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Heitkamp: Comey interview underscores need to protect Mueller

Former FBI Director James Comey attends a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new FBI facility in Williston, N.D., with state and congressional leaders in June 2016. Comey was fired by President Donald Trump this week. Photo courtesy of FBI

Former FBI Director James Comey's first major interview since his firing by President Donald Trump aired on Sunday night. The interview, in which Comey called Trump "morally unfit," has North Dakota and Minnesota leaders at odds — and it has Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., pressing to keep Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation open and independent.

During the wide-ranging interview, Comey discussed salacious allegations that involve the president, prostitutes and a Moscow hotel room, Trump's relationship with the truth and a dinner during which Comey said Trump demanded his loyalty. The latter episode — which figures into critics' arguments that Trump inappropriately tried to exert influence over Comey — prompted the former FBI head to compare Trump to a mafia boss.

"I'm not trying to, by the way, suggest that President Trump is out breaking legs and — you know, shaking down shopkeepers," Comey told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "But instead, what I'm talking about is that leadership culture constantly comes back to me when I think about my experience with the Trump administration. The — the loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant center of everything, it's all about how do you serve the boss, what's in the boss's interests."

In a statement, Heitkamp called the interview "extremely troubling," adding that law enforcement should never receive "intimidation or coercion, whether implicit or explicit."

"We are a nation of laws, and without respect for law and order and the systems in place to carry out those functions, our government and democracy would be at stake," she said in the statement. "Those are serious sentiments, and I don't say them lightly."

Other leaders took a different tack. Asked for a response to the interview, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., issued a single-sentence answer through his office: "James Comey is expressing his opinion of President Trump after being fired as part of his book tour."

Comey's interview comes ahead of the release of his book, "A Higher Loyalty," which hits bookstores today and is expected to include pointed criticisms of the president like those aired on Sunday. The ABC interview is the first of a string of expected public appearances Comey will make in coming weeks to tout the release, and the tour is already drawing a response from the president.

"Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!" Trump tweeted on Sunday, hours before the interview aired but after portions of its contents had been widely publicized.

Heitkamp said Comey's characterization of Trump's leadership — and the president's alleged coercive style — underscore how important it is to give Special Counsel Robert Mueller legal protections from firing.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced such legislation last week. Their bill would allow Mueller to contest his firing before a judge within 10 days, allowing a termination to be overturned if it wasn't done for "good cause." In a statement, both Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, both D-Minn., expressed their support for the bill.

"It is important that the investigation continue without interference from the White House or Congress," Klobuchar's statement read.

Some leaders remain unconvinced. Hoeven said he does not "see a need" for the legislation.

"President Trump has not indicated that he intends to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the legislation may be unconstitutional as well," Hoeven's statement said, though Trump reportedly attempted to fire Mueller in both December and June.

The office of Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., did not respond to a request for comment. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., was unable to be reached for comment.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108