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Democrat challenges GOP over Comey firing: “This is a serious moment in American history”

House Foreign Affairs Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) Announce New Legislation On Russia Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

After news broke Tuesday night that President Donald Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) exchanged messages with two separate House Republicans about the shocking development.

Swalwell, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, gave the Republicans a similar pitch to the one he’s been giving House Republicans for months: We need your votes to set up a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia.

Swalwell, 36, has made his name on the Hill as one of the leading congressional Democrats pushing for a more aggressive investigation of Trump and Russia. In December 2016, he and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) introduced a bill to set up a 12-person commission for the investigation, and he’s been one of House Democrats’ most prominent voices on television criticizing congressional Republicans for not moving faster.

But for the first time, Swalwell said, both House Republicans seemed genuinely open to his call — even if Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have previously both shut down the possibility in the past.

“We have a right to be outraged. What we have seen is outrageous,” Swalwell said in an interview Tuesday night about Comey’s firing. “But we have to be mindful that this is going to take a bipartisan effort to truly investigate what Russia did. ... We need them. It’s the only chance of truly getting to the bottom of what happened.”

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Jeff Stein

Have you been in touch with any House Republicans about this? Are any of them going to be shaken by this news into joining your calls into a bipartisan independent congressional investigation?

Eric Swalwell

Yes, I have. I continue to have conversations with Republicans, and I feel good about where they’re going. I’ve talked to more than one who [is] interested in an independent commission, and I hope they come on board. Because we need them. It’s the only chance of truly getting to the bottom of what happened. It’s what we have to do to figure out what’s going on here.

Jeff Stein

It feels to me that we’re in this weird time loop where something will happen related to Trump and Russia, there will be a frenetic reaction that makes it look like some Republicans in Congress are interested in holding him to account, you and I will have this interview, and then ... nothing will happen. A few months go by, and then something else will happen to put us back in this position.

Eric Swalwell

It’s going to happen again. It’s the same song for the next 12 tracks. That’s how it’s going to work.

Jeff Stein

This feels like a moment where people are freaking out over Trump’s decision in a way that goes beyond what we’re used to. I’m curious if you think they’re right to be.

Is there a risk that people are reading too much into the idea that this is an authoritarian play? What’s the level of alarm people should have right now?

Eric Swalwell

When people see the president firing the guy who is investigating his campaign, they fear we’re losing the country we love. That is a bedrock principle of America — the independence that prosecutors and law enforcement has from our leaders. That’s what makes us different from a lot of other countries in the world, and people fear that we’re losing that.

This is a serious moment in American history. What we do next — and who does it — will determine where we go.

You don’t wake up one day and all of a sudden you’re under an authoritarian regime. It oftentimes is the frog in the frying pan — the heat is slowly turned up, and then it’s too late and the frog gets cooked. I don’t want to see that happen to our country.

Democrats should double down on our outreach to the House and Senate Republicans to welcome them on board and not be afraid to make this a bipartisan search for the truth. We have to do everything we can to make Republicans assured it’s an honest search for the truth.

Sometimes, for me personally, that takes a little bit of restraint because I’m so outraged. But if we are truly going to get to the bottom of this, it has to be Democrats and Republicans standing together.

Jeff Stein

If the level of panic and alarm from Democrats in the public and voters [is] being ratcheted up to a new level, what is the corresponding change congressional Democrats should in turn amplify [in] their actions? Are there steps you plan to take that go beyond press releases and calls for a bipartisan select committee?

Eric Swalwell

We have to make sure we don’t destroy every bridge that gives a Republican an opportunity to cross over and join us in our concern.

We have a right to be outraged. What we have seen is outrageous. But we have to be mindful that this is going to take a bipartisan effort to truly investigate what Russia did, to hold anyone who worked with them responsible, and also to put reforms in place so it doesn’t happen again.

We have to be outraged and make sure people understand why. But we have to still be able to work with our colleagues across the aisle and give them every opportunity to join us to do the right thing.

Jeff Stein

I want to get your theory of the timeline. Why is this happening now?

Eric Swalwell

Every time someone does their job, they lose their job with Donald Trump — from Sally Yates to Preet Bharara to James Comey.

There’s certainly a pattern of the president getting rid of people who get too close. In the last week, the Kushner family was peddling visas to the United States using their access to the president’s son-in-law. The president’s son was quoted as saying the Russians were investing in his organization. Then Sally Yates and [former Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

So it’s been a bad week for the president as far as the investigation the FBI was conducting, and also a bad week for ongoing concerns for his family’s conflicts of interests.

For those reasons, the president probably acted out of a desire to change the narrative, out of a desire to take the head ref off the court.

Jeff Stein

Do you think it was a mistake for Democrats upset about Comey’s handling of the email investigation to call for him to step down?

Eric Swalwell

I think we should be focused on the issue at hand: Russia interfered in our election; we need law enforcement officers to be as independent as possible, follow the evidence, and let them follow the evidence.

Jeff Stein

But were Democrats at all complicit in the polarization of supposedly nonpartisan law enforcement agencies?

Eric Swalwell

I’ll just say: You never heard that from me.

Jeff Stein

Who do you hope Trump chooses as the next FBI director? Are Democrats going to demand that they have a say in Comey’s replacement?

Eric Swalwell

He should appoint someone who has law enforcement experience and is completely independent from Donald Trump and the prior presidential election. That would put people at ease as far as whether we’re going to get an ongoing investigation that is credible, independent, and making progress.

He’s the president — I’m not going to say he shouldn’t be able to pick his own people. But if he cares about the bedrock principle of judicial and prosecutorial independence that we hold so dear, he’ll appoint someone not connected to his campaign or the investigation that was already ongoing.

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