WASHINGTON — Democrats kept up the pressure on Donald Trump Sunday over his firing of FBI director James Comey, as members of both parties said the president must turn over any secret recordings of the two men’s conversations.
Trump tweeted Friday that "James Comey better hope that there are no ’tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
White House spokespeople later refused to say whether the president’s conversations were in fact being secretly taped.
But Democrats appearing on television Sunday said the abrupt firing of Comey -- who was leading an FBI inquiry into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the Russia links of several Trump associates -- amounted to obstruction of justice. They called the president’s tweet a clear attempt at intimidation.
If the current administration did make tapes, Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer told CNN on Sunday, "the president should turn them over immediately, of course. To destroy them would be a violation of law."
He argued later on NBC that it was important for the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor in the case because such a person would have "the ability to actually prosecute people for violations of law."
Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, said that as his panel continues to investigate the Russia matter, it wants to "make sure those tapes, if they exist, are preserved."
- ’Tapes will be subpoenaed’ -
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that the Judiciary Committee, of which he is a member, needs Comey to appear before it to "clear the air."
"You can’t be cute about tapes," the South Carolina lawmaker told NBC. "If there’s tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over."
Trump’s tweet, he added, was "inappropriate." And while he had no evidence of Russian collusion with the Trump team, Graham said, "the president needs to back off and let the investigation go forward."
The senator said he was "1,000 per cent" sure that Russia had attempted to interfere with the election but that there was no evidence it had affected the outcome. Regardless, he said Moscow should be "punished."
Senator Mike Lee, a conservative Republican and also a member of the Judiciary Committee, told Fox News that it was "probably inevitable" that any tapes would have to be turned over.
"If, in fact, there are such recordings, I think those recordings will be subpoenaed and they will probably have to turn them over," said Lee.
However, Lee gave Trump the benefit of the doubt, saying, "As far as I’m aware, he is fully cooperating and he is willing and eager to see this investigation" through.
- A Comey replacement -
Trump said Saturday that he will nominate a new FBI chief as early as this week, telling reporters that he was considering some "very well-known, highly respected, really talented people."
White House officials have named several possible candidates, including the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe; Republican Senator John Cornyn, and Judge Michael Garcia of the New York Appeals Court. An association representing FBI agents has endorsed former Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who was once an FBI agent.
Graham said that that was exactly what was needed. "When you talk about a new person to lead the FBI," he said, "how about an FBI agent who is above reproach?"
Lee made a counterintuitive suggestion meant to draw bipartisan support: Merrick Garland, the judge nominated last year by former president Barack Obama to the Supreme Court but never given a hearing by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Schumer, while proffering no names, agreed that the next FBI leader should be someone of strong character but no strong political leanings.
"First, the nominee should be not a partisan politician, not part of either party. This demands a serious, down-the-middle investigation," he said.
"Second, it ought to be somebody who is experienced... and third, it should be someone with courage."
If anyone attempts to interfere with or block the investigation, Schumer said, "you need somebody who is going to stand up." — AFP