TOPICS > Politics

Justice Department names Russia probe special counsel as Trump faces fallout over Comey

May 17, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
As President Trump spoke about being scrutinized as a politician in an address at a graduation ceremony, there was no escape from growing political pressure on Capitol Hill. Late Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it was naming a former FBI director as a special counsel to lead the investigation into Russian election meddling and possible Trump ties. Lisa Desjardins joins John Yang.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JOHN YANG: We begin with breaking news.

The Justice Department has appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to oversee the investigation into any possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia in last year’s election.

For President Trump today, there was no escape from the fallout over allegedly pressuring the previous FBI director, James Comey, and about sharing secrets with the Russians. Talk of obstructing justice and endangering national security hung heavy in the air, even as the president spent the day on the road.

Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Things are not always fair.

LISA DESJARDINS: The firestorm in Washington clearly on the president’s mind at the Coast Guard Academy’s graduation in New London, Connecticut.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Look at the way I have been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.

LISA DESJARDINS: He gave this advice to graduates.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You will find that things happen to you that you do not deserve and that are not always warranted. But you have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight.

LISA DESJARDINS: The president didn’t directly address the last day’s headlines. Those started with this report from The New York Times citing unnamed sources saying, in February, Mr. Trump spoke to former Director of the FBI James Comey about an investigation of his adviser Michael Flynn, and told Comey, “I hope you can let this go.”

That reportedly happened a day after Flynn was fired as national security adviser for lying about his contacts with the Russians. Comey himself was fired last week. The White House has denied the story, insisting the president never asked anyone to end any investigation.

But it all meant a new round of shockwaves across Capitol Hill. Democrats renewed calls for an independent commission or a special prosecutor on the Russia connection and Trump’s firing of Comey.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: The events of the last two weeks have shaken my confidence in this administration’s competence and credibility.

REP. RUBEN KIHUEN, D-Nev.: Look, enough is enough. President Trump’s unchecked and reckless behavior is impacting the national security of the United States of America.

LISA DESJARDINS: Among Republicans, Senator Lisa Murkowski Of Alaska also joined the call for a special counsel at the Department of Justice.

REP. RICK ALLEN, R-Ga.: Yes, I am praying for the president.

LISA DESJARDINS: Others, like Georgia Congressman Rick Allen, indicated concern for the White House.

REP. RICK ALLEN: How do you endure all this, so, and still try to govern?

LISA DESJARDINS: House Speaker Paul Ryan is withholding any conclusion for now, saying Congress has to get to the bottom of all this.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: We need the facts. It is obvious that there are some people out there who want to harm the president. But we have an obligation to carry out our oversight, regardless of which party is in the White House.

LISA DESJARDINS: Alongside those words, a sudden flurry of activity. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz asked the FBI to send all memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings about contact between James Comey and the president. And the committee says it hopes to have Comey testify next week.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is also asking for Comey to testify, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is now getting involved, sending letters to the FBI and the White House asking for all memos and recordings as well.

Republican Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan went so far as to say, if the Comey memo is true, it would be grounds for impeachment.

But California Democrat Adam Schiff, ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee and a leading Trump critic, said it’s too soon to go there.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-Calif.: No one ought to, in my view, rush to embrace, you know, the most extraordinary remedy, that involves the removal the president from office.

LISA DESJARDINS: Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his own offer to Congress over reports that President Trump discussed highly classified information with Russian diplomats last week. Putin spoke at a news conference in Sochi, Russia.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): If the U.S. considers it necessary, we are ready to provide the Senate and U.S. Congress with a record of the conversation between Lavrov and Trump.

LISA DESJARDINS: Putin also decried what he called anti-Russian sentiment.

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin covers Russia. He spoke to us from the Dagestan region.

NICK SCHIFRIN: President Putin expressed a genuine frustration that, in his view, the Washington establishment won’t let President Trump improve the bilateral relationship. And he said he was concerned by Washington’s unpredictability.

But, at the same time, he cracked a joke at the U.S.’ expense, and the video showed senior Russian officials laughing. There’s a certain schadenfreude here in seeing Washington suffer such turbulence. As the senior Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman put it yesterday: “How do we live in this unstable world of information? With pleasure.”

LISA DESJARDINS: Meanwhile, with the president back in Washington tonight, the next act in this political drama is set tomorrow. That’s when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will brief the full Senate over the firing of James Comey and handling of the Russia investigation.

JOHN YANG: So, repeating the breaking news we reported at the top of the show, moments ago, the Justice Department announced that Robert Mueller, who is the former head of the FBI, is the special counsel to investigate connections between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 campaign.

Now, we go back to Lisa Desjardins on Capitol Hill.

Lisa, have you gotten any reaction to this from lawmakers yet?

LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right. We have put out some calls, and we have a little bit of reaction from the House Democrat Leader’s office, Nancy Pelosi’s office.

They say they are furiously writing a statement, but they have told me that this doesn’t change their call for an independent commission, which is what they were working on today. They have been asking for an independent counsel of this sort, but they say they still want more than that.

From Republicans, our Capitol Hill producer Julie Percha just talked to Representative Peter King of New York. He is on the House Intelligence Committee. He told her that he thinks there was no allegation of a crime here, and he’s not sure a special counsel is needed.

So, no surprise, John, in this divided Congress, we have divided reaction right now to this announcement.

JOHN YANG: But is this going to turn the temperature down, do you think, on some of the rhetoric we’re hearing, especially from the Democrats?

LISA DESJARDINS: I think one factor here, in the choice of Robert Mueller, is that he is very well-known here and very well-respected in Congress.

That could help Republicans sort of say that we think there will be an up-and-up investigation that could get to the facts of the Russia probe. Now, at the same time, we have to remember that could be separate from what Congress does in this matter of potential obstruction of justice at the White House.

That’s where we’re seeing a lot of attention, especially in the Senate today, John, a lot of big decisions over how the Senate goes forward, and who handles those questions of what the president did or didn’t tell Mr. Comey about whether he should investigate Michael Flynn.

JOHN YANG: And, of course, that is going on, the Intelligence Committee calling for documents, the Judiciary Committee calling for documents. Where do you think that’s going to head from here?

LISA DESJARDINS: There’s a key person to watch, John. That is Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

No coincidence he was out of the spotlight today. He’s got a big decision to make. How hard does he press this matter? Traditionally, the Judiciary Committee is where you would see an obstruction of justice investigation or looking into this.

But is that where Republicans want to go when it is their own president who is in the questioning — who is being questioned here? It’s probably a decision for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Chuck Grassley. And Mr. Grassley sort of seemed to go out of his way today, John, to avoid reporters.

Dianne Feinstein, who is the ranking Democrat on that committee, said she absolutely wants Judiciary to be a lead committee on these questions. They are certainly stepping up their involvement, as you said, asking for more documents today, along with two other committees.

We are posting online all of these developments. It’s hard to keep track, but, right now, three committees asking for documents involving Mr. Comey, and that’s in addition to the two investigations in Congress in the Intelligence Committees on Russia.

JOHN YANG: Lisa Desjardins on Capitol Hill keeping up with these events that are fast-breaking, thank you very much, Lisa.

SHARE VIA TEXT