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Trump's Reason for Firing Comey; Comey Asked for More Funds for Probe; McCain on Comey Firing; Reason for Firing Comey; Pence Says No Collusion; Clapper on Trump/Russia Business Ties. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 10, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for joining us AT THIS HOUR.

"Inside Politics" with John King starts now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Brianna. And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your time on what is a contentious and dramatic day here in the nation's capital.

Just moments ago, the president defending his controversial firing of the FBI Director, James Comey.


QUESTION: Why did you fire Director Comey? Why did you fire Director Comey?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because he wasn't doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.

QUESTION: Did it affect your meeting with the Russians today?

TRUMP: Excuse me.

QUESTION: Did it affect your meeting with the Russians today?


QUESTION: Will the - will the new FBI director be in charge of the Russia investigation?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


KING: Just a few words there from the president.

Democrats see a Nixonian abuse of power and are now renewing calls for a special prosecutor, assert the timing is no accident and that the president, the Democrats say, fired Comey at a critical time in the bureau's investigation into Russian election meddling. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: The question is, why did it happen last night? We know Director Comey was leading an investigation in whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, a serious offense. What must happen now is that Mr. Rosenstein appoints a special prosecutor to oversee this investigation.


KING: Now, the Comey firing also shocked Republicans, and a good number of them consider the timing improper, if not suspicious. But the Senate's top Republican today tried to quash any calls for a special prosecutor or new special committee to replace the investigations already underway.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Today, we'll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done.

Partisan calls should not delay the considerable work of Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Warner. Too much is at stake.


KING: Senator McConnell referring there to the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. More on that in a bit.

Which us to share their reporting and their insights, Karen Tumulty of "The Washington Post," CNN's Phil Mattingly, Margaret Talev of "Bloomberg Politics," and Mary Katharine Ham of "The Federalist."

A lot to digest in the hour ahead, including some giant holes in the White House explanation of how and why this happened. And I'm not a lawyer, but how does an attorney general who has promised in this statement to recuse himself from all matters related to the Russia campaign investigation, then in this letter recommend the firing of the FBI director leading that same Russia campaign investigation?

Let's begin, though, with the immediate fallout, and there's lots of it today. The president just spoke on this. Also sent out Vice President Pence to make remarks on this up at Capitol Hill.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White house.

Jeff, take us inside the White House strategy and, forgive me for starting this way, they seem a tad defensive.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Defensive is one word for it, John. Perhaps that's a charitable word for it as well. I was here late last night and the White House was in full-court, you know, explanation mode, but trying to get on top of this story. Quite simply, they were caught flat-footed by this, which is very difficult to imagine, really, unless you consider the fact that the communications shop here at the White House, and most people working in the West Wing, I'm told, didn't know about it until right before it happened. I am told this was held by a very close group of people, the president, a few of his top advisers, but people simply did not know it was going to happen last evening, around 5:30 or so.

Now, fast forward until this morning. The White House sent the vice president up to Capitol Hill to explain this, to essentially do a cleanup duty, if you will, which vice presidents also often are called upon to do. But the president is not expecting to address this. But you did hear him a short time ago in the Oval Office saying that Comey was not doing a good job. Well, John, if this White House is trying to tamp down comparisons to the Nixon White House, having a photo op next to Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state for President Nixon, also one of his national security advisers, is probably not the best way to do it. It looks like they're trying to double down on that.

But separately happening, we're also getting some more information about specifically what went on in the days leading up to this firing. Our Sara Murray is reporting that the director of the FBI, James Comey, asked for more resources, more money, to put toward the Russia investigation, to ease concern from Capitol Hill, from Senator Richard Burr and Senator Mark Warner, that this FBI investigation, this Hill investigation, as well, was moving too slowly. This was earlier this week. They had the meeting on Monday. Of course, the firing happened yesterday.

But, John, this is simply going to fuel the fire here, raise more questions that as immediately after the FBI director asks for more funding for this investigation, he's fired.


KING: Jeff Zeleny on a busy day at the White House.

I want to note, the Department of Justice is denying that, CNN's reporting, "The New York Times" also reporting, that Director Comey had asked Rod Rosenstein, the number two at the Justice Department, saying he needed more money, more resources for his Russia campaign meddling investigation. The Justice Department is denying that. But we are told by sources on Capitol Hill, and "The New York Times" is reporting this as well. We'll continue to track that.

[12:05:05] Before we get to the panel, CNN's Manu Raju live on Capitol Hill.

Manu, Leader McConnell, today, waved off any calls for a new, more independent investigation. Is that the final word or are there any cracks in the Republican resolve?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: John, there are certainly cracks among Republicans about exactly what happened here, a lot of concerns from Republicans about the timing. One thing you're not seeing, though, is unity from the Republicans about what to do next. A lot of different ideas and some people supporting the president, like Mitch McConnell is, and like Chuck Grassley, the Senate Judiciary chairman. But some raising concerns, like Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But no Republican yet really is embracing the idea of a special prosecutor.

But there are some calls for a special committee, something separate from the ongoing investigations that are happening on Capitol Hill.

And one leading voice of that is Senator John McCain, who is once again calling for a special committee and also, John, raising concerns about the White House's rationale for firing James Comey. I had a chance to talk to McCain earlier today.


RAJU: Why were you disappointed in this decision to fire Mr. Comey?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Because I believe that Mr. Comey is a good man and I think he did his job well and I don't think he deserved to be fired.

RAJU: You don't buy that Clinton e-mail explanation that he mishandled the Clinton e-mails, that's why he was fired?

MCCAIN: I don't believe that that is sufficient rationale for removing the director of the FBI. And I regret that it's happened. We have a lot of issues and challenges and this just diverts a lot of that attention.


RAJU: Now, John, his Arizona colleague, Jeff Flake, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also raising concerns about the timing and the reasoning behind this firing. But like McCain, he's not ready to embrace the idea of a special prosecutor. And this comes as Democrats meet privately behind the scenes to try to ratchet up their calls to move forward. And one thing that they did do, John, is they disrupted the Senate proceedings today, prevented committees for meeting for longer than two hours in order to voice their objections. So a lot of concerns from Democrats, some concerns from Republicans, but uncertain about what this means going forward and what this means for the investigations that are already taking place on Capitol Hill, John.

KING: Manu Raju live on The Hill. Manu, thanks. We'll keep in touch as the day progresses.

Let's bring it into the room.

Every adjective you can conceive is being used around town. The Democrats saying Nixonian, some people saying Trumpian. I do think, you know, whether you think of the president, whether you agree or disagree with this decision, he meets with the Russian ambassador and Henry Kissinger the day after doing this. A lot of people are going to, you know, add that to the Tom Clancy novel aspect of this.

But where are we today? The White House is saying the president decided to fire the FBI director because of how he handled the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. That's their public line. They're saying essentially that the president fired Jim Comey for the very conduct that candidate Donald Trump, late in the campaign, praised James Comey for. So how do they intellectually connect those dots, or can they?

KAREN TUMULTY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": First of all, this is not a White House or an administration that necessarily bothers to connect dots or bothers with consistency even. But I do think that the events of the last 24 hours have really raised the political imperative here. However this investigation is conducted, it has to come to some kind of clear conclusion that is credible. Now, whether that can be handled within the processes that are already set up, whether it's the intelligence committees on The Hill or inside the Justice Department, is a real question going forward. And I think the pressure is going to continue to mount for perhaps a select committee, perhaps some kind of separate prosecutor. Maybe even a 9/11-style outside panel to just take this out of the hands of politicians.

KING: But the White House doesn't want that. Leader McConnell, so far, holding firm against that. Republicans believe, even the critics of Trump believe, if something like that were to happen, forget this year. Forget tax reform. Forget health care. Forget anything. You do a big commission like that, and year one of the Trump presidency is frozen.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's a nightmare, and all you have to do is look back through history. You can ask anybody in the Clinton administration, you can ask anybody in the Bush administration, what happens when a special prosecutor starts their work? Your administration essentially shuts down. You have to lawyer up and every day is answering questions about it, every day is dealing with document requests. It is a nightmare. I think Bob Woodward wrote a great book about special prosecutors and essentially the takeaway was, don't ever agree to this if you're an administration.

I think the interesting element her is, again, nothing happens on Capitol Hill unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decides all of a sudden to change his position, to change his posture. He clearly is not there right now. I think the biggest thing, and Manu hinted at this as well, last night up on Capitol Hill, first and foremost, I was the one who had to tell four separate Republican senators what had actually happened.

KING: Right.

MATTINGLY: They weren't aware. Some leaders were called, but the vast majority of them had no idea. And the biggest question I got back from them, even those that have since put out statements supportive of the president's action is, why now? Why are you doing this? You had a health care win. You have things that are actually moving on Capitol Hill right now. You have a huge foreign trip in a couple of weeks that can kind of reset your administration. Why are you doing this right now?

[12:10:13] And I do - one final thing. I just spoke to Vice President Mike Pence, who gave kind of an impromptu press conference on Capitol Hill, and he made clear, the administration has no desire, despite their claims that there is no collusion, no evidence of collusion, to see a special prosecutor, to see a special panel. I think as long as they maintain that position, you're not going to see much breakage from the Senate majority leader.

KING: But let's follow up on that point because a number of things said by senior administration officials - I think one of the reasons they rolled Mike Pence out this morning was because he's had - the president was white hot last night, I'm told. I'm told he's actually been hot about this for more than a week, the Comey testimony last week, then the Clapper/Yates testimony on Capitol Hill. He hears Russia, Russia, Russia and continuing, expanding, long-term investigations and he's mad about it. Now, how does that get you to fire the guy leading the investigation? That's a different question. But that he was very hot.

The vice president, in answers to questions from you and others on Capitol Hill, here's one of the things that the vice president said.


MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As you know, very clearly, as has been stated repeatedly and the president has been told, he's not under investigation. And as former Director Clapper of the - the director of National Intelligence said, there is no evidence of collusion between our campaign and any Russian officials.


KING: That's misleading. It's one of a number of statements from the White House that is misleading. Director Clapper said the other the day that when he said that at a previous committee hearing, he was not aware of the FBI counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion. Emphasis on possible collusion. We don't know the facts yet. But the vice president knows that. The vice president knows that Director Clapper said publicly the other day, essentially, my prior statement is no longer operative. I did not know that the FBI had this investigation at the time. Why?

MARGARET TALEV, "BLOOMBERG POLITICS": Well, the vice president also knows that words matter, as Mike Flynn's behavior towards Vice President Pence showed only a few months ago, if, in fact, that really was the totality of the reasons for Mike Flynn's departure.

But I think this timeline and the question of why now really is the one that the critical members on both sides of the aisle are looking at. I talked to a number of administration officials who at least had some familiarity with some aspects of the decision making and heard kind of two stories that are not in conflict, but they're not - but they present a - they represent a range, right? And one was that testimony, most recently by Jim Comey, the mildly nauseous, but I would do everything again testimony, was like a turning point, a pivot point for President Trump. And that combined with Rod Rosenstein's sort of support for this was enough for him.

The other was that since last year, since the election and the transition, President Trump has had serious concerns about whether Jim Comey's the right FBI director for him to work with. Somewhere in between last November or December and a week ago is the answer to this. KING: But I accept all that. We could sit here and we could bring in the brightest lawyers, former attorney generals in the world, in the country and have a good conversation, a good debate about whether Jim Comey's conduct in the last year and should he stay on as FBI director.


KING: I don't think there's any doubt about that. And -

TALEV: But given the underlying circumstances -

KING: But the man who fired him is under investigation by the man he fired.


KING: Can he do that at this moment?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, "THE FEDERALIST": Trump can do things that other people cannot do, as we have seen. But, first of all, I've been a little bit of a contrarian on the Comey question. I think Americans put him in a very bad position by nominating two people, one of whom the principle of the campaign was under investigation, the other whose staff was. And I'm not sure what the good way to handle that was. Two, for this administration, look, even meatloaf got an in-person firing from Trump and I think probably Comey deserved that as well. And I shouldn't say even this administration -

KING: Right. How - whatever you think of the - you know, whatever you think of the -

HAM: Because I do not want (INAUDIBLE) meatloaf.


KING: No, this was handled in a classless way.

HAM: Yes.

KING: Whether you agree or disagree with the decision, Comey found out by seeing it on television.

HAM: Right. And on its face, this explanation doesn't make sense. But I think what you're getting at was, there is this confluence of event where you have Rosenstein, who either was interested in taking Comey out for these reasons, or could plausibly be made the guy who is interested in taking Comey out for these reasons. Big media coverage of Comey the other day, his misfire on the Huma Abedin e-mails combined with Trump's tendency to stew on something for a long time and make a very quick decision. It seems to all come together.

KING: Right.

HAM: An important fact I think is that the acting director will be Andy McCabe, who is no sort of right-wing partisan, if that was the point of this operation. In fact, he's been the target of right-wing ire in the past for having been very close to the Clintons and McAuliffe's in Virginia during the whole Clinton -

KING: But, again, you know, I'm going to have to go to law school, I guess. The attorney general who has recused himself from anything involving the Russia investigation, but recommended firing the guy leading the Russia investigation, is now interviewing candidates for interim FBI director, who will take over the Russia investigation. Somebody has to help me understand why that is not a direct conflict of interest.

But you mentioned, this is the - from Rod Rosenstein. This is the memo here. Essentially culled from op-ed pieces written by former attorney generals and former assistant attorney generals criticizing Jim Comey. This is not a new research project. And he makes the case - he doesn't recommend firing him, but he says, you can make a case to fire him.

[12:15:06] And then Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, sends the letter saying, look at what my deputy says. I think you should fire him, Mr. President. And then Donald Trump fires him. In this letter firing him, it makes no mention of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, but it does note, just because, I guess, "while I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you're not able to effectively lead the bureau."

The letter here tells you Russia is very much on the president's mind. Listen to Kellyanne Conway on television last night.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: This had nothing to do with Russia, as much as somebody must be getting $50 every time the word is said, I'm convinced, on TV. This has nothing to do with Russia. It's everything to do with whether the current FBI director has the president's confidence and can faithfully and capably execute his duties.


KING: I just suggest she read the letter from the boss. It's hard to make the case this has nothing to do with Russia. When you talk to friends of the president and others involved in this decision about how white hot he has been about Russia, Russia, Russian in the news in recent days - before we continue the conversation, I just want to put into it again, if you're going to fire the attorney general and you're going to make the case to the American people this was the right thing to do, you better make that good factual, credible case. Here's the deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's been going on for nearly a year. Frankly, it's kind of getting absurd. There's nothing there. We've heard that time and time again. We heard it in the testimonies earlier this week. We've heard it for the last 11 months. There is no "there" there.


KING: What we heard in the testimony earlier this week was that the acting attorney general went to the WHITE HOUSE and told them Michael Flynn was subject to blackmail by the Russians and the president waited 18 days and only after that was publicly disclosed to fire him. What we also heard in the testimony earlier this week is Jim Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said he couldn't answer a question about Trump's Russian business investigation because that was part of investigation. So, I'm sorry, to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, we actually learned a lot of new things in that. Now, we don't know where they're going. We don't know the conclusions. But there's a lot of stuff, credible things that are being investigated. And for her to go on national television and say there's nothing there, go away, there's nothing to see.

TUMULTY: Well, this is the sort of conundrum that we keep seeing the White House communications shop, Jeff was talking about them, over and over again. They keep try to bring reality in line with Donald Trump's tweets, as opposed to dealing with the, you know, reality that has been laid out in testimony and elsewhere. Don't forget, too, we found out this week that President Obama had specifically warned incoming President Trump against hiring Flynn. Again, all of these things seem to - I mean they're the context that all of this is happening in.

KING: All right, everybody, sit tight. We'll continue the conversation in the hour ahead. A lot to unpack.

Up next, why now? Even some who say Comey's firing was a good thing acknowledge the timing, pretty bad.


[12:22:22] KING: It was with this four-paragraph letter that the president of the United States last night fired the FBI director, James Comey. The same James Comey leading an investigation into Russia election meddling in 2016, including the question of whether Trump associates deliberately coordinated and colluded with the Kremlin as it was hacking into Democratic e-mails and releasing them into the public. The president, this morning on Twitter, defending his decision. Among the tweets, the president says, quote, "the Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired and now they play so sad. James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bring back the spirit and the prestige of the FBI. Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me."

That's the president on Twitter this morning. And his aides say he came to the conclusion on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general that James Comey had mishandled the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, and so the president decided to fire him. Well, here's candidate Trump on James Comey and his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation.



It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had within trying to protect her from criminal prosecution.

Good job by the FBI.

I have respect that the FBI has given it a second chance.

I really disagreed with him. He was not his fan. But I'll tell you what, what he did, he brought back his reputation. Because there's a lot of - a lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. What he did was the right thing.


KING: If what he did was the right thing, then months later, at a pivotal point in the investigation into Trump associates and Russian election meddling and apparently, according to our Sara Murray and "The New York Times," days after James Comey went to Rod Rosenstein and said, I need more money, I need more people, I have to expand my investigation, if he did such a great job, why do you fire him? How - what is new? What is new? You're right - you're right, the director misspoke about the e-mails in his testimony the other day. Is there something substantially and transactionally new that makes you re- visit the Clinton e-mail investigation now?

MATTINGLY: The memo, I guess. The memo from the deputy attorney general, which basically -

KING: Which recycles a bunch of op-eds written in major newspapers back when James Comey first came out and said he was clearing Hillary Clinton and then after he came back out and said we're reopening the investigation. He was roundly criticized by Democrats and Republican alike for - they thought he overstepped his bounds. Did he get (INAUDIBLE) from the attorney general?

TUMULTY: Right. One thing that is new is Rod Rosenstein.

[12:25:00] KING: Right.

TUMULTY: I mean they will argue that he was only confirmed two weeks ago and that he was not - and that their version is, this looking into Comey was his idea. But whatever it is, that is at least their argument of what is new.

KING: Right.

HAM: Well, and Rosenstein was affirmed with - or confirmed with, what, 96 votes or something.

KING: Yes. HAM: So he's not a terribly controversial figure. And then the other part of this is that, I think, you have to do it the reverse way, as well, which is, there would be nothing to recycle in this memo had people had a consensus that he was doing a perfect job.

KING: Right.

HAM: And I'm pretty sympathetic to the job that he was put in the position of having to do, but I think there is some revelation here that many people were being fairly, either were not being truthful about the fact that they didn't have confidence in him, or were being a little irresponsible with their rhetoric, including lawmakers on this subject. Because if you don't have confidence in him and then he's fired and then you go, oh, that's the worst thing that's ever happened, I get all of the arguments about timing and I actually agree with some of them, but some of that rhetoric was a flip-flop, as well.

KING: Right. And Rosenstein very much known as -

HAM: Welcome to Washington.

KING: Welcome to Washington. Rosenstein very much knows as a straight shooter. You're right, he was confirmed I think 94-6 was the vote in the United States Senate. And he writes this - that now he writes this memo and, again, based on good reporting, Jim Comey comes, says I need more money. The question is, and you tried to get the vice president to answer this question and he - so let's say he diverted, is, did Rod Rosenstein, on his own -

TALEV: That's right.

KING: Decide Jim Comey, I've lost faith in him and I'm going to write this memo, or did somebody tell him, the president wants to fire James Comey, he needs a justification to do so.

MATTINGLY: It's the huge unanswered question in a list of hundreds of unanswered questions I think that we've all got after the last 24 hours. And again, preface with the fact that Rod Rosenstein is a career Justice Department official, was a very - was well respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. George W. Bush appointee to be a U.S. attorney in Maryland. Obviously he was overwhelmingly confirmed in the U.S. Senate.

But take a look at his role, deputy attorney general. Now, what is that exactly. That is overseeing all of the components of the Justice Department.

KING: Right.

MATTINGLY: It is the COO of the Justice Department, understands, keeps an eye out, basically keeps the train running at the Justice Department. An enormous number of components that do all sorts of things. It is a disaster of a job just in general to try and control what the Justice Department controls. He comes in into that role and decides that in his first 14 days, instead of trying to get a sense of what the ATF is doing, or what different components are doing, even trying to figure out how to get permanent assistant attorney generals to oversee all of the Justice Department's divisions, he decides he's going to work on a memo to fire a very controversial and very well- known FBI director as his first job, his foremost job and the thing that he wants to do. I think there's just a lot of things here that don't add up. And to your point, the question that I had for both the vice president and the question that I think remains unanswered is, what was his motivation for doing this? A career official who the attorney general above him is recused from all of this, why did he decide that this was the first thing he needed to do and then send that over to the White House.

KING: And Republicans control all the committees on Capitol Hill. So the question is, which Republican chairman, and will the leadership, whether it's the speaker or the majority leader to support them, say it's time to put Rod Rosenstein in the chair and ask him these questions. What is the genesis of this memo? Because the timing again is curious. CNN just reporting exclusively yesterday that federal grand juries have started issuing subpoenas for Mike - of Michael Flynn's associates trying to get the records - trying to get the records of the trips, the payments, the associations, the contacts with Russians, whether it was above the board, whether he deliberately left things off his forms for his security clearance. That's one thing. And again, we saw from the president's tweets, he was paying very close attention to the hearing last week when the former director of national intelligence was asked about Trump and any Russian business interests and said this.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: General Clapper, during your investigation of all things Russia, did you ever find a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia gave you concern?

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Um, not in the course of the preparation of the intelligence community assessment.

GRAHAM: Since?

CLAPPER: I'm sorry.

GRAHAM: At all? Any time?

CLAPPER: Um, Senator Graham, I can't comment on that because that impacts investigation.


KING: You have testimony like that. You have word, and certainly they're aware of this inside the Justice Department, of these subpoenas that CNN is reporting. The grand jury subpoenas to start to go for the evidence of this. You have reporting from Sara Murray and "The New York Times" that Jim Comey wanted more money for this investigation. That is why if you are a Trump critic or if you're just curious, you - and there's nothing new about the Hillary Clinton e- mail investigation. You can be pretty curious if not suspicious about the timing here.

[12:29:40] TALEV: There are now at least three high-profile people that congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to talk to. One is Jim Comey. And doesn't everybody think that's probably going to eventually happen? Maybe in closed sessions. May not be in public testimony. Maybe a little bit of both. The other is Rod Rosenstein.