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President Trump Fires FBI Director James Comey; Interview with Senator Richard Blumenthal. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 10, 2017 - 08:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[08:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So what's the point? I mean, what is the point of having all of these congressional committees if you are basically saying they're toothless and that the only way to proceed here is by changing the law somehow, and you would have to have the president sign off on that, and creating a new special prosecutor or having Rod Rosenstein, who you don't have faith in, you didn't vote for, appoint somebody?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D) CONNECTICUT: First, and your question is very well taken, the congressional committee can hold hearing, produce reports, and possibly write new legislation. But they cannot bring criminal charges.

And what I hear from people around Connecticut is they want the truth uncovered and they want accountability. They want people who broke the law by aiding the Russians in their attack on our election system to be held responsible in court. And there is ample evidence involving Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, that Trump associates may well have been involved in colluding with the Russians.

And, so, what's needed is accountability. The grand jury is working. The FBI is doing its job. What's needed now is a leader and, I emphasize, insulated and protected from political interference by the president of the United States who may be a target here, by a clear mandate, a written mandate from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, saying you do the work. I'm going to protect you.

CAMEROTA: Do you think it is possible that Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie could be the new head of the FBI?

BLUMENTHAL: Predicting what the president of the United States will do is among the host hazardous activities in Washington, D.C. these days. But I hope not, because they bring political baggage, for lack of a better word, that would severely undermine their credibility with the American public.

It should be someone who has been above politics, unquestionably credible, someone of unimpeachable integrity and excellence and also a background in the criminal justice system who knows how to make judgments about whether to bring charges. And that's a difficult set of qualifications, but I do think it's possible. And by the way, I really do believe that my colleagues, Republican as well as Democrat, want this constitutional crisis faced in a bipartisan way. We are going to be coming together, I hope, in a way that makes America better and prouder. CAMEROTA: That would certainly be nice. Senator, do you believe that

former FBI director James Comey will still show up to testify on Capitol Hill tomorrow as was already scheduled. He was going to be talking more about this on Thursday.

BLUMENTHAL: I wish I knew. I don't. I hope that he does because the public deserves an explanation from him as to what he thinks happened here. And James Comey is the one who can best illuminate what any exchanges were between him and the president. I severely doubt that the president was informed in any authoritative way, that he was not, quote, "under investigation" potentially because the associates now under investigation could well have information implicating him. And the way investigations go, they are a series of points and witnesses and potential individual defendants in a chain that ultimately may lead to the top.

CAMEROTA: Senator Richard Blumenthal, thank you very much for your reaction to this big breaking news this morning. Thanks so much for being here.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, so we've gotten the word from the White House. We have now seen where the Democrats heads are in the form of Senator Blumenthal. Let's bring in the panel and see where that leads us. CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is with us all morning, CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza, CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd, and CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

Jeffrey, a point that we have been coming back to a lot is the second paragraph in this letter, maybe our best window into the motives and the problems in separating the executives from an investigation thereof with respect to Russia. Kellyanne wanted to distract and it doesn't say in there that the president asked him any questions, just that the FBI communicated to the president three different times that he wasn't under investigation.

Now, again, we're assuming this is true. You take issue with that because you don't think James Comey would have these discussions. But, again, isn't this something that has to be reconciled?

[08:05:00] JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It is so -- the level of impropriety is so great at so many different levels. If the conversation took place as the president describes it in this letter, it's completely inappropriate because he should not be discussing a pending investigation with the person who is in charge of that investigation. That is a bedrock principle of the division of labor within the executive branch.

On the other hand, if -- the fact that he fired Comey in the midst of an investigation that obviously touched on President Trump, that in itself is so wildly inappropriate. And his letter is like a confession because he acknowledges in that paragraph that he is a part of an investigation that the FBI is involved in. I mean, it is like the operation of a guilty conscience. CAMEROTA: And, Phil, that brings us to you. This is one of the

burning questions Americans have as they wake up this morning is what does this mean for the investigation? You know the FBI well. You served there. How do the good men and women of the FBI continue in their investigation with James Comey gone? And what if a President Trump loyalist becomes the head of the FBI?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: The first question is, how do you allow the FBI director, not the sitting director, Andy McCabe. I'll comment on him in a moment. I know him well. How do you allow a new FBI director presumably who is selected in part by the attorney general, to participate in this investigation? That person would be loyal, I presume, to the attorney general. It argues that you have got to move this out.

But two things quickly. The investigators, I know these guys. They are dogs with a bone. Interviews, investigations of financial ties to Russia, travel to Russia, anything inappropriate, if you think that they will operate differently today than they did yesterday, that ain't how the FBI operates. The second thing I'd say and finally is Andy McCabe, the acting director, don't write this guy off. Very smart guy, very centered, very solid, believe or not inside Washington someone you'd want to have a beer with. If you think he's going to roll over because there is pressure from the White House, that is not Andy McCabe. This investigation will go forward.

CUOMO: And his wife ran as a Democrat, as Kellyanne said 100 times in her interview. Chris Cillizza, a big point for Kellyanne is he is a decisive leader. He acted decisively. She got caught up when I was saying to her, but why now? Why act so rashly. She said, why not? That's a clever little semantic device, but it doesn't work well here because the why not is because you are under investigation by the same guy.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: Right, right. You see time and again in the interview with Kellyanne, Sean Spicer, talking about Michael Flynn and why he was fired, it was a decisive action by a decisive leader. But if that's true, and, you know, I think that's open to discussion, you need to provide the backstory here.

From what I can tell of the time line, Rod Rosenstein went and did this review on his own, not at the direction of Jeff Sessions, not at the direction of Donald Trump or anyone in the White House, did it on his own, handed it to Sessions on Tuesday. Sessions sends it to the president and then he was fired.

It seems a little odd given all of the underlying context here. The fact that the Clinton investigation was wrapped up effectively July 5th, then reopened. Donald Trump praised James Comey for having in his words "the guts" to reopen it. He said that on Halloween of 2016. It just doesn't really all add up or line up. If it was decisive, why not do it January 21st? If your issue was the way Comey handled the Clinton investigation, decisive action would have been the day you get in, the day after, a week after. You say, you know what, James Comey, you served admirably, but I think the way he handled this lost the trust of me and the FBI and he needs to go. Doing it now in the way that -- in a two-week review by a guy who's

been on the job two weeks just doesn't feel like it was properly -- I hate to say the word "properly vetted," but that the information gathering process worked the way it should.

CAMEROTA: Doug, as you know people are likening this bombshell to what happened during the Saturday night massacre, Watergate. Put it into historical perspective for us.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, it does ring our Watergate bell. On October 20th, 1973, when Archibald Cox got fired and holy hell broke loose in America. But luckily at that moment, we had two patriots, Republicans, William D. Ruckelshaus and Elliot L. Richardson, and both of them resigned. And it started to become the beginning of the end for Nixon. The problem we have right now is where are the Republican Party? The Republican Party as a whole is not really serious about investigating this because it doesn't work well for their agenda.

[08:10:00] They don't want to hear the name Paul Manafort. They don't want to hear Roger Stone. They don't want to hear Carter Page. They don't want to hear about Michael Flynn. The Republican Party has been playing ostrich with this. It is inconvenient for them.

Now, we are getting breakout stars from the Republican bench. Richard Burr yesterday questioning this. Senator Fluke of Arizona questioning it. John McCain I think will come public in a forceful way. But the GOP needs like a gang of eight or 10 Republican senators to say enough is enough. We need a special prosecutor. We need to look at this and get to the bottom of it with an independent counsel. After all, it was Barry Goldwater, a conservative, who told Nixon to his face I'm not playing your lies anymore. I'm not going to damage my reputation for you. We need to see more profiles in courage coming out to of the Republican Party right now.

CUOMO: Look, Jeffrey, yes, there has been so much dissembling, so much prevarication, all nice big words for "lying" coming out of the White House that it is easy to call the account it into question. And yet I think we've been doing a solid job this morning of looking at it on its face. On its face, the timing doesn't make sense. If you are upset about the Clinton investigation, you would have done it at jump. You had every reason to do it. Everybody would have expected you to do it. And it would have been seen as elections have consequences. And by the way, he is an Obama appointee. The timing, take us through here. The guy has been on the job two weeks. Kellyanne kept saying, you know, Rosenstein has only been there two weeks. That's right. He's only been there two weeks. The inspector general is doing the same investigation. You don't wait for it. You have no one lined up to take the job.

TOOBIN: And I think the dates on the memos are significant. You know, everything is dated yesterday. So according to Kellyanne Conway yesterday, the president made a considered judgment based on the conclusion of Rod Rosenstein. Rod Rosenstein sent him a memo yesterday.

CUOMO: That's right.

TOOBIN: And he was fired yesterday.

CUOMO: Rosenstein, who doesn't even know. They weren't even saying his name right.

TOOBIN: That's completely implausible. The idea that somehow he handed him the memo in the morning and Jim Comey was fired at 5:00 in the afternoon, that's not how human beings work.

CILLIZZA: By the way, Jeff, to your point, Trump said that -- the reporting is Trump didn't know that the memo was even being written. So the first he would have been aware of it was Tuesday. Sorry to interrupt you.

CAMEROTA: But then, Chris, explain it. Then what is this timing?

CILLIZZA: I mean, I don't know. You know, the Kellyanne Conway, the why not argument, she's right in that he's the president of the United States. He can make decisions when he wants. But if you want this to not be linked to Russia, which Kellyanne Conway says our network, CNN, all you do is talk about Russia. Well, then you can't do it -- doing it now without any seeming other trigger or news that would make this happen, how can you not draw the conclusion?

Remember, again, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, recused himself from this investigation, putting James Comey in charge of the Russian investigation because in his confirmation hearings in the Senate he did not properly disclose two meetings he had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The reason we know that is because the media reported on it. Not because Jeff Sessions owned up to it.

It's very difficult for me to believe that someone who is as focused on perception, as focused on how things look, how things are treated by cable TV that Donald Trump and his administration would not grasp it is impossible to extricate this firing from the Russia investigation. No reasonable person -- forget partisanship. No reasonable person would do that.

CUOMO: A deputy A.G. who is cited in the memo who worked for Bush 41, his last name is Ayer, says the reasoning is a sham that came out here, Phil Mudd, in terms of saying this is why you fired him. You talked about the good men and women working at the FBI, they will still do their job. But they take their direction from the top. And if you want to talk about something that may corrode or corrupt integrity and belief in your director, whoever comes in now, what a tall task the president has put upon them to win over their people.

MUDD: That's true. You have a couple of options. You mentioned, for example, Rudy Giuliani. I'll throw a friend of mine under the bus, John Pistole. Two very different people. I saw a lot of professionals in the business who would be nonpartisan who are experienced in investigations. If you pick somebody like Rudy Giuliani who in my world is viewed as toxic, someone who went over the edge after he lost the mayor ship, he was America's mayor and he became Trump's man and later in some statements became unhinged, I think that would not only corrupt the investigation, that would corrupt the sense that the FBI operates independently from the White House.

By the way, let me be clear here. I don't think the president just exercised bad judgment. I think he's a coward. Number one, if you are going to fire somebody with some experience, pick up the damn phone.

Number two, if you are going to fire somebody when you get a memo in the morning, don't tell me the memo was the cause of the firing. That's a fig leaf as an excuse. The president acted cowardly in this case. He should have had the courtesy an the humanity to fire a man who's done great service despite the mistakes he's made.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Doug, what Phil is referring to is the fact that James Comey was caught so unaware. He was in Los Angeles. He was in front of I believe a room of agents. He was giving a speech. He saw across the room on I believe CNN, the television was on, and it said FBI Director James Comey fired.

And it was so absurd that he wouldn't have been given a head's up and that he didn't see this coming that he said, that's a funny prank that you all are pulling on me. He had to be pulled aside to say, no, that actually happened.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, that's right. But it was why design. I mean, we were wondering about timing. President Trump wanted Comey out of Washington. He didn't want him in Delaware or Maryland. He wanted him all the way across the coast in California.

Do the firing when he's out there. That gives them 24 hours to rifle through Comey's office. He was left, you know, unarmed with documents that he might need. They were purposefully trying to wait to get Comey way, way away.

And I agree with what Phil Mudd said completely. This is the guy America vested in as a TV icon for saying you are fired to your face. There was something very mano-a-mano about it. Here is a sniveling, weezily way to dismiss somebody who's been a long time public servant, had to find out about it on TV. I think Donald Trump has lost a lot of his mystique by doing it that way.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: But, look, you know, you don't have to view the president negatively to view the situation negatively.

CAMEROTA: Sure.

CUOMO: Again, if it is going to be a decisive action, you should have somebody to replace him as soon as you make the move and as far as we know that ain't the case.

CAMEROTA: Gentlemen, thank you.

CUOMO: Gentlemen, appreciate it.

Coming up on NEW DAY, we're going to talk to Senator Lindsey Graham and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.

CAMEROTA: OK. So, President Trump is wrestling with another optics issue this morning, after firing the FBI director, the president is set to meet with Russia's top diplomat at the White House just hours from now.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski has that angle. She's live at the State Department with us.

What do we know, Michelle?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Alisyn.

Well, blunt, broad and business-like. That's what the State Department expects from these meetings. They're not talking about, though, what kind of specific progress they expect to be made. But for President Trump, of course, this is a precursor to the eventual Trump-Putin meeting that could happen as early as this summer.

The timing, though, another strange backdrop to this bad relationship. If you remember the last time Secretary of State Tillerson met with the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, that was last month in Moscow, that was after the aftermath of that horrible attack in Syria. Tillerson said that Russia was either complicit or incompetent. Russia then slammed the U.S.'s strikes on a Syrian airfield, saying that was an act of aggression and a violation of international law. Then they had this tense press conference, huge difference of opinion over Syria's role in that chemical attack, as well as Russia's role in the meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

So, now, here they are again to again try to find some common ground. We expect Syria to dominate this discussion. There is a Russian backed plan to establish safe zones in Syria. The U.S.'s stance right now is let's wait and see if this is viable.

But the State Department says Tillerson will bring up the fact that Russia is still in Ukraine and this was never -- not going to be a difficult conversation -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Michelle. I mean, look, they had enough on the table already before the whole Comey situation. It will be interesting to see how it's dealt with and how the press deals with the aftermath of this meeting as well. Appreciate the reporting. Speak to you soon.

The White House defending the president, of course, saying that this is a decisive action, that it was done with deliberation and it is proper. So, is it? Let's get some perspective from former attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:22:52] CAMEROTA: We do have more on our breaking news. President Trump on the defensive this morning over his abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey. The president is tweeting this, the Democrats have said the worst things about James Comey, including the fact he should be fired. But now they play so sad.

Let's discuss with former adviser and spokesperson for the Hillary Clinton campaign, Karen Finney, and CNN political commentator Jeffrey Lord.

Great to see both of you this morning.

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Good morning, Ali. A lot of stuff (ph) going on.

CAMEROTA: I like that energy, Jeffrey. And I'll get to you in one second.

Karen, you have just heard Kellyanne Conway on our air and certainly the president. You Democrats should be happy. You don't like James Comey. Look at what he did to Hillary Clinton. You should be applauding this.

KAREN FINNEY, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER & SR. SPOKESPERSON, "HILLARY FOR AMERICA": So I guess that means that President Trump is also of the mind and convinced that the Comey letter, 11 days out, may have swayed the election in his direction. I assume he shares the same concern since he's so concerned about the way former FBI Director Comey handled things.

I mean, look, nobody believes this is really about Hillary Clinton. I mean, not -- I mean, when you consider the timing of this. And I don't just mean, you know, the Yates testimony, which was I think devastating for the Trump administration, but also as CNN has reported, we know that there are, you know, other investigations that are making progress, the Senate I believe has asked for additional financial information.

And just this week you had Eric Trump trying to retract statements he mad made a couple of years ago about the cash flow from the Russians or Russia to creating golf courses. So, clearly, the more this investigation -- the longer this investigation goes on, the more is revealed.

CAMEROTA: OK.

FINNEY: And, so, the timing is very problematic. I didn't hear Kellyanne -- I know she tried to say well why not now. Again, I think that's cute. But that doesn't really answer the question.

CAMEROTA: OK. Let's talk about that, Jeffrey. Do you think this is connected to the fact that Sally Yates talked about the fact she had tried to warn the White House about Michael Flynn? Do you think this is connected to the Russia investigations?

[08:25:01] LORD: No, no. I think this is connected to that letter from Rod Rosenstein, who is the deputy attorney general and is a former Obama appointee as U.S. attorney for Maryland.

Look, if you are the president of the United States, nobody seems to be thinking this, if you are the president of the United States and particularly this one who comes out of the world not of the swamp of Washington or the legal profession, et cetera, but is an entrepreneur with no background in this and you get a letter like that from a prosecutor like Rod Rosenstein that says, this guy has got to go, and you sit there and don't do it, can you imagine the field day, if that eventually became public, that he got this advice and he didn't do it?

CAMEROTA: OK. Go ahead, Karen.

FINNEY: The problem that I have with that is particularly those core paragraphs that Kellyanne was so passionately talking about, part of that references our campaign and there were quotations in there from other -- Eric Holder. I mean, so the point being -- I mean, so they're using, you know, sort of people who were defending Hillary, all of which was out there by October.

So, I mean, these arguments were being made at the very same time Donald Trump was pushing back against those arguments, suggesting particularly once that letter came out, you know, he kind of took up for Jim Comey when so many people were questioning the timing. But here is the thing. I would just say if this is truly about restoring confidence, then the only thing to do is to restore the special prosecutor statute., because that is the only way to ensure that there is an independent investigation, if it's really about restoring confidence.

LORD: That's not so.

CAMEROTA: Hold on, Jeffrey. We've heard a lot of lawmakers calling for that this morning. They want a body that is truly independent, that can't be intimidated or affected by the president. So why isn't that the answer?

LORD: I would go with a 9/11 style commission. Special prosecutors, as I would think that we have all learned by now, get out of control. I would love to hear Hillary Clinton's take on hiring another Ken Starr. I mean --

FINNEY: I say that as somebody who went through that, by the way.

LORD: What? I'm sorry?

FINNEY: I say that as somebody who was working in the Clinton administration during that time.

(CROSSTALK)

CAMEROTA: I mean, is that a fair assessment?

FINNEY: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

LORD: I mean, I just think get a prosecutor out of it. Get a 9/11 commission with prominent Republicans and Democrats. People like Condoleezza Rice who was just on your show. Get her on there. Get the Democrat equivalence of them and have them open this up and investigate everything.

I mean, I would like to hear President Obama testify on leaks. I would like to hear Ben Rhodes testify on leaks.

CAMEROTA: Sure, I know. I mean --

LORD: There are stories out there.

CAMEROTA: We know that you guys and the Republicans, some -- certainly the Trump administration is more focused on the leaks than it appears much of the ties were.

LORD: Do it all.

CAMEROTA: Do it all, right. Fair it up. That's what you're calling for. Are you saying, Jeffrey, you have lost faith in the FBI to investigate this?

LORD: No. I think the problem was with director Comey. The FBI is a mammoth institution. It will go on, it will survive and it will prosper.

But I do think that the White House, I heard Speaker Gingrich saying this earlier today, I think the White House should instead of all due respect to my friend Kellyanne and others, they should put the deputy attorney general out there and have him answer questions from the White House press corps directly.

CAMEROTA: I would love to talk to him, you're right. That could answer a lot of questions.

Go ahead, Karen.

FINNEY: It certainly raises the question and this is about who President Trump will nominate. Part of what makes this so disruptive in terms of the administration, to do this before the internal IG investigation has been completed seems odd and to do this without having at least a couple of names that you could put out there other than Rudy Giuliani, for heaven sake, that you could put out as the kind of person you would want to restore credibility. The trend we have seen from Donald Trump is that people who tell him things he doesn't like or that won't kind of just pump up his ego the end the end to get fired, right?

So, it's likely that the person who will be put on this position is someone who will be more interested in protecting Donald Trump's backside and been looking out for the American people.

CAMEROTA: Less than five seconds, Jeffrey. Who do you think the president will install as the head of the FBI?

LORD: Oh, somebody like Ray Kelly comes to mind, the former police commissioner of New York. But it has to be a serious professional.

And, Ali, on the closing note, I would love to see Rod Rosenstein sit there with you and Chris and answer questions.