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Comey's Firing Prompts Calls For Independent Investigation Into Russia

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There have been calls mostly from Democrats for an independent investigation of Russian meddling in last year's election. Those calls, though, are for different kinds of investigations. And to spell out what they are, we've called in veteran investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, who's now with Yahoo News. Hiya.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Hi there.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the idea of a special prosecutor or, as they were once called, independent counsels. A very famous one was Kenneth Starr, whose investigation into alleged financial misdeeds by Bill Clinton led to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

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KEN STARR: The evidence suggests that the eight months included false statements under oath, false statements to the American people.

SIEGEL: Michael Isikoff, what's the reasoning behind naming a special prosecutor or an independent counsel as Starr was?

ISIKOFF: Well, when there is a determination made that it would be a conflict of interest for the Justice Department itself to conduct the investigation, that's when people turn to an independent counsel or special prosecutor. The general theory is that the attorney general and the deputy attorney general are nominated by the president - sitting president of the United States, are accountable to the president. And therefore if the president or the White House or somebody in his administration is under investigation, it's a conflict for that Justice Department to do the probe.

SIEGEL: Starr actually served under a law - post-Watergate law that made him accountable to a panel of federal judges, but that law doesn't exist anymore.

ISIKOFF: Right. There were something like 15 independent counsels that were enacted under that law, but they really kind of proliferated during the Clinton years. You had independent counsels not just of Bill Clinton and the Whitewater investigation that Ken Starr did but of the labor secretary, the interior secretary, the HUD secretary.

SIEGEL: The agriculture secretary.

ISIKOFF: It's almost as if almost every other member of Clinton's Cabinet was being investigated by an independent counsel. And after the Clinton years and the Starr era, there was a feeling on both sides of the aisle that the independent counsel statute was no longer useful and should be terminated.

SIEGEL: So now it would just be somebody named by the deputy attorney general.

ISIKOFF: Right. There is a regulation in Justice Department rules that permit the appointment of a special counsel if there is deemed to be a conflict of interest. But again, it's not quite the same thing because that special counsel is accountable to the Justice Department in a way that independent counsels appointed by federal judges were not.

SIEGEL: Next, there is an idea that's supported by, among others, Republican Senator John McCain - the Senate select committee. The most famous one of course was the one that investigated the Watergate scandal. Its ranking minority member, Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, was immortalized by this statement.

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HOWARD BAKER: The central question at this point is simply put. What did the president know, and when did he know it?

SIEGEL: President Nixon, of course. What's the difference between a committee like the Watergate committee and, say, the Senate intelligence committee?

ISIKOFF: Well, the Senate intelligence committee, which is doing the Russia investigation right now, as is the House intelligence committee, also has other business. It's there to provide oversight of the intelligence community. It doesn't have special dedicated resources to do a complex investigation of this kind. And that's why you have many in the Senate, mostly Democrats, who are calling for a special committee to handle it.

SIEGEL: Finally, there's the idea of what was done after 9/11, which is creating an independent commission like the one that was led by, well, a Democrat, Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, but also a Republican, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean.

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THOMAS KEAN: Today, we present this report and these recommendations to the president of the United States, to the United States Congress and the American people.

SIEGEL: The 9/11 Commission set out to establish what happened. It wasn't there to prosecute anyone. It wasn't there to pass a law.

ISIKOFF: Right. You had a great public interest in knowing what happened on 9/11, how it happened, what the government knew beforehand. And the 9/11 Commission is the model for this sort of thing. It had bipartisan support. There was a vast staff. They did a thorough job and produced a document that has been studied for years ever since and really set down a marker for the best way to do a truly independent investigation.

SIEGEL: Of these three options, which one do you think is either best or most likely?

ISIKOFF: Probably the special counsel appointed by the deputy attorney general because to have an independent commission or to have an independent counsel itself would require passage of a law by Congress - highly unlikely given the current politics of it.

SIEGEL: And a select committee would run against the will of the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell.

ISIKOFF: Exactly - unlikely as well. But these things are driven by facts, and new revelations, new disclosures could change the calculus.

SIEGEL: Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News, thanks.

ISIKOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.