DENVER – U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman says the appointment of a special prosecutor in the ongoing probe into Russia’s alleged ties with members of President Trump’s campaign and administration is the only way to cut through the “cloud” hanging over the White House and Congress.
Coffman sat down for a one-on-one interview with Denver7 Friday, moments after White House press secretary Sean Spicer wrapped up a contentious press briefing in which he was grilled over Trump’s statements earlier this week in which he hinted that he had fired former FBI Director James Comey because of the Russia probe.
On Comey, Trump and congressional partisanship
He said that he believes the House and Senate intelligence committees should end their investigations, and again called for a special prosecutor to continue the FBI probe, saying that he doesn’t “trust” Congress because it has become “so partisan.”
“Just give it to the special prosecutor. Let’s move on and get good things done that matter to the average American done,” Coffman said.
“That’s what’s really bogged down Congress and bogged down Washington D.C. is that just every day, you know, the unnamed sources and the leaks and everything else.”
Coffman says that Comey’s conduct involving Hillary Clinton’s private email servers, which was cited in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo that the president used as reason to fire Comey, was “suspect.”
He added that he believes Comey “should have been fired on the first day by the Trump administration,” but says the timing of Comey’s firing raises questions.
“Firing him now – in the middle of this investigation, I think – just keeps this cloud out there,” Coffman said. “My call really is to put pressure on the Justice Department to appoint an independent counsel. I think that under current law that’s the best we can do right now.”
Congress would only be able to appoint an independent commission to investigate the possible Trump team-Russia ties because a statute allowing them further appointment powers for special prosecutors or independent counsel lapsed in 1999.
Coffman said he wouldn’t trust an independent commission to stop the polarization between parties in Washington, but would have faith that an independent counsel was truly independent that could follow its own investigation and leads.
He said that the confusion regarding why Comey was actually fired only furthered his idea that a special prosecutor was needed – something he first hinted might be needed in an MSNBC interview last month.
”I think there’s a cloud over this administration, you know, concerning this issue,” Coffman said. “This is just such a political circus, and it just needs to stop.”
But he maintains that the FBI under Comey was “compromised.”
“I think it’s going to take some time and new leadership for the American people to regain trust in it, and I don’t see another alternative out there,” Coffman said.
After the interview, he endorsed Sen. Cory Gardner’s idea to nominate Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers as new FBI director. Suthers was previously Colorado’s attorney general, U.S. Attorney and the Fourth Judicial District Attorney.
On his vote against the AHCA, what he expects going forward
Coffman drew praise from many Coloradans last week when he was one of 20 House Republicans to vote against the American Health Care Act, though the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act passed the House anyway.
“I think that the MacArthur amendment didn’t address pre-existing conditions in the way I thought it would,” Coffman said of his reasons for voting against the bill.
He says he thinks the amendment, which stated that no one could be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, but did not contain any specifics on how the waiver system it opts for instead for people with pre-existing conditions would work.
”I think that the thinking was that states would figure it out,” Coffman said, but said the amendment’s language was “too loose.”
“There should have been at least…[language] so if you’re going to apply for a waiver on the pre-existing conditions, have a limitation on what an insurance carrier can charge,” he added.
But he pushed back against those who have said he only cast his “no” vote when Republicans already knew they had enough votes to pass the bill.
“Oh no, it was a very intense time. Really, very intense,” he said. “There was a call from the president about 30 minutes before the vote, urging me to support it … I don’t know that they had that much confidence in their vote, so the pressure was significant.”
But he says that the failure by his fellow Republicans to include the amendment capping insurance charges in high-risk pools was his reason for voting against the AHCA.
“I argued for that amendment. I staked my vote on that amendment to have a limitation, and I did not prevail, so I voted no,” Coffman said.
He says he has been speaking with Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., about the health care bill since it was first being worked on in the House. Gardner is one of about a dozen members of the Senate who is working on their version of the health care bill.
He says he hasn’t gotten a recent update, as the House has been on recess since shortly after last week’s vote, but believes that the Senate will write their own health care bill entirely.
“My guess is knowing members of the Senate and how they work, I suspect that they’re going to start over,” Coffman said. “I think that they’re going to dramatically change what the House did.”
Coffman says he consulted closely with recently-retired health care benefit consultant Bill Lindsay, who has sat on the boards of Connect for Health Colorado, the state health exchange operating under the ACA, and Children’s Hospital, among others.
Coffman says that Gardner has asked Coffman to put him in touch with Lindsay for further consulting on the Senate version of the bill.
“[Lindsay] was very active in discussions on this, and so Sen. Gardner has asked me for his contact information to start communicating with him to close this issue on pre-existing conditions.”
And he has specifics for what he hopes the Senate changes.
“I think they have to do some elements of Medicaid reform. They have to, I think, fix the health insurance exchanges that are failing,” Coffman said. “And I think, from my view, they have to preserve some of the consumer protections, such as pre-existing conditions, in whatever they pass.”
On undocumented immigrants in Coffman’s district and DHS policy
One of the cases involving the numerous undocumented immigrants in the Aurora and Denver areas fighting deportation, that of Jeanette Vizguerra, came to a temporary conclusion Friday when Vizguerra received a stay of deportation through March 2019.
Arturo Hernandez-Garcia was also granted a similar stay of deportation in recent days.
“I’m relieved that there is a stay,” Coffman said.
And though he said the U.S. needs “secure borders” and that there should be “zero tolerance for illegal immigration,” he made some concessions for people living in the country illegally who have committed no other crimes aside from their illegal entry.
“We ought to allow those people to come out of the shadows and be able to work in this country without fear of deportation,” Coffman said.
He has in the past been a major supporter of legislation to allow paths to citizenship through military service and education, as well as for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally without their knowledge.
“But we have to be realistic that we haven’t had a vision for a very long time – it’s been sort of haphazard,” he said. “It’s been very selective, and so we have to acknowledge that in this transition and make some accommodation for these people.”
On the Aurora VA Hospital
Coffman has been among the leading voices in calling for reforms in the plagued construction of the new Veterans Affairs hospital in Aurora.
He said Friday that the Army Corps of Engineers’ takeover of the project last year has made a “night and day difference.”
“It’s very impressive when you go over there and you get really straight answers to questions,” Coffman said.
He says he’s pleased that the corps has been able to reduce some of the costs of the hospital, and believes that they’ve moved up their schedule for the hospital’s opening.
“I do think the Army Corps of Engineers is really doing all they can to bring down the cost and expedite the schedule, in terms of getting this open to serve the men and women who’ve made tremendous sacrifices in defense of this country,” Coffman said.
On marijuana rules, his 2018 race, and working with Trump
Coffman said he believes the feds should keep its hands off Colorado’s recreational and medical marijuana industries.
“I believe that we did it legally. It’s within our state’s constitution; it’s intrastate commerce and not subject, in my view, of federal jurisdiction,” Coffman said.
He says he’s worked with Colorado Democratic Reps. Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter to ensure Colorado’s pot is safe against any possible Justice Department crackdown.
His reaching across the aisle could help him in the already-hot 2018 race for his congressional seat, which has already been targeted by the Democratic National Committee to flip, despite Coffman having won election five times.
He defeated Democrat Morgan Carroll in last year’s election, despite Clinton beating Trump handily in the district and in Colorado.
But is he concerned about losing? Is he going to change his campaign methods?
“No, I just work hard,” Coffman said flatly. “I work hard to represent the district. I have an independent brand on the issues that matter to the people of this district.”
And if he’s fatigued by having to start campaigning for 2018 just months after 2016?
“I do it every time,” he laughed.
Coffman’s small steps to distance himself from Trump’s policies have won him some grace among Colorado’s moderates, independents, and Democrats, but he isn’t throwing the president under the bus simply for political points.
“You know, I want this president to be successful, and we’ll work with this president…whenever the interest of this district aligns with that of the administration,” he said.
“But when I differ with them, I’ll say so.”