Week In Politics: Trump Fires FBI Director James Comey
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There were contradictions from the moment James Comey's firing was announced.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
SEAN SPICER: The deputy attorney general made a recommendation to the attorney general. The attorney general concurred with that was.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: President Trump made the right decision at the right time to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: He did have a conversation with the deputy attorney general.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He made a recommendation. He's highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. He made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.
SIEGEL: President Trump on NBC yesterday there at the end. Before that, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Vice President Pence and Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The story of what preceded the dismissal of Comey evolved over the course of the week, and here to talk about this big political story are Kelly Jane Torrance, deputy managing editor of The Weekly Standard. Good to see you. Welcome to the program.
KELLY JANE TORRANCE: Great to be here.
SIEGEL: And Matthew Yglesias, columnist editor and co-founder of Vox. Welcome back.
MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Kelly, some commentators - certainly, a lot of Democrats - saw this week as a landmark in Donald Trump's presidency. Was the Comey dismissal a remarkable and defining moment for Trump or just one more remarkable moment in his remarkable presidency?
TORRANCE: Well, I think it depends on what happens next, particularly with that Russia investigation. I do think, though, that perhaps Donald Trump is the only person that could do something that Hillary Clinton would've loved to have done and managed to upset every Democrat in town and quite a few Republicans, as well.
And, you know, there's something very Trumpian (ph) about this, though. If you look - even with the changing narratives, it was always about Trump. In the letter he sent, he said - you know, he had to mention that Comey had told him he wasn't under investigation three times.
And his own letter said that he was taking the advice of his attorney general and deputy attorney general. But then he immediately said, no, actually, I was going to do this anyway. It's almost as if Trump finds it impossible not to be the center of attention at all times. And that's something that we certainly saw during the campaign.
SIEGEL: Matt Yglesias, you wrote, this week, by firing James Comey, Trump has put impeachment on the table.
YGLESIAS: Yeah. I mean, I think this is an extremely serious step. But when you look at Watergate - right? - this kind of abuse of power and obstruction of justice was at the center of the case against Richard Nixon.
And we have moved extremely rapidly from a firing of the FBI director that looked suspicious to many people - I think everybody said the timing seemed fishy - to just two or three days later, the president himself is saying that the timing was fishy, that this was, in fact, heavily about the Russia investigation. And, you know, you cannot have the rule of law in this country if the president is able to fire people who investigate his associates.
SIEGEL: And yet, he announced the dismissal of Comey with a rationale that he then - he didn't repeat by the end of the week. But it was designed to appeal to Democrats to say, the FBI director whom you criticized so much last year, I'm firing him.
TORRANCE: He must have thought that he was being quite shrewd with that, and, of course, it didn't work. Now, if he had done that weeks ago, it might have worked. And if you look at the memo that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, wrote Trump laying out the reasons why he thought Comey should be fired, almost none of it is new.
It all deals with stuff that happened during the last year's election campaign. There was nothing new. So if this was really how he felt, how Jeff Sessions felt, how Trump felt, why wait until now? And that is the problem. You can't claim you're doing something because of the events that took place a year ago when just after the election you reassured people that you're going to keep this guy on.
YGLESIAS: A month ago, Trump in an interview with Fox Business News said he had full confidence in Director Comey. And, of course, you know, if you're looking for bipartisan support for something like this, normally, you would put out some feelers to Democrats in the Senate, sound them out, get someone lined up. And so that was what was always strange about this. They seemed to expect a level of bipartisan support that they hadn't done any of the work to gain.
SIEGEL: But the notion of surprise is becoming the hallmark of the Trump presidency, which is doing something, saying something that nobody anticipated or at least nobody anticipated it at that moment on that day.
TORRANCE: And who would have thought that Trump would fire the director of the FBI for mishandling the Hillary Clinton investigation, especially right after Hillary Clinton herself blamed Director Comey for her election loss.
SIEGEL: Let me ask you both, briefly, apart from that, this was a time when we thought we'd be hearing about health care reform and whether Senate Republicans can put together a bill. Will there be a tax proposal that can actually pass? I mean, is anything else going on in Washington in brief? Kelly, you first.
TORRANCE: Well, it is. I have to say, though, I sort of chafe a little bit at the comparisons to Nixon with Trump. I mean, we don't know if he has actually, you know, used government officials to cover up a crime, if he's used them to go after his opponents. Now, his actions, of course, that's all people are talking about. But, yes, there are other things going on. And one of the biggest is Jeff Sessions today announced...
SIEGEL: The attorney general.
TORRANCE: Exactly. He announced that he is going to bring back what's under the law - stricter guidelines for drug cases and prosecuting them. And, you know, this is something that Eric Holder, Obama's attorney general, had sort of let go. Now, the problem is they didn't change the law, and so that's why Jeff Sessions is able do this. I personally think it's a terrible idea. But this is what happens when you legislate through the executive and rather through Congress.
SIEGEL: Matt Yglesias, anything else going on that you're aware of?
YGLESIAS: I mean, work appears to be continuing in the Senate on the health care bill. Though, what passed the House of Representatives - it polls very poorly. Senate Republicans seem to have a lot of doubts about it, but they do appear to be seriously interested in repealing the Affordable Care Act in some form. They are working on it. We will have to see what happens.
SIEGEL: And do you get any sense that any Democrats could sign on to the bill that the Republican senators...
YGLESIAS: It doesn't look like they're moving to try to find a bipartisan bill.
TORRANCE: I'm not even sure they're going to have a Republican bill. I heard that meeting yesterday amongst the senators did not go well at all. You're still got fighting between the moderates and the hardliner conservatives.
SIEGEL: Kelly Torrance and Matt Yglesias, thanks to both of you.
TORRANCE: Thank you.
YGLESIAS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.