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Sen. Angus King On Trump's Cabinet Picks

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to that news out of the Justice Department that came down yesterday. The department announced that it will investigate FBI director James Comey for his handling of the probe of Hillary Clinton's email practices. That is a decision Hillary Clinton says cost her the election.

We don't yet know what we're going to learn from this investigation into the investigation. But the timing of all of it is awkward at best, coming just a week before Donald Trump's inauguration. With me now on the line is Senator Angus King. He's an independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats. He's on the line from his home state of Maine. Senator, welcome back to the program.

ANGUS KING: Rachel, good morning.

MARTIN: Let's take a minute to remember what happened last fall. This was 11 days before Election Day. Comey sent a letter to lawmakers telling them that investigators had uncovered relevant emails in their investigation of Hillary Clinton. And then he came back right before Election Day and said, yeah, we looked at them. They didn't turn up anything new. Critics say this was an unprecedented break with FBI policy. Did it concern you at the time?

KING: Yeah. The whole premise of FBI is we don't talk about investigations. In fact, Jim Comey was on Capitol Hill. I was interviewing him at an Intelligence-Committee meeting and asked him about what was going on with the FBI's investigation of all these allegations surrounding the Trump campaign. And he said, we don't talk about investigations. And I thought, wow. I hope I don't get struck by lightning here because...

MARTIN: Because that's what he had said in the fall about Clinton.

KING: Yeah. Well - because he talked about an investigation. So I think it's important, Rachel, people understand this is an inspector general's investigation, this so-called IG. Throughout the federal government are IGs who are independent of the bosses. They're independent of the chain of command. And their job is to investigate their own agencies, in effect.

And they have a pretty good record of being independent. That's what this is all about. And I think it is important from a historical point of view but also looking forward. So we know, and the FBI knows, and the federal law-enforcement people know. You know, what are the rules of the road here? When do you talk about investigations?

MARTIN: So what questions remain for you? I mean, as you mentioned, you were asking James Comey about the kind of unsubstantiated allegations against Donald Trump and his relationship with Russia and if the FBI was looking into that. But what questions do you have right now?

KING: On the prior - on the Clinton one or on the Trump one (laughter)?

MARTIN: Let's talk about Trump and Russia.

KING: Let's take our investigations one at a time.

MARTIN: One at a time - let's talk about Trump and Russia.

KING: Well, we've learned pretty definitively from the whole intelligence community that the Russians were trying to interfere in our elections. And their conclusions were pretty - were not pretty strong - were - I think the director of National Intelligence had high confidence that they intended to sway the election against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. So we need to understand what they did, how they did it.

Now, there are unsubstantiated charges that there were contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign. Nobody knows if that's true. But it certainly is something that needs to be examined. And this is very serious stuff. And it - I don't even like to be talking about it. But it clearly is part of what we need to understand - was - we know what the Russians did. We need to understand whether they were connected with people in this country, as well.

MARTIN: Congressman Mike Pompeo is Trump's pick to be the next director of the CIA. In that hearing, his confirmation hearing, you asked him whether he would commit to giving the president unpleasant news that might be inconsistent with his policy preferences. Were you satisfied with his answer?

KING: Well I've asked him that question three or four times now in private settings and in public settings because I think it really is the key question to - you could almost say the job description of the CIA director is to tell the president unpleasant news. That's what they do day in and day out.

And if you look back over, you know, foreign policy mistakes of the last 30 or 40 years - 50 years - Vietnam, Bay of Pigs, the invasion of Iraq - all were based upon bad intelligence. All were based upon intelligence people telling the president what he wanted to hear. That leads to disaster every time. And that's why I was pressing Mr. Pompeo on that yesterday.

MARTIN: Real quick - can Pompeo help Trump heal his relationship with the intelligence community?

KING: Boy, I sure hope so. That's a high priority. And I think he can because he seems to have Mr. Trump's confidence.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

KING: And he knows the intelligence community. And he knows that they're serious professionals who deserve respect. So I hope he can be that bridge.

MARTIN: Angus King, independent senator of Maine, thank you so much.

KING: Yes. And Rachel, nice to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.