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Kaine: Comey firing ‘clear attempt’ to block Russia probe

May 10, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has called the firing of James Comey outrageous. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his reaction and what he sees as a thread running back to the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia and its role in the election.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: On Capitol Hill, we have heard serious concerns raised by Republicans and calls from Democrats for a special counsel to investigate the Russia story.

We get reaction now to Mr. Trump’s firing of James Comey from Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee. He’s the Democratic senator from the state of Virginia, Tim Kaine.

Senator Kaine, thank you very much for joining us.

SEN. TIM KAINE, D-Va.: Glad to, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You called the firing of Director Comey outrageous.

Why?

SEN. TIM KAINE: I think this is a clear attempt by President Trump to thwart and block and undermine the investigation into collusion and ties between Russia and the Trump campaign transition and administration.

And there is now a pattern of very extraordinary personnel actions, the firing of Sally Yates, the firing of General Flynn, Attorney General Sessions having to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, and now the firing of Jim Comey.

And the thing, the thread that connects all these highly unusual actions is the investigation into Russia. President Trump is afraid of this. He’s trying to undermine it. And that should make us all redouble our efforts to, both on the criminal side, have a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of it, and, in Congress, the Senate International Committee needs to accelerate the pace and get the answers we need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator, I’m sure you know the White House is saying that that’s just not the case. They are saying they had a specific set of reasons for firing Director Comey. It had to do with the way he handled Secretary Clinton’s e-mail controversy. They had a different set of reasons for asking the national security adviser, General Flynn, to leave, and so on and so on.

So, why are you so convinced that the Russia investigation is at the core of all this?

SEN. TIM KAINE: Judy, again, let’s dig into the pattern.

Sally Yates is the deputy A.G., a career prosecutor. She goes to the White House and she says, we are worried that your sitting national security adviser is compromised by ties to Russia, and President Trump immediately fires not General Flynn. He fires Sally Yates.

He isn’t going to fire General Flynn until a few weeks later. The facts of Flynn’s ties to Russia and his lies to the vice president and the FBI come out, and, at that point, the Trump team is forced to fire General Flynn.

Attorney General Sessions is caught misleading the Senate Judiciary Committee about, of all things, his ties with Russia, and then is forced to recuse himself from the investigation into Russia, which is probably the most momentous investigation the Justice Department is doing right now.

And, today, Jim Comey — yesterday — gets fired as he’s in the midst of this investigation. Add to that President Trump’s letter. The letter, one-pager, signed by President Trump has a very unusual sentence in it that sticks out like a sore thumb, like in such an obvious way, firing the director of the FBI, but saying, but I do appreciate that you have told me three times that I’m not under investigation.

That’s like a poker player who’s got a bad face showing you with their face that they don’t like their hand. Him putting that letter — that phrase into the letter shows exactly what he is worried about and demonstrates that we have got to get to the bottom of this.

I’m on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

SEN. TIM KAINE: General Dunford, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the principal state adversary of the United States is Russia.

My son and his entire battalion were deployed on the border with Russia in 2016 because we’re trying to help our allies there protect themselves from Russian invasions of their sovereignty.

This is a dangerous nation we’re dealing with, and the investigation into the Russian ties drives this president nuts, and he’s very afraid of it. And we have strong reason to believe that that’s why Jim Comey was fired.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, once again, the White House is saying that that’s not the case. In fact, the White House said yesterday that they were prepared to send a certified letter, I believe it was to Senator Lindsey Graham, certifying that the president doesn’t have any connections to Russia, hasn’t had any connections to Russia.

So, they’re knocking this down. But I want to come back to…

SEN. TIM KAINE: But, Judy, a certified letter from a president who won’t let us see his tax returns to see what the financial connections is with Russia, nobody would accept that.

And up here, as I have talked to my Democratic and Republican colleagues, there’s not a single person I have talked to who believes that President Trump took this action today because, well, he doesn’t like the way that Jim Comey dealt with Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.

This is somebody who is nervous because he sees the net tightening in this Russia investigation. But we’re not going to be dissuaded from getting to the bottom of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what is the Democratic strategy? Because you are clearly in the minority in the Senate, in the House.

The — right now, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is saying he doesn’t see a need for a special counsel. What’s going to move — what’s going to move this?

SEN. TIM KAINE: Yes, very good question, Judy.

And I guess there’s probably three elements of strategy right now, but it’s not really Democratic strategy. It’s just what do we think that needs to be done to get to the bottom of the story.

There’s got to be a special prosecutor. When you have the attorney general already having to recuse himself from this investigation, that tells you that the Justice Department, I do not think, can be trusted to credibly lead this investigation into Russian collusion that needs to be independent. So, there needs to be a special prosecutor.

You’re right, the Democratic minority can’t force it on our own. But we do believe, as these facts come out, we will find Republican colleagues who will join us in the request.

Second, we need to get the key witnesses up to testify before us. Senators Burr and Warner have invited Jim Comey to come back next week. He was scheduled to be here tomorrow to testify. We need to hear from him. We also need to hear from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and especially Attorney General Sessions.

He recused himself from this matter, but then joined in the recommendation to fire Jim Comey. We view that as a violation of his recusal, and we want to know why.

And then the third thing is, every senator needs to make sure that we give the next FBI director nominee the most searching evaluation that we can to make sure that he’s not going to be cowed or pushed around by the White House or anyone, and that he will get to the bottom of this story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, again, Senator, what persuades you that Republicans are going to come around and agree with Democrats on this? I know some Republicans are expressing concerns about the timing…

SEN. TIM KAINE: They are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … in particular, some raising questions about the substance of the decision.

But, right now, it’s the Democrats who are arguing for a special counsel.

SEN. TIM KAINE: Yes, that is true, but there are Republicans who are raising concerns.

And, look, I have to — I have to at some point count on the patriotism of some of my Republican colleagues. This is a moment that tests them, in a way, more than it tests the Democrats. We are dealing with a Republican president.

But if the situation was reversed, Judy, if it was reversed, I have absolutely no doubt that every Republican in the Senate would be calling for a special prosecutor to go after a Hillary Clinton, if there was an investigation about her collusions with Russia and she fired the FBI director that was leading the criminal investigation.

It’s not even a close question. They would be calling for a special prosecutor. And I hope there are some who are willing to be consistent and willing to be patriotic, and take Russian influence, attempts to influence American politics seriously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, very quickly, Senator Kaine, I want to ask you if there’s not an inconsistency in your position, because it was just a few days ago that you said that Director Comey had broken the rules at the FBI, at the Justice Department, in the way he handled the closing of the Clinton e-mail investigation.

Now you’re saying — you’re defending him.

SEN. TIM KAINE: Judy, I did believe that, and I do believe that. But I have never called for him to be fired, because we have a law, as you know.

The law is, you give the FBI director a 10-year term, so that he is independent and free. Congress can criticize him. The president can criticize him. And that’s all fair game. But you give this individual a 10-year term so they can be independent and pursue the truth.

He was pursuing this investigation. And that’s why he got fired. And that’s wrong. And, as you know, that’s not happened in the history of this country. There’s only been one FBI director who was terminated, and it was after an investigation revealed that he was using public money for his own private benefit.

There wasn’t an investigation. There was no attempt to cover anything up. But firing an FBI director in the middle of the investigation, the only precedent in our history was President Nixon sacking the special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation.

That’s what this one look likes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

SEN. TIM KAINE: And there’s — this is no time to be putting on the brake on the investigation. We have to step on the gas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Tim Kaine, thank you very much.

SEN. TIM KAINE: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, for the record, we asked every Republican senator who voiced support for President Trump’s move, but they declined our invitation. We will continue to invite them to join us for an interview.

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