KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The White House informed James Comey today that he has been terminated and removed from office. President Trump's abrupt firing of Comey comes in the middle of an FBI investigation into whether the Trump campaign had ties to Russia's interference in the U.S. election. In memos released by the White House, it shows the new deputy attorney general had made the recommendation to fire Comey.
And we turn now to NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. And Carrie, who is the deputy AG who made this recommendation, and what was his reasoning?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Rod Rosenstein is a longtime federal prosecutor. In fact he's a career prosecutor, having spent more than 20 years inside the Justice Department - from his earliest days there, rising to become the U.S. attorney in Maryland, which he did for more than 11 years, only recently was sworn in as the deputy AG, the man who runs the day-to-day operations at the Justice Department.
The White House issue tonight, Kelly, a very blistering memo by Rod Rosenstein criticizing James Comey, the FBI director, for repeated lapses in judgment, mainly about his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server last year, his decision - Comey's decision to take the decision away from then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, his decision to give a press conference in July 2016, making a lot of derogatory comments about Hillary Clinton, his decision to send a pair of letters shortly before the election informing Congress the investigation was being reopened and then closed again.
All of these things Rod Rosenstein concluded in this memo had harmed the FBI's reputation and credibility, and they'd suffered substantial damage - Rod Rosenstein also with some very tough language with respect to the fact that Comey was maybe the only person who didn't believe he was mistaken in this regard. And he couldn't find any defense for that.
MCEVERS: And President Trump in his own letter to Comey said that this firing had to happen to restore public trust in the FBI. The president also said, you know, he appreciated Comey informing him on three separate occasions that he was not under investigation. But the FBI is investigating Trump's associates and their contacts with Russia. What happens to that investigation now that Comey is gone?
JOHNSON: That is a really important question, Kelly. Obviously other people on the ground were more involved in the day-to-day running of that investigation. They will continue. But James Comey's abrupt firing has Democrats on Capitol Hill renewing calls for a special prosecutor to remove any Trump appointee from a decision-making role in the day-to-day investigation.
It's unusual, to say the least, to have the president write in a letter to the FBI director that he has been informed on three occasions he's not a subject of the investigation. This investigation, Kelly, is at relatively early stages. Clearly people who have been inside the White House are under investigation, and it's not clear to me where this is going to end up. So those remarks were somewhat premature.
And in fact, James Comey testified recently in the Senate that when he was deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, he appointed a special prosecutor to investigate a leak of a CIA operative and her identity. He appointed a special prosecutor, and he told folks on Capitol Hill recently that he left the door open for a special prosecutor to be named in the Russia probe, which the Justice Department has refused to do repeatedly.
MCEVERS: You had reported after the election that some Republicans had been advising then-President-elect Trump to get rid of Comey. So as shocking as this news seems today, was it a total surprise for you?
JOHNSON: Well, Kelly, I felt like his job was in danger last year or maybe up until January in part because Republican sources - very good ones - were telling me they thought Jim - James Comey was too much of a maverick and that his desire to manifest himself as an independent actor made him dangerous and unpredictable, which is not what some of these Republican sources of mine said they wanted an FBI director to do.
But remember when President Trump was inaugurated and took office. He greeted the FBI director with, like, a handshake and a hug. And President Trump appears to have changed his tune on Comey in part because of what the deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, said and AG Jeff Sessions as well, who's a close ally of the president.
MCEVERS: And Comey had gotten into a fight with the Justice Department earlier this year when he asked Justice officials to refute President Trump's tweets that the FBI had unlawfully wiretapped Trump Tower. Is that where things could have gone wrong?
JOHNSON: It's hard to say right now. I mean this is a very surprising move for many people inside the FBI, many people who've covered the Justice Department for a long time, as I did. We're going to be doing a lot of post-mortem reporting to figure out when things went south.
But certainly that tweet by President Trump claiming without evidence that President Obama and the FBI had wiretapped Trump Tower certainly rankled James Comey. He had pressed very hard this year to get new DOJ officials to reject that claim by the president, and they just would not do it. So there's been a lot of behind-the-scenes friction bubbling, you know, behind the scenes. And now tonight it has come to the fore in a very shocking way.
MCEVERS: What are you hearing from people inside the FBI?
JOHNSON: Well, I'm hearing from some longtime Bureau officials, people who have been there for years and years, that this was quite upsetting to the rank and file. No one can guess what happens next, who might become the next FBI director. There's a lot of concern. The FBI Agents Association says this process needs to be handled - this process of replacing Comey needs to be handled straightforward, and they offered words of praise for James Comey tonight in his respect for agents and desire to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
MCEVERS: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks a lot.
JOHNSON: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.