STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is appointed for a 10-year term. That is longer than the president, longer than just about anybody except federal judges. And the reason is much like the lifetime appointments for judges. The long term is supposed to insulate the FBI from political influence. Presidents come and go. Law enforcement professionals remain on the job. This explains why Democrats, including Senator Tim Kaine, were so startled when President Trump fired FBI director James Comey seven years early.
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TIM KAINE: This is so troubling. An FBI director gets a 10-year term so that whether they make a president mad or Congress mad, they can be insulated from politics and do their job.
INSKEEP: Tim Kaine speaking on MORNING EDITION today. Now, the firing came as James Comey's FBI was investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016. NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly is in our studios and begins our conversation. Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, there.
INSKEEP: So the president did put out a letter. Deputy attorney general put out a letter. Why does the administration say Comey was fired?
KELLY: Right. The president says he is following the recommendation of his attorney general and the deputy attorney general. And they say that this is because of Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton emails. Trump says new leadership is needed - fresh start at the FBI.
INSKEEP: Let's remember James Comey came out and publicly said, we're not prosecuting Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate, but she was extremely careless - and then later made statements saying they had reopened their examination in some way in October.
KELLY: That's correct, which Trump praised at the time.
INSKEEP: But wait a minute - so you're saying the president actually praised James Comey's handling of emails, which is now the reason he's being fired?
KELLY: Well, (laughing) yeah. You try to square that loop. Safe to say the relationship has shifted. They have had a difficult relationship these last several months, these first few months of the Trump presidency. And, you know, you examine this from every possible angle. You keep coming back to the fact that Jim Comey was running the probe focused on ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Comey, we should mention, was supposed to be back testifying tomorrow. He's on the witness list. I just checked - he's still there to testify before the Senate intelligence committee tomorrow. One assumes that that will not happen. And it was never going to be a Russia hearing anyway, although you can't think that it wouldn't have come up. So you arrive at the question - by getting rid of the guy running the investigation, is the president trying to influence the course of that investigation?
INSKEEP: Let me ask about this, Mary Louise, because we also heard from Blake Farenthold, Republican of Texas, on the program today, who said James Comey was just on TV too much. A prosecutor should not be on TV all the time talking about people that he's not actually prosecuting. But is that true in another sense? - because James Comey has been making a number of public statements about the Russia probe specifically. He's been called before Congress more than once to talk about this.
KELLY: He has. I think if you wanted to point to one moment where, with hindsight, this maybe became inevitable, you could go back to that March 20 hearing. This was Comey testifying before the House intelligence committee. He was asked about President Trump's claim that President Obama had ordered Trump Tower to be wiretapped. And I'll actually play you a little bit of that. Here's Comey.
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JAMES COMEY: With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI.
KELLY: And I remember watching that as it unfolded live and thinking - is that sustainable, to have the head of the FBI directly contradicting the sitting president at the White House while running an investigation into the president's campaign?
INSKEEP: So what does this actually mean for the investigation?
KELLY: Well, you know, one question is whether the investigation at the FBI continues. You fire one FBI director; you have to pick a new one. There will be a delay whoever is picked - confirmation hearings, etc. And it's not a foregone conclusion that the new FBI director will continue this probe. We haven't heard that, you know, to be clear. But there are questions about how credible that probe will be going forward.
INSKEEP: And I guess we should mention there is a Senate investigation that goes on. Richard Burr, the Senate intelligence committee chairman, says he's troubled by all this. People are raising questions about the timing. There's one more coincidence of timing here, having to do with Russia, isn't there?
KELLY: There is. Yesterday, as we said, President Trump fired the man leading the Russia probe. And today at the White House, he will be welcoming Sergey Lavrov, Sergey Lavrov being Russia's minister of foreign affairs. So some interesting optics unfolding today.
INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly, thanks for coming by.
KELLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.