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Week In Politics: Comey Testifies Before Senate Committee

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Week In Politics: Comey Testifies Before Senate Committee

Opinion

Week In Politics: Comey Testifies Before Senate Committee

Week In Politics: Comey Testifies Before Senate Committee

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NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with political analysts Guy Benson of Townhall.com and Matthew Yglesias of Vox about former FBI Director James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and reaction by the White House and others.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, for more on the week in politics, we're going to turn to our Friday commentators. Guy Benson, the political editor of townhall.com, welcome to the studio.

GUY BENSON: Hello.

CORNISH: And Matthew Yglesias, columnist, editor and co-founder at Vox. Welcome back.

MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Hi, good to be here.

CORNISH: So of course, I just want to remind everyone what led to the president - to this defensive reaction that Scott just told us about, the testimony from former FBI Director James Comey. He spoke before the Senate intelligence committee for three hours yesterday, beginning with his confusion over why he was fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMEY: That didn't make any sense to me. And although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.

CORNISH: Now, I want to start with you, Guy, because one thing that became clear is that Comey has been in a defensive crouch with this president almost from the beginning - right? - in terms of being suspicious of his motives, writing memos of these encounters and then even leaking those memos later. How do you see how he handled this president?

BENSON: Oh, I think it was a difficult task for him, as he found out very early on. And what strikes me about the audio soundbite that you just played was a tweet from the president this morning claiming, quote, "total and complete vindication." That did not sound like total and complete vindication, the FBI director explicitly calling you a liar under oath. I do think Trump has a point, though, that there was at least partial vindication.

So the total and complete thing is sort of hyperbolic bravado, which is very Trumpian. But Comey did confirm that on three occasions he told Trump that he was not under investigation, something that Trump desperately wanted the American people to hear from someone other than himself, someone with credibility in law enforcement. And I think that was a source of one of his major frustrations...

CORNISH: And reiterated it several times this week.

BENSON: Several times.

CORNISH: Matthew, I want to let you jump in.

YGLESIAS: I think it's a little strange, the emphasis that Trump is placing on the idea that he personally isn't under investigation, though. We already have a national security adviser who's in legal trouble for improperly documenting payments from foreign governments. We have Jared Kushner, a top presidential adviser who seems to have misstated his contacts on a security clearance form. We have Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, who seems to have made factual misstatements to Congress about his meetings with Russian officials. We have some kind of investigation of Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman, for his financial dealings in Ukraine. And we have some questions around Michael Cohen, who was Trump's longtime lawyer.

So it may be true that Donald Trump is not personally a target of an investigation. But when you have this many senior members of an administration who are all in legal hot water, all in connecting ways, that's not a great look for any kind of president.

BENSON: No. And I do think that some of this is definitely premature celebration. Robert Mueller is still doing his work in the special counsel's office. The thing that I would add, though, that I think was an important element of Comey's testimony that's a positive for the White House is that Comey said, no, President Trump did not seek to impede the Russia investigation, the broader Russia probe. That is important.

CORNISH: He made a very narrow decision there - right? - during the testimony. I want to come back to Bob Mueller for a second because we heard the president today saying that he would be a hundred percent willing to speak under oath to the Justice Department's special counsel investigation. Now, if you're Trump's lawyers, are you A, turning off your cell phone ringer for the weekend; B, nodding sagely because this was part of your plan; or C, facepalm? What is your reaction to this, Matthew?

YGLESIAS: I mean, you know, I think he's clearly going to have to testify on some level about this. When you're having this kind of public dispute about sworn testimony...

CORNISH: But to offer to?

YGLESIAS: It's strange. When I heard the audio again, when we just played it before, it was interesting. Trump appeared to have misunderstood the question, it seemed to me, and was saying that he did not try to get Comey to swear an oath of loyalty to him under oath, you know? And so I think it's very possible that they're going to try to wiggle out of this commitment that we thought we heard.

BENSON: He also was asked about the tapes and the potential tapes that may have existed...

CORNISH: Whether they exist, right.

BENSON: Exactly. And the White House has been bizarrely evasive on this question with the press team saying, we don't know. Trump was asked directly about it today and he said, well, I'll let you know very soon. And that formulation...

CORNISH: And also, you're going to be very disappointed (laughter).

BENSON: So I don't know what that means, though. What are we rooting for here? I'm not - I'm unclear on that.

YGLESIAS: I mean, there's no tapes, right? That's the disappointing truth.

BENSON: Probably not. But I remember the formulation was, you know, I'm going to get back to you very soon. He said that about his tax returns as well and then just dragged it on and on and then it never really materialized. So your guess is as good as mine on that. My suspicion, Matt, is that you're right, that there are not tapes. But I don't put it past him. There might be tapes.

CORNISH: Hope springs (laughter) for - eternal. You know, this comes to a point that, Matthew, you were writing about this week where you essentially argue that Republicans don't care about what's going on with this president.

YGLESIAS: Yeah. I mean, I think that we saw pretty clearly in that testimony that, you know, Republicans are interested in the sort of narrow question of did the president break a bright-letter law? It seems like, you know, probably he didn't. He's allowed to fire the FBI director. And they are fundamentally not concerned about what I think to a normal person looks like a broader question of really odd behavior around the nation of Russia and around the question of this Russia investigation.

I mean, why is it that so many members of Trump's team seem to have made misstatements under oath around this? Why is it that the president was so reluctant to make the Article 5 commitment that a Romanian journalist sort of dragged out of him today? It's very puzzling. It's, to me, troubling. But you saw that members of the committee are more interested in, you know, rehashing questions about Loretta Lynch, talking about leaks, things like that. I mean, that's all interesting, but the conduct of the president of the United States is fundamentally more significant.

CORNISH: Guy Benson, what's the argument you see here?

BENSON: Well, I think that there were Republicans on the dais asking questions about Russian meddling. It is a bipartisan consensus that the Russian government at the highest levels, as Comey said, tried to interfere in our election. And that's unacceptable to all Americans across the political spectrum. I don't think that Republicans are saying that doesn't matter or it's a fairy tale. They concede it. I think that they are questioning how much was Trump involved, is there any evidence of collusion, and is some of this hysteria around the White House vis-a-vis Russia overblown and unfair?

CORNISH: Guy Benson is the political editor of townhall.com. Thank you for coming to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BENSON: My pleasure.

CORNISH: And Matthew Yglesias, columnist, editor and co-founder of Vox. Thanks so much.

YGLESIAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF REAL ESTATE SONG, "DARLING")

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