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Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump (Photo Credit: Ben Mark Holzberg)
Inside ‘The Comey Rule,’ the TV Miniseries About Trump and the Chaos of the 2016 Election
“This is going to piss off a lot of people on the left and the right,” actor Michael Kelly tells TheWrap
Billy Ray is already bracing to get called out by Donald Trump over his portrayal of the president in “The Comey Rule.” In fact, he pretty much welcomes the incoming fury from the media-addicted commander-in-chief.
“If it’s a slow news day, I’ll probably get a mean nickname. And the IRS will probably audit me. And I think it’s likely that my mail will stop delivering,” Ray, who wrote and directed the two-part Showtime miniseries that premieres on Sunday, told TheWrap. “I can’t imagine him doing something better for this series than tearing into me. So I look forward to it.”
“The Comey Rule” is based on former FBI director James Comey’s memoir, “A Higher Loyalty.” It recounts the tumultuous last few months of the 2016 campaign and the even-more chaotic beginning to Trump’s presidency. And it will air just as the 2020 campaign heads into its own stretch run.
“So much of it has to do with what the Russians did to our election in 2016, and what we did to ourselves in 2016. I felt it was really important to make a case to the American public, that it’s about to happen again, and it’s in the process of happening again,” Ray said. “I didn’t think that would be terribly useful to people after the election.”
Along with Comey’s memoir, the miniseries is based on thousands of hours of additional interviews and research. It replays both of the FBI’s investigations — the first one, “Midyear Exam,” into former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while she was Secretary of State, and “Crossfire Hurricane,” which looked into whether or not Trump campaign officials colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the election — as well as brings to life the infamous “loyalty pledge” that Comey claims Trump asked of him during a private dinner.
Showtime appears willing to thrust itself in the middle of a campaign cycle that may be more toxic than the one from four years ago that “The Comey Rule” tries to dissect. It paints a sitting president in a poor — and possibly illegal — light, right as that same president is running for re-election. Ray swears he’s not explicitly trying to sway voters away from Trump. Rather, he feels an obligation to educate Americans on how the country got to the point it is at in 2020: Hammered by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has claimed 200,000 American lives, and led by a divisive, rule-breaking president whom numerous times has been accused of authoritarianism.
“The tree that is the Trump presidency was planted in 2016, which is part of our story. And there are certain branches on that tree that were inevitable, just based on who the man is and what his behavior is,” Ray said. “I’m happy to be part of a national conversation that examines all of that, but seeing it through this very dramatic lens of Jim Comey and his family and the public servants that worked with him at the FBI.”
Jeff Daniels as James Comey (Photo Credit: Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS)
Jeff Daniels, who plays the towering, 6-foot, 8-inch Comey, hopes the president will be too busy running the country to watch.
“I don’t care. I just don’t care,” he told TheWrap when asked what kind of reaction he’s anticipating. “I would hope that the president of the United States has better things to do than to tweet at an actor.”
Though the book was “a jumping-off point,” Ray does not seek to exonerate Comey, whom many Clinton supporters accuse of tilting the election in Trump’s favor. “Part of the idea of this series is to say, ‘Okay, be Jim Comey for five minutes. Here are the pressures. Here are the facts. Here are the constraints. Here’s what you can do. Here’s what you can’t do. What would you do?’ I think we make a very good case that he was in an absolutely untenable, no-win situation,” Ray explained, before adding: “He made decisions that we’re all still living with.”
Daniels said he gained a much better understanding of what Comey went through and the lose-lose position he was in. “It changed me,” he said. “It gave me more information. I know more now than I did back then about Comey, about what he went through. There was no clear-cut, one hundred percent, this-is-the-way to do it. There were going to be repercussions no matter what he did.”
Michael Kelly, who plays Andrew McCabe, Comey’s top lieutenant and eventual successor after Trump fired him in 2017, doesn’t think anyone is going to enjoy “The Comey Rule.”
“This is going to piss off a lot of people on the left and the right,” Kelly told TheWrap. “But it will cause people to talk.”
Kelly, a self-described political junkie, said he’s lobbied alongside both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. He’s used to this kind of role, having played Doug Stamper on Netflix’s “House of Cards.” For him, “The Comey Rule” is a chance to educate the public on the Russian threat, largely because he’s afraid we’re already seeing a repeat of 2016.
“We know for a fact that Russia was interfering in our election with the sole purpose of trying to have Donald Trump elected. I’m not going to say that Donald Trump was in on it, but we know what happened. We also know now that it’s happening again,” he said. “I didn’t realize how deep they were at the time (in 2016), obviously because that wasn’t public.”
As for Trump himself, who will be played by Brendan Gleeson, Ray was adamant he didn’t want the president to be depicted as “a mustache-twirling villain” or some kind of caricature. Most interpretations of Trump are played as jokes at his expense, especially Alec Baldwin’s impression on “Saturday Night Live.” Rarely has there been such a powerful political figure that has never been portrayed in a serious light. Even George W. Bush, another widely-mocked Republican president, got a dramatic turn from Josh Brolin in Oliver Stone’s “W.”
“We were going to play Trump as a real character, who has needs and wants and drives and flaws,” Ray said. For starters, they purposely made Trump’s hairpiece and his makeup “less cartoonish” than the real Trump. “We weren’t going to do those big white circles in the real orange color around the rest of his face.”
Ray heavily considered the idea of reaching out to Trump, though he did make attempts to contact the White House. He spoke with almost everyone who was depicted, save for a few former Trump administration officials.
“I did reach out to the White House and had a lot of conversations with my producers about whether or not to reach out to the President himself. And ultimately, what we concluded was that if we did that, they would want to see the script, and that was a recipe for disaster. So we had to forego that as an experience, and I think that was the right call.”
Showtime initially scheduled the series to air in late November, weeks after viewers have their chance to cast their ballots for Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden. While that would have gotten the network away from the contentious 2020 campaign cycle, Ray was worried that airing it after the election would have neutered any potential impact.
“I see the level of excitement around this series now,” he said. “And it’s hard for me to imagine it would be the same if we were talking about airing at the end of November, or somewhere in January.”
It may end up having little influence. After all, “The Comey Rule” doesn’t give any new information that hasn’t already been litigated in the public sphere. Most viewers are likely to view the series through their own partisan lens, but both Kelly and Daniels are optimistic that the series can change at least a few minds about what went down in 2016 and 2017.
“They may gain more knowledge, they may be a little bit more informed,” Daniels argued. “If ‘The Comey Rule’ helps that — terrific. I think I think we all need to know more going into this particular election.”
Adds Kelly: “We all have family members that are on both sides of the aisle. And this is difficult times for all of us because we’ve never been this divided. So if anything, it will get people that weren’t talking before, talking.”