U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio fired back at criticism that he was protecting President Donald Trump or had struck a deal over Cuba policy with him in return for his line of questioning during former FBI director James Comey’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.
Rubio told POLITICO that he instead sought to point out that the president did not interfere with the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections — the prime focus of the committee’s hearings.
“It was really important for me to make clear that the president didn’t ask him to get rid of the Russia investigation,” Rubio said. “The best way to focus on what did happen is to identify what didn’t happen and then move on from it. And so, if there’s wrongdoing by anyone in regards to this, there’s now an independent counsel looking at these sorts of issues.”
The hearings, Rubio said, weren’t being conducted to help the investigation of the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
“The intelligence committee’s focus, other than being a fact-finding committee, needs to be about the broader Russia investigation,” Rubio said. “Did Russia interfere in our election? I think we know the answer to that. But how they interfered — their methods, their tactics — is what the American people deserve to know. Because we are 16-18 months from another election. And they’re going to do it again.”
As Rubio questioned Comey on Thursday, he was roundly criticized on social media by Democrats, liberals and Trump critics. The following day, a columnist at his hometown newspaper, The Miami Herald, suggested he was running interference for his fellow Republican, who is set to travel to Miami on Friday to announce that he’s instituting new hardline Cuba policies that Rubio helped craft.
“The optics — and the timing of a yet unscheduled visit by Trump to Miami to announce a rollback advocated by Rubio of President Barack Obama’s engagement policy — certainly make it seem that way,” Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago wrote Friday. “Rubio seemed most interested in getting Comey to publicly admit that President Trump ‘was not personally under investigation’ than in obtaining any new evidence for the Senate investigation.”
Rubio pushed back on Twitter by saying the criticism was more worthy of a humor magazine.
“This isn’t from @TheOnion it’s a ‘real’ column. & why would I care about Cuba? Same writer says I’m not really Cuban,” he tweeted, referring to another column Santiago wrote during the presidential campaign.
Rubio told POLITICO he didn’t speak with Trump about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s two days of scheduled hearings — even at a Tuesday night White House dinner he attended with other members of Congress.
“First of all, this hearing didn’t come up at all and there were eight other people in the room,” Rubio said. “No. 2, the day after that dinner, we had a hearing in which I strongly questioned the NSA director and Director [of National Intelligence] Dan Coats, who’s a friend of mine, because they wouldn’t answer our question. In the case of director Comey, there’s no reason for me to be — he’s answering questions. He’s telling us everything. He’s admitting to leaking, to being a leaker.”
Rubio also said that after Thursday’s hearing, he was critical of Trump for the way he allegedly approached Comey at a meeting on Feb. 14. Comey said he felt the president was pressuring him to drop an investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn.
“On the Flynn investigation issue and dropping it, he only requested it one time. It doesn’t excuse it,” Rubio told POLITICO Florida. “I thought that meeting at the Oval Office was a bad idea at best. Inappropriate is the way I would describe it, should not have happened. No one in the White House should have allowed it to happen.”
Rubio said the special counsel will determine whether Trump overstepped.
“Whether or not this issue arises to a criminal level on the 14th of February, that is what Bob Mueller is involved in,” Rubio said. “We’re not a law enforcement agency. We’re an investigative oversight committee. We’re focused on that. And that’s what we need to be focused.”
Trump, though, has cast doubt on the extent of Russia’s interference in last year’s elections, prompting Rubio to say, “I don’t agree with him on it. If that’s still his position, we’re going to have a very strong disagreement. Especially when all the facts come out.