PBK transforms for CNN town hall with Anderson Cooper, James Comey ’82

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CNN hosted a town hall April 25 with former FBI Director James Comey '82. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, three hours before the CNN Town Hall would go live on national television, students from the College of William and Mary were already lined up in front of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall. As the doors opened, students sprinted toward the front row in the hopes of getting as close to former FBI Director James Comey ’82 and host Anderson Cooper as possible.

The stage of Phi Beta Kappa Hall was practically unrecognizable. Blue and red CNN banners loomed over renovated cobalt flooring. On a red platform at the center of the stage there were two high chairs, where Cooper spent upwards of an hour facilitating a discussion with Comey about topics including the release of his memos, the meaning of ethical leadership and his favorite class as an undergraduate: Death.

Comey has been no stranger to the media as of late. He is currently promoting his new book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership” and in the past month alone has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, 20/20 and The View. The town hall isn’t his first time with CNN, either, as he sat down April 19 to field questions from CNN anchor and The Lead host Jake Tapper.

CNN cameras set up as early as 6 a.m. in front of the Sir Christopher Wren Building, where green and gold banners hung from the windows for the occasion. Over 200 employees from the media company camped out around campus as they prepared for the event as early as Monday morning. Security detail was also heightened as the College readied itself for Comey’s arrival.

To be able to attend the event, students, faculty and the general public were required to enter into a ticket lottery. While it was impossible to admit the over 2,800 students, faculty and staff who entered the lottery, Student Assembly President Brendan Boylan ’19 said the College tried to make room for as many people as possible.

“I mean, I think we were looking at pretty much a best-case scenario,” Boylan said. “We pretty much maximized how many students were able to attend the town hall. It ended up being close to, I want to say, 650 seats filled, and the vast majority of them were students. So, I think we were really pleased about that in general, logistically speaking.”

For students who weren’t selected through the lottery, SA and Alma Mater Productions joined forces with CNN to host The Point! Trivia Night with CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large Chris Cillizza in the Sadler Center Chesapeake Room at 6 p.m., where a viewing party for the town hall followed.

Before the town hall went live at 8 p.m., Boylan welcomed the crowd and noted the historical significance of the venue, which hosted the final presidential candidate debate in the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

Zachary Smith M.S. ’17 kicked off the town hall with the first question, asking Comey whether he believed U.S. President Donald Trump was fit to serve in the office of the presidency.

“I don’t believe he is morally fit to be president of the United States,” Comey said. “I never thought I would say that about a president.”

“I don’t believe he is morally fit to be president of the United States,” Comey said. “I never thought I would say that about a president.”

Answers to political questions were interspersed with stories from Comey’s formative years. The former FBI director reflected on his experiences with bullying, and said that he learned an important lesson on its consequences during his time at the College. During his time as a freshman living in the now-closed Tyler Annex, he recalled an instance where his own moral weakness emerged.

“There was a boy that the group found irritating and I participated in picking on him,” Comey said. “Some things I did, some things I watched, some things I just laughed at, and 40 years later, I’m ashamed of myself.”

His regrets, however, were not limited to his collegiate years.

“I made a bunch of poor personnel decisions as FBI director,” Comey said. “I did something like I carelessly created a rift with Poland by speaking about them in a speech that wasn’t about Poland. I did a bunch of other knucklehead things. No huge thing, but probably — I could tick off about 30 sitting here of those kinds of things.”

Questions from the students did not shy away from seedier topics. Julia Wicks ’19 asked Comey what would happen if the apocryphal “pee” tapes involving Trump and Russian sex workers were to be released to the public. Comey changed the subject.

Aria Austin ’21 framed her question around the recent student-led protests to reform gun policy and whether Comey believed that these grassroots student movements could enact real change. Comey answered that while he is uncertain about whether gun reforms laws specifically will pass in response to student activism, he said he believes the resistance efforts he has seen are key to the United States surviving the “forest fire” of the Trump presidency.

“I see that in the Parkland kids,” Comey said. “I see that in the William and Mary kids. I see this in my own kids standing up and speaking. And I hope any will inspire all of us and maybe shame the adults in this nation to get involved and not become numb to things that are critical to the values of this country. … Don’t withdraw. We need your voices. We need your minds, your hearts. We need your passion. You are what is going to grow in the wake of this forest fire.”

The controversy that initially thrust Comey into the national limelight was his decision to announce in October 2016 that the FBI had reopened the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server, and Cooper pressed him on that issue at the town hall. Comey defended his choice as the lesser of two evils.

“It was a nightmare of a decision, but we chose to speak because it was bad, catastrophic was the second option,” Comey said. “Concealing would be catastrophic to the organizations of justice, so that’s why we chose it.”

Other questions focused on Comey’s experience working with the Trump administration. Sen. Abhi Chadha ’20 asked Comey about the administration’s relationship to established government institutions, such as the FBI, during the time he served as director.

“They view the institutions of justice with contempt, as just another piece on the board,” Comey said. “When that piece is doing something that the leadership doesn’t like, it should be knocked over and dirtied up.”

Despite his increased public prominence and outspoken criticism of Trump and the contemporary leadership of the Republican Party, Comey said he has no intention of running for political office.

“I will not,” Comey said. “… That’s not who I am. But you don’t have to run for office to be part of affecting change in this country,”

Students respond

Some students were pleased with how Comey handled the questions from the students and faculty of his alma mater, while others were more critical of the former FBI director’s responses.

“I thought he was highly relevant with a lot of what he had to say,” outgoing SA Vice President Annelise Yackow ’18 said. “… Overall I thought it was an amazing discussion. He did plug his book a lot, but it was really, really great.”

Another student, Sen. Jessica Seidenberg ’19 said that she thought he did not directly answer all of the questions.

“I did feel like he scurried around a lot of the issues that we wanted him to talk about in terms of, I mean he did talk about how he felt about the election, but I think he very frequently painted himself in a positive light,” Seidenberg said. “That I think was over the top, a little bit.”

Boylan commended student and faculty participants for their insightful questions, and encouraged those in attendance to read Comey’s book.

“I think overall the town hall, the questions were incredibly pointed, incredibly intelligent, not that we would expect anything else coming from William and Mary,” Boylan said. “And, you know, I think that we got a lot of interesting takes from [James] Comey, and I genuinely hope everyone there will read his book.”

CNN’s town hall does not mark the end of Comey’s appearances at the College: he is scheduled to teach a class on ethical leadership at the Washington Center starting this fall.

“With the values that he elucidated in his work and how he has clearly and always earnestly tried to be upfront and forward and honest about everything and use guiding principles, I think he can [teach the class], and he’s been put in a difficult situation that almost no one has ever been put in,” Yackow said.

Others, although they said they were skeptical, did not disprove of Comey teaching the class or doubt his ability to do so.

“The way it sounds a lot of the time is that he is talking in terms of survival,” Seidenberg said. “And I don’t know if that’s positive for ethical leadership, but also ethics are what we decide they are, right?”