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Senate Intel Republican James Lankford Responds To Comey Testimony

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There was one big question at the heart of yesterday's hearing on Capitol Hill where former FBI director James Comey testified for the Senate intelligence committee. Was President Trump actively trying to obstruct the FBI's investigation into Russian election meddling and the possible involvement of Trump associates?

James Lankford, Republican from Oklahoma, is one of the senators who questioned Comey yesterday. And he raised Comey's now-famous account of a meeting at the White House when President Trump dismissed everyone from the room but James Comey and allegedly said, I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go, referring to then national security adviser Michael Flynn.

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JAMES LANKFORD: The key aspect here is, if this seems to be something the president's trying to get you to drop it, this seems like a pretty light touch to drop it, to bring it up at that moment, the day after he had just fired Flynn, to come back in and say, I hope we can let this go. But then it never reappears again.

CORNISH: Earlier today, I reached Senator Lankford in Oklahoma and asked him what he meant by a light touch.

LANKFORD: The president makes this comment in a private meeting based on Comey's testimony, but there never seems to be any follow-up on it. There's no White House official, there's no Department of Justice official that ever comes back to the FBI, and there is no slowdown of the investigation. So this light touch comment from me was, if this is him trying to obstruct justice, it's a pretty weak way for him to do it, to make one offhand comment in private and then never have any other action that's taken.

CORNISH: At the same time, the president has everyone leave the room, including Comey's boss, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and Jared Kushner, whom the president ostensibly trusts. You know, if the president of the United States takes you in a room alone and makes your boss leave and then leans over and tells you something, does that feel very light?

LANKFORD: It does, actually, only because it's this president. He's very hands-on personally, which is very different than a lot of other presidents that delegated things to staff or kept it in a group. He seems to have no problem with doing things one-on-one.

CORNISH: And of course then there's the firing itself, with the president telling NBC, you know, I decided to do it. I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. You don't see a tie there.

LANKFORD: No, I don't have any doubt this is connected to the Russia investigation. I've had a conversation with the president to say, I don't understand the timing of the firing of Jim Comey. I understand that there were Americans that lost trust for Jim Comey last year...

CORNISH: But I'm asking because, again, it gets to the idea of light touch. Like, if it's light, then how do you end up getting fired after?

LANKFORD: No, I would agree on that. Here's the issue. Jim Comey even said he believes it's part of the Russia investigation but trying to figure out what part it is. Even in Comey's testimony, when you read it, you read about a president very frustrated that Comey will tell the president in private, you're not part of the investigation, but in public will never say that. And the president keeps trying to get Comey or someone to say, we're not under investigation. But that part never gets leaked out.

CORNISH: You know, House Speaker Paul Ryan said yesterday that essentially the president's new to this. He's new to government, and so he probably isn't essentially steeped in long-running protocol that establishes the relationship between the Department of Justice, FBI and White House. Do you agree with this idea and that that's acceptable for a president, especially a president with some experienced staff?

LANKFORD: Yeah, I don't think it's acceptable to ever get into a situation where you put some of your staff in an uncomfortable moment, so I do think that it's inappropriate to put him in that spot. But I also agree this is a president that's steeped in New York City politics but not actually in how things actually function in the chain of command in Washington, D.C.

The FBI director is a very different role than a cabinet official. The FBI director is not to be connected with anyone around any investigation. When you are and your staff around you are somehow under a cloud, you don't interact with the FBI director one-on-one. Whether it's illegal or not is an entirely different issue, but it's certainly inappropriate.

CORNISH: Senator, before I let you go, you've stressed repeatedly here that you do believe some of this behavior by the president was inappropriate, but what would be crossing the line to you? What are you going to be looking for that might be, say, even just an impeachable offense, even if it doesn't rise to criminal activity?

LANKFORD: Oh, yeah, we're a long way from a conversation on an impeachable offense here. You have to have a volitional act to be able to push through, to be able to stop an investigation, which is part of my line of questionings to see if there was a concerted effort to stop an investigation or slow or impede an investigation.

So it was clear the investigation did not slow. It was also clear from his statements that the president made to Jim Comey to continue on with his investigation. And if there's any person connected to his campaign, they should be under investigation. So we're trying to interpret the difference between frustration and trying to actually impede the process.

CORNISH: Senator James Lankford is a Republican of Oklahoma and member of the Senate intelligence committee. Thank you for speaking with us.

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