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John Negroponte On Trump, Lavrov And Russia's Goals

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the language of Washington, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is part of the intelligence community. The FBI works alongside other alphabet-named agencies like the CIA and the NSA. It tracks suspected terrorists and conducts counterintelligence operations, which is why it made sense that the FBI was leading the probe into Russian interference in last year's election. So what happens now that the FBI director has been fired? John Negroponte joins us next. He was director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush. Mr. Negroponte, welcome back to the program.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What message does the intelligence community receive when the FBI director is fired like this?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think the president exercised something that's within his prerogative. And so I think people have just got to carry on. I don't think this should stop the investigation. I think ultimately the chips are going to fall where they may. Both the FBI and a couple of congressional committees are pursuing this, and I think ultimately the truth will out.

INSKEEP: You don't think it should stop the investigation.

NEGROPONTE: No, absolutely not.

INSKEEP: Does it feel to you like an effort...

NEGROPONTE: I don't think it can.

INSKEEP: You don't think it can.

NEGROPONTE: (Laughter) No.

INSKEEP: Explain how that would be if a different FBI director had a different viewpoint about this.

NEGROPONTE: Well - because I think it's got beyond the point where it's up to the individual viewpoint of an FBI director. There's so much out there already. You've got a couple of congressional committees working on it. There are an awful lot of facts around. And we also have the fact that both the previous FBI director and the director of national intelligence have stated for quite a long time now that there was interference in our elections. That has got to be looked into. There's just absolutely no doubt about it.

INSKEEP: Now, James Comey, when he was directing the FBI - up until the other day - according to news reports, he was being personally briefed quite often on the Russia probe. And senators have said on the record in the last day or so that Comey was personally asking for more money for the Russia probe. Is it any surprise to you that the director himself would be so closely monitoring an investigation like this?

NEGROPONTE: Well, frankly, I just don't know that much about the internal workings of the FBI. But I don't think it's a surprise given the import of the subject matter and the fact that involves people around the president himself and so forth.

INSKEEP: Does anything make you uncomfortable if the FBI director can ask for that level of detail about an investigation that the next director would be somebody appointed by President Trump and people around the president are being investigated?

NEGROPONTE: Well, if he's going to be appointed by Mr. Trump, he's going to have to be confirmed by the Senate of the United States. And, you know, as far as the - Mr. Comey's level of interest, I think there was some suggestion in the deputy attorney general's letter that Mr. Comey in a number of different ways behaved in ways different than the tradition of the Justice Department. He didn't adopt a particularly low profile with regard to this investigation and sometimes went out and made public statements that were really not necessarily called for in his particular role and would have been better left to the Justice Department itself or to others to decide.

INSKEEP: Would you agree then that his firing was justified?

NEGROPONTE: Well, the president doesn't really have to justify his firing. Mr. Comey himself said that yesterday. The president can fire me, whether they get rid of me, whether he has a reason or not under Article II of the Constitution. So I think the president was exercising a prerogative. I haven't had the opportunity to examine in-depth why he did it. The one thing I have done is read the deputy attorney general's letter, which kind of lays out some of the arguments why it was done.

INSKEEP: Briefly, one little detail, Mr. Negroponte - President Trump met yesterday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

NEGROPONTE: Right.

INSKEEP: And the White House kept out American photographers from the meeting but somehow allowed the Russian government to bring its equipment into the Oval Office. Just as a general matter of intelligence hygiene, if you will, is it a good idea to have the Russian government bring audiovisual equipment into the Oval Office?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think that the - it's a skipped space and I'm sure that White - the Oval Office is constantly swept, so we'll - I think that the necessary precautions were taken. I do think it's bizarre to exclude the American press and kind of out of the ordinary. And I think people would question the appropriateness of that. But the positive thing I'd say is that, you know, this investigation has to go on and the chips have to fall where they may. But at the same time, we have to work on the U.S.-Russia relationship, and the meeting between Mr. Trump and Sergey Lavrov yesterday was part of that.

INSKEEP: OK. John Negroponte, thanks very much, always a pleasure talking with you.

NEGROPONTE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Former director of national intelligence. A bit of news out of Moscow today, by the way - after Trump's meeting with Lavrov, a Kremlin spokesman today voiced optimism about improving relations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.