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Republican Sen. Jeff Flake Questions Timing Of Comey Firing


Late Tuesday afternoon, word spread that President Trump had fired the FBI director, James Comey. Several hours later, at 8:58 p.m. Eastern time, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona sent a tweet. And here's what Senator Flake said, quote, "I've spent the last several hours trying to find an appropriate rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it."

Senator Flake is on the line with us now. Senator, welcome back to the program.

JEFF FLAKE: Hey. Thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: Do you feel, now that a little time has passed, that you understand the president's move any better?

FLAKE: Well, I have heard some explanation about the timing, but I still have questions.

INSKEEP: What are your questions?

FLAKE: Well, why, why at this time? Investigations are going on about the Trump campaign and, you know, undertaken by the FBI headed by James Comey. And when that person is fired by the president, then obviously there are going to be questions. And there have been some explanations given, not always consistent.

INSKEEP: The deputy attorney general wrote this memo saying that Comey had mishandled the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails. That's one investigation, I guess, that's on the table. You don't feel that everything adds up?

FLAKE: Well, I did read that letter. And I do think that people can question, and I certainly have, the activities of the FBI during the campaign. I didn't feel it was appropriate for Director Comey to come out when he did in July and have the press conference.

Having said that, I've dealt with Mr. Comey for years, and I feel that he is honest. And he was trying to do what he thought was right. And I think that candidate Trump during the campaign went from being critical to being very supportive of what he had said. And so to fire him now, this raises questions while an investigation is going on.

INSKEEP: Now, we heard on the program yesterday from Representative Chris Stewart of Utah. He, like you, is a Republican. He is more supportive of the president's course. And we asked him about what seemed like strange timing for Comey's firing. And here was his answer.


CHRIS STEWART: You know, I've heard some people talk about the timing, but the reality is is that there just isn't and wouldn't be a good time for this. I mean, had he done this when he first came into office, it would have appeared very, very political.

INSKEEP: And Representative Stewart went on to say that if Comey were ever to clear President Trump's campaign, nobody would believe it because of his history with Trump. Is there a case to be made that Comey was just tainted and had to go at some point?

FLAKE: I think you could take the position that given the mistakes that were made during the campaign, during that time period that the FBI ought to go into a different direction. And it's certainly in the president's prerogative to take that action. But when that action is taken while an active investigation is going on and reasons are given that may not hold up to scrutiny, then I think it's our responsibility as members of Congress to question that. And that's what I'm trying to do.

INSKEEP: OK. So that gets to your responsibility. A few questions there. Will you join those who are demanding an independent investigation led by someone who is not directly accountable to the president?

FLAKE: We have an investigation going on in the Senate that is bipartisan and I believe effective. And I have confidence in the Senate intelligence committee which is undertaking the investigation right now. And sometimes when there are additional investigations going on, it has an impact on the investigation that's already ongoing. I wouldn't want to jeopardize the bipartisan, I believe, effective investigation that is occurring now.

INSKEEP: Although, Senator, I'm thinking about that investigation. They've got a relatively small number of staffers looking into this. The manpower's at the FBI. The manpower's at other agencies like the CIA. And the way that a congressional investigation works - of this sort, anyway - is they ask the agencies for information. So the Senate investigation, bipartisan as is it might be, will be asking the FBI for help as they have been. Is that workable?

FLAKE: Well, that remains to be seen. And we'll see when the president nominates someone else to head the FBI. We want to make sure obviously - and I sit on the Judiciary Committee. That will come through the committee I sit on.

I want to make sure that that person is an independent-minded person who will carry through with the investigation that is going on with the FBI. So it's going to be very important to see who the president nominates for this position.

INSKEEP: Let's remember the mechanics of that. The president will need 51 votes for his nominee. You've got 52 Republicans there in the Senate. You've got Democrats who, based on their loud protests, will be very skeptical, I'm sure, of any nominee.

Are you saying, Senator Flake, that you and maybe some other Republican senators would be willing if necessary to line up with Democrats to block a presidential nominee to head the FBI if that person doesn't seem independent enough?

FLAKE: You bet. If we - that is our role with (inaudible). If the president (inaudible) will be, you know, sufficiently independent to head that organization, of course we'll have to stand up and tell the president that he ought to nominate somebody else. So that will be very important in the coming days and weeks.

INSKEEP: In the meantime, the FBI is in the hands of Andrew McCabe, who was James Comey's deputy. And now, according to routine procedure, he becomes the acting director of the FBI. What do you think of him?

FLAKE: I have no reason to question his independence. He's been a career prosecutor, so we'll see where he goes from here. But the president will be naming a permanent director soon I would assume. And I think that's where the focus will certainly be.

INSKEEP: The phone line was a little bit scratchy there. I think you said you think the president will name a permanent director soon, and that that's where the focus will be. Do you have a candidate in mind?

FLAKE: No. No, I don't. There have been some names that have been floated about, but there are a number of good people, I'm sure, that could take that role and continue this investigation in the way that it should be taken. So I'm anxious to see.

But I can tell you, myself and the colleagues that I've talked to are going to be very aware of the importance of this nomination. And we want to make sure that it's somebody who can carry on with the independence I believe that James Comey showed.

INSKEEP: Senator Flake, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much.

FLAKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jeff Flake is a Republican senator from Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "FALL BICYCLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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