients have included Penn State during the Sandusky scandal, Harvey Weinstein, and for-profit colleges. More recently, he has given unpaid advice to Steve Bannon.

Davis has now written a new book, The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency, and agreed to speak with me by phone. (I had previously written harsh critiques of Davis when I was at the New Republic; he wrote into the magazine and repeatedly complained to my editor.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what he told Steve Bannon about Robert Mueller, why he worked for dictators, and whether the media is unfair to him.

Isaac Chotiner: What argument does your book make about Comey and the election?

Lanny Davis: I started out with the fact I discovered in my grief, after two months of research, that on Oct. 28, 2016 [the day of the Comey letter], it was indisputable that Hillary Clinton was going to be president of the United States by a large margin, larger than Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney. She is up by 5.9 percent by every aggregator that is respected in the polling business. She is substantially ahead in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. She is ahead in Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona. She probably has a chance of winning Georgia. The electoral map is 322 electoral votes on Oct. 28, in the morning. I know that as certainly I know 2+2 is 4.

When Trump fired Comey, he used the rationale that Comey had messed up the Clinton email case. What was your first response when Comey was fired, and what do you think about it now?

I would love to tell you off the record what my first response was but I hate to do off the record. Let me see if I can clean it up and put it on the record. When Trump fired Comey because he messed up on the Hillary Clinton emails investigation, and I read the Rod Rosenstein memo, I thought to myself, “I just lost my book. Trump got it right; Rosenstein nailed it.” There were literally sentences in the chapter I was writing about the Comey decision to send the Oct. 28 letter, which violated every Justice Department policy violating practices going back 50 years.

When Trump fires Rosenstein, he can appoint you.

I almost changed a chapter to “Rod Rosenstein Nailed It.” But then two days later Donald Trump returned to his true self and had a rare moment of truth-telling, telling Lester Holt that it wasn’t about Hillary Clinton’s emails, it was about the Russia investigation.

Robert Mueller is now investigating Trump, which has some parallels to when Ken Starr was investigating Bill Clinton, and you were a defender of Clinton during that time. The writer Joshua Green said that he told you Steve Bannon modeled his shop after yours and had admiration for the way you dealt with the investigation, and that the two of you ended up talking. What advice did you give Bannon?

First, that’s all true. It was Josh Green who—are you Jewish? I don’t know if you are or not, but there is an expression called a yenta, which is a matchmaker. It was Josh Green who connected me or introduced me to Steve Bannon. Green called me and said there is someone in the White House using you as a noun: “We need to have a Lanny Davis here.” I said, “That is quite a compliment. Would you mind telling me who?” So he said, “Let me ask his permission.” He called me back and said, “Believe it or not, it’s Steve Bannon.” I said I was very curious, not just to thank him for using me as a noun but I’d like to talk to the guy. He is probably very interesting. So since then we have exchanged kind of funny messages with each other. What he was saying to me when I talked to him was, “Our politics are completely different.” I said, “To say the least. That’s an understatement, Steve.”

Yeah, Steve Bannon is not Jewish.

He’s not a mensch, but he knew what the word mensch meant, because he used that word. What he said to me, and what the Trump White House is missing, is that if you bullshit the media, you will not get away with it. But what Bannon was saying to me was “we don’t have anyone here who follows your principles, which is to volunteer and get it out quickly. People around here have the opposite instinct.” I said “thank you, you are using me as a noun, but please don’t say anything nice about me.” [Laughs.]

Did you feel weird about giving advice to Steve Bannon and maybe helping undermine the Mueller investigation?

Actually, the opposite. I said, “You’ve got to tell the truth, whatever it is. It will catch up to Trump sooner or later.” It always catches up. Maybe he thinks the base doesn’t care. He’s wrong. Richard Nixon had a fantastic base and he lost his base by lying and lying and lying, and it became criminal. I told Bannon, “You cannot avoid Mueller. He is either guilty or he is not. You are just deferring your pain.” So just admit it and don’t try to spin it as Trump did on Air Force One. He’s following the Richard Nixon roadmap. But anyway, that’s not what my book is about.

Do you think Trump has authoritarian tendencies?

No doubt. It is probably the second-most worrisome aspect of Trump that I fear, just as a father and as an American. He reveres the authoritarians who are currently allied in the world.

The first is what he has done with North Korea.

I ask because you have gotten into hot water for representing people with authoritarian tendencies, from the former leader of the Ivory Coast, to the leader of Equatorial Guinea, both of whom took up your services for substantial sums of money, and both of whom are not democrats and violators of human rights. Has Trump’s rise made you think differently about those commissions?

So, you are unfortunately opening up the subject that I am best at, which is you’ve got to tell the truth and get the facts out no matter how many times misinformation is repeated on the internet. For what you just said, if you Googled you would find 1 million hits or something in that neighborhood. A million times a zero is just a zero. So what you just said is all false or misleading, because you didn’t tell the rest of the story. But you are absolutely in good company because if you Googled “Lanny Davis Equatorial Guinea” you wouldn’t see the name Archbishop Desmond Tutu. So when I represented Equatorial Guinea, it was to make a bad dictatorial government, terrible on human rights, murdering and abusing people, to make them into a humane government. I went to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, not exactly a protector of authoritarian dictators, and he supported what I was trying to do in Equatorial Guinea, and when I didn’t see any hope of accomplishing it, I quit.

I read a quote from that time where you said, regarding Teodoro Obiang and the political prisoners in his country, “If there are political prisoners and no substantive charges against them, they will be freed.”

Well, I said many things about what I thought would happen, including writing a speech for him in Cape Town in front of CNN, Time magazine, and Fortune at a media forum where he committed to human rights.


That’s where Archbishop Tutu wrote me a letter.

Did Obiang follow through?

It’s on my internet site. Since I do what I do to correct people in your business, I published the letter thanking me for the work I did. But that never made it into a Glenn Greenwald [piece] on Slate, which was one of the first.

I think that’s Salon.

Well, I think there were other Slate articles.

And on the Ivory Coast, by the way, I worked for them for 10 days, working with the White House and the State Department to get that thug out of the Ivory Coast, and ultimately I wrote a chapter in a book telling a story of how people slurred me.

He’s in the Hague now, correct?

Babo? Whatever his name is. I have no idea. All I know is that the White House and the State Department confirmed my role after I quit. They had asked me, because I was hired by the embassy, to try to get him out of the Ivory Coast, to Boston University to be a professor. I was a backchannel, and it’s an awful story because I had a horrible New York Times story written about me defending this thug. And the State Department and the White House wouldn’t let me defend myself. So I wrote a chapter in my book, Crisis Tales, and the chapter of the book was “A Fool For A Client.”

Laurent Gbagbo tried to steal an election. But in a Justice Department filing, you said that you would “present the facts and the law as to why there is substantial documentary evidence that President Laurent Gbagbo is the duly elected president as a result of the Nov. 28 elections.” Is that one of the things you said during your “10 days?”

Yes, that is one of the things the State Department wrote for me to say so we could buy negotiating leverage and get him the hell out of there so he wouldn’t kill people.

Who paid you $100,000 per month?

The embassy.

Which embassy?

The Ivory Coast embassy hired me.


Listen, I will give you a shortcut if you want to do the usual thing of associating me with dictators. Read my chapter in Crisis Tales.

You’ve said that aside from your family, Hillary Clinton is “my best friend and the best person I have met in my long life.” Do you ever look back on the stories about Bill Clinton and women differently than when you were defending him?

The answer is of course, and I said it at the time. My best friend was Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton was doing what Bill Clinton was doing, and hurting a lot of people by what he was doing. The harshest critic of his personal and private behavior was Bill Clinton. He made a public apology to the American people, and had to make a confession on national television that most husbands or wives wouldn’t want to do in private to their spouse.

There were other accusations, too.

The accusations from other women have as yet been untested and unproven. Nowadays there is a presumption of truth when any woman makes an accusation, but some of those accusations have been looked into and investigated, for example by Ken Starr, and found to be not meritorious.