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How Would James Comey Be Received on Capitol Hill?

May 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama's likely nomination of James Comey as FBI director could prove an easy confirmation with bipartisan support. Judy Woodruff talks to Bloomberg News' Phil Mattingly and New York Times' Michael Schmidt about the former deputy attorney general's qualifications for the job and possible partisan reaction from Congress.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how would Comey be received on Capitol Hill? And what challenges lay ahead for the FBI and the beleaguered Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder?

We turn to Phil Mattingly of Bloomberg News and Michael Schmidt of The New York Times.

Welcome to you both.

Phil Mattingly, why did the president turn to Jim Comey from the Bush administration?

PHIL MATTINGLY, Bloomberg News: Well, Jim Comey kind of checks all of the boxes.

In a particularly polarized time, he’s a Republican, a Bush appointee, but he’s one, as we just heard, gained a lot of respect from Democrats during his role in the Bush administration. He’s one that’s going to get support from both sides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Schmidt, what is it about his resume, his experience that qualifies him for this job?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, The New York Times: Well, he’s pretty much done everything at the Justice Department.

He prosecuted Martha Stewart. He prosecuted terrorists. He appointed someone to look — to do a leak investigation. He dealt with significant national security issues between 2003 and 2005. He did gun cases in Richmond, Va. So there’s a wide swathe of things, and in all of them he’s gotten very high accolades.

And in the sort of the culture — sort of the temperature up on Capitol Hill, he’s seen as someone who will be fairly easy or easier to get confirmed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phil Mattingly, what about his views? We heard a little bit of that in the clip just a second ago, but his views on civil liberties, do they square with those of the Obama administration? What do we know about that?

PHIL MATTINGLY: So, it’s a bit of an interesting mix.

We have already heard from the ACLU, who came out with a statement just about an hour ago, that said, look, we understand that he’s viewed kind of as a white knight by Democrats for his willingness to stand up to senior Bush officials back in 2004. However, he still signed off on a number of the programs that the Bush administration used to counter terrorism.

So, it’s kind of a split-the-difference-type issue. I think the important thing that you are going to see from the Obama administration, and the important pitch to Capitol Hill with his nomination is, look, on some of the most egregious of programs, as determined by the lawyers at the Justice Department, Jim Comey was willing to stand firm, to stand up to the most senior officials, and really take a stand for civil liberties, despite some of the programs he signed off on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Schmidt, how unusual was it for the deputy attorney general to stand up to the White House counsel, the White House chief of staff?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, I think he was — I think what he was doing there, he’s gotten credit for, is standing up for the law, what people say, in the face of politics.

And I’m sure there have been a lot of examples of it, but I’m not sure there has ever been one where it defined someone’s career as much as his. I’m not sure whether we would be talking about a nomination for him today if that story had not come out. It gives him certainly a bipartisan feel that’s very different than certainly the other person who was considered for the job, Lisa Monaco, who works at the White House, and pretty much anybody else.

So, there’s something kind of different about him that distinguishes him here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should say the president — there has not been an announcement. This has been — it’s out there in the media. It’s expected, but we don’t know for sure.

I want to ask you both about what is going on right now at the Justice Department.

Phil Mattingly, you had — today, the attorney general, Eric Holder, reached out to news organizations. This is in the middle of a lot of controversy about how aggressive the Justice Department has been in going after reporters in investigating government leaks, classified information.

Why did they want — why do they want these meetings today with news organization executives?

PHIL MATTINGLY: This is Attorney General Holder, and this is actually at the request the President Obama.

This is his effort to reach out. I think people familiar with this within the Justice Department are saying, there has been a sense at DOJ, in the attorney general’s front office that maybe on these leak investigations, there might have been some overreach.

There are at least some issues that they wish would have gone a little bit different or at least appeared a little different. He’s reaching out in an effort to draw — to start at least a dialogue for this review ordered by President Obama.

Now, the media organization reaction to that I think has been mixed. The Justice Department wants these meetings to be off the record. Several media organizations, I think eight up to this point, have said, if it’s not on the record, we don’t want to do it. So, I think what you saw — what you’re seeing right now is the Justice Department reaching out and maybe not getting the response that they wanted, but at least it’s a start to a process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Schmidt, we know that the editor of The New York Times, we’re reading today, Jill Abramson, said The New York Times would not participate in a meeting they were invited to.

What do we know about any meeting that happened today?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: All we really know is that the meeting is going on or was going on this after afternoon.

And, beyond that, nothing else has really come out. And, you know, we’re sort of waiting, like everyone else.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why — is there a sense, Michael Schmidt, that the — that Justice, that officials at Justice, whether it’s the attorney general or people around him — and, for that matter, the White House — are now regretting happened with these episodes, going after the AP, going after a reporter at FOX News?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Yes, I mean, it certainly — I don’t think you would have seen what was going to go on today in that type of meeting if these things hadn’t come out.

So there’s certainly an effort to reach out and to try and sort of assuage some of the fears about what’s going on. Now, will that have any impact or how seriously that will be taken I think remains to be seen. It seems to be sort of mixed at best so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phil Mattingly, why — what is the sense of why the attorney general has managed to engender some really tough criticism that has been aimed in his direction, not just from Republicans, who have been critical of him from the beginning of the administration, but now the news media and even some Democrats very critical of him?

PHIL MATTINGLY: Well, look, as you know, throughout his four-and-a-half years as attorney general, he’s gotten a lot of pressure from Capitol Hill, almost entirely from Republicans, on a number of different issues.

What makes — what differentiates what is going on right now is you have got Democrats, you have got some liberal commentators who are coming out and really kind of not only questioning his role in these leak investigations, but actually asking for him to step down or asking for him to at least consider that process.

I think what you’re seeing out of his office right now and what you’re seeing out of the Justice Department, why they’re reaching out, why they’re involved in this review, is they’re understanding, they’re grasping kind of the enormity of what has occurred here. And I think they’re trying to address it before it snowballs into a bigger issue. JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s your sense, Michael Schmidt, of how the attorney general has managed to draw so much attention, and a lot of it not positive?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, he seems to get the most criticism out of all of the Cabinet secretaries, and it seems to happen every few months and certainly several times a year, where there’s something like this that blows up.

So it makes you wonder what he’s doing and why he’s not maybe being proactive enough to have — you know, to try and knock some of these things down, because certainly the other secretaries deal with controversial things like this, and probably the attorney general is one of the most controversial, but he doesn’t seem to be able to fend it off the way that the others do.

Maybe he’s too aloof or — you know, I’m not sure. But I was talking to one senior government official today who said that, early on, in Fast and Furious, there was — he had a lot of trouble sort of pushing back on that, and that allowed it to snowball and to become this sort of Republican issue that they have used against Holder and the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quickly, finally, Phil Mattingly, connection between the difficulties Holder’s having and the choice of Comey?

PHIL MATTINGLY: I don’t — I think this decision was made really before all of this stuff blew up, is my understanding from talking to government officials.

I think the idea the timing of it doesn’t hurt. And certainly going after a bipartisan pick like this, if nothing else, it shifts the narrative for a day or two. And, certainly, when Jim Comey is on the Hill representing the administration as a nominee, whenever that does occur, I think that looks better for the administration than having Eric Holder trying to fend off issues about leak investigations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. And, again, we want to stress there has not been a nomination yet. We’re — but — but a lot of news reports that point in that direction.

Phil Mattingly, Michael Schmidt, we thank you both.