DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump's sudden firing of former FBI Director James Comey is sending shock waves through Capitol Hill this morning. And it led to a rare public show of force staged by Democrats on the Senate floor. NPR's Geoff Bennett joins us with the latest. Geoff, good morning.
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So the entire Democratic Caucus showed up for Senate majority - the Senate majority leader's morning floor speech to send some kind of message. Is that an unusual thing?
BENNETT: It was very unusual. And it was a symbolic show of force. And the reason why, David, is because, you know, symbolism is the only card that Democrats have to play right now. The GOP has a firm grip on power in the Senate. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked the members of his caucus last night to come and sit and watch and listen as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made his traditional morning speech. And they were waiting to see what, if anything, McConnell would say about Comey's firing last night.
And, you know, as the minority leader spoke, it quickly became clear that he intended to back President Trump. And he really more or less mocked Democrats' outrage, noting that they themselves blasted Comey in the past for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal. And then he noted that Comey's removal was being done or suggested by a man, Rod Rosenstein, who Democrats repeatedly and, you know, effusively praised. He pointed out that Rosenstein was confirmed by a vote of 94-6 back in April. But more to the point, McConnell rejected out of hand these calls for a special prosecutor or an independent commission to investigate Russia's election meddling given the firing of Comey. We have some tape of that. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MITCH MCCONNELL: Today we'll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done but also to let this body and the national security community develop countermeasures and warfighting doctrine to see that it doesn't occur again.
BENNETT: And sitting in the chamber, David, I'll tell you, Chuck Schumer was actually scribbling notes in the margins of his prepared text, changing parts of it...
GREENE: (Laughter) Getting ready to respond, I guess.
BENNETT: Yeah because it wasn't entirely clear up until that point what McConnell would say.
GREENE: And just a name we should give, Rod Rosenstein is the deputy U.S. attorney general, who I guess officially sent the letter that ended Comey's career. Although, President Trump, you know, is owning that decision. So Schumer sitting there taking notes as McConnell is speaking, the Democrats wanting to show unity - you said stagecraft is important if you're the minority party. But what exactly can Democrats do now going forward?
BENNETT: All they can do is try to apply public pressure. And they are unequivocal in calling for a special prosecutor, some, frankly, going as far to say no new FBI director should be confirmed until a special prosecutor is appointed. Democrats don't really have the power to hold up that process. But Schumer said, you know, the timing of Comey's firing is suspicious at best. And then he pointed to a pattern of events, namely Trump's firing of acting - former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, the firing of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of New York, who had purview over Trump's New York business dealings - and then the fact that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had to recuse himself after failing to disclose to the Senate judiciary committee during his confirmation hearing that he met with the Russian ambassador.
But here's the really interesting thing. I spoke with a Democratic aide who says, you know, they were very careful. Democrats were very careful to get Rosenstein on the record during his confirmation hearing to say that he would recommend appointing a special prosecutor to this Russia probe if the circumstances demanded it. Chuck Schumer read a partial transcript of that exchange during his floor speech this morning. And then he said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHUCK SCHUMER: If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now.
BENNETT: And he pointed out that Rosenstein needs no special congressional authorization to do that. And Schumer also asked McConnell to hold closed classified, all-senators briefings with the attorney general and deputy attorney general to get to the bottom of this. Schumer looked at McConnell repeatedly as he was as he was saying this. And McConnell kind of averted his glance, didn't look back.
There are some Republicans, I'll tell you, who also want a special prosecutor because they think this prosecutor will look at the improper leaks of classified information, which is an entirely different topic. But then you have folks like Lindsey Graham, who say that, you know, what the FBI is doing is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation. So there's essentially no need for a special prosecutor.
GREENE: OK. Well, a big news day as Comey's dismissal comes last night. NPR's Geoff Bennett joining us from Capitol Hill. Geoff, thanks.
BENNETT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.