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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About Presidents And The FBI

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The firing of FBI Director James Comey has raised a lot of questions about the relationship between the president and the federal government's chief investigative body. Many presidents have faced uncomfortable FBI investigations. Here's Richard Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, telling the president about the bureau's Watergate probe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H R HALDEMAN: The FBI is not under control. And their investigation is now leading into some productive areas.

MARTIN: Leading into some productive areas - in other words, investigators were getting closer to the president in the Watergate break-in. That's come to be known as the, quote, "smoking gun" tape because Nixon's response to Haldeman was to tell the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation. When the tape became public, the president was forced to resign.

We put your questions about the relationship between the president and the FBI to Cokie Roberts. It's part of our regular Ask Cokie segment. Cokie joins us now.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start off with a listener who uses the Twitter handle JLK@squarerig. That listener writes, can the FBI arrest the president?

That's a big question.

ROBERTS: You know, the truth is we don't know the answer to that question. There have been bodies of legal documents written on that question. The general assumption is that a president has to be impeached - tried in an impeachment trial and convicted and then arrested, or he has to leave office and then be arrested. But that's not clear - certainly nothing in the Constitution about it. But nobody's ever tested it.

MARTIN: Let's move to a question from listener Emily Tietz. She wants to know - how much influence or control can a president legally have over the FBI? And are there checks and balances within that agency - within the FBI?

ROBERTS: Well, presidents don't have anywhere near as much control as they would like to have over the FBI. And there have been, as you said, lots of investigations. Keep in mind President Bill Clinton with Whitewater then leading to Paula Jones then leading to Monica Lewinsky then leading to his impeachment. Ronald Reagan, of course, famously had the whole Iran-Contra investigation. George W. Bush had the CIA leak investigation.

And all presidents would love to control the FBI but basically know they can't. And even when President Nixon tried to, remember that there was Deep Throat, that source who got all the investigatory information to the reporters Woodward and Bernstein. That person was the No. 2 man at the FBI, we later learned, Mark Felt.

And by the way, in terms of the internal checks and balances, now the FBI director does report to the attorney general as he was always supposed to, but J. Edgar Hoover, who was there forever, basically ran his own roost. And the FBI director is also supposed to report to the director of national intelligence.

MARTIN: All right - a question from listener Carrington Ward.

CARRINGTON WARD: What was the rationale for the 10-year term for FBI director? Was there bipartisan support for this rationale?

MARTIN: Cokie?

ROBERTS: So it was because J. Edgar Hoover had been - he was the first FBI director and had been there since 1924, until he died in office in 1972. So was the Congress first, in '68, put in a law saying the president would appoint the FBI director and it would be subject to Senate confirmation and then in '75 put in the 10-year term. Nobody voted against it. It was completely bipartisan. And in fact, it was designed so that a director could serve through two terms of a president. So it is very unusual in its independence.

But, you know, J. Edgar Hoover really ruled the roost. There is a Nixon tape where he says - we should get rid of him, but he could bring the whole temple down with him. So there was such fear of Hoover that the Congress and the president tried to rein in future FBI directors, and we've certainly seen the consequences of that.

MARTIN: So like you said, Hoover was there for so long - he ran the FBI for 48 years, came up against so many different presidents. One of our listeners, David Nelson, wants to know, what was the biggest controversy, the biggest conflict, Hoover had with a president?

ROBERTS: Well, of course, we don't know because (laughter) - because they kept it pretty quiet, you know, because people were so fearful of the goods that Hoover might have on them that they never made it public and never challenged him. As I said, President Nixon actually used the words - he could bring the temple down with him. We don't know what that referred to, but it was clearly something that Nixon was very, very nervous about.

MARTIN: Commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. You can put your questions to her by tweeting us. You can use the hashtag #AskCokie.

Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: OK, Rachel. Always good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.