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Comey Testimony on Abedin E-mails Overstated; Yates Told WH: Flynn "Could be Blackmailed" Trump Weighs more U.S. Troops in Afghanistan. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 9, 2017 - 10:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, top of the hour. We begin with breaking news -- about current FBI director James Comey and a matter of accuracy or inaccuracy.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. CNN has confirmed that when the FBI director was under oath last week, he overstated the number of e-mails that Hillary Clinton's aide, Huma Abedin, forwarded to her husband, Anthony Weiner. Evan Perez, live in Washington with the details on this. Evan, you know, the FBI backtracking here?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: A little bit, John. What the director of the FBI was trying to describe was essentially a forwarding system that Huma Abedin had whereby her e-mails were instantly, were automatically forwarded to the laptop computer that Anthony Weiner was using. That's not exactly how he said it, however. So take a listen to what he said at the hearing last week.


JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: Huma Abedin appears to have had a regular practice of forwarding e-mails to him. For him, I think, to print out for her so she could then deliver them to the Secretary of State. She forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails, some of which contained classified information.


PEREZ: And really, what he was trying to say and what he should have said was, -- indeed, there were a couple of -- probably there were some e-mails that she did forward for printing purposes, but this was more of an automatic forwarding system, an automatic backup system that she was using. "ProPublica" was the first to report this story that the FBI is looking into how to correct the record.

We're told that that is exactly what they're trying to do today, was trying to figure out whether to send a letter to Congress to clarify the testimony. There was another point in the hearing last week, John and Poppy, where he was asked a question in a different way and he was trying to clean it up. He didn't quite get there. Again, you know, the problem here is, obviously, you're the FBI director. You've got to be really precise on how you describe these things, because people are hanging on every single word.

BERMAN: Look -- and James Comey has to be even more precise given, you know, what he's been in the middle of the last six months. And when you play that sound again, you know, he really did leave the impression that Huma Abedin intentionally and deliberately forwarded thousands and thousands of e-mails selectively, not some automatic forwarding system there. So there is some cleanup to do here.

HARLOW: Wouldn't he need to write a letter? I mean, wouldn't he have to, because he testified under the oath, correct the record?

PEREZ: Right. I think that's exactly what the problem is. I think he is facing that pressure now. And even inside the bureau they're trying to figure out exactly how to say that. Look, Comey, even though he has a reputation for being this straight shooter, you know, he messes up sometimes. I mean, we've seen multiple times where he's said things incorrectly in Congress and then, they don't really ever cleaned it up.

So, this one, because it's so public already, I think -- there's going to be a necessity to clean it up, especially because the reaction in a conservative media was so fierce that people were calling for Huma Abedin to be charged with crimes, which is just not going to happen.

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: All right, Evan Perez, very, very interesting. Thank you for laying that out for us so clearly.

This morning, the fallout from the testimony of Sally Yates, the one- time acting attorney general fired by the president who raised many new questions about the dismissal of Michael Flynn as national security adviser.

HARLOW: At the center of this, 18 days. The White House waited 18 days, a full 2 1/2 weeks, before it fired General Flynn. That was after Yates warned the White House Counsel Don McGann three times that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail from the Russians.


SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: We felt like it was critical that we get this information to the White House, because -- in part because the vice president was unknowingly making false statements to the public and because we believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians.


HARLOW: CNN's Jessica Schneider is here with the latest. And look, the question is, 18 days, because perhaps, "The Washington Post" published the story. I mean, would he even have been fired without that?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's those 18 days, the questions about the 18 days that the White House really, at this point, they aren't answering. In fact, they're deflecting those questions. And instead, President Trump launched into a tweetstorm in the hours after Sally Yates unveiled her testimony yesterday. The president attempted to distract from her disclosures by saying, Yates unveiled old news and that there was still no evidence pointing to Trump or his associates colluding with the Russians.

But here's what former acting attorney General Sally Yates did reveal. She said, she spoke with White House Counsel Don McGann, on three separation occasions beginning January 26th. The important information she felt compelled to share, it was that then national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied to Vice President Pence about his communications with the Russian ambassador. Sally Yates talked about why she believed it was urgent to tell the White House, Michael Flynn had been misleading.

[10:05:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YATES: We were concerned that the American people had been misled about the underlying conduct and what General Flynn had done. The Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done. And the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others. Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information. And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.


SCHNEIDER: And Sally Yates also said the White House requested information from the Justice Department, but Yates says she's unaware if the White House ever received or reviewed that information since she was fired just days later for refusing to defend the president's first travel ban executive order. Now, there is still some uncertainty about whether the White House Counsel relayed all of this information about Michael Flynn directly to the president. And if he did relay that information, John and Poppy, when it may have been and what exactly the president might have known.

BERMAN: Exactly and if the president sat on it for days and days and days and days. "The Washington Post" story was the only thing that pushed him over the edge. Jessica Schneider, thank you so much for being with us.

Joining us now, Alberto Gonzales, former U.S. attorney general, former White House Counsel to then President George W. Bush. General thanks you so much for being with us. By my account, you're the only person to serve as both White House Counsel and also later as attorney general. So you have a unique perspective here. This meeting, these extraordinary meetings between the acting attorney general and the White House Counsel about the national security adviser, just put this in perspective. How unusual is this?

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I would say it's very unusual, particularly this particular subject. Again, I don't know Donald Trump and I don't know Don McGann. I don't know about their relationship and there is still a lot of missing information as far as I can tell. But if the acting attorney general had come to me as a White House Counsel with this information, this allegation, I would have immediately taken it to Andy Card, the chief of staff and recommended that we immediately tell the president and I'm sure Andy would have agreed. And I suspect President Bush would have said I'll go over to the Department of Justice and look at the information and come back to me.

And I think that's a process that would normally take a short period of time, quite frankly. You don't want to drag this thing out, if, in fact, you have a national security risk within the White House. You want to move on it very, very quickly.

And so, again, I don't know whether or not what was communicated to the chief of staff or to the president. I don't know whether or not Don McGann ever looked at the information. So, I don't know whether or not there were steps taken within the White House -- to keep Michael Flynn out of sensitive meetings. These are all still unanswered questions after this testimony yesterday.

HARLOW: What we do know is that Michael Flynn was on that phone call that the president, President Trump had with Vladimir Putin of Russia, so we do know he was included in something like that. Let me ask you this, if you were given this information by the then attorney general or acting attorney general while you were White House Counsel, if you were in Don McGann's shoes, what would you have done with it?

GONZALES: Well, I just described what I think I would have done with it. And again, this is not a criticism of Don McGann. I don't know again, what Don McGann actually did. The relationship between the counsel, --


HARLOW: But meaning, would you -

GONZALES: -- the chief of staff and the president is very important.

HARLOW: I'm sorry to interrupt, -- but for more specifics, would you -- do you believe if he did not rush it to the president -- is there any circumstances under which not rushing it to the president would be acceptable?

GONZALES: I can only speak in terms of what I think I would have done under the circumstances, given this kind of information given to me. I would have immediately notified the chief of staff and recommended that we then go to the president immediately and tell him this information.

BERMAN: Any scenario you can ever envision in a Bush White House where it actually would have taken 18 days on this, General?

GONZALES: Well, again, I don't know the amount of information that would have to be reviewed. I also don't know -- it's possible that it would take that period of time. Again, it's hard for me to question that, but certainly - BERMAN: But we know -

GONZALES: -- during that period of time, there would have been extraordinary steps taken to protect the national security of our country by limiting the access that the national security adviser to sensitive information.

BERMAN: But - OK, so you do think the information that was provided by Sally Yates that was public yesterday. That we all know because we listened to the hearings yesterday. To state the obvious, you don't want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians. You think that is serious enough to be concerned inside a White House?

GONZALES: No question about it and if they knew that President Obama had conveyed his concerns just after the election, that combination of information would really make me worried as a White House Counsel.

HARLOW: Which we know the president, at least himself -- who knows if Don McGann knew that or not. But we now know that the president was told by then President Obama, look, this is not the guy that I would bring on to your team.

One of the questions that Sally Yates was asked in her testimony yesterday is why does it matter to the Justice Department if one White House official lies to another? What's your read on that? Why does that matter?

[10:10:00] GONZALES: Well, because if, in fact, there is someone within, -- in a national security position within the White House, a high-level position, has, in fact, lied, that person can be compromised, that person can be blackmailed. And if that's the situation, you don't want that person to have access to the most sensitive national security information of our country.

So, that's why it's so vitally important to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible. Again, I don't want -- this may sound like a criticism of the White House, of Trump and Don McGann -- President Trump and Don McGann, but there's still a lot of information here that I just am not aware of.

BERMAN: Right, but again, you know, on the outside as someone who watched these hearings along with the rest of us, as you watch, do you think Don McGann, based on what you saw, did Don McGann, the White House Counsel, act in a way that you would have acted?

GONZALES: I'm not sure that I'm in a position to know everything that he did. I can only really comment on what I think I would have done under the circumstances based on the information that is public.

HARLOW: It's a fair point, because we don't know when he went - we don't know when he went to the president -


HARLOW: And if it was just the president who waited 18 days until "The Washington Post" story came out. I think we will learn more. We appreciate your time, former attorney general and the author of "True Faith and Allegiance," Alberto Gonzales, nice to have you here.

GONZALES: Thank you.

HARLOW: Still to come for us, not exactly - thank you very much - not exactly a warm homecoming. Several GOP lawmakers facing scenes like this at their town halls.


REP. ROD BLUM (R), IOWA: Your insurance coverage is current -- is current -- nothing's going to change.


BLUM: Economy and take care of the environment.


HARLOW: All right, how will this impact the Senate's next move on health care?

BERMAN: And the White House perhaps poised for a major strategic shift in Afghanistan, the possibility of thousands of more troops, key meetings happening right now.

Plus, caught in the cross fire, families risking their lives fleeing from ISIS. CNN with an inside look in the battlefield.


[10:15:54] HARLOW: In the Republicans' quest to repeal and replace Obamacare, the scene has now shifted to the Senate, where today members of a key working group are trying to hammer something out. But for one Republican in the House, while the vote may be over, the battle looks like it is just beginning.

With the health care debate sparking intense town halls nationwide, Iowa Congressman Rod Blum now won't let people into his town hall unless they can prove -- he is screening them -- they can prove that they live in his district. And when asked by a reporter if that decision was fair to all Iowans, here's what he said.


BLUM: I don't represent all Iowans. I represent my -- the first district of Iowa. That'd be like -- that'd be like saying shouldn't I be able to - even though I live in Dubuque, go vote in Iowa City.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Would you still take donations from a Republican in Iowa City?

BLUM: I, I'm done. This is ridiculous.


BLUM: He's going to sit here and just badger me. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, all right.


BERMAN: Badger him, walked out after a pretty easy question right there. That was just the start of a rough day for the Congressman, who walked into this town hall after walking out of that interview.


BLUM: You're getting your insurance through group health care market place, your employer, nothing changes.


BLUM: If you're getting your health insurance through Medicare, nothing's going to change. Nothing's going to change. Nothing's going to change.

If you're currently getting your health insurance through Medicaid, nothing's going to change.



BERMAN: He should get some credit for having town halls. Not every member of Congress does that.

Joining us know, Brad Woodhouse, former communications director for the Democratic National Committee. He's the current president of Americans United for Change and Shermichael Singleton, CNN political commentator, Republican strategist.

Shermichael, to you, is the behavior of the congressman there. Again, I've praised him for holding the town meeting. But walking out of an interview there for being asked about the process of screening people walking in, what do you make of that?

SHERMICHAEL SINGLETON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I mean, look, you know, John, I think the Congressman is partially correct and partially wrong on this one. And I say that because he is correct, he does represent the constituents within his district.

But I think he's right, if there are people that are outside of his district that want to be a part of a town hall just so that they can cause raucous. I don't think that's appropriate. But I do think as a member of Congress, he does, by and large, represent the state of Iowa with the other members of Congress. And I think the Congressman was probably aware of that. I think that tensions are so high right now. It's easy for folks to become frustrated.

HARLOW: So, here's the thing, this is going to be a long haul, right? I mean, Susan Collins in the Senate says they're going to rewrite this whole thing, Brad. We'll see what happens, but this is not just done in a week or two, so you really need Republicans that are very, very, very committed to it and you see there what happened with Congressman Blum. He was a no. Then, he became a yes vote on this health care bill. Then he walks out of an interview with not a difficult question. He should be able to answer that and then, he sort of wilts when he's pressured at his town hall. I mean, do they have the fortitude -- the intestinal fortitude to push through on this one?

BRAD WOODHOUSE, FORMER DNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, certainly it seems that Representative Blum doesn't. And I think that someone that probably needs to start -- working on his resume. I mean, look, the problem that Republicans are facing here is that the American people are calling their bluff.

For all of these years, Republicans have lied about the state of Obamacare, about Obamacare being in a death spiral, about problems with Obamacare. Now, what they're finding is, is that Obamacare is more popular than Republicans in Congress, more popular than Paul Ryan, more popular than Donald Trump.

People believe it is working. They want to keep it. They want it fixed and tweaked. But they don't want the whole thing taken away and so many people losing their coverage. So Republicans are running in to the truth and their lies over the past seven years are being exposed and they're going to continue to get that type of treatment at town halls.

BERMAN: Shermichael, just one second here. And you can say whatever you want. But you do come at this sort of different perspective in that.

[10:20:02] You know, look, you think Obamacare is deeply flawed and needs to be changed in a major way, if not repealed and replaced. But you also do know that Republicans are being forced to get behind a bill here, the House Bill, which isn't great in your mind.

SINGLETON: No, it's not a great bill. And I'm sure you guys remember when Nancy Pelosi made the statement that we have to pass the bill to see what's in it.

HARLOW: Right.

SINGLETON: I think it's a bit hypocritical that Republicans passed a bill so quickly with not a lot of debate. And now, we are beginning to realize that millions of Americans potentially could lose health care with pre-conditions because they could essentially be priced out of health care altogether.

You know, when this bill was passed, if I could share a quick personal story. My grandmother sent me a text message and she said, you know, what does this mean for me as someone who once had cancer? Am I now going to be able to afford health care going forward? And I had to be honest with her. I said, grandmother, if this bill were to pass in the Senate the way it is, probably not.

Thankfully, the Senate probably more than likely will not pass this legislation as it stands and I'm hopeful, because to be quite honest with you, John and Poppy, the legislation is horrible and I think it's going to hurt a lot of people, particularly people who supported President Trump by and large.

HARLOW: Just a quick follow-up to you on that, Shermichael. You're a Republican strategist who doesn't like this bill one bit. "The New York Times" wrote that the fact that this working group of 13 white men, does not -- only not include a woman, but it doesn't include some of the more moderates. It doesn't include Senator Cassidy, who now famously, because of John's interview, says it needs to pass the Jimmy Kimmel test. It doesn't include Susan Collins.

They call that a dangerous alliance. Two people that coupled together have no real reason to get behind this in the Senate. Do you think they could form an alliance that dooms this in the Senate?

SINGLETON: You know, I have to be honest, Poppy, I think it's horrible. And as a minority, you look at the Republican Party by and large and most people will look at this and say this is exactly what's wrong with the party. You have Senator Tim Scott, an African-American Republican who owned an insurance company at one point. You don't have any women a part of this 13 group of men.

It's not reflective of America as it currently stands and I have to tell you, to be honest as a Republican, this is something that is extremely concerning and disheartening to me and I hope Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate, takes another look at this and reconsider. Because again, if you're going to work on something that's so important as people's health care, Poppy and John, you have to have legislation and people involved in that process that are reflective by and large of the people of this country.

BERMAN: All right. Brad, you're not going to get out of this just nodding and smiling here. You know, Joe Manchin, West Virginia senator considered in some ways, you know, the most moderate or most conservative senator. We just learned he's facing a challenger, a very serious challenger inside West Virginia. Does Joe Manchin -- can he get away with just saying, no, no, no, no, no to the Republican bill, or does he need to get out along with some other Democrats? And by the way, we're a few minutes away from hearing from Senate Democrats on health care right now, but does he need to offer something proactive, saying, look, this is the way we can fix this, let's come together and do something?

WOODHOUSE: Well, look, I think as long as the process is the way the Republicans have designed it -- remember, Republicans in the House, nor in the Senate, have reached out to a single Democrat to talk about how Obamacare could be improved. The president has not reached out to a single Democrat. So, I don't think it is incumbent upon Joe Manchin to participate in a process that Republicans have left Democrats out of.

Democrats have actually proposed plenty of tweaks that would help improve Obamacare. I'm sure Senator Manchin has some of those ideas himself and I'm sure he'll probably offer them. But to participate in a process that Republicans have already locked Democrats out of, I think is wrong-headed and I don't believe that any Democrat should feel compelled to do so.

SINGLETON: If I could just chime in really quickly, I think Democrats should be compelled to jump in. Look, when people look at what's going on in Washington, you see on both sides of the aisle a lot of partisanship, hyper partisanship. And people are saying, when will someone, irregardless of your political perspective, say I'm going to be the adult here? We have to work together to do what is in the best interests of the American people, whether you're a Republican or Democrat. That has to be done! So, I disagree with Brad. The obligation on our leaders should be to work together for the common good of all of the American people, irregardless of party, Brad. -


HARLOW: We have to leave it there.

BERMAN: -- work together during the break, guys.


HARLOW: Yes. That's a good way to put it. Thank you both very much. Brad Woodhouse, Shermichael Singleton -

WOODHOUSE: Thank you.

SINGLETON: Thanks, guys.

HARLOW: -- an important conversation.

Still to come for us, why did it take 18 days for the White House to fire Michael Flynn? Clearly, now we know a major security risk. We're going to talk to the senator from Minnesota who is there and questioning Sally Yates about that yesterday and he's still trying to get some answers to that key questions. Stay with us.


[10:29:03] HARLOW: Right now, President Trump is meeting with his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. The meeting comes as the president reviews strategy over America's longest war. The president considering a plan to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. How many? What does it mean? Let's bring in Barbara Starr at the Pentagon with more. We're hearing somewhere in the range of 1,500 to 5,000 troops. What are your sources telling you?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning. That's the range that we're hearing in terms of options the Pentagon is presenting to the White House, not insignificant. There's about 8,400 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan right now, so 5,000 would be a significant increase but what does it really get you is the big question, after 15 years of fighting, the Taliban still resurgent in places in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Would 5,000 troops, which essentially are going to try and help train Afghan Forces even now to fight more after 15 years, would that number of troops really make a difference?