"The Comey Rule" will likely trigger Trump, and series star Michael Kelly couldn't be happier

The Showtime series will "piss off people on the left and the right," the actor says in his "Salon Talks" interview

Published September 26, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe in "The Comey Rule." (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS Television Studios/SHOWTIME)
Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe in "The Comey Rule." (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS Television Studios/SHOWTIME)

Showtime's new two-part series, "The Comey Rule," based on former FBI director James Comey's best-selling book "A Higher Loyalty," should come with a trigger warning for Donald Trump because it's going to send him into a Twitter frenzy. In fact, as one of the stars of the series, Michael Kelly—you know him as Doug Stamper from "House of Cards" among other shows — explained during our "Salon Talks" episode that during the filming of the series there were often conversations on the set about what type of tweets Trump would unleash upon the show once it airs. Kelly wasn't sure how Trump might describe his depiction of former deputy FBI director Andy McCabe, but he was confident that would include the hashtag "loser."

What will anger Trump in this series? Let me count the ways. For starters, it lays out the origins of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's numerous ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia, which makes a compelling case why such an investigation was not just merited, but required. There are also scenes making the case against Trump's former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for blatantly lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian officials, further making the case that Trump protects criminals as long as they remain loyal.

And then there's Brendan Gleeson's depiction of Trump, which reads like a needy, dumber version of Don Corleone from "The Godfather." That was no mistake, as Kelly explained, given Trump's clear desire to be a mobster and be surrounded by criminals. To that point, Kelly noted that Trump would prefer more aides like his Doug Stamper character from "House of Cards," who would literally kill to protect his boss, Frank Underwood, than people like the FBI's Andy McCabe who put America first. 

Kelly hopes the show, which also stars award-winning actor Jeff Daniels as James Comey and Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, will serve as a reminder in the final weeks of the 2020 campaign of Trump's dangerous attacks on the rule of law and his attempts to destroy the FBI along with any other entity or person that sought to hold Trump accountable. And that, too, will likely trigger the thin-skinned Trump to lash out on Twitter. Watch my "Salon Talks" with Kelly here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

When you were on the set shooting this project, did you ever talk about how Donald Trump is likely going to hate-tweet this show many times? He's going to hate it because it's truthful. It was based on Jim Comey's book, "A Higher Loyalty." And he hates McCabe, and he hates [Peter] Strzok, and he hates Lisa Page and all of these people are essential to the show. So I'm not kidding; was there ever a discussion like, "Trump's going to hate this, he's going to tweet about it"?

It was constantly being discussed. And I think I would be so incredibly proud if I saw a tweet go out: "This actor, Michael Kelly, playing fake Andrew McCabe!" I would just be over the moon. My manager, he's already claimed the right to frame it for me. If he does indeed tweet about "D-List actor Michael Kelly."

Is there a nickname you would like from Trump?

You've got to figure "loser" is going to be in there, right? That's one of his favorite words. "D-List," guess that would probably feel the best.

You play former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe in "The Comey Rule," but so many fans remember you as Doug Stamper from "House of Cards." Were you drawn to this role because politics is involved? And does a political element make you more interested in playing a character?

Well, I'm not saying that I'm this expert by any means on politics, but it is a great interest of mine. I studied political science in college prior to falling into acting, and I've always been into politics. I lobby on the Hill for seniors, with Republicans and Democrats. I'm very involved politically. When I heard that Billy Ray, who I had worked with on "Secret in Their Eyes," was doing this project, I immediately responded to his tweet with, "Who am I playing?" I jokingly said that and felt so blessed and fortunate to actually be offered a role in it. I was kidding, but half-kidding. This is something that is so appealing to me because we are so inundated with the crazy in politics today.

"House of Cards" was the crazy show during the Obama administration. Then "House of Cards" kind of became irrelevant with the new crazy in real life. So for me, this is a story that people probably have forgotten. How it all started, where it all came from, what actually happened around that 2016 election. It's great to be a part of something that is a reminder to the American people at a time when probably a lot of people need to be reminded of just how crazy this all is. I think it's a great thing to go back to and relive.

The series lays out the Hillary [Clinton] investigation and then the origins of the investigation into Donald Trump's team, Russia and Michael Flynn in great detail. And that's why I can say that Trump's not going to be happy with it because it lays it out in a very easy to understand way. But I have to ask you, you played Doug Stamper for Frank Underwood, literally you did anything he needed. Do you think Trump likes the Doug Stampers of this world more than being surrounded by the Andy McCabe's of the world who were ethical?

A hundred percent. I think he would love to have someone as efficient as Doug Stamper on his staff. I jokingly tweeted at him saying, "Hey man, I'll take the hit for America. I'll come be your chief of staff." I jokingly tweeted that at him because he has not had, in my opinion, a competent chief of staff, or at least one chief of staff who's been allowed to actually steer him in the right direction. Right? He might've had a competent chief of staff, but he's not allowed that chief of staff to do the work that he needs to do.

It's a good point. Brendan Gleeson plays Trump in the series. I think people are going to be surprised because first you watch him and try to judge if it a good impression or not. We just naturally do that. But at the end of watching it, I really found, and I want to see if this resonates or not with you. He plays Trump like Marlon Brando in "The Godfather" plays Don Corleone. I know Comey has talked about Trump being like Sammy the Bull, and it comes up. Did you get any of that? What was your take on Brendan Gleeson's depiction of Trump?

I thought that he threaded that needle perfectly between an impression and just sort of what Billy Ray asked us all to do, grab the essence of the character. I said to him, "Do you want me to do McCabe?" And he was like, "No, there's not really enough to . . . He's not like Trump. He doesn't have that mannerism, that way of speaking that's so identifiable." So with McCabe, he was like, "Grab the essence." But with Brendan Gleeson, what he did with Trump is to me like a masterclass in acting because I watched it and I'm just like, "Wow!" He didn't do Trump. He really kind of just was Trump." And I do believe that, and I didn't talk to Brendan Gleeson about anything other than potentially visiting Niagara Falls while we were in Toronto and I said, "You have to go." That's all we talked to him about really, and Ireland.

So I can't speak for him, but my impression of it, what I saw him do, yes, I think there is definitely some mob boss in there. And I think that that is a great thing to throw in there because he really acts like one, he speaks like one. The president acts like one at times. I don't think he could have nailed that any more than he did.

In your role as McCabe you play a man who served for over two decades in the FBI before getting fired by Trump just hours before his pension. Yes, Donald Trump is that vindictive. And I know it had the veneer of "Sessions did it," and it was civil servant, but let's be blunt. We know what Trump is really about. Did you talk to Andy McCabe in preparing for this role?

I did. Funny enough, I didn't have time to even read the Comey book and I also didn't want to be influenced by the Comey book, even though that's what the story is. I wanted to understand, and like Billy asked for, get to the essence of my guy. I read Andy's book and I asked if I could speak to him and he was open to that. Originally the correspondence started over email and then text.

One day I was sitting here in the apartment and I get a text from Andy McCabe saying, "Hey, I'm in the city. Do you want to meet up for coffee?" And I was like, "I'm on my bike, dude, I'll be right there." And I hopped on my bike and I went over to meet him. And what was going to be a coffee, ended up turning into like a two-hour lunch and hangout. It was all that I could have asked for because I got to understand him and really just be with the man, and sort of like Billy said, grab the essence of who he is and what he is.

There was a scene where you're talking on the phone as McCabe to Trump and he even takes a shot at McCabe's wife, Jill, who lost an election. I remember that. My sister went to Duke with Jill and knows her a little bit, but has not kept in touch as much. But it really shows the pettiness and the vindictiveness of Donald Trump to bring up McCabe's wife. Not that she got funding from the Clintons, which she actually didn't get directly, but that she lost an election. Did McCabe share any of that with you — how petty and vindictive Donald Trump was to his family?

No, I didn't feel comfortable at our first face-to-face meeting asking about that particular moment or anything about his wife other than that how we both are very much alike with our families. But I know me as a man and I know him as a man, and I know it's just something you don't do. It's off the books to any normal person with a conscience or any level of empathy. You don't go there. You can say what you will about her campaign contributions. Look, you can say what you will about any of it. You just don't say that to a man about his wife. It's as unforgivable in my opinion, as what they did to Andrew McCabe, and in my opinion, wrongfully terminating him just hours before his pension kicks in.

The series is based on James Comey's book. Was Comey ever there during the shooting? Was he consulted by Billy Ray, the writer and director?

Oh yeah. They talked at length, but you know, I heard Billy say in an interview last week that "Comey's book was a jumping-off point for me." He went and spoke with Republicans, Democrats on the Hill, people he knows, sources he won't identify obviously. Billy Ray is a great writer and he's a great writer because he does his research and he did his research on this. While Comey's book was the jumping-off point, obviously it's not all kind to James Comey, either. And yes, [Comey] was there on set. I did not get to meet James Comey. It was not when I was working, but it was when Jeff and Brendan were working.

One of the greatest things about this project is it's going to piss off people on the left and the right, but it's going to cause people to talk. And I think more importantly right now, we all need to talk as a country. We need to talk to people on the right and talk to people on the left because we are so divided like never before. Everyone thought we were divided during W, we were divided during Obama. No, this is division. And if we don't talk, this is just going to get further and further apart. So I felt like Billy Ray did an incredible job of going beyond Comey's book and really just getting this true story out there to the people.

Jeff Daniels does a great job as James Comey and showing his human side. There was such a big internal debate talked about in the show in July 2016 about if Comey was going to announce the findings of the investigation to Hillary's emails. The whole idea of should he go alone? Should he go with the AG? Should he go with the DAG, with Sally Yates or not? He chooses to go alone. And I wondered watching it, was it naivety or was it ego that he ultimately went alone? He knew there'd be some blowback, but it was off the charts what he got as a result on both sides in response to going there, making an announcement and actually even saying things like, "She's extremely careless." What was your take on it?

I don't think it was his ego that made him do what he did. I think that one thing that I've learned about James Comey through all of this is that he believed that he was doing the right thing. I think he was painted into a corner. I think it's addressed in the show, there was no scenario in which he was going to do the right thing. You do it with the AG, you're going to look like a political hack. James Comey believes, and to this day, I'm sure believes, it's very hard for me to speak for him, but what I understand about him is that he is an apolitical man. And he thought, my reputation in this town, my reputation as this man is that I am apolitical. And that if I do this and I do it in an apolitical way, it's going to be the right thing to do. I believe that he believed he was doing the right thing. And I think to question that in hindsight is pretty tough and unfair.

When the Comey letter came out in October 2016, it changed the trajectory of the campaign. I understand it more now from watching this in terms of why he had to do that. Did you have a different outlook on it after seeing the way this was shot and after hearing the dialogue that was based in reality?

One of the things that I hope people take from this is that you understand that these are people, all of these people in this story, were people who were put in extraordinary circumstances. They are ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances that never before seen norms being broken daily that we had never seen politically ever. You realize that these men and women are just like you and I. This is just what they do for a living. They chose to serve their country. They could all make a lot more money in the private sector. They chose to do what they thought was right for the American people. And to see that spin or be spun on its head and turned upside-down and made out to be these horrible people, that's the part that kills me.

That, and the fact that they didn't come out publicly and say about the Russia investigation because we all know that it's not a hoax. We all know that in 2016, whether Trump was privy to it or not, whether he endorsed it or not, whether he welcomed it or not, we know that Russia interfered in the election, and we know that they did it to help get Donald Trump elected. And the crazy thing is, is we know by all intelligence services that it's happening again in 2020, and they are burying that. For people to see that part of the story, I think is really important right now. When, as a country and – sorry, I don't mean to get all riled up and political here – but when as a country did we all of a sudden decide to be the people who are like, "Yeah, Russia! I want what Russia wants!" What happened? What was that great hockey movie in the '80s?

"Miracle on Ice."

"Miracle on Ice!" Where is that?

We won the Olympic gold medal. We defeated Russia. Well, that's the world we live in now where Donald Trump has made things partisan that should not be partisan. So it's no big deal if Russia attacks us and it's no big deal if they give arms to the Taliban. He makes life and death and COVID a partisan issue, which to me is beyond politics. It's criminal. That's my thinking.

I'm with you.

There's this meeting you have in the series, I wish we could start the scene right here, where they're sitting around the table and they show Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Manafort and Michael Flynn and they go, "Why are all these Trump people tied to Russia?" And that's the question. If they did not investigate that, we would be saying, "Why didn't you investigate these ties?" And then you have the Trump Tower meeting on top of that in July 2016. I'm hoping people take that away as well. If they go, "Wow, now I get what the origins of this investigation was and it should have been investigated." Is that what you hope that comes out of this as well?

A hundred percent. I think when Peter Strzok is saying in that meeting, he's like name after name comes up on the projector and it's like red, blinking red, also blinking red. You can't make it up. This happened. And the way they were able to spin the findings from that is . . . the spin has never been like this. You can spin something, sure. They're spinning the COVID response. He didn't want to panic the country? The man who said, "The caravan's coming! They're going to . . . Antifa's going to take your suburbs!" "I don't, I didn't want to cause panic." Come on, man! Come on!

You had a tweet a few days ago, which I think sums up so much. "How is anyone still defending this man?" And that is my sentiment exactly: "Please explain to me what you see in him." Well look, in the world of Trump. It's not safe inside because of COVID and it's not safe outside because of climate change. This is Trump's America. Do you ever talk to Trumpers?

Yes, of course I do. I'm a big Atlanta Braves fan and so I have a lot of people from the South who follow me and I try to engage with them as often as possible and have these discussions about "How can you possibly still support this man?" And to the people who say, "religion" and they're pro-life, right? You don't really have a counterargument to that other than, "Well how about the gun laws and how about COVID? Are those not lives too?" But at least at that point, I'm like, "You know what, okay, that is your very strong religious belief. But just know that that is a man who just prior to the election was saying that he was for abortion." He's a con man. He is P.T. Barnum, only with a darker side.

I've been in New York for over two decades. I know who he is. I know what he is. I have met him. I have been around him and I watched his wife dismiss my wife like she was a peasant. These are the people that they are. He pushed me aside. I was having a conversation with Chris Matthews, an old friend of mine. That's who he is, man. And you know, I get it. If you're pro-life, I get it, sure, okay, fine. There's nothing I can say to take you away from that. Yes, he went to the pro-life march, but know that it wasn't because that's what he believes. He knows that the only way he's going to be elected.

It's interesting what you said about the personal experience. It kind of colors a lot of things. It's anecdotal, but it says so much about Trump, which is he's lived this elitist life where there is a backstage pass to life and everyone is born into wealth. Yet, he's the biggest victim of everything. I don't know why that resonates with this base because a lot of them truly are struggling to put food on their table. I'm not wired intellectually to understand that. I really am not kidding. I just don't understand that.

That's the problem for me is that these discussions back and forth with people on the right, quite often, some people who are not as fortunate as I am. And I'm like, "You don't understand. I'm going to be fine. Financially, this guy is not all that bad for me. I'm fighting for you. I'm fighting for my children. I'm fighting for the Supreme Court seats. I'm fighting for climate change. I'm fighting for all the things that matter to me, but I'm fighting for you. I'm trying to help you."

I guess it's very hard because there is a wall put up and people don't like to be told that they're wrong, right? So if you voted for Donald Trump in 2016, there will be a large group of people who will vote for him in 2020 because they don't want to be wrong. They think he's been great. He's been great for the economy. They don't take into account that there was six straight years of economic growth, at least six straight years of economic growth under Obama/Biden. Sometimes they just don't want to hear it because they don't want to be wrong.

Turning back to "The Comey Rule," tell everyone why should they tune in?

I think everyone should tune in because like I said earlier about being inundated with a new crazy every day, which we are, it's just a very kind reminder of where it all started and how it all started and what the FBI was actually looking at simultaneously with the Hillary emails. I think it breaks it down for people in a very easy to understand way that happens to be an incredibly compelling story as well. And a story about how these men and women in the FBI and how they're people just like you and I. They have families just like you and I, and they are good people who could have a great life in the private sector who chose to serve this country and do what they felt was right in their hearts. They're the good guys.

A kind reminder, because this is a dangerous time, when you question and you have a president who is discrediting our intelligence agencies, the CIA, the FBI, everybody who speaks out against him is wrong. The first thing a dictator does is discredit the media. He did that. Then you discredit your intelligence services, then you just say whatever you want. So I think I would like people to see that. I would also like people to have discussions. This show, I really believe, is going to upset people on the left and the right. And I think for people to have discussions about what happened and what is happening to our country, if we can all talk, we can all go a lot further. And it's just so good! It's really well done. Billy Ray knocked it out of the park and I'm so proud to be a part of it. I just can't wait for people to see it.

"The Comey Rule" limited series airs Sunday and Monday, Sept. 27-28 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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