MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let's get Senator Angus King in on this conversation. He is an independent from Maine and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been conducting its own investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Senator King, welcome back, good to talk with you again.
ANGUS KING: Hey, great to be with you, and I think the first thing I should say is that whatever I say in this conversation is not based on anything that's coming out of the Intelligence Committee investigation. So I just want to - I just want to make that clear.
KELLY: Being careful about keeping what needs to be classified classified. I appreciate your caution. Let me get your take on the Sessions news today and how - what you think about how it would affect the Mueller investigation.
KING: Well, I think the first thing to be clear is Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself. The regulations of the Justice Department going back before Donald Trump or probably Barack Obama - I don't know how far they go back - said explicitly if you worked in a campaign, you cannot have anything to do with an investigation of that campaign. That was Jeff Sessions. He was very active in the Trump campaign. So this...
KELLY: So what changes now that he's out?
KING: Well, I think what happens now is - it's hard to characterize what happened today as anything but a kind of slow motion Saturday Night Massacre because first you have Sessions who's fired. And the only beef seems to be his failure to recuse himself, which, as I said, he had to do. The second piece is the appointment of the acting skipped over the logical next choice, which is the deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who's made it clear that he is not going to impede this investigation. And it's fallen to this fellow Whitaker, who's the chief of staff who's been very critical of the Mueller investigation. So it's hard to look at those - that series of events in any way other than an attempt to set up some kind of compromise to the Mueller investigation, whether - as you were discussing, whether it's an outright termination or whether it's more likely some kind of budgetary crippling, narrowing of the scope. But that's what's going on.
KELLY: You referenced a slow motion Saturday Night Massacre and setting aside that we're at Wednesday night, let me push you on that because that - you're making a historical reference to a case in which multiple people left. I mean, at this point, there's no suggestion that Rod Rosenstein's job is unsafe, or do you know otherwise?
KING: No, but he's now been in effect - at least as I understand it - taken out of the line of authority over the Mueller investigation and someone else is put in. And it appears that the president is looking for someone who will do what he wants with regard to the Mueller investigation. Now, this is pure speculation. Mr. Whitaker may be totally above board and solid and supportive of the investigation and we won't have an issue. But that remains to be seen, and it doesn't look like it the way this is unfolding
KELLY: Do you know him, by the way? Do you know Mark (ph) Whitaker?
KING: No, I don't. I don't.
KELLY: Matthew Whitaker I should say.
KING: And by the way, there's an easy solution to this. The Judiciary Committee in the Senate reported out on a bipartisan basis a bill to in effect protect the Mueller investigation. Mitch McConnell can bring it to the floor any time. He could bring it up next week. And the Senate could move on that bill, and it would remove this sort of cloud of maneuvering that's going on. And I think that might be a sort of clean way to deal with this.
KELLY: Do you realistically expect that to happen now that the Senate, of course, has a bigger Republican - or will have a bigger Republican majority than it has had in past?
KING: Well, leader McConnell and other Republicans have repeatedly said they don't want to compromise the investigation, but they've always said it will never happen. No - you know, it's not going to happen, don't worry, we don't really need this bill. What happened today sort of raises the stakes on that discussion, it seems to me, and makes the bill more necessary. Whether they will move it, I don't know.
But here's the other thing that I've always wondered. The president continues to declare his innocence. If indeed he's as innocent as he says, he ought to want this investigation. He ought to want this investigation to go as far as it can and to clear his name. Otherwise, if the investigation is terminated in some way artificially, this thing is going to hang as a cloud over him for the next two years and into 2020. And, of course, what happened last night changes things because Adam Schiff could hire Mueller as special counsel to the Senate - to the House Intelligence Committee and just continue the investigation under the auspices of the House.
KELLY: Adam Schiff, who we interviewed elsewhere in the program, and let me briefly put to you one thing he said to me, which was whoever is named as the new permanent attorney general, when the Senate is asked to confirm this person - and this is going to fall to you, Senator King, and your colleagues - they need to get an ironclad commitment that the Mueller investigation will be protected.
KING: I agree with that, and I think that ought to be one of the first questions asked, and I'm sure it will be. And I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will agree with that. The integrity of the investigation is very important. And as I said before, it's very important to the president himself because it's the best opportunity he has to clear this thing up. And the other thing that should be mentioned is...
KELLY: Very quick.
KING: ...This is an investigation. This is an investigation, not a conclusion. Whatever Mueller comes up with has to go to a court or somewhere else, and that's where this should - there's no reason to compromise the investigation at this point.
KELLY: Senator King, thanks so much. That's Angus King, independent of Maine. And you heard him on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.