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White House claims Comey’s firing was due to handling of Clinton email case

May 9, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
In an abrupt and stunning development, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday, after receiving recommendations from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Judy Woodruff explores what we know so far with John Yang and gets reaction from John Dean, former White House counsel for President Nixon.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story is breaking right this minute.

President Trump has fired James Comey as the director of the FBI.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made the announcement just moments ago.

And here to tell us what we know at this time is our own White House correspondent John Yang.

John, this looks like a bolt out of the blue. What have you learned?

JOHN YANG: It was absolutely out of the blue.

It was after we were told, the White House press were told there would be no more news developments for the night. Sean Spicer walked into the Briefing Room, read a very brief statement saying that President Trump had fired James Comey on the recommendation of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

We’re getting letters. We’re slowly getting bits and pieces of the reasons why, the letters that Sessions sent to the president recommending this move and Rosenstein’s memo recommending it as well.

It appears to center around Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, ironically enough, that his announcement, his holding a press conference in July clearing her, but also criticizing her at the same time. Usually, they don’t make statements like that. Usually, they just say the investigation is closed, no charges have been brought.

Rosenstein said his memo that Comey — that — I’m sorry — he, Rosenstein, doesn’t understood Comey’s refusal to accept — quote — “nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken in that.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, mistaken in not going ahead and prosecuting Hillary Clinton for what happened with her e-mails?

JOHN YANG: As I understand it, mistaken in going public with what they had gathered and then saying we’re not going the prosecute, rather than just saying, we’re closing this investigation with no prosecution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John, did we know that this kind of an investigation was under way at the Justice Department looking into Comey’s handling of the Clinton e-mail matter?

JOHN YANG: The irony of this is that all this criticism had been coming from the Democrats, but apparently this was being looked at within the Justice Department.

Now, this is also an FBI director who was conducting an investigation into possible ties between the president’s campaign and Russia. There will be, I’m sure, conspiracy theorists. I’m sure there will be allegations of, were they looking for a reason to do this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And up until now, President Trump has given every indication that he wanted James Comey to continue.

JOHN YANG: Although today, very telling, perhaps tellingly, we don’t know, there was — after the letter was sent, he had to correct, clean up some of his testimony to the Senate regarding — again regarding this e-mail investigation, a separate instance.

Sean Spicer was asked, does the president — still have the support of the president? Sean said: I have not spoken to the president since this development. I would be reluctant to say that now without speaking to the president first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, John Yang, again, this story breaking just as we’re sitting here this evening. It broke just 15 minutes before we went on the air at 6:00 Eastern, learning that the — from the White House, the president has fired the FBI director, James Comey.

But the issue you’re talking about right now, John, has to do with what James Comey said last month when he testified before a Senate hearing and, in essence, he talked about how he had handled the Clinton e-mail matter.

JOHN YANG: And there had been questions all along in this process about whether or not Comey still had the support of the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JOHN YANG: And the question was asked again today, and Sean Spicer didn’t give the support.

Now, there is one interesting line in the president’s letter to Comey firing him. He said: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate investigations that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, John Yang, I want you to stay with us.

On the phone joining us now is someone who was a huge figure in the Watergate investigation back in the early 1970s, which, of course, led to the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon.

We’re joined on the phone by John Dean. He was the White House counsel then for President Nixon.

John Dean, you’re listening to this. What do you make of it?

JOHN DEAN, Former White House Counsel for President Nixon: Well, it’s not totally surprising. I was actually brooding about it at lunch and wondering how Comey was going to deal with the screw-up on his testimony.

And I thought, for the sake of the bureau, he might step down, because he’s really splashed mud all over themselves with this one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did you think this might be so serious? What was it about the mistake which he made in that testimony last month that had you questioning?

JOHN DEAN: Well, his rationale for how he handled the Clinton investigation vs. vis-a-vis the Trump investigation, where he disclosed one publicly and didn’t disclose the other, is — the rationale has been so thin, and the differences are really so inconsequential, that it made most — really no sense to what he was saying.

So, now when he gets up and bolsters his case with bogus evidence, he looks really bad. And he doesn’t look like a director with an even hand should look. So, I don’t know what Sessions — I didn’t hear anything about what Sessions’ position was, but I thought he was in trouble. I mean, that was just in the air to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was going to read just briefly from a portion of the letter that was just issued by the White House, by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

He says: “I have concluded a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI. It’s essential this Department of Justice clearly reaffirm its commitment to longstanding principles that ensure the integrity and fairness of federal investigations and prosecutions.”

They’re clearly trying to connect their concern about James Comey with the way the Justice Department operates and the confidence the American people and, of course, the president have to have in that.

JOHN DEAN: Absolutely true.

You know, it’s going to be very difficult. It’s not unlike post-Watergate, when they had a very difficult time deciding who to select, and we had a series of federal judges who were put in there who were absolutely beyond any kind of question. Bill Webster was put in that post, if you recall, a former sitting federal district court judge who had been a U.S. attorney in Saint Louis, and followed by William Sessions, who got fired.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Exactly.

Now, John Dean — we’re on the phone with John Dean, who, of course, was the White House counsel to Richard Nixon.

There are going to be a number of comparisons drawn out of this, one of them, of course, the Saturday night — so-called “Saturday Night Massacre,” when President Nixon fired his attorney general and others because they wouldn’t carry out his wishes in the time of Watergate.

Any connection with that, or is this a completely different set of circumstances?

JOHN DEAN: I think this is different, Judy. I think it doesn’t have any of that kind of feel.

Archibald Cox was defying the president and taking his own course of action and taking a — making a decision that was very much placing Nixon in jeopardy. So, I don’t think we have any similarities here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just refresh our memory on the role of the FBI director. This is intended to be an independent position, is it not? I’m asking to remind everyone that the FBI is conducting a critical investigation right now into any connections between the Trump campaign for president and Russian officials.

JOHN DEAN: Well, it was post-Watergate that they — indeed, after Hoover, that the Congress made this a 10-year appointment, to give it some independence, where it could go over from one president to the next.

The presidents do have the ability, if they don’t have confidence in the director, to fire him, but we have not seen that very often. It has been the exception to the rule. They have tried to depoliticize the bureau, which is the way it should be, where we have a politics-free federal investigation unit, but he is subject to the — reports to the attorney general, who, of course, is a political appointee.

So, there is always that filter. But yet just the weight of the bureau itself carries its own independence. And when it has strong leadership, it is highly respected. When that leadership has not been so strong, it has been suspect.

And we — you’re absolutely right. It couldn’t come at a more difficult time, given the implications of the Russian hacking and how that’s going to all unravel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, to wrap up, John Dean, your sense of what has happened here, you were saying at the outset, didn’t surprise you that much, given the mistake, mistake in testimony that it turns out James Comey gave to the Congress last month.

JOHN DEAN: Well, that certainly gave both — because of the delay in correcting it, you immediately knew there was a problem, because Republicans had leaped on it, they were using it for political purposes on bogus information, so it was going the embarrass them by undercutting them.

So I just knew there was trouble, and I didn’t know how far it would go, and I thought Comey himself might step away from it, rather than let anyone else resolve it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just to refresh anyone in the audience, what we’re speaking about is when Director Comey spoke before a Senate committee last month and talked about how e-mails were transmitted from Hillary Clinton’s e-mail — I mean, from her server to the e-mail account of her assistant, Huma Abedin, and then they were printed out on — by her husband, the former Congressman Anthony Weiner.

John Dean, thank you very much.

JOHN DEAN: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And here with me at the table at our studio in Washington, John Yang, our White House correspondent.

John, just to refresh everybody who may be tuning in, the breaking news just moments ago, President Trump has announced he’s fired the FBI director, James Comey.

You now have some — a little bit of new information.

JOHN YANG: That’s right, Judy.

We now have the memo that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote to the attorney general recommending this firing, and this does indeed center on that press conference that Comey held in July 2016 detailing — in which he detailed Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server and her handling of classified e-mails.

And in it, Rosenstein writes: “The director was wrong to usurp the attorney general’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the director to make such an announcement.”

He goes on: “Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle. We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously.”

And in conclusion, he writes, “Although the — says: “I agree with the nearly unanimous opinions of former department officials the way the director handled the conclusion of the e-mail investigation was wrong. As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, again, it’s going back to the announcement by James Comey last summer, blockbuster announcement, that he made public that the FBI had been looking into the Clinton e-mail matter and had determined that there was — that it was messy, that it was sloppy, what Hillary Clinton had done, in keeping these — putting in her personal e-mail server government e-mails, but he concluded that the law had not been broken and that they were not going to be — and that there was no criminal intent and they were not going to prosecute.

JOHN YANG: The irony, of course, Judy, is that that press conference gave Donald Trump the candidate so much grist for his campaign speeches, for his rallies. It led to the chants of “Lock her up,” and now this is the basis for him to fire the FBI director.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he was very critical then. Then, he himself was critical of Director Comey at that point, saying in effect that he was in the pocket of Hillary Clinton, he was doing what she wanted.

I remember we interviewed Hillary Clinton around that time. She pointed out — she and others pointed out James Comey had been known as a Republican before he came into the administration.

JOHN YANG: Exactly. And it was the Democrats, it was the Hillary Clinton campaign that blamed, has blamed and continues to blame James Comey for Donald Trump’s victory and her defeat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John, you have been covering this city for quite some time, as I have. What do you — what can you recall in the past that equates to this moment?

JOHN YANG: Yes, the only — I cannot recall anything in the recent past.

The only thing that you mentioned was the Saturday night massacre during Watergate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then we heard John Dean say it’s a different situation.

JOHN YANG: Exactly, exactly, exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s — what we heard from John Dean, in talking to Richard Nixon’s legal counsel just now, is that he’s not so surprised.

He said, when the FBI director makes a significant mistake like that and takes weeks to clear it up, to clarify, he said, that’s not good.

JOHN YANG: Although that’s not the reason why he’s being fired.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Exactly. And that was what got attention earlier today.

JOHN YANG: Yes, exactly. And that’s what sparked the question at the briefing about whether the president still had confidence and trust in Comey, a question Spicer declined to answer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Yang, this is a shocker.

So, unfair question: Any idea who will be named as a replacement?

JOHN YANG: All we know is that the president said that the search has begun, that they are looking for someone who will restore trust and confidence in the FBI.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

John Yang, I know you’re going to continue to report on this, our White House correspondent. Thank you, John.

JOHN YANG: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course we’re going to continue to update this story throughout the program.

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