KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President Trump made a surprising move today. He fired FBI Director James Comey. And this is the man who'd been leading his agency's investigation into whether Russia meddled in the U.S. election and whether Trump's associates were involved in some way. The White House says Comey was dismissed for how he handled the scandal around Hillary Clinton's private email service while she - server - while she was secretary of state. NPR's Mara Liasson is at the White House, and she was there when this news broke. Hi there, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
MCEVERS: So walk us through this. President Trump sends James Comey a letter saying it is time to restore public trust in the FBI. And the White House also releases memos showing the thinking behind his firing. Tell us what was in those memos.
LIASSON: Well, there's two very distinct lines of thinking. In the memos, especially the one from Rod Rosenstein, who is the deputy attorney general who's been on the job for just two weeks, he described the reasoning as the fact that James Comey mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. And the White House also put out a paper where they quoted Democrats at great length, criticizing Comey for doing just that. Many Democrats were angry about that investigation and felt it contributed to Hillary Clinton's loss.
However, the short letter that President Trump himself sent to Comey was perhaps more revealing of the real reason. It said, while I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless can for - concur with my Justice Department that you should, you know, be fired. So the question is, what is the real reason? The stated reason is that he mishandled the Hillary Clinton investigation. Many Democrats believe - most Democrats believe that it's because James Comey was conducting an investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russians.
MCEVERS: Comey testified last week on Capitol Hill. And I want to listen to just a little bit of his defense of how he handled the Clinton investigation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JAMES COMEY: I sat there that morning, and I could not see a door labeled, no action here. I could see two doors. And they were both actions. One was labeled, speak. The other was labeled, conceal.
MCEVERS: And of course, he chose to speak about it. And that's what he's being criticized for here. But he came under some criticism for that testimony as well. Do you think that played into this?
LIASSON: I actually think this was probably a decision that was made before that. I don't think this is a reaction to that testimony. He came under tremendous criticism from Democrats at the time, in late October, for speaking out. Today, in Ron Rosenstein's memo, he said that the director cast his decision as a choice between speaking and concealing. He said, conceal is a loaded term that misstates the issue. When federal agents and prosecutors quietly open a criminal investigation, we are not concealing anything. We're just following longstanding policy. Silence is not concealment.
Now, yes, probably he shouldn't have spoken about it, many people think. But that's not necessarily the reason he was fired.
MCEVERS: What happens now to the FBI's investigation into Russia's role in the U.S. election?
LIASSON: Well, that's a very good question.
LIASSON: There's going to be a new FBI director. And we assume the investigation will continue. Whether it will continue robustly, we don't know. But there are other investigations going forward on Capitol Hill. And we now have this huge chorus from Democrats saying there has to be a special counsel appointed to look into this, someone who is not - doesn't answer to the deputy attorney general or the president.
MCEVERS: NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.