Rep. Stewart On Comey Firing: 'It Was Probably Appropriate To Make A Change'

May 10, 2017

The president fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday. NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to NPR's Domenico Montanaro and GOP Rep. Chris Stewart, member of the House Intelligence Committee, about the decision. Stewart tells Inskeep that Comey had lost confidence "frankly on both sides of the aisle. ... It was probably appropriate to make a change."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey ended his tenure - at a building a short distance from here - ended that tenure seven years early. It did not end the ferocious debate over Comey, his former agency and the FBI investigation of possible links between President Trump's associates and Russia during last year's election campaign.

Leaders in Congress are speaking today. Many members were on the floor of the Senate in the last little while listening intently as their leaders discussed the president's action. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell attempted to calm the storm that was sparked by last night's surprise move. Let's listen to a little bit of that.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Today will no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done, also to let this body and the national security community develop countermeasures and warfighting doctrine to see that it doesn't occur again.

INSKEEP: OK, so Mitch McConnell saying let's stay calm and stay the course. There are other Republican senators who are expressing grave concern, saying that they are troubled by the timing of this firing. And there are Democrats who've been very vocal, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Let's listen to him.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: If Mr. Rosenstein is true to his word that he believes this investigation must be, quote, "fair, free, thorough, and politically independent," if he believes as I do that the American people must be able to have faith in the impartiality of this investigation, he must appoint a special prosecutor and get his investigation out of the hands of the FBI and far away from the heavy hand of this administration.

INSKEEP: OK. That's Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the last little while. Now, he used a name that will not be familiar to a lot of people. He said Mr. Rosenstein. Here's who he meant - Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a letter explaining why, in Rosenstein's view, James Comey should be fired from his post at the FBI. And that was a suggestion that President Trump says he took.

Let's use that as the beginning for our discussion here first with NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro, who's in our studios once again. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hello again, Steve.

INSKEEP: What reasons did Rosenstein and the president himself give for this firing?

MONTANARO: So we know yesterday that Donald Trump fired James Comey by letter that was sent to the FBI. James Comey wasn't even there, Steve. He was in Los Angeles at an FBI recruitment event.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MONTANARO: Donald Trump issued just a 79-word statement from the White House, gave no rationale for why he was dismissing Comey. Instead, said it was based on a memo from Rosenstein, as you mentioned, and that had everything to do with Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

He said Comey broke protocols by going out front and going around the attorney general. And that is the reasoning that apparently Trump is using. But, boy, that raises a lot of questions. That timing is suspicious, and that reasoning certainly convenient.

INSKEEP: And let's just remind people, back in July I think it was, James Comey talked about the email investigation.

MONTANARO: Correct.

INSKEEP: He said no reasonable prosecutor would file charges here but that Hillary Clinton was extremely careless in the use of classified email. He later, of course, in October, issued a letter saying that they were looking into more emails. And many Democrats felt that he had swung the election.

MONTANARO: Including Hillary Clinton.

INSKEEP: True. What had President Trump thought of all this up until yesterday?

MONTANARO: Well, President Trump had said that James Comey had guts for doing what he did. He felt that he needed to hang tough. He had criticized him for not pursuing criminal charges against Hillary Clinton, so none of this had anything to do with going around the protocols at the FBI - at the Justice Department, which is what raises a lot of questions. There are lots of potential reasons for why Donald Trump actually did this timing wise.

You know, the FBI has apparently ramped up its investigation of Russia and ties to Trump associates. CNN had reported that shortly before Comey was fired that there were subpoenas that were going out for a grand jury investigation. Michael Flynn and Trump's judgment had once again become the top of the news, his national security adviser, after the testimony of Sally Yates, someone else who was fired for a different reason having to do with Trump's travel ban.

Comey was disputing Donald Trump, remember, at that March 20 hearing, where he decided to say that Trump saying that President Obama wiretapping him was completely not true. He said that he had been mildly nauseous about the fact that he could have swung the election toward Donald Trump. And the biggest reason potentially here is that Jim Comey got too big for who he is. Donald Trump likes to create warring factions within his administration so that anybody - nobody within - under him could become too big.

INSKEEP: Which is a theory that we heard from Blake Farenthold...

MONTANARO: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Who's been supportive of the president, a Republican congressman from Texas who said James Comey was just on TV too much.

MONTANARO: Right.

INSKEEP: Now, Farenthold's perspective was for a prosecutor. And it is true that Comey was making unusual statements for a prosecutor...

MONTANARO: That he should be behind the scenes, correct.

INSKEEP: ...But still a dramatic development. Let's bring another voice into the conversation now. His name is Chris Stewart. He is a Republican representative from Utah. He's a member of the House intelligence committee which has been trying to conduct its own investigation of Russian meddling in the election and other matters. Congressman, welcome to the program.

CHRIS STEWART: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do you approve of the president's firing of James Comey?

STEWART: You know, I feel bad for the director. I think he's served well for many years. I've gotten to know him personally. And I actually like him a lot. And I recognize this is going to incite some political pushback, but I do think that he has lost confidence frankly on both sides of the aisle, as you were describing there. And it was probably appropriate to make a change.

INSKEEP: Although he makes this change - the president makes this change at a moment when Comey was handling this extraordinarily sensitive investigation that clearly does involve people close to the president, although the president claims it doesn't involve the president himself.

STEWART: Yeah. You know, I've heard some people talk about the timing, but the reality is is that there just isn't and wouldn't be a good time for this. I mean, had he done this when he first came into office, it would have appeared very, very political. If the investigation continues, again, I think the pressure is going to continue to - that if he were to make a change then I think would be much like today.

And let's imagine for a minute, if I could, and I think this illustrates the timing of this and how that may play a part in that. Let's imagine that the investigation goes forward, and at the end of the day there are no significant findings. And to this point, by the way, we haven't found significant findings. There is no apparent collaboration between Mr. Trump or people associated with him and Russian agents. Let's say the FBI determined that.

You know, you would have many of the Democrats saying he's just protecting Mr. Trump. He's doing like he did, you know, previous to the election when he was so critical of Hillary Clinton. This really was a situation where there was no happy ending for, I believe, the director. And again, I think that's why it was necessary to make a change to bring in someone new who wouldn't have this political baggage that the director has with him at this point.

INSKEEP: Does what you just said underline what Democrats are calling for, the need for an independent investigation by someone who is not held directly accountable to the president?

STEWART: You know, I actually have mixed feelings on that. And I'm one of the few on the Intelligence committee who do. Now, I'm not saying that I'm calling for an independent investigator at this time. And part of my concern for that is we've had independent counsels who have really disserved the American people in some cases. And we could go back on that, but I don't think that's really what you're asking. I think it needs to be something that we consider.

But having said that, look. Mr. Burr in the Senate is doing a good job in his investigation. The House intelligence committee, we've been investigating this since September. And I believe that if we keep our heads down and don't make this overly political, which is one of the regrets that some of us have is that the Intelligence committee has always been nonpartisan.

We've done our work behind closed doors, not in front of cameras. And I think that we've become too political in this case. And many of us want to just go back and do our work and report to the American people. I think we're capable of doing that. And I think the American people expect that. And I don't think it will take years, either. I think this is something that we could do in a relatively short amount of time.

INSKEEP: I got to be frank and say that some people who followed the House intelligence committee investigation and the way that the chairman Devin Nunes had to step away from the investigation and a number of the other developments there, they've - I think it's easy to say that lots of people have no confidence that the House intelligence committee can get this job done. Do you feel otherwise?

STEWART: Well, yeah, but see, that's my point. That's my point is it has become so political. I mean, the chairman was criticized for things which were absolutely acceptable in what he did. And I think the critics have used this as a bludgeon and frankly, a political bludgeon - no surprise there - in ways that just don't serve the committee and don't serve the American people.

I think if we can do this, as I said, not in such a public atmosphere, that if we can - and, by the way, this is not a criticism of just my Democratic colleagues. But I do think that if we can just do this in a less partisan and a less public way, that we can gain that confidence of the American people. And that's what many of us are trying to do.

INSKEEP: And maybe that is why you are at least leaning in the direction of an independent investigation because you think politics could be taken out of it?

STEWART: Well, and I didn't say I was leaning. I said I would consider it. And that's important, a lot of...

INSKEEP: Consider it - OK.

STEWART: ...People will - yeah. But yeah, this is something that - look. We live in a very partisan time. There's no question about that. And this is a very partisan issue. I mean, Hillary Clinton has said - in the last few weeks, how many times has she said that she would be the president were it not for Director Comey? And it shows the conflicts on both sides of the aisle on this. And I...

INSKEEP: OK. Got to stop you there, Congressman, but thank you very much. I really appreciate you taking the time.

STEWART: Thank you.

INSKEEP: We've been talking with Chris Stewart. He's a Republican representative from Utah. He is a member of the House intelligence committee, speaking with us on this morning after the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

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