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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With California Senator Kamala Harris; Trump Administration's Crisis of Credibility. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump just called someone else a showboat and a grandstander.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: President Trump for the first time giving a full personal explanation of his firing of FBI Director James Comey. And he ended up on an entirely different page and chapter than his White House.

Speaking of a story unraveling, today, the new acting FBI director faced the Senate and endorsed the character and internal FBI support for the man that he just replaced.

Plus, logging off. The homeland security chief says it's the threat that keeps him up at night. Now the U.S. laptop ban could be expanding to hundreds of flights a day to the United States from Europe. Hope you enjoyed today's in-flight option, "Green Lantern 2: Electric Boogaloo."

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The White House story on why former FBI Director Comey was fired by President Trump and how that decision was made changed once again today. President Trump sat down with NBC News and was asked about his decision to fire the man in charge of investigating Trump's own campaign and alleged contacts with Russia in the 2016 election.

The president said he was going to fire Comey regardless of what was recommended by Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: This is now officially the third version of events that the White House has told the public about the firing.

At first, they maintained that all of this was done because Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's memo outlined the ways in which Rosenstein thought Comey had messed up during the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail server in a way that Rosenstein thought was unfair to Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He brought that recommendation to the president. The attorney general concurred with that recommendation.

QUESTION: So, is the White House assertion that Rod Rosenstein decided on his own, after being confirmed, to review Comey's performance?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Absolutely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, the media was skeptical of this for several reasons.

First of all, the president, according to his public remarks, shares exactly zero's of Rosenstein's concerns. Second, senior White House officials told CNN that the president had been talking about firing Comey long before Rosenstein's Tuesday memo.

But the White House persisted on insisting that this was the story, this was not because President Trump wanted to do it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Sarah, isn't it true that the president had already decided to fire James Comey, and he asked the Justice Department to put together the rationale for that firing?

SANDERS: No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Just to reiterate, that is the deputy White House press secretary just a day ago -- you pay her salary -- saying that President Trump had not already desired to fire Comey when he met with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general on Monday.

And then today, not 24 hours later, the president described that meeting like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Both of those statements cannot be true, which means that one of them is false.

For more on the story, CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins us now live from the White House.

Jeff, I don't even know if the White House understands that this is something of a crisis of credibility, as David Chalian put it earlier today. How are they going to try to piece this back together?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the White House is saying there are no contradictions and no discrepancies in their stories.

We know that that simply is not true, hold true in either version of them. Now, the White House deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, today said the press is getting too lost in the process. Only one thing is clear in all of this today, the administration three days later still trying to get on the same page and trying to fight through a firestorm of their own making.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): Never mind what his White House and vice president have been saying for two straight days. President Trump said today firing FBI Director James Comey was his idea.

TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey, my decision. It was not...

LESTER HOLT, NBC ANCHOR: You had made the decision before they came...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There's no good time to do it, by the way. They...

(CROSSTALK)

HOLT: Because, in your letter, you said, "I accepted their recommendation."

TRUMP: Yes, well, they...

HOLT: So, you had already made the decision?

TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.

ZELENY: In an interview with NBC News, the president rewriting his administration's explanation for firing Comey. The president also explained why he insists he's not at the center of the FBI probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

TRUMP: I knew that I'm not under investigation, me, personally. I'm not talking about campaigns. I'm not talking about anything else. I'm not under investigation.

ZELENY: The president said he talked to Comey about it directly, a stunning assertion, considering the investigation is ongoing.

TRUMP: So, he said it once at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

[16:05:00]

HOLT: Did you call him?

TRUMP: In one case, I called him. In one case, he called me.

HOLT: And did you ask, am I under investigation?

TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it's possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, you are not under investigation.

ZELENY: But it was the president saying he took the lead firing Comey that now puts him at odd with his advisers, who initially said he was following the recommendation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general.

On Capitol Hill yesterday, Vice President Pence offering that rationale again and again.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because of the actions that the deputy attorney general outlined to the president, to act on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.

ZELENY: The president's aides made the same case.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: But the president took the advice of the deputy attorney general, who oversees the director of the FBI.

ZELENY: The original White House timeline hasn't held up to scrutiny, particularly the suggestion Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sparked Comey's firing, not the president.

At the White House briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders struggled to reconcile the contradictions.

SANDERS: They are on the same page. Like, why are we arguing about the semantics of whether or not he accepted it? They agreed. I mean, I'm not sure how he didn't accept the deputy attorney general's recommendation when they agreed with one another.

ZELENY: The president also delivering personal criticism of Comey and the state of the FBI.

TRUMP: He's a showboat. He's a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.

You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn't recovered from that.

ZELENY: Testifying on Capitol Hill today, the acting FBI director said it's simply not true.

ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI, and still does to this day.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: And the president might get a firsthand view of that. He may travel to the FBI tomorrow. They are still looking for an interim director. Some advisers hope that he will announce that there.

But, Jake, he could also be walking in to a hornet's nest. Some agents are furious that the president has described their morale in a low way and has dismissed their director -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us, thanks so much.

I want to bring in CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash.

And, Dana, you have been digging into the evolving feelings of the president and how this all came to a head.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you have you played the sound bites. We have been talking about the fact that on a number of occasions, Donald Trump praised James Comey, mostly and pretty much exclusively when Comey said things or did things that helped Donald Trump politically.

But I'm told by people close to the president that ever since Comey cleared Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing in July of last year, Donald Trump did not like him, not just for what Comey did, but the way he did it. I'm told, though, that the president's dislike elevated big time in the last few months, as Comey's focus turned to Trump himself.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): It was this testimony last week that enraged President Trump.

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: Look, this was terrible. It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election.

BASH: James Comey unwittingly targeted one of the president's most obvious insecurities, the legitimacy of his election. Sources familiar with the president's reaction say he was white-out and couldn't let it go, stewing all weekend while at his property Bedminster, New Jersey.

One Trump source tells CNN he was already holding a deep grudge against Comey since March for publicly contradicting President Trump's apparently false claim via tweet that President Obama had his wires tapped in Trump Tower before the election.

COMEY: With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI. BASH: Also upsetting to Trump? Comey's surprise announcement at that

same hearing that the FBI had been investigating the president's associates since July.

COMEY: 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.

BASH: Sources familiar with the president's thinking say he is perpetually frustrated by the Russia probe and leaks about its status because of the way it often overshadows his agenda.

A critical open question is if the president got the impression the FBI Russia probe was accelerating. Sources tell CNN the week before Comey was fired, he met with the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and told them he was asking the Justice Department for more resources.

The Senate's number two Democrat draws a controversial conclusion.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: If you're in the Trump White House and you know that they are looking for collusion by members of the Trump campaign, it's pretty clear they are in hot pursuit when they are asking for more resources for investigation.

[16:10:02]

BASH: A Justice Department spokeswoman insists Comey did not ask for more resource for the Russia probe, and the man leading the FBI now was careful today when asked.

MCCABE: I cannot confirm that request was made. As you know, ma'am, when we need resources, we make those requests here. So, I don't -- I'm not aware of that request.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, whether the president thought Comey was expanding the FBI probe when he fired him would raise serious questions about impeding the investigation.

But, Jake, when it comes to overstepping, perhaps more alarming is what the president told Lester Holt of NBC today, where he revealed that he talked to James Comey, the same time, two things, one, whether or not Comey would stay on as FBI director, and, by the way, whether or not he was investigating the president.

TAPPER: We are going to talk about that much more.

Thank you so much, Dana Bash.

You just heard the acting FBI director directly contradict the White House before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Will the bureau get enough resources for the Russia investigation if it needs more?

Senator Kamala Harris joins us next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back.

Day three of the fallout from President Trump's decision to fire his FBI director, and we're hearing yet another explanation for why James Comey needed to go.

[16:15:00] Joining me now to talk about this in her first national television interview, Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California.

She serves on the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees.

Senator, thanks so much for joining me.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: I love it.

TAPPER: I really appreciate it.

HARRIS: You're welcome.

TAPPER: So, the president repeated his claim today that FBI Director Comey had told him three times that he himself was not under investigation.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY NBC NEWS)

DONALD J. TRUMP, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: So he said it once at dinner and then he said it twice during phone calls.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Did you call him?

TRUMP: In one case I called him, in one case he calls me.

HOLT: And did you ask, am I under investigation?

TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it's possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?

He said, you are not under investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So you were once the attorney general of California --

HARRIS: Yes.

TAPPER: -- the top law enforcement agent of the state.

HARRIS: Yes.

TAPPER: Is that kind of question -- is that normal?

Is that usual, for somebody saying hey, tell me --

HARRIS: Well, let's just back up. There's nothing about any of this that is normal. And as a career prosecutor -- and before that, I was a courtroom prosecutor, before I was attorney general -- it is the practice of law enforcement, especially when we're conducting an investigation, that we never talk to someone who may be in the zone of our investigation and tell them that they are not someone we are looking at. That just does not happen.

TAPPER: So Comey has not commented on whether or not this happened, although some people near him have said it's not true. But this idea that three times, they had this conversation and one of the times you just heard President Trump saying he asked him directly, am I under investigation?

Is that unethical?

I mean what -- when you say it's not usual, what else do you think about this?

HARRIS: Well, listen, I -- just let's, again, put this in context of the last 48 hours.

What the American public and what we know is that they -- that the Russians interfered with the election of the president of the United States. There is an investigation that is taking place, one by the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which I am a member, and the other the FBI.

And during the course of the investigation, a potential target of that investigation fires the person who is in charge of the investigation.

TAPPER: Right.

HARRIS: So there's everything wrong with that. And when I think about this, I think of it also in the context of just what it means in terms of the integrity or a perception of the lack of integrity of our system of justice in our country. Every day, people are walking into courthouses around our country. They are victims. They're witnesses or they've been accused of a crime.

And what must they think when they're walking through that courthouse about what it means in terms of being able to be someone who is in a position of power and control and you can just fire the cop and you can fire the prosecutor?

That's wrong. And so I look at the last 48 hours in that context, as much as in the context of what it means in terms of the integrity of the specific investigations that we're talking about.

TAPPER: So the president and his team have given many different explanations as to how this happened. First, it was because this deputy attorney general wrote this memo saying that Hillary Clinton had been treated so unfairly and improperly by Comey. Then we've heard that the Russian investigation had something to do with it. Then we heard that the morale was bad, the president just told Lester Holt that he thought Comey was a showboat.

HARRIS: Right.

TAPPER: Why do you think President Trump fired the FBI director?

HARRIS: Well, let's start with the memo. I read that memo.

TAPPER: You probably agreed with every word of it.

HARRIS: Well, let me tell you, when I was attorney general, if someone gave me that memo as a basis for firing the chief investigator of a case, I would send it back and say start again, that if -- if that's going to provide the basis for the president of the United States to fire the director of the FBI, then it should be much more substantial. It should -- it should cite law. It should cite DOJ regulations. It should cite professional codes of conduct. It should cite facts that are not double hearsay based on some newspaper articles.

It should cite some authority in terms of procedural authority as the basis for the action that's being recommended.

None of that was present in that memo.

In my opinion, that memo was written by somebody who is a publicist, somebody who is more concerned with P.R. than what -- than justice.

TAPPER: It looked like an op-ed, is what it looked like.

But it -- why do you think the president fired James Comey?

HARRIS: Well, if you believe the president, the reason that the United States -- the president of the United States gets to fire the director of the FBI is because he's a showboat.

TAPPER: But do you believe that?

HARRIS: I believe that that is an insufficient basis and I believe that, again, what has happened has really called into question the integrity of the process and it is wrong.

TAPPER: So the White House has been downplaying how important the Russia investigation is. You are part of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as you noted. You are conducting -- you're part of the group conducting an investigation there.

[16:20:00] There's also the FBI investigation. I'm not sure if you know much about that one or how much is an overlap.

But is it a significant investigation? Is there going to be something there when this is all over?

HARRIS: So I -- I'll tell you, I am a part of the Senate Intelligence Committee. I believe that the Committee and its staff are working very hard.

Is the process slower than I'd like? Yes.

Would I like to see it speed up? Yes.

As it relates to what's going on with the criminal investigation, before even these last 48 hours, I have called for a special prosecutor. I believe that's the right thing to do. I'm also open to an independent commission if it has subpoena power.

But we need to ensure to the American public that we are getting to the bottom of this and that politics are not influencing the outcome of these investigations.

TAPPER: So are you convinced that the Senate Intelligence Committee can do enough of a job?

It doesn't sound like you necessarily are, if you're also calling for a special prosecutor and potentially an independent committee.

HARRIS: Well, the special prosecutor would be involved with the criminal investigation, because frankly, I think Jeff Sessions should resign.

TAPPER: Resign?

HARRIS: Yes.

TAPPER: Not even recuse himself --

HARRIS: Yes, I think he should resign.

TAPPER: Why?

HARRIS: There is good reason to believe that he was not truthful when he testified before Congress.

TAPPER: About his meetings with the Russians?

HARRIS: Absolutely. And then, just in the last 48 hours, that he would sign off on firing the person who was investigating the case he's recused from, calls into question --

TAPPER: You don't buy his --

HARRIS: -- calls into question his objectivity and his ability to keep his word when he has told the American public and Congress that he'll recuse himself from being involved with a subject that he knows he has a conflict with.

And let's be clear about this, in the president's letter to James Comey, he referenced the Russia investigation.

TAPPER: Yes. He didn't say a word about the Clinton investigation.

HARRIS: So --

TAPPER: Just Russia. HARRIS: Correct. So clearly, if we connect the dots, there is a nexus between the Russia investigation and the firing of Comey.

TAPPER: So, today, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with leaders of your Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Can you tell us anything about that meeting or what he said or what that had to do with?

HARRIS: I can't. I wasn't a part of that meeting. But I can tell you about our open hearing with the acting director of the FBI, McCabe. I found him to be refreshingly candid with the Committee. He was candid that the morale of the FBI is not in question. He was candid that they are full bore ahead in terms of their investigation and the work they're doing.

And I believe that he is going to legitimately pursue this investigation and I feel good about that.

TAPPER: Your colleague, Senator Blumenthal from Connecticut, he raised the specter of possible impeachment for President Trump over this investigation.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: It is a looming constitutional crisis because it involves a potential confrontation, as did Watergate, between the president and other branches of government. It may well produce impeachment proceedings, although we're very far from that possibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: He said we're very far from that possibility, but he's talking about impeachment. Isn't that a little much at this point? We don't know if anybody has done anything --

HARRIS: Yes.

TAPPER: -- illegal?

HARRIS: I think that right now, we need to focus on the investigations at hand and we need to focus on what's in front of us. And for my part, it's focusing on what we're doing in the Senate Intelligence Committee and also ensuring, through our ability to have oversight around the investigative agencies that are handling the various investigations, that they are pushing forward and that they are unhindered by politics or by manipulation or threat of being fired.

TAPPER: So yesterday, President Trump in the Oval Office with one of the men in the center of a lot of this swirl, Ambassador Kislyak --

HARRIS: Yes. TAPPER: -- from Russia, and also with the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

HARRIS: Yes.

TAPPER: U.S. media, American media, was not allowed in the Oval Office during the meeting.

HARRIS: Right.

TAPPER: Russian state media/the Russian Foreign Ministry, because it's the same thing, they were allowed. That's how we have these pictures. Otherwise, we wouldn't know. The Trump administration -- the Trump White House readout did not even mention that Kislyak was there. Kislyak obviously relevant to your point about Jeff Sessions not being forthcoming, as well as why Michael Flynn was fired.

And in response, a White House aide angrily complained that the Russians had lied and, quote, "tricked us" by releasing those photographs.

I don't know that the photographs and being tricked are really the most alarming thing about the whole situation that is just laid out.

HARRIS: Right.

TAPPER: But what's your take on that?

HARRIS: Well, I was actually surprised to learn that the American press were excluded from that, but the Russian press and media were allowed to be there. And the fact that they had their equipment in the Oval Office and at the White House.

I was actually a bit shocked that that happened. And, again, when we look at what's happening writ large, Jake, my concern is that as a general matter, there are certain integral pillars to -- that hold up our democracy. Our republic, if you will, you know, the legs upon which we stand.

TAPPER: Sure.

[16:25:00] HARRIS: And they are the three co-equal branches of government, and a free and independent press. And systematically, what we're seeing is the suggestion that, you know, the so-called judiciary and judges and the lying press. And it really is compromising the public's faith in the strength of our democracy.

And this is incredibly troubling. And we're going to have to fight against that. But the lack of transparency in terms of having the press in that meeting is troubling.

TAPPER: So I want to turn on -- turn to health care for a second, if I can. Health care giant Aetna is completely pulling out of Obamacare exchanges starting next year. And I think there are a lot of Americans out there who they don't care if it's a Democratic change or a Republican change -- HARRIS: Yes.

TAPPER: -- but Obamacare is not working for them. Their options are limited on the Obamacare exchanges. Insurance companies are pulling out.

Why aren't Democrats doing more to try to reach across the aisle -- I understand Republicans control everything, but to try to reach across the aisle and say hey, here are some changes that we can do to fix things?

HARRIS: Well, I would suggest another approach in terms of the analysis of what's happening, which is that the Republicans have made it a political -- they've put a political line in the sand and said we're going to defeat the Affordable Care Act.

And so they tried to get it out of the House and then they couldn't and then they did. And they brought it over to the Senate. But with much criticism from their own constituents.

And what is also happening in that process is it's creating an incredible amount of uncertainty for the market. It's creating uncertainty for the insurance industry and all who are a part of that whole system of delivery of health care in our country.

And we're going to see fallout because of that inconsistency and the uncertainty --

TAPPER: But people --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: -- they were pulling out --

HARRIS: -- and this is probably a part of that.

TAPPER: With all due respect, they were pulling out of the exchanges long before Donald Trump became president.

HARRIS: Right. But there's no uncertainty about what the system will be because the Republicans are just not letting this go. And again, I -- we've got to understand that when it comes to health care, this is not a partisan issue and it should not even be thought of as a bipartisan issue. It should be a non-partisan issue.

Health issues do not impact us based on our party affiliation. And the vast majority of Americans want to know that they have meaningful access to affordable health care.

TAPPER: So I want to allow you an opportunity to respond. You were, I think, given your first Pinocchios by Glenn Kessler of "The Washington Post," who took issue with your -- a Tweet you wrote and said, "Once again, 129 million people with preexisting conditions could be denied coverage and insurers could charge sick people more than money."

He points out that you hinge a lot on the word "could," "could charge."

HARRIS: Yes.

TAPPER: But he says, quote, "Harris uses a very high figure to suggest that everyone with a pre-existing condition is at risk. The gap between her number and the reality of who might be affected is too large to ignore."

What's your response?

HARRIS: Well, listen, I -- there are a lot of -- there's a lot of information that exists about which populations are impacted by demographic. And when you break down the numbers according to which demographic the numbers change.

We stand by the reality that when we look at the failure to push for reform of the Affordable Care Act, and instead the push to eliminate the Affordable Care Act will result in 12 -- 24 million Americans losing access to health care. For California, it's about three to five million people.

These are very large numbers. We can quibble over the exact statistics and data, depending on your source, but there is an undeniable reality that if they get rid of the Affordable Care Act, there are millions of Americans that will lose their health care. That's undeniable.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Kamala Harris, thank you so much for your time.

HARRIS: Thank you.

TAPPER: We really appreciate it.

HARRIS: Thank you.

TAPPER: Thanks for doing your first national TV interview as a senator here. We really appreciate it.

HARRIS: Thank you. Thank you.

TAPPER: It's good to see you.

HARRIS: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: Major security measure that could change what you can carry can on a plane. Details on the possible ban that could go into place any day. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)