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Comey firing unleashes firestorm from Capitol Hill

May 10, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
President Trump's stunning move to fire FBI Director James Comey has left a wake of questions and condemnations from across the political spectrum. William Brangham recaps the reactions and the events leading up to the firing, then John Yang and Lisa Desjardins join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest from Capitol Hill and the White House.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Since this is only the second time a U.S. president has fired the head of the FBI, the initial shockwaves from Mr. Trump’s stunning move left a wake of questions and condemnations from across the political spectrum.

William Brangham begins with where we are now and how we got here.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He wasn’t doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That was it, President Trump’s verdict this morning in the Oval Office over his firing of FBI Director James Comey.

The president’s termination letter to Comey yesterday said the move was necessary to restore public trust in the agency. An attachment from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, faulted Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave more detail today.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, Deputy White House Press Secretary: Frankly, he had been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected. I think that Director Comey has shown over the last several months and, frankly, the last year a lot of missteps and mistakes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In a tweet this morning, the president said: “Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me.”

But little was calm on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue today. Vice President Mike Pence was on Capitol Hill, and offered a longer defense of the president’s decision.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: President Trump provided the kind of strong and decisive leadership the American people have come to be accustomed from him. And he took the action necessary to remove Director Comey. That’s why this was the right decision at the right time.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meanwhile, senators faced nonstop questions about what Comey’s firing means for the ongoing probes into Russia’s meddling in the election, and whether the Trump campaign colluded in that meddling.

Democrats said the firing would lead Americans to suspect a cover-up, and they repeated calls for a special counsel.

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that would be counterproductive.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., Majority Leader: Today, we will no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done, also to let this body and the national security community develop countermeasures.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Minority Leader Chuck Schumer questioned the president’s timing.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: Why did it happen last night? We know Director Comey was leading an investigation in whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, a serious offense. Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Schumer later laid out Democratic demands that Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein not be the one to appoint the special counsel.

The day was also filled with a drumbeat of opinions on what should, and shouldn’t, happen next.

MAN: North Carolina: The timing and the reasons for this decision made little sense to me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has asked Comey to testify next week.

SEN. RICHARD BURR, R-N.C.: I’m not in favor in favor of a special prosecutor because I think that the committee can carry out its responsibility,

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said a special counsel was crucial.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D-Conn.: I will vote against any confirmation of an FBI director unless there is support for a special prosecutor.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This, of course, isn’t the first time that partisan furor over James Comey and his running of the FBI has flared up. Over the last year, both Democrats and Republicans have, at one time or another, demanded his dismissal or come to his defense.

The first major controversy came last year, at the height of the presidential campaign. On July 5, Comey took the unusual step of speaking publicly about the results of the FBI’s Clinton e-mail investigation. While scolding Clinton for being extremely careless with her use of a private server, Comey said the FBI wasn’t recommending criminal charges.

JAMES COMEY, Former FBI Director: Our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Republicans on the Hill were outraged. Then-candidate Trump accused Comey of going easy on his Democratic rival.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And then to have what happened today, where essentially, I thought, everybody thought, based on what was being said, she was guilty, she was guilty, And it turned out that we’re not going to press charges. It’s really amazing.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Comey was soon again in the spotlight. On October 28, just 11 days before the election, Comey announced he’d reopened the Clinton investigation after the discovery of possibly new e-mails.

In a letter to Congress, he wrote: “Although the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, I believe it is important to update your committees about our efforts in light of my previous testimony.”

On the campaign trail, candidate Trump seized on the letter, and cheered Comey’s move.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It took a lot of guts. I really disagreed with him. I wasn’t his fan. But I will tell you what. What he did, he brought back his reputation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But days later, when Comey said the FBI’s conclusions had not changed, Mr. Trump lashed out, accusing Comey of protecting Clinton once again.

For her part, Clinton, just days after losing the election, said Comey’s letter was one of the reasons she wasn’t president.

Meanwhile, now-president-elect Trump seemed to embrace Comey, saying he had no intention of replacing him at the FBI, and then welcoming Comey at the White House soon after the inauguration.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He’s become more famous than me.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Comey was soon once again in the hot seat over the bureau’s separate investigation into Russian meddling in the election and whether Trump officials participated in that process.

A central target of the investigation was then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He was fired in mid-February for misleading the vice president about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was at the time heading the investigation into Russian ties, until it surfaced that he had not revealed his own meetings with Russian officials during the campaign. That forced him to recuse himself from the probes.

Taking charge, the new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who wrote the memo recommending Comey’s dismissal. When Rosenstein was pressed by Democrats at his confirmation hearing to commit to appoint a special counsel, he refused, calling it a matter of principle.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. Deputy Attorney General: I would evaluate the facts and the law, consider the applicable regulations, consult with career professionals in the department, and then exercise my best judgment.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Then, on March 20, Comey confirmed an FBI counterintelligence investigation of the Trump White House and former campaign staffers’ possible ties to Russia.

JAMES COMEY: That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: When Comey appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, the questioning inevitably returned to his fateful decision to reopen the Clinton e-mail investigation just days before the election.

JAMES COMEY: Look, this was terrible. It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election. But, honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The president, who lauded Comey when he was investigating Clinton, has also attacked the FBI for its Russia investigation.

On Monday, the day before he fired Comey, President Trump tweeted: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax. When will this taxpayer-funded charade end?”

And then today, the president met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the White House, joined by the same Russian ambassador whose friendliness with the Trump team led to Flynn’s firing and Sessions’ recusal.

Afterward, Lavrov brushed off questions of alleged Russian active measures in last year’s election.

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): Well, there is not a single fact, there is no compelling evidence given to anyone regarding Russia’s intervention, and that’s it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: How the probe unfolds, in part, will be up to Comey’s successor. Attorney General Sessions and his deputy began interviewing candidates for interim FBI chief today.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now for the latest at the White House and on Capitol Hill, we turn to our own John Yang and Lisa Desjardins.

John, let me start with you.

It’s been about 24 hours exactly since this decision came down. What have you learned in the interim about where this all started? What was the genesis of it?

JOHN YANG: Well, White House officials describe an increasingly angry and frustrated president for the couple of weeks, angry and frustrated that Comey was appearing before Congress, talking about the FBI investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign during the election last year, but not offering any new details.

The president felt that there was nothing there there and it was time for it to be over. But, according to deputy principal — assistant secretary — deputy — sorry — Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, the president didn’t ask for the rationale to fire Comey on Monday when he met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

She says that the two Justice Department officials are the ones who brought up their concerns about Comey’s performance and, as a result of that, the president asked Rosenstein to put it in writing, to get a memo, and when he got that memo on Tuesday, he acted quickly, and decided to fire Comey.

But he held that decision so closely that there was no plan to roll out the announcement. There was no plan to explain the announcement afterward. It was, in the words of one official I talked to today, total and utter chaos, and I should say, he added, “even by our standards.”

The result was this firestorm last night, which they say they didn’t expect. They thought Democrats would welcome the firing of Comey after the criticism of what he did with the Clinton e-mails. But, of course, that was a miscalculation on their part.

Today, Sanders said that the president intended to meet with the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe. This would be the second meeting in 24 hours, and offer to go to the FBI to talk to FBI agents at headquarters to try to boost morale.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, fascinating.

And, Lisa, meantime, on Capitol Hill, some of the reaction has been explosive from Democrats. Republicans have had a mix of reaction. But let’s start with the Democrats. What are they saying?

LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right, not just saying things, but doing things today.

Democrats, first of all, are continuing their call for a special counsel in this case. They’re raising that call. And, in fact, today, Judy, they froze committee hearings in order to try and make their point. They can only do that today.

But Democrats are trying to get across the idea that they are willing to use every procedural means they have to try and force a special counsel. Now, they also are saying that they think not only is Attorney General Jeff Sessions someone who shouldn’t be involved in the special counsel decision, but also the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, the man we’re talking about so much, they say he now seems to be biased because of the letter that he wrote.

They want him to not be involved in this. They want a civil servant, someone who is not politically appointed, to be in charge of that special counsel decision. A lot of developments. Dianne Feinstein told me she felt that Rosenstein’s letter was just a series of quotes about James Comey, that it didn’t give legal arguments.

She also raised a concern, confirmed to me other and reporters that in fact she knows that James Comey was hoping to expand this investigation and that he had made that known in the past week or so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Lisa, just very quickly, what are Republicans saying?

LISA DESJARDINS: Republicans are a mixed bag, as you say, Judy.

Many of them are supportive in general of the idea that James Comey was a good public servant. They have known him for years. But their biggest talking point was that they think they have faith in the FBI. There are some who say the timing was a problem, like Ron Johnson.

There are others, like Lisa Murkowski and Bob Corker, who say they’re still considering what to do. And then there are still others like John McCain who say they are very concerned about every aspect of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, John Yang at the White House, both of you continuing to follow this story, thank you both.

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