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Former Deputy Attorney General Responds To FBI Director's Dismissal

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Someone who might be able to relate to Rod Rosenstein right now is George Terwilliger. He was also deputy attorney general. He served under President George H.W. Bush, and he's with us now. Welcome to the show.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Thank you. Glad to be here.

MCEVERS: You have been critical of some of the decisions that James Comey has made. Last fall you said he bypassed a, quote, "long-standing policy of not doing anything that could influence in the election." What did you think when you heard he was fired yesterday?

TERWILLIGER: I thought that that result was inevitable after what had taken place back in the July press conference where he made what was basically a prosecutorial decision and where he said a lot of really ugly things about Mrs. Clinton, the candidate for president. I mean, Jim is a fine person and a good man and a patriotic American, but I think the judgments that he made in doing those things have raised real questions, and they caught up with him. Secondly, if you look at Mr. Rosenstein's memo evaluating the situation with the director, it rings very true and very logical.

And basically the way I read it, it says look, I'm now responsible for running the Justice Department on a day-to-day basis. I need a senior leadership team in which I can have confidence. And none of those positions is more important than that of the director of the FBI. And I'm very sorry to say for all the qualities he may have, Mr. Comey just can't fill that role in Mr. Rosenstein's view. And I think he presented a very legitimate case for drawing that conclusion.

MCEVERS: The president will now appoint a new FBI director who will then head up this Russia investigation. Is there a problem with a president doing that, appointing a person that will lead an investigation that could touch members of his own campaign?

TERWILLIGER: No. And, you know, it's spring in Washington, and it's always the time when the pollen flies thick. Well, the political fur is flying thick in Washington right now too...

MCEVERS: (Laughter) OK.

TERWILLIGER: ...Over this issue of the president firing somebody that's running an investigation. I mean, with all due respect to those who may, you know, for whatever reason think that, I think that's just nonsense. The fact of the matter is if there is an investigation or investigations, whatever they are, those investigations are being done, worked on day in and day out by career people in the FBI and the Justice Department, and that will go on.

And frankly, you know, having been a career person in the Justice Department myself for almost 10 years before I was a political appointee, I would think those people would see it as an insult to suggest that a change at the top is going to alter what they do. They're going to do their jobs and take the investigation wherever it rightfully needs and should go.

MCEVERS: According to the Partnership for Public Service, of the 28 positions at the Department of Justice that require Senate confirmation, only two positions have been confirmed, and 21 positions don't even have someone nominated to fill them. And now, there's a vacancy at the top of the FBI, as well. Thinking back to your time as deputy AG, can you imagine trying to run a department that is understaffed in this way?

TERWILLIGER: Very, very difficult because what happens is while there are good career people who assume acting positions in all of those political-appointed positions you mentioned, the same decision-making process is not going to take place as it would if those folks were in place. And unfortunately, that means two things.

One, decisions get backed up. And number two, decisions that might be made at a lower level are going to get bucked up higher within the department and add to the already considerable load that - the particularly the deputy attorney general carries. So no, that's - it's not a good situation. And I hope that, you know, a combination of nominations and confirmation process will speed that up.

MCEVERS: George Terwilliger was deputy attorney general under George H.W. Bush. Thank you so much for your time today.

TERWILLIGER: Thank you, enjoyed talking with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAWN OF MIDI'S "NIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.