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Morning News Brief: Why Trump Fired Comey, And What's Next For The FBI


Seven years before the end of his term, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is out.


Yeah. President Trump once called James Comey gutsy for taking on Hillary Clinton. And then yesterday, President Trump announced that Comey is fired. Many in Congress said they are puzzled by this. Here is Senate Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer.


CHUCK SCHUMER: The first question the administration has to answer is, why now? If the administration had objections to the way Director Comey handled the Clinton investigation, they had those objections the minute the president got into office, but they didn't fire him then. Why did it happen today?

GREENE: And Steve, there are some Republicans who also sound pretty baffled. Richard Burr, who leads a Senate probe into Russian meddling in the election, says he's troubled by the timing and the reasoning for this firing.

INSKEEP: And that's the beginning of our discussion here. NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly is in our studios. Good morning.


INSKEEP: And also our political editor Domenico Montanaro joins us once again. Domenico, good morning to you.


INSKEEP: So what was the president's timing and reasoning, to use Richard Burr's phrase, Mary Louise?

KELLY: Well, as we know, the question that Schumer put there - Senator Schumer put there about why now. If there were problems - and a lot of people had problems with how Jim Comey handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation...

INSKEEP: Which is the official reason here, you mishandled...

KELLY: The official reason...

INSKEEP: ...The investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails.

KELLY: ...That was given by the attorney general and the deputy attorney general - why not fire him in the first few days of the administration? So the inevitable question that that leads us to is, what does this have to do with the Russia investigation?

INSKEEP: But strictly speaking - just to give the president's side of this, or the attorney general - deputy attorney general's side of this - he's the guy who wrote a letter here - they're saying, you were - you kept making these public statements about Hillary Clinton's emails. You departed from normal bureau practices, and you haven't admitted any kind of error. That's the reason, right?

KELLY: Correct. And that is the official reason. That is a reason that was on display last week when Jim Comey was testifying before two committees on the Hill. There was a little wrinkle in that, where Comey made a mistake in some of his testimony. And the Justice Department has been trying to figure out how they walk that back and correct the record. But given all the water under the bridge so far, it is hard to imagine that that is what has led us to this moment.

INSKEEP: Domenico, has the president always objected to James Comey's handling of Hillary Clinton's emails?

MONTANARO: No, he hasn't. He said - back in October, he told supporters it took guts for Director Comey to make the move he made in light of opposition to trying to get a criminal prosecution for Hillary Clinton. He said he's got to hang tough. That's certainly different than firing him. You know, this letter from the deputy attorney general is dated yesterday. But Steve, I have to tell you, you asked about timing and reasoning. I would call this suspicious timing and convenient reasoning at best.

INSKEEP: And also there's the fact that while the deputy attorney general says it was about Hillary Clinton's emails, an investigation going back many months, Kellyanne Conway, presidential adviser, seemed to say something quite different yesterday on CNN. Let's listen to a bit.


KELLYANNE CONWAY: This has nothing to do with a campaign from six months ago. This has...


CONWAY: ...Everything to do with the performance of the FBI director since the president has been in the White House.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's talk about the performance of the FBI director since the president has been in the White House. What was Comey's department, the FBI, also handling - what high-profile investigation was happening?

KELLY: Well, he was of course running the Russia investigation into - until last night. And this will raise questions as to whether President Trump is seeking to influence that investigation in some way.

GREENE: It's just amazing how abrupt this was. Isn't it? I mean, Comey was - found out about his firing while he was talking to FBI employees in Los Angeles. The news broke on a TV. He started laughing because he thought it was a prank. I mean, Congress set up this job, a 10-year term, hoping it would be independent. Comey was just in Year 3. So I think regardless of the motive here - was, you know - was the president concerned about how he handled the email scandal with Hillary Clinton? Does this have to do with Russia? Either way, this is not a day that Congress envisioned or wanted to see.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's remember the backstory to all of this, which, by the way, does include the story of Hillary Clinton's emails.

GREENE: Yeah, it sure does. I mean, this all started back in July of last year. Then-candidate Donald Trump was critical of the FBI director after he announced that he would not recommend charges against Hillary Clinton for using that private email server. But then Comey stunned a lot of people when he announced that he was reopening the investigation, and that was just 11 days before voters went to the polls in this extraordinary election. This is where things started to turn around. Here's what Trump had to say right after the FBI director's announcement.


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.


TRUMP: It took a lot of guts.

GREENE: All right. So that's how the relationship was looking before President Trump took office.

INSKEEP: And then, Mary Louise, he had an opportunity, the President did, I suppose to replace James Comey if he really wanted to.

KELLY: He could have. The FBI director serves at the president's pleasure, so he could have replaced him at any time. I mean, I think if you had to pick a moment in what has clearly been a difficult relationship between Trump and his FBI director, I would point you back to one day, March 20. This is when Jim Comey appeared on Capitol Hill. He was testifying before the House intelligence committee, and he was asked about the president's tweets, President Trump's tweets, saying that he'd been wiretapped and accusing the Obama administration and President Obama personally of ordering those wiretaps. So he was asked about it. Here he is testifying.


JAMES COMEY: With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets.

KELLY: And I...


COMEY: And we have looked carefully inside the FBI.

KELLY: I remember watching that moment as it unfolded in real time and thinking, is that sustainable? You have a sitting FBI director directly contradicting the president of the United States while running an investigation into that president's campaign.

INSKEEP: Domenico.

MONTANARO: And if there's anything that this president doesn't like, it's questioning, you know, things that related to his wins or his tweets. You know, remember James Comey also very recently said that he was mildly nauseous when it came to the idea of thinking that perhaps him coming out during the election had influenced the election. Putting those things together, if you're Donald Trump watching on cable news, you know, it doesn't give you a whole lot of confidence that this guy has your back.

INSKEEP: OK. So the president has made his move, firing James Comey, the director of the FBI. The deputy director now becomes the acting director. And the next question is, what, if anything, Congress does?

GREENE: Yeah, Steve, and we've been watching reaction from lawmakers. There's been a range. I mean, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has been supportive of this move, talking of a fresh start at the FBI. We heard Republican Richard Burr is troubled; so is Republican Jeff Flake. And now here's a little bit more from Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer speaking last night.


SCHUMER: The American people need to have faith that an investigation as serious as this one is being conducted impartially, without a shred of bias. The only way the American people can have faith in this investigation is for it to be led by a fearless, independent special prosecutor.

INSKEEP: OK. Because we've heard from Chuck Schumer, we're obliged to hear from President Trump's response to Chuck Schumer. He was tweeting last night, wasn't he, Domenico?

MONTANARO: He certainly was. He said that Cryin' (ph) Chuck Schumer stated recently, I do not have confidence in him - James Comey - any longer, then acts so indignant - #DrainTheSwamp. So look, you know...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Isn't that part of the awkwardness here? Democrats were not happy with James Comey at all.

MONTANARO: Absolutely. But, you know, Clinton campaign officials - former Clinton campaign officials were tweeting about this last night, saying that, look, they don't have any tears for James Comey. But now they worry that they won't get to the bottom of the Russia investigation.

You know, I think we should put this in some context, too. You know, think about the three people that Donald Trump has fired so far - Sally Yates, who WAS the deputy attorney general then the acting attorney general; Preet Bharara, who was the U.S. attorney in New York; and now James Comey - all three were surprised. All three were summarily terminated by letter. And all three were investigating parts of Trump world.

INSKEEP: OK. So now that all that has happened, Mary Louise, where does the Russia investigation in particular and the examination of the Trump campaign go next?

KELLY: Well, I think the question is whether the investigation goes forward at the FBI. I mean - if you fire the head of the FBI, you have to pick a new head of the FBI. And it will be someone picked by President Trump who will have the ability to say, this has run its course; we don't need to do anymore.

INSKEEP: This is a job for Senate confirmation, though - right?

KELLY: Right.

INSKEEP: Because senators would have an opportunity to say, you're going to investigate this more or not.

KELLY: So this upends investigation, certainly, because there is a delay while that whole confirmation process plays out. And then, again, who knows where this goes next? I think the Senator Burr comments, which we mentioned, are no small thing. This is a guy...

INSKEEP: Senate intelligence committee chairman.

KELLY: Chairman - Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, a former adviser to the Trump campaign. He says he is troubled by this and that it will set back his committee's investigation because of course there's the FBI investigation and then efforts unfolding on the Hill as well.

TRUMP: Any sense of whether Senator John McCain's call for a separate committee to look into this is going anywhere? What would that mean?

KELLY: There's momentum for that. Senator McCain has called before, and he says that this increases the need for a special committee and meanwhile, from a lot of Democrats and some Republicans now, calls for an independent prosecutor.

GREENE: You know, as we look forward, - I mean, it's amazing to take the long view here. This is a job that last 10 years, so whoever's in this job, I mean, might be dealing with something - we have no idea what it will be - nine years from now. But we come to this moment - at the beginning of his or her tenure, all the focus is going to be this Russia investigation and can he or she carry that out credibly.

INSKEEP: OK. Dramatic day in the news. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly and Domenico Montanaro are here to guide us through it. Thanks, guys. Really appreciate you coming in.

KELLY: You're welcome.

MONTANARO: You're always welcome. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBFUSC'S "LANGUAGE OF MEMORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.