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Trump Fires FBI Director Comey; Sources: Trump Administration Kept Pressing FBI to Pursue Leaks; Trump to Meet with Russian Foreign Minister. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired May 10, 2017 - 07:00   ET


CUOMO: Is that a sign that justice will be served?

[07:00:16] We have it all covered. Let's begin with CNN's Joe Johns live at the White House. Joe, what do we know?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, this is just uncharted territory, not only for the White House, but also in many ways for Capitol Hill and the Justice Department. The White House today is going to have to continue to try to justify, to rationalize, to explain why the president fired the man leading the investigation into his campaign.


JOHNS (voice-over): President Trump attributing his bombshell firing of FBI Director James Comey to Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, a stunning reversal, given Trump's repeated praise of Comey for how he managed that very investigation.

DONALD TRUMP (R), 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're trying to protect her from criminal prosecution.

JOHNS: And just last week, the president tweeting that Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Clinton.

The White House says the president acted on the recommendation of newly-appointed deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who made the case for Comey's firing in a letter to his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asserting that "The way the director handled the conclusion of the e-mail investigation was wrong. As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust."

The attorney general pledged just two months ago that he would recuse himself from any Russia investigations after it was revealed he did not disclose contacts with a Russian ambassador. Despite that, Sessions joining his new deputy in recommending that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI. Despite this praise of Comey six months earlier.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: FBI Director Comey did the right thing. When he found new evidence, he had no choice but to report to the American Congress.

JOHNS: President Trump firing Comey in a bizarre letter, stating, "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."

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: When did he say that?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: The president says in his letter...

COOPER: On what occasions did he do that?

CONWAY: The president says -- the president says -- that's between the president of the United States and Director Comey.

JOHNS: The president's assertion perplexing, given that Comey testified that the bureau is investigating Trump's campaign.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

JOHNS: Sources tell CNN Comey learned that he was fired through TV reports while he was addressing FBI employees in the Los Angeles office. He was not at FBI headquarters to receive the president's letter.

The shocking announcement coming just hours after CNN reported exclusively that federal prosecutors had issued a number of subpoenas to associates of Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, Democrats accusing the president of trying to derail the FBI's Russia investigation.

CONWAY: This has nothing do with Russia. It's everything to do with whether the current FBI director has the president's confidence.

JOHNS: President Trump and his advisers attacking Democrats who previously criticized Comey for announcing that he was reopening the Clinton e-mail investigation 11 days before the election.

Trump's seismic firing sparking comparisons to Watergate. Although the Nixon Library was quick to point out that, while Nixon fired the independent special prosecutor investigating him, Nixon did not go as far as Trump in firing his FBI director.


JOHNS: And today there is also this, in the midst of all the controversy over Russian interference in the last election and the firing of the man leading that federal investigation, the foreign minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, expected to show up here at the White House for a meeting with the president -- Chris and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Joe, thank you very much for all of that reporting.

Let's bring in our panel now to discuss this. We have CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. He's with us all morning, standing by. We have CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd; national security correspondent for "The New York Times," David Sanger; and CNN politics reporter and editor at large, Chris Cillizza. Guys, thanks for being here.

Chris, you have a piece on on, it says that this is President Trump's most dangerous move yet. What do you mean?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, I mean, he prizes unpredictability, right? We know that. He's talked about it many times. This is certainly an unpredictable move, in that it caught everyone, including James Comey, by surprise. The problem here -- and Jeff Toobin has talked about this eloquently -- is that you have someone firing someone investigating them.

[07:05:09] And the reason that Comey was investigating Trump or leading the investigation into the Russian meddling in the election is because the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, didn't disclose meetings he had with the Russian ambassador on two occasions during his confirmation hearings.

You know, there's a chilling aspect to it as it relates to the federal bureaucracy. I think there's some real questions about why this happened. Given everything that Trump has said, the reasoning to me, he could have done this far earlier. Was there a review under way? Was Rod Rosenstein tasked with doing some sort of review?

Kellyanne Conway's discussion of this last night with Anderson does not make all that much sense. They have to understand that the timing of this makes it look extremely likely that it's tied to Russia, even if it's not.

So, you know, this is a presidency that has been unpredictable and a historic in a lot of ways; and this feels like even a ramping up of those two things.

CUOMO: Phil Mudd, you worked at the FBI. One of the headlines that the administration is pushing here is that Rod Rosenstein has been on the job two weeks, and they are saying that he was tasked with doing this, by the way. But that this was about a lock -- a lack of confidence within the ranks. That's what they want the headline to be.

The hidden headline seems to be in that second paragraph of the letter that the president put out. Do you believe, Phil Mudd, that there was a lack of confidence within the agency? And do you believe that the director of the FBI would have one, let alone three conversations with a sitting president and that a sitting president would ask whether or not they were under investigation and be told?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No way. Look, this is a painful day for America. This story is simple. It's not about confidence in the FBI. It's about politics over the rule of law. There are two investigations here. One obviously, the e-mail

investigation into the rival of the president of the United States. The other, the Russia investigation. In both of those cases, let's presume that the Department of Justice brought charges against somebody in the Clinton team or the former secretary of state herself. Let's presume that the FBI director was less prominent in his comments and in his investigation of the Russia story. I don't believe the president of the United States would have sent this letter.

The reason the letter was sent is the president of the United States doesn't like the direction of investigations by the FBI. That's third-world dictatorship. That's not the United States. This might be politics in the Beltway, Chris. As a practitioner, this is incredibly painful to see politics interfering with a law enforcement investigation. You can't have that happen.

CAMEROTA: David Sanger, we have heard and we will continue to hear throughout the program lawmakers calling now for an independent prosecutor. We just heard Angus King call for that. It's much harder than it sounds, actually. The president would have some say in that. What's your reporting?

DAVID SANGER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, what the president has clearly done here, Alisyn, is take these previous calls for independent commissions, independent congressional committee or an independent prosecutor and various members of Congress or various parts of that spectrum, and he's poured fuel all over that.

Until now, that has largely been simply something Democrats were calling for. Now you're hearing several Republicans, not a huge number, as Maggie Haberman pointed out in your earlier hour, but you are beginning to hear them call for it. And frankly, I suspect those calls will only increase. Why? Because now you're in the position of the president selecting the next director of the FBI, who will inherit this Russia investigation.

Now, we know the president values loyalty and certainly would suggest that something that bothered him about Director Comey was he was appointed by President Obama. Even though Comey was, of course -- had served in Republican administrations, we well.

But I think what you're going to see now is that, as soon as the president nominates a new director for the FBI, the question is going to come up, can that director pick up this investigation with full, fair and detached investigative powers. And I think that will lead more people to call for commissions and special prosecutors.

CUOMO: I mean, Jeffrey, the more I think about it, this second paragraph of -- and put it up on the screen again -- I really think it tells people all they need to know. The idea that the president of the United States is either, with all due respect, he's either lying and this didn't happen and he's just saying it, because people will think that he's doing this...

CAMEROTA: He's saying that he met with him on three separate occasions." CUOMO: Right here on your screen.

CAMEROTA: ... with Comey, "And you've told me that I'm not under investigation."

CUOMO: Right. So now either this never happened/isn't true and that's very troubling, or it also true and if it is, isn't it proof positive that this investigation can't happen with this president, because he will cross every line that we know in terms of separation of power?

[07:10:15] TOOBIN: I think you summarized the bizarreness of that letter well. But, you know, I've known -- you know, I've known James Comey since he was the U.S. -- since he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan when I was an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. I've known him as the U.S. attorney in -- in the southern district of New York in Manhattan.

I mean, this is someone who is steeped in the traditions of the Justice Department. I think he made some serious mistakes in the Hillary Clinton investigation. But the idea that he would sit in the Oval Office and give the president a clean bill of health is just inconceivable to me. It's a violation of every procedure that is in place at the Justice Department.

And as well, this is an investigation in its early stages. He couldn't know enough to give President Trump a clean bill of health. So I think there is no way that letter is in any way accurate, which is a chilling thought. It's a chilling thought.

CUOMO: Scary. That is scary if that is true.

TOOBIN: That you have, A, the president firing the head of the FBI with a letter that is at least misleading, if not outright false.

CAMEROTA: Well, we might find out more, because Chris Cillizza, James Comey was set to testify again on Capitol Hill in front of the Senate Intel Committee tomorrow. No word on whether or not he will show up, if they can persuade him somehow to show up. So obviously...

TOOBIN: He has a lot of free time on his calendar now. Right?

CAMEROTA: He has a lot of free time.

CUOMO: Senator Angus King says that the Senate should hire him to run their committee's investigation.

CAMEROTA: Right. So he has the answer to some of these things that we need to know.

CILLIZZA: Which is -- you know, if Jeff is right, is remarkably blind on Donald Trump's part that you would release that letter, given the fact that James Comey is still around, right? James Comey, you can ask James Comey, "Hey, did you on these three occasions?" If he says no, well, President Trump will say, "Well, it's his word against mine." But still. I mean, again, when I saw that letter, candidly, when I first saw that

letter, I saw it on Twitter, and I thought that it was -- it was someone -- a satirical account because of the second paragraph. Put aside whether the meetings actually happened. That, in a letter informing the FBI director -- who by the way, you didn't call and tell he was fired; he watched it on television -- in a letter informing him that he had been fired, the second paragraph basically says, "Hey, by the way, thanks so much for those times when you said I'm great and nothing -- I never did anything bad. That was great when you said three times I didn't do anything bad. Oh, also, sorry, forgot about to mention this, you're also fired."

CUOMO: Right.

CILLIZZA: I mean, that is...

CUOMO: He said he was doing it, because he had to agree with the finding of the Department of Justice, but our reporting is he commissioned that report. Rosenstein has been there two weeks. Remember, it took 18 days for them to act on Flynn.

CILLIZZA: And again...

CUOMO: But within two weeks, they got this all together. And all those memos and letters were dated yesterday.

CILLIZZA: And again, this all happened July 5, 2016, the -- you know, the not charging Hillary Clinton.

CUOMO: So David Sanger, the president seems intent on putting this on the Democrats as motivation. And not in just the typical "Obama did it" way that the White House keeps doing.

But he said first last night, when the first wave of coverage came, "Crying Chuck Schumer stated recently, 'I don't have confidence in him,' James Comey, 'any longer'. Then acts so indignant."

Now he just tweeted again, "The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad."

You know, the president is a frequent watcher of the show. If he is, I hope it is clear to him the level of concern that the timing and the appropriateness of this move has raised in light of that paragraph. The idea of him asking the director of the FBI whether or not he's under investigation, the idea that he would be told that information, and the idea David Sanger, that he may lie about that ever having happened, what do you make of all that?

SANGER: Well, Chris, there are several inconsistencies here. The first is that, of course, it was President Trump and Jeff Sessions who praised Mr. Comey for what he did about the e-mail investigation at the time that he announced the reopening of this. So we've all seen the tape of that.

Second, the timing would suggest that, if he was really concerned about his handling of the Hillary case, that he would have dismissed Director Comey back in January or February on that basis. Because let's face it: the facts have not changed about what he did in the Hillary investigation in the interim months. The explanations have gone on, but the facts haven't changed any.

[07:15:09] And then the third part comes in what you suggest. Let's set aside for a moment the somewhat bizarre wording in the letter, which I'm having a hard time believing that White House counsel would let him write that way, but setting that aside, the Russia investigation has proceeded since the president has taken office.

And you have heard from Mr. Comey as recently as late March that it now involves questions, investigations into whether or not there was collusion of any kind with some of Mr. Trump's associates. Put aside the president himself. The associates.

At that moment, whatever previous reason you had makes this looks like interference in an ongoing investigation.


SANGER: And whether that's the rationale you used or not, that is clearly the perception. And for some reason, the White House seems somewhat blind to the fact that the reaction would be the way you've heard it in the past 12 hours.

CAMEROTA: All right. We're out of time. Gentlemen, thank you very much for helping us try to sort through all of this this morning.

CUOMO: All right. We're going to keep getting different takes on this, because we need to test the reasoning for why this happened and when.

Coming up in just minutes, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is joining us. The White House bringing out the big guns. We're also going to talk to senators from both sides of the aisle -- Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Lindsey Graham -- for reaction on Capitol Hill.

CAMEROTA: So just hours after firing the FBI director, President Trump is set to meet with Russia's top diplomat at the White House this morning.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski is live at the State Department with more. The timing on all of this, Michelle, is quite notable.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: It makes more sense now, because we know that both Tillerson and Lavrov are immediately going to head to Alaska for the same series of meetings. And the question was why not just meet there? But now we know that there will also be this sit-down between Lavrov and Trump, maybe a precursor to an eventual Trump/Putin meeting that could happen as early as this this summer.

But yes, the timing of this -- it's another difficult backdrop to a bad relationship. Remember the last time Lavrov and Tillerson sat down, it was last month in Moscow and that was in the aftermath of that horrible chemical attack in Syria. Tillerson said Russia was either complicit or incompetent. Russia then called the U.S.'s subsequent air strikes an act of aggression and a violation of international law.

They had this tense press conference where they had a striking difference of opinion both on Syria's role in that chemical attack. as well as Russia's role in the meddling of the U.S. presidential election.

So now they're going to sit down again, try to find common ground. It's going to focus on Syria. There is a Russia-backed plan to establish safe zones there. But the U.S. has taken "Let's wait and see."

State Department says Tillerson is also going to bring up the fact that Russia is still in Ukraine, that this was never going to be an easy meeting, but that it will be blunt, broad and businesslike -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Michelle Kosinski, thank you very much.

Coming up on NEW DAY, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. What does she make of this situation? How important does she think it is? And what do we do now to ensure the administration of justice in this democracy? Is a special prosecutor even possible? Next.


[07:22:25] CUOMO: All right. Obviously, we're staying with breaking news morning: President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. It raises serious questions about the administration of justice in this democracy. The timing, the rationale and the implications.

Why did the president fire the man leading an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia? What do we do now?

Let's bring in someone with the gift of perspective, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, author of the new book "Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom." And we are apparently in a bend on that road right now.


CUOMO: What is your take?

RICE: We're certainly seeing that democracy is a bit messy and inefficient, and the most important, then, is the confidence in institutions has to be there.

And you're going to have people on in a little bit who are much better positioned to talk to the specifics of this case. Senators Graham and Blumenthal for whom I both have -- I have, really, respect for both of them.

But let me say that I do think we have the institutions, and I'm confident that we have institutions to get through whatever we're going through right now.

We have a Congress that is a check on the executive. We have courts that are a check on the executive. We have a press that is constantly reporting on the executive. And so let's be grateful that the Founding Fathers gave us institutions that can help us navigate whatever storms we're going through.

I don't know the specifics of what happened here. I can tell you that I know Jim Comey, and I just want to say to him thanks for your service. He is an honorable person. I can't speak to what mistakes he may have made or may not have made. But I just want to take a second to honor his service.

CUOMO: One of the things that people will be concerned about here is, is there independent administration of justice? If the president can get rid of somebody who is effectively investigating him, right, his team, his people, it winds up becoming somewhat inconsequential if he's named or not in the investigation, the president himself. How do you have an effective check on that power?

RICE: Well, this investigation is going to go on, and because we have so many centers of power, including in the Congress on both sides of the aisle; because we have an independent press; because we have an independent judiciary; the investigation's going to go on, whatever happened in the president's decision to -- to remove his FBI director.

And by the way, of course, he has the right to remove an FBI director, because the FBI director, like any member of the executive branch, serves at the pleasure of the president.

But what I would like to say as an American and to Americans, is I'm actually very confident that whatever happened here, we have institutions that are going to make sure that we get to the bottom of what happened. You know, we have multiple investigations going on. It's a little dizzying sometimes to even keep track of all that's going on.

CUOMO: Why the confidence? It's good that you're confident. We need it this morning. But why the confidence? If we know that this situation doesn't make sense, and you know, this one paragraph in the letter alone from the president, saying, "By the way, thank you, Director Comey, for telling me three times that I'm not under investigation."

Can you believe that a conversation like that would ever happen between a sitting director of the FBI and a president of the United States? It breaches so many different notions of proper protocol.

RICE: I have no idea, but I will -- you asked why am I confident.


RICE: And I'm confident, because we have this system of distributive power, and we're seeing it right here. We're seeing that when you have senators Graham and Blumenthal on, they are going to represent directly the American people through the Congress. By the way, Article I of our Constitution. And they are going to decide, along with the American people, what course should be taken here.

We -- I've also seen America go through a lot. Maybe that is the possibility of perspective. You know, I lived through the '60s. I lived through the '70s. I've lived through a number of issues that were raised during our administrations. And I think we always get to the bottom of it, and that's what we're going to do this time.

CUOMO: One of the things that's being talked about is a special prosecutor. You remember that statute, born out of the Watergate era, retired in '99. That's when it expired. And then the politicians didn't really like it for whatever reason, didn't come (ph).

Do you think that we have the kind of potential consensus, bipartisan consensus in this country right now for legislation like that to pass?

RICE: Well, I worry about our bipartisan consensus on a host of issues. And so I don't know if we do.

But special prosecutors bring certain benefits, but they also bring a lot of swirling. And I think most Americans would like to get to the bottom of this and let the government get on with its business.

I am hopeful for the Senate Intelligence Committee's work, because it looks to me that that's a truly bipartisan effort. I think a lot of people have confidence in the leadership and the ranking of that committee. And so, on the Russia portion of this, I'm very hopeful that the Intelligence Committee can handle it; and we'll see what else has to -- has to be done.

CUOMO: The concern is they don't have subpoena power, right? I mean, not the same way that the FBI does. And you said, well, this investigation will go on. That depends who's running the agency.

RICE: Well, but I suspect that, if very senior senators say that they're not getting the cooperation that they need, that you're going to be able to take the next step.

The thing that we have going for us is nobody will be afraid to speak, because the Congress, the senators, are elected separately from the president. That's the nature of our system.

And I think the administration is going to be well-served by being as candid as possible with the American people. I think that's warranted and desired and needed here.

But no one should -- we should all try not to jump to conclusions about what happened. There's a tendency when something happens that everybody swarms around it, and immediately, we all have an opinion of what must have happened.

I lived inside of Washington for a number of years. And very often, what seems to be true isn't true. And so, first reports are almost always not correct. So I would just caution everybody to step back, let our institutions work.

I'm very grateful to people like senators Graham and Blumenthal and others who are speaking out now. I have confidence that we're going to get to the bottom of whatever happened and that we're going to also, by the way, get on with the business of the American people. The president is apparently meeting with Sergey Lavrov today.

CUOMO: Yes, I wanted to make that segue.

RICE: Yes.

CUOMO: Thank you for doing it for me. The meeting with the foreign minister, the president apparently is going to go and meet with him himself, whether in addition to or instead of Secretary Tillerson. We don't know. Probably the latter. Probably that they'll both be there.

How important is that meeting? What do you think the proper tone and the topics are that need to be on the table?

RICE: Well, clearly, the relationship with the Russians is not in good shape. And not when -- for not because of anything the United States has done, but because of Russian policy.

I think they're probably going to talk about Syria. That would -- we need a cease-fire in Syria. We need one that is reliable so that that war can end. It's 7 million displaced people.

And I would suspect that this is about saying to the Russians, "Assad has now used chemical weapons.