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Comey Faces Sharp Criticism; Ex-FBI Official Calls Clinton A 'Criminal'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A decision by the head of the FBI is guiding the political conversation this week. James Comey informed Congress that he was going to review newly discovered emails that could be relevant in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private server. We've been trying to sort out what the FBI is doing and why. Yesterday, we heard from a former top official in President Obama's Justice Department who is supporting Hillary Clinton. Today, we're joined by James Kallstrom. He's a former assistant director for the FBI in New York, and he is backing Donald Trump.

Welcome to the program. Good morning.

JAMES KALLSTROM: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So just days before the election, the FBI director goes public about these - these newly discovered emails. Was this the right decision in your mind?

KALLSTROM: Well, I think he had no choice, David. The FBI is in the business of criminal investigation. So when they have information coming in from a, you know, tangential investigation in New York, I think they had no choice.

GREENE: Let me just ask you - it's - I mean, it's - we don't know what these emails are at this point. There are some who say they could be emails that the FBI has already looked at. And a lot of people are suggesting that Comey, you know, by coming out and dangling this question, is getting involved in a presidential election. Is that a risk here?

KALLSTROM: It is a risk. It's certainly going to be interpreted that way without question. But I think, even though I've been very critical of him, I think he was between a rock and a hard place and had no choice but to accept the evidence that was being given to him by the New York office and proceed with it.

And if he didn't say anything about it, if he - if he swept under the rug and it came out after the election, you know, that wouldn't help the people of this country have faith in our justice system. So I think he really had no choice. Now, I guess he could have gone up there privately and talked to the heads of the committees. But as you probably know, that wouldn't have lasted long either. That would have been in the public domain, so...

GREENE: Does this expose some kind of rift between the FBI and the Justice Department, all these twists and turns here?

KALLSTROM: Yeah, without question. There's a major rift, absolutely.

GREENE: Is that dangerous to have a rift between an agency like the FBI and the Justice Department?

KALLSTROM: Yeah. I don't recall - in my 28 years, I don't recall anything like this, so this is new. This is different. And unfortunately, the Democrats - I don't say this politically; I just say this is a matter of law. The Democrats nominated someone to run for president that had a long trail of things that could be considered by a grand jury as being criminal.

GREENE: You've been out there saying that Hillary Clinton is criminal. I just wonder, someone in your line of work, isn't it dangerous to throw a term like that around if she's never been charged with anything?

KALLSTROM: No, I don't think so. I think the evidence speaks for itself. I think what's in the public domain speaks for itself.

GREENE: OK. Well, I guess a lot will come out if an investigation does indeed proceed. James Kallstrom was assistant director for the FBI in New York. He is supporting Donald Trump for president. Thank you so much for joining us this morning. We appreciate it.

KALLSTROM: Thank you.

GREENE: Now, let's bring another voice in here. It's my colleague, NPR's Scott Detrow, who has been following this story and following the whole campaign.

Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So it's kind of dueling former law enforcement officials we've had on the program today and yesterday. Yesterday, former Obama administration officials supporting Hillary Clinton really criticizing the FBI director, James Comey. And this morning, we just heard a former FBI official who is a Trump supporter. I mean, does this kind of engagement by former top law enforcement officials tell us anything about this campaign season?

DETROW: I mean, a theme of this year has been different political sides not only interpreting facts differently, they're embracing different facts altogether, right? And that's what we're seeing here - two very different interpretations of what's happening. We're also seeing different leaks to different news organizations focusing on different parts of not only this but other possible investigations. And I think all of this is a clear example of why law enforcement agencies have such a hard policy about not making big political moves so close to elections.

GREENE: Which is why James Comey has gotten criticized for coming out with this, from people on both sides of the aisle. You know, it's - just listening to the former FBI official there using this term, criminal, which I asked him about it - he's not the first Trump supporter to throw that term around. You have people at Trump rallies calling for Hillary Clinton to be locked up. So this is not new.

DETROW: No, and it's been a mainstay of Trump's events all year. You know, I was out on the campaign trail with Donald Trump all of last week. And at every single event, he talked about how he believed Hillary Clinton had committed crimes and should have been charged and was only not charged because of political clout. So it was kind of jarring, all of a sudden on Friday, to hear Trump suddenly start praising the FBI and saying that they're right to take this step and they're courageous to do that.

GREENE: Well, members of Congress not necessarily praising the FBI and Comey. Some Senate Democrats set a deadline of yesterday to try and get more details from the FBI director about what exactly he's doing. Has that led to anything so far?

DETROW: Yeah, late in the day yesterday, the Department of Justice did respond. We didn't learn too much new. It was a very brief letter, but the department and the FBI, according to this letter, are dedicating all necessary resources and taking appropriate steps, you know, as quickly as possible. Democrats said that response was, as they put it, disappointing and inadequate. But that squares with what sources are telling NPR - that investigators want to do this as quickly as possible.

GREENE: Important, since the election is so close and about to happen. Interesting to look at both Republicans and Democrats, who have come out seeming really frustrated with the FBI director. I mean, it's a strange question to ask, but is this somehow creating some bipartisan unity in these final days?

DETROW: In an odd way, it is. You know, it really seems like maybe the only person happy with James Comey is Donald Trump, who, as we said, had been blasting him for months. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley sent Comey...

GREENE: Republican, we should say, yeah.

DETROW: Yeah, Republican. He sent a very critical letter yesterday. He said he understands that Comey was in a tough spot. He thinks that coming forward and alerting Congress was the right thing to do. But Grassley is upset about how vague the FBI director was. He wrote, without additional context, your disclosure is not fair to Congress, the American people or Secretary Clinton. The factual context is important.

GREENE: The Clinton campaign, of course, trying to change the subject out on the campaign trail.

DETROW: They are, but they're also actually embracing this head-on in a way that they hadn't really done with this ongoing story. They're really aggressively pushing back, saying there was a decision not to file charges this summer. They believe that was right. And Hillary Clinton and her top staffers are saying they're very confident - confident that won't change. And they're also criticizing the FBI for taking this step and making it public.

GREENE: And I guess a really key question - I don't know if you can answer it yet - but is - is this changing the campaign and polls in any way so far?

DETROW: It's hard to tell. The handful of polls we've seen so far, either fully or partially after this news, don't really show much change at all. The race has been tightening. There's no question. But I think there's a few different reasons for that. Among other things, there was a whole week of news about really prices skyrocketing in Obamacare. That's something that Hillary Clinton is going to have a tough time talking about when she's embraced the president so closely, so a lot of factors. Also, Republicans just coming home to their party.

GREENE: OK. Scott Detrow, I know you'll be busy in the coming days as this election gets near. Thanks so much for joining us this morning.

DETROW: No problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.