James Comey‘s decades-long career in law enforcement is, by any standard, highly decorated.
He served as a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia, as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, as deputy U.S. attorney general, then, as the seventh director of the FBI. Along the way, he also had stints in the private sector.
Through it all, he spanned the political spectrum, receiving appointments from Republican and Democratic presidents alike with near-unanimous Senate confirmations, until his recent dismissal by President Donald Trump in May.
None of this, he now says, would have been possible if not for the three years he spent as a young student at the University of Chicago Law School.
He arrived in 1982 as a recent graduate from the College of William & Mary carrying a rather eclectic degree — a bachelor of science with a double major in chemistry and religion.
In what was perhaps a foreshadowing of his ability to bridge disparate worlds, his senior thesis focused on two divergent religious figures, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and the televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Some classmates remembered him as being brilliant but never arrogant. And while Comey’s time at the South Side institution coincided with the emergence of a potent conservative movement in law, Comey was driven by a fierce sense of morality, not politics, they say.
“He’s about one thing and one thing only, which is doing the right thing,” said Chris Gair, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago who now works in private practice. “That’s always been who he was and is. Everybody says that he’s the same guy he was back then, which was do what’s right and let the chips fall where they may.”
It’s that approach that will be under intense scrutiny on Thursday when he testifies in a highly anticipated Senate hearing. He is expected to be asked about any conversations he had with the president about the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. elections.
Part of Comey’s prepared statement, posted Wednesday on the Senate Intelligence Committee web page, recounts a conversation he had with the president and gives a nod to the political neutrality his former classmates praised. Comey said he felt a Jan. 27, one-on-one dinner with the president was partly “an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.”
“I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President,” Comey’s statement reads.
By Comey’s own admission, he was lucky to get accepted to the University of Chicago Law School. At first, he was not admitted, and instead was put on a waitlist. Comey visited the school one afternoon with the woman he would later marry, Patrice. Impressed by the campus, the couple walked over to the law school building and Patrice pushed her reluctant future husband to go inside and ask to speak to the admissions director, Richard Badger.
Comey relented, and landed an impromptu interview with Badger, who also served as dean of students. A week later, the University of Chicago Law School accepted him, giving him a seat alongside classmates like Scott Kafker, now the chief justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court; and Amy Klobuchar, a United States senator from Minnesota.
Colette Holt, who now runs her own firm in Oakland, Calif., said Comey avoided bravado in the competitive environment but still distinguished himself within the small group.
“In a class that small, you’re going to hear people make comments in class, and hanging around and talking in the Green Lounge,” Holt said, referring to the law school’s de facto living room. “There certainly were people who were show boaters. We had plenty of those, especially the first year, the people with their hands waving in the air all the time. That certainly was not Jim. He always had great comments, lots to contribute and seemed like a very thoughtful person.”
Comey happened to arrive at the law school at significant moment in legal circles. In 1982, Antonin Scalia, then a professor who would become a long-serving Supreme Court justice, helped found the University of Chicago chapter of the conservative Federalist Society, a group that has had significant influence on America’s courts.
Though friends say they don’t recall Comey ever aligning with any political school of thought as a student, Comey said in 2016 that he was a registered Republican for most of his adult life until becoming an independent.
“I don’t remember him talking about politics,” Klobuchar said. “I, obviously, was involved in some Democratic politics out there and I knew some of the more conservative people who were my friends as well. I don’t think anyone could have told you what his politics were. He just did not wear that on his sleeve. Maybe he knew he was going to be the FBI director when he was 25.”
His time in Hyde Park wasn’t entirely spent in the library and at classes.
In a speech he gave at the University of Chicago two years ago, Comey recalled playing basketball in the Ogden Park Basketball League in the Englewood neighborhood. He said that he was the only white player in the bunch.
“They weren’t so much focused on integration as on winning, and they knew you can’t teach height,” the 6-foot-8 Comey said. ” ‘He can’t jump but he sure is tall.’ “
Badger, who still works at the university, said he did not specifically recall what he discussed in that fateful meeting with Comey. But he said Comey arrived at a time when Chicago was one of few top law schools in the country that offered interviews to students, particularly to learn more about candidates whose qualifications did not put them at the top of the pile.
“He was then as he is now a very impressive speaker,” Badger said. “It is easy to imagine why I would have been impressed by him. Obviously we should have (accepted) him initially because he turned out to have a very strong career.”
That career — and the approach he took to managing it — came with its share of high-profile battles with presidential administrations.
He was at the center of a standoff between the Justice Department and the White House in 2004, when top aides to President George W. Bush tried to persuade an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to reauthorize a domestic surveillance program, which had been deemed illegal.
Ashcroft was in the hospital recovering from surgery and the powers of the office were given to Comey, his deputy.
Comey and then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III rushed to the hospital to stop the Bush aides, and Ashcroft refused to endorse the program, Comey said in a 2007 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The White House revived the spying program without Justice Department approval. Ashcroft, Comey and Mueller threatened to resign until President Bush agreed to modify the program.
It was one of many victories for Comey as he built his career. Years later, Comey had a chance to reflect on the responsibility of a lawyer in public service when he delivered the law school’s commencement address in 2015, 30 years after he received his degree.
“It is the job of a good lawyer to say ‘yes.’ It is as much the job of a good lawyer to say ‘no’– and ‘no’ is much, much harder,” Comey told the graduates. “It takes more than intelligence, more than a sharp legal mind to say ‘no’ when it matters most. It takes moral character. It takes judgment. It takes an ability to see the future. It takes an appreciation of the damage that will flow from an unjustified ‘yes.’ It takes an understanding that, in the long run, government under the law is the government so many have died for.”