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Benjamin Wittes On Comey's New Book


Should James Comey be talking so much? The former FBI director is doing a series of book interviews. He's discussing his firing by President Trump amid the investigation of Russian interference in the election. That is a matter still under criminal investigation by a special counsel. On this program, we asked Comey about it.


JAMES COMEY: What I'd say in response is, I - normally, you don't want your witnesses out talking if they're going to have to testify later. And I don't know whether I'll have to testify later. But if I did, the advantage in my circumstance is, my testimony is locked down, and I testified in front of Congress extensively. I wrote memos. I wrote written testimony. And so long as I continue to tell the truth and don't start making stuff up that's inconsistent with that testimony, I don't see an issue.

INSKEEP: That is the starting point for our discussion with Ben Wittes, who is editor in chief of the Lawfare blog, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a friend, we should mention, of James Comey.

Mr. Wittes, good morning.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Should James Comey be talking so much?

WITTES: You know, I think his explanation that his testimony has been effectively written in stone and written in public since his congressional testimony last year is a pretty compelling one, actually. And, you know, it's more extreme even than that because, because of his contemporaneous memos of the events in question, there really is no doubt as to what his position and what his answers to the key questions would be. And so it - you know, look, it has - it raises certain optical questions, but I don't think it has investigative consequences for him to be doing what he's doing.

INSKEEP: Well, he is talking at considerable length, and I'm curious if there is anything that you feel you have learned from the Comey interviews that you did not previously know.

WITTES: So, look, I am differently situated from most people in that I have - you know, I was talking to him through the period in question. And, that said, I think the public has learned a lot in - at a minimum, what it's learned is a whole lot of details around the story that he told to the Senate Intelligence Committee last year. But I think the - in some ways, the more important things that the public has learned is what the thinking was on his part as he went through this. And that's important not just for narrative and emotional reasons, but also because it shows the impact when the president of the United States behaves this way toward law enforcement, what the impact on law enforcement is and what a struggle it becomes to keep law enforcement independent.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm curious about that. I'm wondering if there is a way in which this firing has demonstrated the limits of presidential power. And here's what I mean. Trump fires a guy, and it led to the establishment of the special counsel, who's now getting closer and closer to people around the president. And it's hard to see how the president, even if he decided to do it, could fire the right combination of people to stop this. Has this actually shown the system is pretty strong?

WITTES: You know, assessing the strength of the system in the midst of a crisis is probably always a mistake. I will say that it is hard to see, so far, the benefit that the president has gotten other than that he seems to enjoy chaos from the actions that he's taken. And I certainly agree with you that he has not managed to shut down the investigation, which is proceeding apace. That said, you know, I think it's a little bit early in the middle of the house fire to declare that the house has, you know, come out just fine.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, so far as you know, is Comey doing OK?

WITTES: I think Comey's doing fine, you know? He has a story to tell. He's telling it. And I think it's - as you can tell from watching these interviews, he has stuff to get off his chest. And I think it's an important discussion for us to be having as a country.

INSKEEP: Benjamin Wittes, thanks very much.

WITTES: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He edits the Lawfare blog. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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