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News Brief: James Comey Talks To NPR, Michael Cohen Investigation, Shinzo Abe Visits U.S.


James Comey says that in the past few years, the reputation of the FBI has grown worse.


Yeah, but Comey insists in an interview with NPR that he prevented even greater damage when he was director of the FBI. He also talked to us about an investigation into Hillary Clinton during the campaign. And later, he says, he struggled to maintain independence from President Trump, who fired him. Comey has a new book out. It's called "A Higher Loyalty." And his reappearance in the public eye has triggered attacks on Twitter by President Trump, including a tweet that used the word jail.

INSKEEP: As we put questions to Comey, I was joined here in our New York bureau by NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, who is with us once again.

Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what struck you when you were sitting right across the table from this man that I know you've known for many years?

JOHNSON: James Comey is a guy with boundless confidence who carefully cultivated his career and reputation. A young prosecutor rose to become the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where we're sitting right now, the deputy attorney general and then the FBI director. This last year, year and a half seems to have bruised him deeply. He's not quite the same confident guy that we used to see.

INSKEEP: What did you make of his defense of how he handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation in 2016? We should remember, he twice made public statements, which was somewhat unusual - quite unusual, really, for a prosecutor. He was much, much criticized for that - or for the FBI - an unusual thing for the FBI to make a statement. He was much criticized for that, but he says it was the best bad option.

JOHNSON: He says it was the best bad option. He says he's still not convinced that threw the election to Donald Trump and away from Hillary Clinton. And he says he's sorry if Hillary Clinton and her supporters are unhappy with the way he communicated. But Steve, when you asked him about mistakes he made in his career at the FBI, the Hillary Clinton investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation were not among those mistakes.

INSKEEP: You're exactly right. He came up with cases that I think most people would not even have heard of and said, I made mistakes there, but not in those things. I want to mention something else that you brought up with Director Comey, Carrie Johnson. You essentially said, what are you doing here? What are you doing here talking to me? Why are you doing a book interview? Why are you doing a bunch of interviews and writing a book when you are quite possibly a witness in a criminal investigation, which is a situation where you'd rather be quiet? Here's what he said.

JAMES COMEY: Normally, you don't want your witnesses out talking if they're going to have to testify later. And I don't know whether I'll have to testify later. But if I did, the advantage in my circumstance is my testimony is locked down, and I testified in front of Congress extensively. I wrote memos. I wrote written testimony. And so long as I continue to tell the truth and don't start making stuff up that's inconsistent with that testimony, I don't see an issue.

INSKEEP: Carrie, what do his former colleagues around the Justice Department say about that?

JOHNSON: They're a little surprised about this blitz of a book tour in the midst of an ongoing criminal and counterintelligence investigation. They have warm feelings, many of them, toward Jim Comey, but a lot of them still don't understand what he was thinking in 2016 and what he's thinking now.

INSKEEP: I should mention, however, when he says, as long as my testimony, so to speak, remains consistent, I don't have a problem, nobody's going to call me to account on inconsistencies, he has managed in a few high-profile interviews to say almost the same thing word-for-word as he said in a famous memo and as he has said in his book.

JOHNSON: He's a good communicator. He's a good former prosecutor. And he's trying to keep within the lines.

INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Good working with you.


INSKEEP: President Trump was not happy when the FBI raided the office and hotel room and home of his longtime personal lawyer last week. Now there's a legal battle over who can actually go through the documents that federal agents gathered in that raid.

KING: Right. The president and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, want to review the material before prosecutors have the chance. They want to determine which materials should be shielded by attorney-client privilege. But the Justice Department says it already has a separate group of prosecutors to do exactly that. A federal judge took up the question at a hearing yesterday, but the judge hasn't given a totally clear path forward.

INSKEEP: Let's figure out what's going on with Domenico Montanaro from the NPR politics team. Domenico, good morning.


INSKEEP: Would you work us through this decision, please?

MONTANARO: So Cohen and Trump were seeking to review the seized material first - the stuff that was taken from Michael Cohen's, you know, office, his hotel, his safe deposit box - before prosecutors. They wanted to review it. The judge said no to that, so that's put down. This is a blow to Trump and Cohen. You know, that seemed like a sort of long shot anyway. The judge indicated she had confidence in the Southern District of New York to work with integrity through this material, and she decided not yet to - whether or not she would appoint a special master, which would be an outside attorney who would look at the information first or maybe help the Justice Department's filter team to make that determination. So basically, where we are is that federal investigators at this point can keep what they've seized from Cohen's office. They can continue to categorize it all. But they just can't look at it yet.

INSKEEP: I guess we should be clear. Cohen was essentially saying, I want the right to decide whether some of these documents should be withheld. And the judge essentially said no to that. And then the next thing is, should somebody from the outside weigh in on whether certain documents should be withheld from prosecutors? And the judge is still thinking about that, right?

MONTANARO: Right. What's related to attorney-client privilege?

INSKEEP: OK. So that is substantively the ruling yesterday, but maybe not the bit in court that got the most attention.

MONTANARO: Yeah. The thing that got the most attention, was all over cable news yesterday was that client No. 3 for Michael Cohen was revealed, and that happened to be Fox News host Sean Hannity. Hannity...

INSKEEP: This is, like, the list of Cohen's clients. Who's he talking to? And this was a mystery name, and suddenly, it came out.

MONTANARO: It popped out because he didn't want to be revealed. He addressed it himself on his show yesterday. Here's what he had to say.


SEAN HANNITY: Michael never represented me in any matter. I never retained him in the traditional sense as retaining a lawyer.

MONTANARO: So he said Cohen represented him in no legal matters, that his conversations never involved any matter, by the way, between him and a third-party group. He said instead what they talked mostly about, Steve - real estate because he doesn't like the stock market.

INSKEEP: OK, so they talked about real estate, and nobody - I - he didn't represent me in any matter involving a third party. He's essentially saying, I don't have a Stormy Daniels situation. That's essentially what he's trying to say there. One other thing I got to ask you about, Domenico Montanaro - new NPR/NewsHour Marist poll out this morning which looks at what people think about the FBI and the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and its investigation. What are you finding?

MONTANARO: In a nutshell, Republicans like Robert Mueller and his investigation and the FBI less and less, and they see bias in the investigations and the FBI. Still, two-thirds think that Mueller should finish his job and not be fired.

INSKEEP: OK. Domenico, thanks very much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro.


INSKEEP: OK, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, may be hoping to shift the focus in his country from domestic issues to international issues.

KING: That's right. Today, Abe meets with President Trump at the president's resort in Florida. But back home, Abe is facing protests and very public anger. An estimated 50,000 people took part in demonstrations last weekend. They're calling for Abe to resign over cronyism scandals.

INSKEEP: Cronyism - well, let's talk about that with NPR's Elise Hu, who covers Japan.

Hey there, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: What happened here?

HU: Well, the scandals themselves are rather arcane, but they involve sweetheart land deals to Abe's friends. In recent weeks, files have leaked out showing that government officials in Japan tampered with documents to cover up what appeared to be preferential treatment for those friends. Abe himself, though, has denied personal involvement, but his entire cabinet is taking a hit in popularity. Abe's leadership approval rating is now down below 27 percent in one poll.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if we're seeing another of these global trends here, Elise. This has been an issue in certain ways in South Korea, where you are based. It has certainly been an issue for some people in the United States - the question of, how close is a top government official to certain businesses? That's the central question here, right?

HU: Right. In this case, there are deeply discounted land deals to set up not only a school, which had come up last year and then now in a more recent scandal - a veterinary business. And so again, this gets really into the weeds in Japanese politics. However, the overall result of it is that Abe is now facing rising public anger.

INSKEEP: Meaning that if you're the prime minister of Japan, you'd rather talk about a much simpler issue with President Trump, like, say, the North Korean nuclear threat.

HU: Oh, right. That's a real simple one. But Japan is, of course, North Korea's next-door neighbor, so its security is under threat here. And it's really fearing that North Korea will essentially be normalized as a nuclear state through these discussions, and if that happens, then North Korea's short- and medium-range missiles that could easily reach Japan will really put Japan under threat. So Abe's going to be pressing Trump on hopefully keeping Japan's interests in mind if he does indeed get to meet with Kim Jong Un in person.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, that was my other question. Has Japan indicated whether it's enthused at all about President Trump meeting the president of North Korea?

HU: Well, now Japan is supportive. Originally, of course, it was rather surprised by the decision to meet with Kim. But Japan is a longtime security ally of the United States and is supporting the potential talks.

INSKEEP: Elise, always a pleasure. Thanks very much.

HU: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elise Hu.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.