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Morning News Brief: Comey Fallout, Reaction To Trump-Lavrov Meeting


We have a lot to sort out this morning because the how, the when, the why of James Comey's firing as FBI director seems to be getting more complicated by the day.


Indeed. There have been a number of reports just over the course of the last 24 hours about whose idea it was to fire James Comey and what the rationale was. And then on NBC News, President Trump spoke for himself. He said it was his idea all along.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's a showboat. He's a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.

MARTIN: Referring there to James Comey. Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe painted a different picture, though, when asked about this at yesterday's Senate intelligence hearing.


MARTIN HEINRICH: Is it accurate that the rank-and-file no longer supported Director Comey?

ANDREW MCCABE: No, sir. That is not accurate.

GREENE: OK. Our colleague, Scott Detrow, is going to make sense of all of this, right, Scott?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: As best as I can.

MARTIN: No pressure, Scott.

GREENE: No pressure. So after this interview with Donald Trump, do we have any better understanding of what exactly led to Comey's ouster?



DETROW: In fact, the opposite.

MARTIN: Well, we have a few more minutes.

GREENE: There you go. Thank you so much, Scott. OK.

DETROW: Well, look, David. When this first happened, the White House gave a specific reason, that President Trump was acting on the advice of the attorney general and deputy attorney general. White House officials said this. Vice President Mike Pence said this.

Then yesterday, President Trump completely undercuts that explanation and says that he was going to fire Comey regardless. Let me just read one thing that Trump said. He said, quote, "in fact, when I decided to do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story." That's from the NBC interview.

GREENE: He brought up Russia. I mean, the story before was that this had to do with Hillary Clinton's emails and Comey's handling of that, and it was the Justice Department's idea. He is saying he was thinking about Russia, and it was his decision.

DETROW: And remember, Russia was in that very brief letter that he gave to Comey directly. He said, I know you said three times I wasn't under investigation, I'm, you know, I'm firing you regardless.

MARTIN: So there's all this contradictory statements - all these contradictory statements coming out of the White House. What does that say about the internal workings of this administration?

DETROW: I mean. I think this is a White House that is basically at the whim of President Trump. These are decisions that are typically made with a lot of consideration, a lot of preparation, rollout, messaging. And now you have days of their initial argument being totally wiped away.

And I think that matters because if the White House is going to say we did it for this reason, we did it for that reason and then totally undercut itself, a lot of people may left be asking, well, is this just about Russia then?

GREENE: Well, Scott, let's play a little bit of what we heard from Donald Trump in that NBC interview when he was talking about where the Russia investigation goes from here now without Comey as head of the FBI. Here he is.


TRUMP: If Russia or anybody else is trying to interfere with our elections, I think it's a horrible thing, and I want to get to the bottom of it.

GREENE: So at the moment, getting to the bottom of it will not involve some sort of special prosecutor as Democrats have been calling for. It's still happening on the Hill. How are those efforts going on the Hill?

DETROW: Well, we've seen some signs that the Senate intelligence committee is stepping things up here. Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the two senators at the head of this, met with Rod Rosenstein yesterday behind closed doors. I think it's notable that both Burr and Warner pushed back on Trump's criticism of Comey, saying that basically they had a good working relationship with him.

MARTIN: Let's also point out the White House wanted the FBI to focus on leaks, not Russia. That was part of the rationale for firing James Comey 'cause he wasn't doing that. And now Comey's firing has meant the leaks are coming faster and more furious. So undoubtedly we'll see some more details emerging as the leaks continue.

GREENE: Yeah and probably have you back, Scott Detrow. Thank you Scott, as always.

DETROW: Thanks, guys.

GREENE: Have a good weekend.


MARTIN: David, you were based in Russia for a while, so you got to see how big political stories in Washington went over in Moscow.

GREENE: Yeah. And you know what's funny, often Russians - they just went about their lives, and they didn't really care about American news for the most part.

MARTIN: But that country is playing such a prominent role here in this story.


MARTIN: Russia's been accused of meddling in the U.S. election obviously. The man in charge of investigating that at the FBI gets axed. The very next day, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is welcomed into the Oval Office. The timing may seem strange, but here's how Donald Trump explained it to NBC News.


TRUMP: I have to speak with Putin also. It's called Russia. But when I spoke with Putin, he asked me whether or not I would see Lavrov. Now, what a way should I say, no, I'm not going to see him? I said, I will see him.

MARTIN: Almost sounds like he's explaining himself why he had the meeting.

GREENE: Yeah, why he had that meeting. Lucian Kim, our Moscow correspondent, is on the line. Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So, I mean, a lot of times Russians did not seem interested in American news. Is this rising to the level of a story that they're really paying attention to?

KIM: (Laughter) Well, what's interesting is how different the coverage here is from the way it's being covered in the U.S. as you had indicated previously. I mean, Lavrov's visit to Washington is definitely being celebrated as a success, but Comey's firing has gotten very little coverage.

President Putin was asked on Wednesday how the firing would affect U.S.-Russian relations, and he said it won't, in no way, that it was kind of a weird question because that's a internal issue for Americans to decide. And then he went off and played a hockey match where he scored seven goals.

GREENE: There are other things to be doing it sounds like.

KIM: Exactly.

GREENE: So when you say success, I mean, is it the fact that the Russian foreign minister would come to Washington and get a welcome from the actual - the president himself? Is that what's being seen as a success?

KIM: Well, yes, first of all, that he went to Washington, that he went to the White House was seen as a bit of a coup because originally he was supposed to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Alaska at a meeting of the Arctic Council. And that was - it looks like it was changed also sort of at the last minute, and that Trump was willing to welcome him into the White House.

GREENE: It's like two different worlds. I mean, all the Comey news here and to think - you say it's not even being covered over there in Moscow. It's extraordinary. Well, Lucian Kim, thanks so much. We appreciate you talking to us from Moscow this morning.

KIM: Thank you.


GREENE: All right, we are going to end this week with a story from Hollywood that really has a lot of people ticked off.

MARTIN: Yeah. So this is an example of something called whitewashing. A white actor has been cast to play a character of a different race in an upcoming movie. This, of course, while Hollywood has been dealing with its diversity problem which makes this whole thing look worse.

GREENE: Yeah. Elahe Izadi is here to talk about this. She covers pop culture for The Washington Post. Elahe, thanks for coming back.

ELAHE IZADI: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So what exactly is going on here? What's the movie, and what's the issue?

IZADI: Yeah. So the movie is called "Ni'ihau." It's set during World War II. It's coming out by a production - a British production company. And basically, it's based on this real life story where this small Hawaiian island and this Hawaiian leader kind of helps prevent an overthrow of their island by a Japanese pilot who was involved in the Pearl Harbor attack which has just happened. So the actor playing this character is Zach McGowan, who is white.

And this has really touched a nerve among people, especially Asian-American activists and folks who have been paying attention to these recent controversies involving whitewashing. Critics say that these are instances in which white actors are playing roles that clearly should be played by Asian or Pacific Islander characters. So some other examples of recent controversies include Emma Stone in "Aloha," Scarlett Johansson in "Ghost In The Shell."

GREENE: This happens a lot.

MARTIN: I can't believe this still happens actually in 2017.

IZADI: Yeah. So part of the thing with - especially when we're talking big productions coming out of Hollywood, which it's unclear whether this is going to be at that level, is that having a big name white actor is thought of as a box office draw because they're of a certain caliber, these bigger names and stars. And maybe producers are opting for some of these actors in lieu of perhaps some lesser known but still famous Asian-American or Pacific Islander characters to serve as box office draws.

However, what we're seeing in recent years are - especially in the past year - movies with more diversity are actually big box office hits, so "Hidden Figures." And even "Get Out," which didn't have a big star at all, huge box office hit.

GREENE: Oh, that's interesting. So it's really undermining any sort of argument that's like, we need this actor. We have to give up on diversity efforts if we need this actor or actress to make money.

IZADI: Right. And it's more - it's less of an argument than a narrative that we've seen throughout the years in Hollywood that's starting to crumble that you need a white male actor, a big name. I mean, "Hidden Figures" beat out Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck - box - movies at the box office when it came out. So you look at a movie like that and you're like, oh, my God, you know, three black women really were the huge - biggest stars that year - last year.

And then you also look at a movie like "Moana," Disney's "Moana," the animated movie where the producers really made big overtures to try and ensure that they were telling a story that culturally made sense. So they employed a lot of scholars - Polynesian scholars to help them craft the story. They also brought on Dwayne Johnson - Dwayne The Rock Johnson who's of Polynesian descent. And also, they cast a Hawaiian actress to voice the animated character. So audiences really respond to authenticity and diverse stories.

GREENE: Wait. Where are - where in the production is this movie, "Ni'ihau"? I mean, could the social media backlash actually cause them to recast the role here?

IZADI: It's in pre-production. And I should note that there is an expired casting call that names a lot of other characters who are Asian, Asian-American or Pacific Islander. And in the past with these sorts of controversies, movies continue on. And it has actually hurt them at the box office. One of the producers behind "Ghost In The Shell" said the controversy hurt them.

GREENE: It's amazing. I mean, all three of us have probably done interviews about this diversity problem in Hollywood, and it's one that continues.

MARTIN: I say more Polynesian movies so we can see more of Dwayne The Rock Johnson. That's my opinion.

IZADI: (Laughter).

GREENE: There you go. Let's end our week with that. Elahe Izadi of The Washington Post, thanks for coming in. We appreciate it.

IZADI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEP CONCENTRATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.