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Should Comey have spoken up against Trump’s request?

Former FBI Director James Comey was asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein why he didn't clearly speak up against President Trump's request to drop the criminal investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Judy Woodruff gets analysis from John Carlin, Carrie Cordero, Greg Craig and George Terwilliger, four people with extensive experience in government and the law.

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    All right, let's look now at another exchange that was notable.

    Here's Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. She's asking Comey about President Trump's request to drop the criminal investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.


    Now, here's the question. You're big. You're strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn't you stop and say, Mr. President, this is wrong, I cannot discuss this with you?

  • JAMES COMEY, Former Director, FBI:

    It's a great question. Maybe, if I were stronger, I would have.

    I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in. And the only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind — because I could remember every word he said — I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? That's why I very carefully chose the words.

    Look, I've seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes.

    I remember saying, "I agree he is a good guy," as a way of saying, I'm not agreeing with what you just asked me to do."

    Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance. But that was — that's how I conducted myself. I hope I'll never have another opportunity. Maybe, if I did it again, I'd do it better.


    How do you — Carrie Cordero, listening to that, how did he handle that?


    The difficulty is that there really was, at least from the way that the former director testified today, he felt like there was nobody else that he could go to in the administration to talk to about this.

    He had Attorney General Sessions, who is somehow implicated in the investigation in some way, to the extent that he would have to be recused. This is the president who, as the FBI director in his executive capacity, he does have to provide him with information if the president asks for it.

    So, he was in a position, I think, where there was nobody else that he could really discuss this with, given the lack of confirmed leadership positions in the Department of Justice at the time, and given the fact that he is directly reporting to the attorney general and ultimately to the president.


    George Terwilliger, how do you read this? You have the senator saying, why didn't he just speak up in the moment?



    And, frankly, I can't buy the argument that there was no one he could go to. Dana Boente, a career assistant United States attorney and United States attorney, an Obama appointee…


    Who was then acting…


    … was the acting deputy attorney general at the time, and was perfectly available for Mr. Comey to talk to.

    Comey had served with Dana when Dana was a United States attorney for several years. So, I don't buy that explanation. And it's part of a pattern of Mr. Comey resorting to self-help because he feels like he's the lone ranger who is out there carrying the sword of righteousness forward.

    Jim has served this country honorably for a very long time, but I really think, Judy, he made some mistakes last July when he usurped the function of the Department of Justice in deciding about the Hillary Clinton e-mail case.

    He made a major mistake at that time in, in essence, indicting Hillary Clinton in the court of public opinion, and everything since then has flowed the wrong way.


    How do you see that continuum, John Carlin?


    Well, look, if true, it's hard to even describe how unusual it would be for a president of the United States, whether it's President Bush or President Obama, to have a meeting, order everyone out of the room, leave the FBI director in the room, have a private conversation with him, and essentially say, can you end an investigation into someone who used to work for me?

    And I can't — we didn't — there was no situation that came even close. If someone from the White House called over to the FBI and said that they wanted the director to come to the White House with full staff, that would cause huge consternation, calls to the department, coordination, lawyers.

    So, I can see in that context being shell-shocked, he's described. If it's true, I think that that would be a serious moment about the separation between our Department of Justice, the ability to conduct investigations free from political interference. That's a principle that's been strongly shared by both parties.

    So it's important to figure out whether that happened.


    Greg Craig, how else could he have handled it, or was there another way?


    Well, I have to say, it's hard for me to blame Jim Comey, when the president puts him in that situation. That's really — I agree with you, John, that's a very unusual situation.

    The director comes over prepared to talk about topics A, B, C, D, and E with a group of other people, and then suddenly it turns into a topic that's really toxic and dangerous, and he's there by himself with the president.

    So, first of all, I'm sympathetic, and I'm willing to be somewhat more forgiving of Jim Comey because he's in that situation, which is unprecedented and unexpected.


    And we can't — I'm trying to think of another moment that we know of where a president called in an FBI director and had this kind of a conversation.


    Judy, I think one of the things we have to keep in mind is the concept of the independence of FBI from the authority of the attorney general and indeed from the president is not quite the premise that some believe and that perhaps Jim Comey operated on.

    If you think back to the days of J. Edgar Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover had a lot of independence from the Justice Department and from presidents, and it resulted in a very unhealthy situation.


    And, in fact, Comey raised the name of J. Edgar Hoover today.


    I heard that.

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