Morning News Brief: James Comey Tells His Side, British Election Maneuver Fails
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene in Moscow. You know, so much of the news in Washington points right here to the Russian capital. It's one reason we're spending the next few days here.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And Moscow, of course, is quite a place - quite a place to hear dramatic testimony that touches on Russia, testimony that's been taking place in Washington.
GREENE: Yeah, and we were listening here, Steve. It was, of course, former FBI Director James Comey sitting before the Senate intelligence committee and explaining in a whole lot of detail the president's alleged attempts to derail his Russia investigation. Here's one lengthy exchange Comey had with Democratic Senator Mark Warner.
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MARK WARNER: February 14 - again, it seems a bit strange - you were in a meeting, and your direct superior, the attorney general, was in that meeting as well. Yet the president asked everyone to leave, including the attorney general to leave, before he brought up the matter of General Flynn. What was your impression of that type of action? And had you ever seen anything like that before?
JAMES COMEY: No. My impression was something big is about to happen. I need to remember every single word that is spoken. And again, I could be wrong. I'm 56 years old. I've been - seen a few things. My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn't be leaving, which is why he was lingering. And I don't know Mr. Kushner well, but I think he picked up on the same thing. And so I knew something was about to happen that I needed to pay very close attention to.
INSKEEP: Comey says he did pay close attention, and he took extensive notes on that and numerous other conversations with the president of the United States. NPR's Susan Davis covered yesterday's Senate intelligence committee hearing at which all of this was covered, and she's in our studios. Good morning.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So a lot was already known of Comey's side of the story apparently because he leaked it he now acknowledges. What more did you learn that you didn't know?
DAVIS: I would say my top three revelations from the hearing were this - one was the chestnut that Comey dropped in the hearing room that he was certain that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will determine whether there was any obstruction of justice. That was a tantalizing little moment because it suggested that the special counsel investigation has expanded to answer that question.
INSKEEP: Involve obstruction of justice.
DAVIS: Two, as you said, that Comey was a leaker, that he acknowledged in a public forum that he leaked his memo to - through a friend to The New York Times for the intention of getting a special counsel nominated. And he was successful in that. And I would say, Steve, from my vantage point on Capitol Hill, the revelation in a question and answer with Senator Lindsey Graham where he was asked, do you think the Russians will meddle in the 2018 mid-term elections, and Comey said, yes, I do. And that raises the question - what's the U.S. going to do about it?
INSKEEP: And of course, this hearing was all about what has happened in the past and arguing over that and not getting to that future question. But I'd like to know, Sue Davis, you said that Comey brought up obstruction of justice in that kind of careful, tantalizing way. Was he actually building a case for obstruction of justice without explicitly saying so?
DAVIS: Well, you know, and what he said is he would not answer legal questions there and legal question - that is not the forum for legal questions. But it is absolutely now the purview of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and that is the million-dollar question going forward.
INSKEEP: How's the White House responding?
DAVIS: They - a very confident defense. The president sent his lawyer out to dispute and say that, you know, take issue with most of what Comey testified. The party is very much behind the president. The RNC set up a rapid response team in defense of the president. The top leaders in Congress are defending the president. So the party is very much aligned behind him, and they are at least building a muscular defense of him.
INSKEEP: And some of the Republican senators offered - I wouldn't say explicitly partisan but very careful questioning of James Comey and close questioning of James Comey. And then there's Paul Ryan, speaker of the House, who was asked about this at a press conference inevitably, and here's part of his response.
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PAUL RYAN: The president's new at this. He's new to government, and so he probably wasn't steeped in the long-running protocols that established the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses. He's just new to this.
INSKEEP: OK, OK. He is new to this. He is new to this, but when he was campaigning, didn't the president say that if he won he would know more than anybody and didn't he seem to know enough that he wanted everybody out of the room when he had these conversations with James Comey?
DAVIS: He also has staff and a legal counsel, so I'm not sure that defense really works. But from the political standpoint, this follows with what Republicans have always said about President Trump, is that he is unconventional. And they seem to put this in the same bucket as unconventional where Democrats see something that may be unlawful.
INSKEEP: OK, I want to focus on another name and bring in another voice. The name is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. There's some focus on him, and we're going to discuss that with our national security correspondent, Mary Louise Kelly, who's been following all this like David from Moscow. Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.
INSKEEP: Wasn't Sessions supposed to have recused himself from all this? How's his name even coming up?
KELLY: Well, he is recused from all of this. The reason why, the original explanation given by Sessions, was that he was part of the Trump campaign, and therefore he should not be part of an investigation into the Trump campaign. However, it should be noted he did not make that decision, didn't make the call to step aside, until it came out that he said something that's been seen as misleading during his confirmation hearing. You may remember he said he had no communications with Russians during the campaign when, in fact, it has since emerged he met at least twice with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak.
INSKEEP: And then there is this revelation from James Comey that even before that all blew up and Sessions formally recused himself, James Comey, the FBI director, wasn't telling everything to his boss, Jeff Sessions. Let's listen.
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COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.
INSKEEP: Wow. Is there more to Sessions' story than we know?
KELLY: I mean, what a heck of a big, old bread crumb Comey dropped there about Sessions because it immediately prompts the question, what facts has Comey got that can only be discussed in a classified session? One question that's being floated is whether Sessions had more than two confirmed meetings with the Russian ambassador, which, on the one hand, is not of huge consequence - two meetings, three meetings, does it matter? On the other hand, it becomes harder and harder to defend how Sessions failed to do - failed to mention any meetings at all with Russian officials. So we now have this odd scenario. The attorney general had to recuse himself from the probe. He may himself now be investigated as part of the ongoing probe being conducted by the FBI.
INSKEEP: So much new information and so many more questions, which we'll be pursuing. That's NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly in Moscow. Mary Louise, thanks.
KELLY: You are very welcome.
INSKEEP: And also NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis here in Washington. Susan, thanks to you.
DAVIS: Thanks, Steve.
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INSKEEP: OK. Who could have guessed? Who could have guessed that in 2017 if you called an election, it might not turn out exactly as you planned?
GREENE: Yeah. It certainly didn't turn out as planned in Britain, Steve. Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap election back in April, and she was thinking this would be a chance for a huge landslide. Well, that proved to be a huge miscalculation. Last night, her Conservative/Tory Party actually lost seats and no longer has a ruling majority in Parliament. Here's what Jeremy Corbyn of the opposition Labour Party had to say.
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JEREMY CORBYN: The prime minister called the election because she wanted a mandate. Well, the mandate she's got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence. I would have thought that's enough to go actually.
INSKEEP: NPR London bureau chief Frank Langfitt was there on election night. And, Frank, what was it like to be there?
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It was crazy, Steve. This was something that started off looking like a cakewalk. People had been talking about May as the next Margaret Thatcher, and it was just a complete disaster. The only thing that could have made it worse is if she'd actually lost Parliament to the Labour Party; seen as a huge miscalculation on her part, ran a terrible campaign and now her - she's a threat. I mean, this morning, I was coming through Waterloo station, and a lot of people, ordinary people, as well as people in her party, are staying - saying she should step down. She's saying she's going to stay. We'll be hearing from her later this morning.
INSKEEP: Just want to make sure we understand the basics here - the conservatives still got the most seats...
LANGFITT: They have the most seats, yes, but what they...
INSKEEP: But not a majority.
LANGFITT: No. And so what they're going to have to do if they want to do anything is find another party that will work with them. And they're looking at the Ulster Unionists up in Northern Ireland. They may be just enough to have a small majority, but this kind of cobbled together coalition tends to be very unstable. And it may not last, and there could be more elections, frankly, later on.
INSKEEP: And huge global consequences because Britain is in the middle of Brexit, trying to get out of the European Union. She called this election for that reason.
LANGFITT: This is - yeah, and the whole idea was that she would actually strengthen her power here domestically, then when she went to Brussels to negotiate leaving the EU, she would be seen as a very powerful person. No - Brexit negotiations start later this month. And I don't know what they're going to look - no one knows what they're going to look like. I mean, basically, the voters obviously don't like her ideas, and she - it's not even sure that she'll still be prime minister. So you're going into something that's enormous for this country, and there's no - there's no roadmap.
INSKEEP: We have a quote from the European Parliament's top Brexit official today saying the British election result is, quote, "yet another own goal."
LANGFITT: Yeah. I don't know quite with that means, but I don't have any...
INSKEEP: (Laughter) It means scoring on yourself.
LANGFITT: I guess scoring on your own...
INSKEEP: It's a sporting metaphor.
LANGFITT: I mean, it is the biggest - it's a very big self-inflicted wound.
INSKEEP: All right.
LANGFITT: And I think people - people are stunned.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK, Frank, thanks very much, really appreciate it.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, where a surprising election result has left Conservatives with less than a majority in Parliament, a story we'll continue to cover.
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