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Lawfare Editor Criticizes Trump's Dismissal Of FBI Director James Comey


And joining us now is Benjamin Wittes. He's senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and editor in chief of the national security blog Lawfare. He also counts James Comey as a personal friend. Ben Wittes, welcome to the program.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: First, have you spoken to Director Comey since this news broke?

WITTES: I have not.

SIEGEL: What was your reaction when you first heard about his firing?

WITTES: Well, I'm still in shock honestly. I feared that this would happen. And actually, a couple days after the election, my colleague Susan Hennessey and I wrote a piece warning about this. But I actually had thought the storm had passed. And I thought the moment to do this was gone. And I was taken completely by surprise by it. And I think it's an extremely dangerous moment. And you know, the question is, what kind of reaction, political and other, it will animate and generate.

SIEGEL: What do you make of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's memo that's been written and released today which says that the way that James Comey handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email went beyond what an FBI director does?

WITTES: So let me say that there are very legitimate concerns that a lot of people have about the way that Director Comey handled the Clinton email matter both in July and in October. And I'm certainly not going to be the person who says there's no reasonable questions to ask about it here. But to recommend the removal of the FBI director at a time when the FBI is supervising a major counterintelligence investigation that touches the conduct of any number of people immediately around the president of the United States, the relationship between his campaign and an adversary foreign intelligence service is a dangerous and reckless thing to do. And I've known Rod Rosenstein for a long time, and I think highly of him. And I can't imagine what possessed him to write that memo at this time.

SIEGEL: Yeah. You said that you had thought that James Comey, who's - whom you supported and whose continuation in office you supported - that he was home free, that he'd gotten out of - was no longer at risk of being fired. Do you know if he felt that? Do you know if he felt secure in his job?

WITTES: So I - you know, I - if - I have made it a practice never to discuss personal conversations I might have about that, so I'm - with him - so I'm going to decline to answer that question.

SIEGEL: In a letter to James Comey today, President Trump said it's essential we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust. Given how political this apolitical position has been over the past several months, what's it going to take to restore public trust and confidence?

WITTES: Well, I think it's going to be an extremely hard job for whoever is put in that position. And establishing that a successor is a person of independence and stature and is not, you know, under the thumb of the White House and they're at the behest of the White House and is committed to investigating the set of things that the FBI, you know, has on its plate, including those that involve the president and his inner circle, is going to be a task for whoever the president chooses to name. And it's going to be a harder task frankly because the person will have been named by the president.

SIEGEL: Do you think that between his dealings over the Clinton emails and his testimony before Congress that James Comey is a man - your friendship notwithstanding - who's run out of friends in Washington?

WITTES: Well, you know, he has at least one. And he actually - honestly, he has some others, too. And look; there is no question that this is a man who over many years has made himself unpopular. And he's made himself unpopular in, to a large degree, by doing what he thinks is right.

SIEGEL: And on that note - sorry, Ben Wittes. We're going to have to - we've run out of time for this segment, so thanks for talking with us.

WITTES: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and editor in chief of Lawfare. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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