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CNN SPECIAL REPORTS
President Donald Trump Fired FBI director James Comey; Aired 11:00-12:00mn ET
Aired May 9, 2017 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[23:00:00] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Our live coverage of today's big news continues right now with my colleague Jake Tapper in Washington -- Jake.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone. You are watching CNN special live coverage of breaking news. In fact stunning news even for President Trump who has been known to shock people.
President Trump fired FBI director James Comey just hours ago. First, the official version of what happened according to the White House is that fundamentally this was done based on the recommendation of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein was just confirmed by the Senate 90-46 at the end of April. He is in charge of the investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election because attorney general Jeff Sessions was not forthcoming about his meetings with the Russian ambassador and recused himself. So Rosenstein came into the job. He looked at Comey's behavior relating to the Hillary Clinton email investigation last year according to this account. He found it wrong. He found it deeply troubling and he recommended that since Comey has refused to admit his errors he should be fired. Rosenstein recommended it to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general who passed it on to President Trump. End of story according to the White House.
And here are the problems according to those that are skeptical of this decision and this President. First, President Trump shares exactly zero of Rosenstein concerns about allegedly how unfair he was to Hillary Clinton. In fact, the only problem that President Trump has ever had about Comey's behavior relating to Hillary Clinton was that he didn't charge her with a crime. And President Trump then citizen Trump clearly loved it when Comey essentially reopened the Clinton case late in the campaign. It's as if we are expected to have all been blinded by that memory eraser thing from men in black and we wouldn't remember all the times that Trump expressed concern that Comey didn't charge Hillary and then praised him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I respect the fact that director Comey was able to come back after what he did.
It took guts for director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they are trying to protect her from criminal prosecution.
He becomes more famous than me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Then, of course, let us not forget the additional context that the FBI is in the middle of investigating whether anyone in the Trump campaign orbit had anything to do with the Russian government attempts to interfere in the U.S. election last year. In fact, director Comey's firing comes a day after potentially embarrassing testimony for the White House about the Russia investigation from the then acting attorney general Sally Yates.
Yates, of course, also fired by President Trump just days after warning the White House that she thought then national security adviser Michael Flynn had been compromised by Russia. Though the official reason for the Yates' firing was his refusal to implement the travel ban.
On Capitol Hill this evening, concern and alarm and that's from Republicans.
Tweeted Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona quote "I spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rational for the timing of Comey's filing, I just I can't do it," unquote.
Senator John McCain in the statement called the firing disappointing and said quote "the president's decision to remove the FBI director only confirms the need and the urgency for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 election."
The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Richard Burr of North Carolina quote "I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of director Comey's termination."
And one editorial note coming in from (INAUDIBLE) California with the Nixon library objecting to anyone on social media or the media calling this evening's action Nixonian.
Fun fact, library tweeted, President Nixon never fired the director of the FBI #notNixonian.
Joining me now on the phone is the Democratic congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. He is on the House intelligence committee.
Congressman, first of all, what is your reaction to the firing?
REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS (on the phone): I agree with you that it was a stunning development. I certainly didn't have any advanced notice as I know many others did. And it's also very suspicious action by the president after this FBI director just about five or six weeks ago talked about how there may be Trump associates who may have conspired with the Russians that interfered in the 2016 election. So the whole thing was very strange.
TAPPER: So let me play devil's advocate here. The Trump White House is saying that this was all predicated on this letter from deputy attorney general Rob Rosenstein in which he says Comey's handling of the Clinton email server was wrong and that it undermined public and congressional trust. Do you disagree with anything that deputy attorney general Rosenstein wrote in that letter?
[23:05:10] CASTRO: Well, it certainly many of us on both sides of the aisle have had issues with director Comey's actions. And everybody is clear about that. But as I said a few months ago in January I believe that I trusted Jim Comey to be more independent than anyone that Donald Trump might have as FBI director. And it is also suspicious that as you mentioned in the opening of your segment, President Trump actually complimented Jim Comey after he took the actions that he did with regard to Hillary Clinton and so did Jeff Sessions. So to come back now and lay that out as your main reason for his firing seems odd.
TAPPER: President Trump this evening tweeted something about Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, noting that Schumer had said and you have not said this that but Chuck Schumer had said a few months ago the he had lost confidence in James Comey, crying Chuck Schumer stated recently, this is the tweet, I do not have confidence in him, James Comey, any longer. Then acts so indignant (INAUDIBLE).
So I guess are Republicans out there especially in the White House who are There's many confused that Democrats that didn't seem to like what he did would object to his firing this evening.
CASTRO: And no doubt. There will be political finger pointing back and forth. But the fact is the American people that they are going to answer to the question whether any American coordinated or conspired with the Russians who interfered in the 2016 election. And aside from Democrat and Republican politics we have to get to the bottom of that. And this is big bolder obstruction in the road to getting that done.
TAPPER: Let me just ask you point blank. Do you believe the White House account that this happened because deputy attorney general Rosenstein who only took office a few weeks ago came in, examined what Comey did during the Hillary Clinton email server investigation concluded that he did not have the confidence of the agency. Did not have the confidence of the conference and had to go. Told that to Sessions who then told that to the President and that's what happened. Do you believe that?
CASTRO: No, I don't. They laid no foundation for any of this. And as you mentioned it happens within a few weeks of when this gentleman takes office. That's not how you go about (INAUDIBLE) with the intelligence committee, with Congress for firing an FBI director when it is only happened once before.
TAPPER: Congressman Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas thank you so much. Appreciate it, sir.
CASTRO: Thank you.
TAPPER: The letter that I'm referring from Rod Rosenstein was released earlier this evening. It was written today. Let's talk more about all of this with the Democratic senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
Senator, you said after the firing that this was reminiscent of Watergate and we are quote "careening closer to a constitutional crisis." How are we careening toward a constitutional crisis?
Senator Markey, are you there?
SEN. ED MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS (on the phone): I am here. I am here, yes.
TAPPER: How are we careening toward a constitutional crisis as you said in a statement earlier tonight?
MARKEY: Well, there are very few moment when our democracy has been more fragile than it is this moment. What the President did is an insult to our constitution and we he have to ensure now that the Congress exercises the role of checks and balance to ensure that a President cannot fire the person conducting an investigation of that person. And that is after President Trump himself called the investigation a taxpayer funded he charade and a hoax.
So we know this is in many ways a cover up. It's an obstruction of justice and it is something that ultimately could turn into Russia- gate because that's the subject of the investigation that Jim Comey was in fact probing this White House and the campaign that Donald Trump ran to win the job.
TAPPER: But senator, you call it a cover up. Do you know that for a fact? Or you just suspect that? I mean, a lot of Democrats have a lot of issues with James Comey. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general voiced a lot of those concerns. Frankly, the letter could have been written by you and then apparently and maybe you don't believe this but apparently Rosenstein submitted the recommendation to attorney general Sessions who then told President Trump. And President Trump said if he doesn't have the confidence of the agency or the Congress then I will seek his resignation. I mean, do you have evidence that that did not happen?
[23:10:20] MARKEY: Well if the reasons outlined by the department of justice are really true then why fire James Comey now and not months ago and why not wait until the inspector general report has been completed? I believe that this goes right to the heart of this compromise of our election by the Russians and the subpoenas which were being issued by James Comey and the FBI, of General Flynn's associates, of others who were being probed because of their connections to the Russians during the campaign and after the campaign and otherwise, this actually makes no sense. This is something I think that has happened because this investigation was getting too close to the oval office.
TAPPER: But just to be clear, that's your suspicion. You don't have evidence of it.
MARKEY: Well, I think that's the question that we should be asking in the wake of this episode because otherwise it doesn't make any sense. TAPPER: Let me read to you from the letter to Comey from President
Trump. He wrote in an odd second paragraph of the letter. Quote "while I appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the department of justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau," unquote.
Here is just to remind our viewers, here what is former FBI director Comey said fewer than two months ago. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: I have been authorized by the department of justice to confirm that the FBI as part of our counter intelligence 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: So that's what Comey said at the hearing in March. And then of course this letter today from President Trump to James Comey firing him saying that Comey had informed him on three separate occasions he is not under investigation. What do you make of that?
MARKEY: I think that first of all that was an extremely curious way to fire someone, by leaving the impression that Comey had cleared him and his White House and his campaign of any wrong doing, any relationship that was inappropriate with the Russian government because I do not think that there have been any conclusions that can be reached with finality with regard to that subject. There are subpoenas that are being issued right now to those who are related of General Flynn and his activities and others who are being investigated by the FBI.
So what I think is that any comments that have been made up until now are still extremely preliminary. There's a House and Senate investigation. But I think for this purpose, most importantly an FBI investigation. And the person being investigated just fired the person conducting the investigation. And I think that as a result in order to ensure that our democracy gets the answer to whether or not there was a compromise of our most sacred institution, free and fair elections, that there be a special prosecutor that now gathers all the facts and presents them to the American people. And then ultimately asked the question what did the President know and when did he know it.
That is the only way that we can proceed given the fact that James Comey is now a modern day Archibald Cox who has been fired as the chief investigator of a sitting President of the United States.
TAPPER: Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, thank you so much. Appreciate your time, sir.
MARKEY: Thank you.
TAPPER: I want to bring in my panel.
Let me start, Jeff, with you. The White House said they lost confidence in Comey's ability to effectively lead the bureau. That new leadership is essential to quote "restore public trust." You and Dana have both been reporting this evening that the White House did not anticipate this fall out. How can that possibly be?
[23:15:13] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It's a great question. And I asked directly that how could you have not expected this. And they told me that they believed that Republicans would stand by them. And the Democrats were never a fan of James Comey, so they thought they would be happy that he was gone.
But the reality of this how it went. And they did try, they say, to alert people in a bipartisan way. They called Senator Diane Feinstein, of course, a top Democrat on the committee. But boy, the White House now tonight, I just came over here from the White House. The lights were still on in the west wing. Every communications staffer was still in Sean Spicer's office, crowded in the office talking about the strategy here.
And one of the problems I think when you talk to them all day long, the pack up for why they did it was Hillary Clinton, all about 2016. Not mentioned once in the letter from President Trump. He talked about Russia and the investigation saying he was cleared. So that is something he is going to have to clean up tomorrow.
I talked to the communications director tonight at the White House, Mike Dubke. He said the President does not plan to address this tomorrow. He didn't address it tonight.
TAPPER: Or address it on tweeter.
ZELENY: He did address it on twitter somewhat but not speaking about it. And until he does that I think these questions will persist and beyond that after that, but the White House caught flat footed by this tonight.
TAPPER: Just a note, for anybody wondering, we have invited people from the White House to come on the show to talk. They have declined our invitation and of course it's been a lot easier to book Democrats this evening, Dana, than Republicans as you may or may not find surprising.
You are the one that first informed us that the White House was caught flat footed. They didn't anticipate this blowback. Did they really not understand the cloud of suspicion under the White House?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I guess the answer must be no. Or the motion of the fact that the President's campaign is being investigated as you played -- reminding people that James Comey told Congress just a month-and-a-half ago. But the idea, exactly what Jeff said inside the White House is well, we are going to put out there that we thought that he should be fired because of all the things that he did to Hillary Clinton and Democrats aren't going to complain about that.
Never mind what's going on present day as we speak. You know, today CNN exclusively reported about, you know, a grand jury and subpoenas going on. (INAUDIBLE), you have that reporting. But the idea that they didn't understand that magnitude of this and the fact that it would immediately remind people of no matter what the Nixon library says would happen during Nixon's presidency.
BASH: Saturday night massacre. They were - I mean, and this came from a source who is familiar with the discussions inside. They didn't understand that this would be political earthquake.
TAPPER: And Pamela, let me go to you because we just heard the senator Ed Markey make an illusion to your reporting earlier this evening about subpoenas. What exactly is going on with subpoenas?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So we have learned that just in the last couple of weeks, DO, the department of justice, had issued subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn. Of course, the embattled former national security adviser to President Trump. And so, they have issued these subpoenas asking these people for records, for business records and this is relating to financial dealings that Michael Flynn has had with those Russia and Turkey and it is all part of this broader probe. And to Russia's meddling in the election and ties with Trump campaign associates. And it is a significant step - escalation in this investigation.
And so, the question now is, what is going to happen with the investigation now that the man who is head of the FBI was overseeing it will no longer be there. And I have been asking folks within the FBI about that. And you know, one person I spoke to tonight said it's going to continue. The bureau will not blink. We will continue to move forward. We are career agents, career prosecutors working on this case. But I imagine there is still a lot of unanswered questions. This could have a chilling event of course. But I think that you are going to see mounting and growing calls for a special prosecutor.
TAPPER: And Jim, I want to ask you about Russia and Gloria I will get to you in a second. But look, I want to ask you about Russia because it appears that President Trump is actually going to meet with the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov tomorrow.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Listen. You know, 24 hours bad optics. I mean, it only adds to it. There are legitimate reasons to meet the Russian foreign minister. Lots of things to talk about. Syria, et cetera. The day after this raises more questions.
If I can just add on to a point Pamela was making, the President in his letter Kellyanne Conway on our air, Sarah Huckabee Sanders in an interview tonight in unison making the point this investigation is going nowhere. It's done. It doesn't target the President.
That is not true. You heard director Comey in March saying we are looking at contacts between Trump associates in Russia. We are looking at the possibility of collusion. There is no answer to that question. We know that that's still an open investigation.
I spoke today to Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate Intel committees whether to them collusion is still an open question and they said in unison, that's what we're investigating. Still in progress. And keep in mind in addition to that, this morning, Republican senator Lindsey Graham says he wants to investigate Trump's business ties to Russia. President Donald Trump's business ties to Russia. And President Donald Trump sent a letter for him and his lawyer today to Senator Lindsey Graham. Are you telling me, how can the American people or any of us buy the line that these investigations are going nowhere when you have multiple stands and developments? My colleague, Pamela and Evan reporting today about now grand jury subpoenas going out.
[23:20:56] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, this is why, I mean, if the new is tightening, and I have no idea for this or this, but certainly, issuing grand jury subpoenas will lead you to believe that it is. And you have seen the President's tweets recently that it kind of foreshadowed how he feels about James Comey. He has gotten negative on him and, you know, we have seen that. This was a firing in search of a rational. And the rational was provided by Rod Rosenstein because I believe he believes every word he wrote.
TAPPER: Former U.S. attorney --.
BORGER: Right. Approved as the White House will tell you, 94-6 in the United States Senate.
TAPPER: Yes. It is very widely respected.
BORGER: Very widely respected and criticized Comey in a way as you pointed out with Senator Markey that every Democrat has criticized Comey. The only person who didn't criticize Comey for his press conference in which he called Hillary Clinton reckless although was Donald Trump. Donald Trump would have liked to see Hillary Clinton indicted, but he didn't criticize the October 28th letter that he sent.
So that's why this, you know, is not believable because it's coming from Donald Trump's administration. He wanted to fire Comey and only figured that out recently. He could have figured it out on January 20th, but he didn't. And so, now we are looking at something very disruptive here to the country and that the Congress is going to have to investigate because this is a challenge to the balance of power I believe.
TAPPER: Pamela, very quickly.
BROWN: And what is just so interesting with this letter from Rod Rosenstein cites that the handling of the Clinton probe, there is a department of justice inspector general investigation that is ongoing looking into this very matter. And so, there very could be a scenario where the inspector general comes out and the findings say Comey acted perfectly within his bounds, you know. We don't know what's going to happen but the point is one would think you might want to wait to see what the results of the investigations are before using that as an excuse.
BASH: Comey will testify.
TAPPER: We have to take a quick break. Jeff, Dana, Gloria, Pamela, and Jim, thank you so much for joining us. We have a lot more on our breaking news including the up and down relationship between President Trump and now ex-FBI director James Comey.
Stick around. We will be right back.
[23:26:42] TAPPER: Welcome back.
More on our breaking news coverage. President Trump has fired FBI director James Comey in the middle of the FBI investigation into any possible links between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government. It is the final breach in a long tumultuous relationship between the two men.
Comey first earned Trump's ire last summer when Comey was then the man heading the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server, said the FBI would not bring charges against her. Trump tweeted at the time quote "FBI director said crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges, wow #riggedsystem." Later Trump criticized him for seeming to build a case against Clinton but not following through. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: After reading all of these items where she is so guilty he let her off the hook.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Just two weeks later, Comey announced he had reopened the investigation into Clinton's email use and is Democrats now scoring the FBI director Trump changed his mind as well and repeatedly praised Comey.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: And I have to give the FBI credit. That was so bad what happened originally and it took guts for director Comey to make the move that he made. What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back. I respect the fact that director Comey was able to come back after what he did. I respect that very much. Good job by the FBI.
I have respect that the FBI has given it a second chance. (END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: That goodwill tour continued as Trump took office and did not fire the FBI director as some considered a possibility even in March after Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating Russia's interference in the investigation including any possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Still Trump said Comey enjoyed his confidence but he added we'll see what happens.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency. Is it too late now?
TRUMP: No, it's not too late. But, you know, I have confidence in him. We will see what happens. You know, it's going to be interesting.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: So what changed? Joining me now to discuss all of this, former White House communications director Jen Psaki. Former press secretary for Hillary Clinton Brian Fallon, former senior communications adviser for the Trump campaign, Jason Miller and Alice Stewart, former Ted Cruz's communications director. We are also join by former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli.
Alice, first to you. You have been communicating with the White House. What are you hearing?
ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, they focused more than anything on this letter from Rod Rosenstein. And that is the (INAUDIBLE). People say why did it take so long for this to happen? Of course, he just got into his position two weeks ago. And he cited case after case of others in his position to say this is the way Comey has acted in his behavior. It's a departure from the norm. It's not the traditional role of the FBI director and they need to get back to traditions. That's what he they continue to point on, is Rod Rosenstein.
Also from the department of justice, hearing from them, they are also saying that it was Rod's decision to make. He was Comey's boss. And they also point to his testimony that he said just the other day about Huma Abadeen forwarding emails.
TAPPER: Comey's testimony.
STEWART: Comey's testimony. And the factual inaccuracies that he made. And those in addition to what Comey has testified in the past is just a series of events that have culminated to why this decision was made now.
[23:30:06] TAPPER: Brian Fallon?
BRIAN FALLON, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY FOR HILLARY CLINTON: The White House is peeing on our leg and trying to tell us that it's raining outside. The idea that the Trump White House is the least bit concerned about how Hillary Clinton was treated with respect to the email investigation is laughable. And if Mr. Rosenstein came in and had serious concerns about how director Comey conducted the investigation, he would have been on firmer ground to await the results of the ongoing independent internal watchdog investigation that is already afoot. And if it came out and said that they disagreed with director Comey's handling of this, they could have cited, that and then taken action against director Comey. The abruptness of this, the suddenness of this, smacks on the fact that it was political to put the brakes on a Russian investigation that is getting too close for comfort for Donald Trump.
TAPPER: Jason, let me ask you because it is just indisputable that President Trump doesn't agree with anything Rod Rosenstein's letter. I mean, he thinks -- his issue with Comey from the Hillary Clinton investigation was that he didn't charge Hillary Clinton. I mean, he is on record saying that a million times. He doesn't have a concern about all the deputies attorneys general that thought what Comey did regarding Hillary Clinton was unfair to Hillary Clinton.
So can you understand why some people look at President Trump grabbing the Rosenstein's letter even if it was completely sincere in saying they don't believe what is going on.
JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, we don't know that yet because the President hasn't yet spoke to the country. And I think that when he does or when he decides to sit down and do an interview on this, I think we will get some more information.
TAPPER: You are saying that President Trump might actually agree with the Rosenstein letter?
MILLER: I would say until the President comes forward and talks about the entire process about what went into it and ultimately his thinking behind it, we don't know. So I don't think you go and just cast aside and say he didn't agree with anything from the Rosenstein letter.
TAPPER: Covered the campaign for the last two years.
MILLER: You don't know. There's two very important things to point out here. Nobody tonight is out there campaigning and cheering and saying we need to have director Comey in that position. People might disagree with the timing of it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll say that Jason.
FALLON: No one feels more wrong.
MILLER: You even tweeted that you'll feel bad that --.
FALLON: I'm not shedding any tears for him from a personal standpoint. But you know what? I think that he would have been the most independent fairest person to conduct this investigation. You know why? Because right now he is a lightning rod for how he mishandled the Hillary Clinton investigation.
FALLON: That's not true at all. My point is that Jim Comey, I have no sympathy for Jim Comey in terms of how he handled the Clinton investigation. But I have no doubt that he wouldn't have pulled any punches whatsoever with respect to conducting this investigation. I have absolutely no confidence that this investigation will proceed (INAUDIBLE) now.
MILLER: Pelosi wanted him go.
FALLON: That's not true.
MILLER: Valerie Jarrett wanted him gone.
FALLON: That's not true. And you know what?
MILLER: Liberal columnist (INAUDIBLE) wrote last year after the whole email debacle. James Comey should not simply be fired as the director of the federal bureau of investigation, he must be barred forever from any form of public service. There was so much hate from the left and now just to hear all the Democrats saying no, no, no. This is terrible. Should, you know, anything --.
FALLON: I can (INAUDIBLE) with the president of the United States and he was not under investigation for connections to Russia. He would have been credible for firing Jim Comey.
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The difference is on having worked in the Obama White House when he went out and made that statement on October 27th our jaws all dropped as well. I mean, there were -- he wouldn't have won a popularity contest in our White House, no question. But FBI directors have ten year terms. There are processes in place including IG investigations that can look into their conduct and review whether or not they acted appropriately.
The only thing that changed here, just to go back to Jake's original question, is that the Russia investigation heated up and Donald Trump wanted a way to get away from that to take away the person who was leading the independent investigation. I don't think it's more complicated than that. Rod Rosenstein is a career employee. He is being used as a pawn right now. I don't think that he knows that. I don't know that for sure. He clearly knows that now and I don't think that was an intention. But the fact that we are looking at his memo as if it's justification that takes away from what Trump said last year is just - is ludicrous.
KENNETH CUCCINELLI, FORMER VIRGINIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: You know, a couple of points. One, this will not stop or slow down any investigations going on at the FBI. None of the hundreds or thousands of investigations will slow down one bit. The same thing in the Russian investigation that would have happened with director Comey tomorrow will happen without him. That's going to go forward. This doesn't impair that. They know that in the White House.
And the notion that somehow this ends any looking into any issues related with Russia is really kind of silly in light of what's going on on Capitol Hill. The Republicans themselves have demonstrated a commitment to taking that look. That's item one.
Two, you said earlier, Jake, that it's indisputable that the --.
[23:35:09] TAPPER: That President Trump agrees with the Rosenstein letter.
CUCCINELLI: Right. It's not. First of all, the first what I will call career professional in the hierarchy with Donald Trump over Comey has been Rosenstein. Got there 94-6. Voted the Senate two weeks ago approximately. And so this would have a very different cast despite this version cast on Mr. Rosenstein. But if Jeff Sessions had made the recommendation - ok, I understand that. I'm not disputing that. If Sessions had recommended this to the President as opposed to someone who had been in this line of work for most of his life and the ultimate judgment, a lot of speculation around motives out of the White House. The ultimate judgment really should be withheld until we see who they propose to bring forward to replace Comey. That person is going to get extraordinary scrutiny.
TAPPER: That's a fair point. The reason that I said that it's indisputable that President Trump doesn't agree with anything in the Rosenstein letter is because the --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The statements during the campaign.
TAPPER: Because of everything he has said and maybe it is true that he has done a complete 180. And now he thinks that -
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Donald Trump?
TAPPER: He does not do a lot of 180s on Hillary Clinton. And now he thinks that Hillary Clinton was wrong by James Comey. I agree that is a possibility. I think it is highly unlikely but that is why I said that.
But let me ask about the notion of what if President Trump appoints somebody excellent to the position of FBI director. He has put people in his administration who are by supported by both sides of the aisle. David Shulkin, the secretary of Veterans affairs, Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster. There are people in there that are respected by everyone in Washington D.C. with the exception of Steve Bannon.
So let me ask you what if that happens, Brian? What if there's a FBI director appointed to replace Comey.
FALLON: Two answers to that question. Number one, we have already seen that Mr. Rosenstein that sometimes when you select somebody, that is been a long time career official. But you put them in a politically appointed situation where they owe their job to the President of the United States. They can be put in a compromising situation. The situation untenable because they are essentially leading an investigation into their boss and it becomes unworkable. I mean, if everyone here, sitting up here trying to (INAUDIBLE) Mr. Rosenstein, with all due respect to him, if he knowingly submitted this memo for the purposes of carrying out a firing of Jim Comey then he is in the wrong too. That I don't just place the blame with the president's feet, it is also a wrong on his part.
TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We are going to take a quick break. Our special coverage of the breaking news rolls on. We are going to go live to the White House next.
[23:41:47] TAPPER: We are back with the breaking news this evening. President Trump firing the director of the FBI James Comey with a letter unlike any we have seen from a President of the United States in recent memory, at least.
CNN's Sara Murray is live for us at the White House at this late hour.
And Sara, this had apparently been in the works for more than a day? More than a week? What are you learning?
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: That's right. We have learned from sources that this is something that Donald Trump was considering for quite a-while. But as you pointed out the letter is very interesting that Trump used to fire James Comey. The White House is saying the reason that they did this was because of Comey's handling of Hillary Clinton's emails but the letter makes no mention of Hillary Clinton's emails. What it does mention is Russia.
MURRAY (voice-over): In one of the president's most controversial moves since taking office, tonight Donald Trump firing FBI director James Comey. The move ousts the man overseeing the probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to influence the 2016 Presidential election.
JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Secretary Clinton's use of a personal emails. MURRAY: But the White House said the reason Trump fired Comey was
because of his handling into the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails. A probe that Trump often praised during the campaign.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: I think you are looking at the wrong set of facts here. In other words, you are going back to the campaign. This man is the President of the United States. He acted decisively today. He lost confidence in the FBI director.
MURRAY: The administration defended Trump's decision saying it came with the recommendation of attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein. But in his letter dismissing Comey, Trump turned back to Russia writing, while I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the department of justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.
It's a perplexing assertion after Comey testified publicly that the FBI is investigating ties between Trump's Presidential campaign and Russia.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: You have confirmed that the FBI is investigating potential ties between Trump associates and the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, correct?
MURRAY: Trump's bombshell announcement inspired fierce political blow back and prompted Democrats to call for a special prosecutor to take over the investigation into Trump and Russia.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: I simply said to him Mr. President in all due respect you are making a very big mistake. And he didn't really answer.
MURRAY: But concerns on both sides of the aisle Tuesday evening. Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr, a Republican saying in a statement, I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of director Comey's termination.
TRUMP: He's become more famous than me.
MURRAY: The firing caps off a roller coaster relationship between Trump and Comey. Trump gave Comey a warm welcome once he was in office. But by Tuesday the President was relying on one of his most trusted aids to hand deliver a letter to the FBI dismissing Comey.
The only problem, Comey was in California. He learned of his firing through TV news reports while visiting a Los Angeles field office.
[23:45:06] MURRAY: Now the White House is of course aware of all of these calls for a special prosecutor to take over investigations into Trump and Russia. But as of tonight, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary said the White House doesn't see any need for that kind of move.
Back to you, Jake.
TAPPER: Sara Murray, live for us at the White House this evening. Thank you so much.
Let's get to our next panel.
David Axelrod, let me start with you. You are a former member of the Obama administration senior adviser to President Obama. He appointed James Comey FBI director. Have you spoken with President Obama or anyone from the Obama White House about this?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Not today. Jake, I just learned the news. I was getting on a plane from Chicago to California and learned of the news when I got on the plane. So I haven't spoken to anyone about it. Though I'm sure their reaction is very much like everybody else's reaction which is that this was a stunning development.
You know, my concerns about the present, this administration were unless to policy. Because policy come and go. That's the nature of elections. But our institutions have to remain strong, our democratic institutions. And with the action they took today, they put a poll, a cloud of suspicion around the justice department and around the FBI. How are you going to appoint someone now who is going to be trusted to lead an investigation of the President who appointed him? And I mean, there's just so many issues that flow from this. And I think the special prosecutor call is going to grow. I think they greatly miscalculated on this one.
TAPPER: And Jeffrey Toobin, President Clinton early in his first term fired the FBI director William Sessions for a very different reason. William Sessions have been was accused of improperly using government money to visit relatives, to build a fence around his house that actually didn't provide any security, et cetera. This is unusual even given that preceding event.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think it is more than unusual. It has never happened before in American history that an FBI director has been dismissed by a President who is being investigated by that FBI director. The only near precedent is October 20th 1973 when President Nixon fired Archibald Cox who was the Watergate special prosecutor. And I think the analogy is a very close one. The fact that, you know, a somewhat independent investigation is going on, that is intolerable to the President and the President does everything he can to stop it.
TAPPER: David Gergen, the former deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush told "Buzz Feed" news that he believes the firing of Comey was a quote "sham." Do you agree? What do you think of this?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, one would always like to believe the President of the United States and the White House team are telling us the truth. And I think that what we are finding in this situation, Jake, is this President and his team have been so fast and loose with the truth and we had so many instances when untruths or lies would come out of the White House, you know. That even before this happened, the Quinnipiac poll found that only 35 percent of Americans think they can trust Donald Trump, 60 percent think they do not think he is honest. And that makes it very, very hard to persuade people in a case that looks highly suspicious.
You know, having gone through and been in the White House for during the Saturday night massacre, this is not as big in scale and scope, but it is very Nixonian. And I don't find the story that the White House is putting out credible. I think fundamentally that what happened with the President and Sessions and perhaps (INAUDIBLE), but certainly Sessions and the President decided that Comey had to go. They looked for a pretext. They found a deputy attorney general who could write up pretext for them and they went with it.
There is no chance in the world that today Rosenstein and Sessions sent over without Trump knowing it was coming, letters and recommendations saying fire him. And he wrote it out and they did it all today at one time.
They had to do this. They planned it, you know, several days ago. They have been working on it. And the White House staff was caught by surprise. And the White House during the Nixon days as a staff we were always caught by surprise because it was a very small group of people that cooked things up. And I think that's essentially what's happened here. And I don't think that by point, even someone who is excellent will not be seen by the public under these circumstances as fully independent as the new FBI director.
And I think that is a really serious problem for our democracy. I don't like the idea of going to special prosecutors. I think they sometimes become rogue prosecutors. But I must tell you on this instance, I don't see how you restore trust and confidence unless you find someone who is not only independent but seen as independent.
[23:50:21] TAPPER: David Axelrod, one of the things we are hearing from the White House today is that they are caught off guard and surprised at the push back from Democrats especially considering how many Democrats have expressed serious concerns about Comey starting with his press conference about Hillary Clinton last summer and then extending to now. In fact, if you look at Jon Podesta, his twitter feed, he is the former campaign chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign. Earlier this morning he tweeted something about how Americans -- the American public is getting mildly nauseous listening to Jim Comey. That was around 11:00 this morning to reference to Comey saying he felt mildly nauseous considering that he may have affected the election. And then after the news of Trump firing Jim Comey, jeopardize the tweets to Trump. Didn't you know you are supposed to wait until Saturday night to massacre people investigating you? That kind of whiplash I think will help the president's make the case, at least to his base supporters, that opposition to this stunning move by him is just political.
AXELROD: Well, he already hit Chuck Schumer for that very thing in a tweet tonight.
But look. I don't think that it is invalid to criticize Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton matter. I think it was poorly can see -- he may have been motivated by trying to protect his agency but it was -- he handled it very badly. And he did I think impact on the election. There are a lot of people who are mad about that. But I think most Democrats are looking at the situation and most Americans that we face now which is the real intimation that there was something going on between the Russians perhaps and the Trump campaign and certainly there's a conclusion that the Russians invaded our election and impacted or tried to impact on our election and people want answers. And even if the thought Comey was hand-handed in his handling of the
Clinton matter, most people saw him as a person of integrity. And in any case, he seemed independent enough to carry on this investigation. And now this looked very much, as David Gergen described it, an attempt to short circuit the investigation. You know, I heard Ken Cuccinelli say it is going to go on and so on.
But the person who leads that investigation is important and the public's ability to believe in that person and their integrity and independence is important and all that went out the window tonight. I don't think the White House had any idea how much they were sacrificing with this move today.
TAPPER: Go ahead.
TOOBIN: I mean, you pointed this out. Donald Trump -- there is a stated rationale for why he fired him, for why he fired James Comey. We know that Donald Trump doesn't believe in that rational. He said over and over again during the campaign that Jim Comey was doing a great job investigating Hillary Clinton. And now we learn today that James Comey was fired because he was too mean to Hillary Clinton.
Who believes that Donald Trump thinks that? So it can't be that. It has got to be -- there's got to be another reason. And the only other possible reason is that because he was getting too close to Trump himself or at people around him in this Russian investigation.
TAPPER: Quick final thought, David Gergen.
GERGEN: Well, I think one of the things - look, I don't know how we are going to resolve this. I do think that the Republicans are going to be looking for who is Howard Baker in the Republican Party? Who is going to stand up and go where the facts go regardless of partisanship? It will do wonders for the Republican Party and it will help restore trust if the Republican try to replay a kind of a responsible role that Howard Baker did years ago. Wherever it leads, Donald Trump may be totally innocent. That's fine. But make sure we know that.
TAPPER: All right, David Gergen, David Axelrod, and Jeffrey Toobin, thanks to one and all.
With all these comparisons to Richard Nixon's Saturday night massacre and Watergate, whether or not you buy them, here is a little Saturday night massacre tribute before we go to break.
During the Saturday night massacre, President Nixon wanted to fire the independent Watergate special prosecutor, this man, Archibald Cox. Nixon's attorney general Eliot Richardson, he refused. Richardson's number two with the justice department, William Ruckelshaus, he also refused. Both of them resigned. Who then ultimately fired the Watergate special prosecutor on Nixon's behalf? No Googling. The Answer plus the morning newspaper front page is when we come back.
[23:58:49] TAPPER: OK. Before the break, we asked you a little trivia question. Who was the justice department official who finally agreed to fire the Watergate special prosecutor after both of his bosses, the attorney general and the deputy attorney general refused and resigned? The answer? This man, Robert Bork, then the solicitor general of the United States and later a highly controversial and ultimately rejected Supreme Court nominee.
This explosive headline, President Trump firing FBI director James Comey is already as you might imagine the big story in the morning newspapers. It is front page, top of fold of the "Washington Post,' plainly reading Trump fires FBI director. "The New York Times" morning headline says Trump fires Comey amid Russia inquiry. Look at the size of this headline. That's election night winner headline size.
Below that the President's entire letter to Comey signature and all and when readers open up the times they see a page from the editorial board saying quote "Mr. Comey was fired because he was leading an active investigation that could bring down a President," unquote.
"The New York Daily News" one with the power grab caption of quote "coup de Trump."
That's it for this CNN special report. Be sure to log on to CNN.com for all your breaking news. I will see you again at 4:00 p.m. Thanks for watching. Have a great night.