James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Senators Focus on Trump's Threat Over Tapes After Comey's Firing

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. lawmakers from both parties kept up the pressure on Donald Trump over the sudden firing of James Comey, demanding that recordings the president suggested he may have made of his meetings with the former FBI director be preserved and handed over to lawmakers.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Sunday in a televised interview that he thinks “our institutions are under assault” both by other nations, such as Russia, and by the president. He said the other branches of the federal government should step up their checks on the White House.

Washington continued to be roiled by Trump’s firing of Comey on May 9, citing frustrations with the FBI director’s conduct. Comey was in charge of the agency’s investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in that country’s attempts to interfere with the U.S. presidential election last year.

As the Trump administration continued to interview prospective Comey replacements, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said he’d like to see Comey testify at a public session of the panel.

“My expectation is that we will get a chance to hear from him in public,” Virginia Senator Mark Warner told “Fox News Sunday.”

In a separate interview on ABC News, Warner said it was “virtually unprecedented” to have a president fire an FBI director -- it has happened just once before -- and the fact it occurred as Comey led an investigation into the Trump campaign was particularly concerning.

That concern is shared by some members of Trump’s own party. “Once you get to a place where there is an active investigation, the FBI director is not supposed to be in a political chain of command and that’s the appearance of this situation and its timing,” Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, told CBS News on Monday. “The timing is very troubling.”

Checks, Balances

Clapper on Sunday called on the other branches of the federal government to fulfill their roles as a check on the executive branch.

“The founding fathers, in their genius, created a system of three co-equal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances,” Clapper said. “I feel as though that is under assault and is eroding.”

Clapper said the assault was “both externally -- and that’s the big news here, is the Russian interference in our election system -- and I think as well our institutions are under assault internally.” CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked if he meant the internal assault was from the president. Clapper responded, “Exactly.”

Trump added another layer of intrigue to his dismissal of Comey, saying in a posting on Twitter on Friday that the former FBI director “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Tapes Sought

Trump’s tweet led some Republicans to join their Democratic counterparts in calling for any recordings to be turned over.

“I think it’s time to call the FBI director before the country at large and explain what happened at that dinner,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on NBC on Sunday. Referring to a White House dinner in January at which Comey associates told the network that Trump asked him for a loyalty pledge, Graham added, “And if there are any tapes, they have to be turned over. You can’t be cute about tapes.”

Warner said he would “absolutely” want the Senate to subpoena the White House to produce any recordings made by the Trump administration that are relevant to the Comey firing or the Russia matter. “We have to make sure that these tapes, if they exist, don’t mysteriously disappear,” Warner said.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah said on “Fox News Sunday” that if there are recordings, it is “inevitable” that they will be subpoenaed and have to be turned over.

White House officials declined to comment on whether tapes exist. Asked about the existence of recording during an interview with Fox News that aired Saturday, Trump said, “That I can’t talk about. I won’t talk about that. All I want is for Comey to be honest.”

The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Trump regularly recorded his conversations as a businessman.

Sessions’ Recusal

Warner and other Democrats also questioned the involvement of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in interviewing candidates to replace Comey. Sessions recused himself from involvement in the Russian election probe after failing to disclose 2016 contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

“He didn’t tell the truth about meeting with the Russians, so he recused himself,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said of Sessions on CNN. “Now he seems to be violating that recusal.”

Sessions and deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spent Saturday at the Justice Department interviewing a series of candidates to replace Comey as FBI chief. Comey, according to the New York Times, attended the matinee of the touring Broadway musical “Fun Home” a block away in downtown Washington.

Initial contenders for the job, according to a person familiar with the matter, included Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former Justice Department official Alice Fisher, and Michael Garcia, a former U.S. Attorney in Manhattan.

On Fox, Warner said it was “inappropriate” for Sessions to participate in the interviews. Representative Adam Schiff of California said on CBS that Sessions’ involvement “does bother me.”

Warner said separately on ABC that Rosenstein ought appoint a special prosecutor to lead an investigation into the question of whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Blocked Appointment

Schumer said he supports calls to block the appointment of a new FBI director until a special prosecutor is named.

“There are a lot of Democrats who feel that way,” Schumer said. “We will have to discuss it as a caucus, but I would support that move, because who the FBI director is, is related to who the special prosecutor is.”

Asked whether Trump had fired Comey in order to obstruct ongoing investigations, Warner said “what was going on the president’s mind, I don’t know. I do know we’re going to get to the bottom of this, regardless.”

Sasse, a critic of Trump in the past, said Comey’s firing “exacerbates the erosion of trust” in public institutions.

“We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust,” Sasse said on CBS on Sunday.

Graham of South Carolina, speaking on NBC, said Trump now “has a duty and obligation to pick somebody beyond reproach outside the political lane” to lead the FBI.

Asked about reports that Cornyn was among those interviewed for the job, Graham said, “It’s now time to pick someone who comes from within the ranks or has such a reputation that has no political background at all that can go into the job on day one.”