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The Political Implications Of Comey's Firing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What just happened? Or more precisely, why? Why did President Trump fire his FBI director, James Comey? The president dismissed Comey in a letter yesterday, saying he could no longer effectively lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The letter included an unsolicited claim by the president that the president himself is not under investigation.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The deputy attorney general says Comey was fired for mishandling the Hillary Clinton email investigation during the presidential campaign, although President Trump had previously praised Comey for that. Let's begin this conversation with NPR's political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So let's start with the president's own reasons here. What exactly is he saying?

MONTANARO: Well, it was just a 79-word statement from the White House last night where Trump said that he's acting on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. And it seems that was the key thing. Rosenstein wrote a two-and-a-half page memo to Sessions. He outlined his concerns with Comey, how he handled the Hillary Clinton emails investigation.

You know, Rosenstein wrote a pretty reasoned case for this, but it's pretty surprising given that Donald Trump would act on this, especially since Donald Trump praised Comey's handling of this, saying he had guts during the campaign for it.

INSKEEP: Let's give a listen to that, actually. Here's President Trump talking about James Comey after he in October did say that he was looking a little more deeply into Hillary Clinton's emails.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I have to give the FBI credit. That was so bad what happened originally. And it took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had, where they're trying to protect her from criminal prosecution. You know that. It took a lot of guts.

GREENE: That sounds like a love fest. I mean, what - why fire Comey months after saying Comey could stay and all that positive stuff?

MONTANARO: You know, at that point, the context is that Comey had just come out with a letter that now the Clinton campaign and others believe helped Donald Trump over the finish line. So while Trump might not have liked James Comey all that much beforehand because he didn't seek criminal prosecution of Hillary Clinton, he certainly liked him at that point.

You know, at this point, it's not clear why he's making this move. Motivationally speaking, politically speaking, the optics are not very good at all. Very suspicious timing. The fact that the investigation into Russia was ramping up, and now Comey is ousted, there's a lot of concern on both sides of the political spectrum here in what this White House is actually doing.

INSKEEP: You mentioned the investigation into Russia. Let's remember, the FBI is looking into Russian meddling in the presidential campaign and the possibility of some collusion with the Trump campaign. There are also investigations in Congress.

And we have a tweet here from Richard Burr, who's the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, conducting what's seen as the most serious investigation of what happened during the election. And his quote here is, quote, "I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey's termination. I have found director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order." Now, there are other Republicans, Domenico, who are supporting the president...

MONTANARO: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: ...But this has not turned into an entirely partisan issue, has it?

MONTANARO: No. And Burr is a key thing. I mean, he's not some moderate from, you know, a district that has to watch his left flank, so to speak. You know, Richard Burr was an adviser to the Trump campaign. He's somebody who wants to be on team Trump. And - but he also needs to look independent on how he's conducting this investigation with the head of the Senate intelligence committee.

You know, you had other Republicans, people who have been somewhat skeptical of Donald Trump in, you know, Jeff Flake from Arizona, Barbara Comstock from Virginia who also now are calling for - or raising questions and suspicions. And I think that there's going to - that this has given more momentum to the idea that there could be an independent prosecutor or an independent investigator to oversee this.

I think that will be difficult to get accomplished, but you're going to - you have Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate, saying he wants all of Democrats in their seats today to listen to Mitch McConnell speak on the floor of the United States Senate at 9:30 this morning to see if they're actually going to do anything differently. And then they're all going to huddle at 10:30, which happens to be the same time that President Trump is meeting with Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia.

INSKEEP: Two things very quickly here. First, I want to hear a Democratic response, Mark Warner of Virginia, who is not very happy with the explanation of the timing. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK WARNER: The idea that somehow they were firing him now for actions that in a sense said he was unfair to Hillary Clinton, this president firing an FBI director because of actions taken nine months ago, it doesn't pass the smell test.

INSKEEP: But Domenico, didn't Democrats despise James Comey like a day ago basically, many of them?

MONTANARO: (Laughter) Look. And there's no question about that. And obviously, Donald Trump using that to kind of - as a cudgel over Democrats to say look at these crocodile tears from someone like Chuck Schumer. Mark Warner's a key person because he's the ranking member on that Intelligence committee with Richard Burr. And they've tried to have a bipartisan look, especially after the debacle that happened with the House intelligence committee.

So you can guarantee that Burr and Warner are going to seek to continue to have some kind of independence from the White House, but it is a - it is odd timing. It is clever reasoning, perhaps all too clever.

INSKEEP: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation. Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold of Texas is on the House Judiciary Committee which oversees the Department of Justice. He's also on the House oversight committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us, appreciate it.

BLAKE FARENTHOLD: Good morning. Happy to be with you.

INSKEEP: So we heard Richard Burr, Republican Senate intelligence committee chairman, say he was troubled by the timing and reasoning. What do you think of the timing and reasoning?

FARENTHOLD: Well, I think Republicans historically have a real bad problem with communications. And this kind of blew up because I don't think the comms were planned out very well. But the real issue is Comey had become the focus of everything. It wasn't about the FBI. His face was on TV way too much. How many former FBI directors beyond on J. Edgar Hoover can you name? They work quietly and methodically in the background doing their investigations.

They're not on the front page of the newspaper. And they're not involved in elections. I mean, Hillary Clinton saying but for Comey she would be president. I think you hit the nail on the head. We've got some crocodile tears here, when less than 24 hours ago, the Democrats were calling for Comey's head.

INSKEEP: But let's be clear here, James Comey was in the middle of investigating at the least presidential aides, people close to the president who may or may not have had some involvement with Russian meddling in the presidential election. Is it at all strange that he would decide to fire Comey right now?

FARENTHOLD: I think the people elected Donald Trump because he acts decisively. He fired Comey. He didn't fire the entire FBI. If there is something there, the FBI is going to continue to investigate it.

INSKEEP: Although at the same time, you have White House aides saying we've got to go on from this Russia thing, the president himself saying the whole Russia thing is a hoax. Can this president be trusted to name an FBI director who would be able to investigate anything freely and follow the facts where they go?

FARENTHOLD: I certainly hope so. I think if he doesn't, you are going to see more bipartisan support for an independent investigation. I've got to tell you as a member of Congress, I'm getting tired of hearing about Russia. You can't go 10 minutes without somebody bringing up the Russia incident. And it's top of mind. And it does need to be put to bed somehow.

GREENE: Congressman, it's David Greene here. Can I just ask you - we had we had Jackie Speier on the show this morning, a congresswoman, your Democratic colleague.

FARENTHOLD: Right.

GREENE: She said that this Comey firing has everything to do with March 20. You talk about people bringing up Russia, that was a time when Comey talked about Russia and said that he was probing possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Given that he was looking into that, given he said that on March 20, given that he is now fired, isn't the timing troubling here?

FARENTHOLD: Again, I do think it's a issue with communications, and the timing is definitely a part of a communications. But Trump is from the private sector, is used to acting decisively. Don't get me wrong. I want to know the truth about Russia. I want to know, but I also want an independent FBI where investigations are done quietly, not on the front page of the newspaper or on MORNING EDITION.

INSKEEP: Well just, to - (laughter) we're in favor of investigations on MORNING EDITION, just so you know.

GREENE: We're fine with that - exactly.

INSKEEP: But very briefly, Congressman, you mentioned the possibility of some kind of special prosecutor or independent investigation. Would you support that now?

FARENTHOLD: I'm going to wait and see on that. It - I was pretty firmly against it when I felt like the FBI had things well in hand. If this plays out where the public confidence is not in the FBI and my confidence is not in the FBI, I'll support it.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, Congressman Farenthold, thanks very much for joining us this morning, really appreciate it.

FARENTHOLD: It's a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Blake Farenthold of Texas is a Republican. He is on the House Judiciary Committee, as well as the House oversight committee. We were also joined by NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro on this morning after President Trump announced he has fired James Comey, the leader of the FBI and therefore also the leader of an investigation that touches on Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.