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Trump Fires FBI's Comey, Faces Aftershocks; Dems Call for Special Prosecutor on Trump/Russia; Sources: Subpoenas Issued to Flynn Associates. Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired May 10, 2017 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. Top of the hour, this morning, a stunning move in what some are calling a presidential power grab. The White House has fired the man leading the investigation of the White House. President Trump asserting his executive authority in a rare move firing FBI director James Comey citing his treatment of Hillary Clinton as the major reason why. Hillary Clinton, someone this president said should be in jail. A move this morning, some are describing as an act of political Jiu-Jitsu, forcing Democrats to defend the man that they wanted ousted not long ago.
BERMAN: Yes, to say the least, a lot of people not buying the idea that Donald Trump fired James Comey because James Comey was unfair to Hillary Clinton. All of this happened on the same day that CNN learned a grand jury issued subpoenas in the Russia investigation. Meanwhile, there's a lot happening -- news happening right now.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is interviewing candidates to serve as interim FBI director and in the Senate just moments ago, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and Chuck Schumer, the minority leader with very different views of this historic moment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Our Democratic colleagues complaining about the removal of an FBI director whom they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized, that removal being done by a man, Rod Rosenstein, whom they repeatedly and effusively praised.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: There is a little reason to think that Mr. Rosenstein's letter is the true reason that President Trump fired Director Comey. What must happen now is that Mr. Rosenstein appoints a special prosecutor to oversee this investigation.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: And the key moment just moments ago from Senator Mitch McConnell, he made clear he would not support the special counsel, any special counselor or any special committee. We have correspondents covering every angle of this story this morning. I want to begin with Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill where there was a very important moment there, Mitch McConnell very much with the president this morning, Phil.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You really can understate how important - or overstate how important that actually is. The leaderships, Senate leadership and House leadership will determine whether or not there are actually any changes towards the policy here, whether or not Congress will actually work towards a special prosecutor or an independent panel. And so long as Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell and his number two, Senator John Cornyn -- I spoke to him earlier. They have made very clear. They don't believe this is the pathway.
And guys, the interesting element here is, that's as Republican members of their conference seem to be starting to break with them or at least start to raise concerns. Now, I just spoke a couple of minutes ago with Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown. Take a listen to what he had to say about some of those Republicans.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO: Like my colleagues in both parties. I think there should be a special prosecutor. The President of the United States firing the person who is doing -- leading the investigation, his ties with Russia is very troubling, and I hear from -- I've talked to probably half a dozen Republican colleagues today and three or four Democratic colleagues and there's pretty much consensus that what the president did was wrong. And there's consensus that we need to do something bold and can't trust him to put in a new FBI director when the first name you hear is Rudy Giuliani. It just makes you question the seriousness of all of this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: Now, guys, the big question is, is those Republican senators that have made it clear to Senator Sherrod Brown. Those who came out last night and said they were troubled about what occurred whether it be Senator John McCain, Senator Ben Sasse, Senator Jeff Flake, all Republicans whether or not they can form some type of momentum to push Republican leadership towards moving in a different direction. But it was made crystal clear this morning that despite what Democrats are calling for, despite the troubles that some Republican are feeling, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not moving forward.
I'll note one other thing. Senate Democrats, they were all on the floor this morning for those opening remarks, a statement kind of trying to apply some public pressure to Senator Mitch McConnell. They will also be meeting in about a half hour behind closed doors, just their caucus to talk about the steps forward. Senator Chuck Schumer, saying, he is now requesting a closed-door briefing, separate briefings from the attorney general and the deputy attorney general. We'll see if Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader will at least allow that, guys-.
BERMAN: Yes. It doesn't seem to be budging in many other places. Phil Mattingly, thank you so much for us.
I want to go to the White House right now. Check in with Joe Johns there.
[10:05:01] Joe, you know, a moment of staggering importance, incredibly portentous and what does the president do about it this morning? He tweets.
JOE JOHNS, SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He does tweet. And it's a very interesting moment here at the White House for other reasons as well, John. Because with all the swirl regarding the Russia investigation, the firing just yesterday of James Comey, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expected here at the White House just in a little while to meet with the president. Will the president address the firing of James Comey at that time? Not likely, at least not to the media. So far cameras are not allowed inside.
As you said, the president defending himself, defending his decision on Twitter today. I'll read some of those tweets for you. "The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play sad!"
"Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calmed down," the president says, "they will be thanking me!"
"James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and prestige of the FBI."
The president's communications people have been out, too, both last night and today and they've been very careful to try to cite some other issues rather than the president's Russia investigation as the reason for the Comey firing. Back to you.
BERMAN: All right, Joe Johns at the White House. Thanks very, very much.
HARLOW: All right. The president, as you just heard Joe say, says this move will bring back the prestige and the spirit of the FBI. What's the mood there? Today, let's bring in someone who knows. Evan Perez, you've been working your sources. You also have some new information. What are you learning?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, one of the things that unify people at the FBI right now is simply shock. I mean, I think even people who weren't thrilled with the tenure of Jim Comey, who thought that perhaps -- he was attracting too much negative attention to the bureau. You know, these people want to do their work quietly, in secret and not gather all of this public attention that the FBI has certainly been getting in the past year with the Hillary Clinton investigation and now with this Trump/Russia investigation. Even people in that -- in that group were not pleased with the way how this went down. Look, there are also a lot of people there who were big fans of Jim Comey because they believe that he's been helpful in bringing resources and helping to transform the agency, the bureau into more of an intelligence agency, bringing more resource into the terrorisms sphere, national security sphere.
So, there's a mix of reactions this morning inside the FBI as to how to go forward here because you know, this is certainly not the way you fire an FBI director. Normally, -- a well-functioning White House would bring in the FBI director. They tell him, you know, you've lost the confidence of the president. And then, give him a chance to fall on the sword and resign. That's not how this happened. He was across the country in Los Angeles, addressing field agents there in Los Angeles when the news broke on their phones and on television. Not the way you usually handle a firing of an FBI director, John and Poppy.
BERMAN: Evan, help us understand what's going on right now. We understand that the Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy AG, are interviewing candidates to be interim FBI director? What's going on there?
PEREZ: I mean, add to the puzzlement, right? This is not normal. What you do is when you have something like this and they certainly have been working on this for a couple of weeks. You have a list of names. You've talked to some people already about the possible vacancy of the FBI. And you get the ball rolling on trying to find somebody that you can -- that you believe will have the credibility, somebody with prominence, somebody with name, with a name big enough that people will credibly say, can stand up to a president if he's doing an investigation that sensitive.
That is a tall order to meet here. And I don't -- it doesn't appear that they were ready here. We hear that they might release a list of names for an interim that's not normal. And the reason why you're hearing that, John Poppy, is because you're already hearing grumbling from Republicans on the Hill that they don't trust Andrew McCabe who is now the acting attorney - I'm sorry, the acting FBI director because of concerns that he should be recused from the investigation into the Trump and Russia dealings.
HARLOW: Evan, thank you for the reporting. Before we move on, just take a look at some new images, I believe we just got in. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister there you have him coming out of his motorcade to the White House. This was a pre-scheduled meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. What we have now learned that President Trump will indeed meet with Lavrov, of course, a meeting that was planned well before the firing of Comey, but still critical. And Lavrov, I should note, brushed off reporters' questions this morning when they said, what do you think of the firing of James Comey? He said what firing? What firing? -
BERMAN: He made a joke.
HARLOW: He made a joke. BERMAN: The Russians are making jokes about this, this morning. You know, not insignificant, I think.
[10:10:00] All right, the firings come just hours after CNN learned that federal prosecutors have handed out grand jury subpoenas to a number of people with business ties to former national security adviser Michael Flynn. CNN crime and justice producer, Shimon Prokupecz, on the team that broke this story. Shimon, what have you learned?
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE PRODUCER: Well, that's right, John. You know, just as we're about to go on the air with this story yesterday, word came that the FBI director had been fired. So, you know, it took us a couple of hours before we sort of put more reporting out there and what we've learned is that federal prosecutors have issued a grand jury subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, requesting the business records.
These are the records that -- from Michael Flynn during his - he had this sort of business where he worked with other governments. And the interest here is Russia and also, Turkey and the FBI working with the U.S. attorney in the eastern district of Virginia in the last few weeks, sent out these subpoenas looking for the business dealings, the records, money, what money was paid for some of his business dealings. And so now, they're going to pore through those records and try and get a better idea of what Michael Flynn's involvement was with other countries, John.
HARLOW: Shimon, thank you so much for the reporting. Again, a very important development that sort of got lost in the mix last night, but a big breaking story, as well.
The reaction to the FBI director's firing has been swift. Democrats are already comparing it to the Nixon-era Watergate. Congressman Mike Quigley says, this is quote, "straight out of the Nixon playbook," Senator Patrick Leahy, calling it "nothing less than Nixonian."
Joining us now, Nick Akerman, former assistant special Watergate prosecutor and former assistant U.S. attorney, former ambassador Norm Eisen also CNN contributor and Laura Coates, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, thank you all for being here.
Nick, let me just begin with you, -- given your history with Watergate and all things Nixonian. Look at "The New York Times," OK? Then, and look at the front page of "The New York Times" today, OK? Is this Nixonian as many Democrats are saying?
NICK AKERMAN, FORMER ASSISTANT SPECIAL WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: Look, it's clearly Nixonian to the extent that what the president is doing is firing the person who is in charge of an investigation into him. There's no question that the parallel is there. There are some important differences, though.
I mean, the good news is that the FBI is an ongoing institution. The people who are there doing this investigation are going to continue the investigation no matter what happens to James Comey. He's not a critical part of this investigation whereas with the Watergate Prosecution Force, there was just a small group of us that were the prosecutors. When Archie Cox was fired, we thought the office itself might be disbanded. There is no question the FBI is not going to be disbanded. It's going to continue and the investigation will continue.
In fact, I think, there's going to be a lot of pressure to make that investigation go forward and do it in a thorough and professional way. Secondly, James Comey is no Archibald Cox. James Comey, what he did, he should have been fired last July for basically usurping his power within the Department of Justice and making the statements he made with regard to the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. Thirdly, I think this whole matter of Watergate, people have to understand it wasn't just the break-in to the Democratic headquarters. It was a whole series of illegal acts.
I mean, no question about it, the matter under investigation here is extremely serious. The idea that a political campaign of somebody running for president is conspiring with a foreign government to undermine his opponent is extremely serious and unprecedented. --
BERMAN: It doesn't get much more important to that.
Norm Eisen, Ambassador, you know, we have a good point right here which doesn't have to be mutually exclusive. It doesn't have to be mutually exclusive that James Comey acted inappropriately during the campaign and that his firing yesterday is extremely suspect, your take on it?
AMBASSADOR NORMAN EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, whatever you may think of the campaign conduct and there is a debate to be had about the rules. And I think, there is some proper criticism. The timing of the firing, -- and frankly, blatant, open pre-textual nature that was because of Comey's conduct during the campaign that Trump and Sessions had previously embraced, that's a lie. It's the latest in the Trump big lie strategy.
And the fact that there is a falsehood together with the timing just as these rumors of the - and I was hearing them all day yesterday before CNN broke the story of the grand jury subpoenas. That suggests that something is afoot here and I think the focus on Flynn is very important. Because the subpoenas suggest and we've been talking about this for a while, a tightening news around Flynn, the danger is that to Trump that Flynn will, as typically happens in these investigations, Flynn will flip.
[10:15:10] He's going to trade for immunity, whatever he has to say. His lawyer says he has a story to tell. That represents a danger to Trump, there have been recent allegations more allegations about Trump's possible financial ties with the journalists saying this weekend, that Eric Trump told him they had $100 million in Russian financing. And there's a lot of other evidence that Trump may have had financial connections with Russia. That explains the motive for his bizarre embrace of an attack on our democracy.
HARLOW: Ambassador, just to note, we don't have that evidence, but I know the reporting you're pointing to. I just want to clarify that. Laura, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy AG, said in his, you know, testimony in his confirmation hearing to Patrick Leahy, Yes sure, I am open to appointing a special prosecutor when I think it is appropriate, quote, "based on the policies and procedures of the Justice Department. If this is not that time, when is that time?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, remember, he's been in his position for a little more than two weeks at this point. And so, you have to wonder whether or not his decision was based on someone that he's actually read in the file for his Justice Department or based on something else it may not yet be right for him to make that call. But I will say this. It's important not to conflate two separate motives. I do believe that the timing of James Comey's firing is highly suspicious to say the least. But the motivation of the president, I think, is a transparent fig leaf. The motivation for Rosenstein may in fact be based on a more recent testimony.
We've all been focusing on what happened last July when Comey gave a press conference that clearly overstepped his bounds as an FBI investigator when he tried to become a prosecutor that day. And had the audacity to tell Loretta Lynch, I'm not even going to tell you what my press conference is going to be about. But last week, in his testimony there was a renewed opportunity for James Comey to explain a greater contextual basis for actually doing just that.
And instead of being contrite about an obvious misstep that I think, we unilaterally agree was odd and peculiar and insubordinate. He said, he would do it again. And believe that he was justified, that he alone had the weight of the credibility of the behemoth Justice Department and FBI in his shoulders.
So I think there was a renewed opportunity for the now say that Rosenstein to look at and say, look, I've got a person here who when the credibility of the FBI is even slightly questioned, will in fact, do this again. Do I want this person to be my lead investor on an issue as sensitive as the Russia investigation?
So, the two motives here are very separate. I don't think that Rosenstein, a man who has served under various administrations as a special prosecutor and other facets, actually said, Trump, I'd like to give you a reason to have a pre-textual basis to fire. That was what I'm sure Trump wanted. He wanted the pre-textual reason to justify it. But I think, Rosenstein's inquiry and calculus was very separate.
BERMAN: Well -- we will find out more and more information coming out. And again, the timeline there is unclear because it could be that the White House, we understand, was looking for reasons to get rid of James Comey before he testified again last week.
HARLOW: He asked for this letter from Rosenstein or why it came, really. --
BERMAN: You know, volunteered it, just happened -
HARLOW: It was dated yesterday.
BERMAN: All right, guys.
HARLOW: Thank you, guys.
BERMAN: Ambassador Norm Eisen, Nick Akerman, Laura Coates, thanks so much for being with us. We appreciate it.
In the middle of all of this today, the Russian foreign minister just arrived at the White House -- for a very important meeting with President Trump. You know, will the president comment on the firing? The Russian foreign minister did. He decided to make a joke about the whole thing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Does the Comey firing cast a shadow over your talks? (INAUDIBLE)
SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Was he fired? You're kidding! You're kidding.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[10:23:02] BERMAN: All right. President Trump says that he had to fire James Comey in order to restore public trust and confidence in the FBI. Joining us now Alberto Gonzales, former attorney general under George W. Bush, also former White House Counsel, as well. Thank you so much for being with us, General. Look, I know who you have said that the timing and the way this was handled could have been much better. What do you mean?
ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL AND FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Well, obviously we're in the middle of an investigation. And so, in removing the person heading up the agency investigating possible ties, possible wrongdoing by individuals in the White House that raises some serious questions. I also, you know, as a former - as an attorney general, someone who worked with Jim Comey, the way that he found out -- about the removal, to me, was very, very disappointing. I don't think it was very respectful. And the White House should have handled that much better -- much more professionally, quite frankly.
HARLOW: All right. What do you make of the president stating in that short letter to Comey firing him, by the way, I appreciate that you told me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, but you're fired. I mean, if they had those conversations, wouldn't that be totally out of bounds, whether the president asked him if he's under investigation or whether the FBI director told him that, if it even happened?
GONZALES: Right. -- You can't control what the president may ask, but he shouldn't be asking those kinds of questions and the director should not answer those kinds of questions. If, in fact -
HARLOW: Stand by, general. Just one second. Sorry to interrupt. Let's jump to Dianne Feinstein speaking at the top of this hearing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), RANKING MEMBER JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: - television news coverage that broke while he was speaking to FBI agents in Los Angeles. He wasn't told directly and reportedly believed at first that it was a prank. Apparently, the president's letter hadn't yet been delivered to FBI headquarters before the news had become public.
[10:25:00] Several news outlets also began reporting that the administration had been considering firing Comey for some time and charged with building a case against Director Comey for at least a week. Specifically, "The New York Times" reported -- excuse me, that Attorney General Sessions had been charged with the responsibility of coming up with reasons to fire Director Comey.
This morning, "Politico" was reporting that, quote, "Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation, particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign and that the FBI director wouldn't support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower," end quote.
As I reflect on the decision to dismiss Director Comey, I become incredulous, thinking about the ongoing FBI investigation into Russia's interference with our presidential election and possible connections to associates of the Trump campaign administration.
One thing, Mr. Chairman, that sticks in my mind is the classified briefing that you and I had from Director Comey on March 15th. At this briefing, Director Comey outlined the counterintelligence and criminal investigations. The FBI is conducting involving Russia's covert action to influence the presidential election. I can't go into the specifics, but you and I know that it was rather comprehensive for this kind of briefing. The FBI director was precise and he presented us with substantial information.
It was clear the FBI was taking its job seriously and that a substantial investigation was underway. In addition, just last week on May 3rd, Director Comey came before the Judiciary Committee and promised to update the committee and provide briefings on the Russia investigation in a classified setting as necessary.
Then, last night, CNN reported that federal prosecutors have begun taking additional steps in the Russia investigation in the past few weeks, including issuing grand jury subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, seeking business records as part of the Russia investigation. In fact, reporters learned that prosecutors were issuing subpoenas as part of the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the election, just hours before Director Comey was fired.
At a minimum, the decision to fire Comey raises questions about the appropriateness timing of firing the person in charge of an investigation that could -- I won't say would, but could implicate the administration. To have this happen and happen now is beyond surprising. I believe it's important to have deputy attorney general Rosenstein and deputy director McCabe come before the Judiciary Committee and brief members on the reasons and the timing of the firing as well as what steps are being taken to ensure this action will have no impact on the work of the FBI on the ongoing investigation.
I also plan to work with Senator Blumenthal on legislation to ensure that a truly independent prosecutor can be appointed. However, while we work on that legislation, I want to renew my call to have a special prosecutor appointed to oversee the Russia investigation. I have said on some occasions now that we're in unusual times and I recognize today's hearing is meant to be on the nominees who are before us for three important positions at justice.
But given the events of the last 24 hours, I believe members should have the opportunity to speak out about these events. So, Mr. Chairman, I hope you allow other members to say a few words as they -- if they would like, but I want you to know I very much appreciate this courtesy. Thank you.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), CHAIRMAN JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: You bet. Senator Cruz?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: All right. There you have it, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat ranking -- Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, making some important points there. One, saying, that she is calling for a special prosecutor, which we would expect. Another thing that she did - that she said that she's working with her fellow Democrats in the Senate on legislation --