For Ronald Kessler’s eighth book, THE FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, the FBI gave Kessler...
Asha Rangappa is a Senior Lecturer at the Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a former Associate...
J. Craig Williams is admitted to practice law in Iowa, California, Massachusetts, and Washington. Before attending law school, his...
On May 9th, 2017, President Trump fired James Comey, the seventh Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although the accounts are in dispute, it was reported that days before his dismissal, Comey had requested more resources for an FBI probe into the alleged meddling of Russia in the presidential election. The Justice Department has since denied those allegations. Many were stunned by the dismissal of Comey and are questioning the reasons behind it.
On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, host Craig Williams joins Ronald Kessler, author of “The FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency”, and Asha Rangappa, associate dean at Yale Law School and former special agent for the FBI, as they take an inside look at the FBI, the dismissal of Comey, the legalities triggered by dismissals, and the Russia connection.
Ronald Kessler is the New York Times bestselling author of 20 non-fiction books. For Kessler’s eighth book, “The FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency”, the FBI gave Kessler unprecedented access to the bureau.
Asha Rangappa is associate dean at Yale Law School. Prior to her current position, Asha served as a special agent in the New York office of the FBI, specializing in counterintelligence investigations.
Lawyer 2 Lawyer – Law News and Legal Topics
Inside the FBI, Comey Firing, and the Russia Connection
Asha Rangappa: It goes to what his reasons were for firing Comey and whether or not that’s going to become the basis of a completely separate investigation, quite apart from either Russian election interference or potential collusion between Russia and people tied potentially to the Trump campaign, into that interference effort.
Ronald Kessler: What does this collusion business mean? Obviously Donald Trump is not in bed with the Russians given the fact that he sent missiles into Syria against Russian interests. Trump is someone who makes his own decisions, as I think everyone is learning. You can have all kinds of advisors saying all kinds of things and he will make up his own mind, and unfortunately sometimes he says things that he shouldn’t be saying.
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Well, earlier this month, on May 9, 2017, James Comey, the Seventh Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was dismissed by President Trump. Although the accounts are in dispute, it was reported that days before his dismissal Comey had requested more resources for an FBI probe into the alleged meddling of Russia in the presidential election. The Justice Department has since denied those allegations. Many however were stunned by the dismissal of Comey and are questioning the reasons behind it.
And just last week the Department of Justice announced that former FBI Director Robert Mueller had been appointed as a special prosecutor to oversee the Russia investigation concerning President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. Since then the FBI investigation and the sudden dismissal of Comey has been at the epicenter of the news cycle.
So today on Lawyer 2 Lawyer we are going to take a quick look at the inside of the FBI, the dismissal of Comey, the legalities surrounded by those dismissals and the Russia connection.
We have a great lineup to do so today. Our first guest is Ronald Kessler, the New York Times bestselling author of 20 nonfiction books. Kessler began his career as a journalist in 1964 on the Worcester Telegram, followed by three years as an investigative reporter and editorial writer with the Boston Herald. He became an investigative reporter with the Washington Post in 1970 and continued until 1985.
For Kessler’s eighth book, ‘The FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency’, the FBI gave Kessler unprecedented access to the Bureau. The book’s findings led to President Clinton’s dismissal of William Sessions as FBI Director over his abuses. Welcome to our show Ronald Kessler.
Ronald Kessler: Great to be with you.
J. Craig Williams: And our next guest is Asha Rangappa. She is an Associate Dean at Yale Law School. Prior to her current position, Asha served as special agent in the New York office of the FBI, specializing in counterintelligence investigations. Her work involved assessing threats to national security, conducting classified investigations on suspected foreign agents and performing undercover work.
While she was in the FBI Asha gained experience in the world of electronic surveillance interview and interrogation techniques, as well as firearms and the use of deadly force and weapons counterproliferation. Welcome to the show Asha Rangappa.
Asha Rangappa: Thank you so much for having me.
J. Craig Williams: Well Ron, I wonder if we could start with you and kind of get an overview as you see the facts as they relate to the subject matter we are talking about.
Ronald Kessler: Sure. Well, unsettling as the firing of Comey was, the fact is first of all elect-Donald Trump had a perfect legal right to do that and choose his own FBI Director. And secondly, what I think is often overlooked is the memo from Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, saying I have no faith in Jim Comey. Now, in any organization if the boss doesn’t have faith in you, you simply can’t work for that person.
And I think for all the different explanations that Donald Trump has given, this is the most important one, because it means that really Comey had to go. So that’s my quick take on the Comey firing.
I think now we are going to have Bob Mueller, who is fantastic, and I know Asha worked under him and admires him, and that is a good outcome to all this, because I think we will get a good legal approach. We won’t have more leaks and things are looking up.
J. Craig Williams: Asha, what’s your thought?
Asha Rangappa: I was very stunned when Comey was fired. I agree that some of the steps that he took last year were obviously quite controversial, they did go beyond normal protocol, and it was appropriate for him to be called out on that, but what I find troubling about Comey’s dismissal is the timing of it, because all of those things were known on January 21, which would have been the right day to fire Comey, if those were the actual reasons why. And the fact that it happened much later, after a lot of information came out about the ongoing investigation into Russia’s election interference and possible ties to the Trump campaign do raise a lot of questions.
I will also add that based on my current contacts in the FBI and also from having met Jim Comey personally, I am a member of the former FBI Agents Association, and he made a trip to every field office in the country actually, he was very well-liked in the Bureau. And to the extent that there were characterizations that the agents had lost faith in him, I don’t think that’s true, and I think that it was a huge blow quite frankly for the agents in the FBI, because he was really a director who I think they felt really got them and their work and took an interest in maintaining the integrity of the Bureau.
Ronald Kessler: I agree that probably the majority of agents do respect Comey. On the other hand, many agents were very upset with him over the fact that he decided not to prosecute Hillary Clinton. So having written three books on the FBI, I can tell you that it’s very hard to summarize the views of all FBI agents, and especially all former agents, they all have different opinions.
Unfortunately, some of them threw in a lot of nonfactual information about Comey’s decision and the FBI investigation. Jim Kallstrom, whom I respect, a former agent who was a pioneer in wiretapping and bugging, has been on TV saying that Comey should have put Hillary Clinton under oath, they should have recorded the interview, on and on.
Well, agents know that it’s a violation of criminal law to lie to the FBI, so therefore only rarely would an interview be conducted under oath. And the other objections also were not factual.
One objection was, well, they should have — FBI always interviews the subject right away. Well, that’s not true at all, especially in a complex investigation like this, you want to line up all the facts and confront the individual once you know what you are asking about.
So lots of misinformation going on, including the claim that Donald Trump’s firing represented obstruction of justice. Obstruction, as I think Asha hopefully will confirm, is when you actually impede a law enforcement investigation, as happened during Watergate. During Watergate President Nixon, and by the way, I sat next to Woodward and Bernstein during Watergate at the Washington Post, so I had a daily insight into what was going on. But obstruction is impeding in the case of Nixon and Watergate, he actually made up some bogus story about not wanting to interfere with a CIA operation to get the FBI to back off in its investigation, and that did succeed for a short period of time.
In Trump’s case, he didn’t even order Comey to stop. He simply said, do you think you can give him a pass. He didn’t take any action to stop the investigation and in fact it continued.
So I just think it’s important to keep some of these facts in mind, because there’s been so much hysteria from both sides about these issues.
J. Craig Williams: Asha, what do you think about the rumors that we have heard of Trump attempting to interfere with the Russian investigation by firing Flynn, by firing Comey and other people as we go across, is there any value in that?
Asha Rangappa: I think it’s a really troubling pattern of events and what I find most troubling about it is that there have been presidents before who have had investigations happening under them, with coordination with the FBI; Reagan with Iran-Contra, Clinton with Whitewater and later Monica Lewinsky, President Bush with the Valerie Plame leak, and all of those presidents respected the independence of the FBI and the Department of Justice and understood that the proper role of the White House in these cases is to simply let these investigations proceed, to have lawyers for their own defense, and to do things in the normal course of justice.
And what I find very troubling, particularly in recent light — reports that have come to light recently that there were multiple attempts, not just with former Director Comey, which he documented contemporaneously in his memos, but also with the Director of National Intelligence, with the Director of the National Security Agency to try to find a way to influence or spin or even stop this investigation, I think should be concerning to everyone, and it’s not a partisan issue, this is really about observing the ethics and norms that every other president, perhaps with the exception of Nixon, has been able to do.
J. Craig Williams: Ron, what’s the import of Flynn claiming the Fifth Amendment and not testifying before Congress?
Ronald Kessler: Well, the standard statement from a lawyer, which I am not, would be it doesn’t mean anything, he has the right to do that, he is just being cautious, but clearly —
J. Craig Williams: Well, especially in light of Trump’s statements that people that take the Fifth Amendment are probably liars, looking at the statements he made.
Ronald Kessler: Yeah. Well, clearly he was up to no good in one way or another, the fact that he lied to the Vice President about his conversation with the Russian Ambassador indicates he is not — he is certainly not trustworthy, he is certainly not someone who is without any problems. So that will certainly proceed, we will learn more as Mueller goes along.
I think Mueller will be very efficient in his investigation. A lot of the concerns have been that some of the special counsels in the past have sort of looked for something to latch on to, to show that they are relevant, that they produced something important. I don’t think Mueller is like that at all. I have interviewed him several times. I admire him.
He actually turned around the FBI to make it more prevention-oriented; meaning that the first goal was not to put people in jail, but to find out about future plots and develop sources in the future, not that the FBI doesn’t still want to put people in jail, but that is the major reason why we have not had a successful foreign terrorist attacks since 9/11.
So here’s a guy who deserves so much credit. He hates publicity. You will never see him being a showboat, as Trump claimed Comey was, but I think we are in good hands with Mueller.
J. Craig Williams: Well, now that Sessions’ Justice Department has gone ahead and appointed a special prosecutor, Asha, doesn’t that mean that they are not really afraid of the investigation; I mean Trump is the one who nominated Sessions?
Asha Rangappa: Well, the special counsel is appointed by regulations that are promulgated by the Department of Justice. The special prosecutor statute actually expired in 1999 and with Bipartisan Agreement it was not renewed, because it was felt that the special prosecutor had too much independence, that it could become a runaway train.
And so that expired and so instead internally the Department of Justice promulgated these regulations to allow for the appointment of a special counsel in cases where the Attorney General was for some reason unable to really objectively oversee an investigation. And here this is clearly the case, because Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself, because of his own misrepresentations to Congress during his confirmation hearings about his contacts with Russian officials.
But then we have a secondary layer, where Rod Rosenstein is also somewhat implicated in this questionable firing, because it was ostensibly based on his memo and then they were changing rationales for it. So Rosenstein I think did take the right move in appointing a special counsel.
And I don’t know that it means that they are not afraid of it, I assume that anyone who has something to hide will be afraid of it, but I think what it means is that Rosenstein made the call to once again protect the integrity of the independence of the Department of Justice and the FBI from political influence or even the perception of political influence, which can be just as damaging.
And I completely agree with Ron that Mueller is really the right pick for this job. He gets the work done. He focuses on what needs to be done next and he will not bow to political pressure from either side.
J. Craig Williams: Before we move on to our next segment, we are going to take a quick break to hear a message from our sponsors.
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J. Craig Williams: And welcome back to Lawyer 2 Lawyer, I am Craig Williams. With us today is Ron Kessler, author of ‘The FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency’. And Asha Rangappa, an Associate Dean at the Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut and former special agent for the FBI.
We are discussing the FBI, the dismissal of FBI’s Director James Comey and the alleged Russian connection to the presidential election.
And Ron, I cut you off right before the commercial break, so finish your thought please.
Ronald Kessler: Sure. I agree with Asha that the firing of Comey would have looked better if Trump had done it as soon as he took office, but just keep in mind that it was April 25 when Rod Rosenstein was confirmed as Deputy Attorney General and that’s when he was able to write the memo saying that he has no confidence in Comey, so that explains the timing. Whether it looks bad or not, that’s actually what happened.
But to get on to something that Asha and I do not agree on, just to liven things up, I do agree with Comey’s decision to hold a press conference and reveal the details of the investigation of Hillary Clinton. And I know that a huge number of prosecutors think that is wrong, it certainly was against protocol in the Justice Department against precedent.
But there are many other impressive people who think the opposite. One of whom is John Martin, a friend of mine for many decades, who was the Justice Department person in charge of espionage prosecutions, and that included the law in question involving Hillary Clinton, as well as 76 spies whom he prosecuted, only one was acquitted, and during that whole period there was no appeal that overturned a conviction, there was no claim that he acted improperly.
Not only that, he is a former FBI agent just like Asha, and he agreed with Comey’s decision in articles that I wrote quoting him. He just felt because of the unprecedented situation where Bill Clinton had met with Loretta Lynch, and Loretta Lynch said she is going to leave the decision on prosecution to the FBI Director and the career prosecutors.
Of course, Comey did not consult with career prosecutors, but now we also have this information from Trey Gowdy and one or two other members of Congress saying that even though they can’t talk about it, that they know about it in classified setting. They were directives from Democratic operatives with Justice Department officials indicating there was some kind of nefarious thing going on. We don’t know how much that is true.
But all of these things I think go to the point that as Asha wrote in one of her tweets something about the most important thing is to not make the FBI look political, and given the fact that this was right in the middle of the election, Comey took this decision I think in the end to protect the reputation of the FBI and reassure the American people that he had done a proper investigation, that he wasn’t trying to protect Hillary, because he did present all these damaging facts publicly, and I think both sides have legitimate arguments, but that’s where I come out.
J. Craig Williams: Asha, we spend a lot of time talking about the US side of this and not much about the Russian side. We have Carter Page and Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn now or maybe a couple of others that have been involved with some level of Russian diplomats or Russian agents or so forth and there have been some speculations about Russians attempt to co-op American citizens into providing information for him. And President Trump says he has provided classified information to them.
So what is it that when Trump says I face great pressure because of Russia, now with Comey gone that’s taken off, what is it that’s going on in Russia that causes him so much concern? What are the facts on that side?
Asha Rangappa: Well, I think there are two different issues that you are really asking about. One is that clearly there were enough contacts between Russian intelligence and US persons, whether or not they were connected with the Trump campaign to raise alarm bells within the intelligence community that were beyond normal.
Now, let’s be clear, Russian intelligence is here and up to no good, just generally speaking, and we have tabs on them. We have since the Cold War. It’s one of the oldest programs in the Bureau. Our agents are fantastic on the Russia program and the Russians are good as well. They do know what they are doing, so they are a worthy adversary. But the fact that the former Director of the CIA today testified that the frequency and nature of contacts had risen to a level that were alarming as of when he left, and that the scale of their operation to try to influence the election was of such a magnitude that he actually confronted his Russian counterpart, which I think is highly unusual; normally the FBI would try to just neutralize foreign intelligence operations in the US quietly so that we don’t let them know what we know, I think that all says a lot.
Now, in terms of President Trump telling the Russians that he fired Comey because he was facing too much pressure, I really think that just goes to, again, what his reasons were for firing Comey, and nothing standing alone is really enough to prove any kind of illegality, but again, when you see a pattern, what I would say as a lawyer and if I were a prosecutor is to start looking at a pattern of reasons that are being stated publicly or privately that are legally known as against interest. In other words, they are not really helping your case.
So I don’t know if President Trump just is not getting great legal advice, because he really just shouldn’t be saying anything at this point about that, but it goes to what his reasons were for firing Comey and whether or not that’s going to become the basis of a completely separate investigation, quite apart from either Russian election interference or potential collusion between Russia and people tied potentially to the Trump campaign, into that interference effort.
Ronald Kessler: Clearly there were many contacts the question is what does this collusion business mean? Obviously Donald Trump is not in bed with the Russians given the fact that he sent missiles into Syria against Russian interests. Trump is someone who makes his own decisions, as I think everyone is learning. You can have all kinds of advisors saying all kinds of things and he will make up his own mind, and unfortunately sometimes he says things that he shouldn’t be saying.
One thing I would point out about the meeting with Russian officials and Donald Trump revealing one or two details about the effort to stop a terrorist plot against US airliners is that after that story appeared, ABC and NBC ran far more additional details about that plot, which definitely pinpointed the source of the information about this plot to the whole world, not just to Russian officials.
So I just point that out as an example of the hypocrisy of the press. And one thing that is even worse than that is a few years ago, in 2012 the Associated Press ran a story revealing that the CIA has an asset in Yemen who is reporting on a plot by al-Qaeda to put bombs on US airliners. There was no legitimate — no journalistic legitimate reason for running that story. There was no abuse. There was no failure. It was simply AP showing off that they have this source, and of course that was the only source, and that alone could have led to deaths of hundreds of Americans.
And the press instead of denouncing AP, sided with AP, ganged up on the Obama Justice Department for trying to uncover the source, and Eric Holder restricted future efforts by the Justice Department to uncover sources of stories like that, so a lot of hypocrisy going on.
J. Craig Williams: Well, we have just about reached the end of our program. So it’s time to wrap up with your final thoughts and your contact information should our listeners like to reach out to you, but something interesting just happened. There’s breaking news about ten minutes ago. The Senate has issued two subpoenas to Michael Flynn’s businesses for specific documents, so maybe you can touch on that as we close up.
So Asha, I will turn up over to you for your final thoughts.
Asha Rangappa: Well, I think that the subpoenas might be issued because Flynn refused to produce the documents himself, citing the Fifth Amendment, which means that in producing those documents he might be incriminating himself. So another way that Congress could get to those records, if they are kept in the normal course of business somewhere, is to issue a business records subpoena so that they would get them from the institution rather than from Flynn, who can assert a Fifth Amendment right over them.
Ronald Kessler: I think the important thing to keep in mind in this whole matter is what Asha has written about on POLITICO, which is that no matter what FBI agents will pursue these investigations, they always have — they have always resisted political pressure, and I think that’s something that is so valuable in our democracy and will continue regardless.
Asha Rangappa: I was just going to add that I agree and I think that the special counsel will pursue this investigation fully and whatever Congress is doing, they just need to coordinate with the special counsel to make sure that they don’t interfere with that investigation or compromise it in any way.
J. Craig Williams: Excellent. Ron, how can our listeners reach out to you if they would like to get in touch with you?
Ronald Kessler: My website is HYPERLINK “mailto:ronaldkessler.com” ronaldkessler.com. My books are available at all book outlets. And it’s been a pleasure talking with you.
J. Craig Williams: Thank you. Asha, how can our listeners reach out to you if they would like to get a hold of you?
Asha Rangappa: My email is HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]” [email protected] and I am on Twitter at @DeanAsha, and I do comment on ongoing events and post pieces that I am writing on the FBI investigation and related issues. So I would love to hear from anyone who has thoughts.
J. Craig Williams: And that’s R-A-N-G-R-A-P-P-A?
Asha Rangappa: That’s right, R-A-N-G-A-P-P-A.
J. Craig Williams: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for both of you being on the show. That brings us to the end of our show. I am Craig Williams. Thank you for listening. Join us next time for another great legal topic. When you want legal, think Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
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Lawyer 2 Lawyer is a legal affairs podcast covering contemporary and relevant issues in the news with a legal perspective.
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