ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Trump's surprising move today throws into question the FBI's investigation into some of the president's own associates. James Comey was heading up the FBI's ongoing probe of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been covering that investigation and joins us now. Mary Louise, how will James Comey's removal impact the FBI's counterintelligence probe?
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, Robert. It is the leading question because he was leading that probe. He was in fact wearing two hats. I mean as we saw just this last week when Comey testified last week before two committees on Capitol Hill - that he was not only running the FBI probe, but he was the star witness in the congressional investigations. Now, of course at the FBI, most of the daily work and poring over documents was being carried out by lower-level officials, by FBI worker bees.
But Comey was running the FBI when the counterintelligence investigation was opened last summer. He was the one who first confirmed its existence publicly a few weeks ago back in March. He was the one fielding questions last week. His fingerprints are all over this probe. And now the White House says the search for a new director will begin immediately. But clearly this sets back the effort, and that is problematic. Setting aside all of the politics which we've all just been talking about - but there is a sense of urgency.
Russia meddled in the elections. More elections are coming. There are local elections this fall. Mark Warner, who you just interviewed, has talked about he's got a gubernatorial race coming up in his state in Virginia in the fall. And if Russia meddled last time, they want to figure out what happened and prevent that from happening again.
SIEGEL: But Mary Louise, when you say it sets back the effort, Comey's been I think appropriately tight-lipped about the FBI's investigation. Do we know how far along in the investigation was at this point?
KELLY: He has been very tight-lipped. And we have limited visibility into how far along the FBI efforts are because they are all happening behind closed doors, all classified information. We do know because Jim Comey confirmed it that that investigation was opened last July. We know that these counterintelligence investigations can take months, can take years. And it's worth remembering; we may never get a public accounting from the FBI. That is not the point of the FBI investigation. They're looking at whether laws were broken, whether charges should be filed.
SIEGEL: President Trump says he made the decision to fire the FBI director in part on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions had recused himself from the investigation into the Russian ties. Remind us of what Sessions' role was here.
KELLY: Right, I mean back when Jeff Sessions was Senator Sessions last year, he served - he was senior adviser to the Trump campaign. He served as chairman of the Trump's - of the Trump campaign's National Security Advisory Committee. And during those months, during the fall of 2016, then-Senator Sessions met with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak. Senator Sessions then failed to disclose that during his confirmation hearing for the attorney general post.
And when all of that came out, he stepped aside. So what we have here in a nutshell is the attorney general who had to recuse himself from a probe into Russia and Trump now recommending firing the guy leading the probe into Russia and President Trump. The optics are not great.
SIEGEL: We should just observe that James Comey could claim some credibility because he wasn't just Barack Obama's FBI director. He'd been in the administration before that as well. So the new FBI director will be the choice of Donald Trump. That'll be a challenge to acquire credibility.
KELLY: Absolutely. I mean whoever comes in to replace Comey will have been picked by President Trump to investigate President Trump and the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
KELLY: You cannot avoid the central question that emerges...
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. And this is Special Coverage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.