Trump suggested Friday that he taped private White House conversations with then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who was abruptly fired last week, and White House officials have not confirmed or denied the existence of a recording system.
The nondenials have intensified calls by Democrats for an independent, nonpartisan special prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And several key Republicans and Democrats said Sunday that any recordings of White House conversations will need to be preserved for congressional review.
“If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a former federal prosecutor, said “it’s probably inevitable” that such recordings would need to be handed over to Congress and predicted that they would be subpoenaed. Asked on “Fox News Sunday” about Trump’s decision to set up a taping system, Lee called it “not necessarily the best idea.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that if such tapes exist, “the president should turn them over immediately.”
“To destroy them would be a violation of law. But he should turn them over to Congress and to the investigators,” Schumer told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “If there are no tapes, he should apologize to both Jim Comey and the American people for misleading them.”
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said his panel or another congressional committee “absolutely” would subpoena Trump for such recordings.
“We have got to make sure that these tapes, if they exist, don’t mysteriously disappear,” Warner said.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he would “absolutely” call for subpoenas of any such recordings.
Calls for the release of recordings came as new polling showed opposition to Trump’s decision to dismiss Comey. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that just 29 percent of Americans said they approve of the decision; 38 percent said they disapprove. About 32 percent of respondents said they didn’t have enough information to answer. But among those who have been paying “a lot” of attention to the firing, 53 percent said they disapprove; 33 percent approved.
Schumer said Sunday that Democrats are poised for an aggressive political fight if Trump nominates a partisan figure to lead the FBI. In his interview, Schumer also said that he supports blocking Trump’s eventual nominee until the Justice Department names a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s meddling.
“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,” the Democrat said, noting that Warner, whose committee is also conducting a Russia probe, also supports the appointment of a special prosecutor.
While notable, Schumer’s threat may be a bit toothless: Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate, and a rules changes made in 2013 by Democrats means that whomever Trump nominates only requires a simple majority vote to be confirmed. But the Democratic leader’s comments signal that any Trump pick is likely to face a politically charged confirmation fight and that Justice Department leaders can expect to continue facing pressure to name an independent prosecutor.
Graham dismissed calls by Democrats for a special prosecutor or independent commission to probe the Russia allegations, saying that ongoing congressional probes and the Justice Department investigation should suffice.
“It’s not a criminal investigation. I see no need for a special commission yet,” he said.
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing his department’s Russia probe, has not signaled that he plans to appoint an independent investigator. On Saturday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein interviewed eight people for the role of FBI director, including Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe. New York State Court of Appeals Judge Michael Garcia and Alice Fisher, who previously led DOJ’s criminal division, also were interviewed.
Former congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a former FBI agent, and Frances Townsend, who served as President George W. Bush’s homeland security adviser and is a CBS News contributor, also met with Sessions and Rosenstein, according to the Associated Press.
The next FBI director “should be not a partisan politician, not part of either party,” Schumer told CNN.
Graham agreed: “It’s now time to pick somebody that comes from within the ranks or is of such a reputation that has no political background at all.” He told NBC that Cornyn, a former judge and former Texas attorney general, would be a “superb choice” at another point in history but that “these are not normal circumstances. We have a chance to reset as a nation.”
Lee reiterated that Trump should nominate Judge Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to lead the FBI. Garland was former president Barack Obama’s nominee to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, but Republicans blocked the nomination last year to allow Obama’s successor to make the choice. Trump nominated Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, who was confirmed on a party-line vote last month.
Also appearing on Fox News, Josh Holmes, a top political adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who orchestrated the year-long blockade of Garland — signaled that the Senate leader also would support Garland’s nomination to the FBI post.
Vice President Pence and other senior Republicans have said they would back Garland. Privately, Democrats have expressed doubt that Garland would even consent to an interview for the job.
With controversy roiling the White House, Trump spent part of Sunday at his private golf course in Northern Virginia. And few administration officials appeared on television programs to face questions about Trump’s firing of Comey.
On NBC, moderator Chuck Todd asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about Russian interference in the election, and the secretary of state focused most of his answers on the rocky relationship between the United States and Russia. Todd also asked whether Comey’s firing shakes his own “concern about how much independence the president will give you.”
“Not at all, Chuck,” Tillerson said. “I have a great relationship with the president. I understand what his objectives are. When I’m not clear on what his objectives are, we talk about it … I understand I have to earn his confidence every day with how I go about those affairs and how I go about conducting the State Department’s activities consistent with the direction he wants to take the country.”
Amid reports of a staff shake-up and growing Republican worry with the president’s behavior, Schumer urged GOP colleagues to air those concerns publicly. He said he is privately urging Republicans to voice their concerns publicly because “this is an issue of country, not party. And our credibility, the credibility of the presidency with the American people, and of our country with the world, is rapidly eroding because of this crisis of credibility.”