ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Seven days after President Trump was sworn into office, he had dinner with the then-FBI Director James Comey at the White House. We now have two versions of what happened that evening. In an interview with NBC News, the president said that he thought the dinner was arranged at Comey's request. Trump also said that Comey told him that he was not under investigation by the FBI.
But there's another version of what happened, and here to talk more about that is Michael Schmidt of The New York Times. Welcome to the program.
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: What is, in brief, the second version of what happened at the dinner between the president and James Comey?
SCHMIDT: So seven days after Mr. Trump was sworn in, Mr. Comey was summoned to the White House. He didn't want to go 'cause he's long been wary of being - appearing too chummy with the president, but he did go. And shortly after the two men started eating, it was just them in the room, no - only servers, no aides.
Mr. Trump asked him, do I have your loyalty? And Mr. Comey said, you'll always have my honesty. And Mr. Trump came back to it and said, do I have your loyalty? And Mr. Comey once again said, you'll have my honesty. And what it was that Trump really wanted Comey to pledge his loyalty...
SCHMIDT: ...To him, to know that he'd be loyal. And Comey wouldn't do that.
SIEGEL: Now the White House denies the account that you've reported, and they stand by what the president said. But you base what you've reported on associates of Comey's. What's the sourcing here?
SCHMIDT: At the time that these - that the meal happened, in the aftermath of the meal, Comey told friends and associates about this meeting because it concerned him. It concerned him because he thought it was blurring the line between the - you know, between the president and the FBI. And the FBI director is supposed to be independent. They're appointed to a 10-year term that's supposed to overlap over two administrations.
And Comey was concerned by this that the president would want his loyalty and would want Mr. Comey to make some sort of commitment to him. So he told people about this and about these concerns. And since Mr. Comey lost his job, these people have felt comfortable to come forward and tell their story - or his story.
SIEGEL: The way you wrote this in the paper, it sounded conditional, that so long as he was FBI director, they would not have told this story.
SCHMIDT: I - you know, Mr. Comey told these people this in confidence, but since he lost his job, they feel like this is a very important story that tells the, you know, the downfall of Comey...
SCHMIDT: ...And why he lost his job. I mean we probably should have seen this coming because Comey, for whatever you think about him, is very independent, and Trump does prize loyalty.
SIEGEL: Yeah, what do you make of the request, as Comey has recalled it, of a promise of loyalty?
SCHMIDT: I think that Trump clearly didn't understand Comey and didn't understand the role of the FBI. Comey does not want to hitch himself to anyone. So the idea that Comey, who's conducting this very politically sensitive investigation into, you know, contacts between Trump's associates and Russia, would in a private meeting tell the president that you have my loyalty, he just clearly didn't understand Comey. That is something that without knowing Comey that well, you would just never do and would make Comey feel queasy.
I always come back to this, but Comey's 6'8'', and he once said that even if President Obama, who appointed him, asked him to play basketball, he wouldn't play basketball with him because he didn't want to appear too close to him.
SIEGEL: Just in the couple of seconds we have left, Trump has described the FBI in turmoil. The acting director, Andrew McCabe, says people are very supportive of Comey. Who's closer to what you know in their version of what's happening at the bureau?
SCHMIDT: Myself and other reporters here have spoken with dozens and dozens of law enforcement...
SCHMIDT: ...Officials over the past few weeks, and everyone says, you know, even if they disagree with Comey's judgments, they really had a lot of pride in him as...
SCHMIDT: ...Director. They trusted him. They thought he was independent. And they thought he would do the right thing regardless of politics.
SIEGEL: Michael Schmidt of The New York Times, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.