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Does the White House’s rationale for firing Comey add up?

Judy Woodruff gets two perspectives on President Trump’s firing of James Comey and what it means for his relationship with the FBI from Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution and former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger.

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    But, for now, two different perspectives on Mr. Trump's controversial decision and what this means for the president's relationship with the FBI.

    We are joined by Benjamin Wittes. He's the editor in chief of the Brookings Institution's Lawfare blog. And George Terwilliger, he served as deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.

    And we thank both of you for joining us tonight.

    I'm going to start with you, Benjamin Wittes.

    You know Director Comey very well. What do you make of the rationale that the White House is giving, the president fired him because of the way he mishandled, they say, the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation?

  • BENJAMIN WITTES, Brookings Institution:

    Well, the sudden White House concern for Hillary Clinton's — fairness to Hillary Clinton is a remarkable turn of events.

    I mean, in the time in which Jim Comey did the things for which he has now been removed, the only complaint on the part of Donald Trump was that he had not indicted or called — or recommended that Hillary Clinton be indicted.

    The White House actually — Trump actually praised some of the very decisions that now form the basis for Comey's removal. So, it's actually a completely implausible set of rationales. Even if some people in the Justice Department may believe it sincerely, it's very hard to believe that that's what's actually motivating Donald Trump.


    George Terwilliger, an implausible set of rationales?

  • GEORGE TERWILLIGER, Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General:

    No, not at all, Judy.

    I think, clearly, what's happened here, if we take Mr. Rosenstein at his word…


    Deputy attorney general.


    Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — is that the Justice Department leadership, he and the attorney general, lost confidence in Jim Comey's ability to lead the bureau in a manner that would suit that important role and was needed in order to be an integral part of the Justice leadership team.

    The reference back to what happened last July and progressed from there to the surprise in October about the new e-mails, I think, is just the history that inevitably led to where this ended up. And, in essence, I mean, Jim's a fine man and a dedicated public servant and a very patriotic American.

    But I think the judgment was made at the end of the day that he used some extremely poor judgment beginning in that July instance and continuing through the rest of this saga. And that did cause a loss of confidence.


    How do you respond to that, Benjamin Wittes?


    So, I think, you know, if all of that were the basis for his removal, it would have happened weeks or months ago.

    Every single thing that forms the basis for the removal was as true three months ago as it is today. What's different is, as The New York Times and Politico have reported over the last 24 hours, that the president is very upset about the Russia investigation.

    And, you know, there is — I mean, it's worth backing up and saying that there is nothing normal about removing the FBI director, as a general matter. It's an extraordinary measure. This is an office that is typically served for a term of years, 10 years, to be precise.

    There's nothing normal about doing that while the president is and his campaign are the subject of an ongoing counterintelligence investigation about their relationship with an adversary foreign power.

    And there's really nothing normal about doing it in a fashion in which the director himself finds out that he's been removed while addressing FBI agents in — you know, because it shows up on television.


    He was out of town. He was in Los Angeles and learned about it from news accounts.

    It is the case, George Terwilliger, that the accounts — reporters who have been working this story for the last 24 hours are coming back with all sorts of White House officials telling them, sources telling them that the president was angry over the Russia investigation, that that's what led to this.


    Yes. I can't — I don't have any insight to that, Judy. And I can't really say anything about it.

    But I think what we can say with complete confidence is that there's nothing about removing Mr. Comey from this job that's going to affect that investigation. In fact, with all due respect to Ben, I think it's an insult to the career men and women in the FBI and the Justice Department who are conducting that investigation to suggest that it would be so.

    That investigation's going to proceed. It will proceed in a — in a appropriate and deliberate fashion. It will be led by those career folks. And, at the end of the day, it will go wherever it goes.


    And, in fact, Benjamin Wittes, last night on the program, Senator Susan Collins said the president didn't fire the entire FBI. He just fired the head of the FBI. She expressed the same expression that — the same opinion that the investigation would go forward.


    So, I actually agree with that.

    I think that, you know, if the goal was to stop the investigation, I suspect it will fail, for all the reasons that George just said. You know, there's a big bureaucracy that underlies any investigation like this, and the line men and women who conduct these investigations are an important — they are actually the investigation. And decapitating the snake doesn't change the fact that there's a body there.

    That said, the role of the political leadership and the professional leadership of an organization matters. And when you remove the FBI director because, as the press is reporting, you have a temper tantrum about a particular investigation, you send a message up and down that line.

    And the message is that the leadership cannot protect you politically. And that's its job. The job of the FBI director is to absorb the ebbs and flows of the political system, so that the people underneath can do their jobs.

    And that is more in doubt today than it was yesterday by a lot.


    Judy, the job of the FBI director is to do what Ben suggests. And the new FBI director, whoever he or she is, will, I'm sure, do just that over time.

    But the other important part of the role of the FBI director is to do much more than this investigation. And I think one of the perceptions that became of concern at the Justice Department, if you read Mr. Rosenstein's letter, is that in fact Jim had become kind of a distraction in this whole process.

    The FBI's got to be worried about cyber-security, terrorism, violent gangs.


    You mean because he spoke out so much?


    Well, no, and because he — he put himself, and thus the bureau, in the middle of political controversy, where they really shouldn't be.


    Very quick final question to the two of you in just a few seconds left.

    Some are saying this is a constitutional crisis that has been created. How do you answer that?


    Not at all.

    The constitutional process here worked. Mr. Comey is a subordinate official of the president. The president elected to remove him from his office. And there will be a constitutional process to replace him.


    I don't think it is inherently a constitutional crisis, but let me tell you what would be.

    If the president removed Jim Comey because he was investigating Russia matters that the president didn't want investigated, and the political system is not capable of responding to it, that is a constitutional crisis.


    And we are going to have to leave it there.

    Benjamin Wittes, George Terwilliger, we thank you both.


    Thank you, Judy.


    Thank you.

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