Former FBI Director James Comey dinged acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker in an interview Monday, saying the controversial Justice Department chief "may not be the sharpest knife in our drawer," but he doubted Whitaker would derail the Russia investigation, as some lawmakers fear.
"He may not be the sharpest knife in our drawer, but he can see his future and knows that if he acted in an extralegal way, he would go down in history for the wrong reasons," Comey told Boston's WGBH News. "I'm sure he doesn't want that."
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Since he was installed by President Donald Trump earlier this month, Whitaker has been criticized by opponents of the White House for his limited legal resume and public criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for Whitaker's recusal from the Russia investigation, of which he gained oversight after Jeff Sessions' ouster, though the Justice Department has said only that Whitaker will follow "all appropriate processes and procedures," including consulting with career ethics officials about "matters that may warrant recusal."
In his interview with WGBH, Comey expressed concern about whether Whitaker had sought an ethics review regarding his oversight of the Mueller probe, and also called his appointment a serious legal question that needs to be worked out by the courts, the station reported.
A number of groups, including three Democratic senators and the attorney general for the state of Maryland, have filed suit in federal court challenging Whitaker's appointment.
Comey also weighed in on the subpoena issued last week compelling his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee next week. Though he has resisted the scheduled closed-door interview, calling instead for a public hearing and saying through his lawyer that he would fight the subpoena in court, Comey said Monday that he would not ignore the Hill's order.
"I always respect subpoenas," Comey told WGBH. "I would never just ignore a subpoena. If I were going to respond in some way, I would respond legally. I wouldn't just blow it off."
Outgoing House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, sent the subpoenas last week to Comey and former Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The pair have been longtime targets of lawmakers on the Hill conducting an investigation into the decisions made by the Justice Department in 2016 in its handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and Russia probe, and both have repeatedly refused requests to appear voluntarily, the committee said.
Attorneys for Lynch have been responsive to lawmakers since the subpoenas were sent last week, according to a person familiar with the committee's demand. At least publicly, Comey's legal team has bristled, calling the subpoena an "abuse of power" and a private hearing a "political stunt."
In the WGBH interview, Comey expanded on his desire to have the hearing in public and on his concerns about a closed hearing, saying he worries the intent of the hearing is about "trying to create some false narrative that the FBI was on ... Team Clinton."
"I think there ought to be transparency. There ought to be openness," Comey said. "Ask me questions and let all of America watch."
In an interview with CNN's Erin Burnett on Monday, Goodlatte rejected Comey's proposition, calling a public hearing "not an appropriate forum" because it could reveal investigative details to other potential witnesses.
Goodlatte also said an open hearing wouldn't enable lawmakers to ask Comey all the "hundreds" of questions they had for him.
"When you have a public hearing, each member of Congress gets five minutes to ask questions. Following all of the work by the inspector general and the committee and the people we've interviewed, we have hundreds of questions to ask him and it's not an appropriate forum to do it in a public setting like that," Goodlatte said.
Goodlatte added that he would be happy to make a transcript of the hearing available to the public after the committee's investigation is done, "which will be soon."
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