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White House on Defensive Over Comey Testimony; Trump Administration Trying to Distance Itself from Two Former Campaign Aides. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired March 21, 2017 - 06:00   ET



JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: The president's tweets about alleged wiretapping, I have no information that supports those tweets.

[05:58:42] SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's clear that nothing has changed.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBERS: The president is incapable of admitting error.

COMEY: The FBI is investigating any links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

SPICER: Investigating it and having proof of it are two things.

COMEY: Putin had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: No one could have chosen better than Neil Gorsuch.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The Senate Judiciary Committee will extend to you a courtesy denied to Judge Garland. A respectful hearing and a vote.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We feel really good where we are.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thursday is our chance to end the Obamacare catastrophe.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Tuesday, March 21, 6 a.m. here in New York.

Up first, the Trump administration trying to distance itself from two former campaign aides following the FBI's revelation that it is investigating whether Trump associates colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. The White House also not backing down on President Trump's bogus claim that he was wiretapped by former President Obama despite no evidence.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: So how will the FBI investigation and the blows to the White House's credibility affect its ability to sell the agenda? To lobby for Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch in the Senate, and persuade skeptical lawmakers today on changes to the GOP's health care bill? All important, and we have it all covered on day 61 of the Trump presidency. Let's begin with Joe Johns, live at the White House -- Joe.


After those big reveals from the FBI director that the president was wrong on his wiretapping claims and that his campaign activities are under investigation, it appeared the White House was going to mount a defense from the briefing room, but by the time the president stepped in front of the microphones in Kentucky, he didn't have anything to say about it last night.


JOHNS (voice-over): President Donald Trump dodging the biggest challenge to rock his administration at a campaign rally Monday night.

COMEY: The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

JOHNS: FBI Director James Comey and NSA director Mike Rogers facing five hours of questioning before the House Intelligence Committee.

SCHIFF: President Obama could not unilaterally order a wiretap of anyone?

COMEY: No president could.

JOHNS: Comey rejecting Mr. Trump's baseless claim that former President Obama wiretapped his Trump Tower campaign headquarters.

COMEY: I have no information that supports those tweets. The answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all of its components.

JOHNS: The White House trying to dismiss much of Comey's testimony.

SPICER: I think there's a lot of areas that still need to be covered. There's a lot of information that still needs to be discussed.

JOHNS: Continuing to deny any coordination.

SPICER: You can continue to look for something, but continuing to look for something that doesn't exist, doesn't matter.

JOHNS: And incredibly, refusing to back off the president's bogus wiretapping claim. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the president prepared to withdraw that

accusation and apologize to the president?

SPICER: No, we started a hearing. It's still ongoing. And then, as Chairman Nunes mentioned, this is one in a series of hearings that will be happening.

JOHNS: President Trump's official government Twitter account firing off defensive tweets in real time throughout the hearing, leading one lawmaker to press Comey to clarify the record.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the tweet, as I read it to you, "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process," is that accurate?

COMEY: We've offered no opinion, have no view, have no information on potential impact, because it's never something that we looked at.

JOHNS: Comey also revealing the intelligence community has come to at least one clear conclusion. Russia's interference in the election was primarily driven by Vladimir Putin's disdain for Hillary Clinton.

COMEY: Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was, he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

JOHNS: Meantime, Republicans trying to deflect from the investigation. Instead, focusing on leaks and who revealed former national security adviser Michael Flynn's identity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One thing you and I agree on is the felonious dissemination of classified material, most definitely, is a crime.

JOHNS: With the president's government account even suggesting Obama might have played a role in the leaks, tweeting, "FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia."


JOHNS: The president heads to Capitol Hill this morning with his campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare on the top of the agenda.

Back to you.

CUOMO: All right, Joe, thank you very much. A lot to get after, so let's do it.

We have our panel right now, CNN political analyst, senior congressional correspondent for the "Washington Examiner," David Drucker; CNN justice correspondent, Evan Perez; CNN senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin; and CNN contributor and "Washington Examiner" reporter, Salena Zito. Good to have you all here.

Evan Perez, from a reporting perspective, what were the big surprises and what were you surprised not to hear yesterday?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the big surprise, as we kind of laid out yesterday morning, Chris, was the fact that the FBI director went as far in describing this investigation as he did. He not only said of the existence of this investigation, which of course we all knew, but he also said that they were looking at these contacts between people associated with the Trump campaign, and he raised the prospect that there could be criminal charges.

Now, this is a counterintelligence investigation. They're extremely difficult to prosecute, because a lot of the evidence is gotten from classified methods, that the government doesn't want to reveal. So it's going to be very interesting.

I think it raises, perhaps, some expectations by people who are opponents of President Trump, that maybe the FBI is not going to be able to get to. That said, you never know what the FBI is going to find. You never know how people react. You never know when people might lie under oath. So we'll see what happens.

[06:05:14] CAMEROTA: OK. So David Drucker, that was one big revelation yesterday. The other big revelation from Director Comey is that there was no evidence that he nor the Department of Justice could find to support President Trump's claim that he was wiretapped by President Obama. Nothing, zilch, nada, nothing.

So where does that leave Congress and their investigation? Is this over?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, no, it's not over. Look, I feel like the revelation that the president didn't have a leg to stand on here, it's like when we headline shock poll, you know, everyone likes ice cream.

We knew for two weeks that the president didn't have a leg to stand on. So it was interesting that Comey said so, and it made for good headlines for the Democrats. But it's hard to undercut credibility that doesn't exist to begin with, at least on this issue.

I don't really think, though, that it affects the congressional investigations. I think the Senate investigation with their Intelligence Committee and with Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff are doing is going to continue a pace. You did, however, see...

CAMEROTA: Wait a minute? They're going to continue to investigate nonexistent wiretapping?

DRUCKER: Well, they are interested that wiretapping we know happened under a FISA warrant of foreign nationals and did they sweep up Americans and, particularly with Evan Nunes and the Republicans on the committee, was the information about Michael Flynn illegally leaked? Everybody got a taste of that yesterday.

I've been talking to Nunes and a lot of us on the Hill have for weeks and he's been discussing that. And so this is something they've been after. And I have to say, I understand what Democrats were doing yesterday in

terms of their strategy of trying to connect the dots and show that President Trump is tied in with the Russians, but it sounded like so much conspiracy theories of, you know, this guy knew that guy in this country and once made a phone call to the other guy, that I think it was a lot less effective than Republicans simply saying, "We're concerned that FISA was abused. It's an important national security tool, and we need to get to the bottom of it."

CUOMO: Salena, what was probably more to advantage to the Democrats is what happened after the hearing in Sean Spicer's spin, trying to say that Paul Manafort wasn't a significant member of the campaign, trying to say that Mike Flynn was just a volunteer, and making the admission that it was good to hear that there was no proof of collusion from these major factors of our government yesterday. Just take a listen to this.


SPICER: General Flynn was a volunteer of the campaign. And then, obviously, there's been discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.

Just so we're clear, I'm not dismissing Paul Manafort as a hanger-on. I was noting some other folks, as Jonathan pointed out. With respect to Paul, though, I believe -- and again, I'm not looking to relitigate the election. But I think believe was brought on sometime in June and, by the middle of August, he was -- he was no longer with the campaign. Meaning that for the entire final stretch of the general election, he was not involved.


CUOMO: This is like a kick in the groin to their credibility. The dates are wrong. The implications are wrong, and the intent is obvious. What was the play there, Salena? And nobody at that hearing yesterday said there's no proof of collusion. He wouldn't talk about it, Comey. So what was Spicer trying to do here?

SALENA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think we can all agree, he's not in a very good position right now, right? He has to defend a comment and a tweet made by the president that, in front of a whole House committee and in front of millions of people, were discredited. And so he's trying to sort of protect the president, which is his job, and to deflect the questions away from, you know, the issue at hand. You know, sometimes he does it incredibly effectively. Sometimes it's just incredibly uncomfortable. And...

CUOMO: Uncomfortable? Incredible! He got the date wrong. He called the campaign chairman that they brought in to save them...


CUOMO: Yes, heading into the -- yes, I know. They called Carter Page a hanger-on. He is a little bit of a mystery man, fine. But to call Flynn a volunteer, as you know from your reporting, I'm sure, they begged him to take a job in this administration. Flynn wasn't looking for a job. What a credibility fumble.

CAMEROTA: Let's get to Jeffrey. Jeffrey, where does this leave -- what jumps out at you from all of this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: The president is under investigation by the FBI. I mean, that's a big deal. I mean, ask Bill Clinton what it was like to be under investigation from Kenneth Starr. Ask George W. Bush -- H.W. Bush, what it was like to be investigated in the Iran-Contra case. It can take over an administration.

Now, will it lead to any criminal charges against anyone? Will anyone have to testify before a grand jury? I don't know. But this administration is 50 days old, and it is now in the middle of an FBI investigation.

CUOMO: What about the...

TOOBIN: That's a very big deal. I'm sorry, Chris?

CUOMO: Were you surprised that the Democrats didn't jump on Comey when he gave them the timing of having started this in last July, which is about the same time that he started talking about the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation? He could have revealed this back then. And what impact would that have had?

[06:10:13] TOOBIN: Remember, we had two campaigns under FBI investigation last summer. The public only knew about one of them. And one of the candidates' rallies, they were chanting, "Lock her up, lock her up," and the other, there was no hint of it. I mean, you know, it's -- it's unbelievable.

CAMEROTA: Yes, but Evan, I mean, James Comey addressed that. He said, "I spoke about an investigation once it was closed. Once I believed that case was closed, I came out and said what our findings were in the Hillary Clinton case, and the Trump investigation, or into his possible ties with Russia, not closed."

PEREZ: That's right, and I think it also, what the FBI director did not say during that hearing is that, frankly, the Trump campaign investigation, frankly, was on simmer. It didn't really go very far for the first few months.

And I think everybody, including people at the FBI, did not expect Donald Trump to win. And they certainly did not expect to see what they saw in the closing months with the Russian campaign. So I think all of that goes into the decision that the FBI has made, to look more deeply into exactly what was going on here.

I think you're right. I mean, perhaps that information could have been -- could have been publicly released by the FBI, but I don't think that it was a fully baked investigation, then.

And certainly, we reported that Manafort was under investigation. We reported that. That was, I think, widely known. It just wasn't officially acknowledged by the FBI. CUOMO: David, it's interesting. Manafort put a statement out, by the way, which is consistent with what he said all along, "I never talked to any Russian about anything to do with any interference." He's been very strong about that openly in public and in private.

But this pattern. Trump is all about loyalty. That will always be the starting point. And then we see no witness to that at all. Flynn thrown under the bus when it got uncomfortable, yet once again. We don't see any reason for them to have -- for him to motivate that resignation. Now with Manafort, under the bus.

CAMEROTA: But having Kellyanne Conway still there, Sean Spicer still there.

CUOMO: Right, but Kellyanne Conway...

CAMEROTA: Made mistakes.

DRUCKER: Corey Lewandowski...

CUOMO: But she hasn't created any new incident.

DRUCKER: ... has a new firm, with a partner with somebody else...

CUOMO: He was out, too.

TOOBIN: Chris, can I just add one point?

CUOMO: Sure.

TOOBIN: That statement that Paul Manafort issued yesterday, read it very carefully. He said, that "I have no contact with any Russian government officials."

CUOMO: Right.

TOOBIN: The whole issue with Paul Manafort is his contact with the Russian oligarchs, the business people who are -- he didn't say, "I didn't have any contact with Russian business people." So you know...

CUOMO: Yes, I'm with you. He was just talking about the hacking. There is a pre-existing investigation into the contacts that you're talking about right now. But that's a -- that's a separate -- that's a separate matter, though, in terms of the investigations.

TOOBIN: I don't know how separate it is. You know?

DRUCKER: I think the thing to remember with Trump is that he's always talking to a particular audience, and it's the people in the arena in Louisville last night.

So when we look at Sean Spicer, I think this is important to understand, saying that Paul Manafort was a hanger-on who volunteered for a day and a half and then took off. What they're trying to do -- and they've been very successful at it, the president has -- is maintain his connection to his base. As long as they doubt what we're reporting, then none of this bad stuff can be true, and they stick with him. And that is a staple of Trump's political strategy, and so far, it's worked very well.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you. Stick around. We have many more questions for you.

CUOMO: He was the campaign chairman.

All right. So now that we know that the FBI is investigating Trump's campaign, some of the aides for possible collusion with Russia, trying to make sense of these connections, what is going to be the impact on the presidency and his agenda? Remember, it's not just the investigation; it's the shadow. Our panel discusses, next.


[06:17:46] CUOMO: I mean, the first hundred days. Imagine having to be subjected, as president of the United States, to the head of the FBI saying, you're under investigation for any potential connections to what happened with Russian interference. And then just to hear that the thing that you said, which was that you were wiretapped by the president, is untrue, from the head of the NSA and from the director of the FBI.

CAMEROTA: It was a big day.

CUOMO: That is a tough day. So what is it going to mean? Let's bring back our panel: Evan Perez, Jeffrey Toobin, Salena Zito. And joining us, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

And Doug, we need you, because we haven't really seen anything like this before. You know, you're just a couple of months in, and you have the sitting president, a congressional hearing, the director of the FBI saying, "Yes, we've been looking at him since July for this Russia stuff." And then the head of the NSA says, Admiral Rogers, "Yes, the wiretapping stuff he's talking about, we have no proof of that. And the stuff they said about British intelligence, that's laughable."

How big a deal is this?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: It's a very large deal. Our country has a crisis in confidence going on. And the people we don't have confidence in is the Trump White House.

The very fact of the matter is yesterday, the FBI and DOJ have said Donald Trump lied to the American people about Barack Obama wiretapping. And not only did he call -- say Obama wiretapped; he called President Obama bad or sick. He made an ad hominem personal attack on the former president, which hasn't been helpful.

Barack Obama, incidentally, left office with about a 95 percent approval rating with African-Americans. He's an icon in that community and Trump going to belittle him in such way, how does that help bring the country together? And the fact of the matter is that there is a dark cloud hanging over

Donald Trump, over the Russian connections, that's not going to go away. It's going to be there this whole spring. It might go there this summer.

So there was no Trump honeymoon. And in fact, it's the opposite. He has an administration that seems to be shrinking almost daily. He was at 37 to 9 percent in the polls previous to the hearings, and I suppose now he'll be logging in at around 33 percent. That means about two-thirds of the country doesn't think you're doing a good job.

CAMEROTA: Jeffrey Toobin, you agreed that yesterday had some bombshell revelations. How do you see moving forward from yesterday?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, there's a word for Donald Trump. And that word is "president." And when you're president, you still have a lot of power.

Yesterday, he had a Supreme Court nominee cruise through a first day of testimony. Neil Gorsuch is probably going to be on the Supreme Court in 2040. He's got a health care bill that may yet pass the House of Representatives on Thursday.

So, you know, I think this is a bad -- it was a very bad day. This is a very perilous situation for him. But we have a system where the president is powerful, and the Republican Party is still completely lined up behind him. You saw that in the House hearing yesterday.

So, yes, it's definitely bad. This is not something any president would want. But I think, you know, the obituaries for the Trump presidency should not be written yet, by any means.

CUOMO: Look, and those same polls, Salena, show that he couldn't have much better support among Republicans. You know, I mean, he's at 80- plus percent. The base is very dug in.

But then you have to start looking at the metric of "What do you care about right now?" What he cares about right now is motivating his agenda, right? So how much do you think these attacks on his credibility and the stain because of the investigation, do you think there's a legit concern that it could make him toxic to his own in the -- in the government?

ZITO: Well, I mean, yes. I agree with Jeffrey, it was a very bad day yesterday.

I also agree that he -- he has a lot of latitude still to work with. Politics is all about geography. So while he has a 37 percent approval rating nationwide, if you look in those numbers from that poll, it shows in rural and exurb areas, where he -- where that sort of shoved him into the presidency, his approval rating is at 55 and 59 percentage points. So he still has a lot of political capital to work with.

And -- and I think that what you're going to see this week is going to be a very busy week, with Gorsuch, with the health care, and I expect to see him talk a lot, very strongly about North Korea and just sort of plow forward. And hopefully leave this segment, at least for the present time, behind him.

CAMEROTA: Evan, you have so many contacts in the intel community. What happens now with President Trump's relationship with the intel community and particularly director of the FBI, Comey, now that Comey came out yesterday and said that the president is making these false allegations?

PEREZ: Well, you know, this is one of the fascinating parts of this story, is actually the fact that, you know, the beginning of the Trump presidency, there was a lot of focus as to whether or not Jim Comey was going to keep his job. And I can guarantee you that after yesterday, he gets to keep his job. He's going to see this investigation through.

And it is probably, unfortunately for the Trump administration, not something that's going to be hurried up. It doesn't have a timeline. There's no election approaching immediately, so the FBI is going to work through this methodically. The intelligence community is going to do the same. And so it's going to be an irritant; it's going to be a constant irritant for the president.

Now, as part of this, I think one of the most important parts for the White House and this president to do is to fill their administration. They have so many jobs that they have not filled, that could help the president manage all of this. They could get more competent people in places, including messaging. You know, there's a lot more that they can do to try to handle this situation.

CUOMO: So, Douglas, in terms of, like, historical perspective here, in terms of how he's doing in these first couple of months here. We call it the first hundred days, but he's only 60 days into it. Where does this stack up for you?

BRINKLEY: Bottom of the barrel. He's having a very hard time getting out of the gate.

You know, Ronald Reagan used to say, you always want to rule at about 50 percent or more in the box office, meaning polls do matter. You have to show ways that you're leading the American people.

Donald Trump can't get away from this base that he has at 37 percent. And meanwhile, he's getting boos and hisses from all over the world. And it's not just our adversaries, but our closest allies: Germany, Great Britain, these are -- and on and on, countries, Canada are just feuding with him, and only -- he's only a few months in office.

So I think there's -- something's got to happen here. I mean, either Donald Trump has to change his behavior, avoid Twitter, you know, take it down a number of notches, or we need a select committee that has subpoena power and a mandate to produce a comprehensive report on what's happened between Trump campaign and Russia.

But it's just hard to govern when people are looking at you and thinking, "You may be toxic, that I might need you now, if you're a Republican, to get Gorsuch through. And we're going to do all of that this spring. But I'm not sure I want to be in all the photo ops with Donald Trump, because he may be a president that's not around a year or two from now."

[06:25:08] CAMEROTA: On that note, panel, thank you very much for all of the insight and reporting.

So, in just two days, the House will vote on the Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. GOP leaders making last-minute changes to try to secure votes. Will those changes be enough to try to get the bill passed? What are those changes? We'll explore that next.


CUOMO: President Trump touting Trumpcare at a campaign rally in Kentucky last night. As you know, Speaker Ryan and the White House, they tried to force the original bill. It didn't work. So, they're making party changes now to try and get the GOP onboard, and it's going to have a big moment today when the president goes to the Hill to sell it.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux is right there on Capitol Hill. That's the place to be. Big day.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is a big day, Chris. And we are expecting President Trump to be here on Capitol Hill in just a couple of hours. He's going to be meeting behind closed doors with House Republicans to try to convince them to sign onto their own plan to replace, to repeal and replace Obamacare.

This, Chris, after several amendments went through late last night to sweeten the pot for conservatives.