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Soon: Acting FBI Director Testifies Amid Agency Turmoil. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:07] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. The breaking news this morning, live pictures from Capitol Hill where, in just moments, we will hear from the Acting FBI Director, the man in charge, at least for now, after James Comey was fired.

Andrew McCabe will face questions amid deep concerns inside the Bureau about how this was handled. There are questions about morale, questions about the future of Russia investigations. This comes after a staggering 12 hours of developments that point to near disarray inside the White House and directly contradict the stated reasons for Comey's dismissal.

The "Wall Street Journal" reports James Comey was growing increasingly concerned about evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And "The New York Times" reports James Comey told associates that the President was, quote, "outside the realm of normal," even, quote, "crazy." "The Washington Post" this morning reporting that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein threatened to quit after he was made the fall guy by the White House to justify Comey's firing.

Everyone and their mother this morning reporting that Director Comey had asked for more resources for the Russia investigation before he was fired. The Department of Justice is denying those claims.

And CNN's best reporters picking up word that the President was, quote, "white hot livid" over the FBI's continued Russia probe and former Director Comey's public testimony.

Again, that is the backdrop for this hearing this morning that you will see live here live. Huge stakes, huge questions. So much to cover. Let's begin on Capitol Hill with our Manu Raju.

What are you hearing this morning, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Hey, Poppy and John. Yes, this is the first time the Senate Intelligence Committee will be meeting since the stunning firing of James Comey.

Of course, the members on the committee, including the Republican Chairman, expressing serious concerns about the timing and reasoning of James Comey's firing given the fact that he had been cooperative with this committee's own investigation into Russia and those ties with the Trump campaign.

Expect more of the top Democrat on the committee to express concerns and talk about the firing right out of the gate in the first line in his opening statements here in just about an hour, guys. Now, testifying at this hearing are four senior national security officials, including Mike Pompeo, the CIA Director; Mike Rogers, the National Security Agency Director; Dan Coats, the former, now Director of National Intelligence; and the new Acting FBI Director, Andy McCabe, who's had some questions to him as well.

Now, this comes, of course, as the Senate Intelligence Committee had sent out subpoenas asking for records of Michael Flynn, the ex- national security advisor for Donald Trump, because Flynn has not cooperated with a letter requesting records and context of anything that he has done with Russians. Possible subpoenas coming in the future if others do not comply.

One person who has not complied fully with the request yet is Carter Page, former foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign. Potentially, I'm told, subpoenas could be coming for him as well if he does not comply. All this is the backdrop today for this pretty high- profile hearing in just a matter of minutes, guys.

HARLOW: Indeed.

BERMAN: All right, Manu Raju for us. Indeed a critical moment for this hearing. We have our eye on it. We'll bring it to you the minute it begins. We've also now heard from the former FBI Director himself, James Comey, at least in writing. A message late last night to his former staff.

CNN Justice Correspondent Evan Perez in our Washington Bureau, with the latest on that. Evan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John and Poppy. Well, yes, we did get a letter or agents in the FBI did get a letter from the now former Director of the FBI, Jim Comey. And his message really was to say, don't spend any time thinking about the fact that I was fired or the way it was done. Really just focus on your jobs. Real quick, he says, "I have said this before that, in times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence."

And he goes on to talk about the people at the FBI who he believes are among the best in national security and law enforcement, obviously. But as you mentioned, and as Manu mentioned, Andy McCabe, the Deputy Director, now the Acting Director, is going to be testifying at this hearing.

We expect that, you know, this is a hearing that normally focuses on national security threats, things like ISIS, cyber security. But obviously, the big, big question is going to be finding how did he find out that James Comey was being fired, and how does he believe this will affect the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling.

We expect that the President might make a visit to the FBI headquarters, perhaps as soon as tomorrow, because Andy McCabe, believe it or not, is probably not long for this job as Acting Director of the FBI. The Justice Department and the White House are looking for an interim director while they search for a permanent replacement for James Comey.

[09:05:03] So Andy McCabe might be just doing this hearing today. And then by tomorrow, perhaps, there will be a new Acting Director of the FBI. That's three FBI Directors in the space of about a week.

What the White House says is the President wants to go to the FBI to try to boost morale. The problem is that the President has as much to do about the morale problem at the FBI. It's he who has been criticizing the FBI since last year, calling the intelligence community Nazis, and now obviously the way he fired the Director of the FBI, James Comey -- John and Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. It's a really important point, what he has said in the past about these intelligence officials, now trying to go himself and boost morale. Evan Perez, great reporting as always. Thank you.

PEREZ: Thank you.

HARLOW: The stunning details surrounding the way the FBI Director was fired are pouring in. Our Jessica Schneider has all of that. We are learning a lot from behind the scenes, from leaks even within the West Wing.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We know that President Trump has become increasingly agitated over the past week ever since Director Comey's testimony. Sources tell us that the President decided Director Comey was just too much of his own man and couldn't be trusted to lead the FBI.

And a long-time friend of President Trump described the President as white hot with anger over Comey, and that Trump complained that the only narrative out there was "Russia, Russia, Trump and Russia." Sources say the President expressed frustration that they couldn't, quote, "just make this all go away," seemingly referring to Comey and Congress and even from the media.

But, you know, in addition, there was no love lost between Trump and Comey. In fact, "The New York Times" reporting it this way, saying, quote, "After President Trump accused his predecessor in March of wiretapping him, James B. Comey, the FBI Director, was flabbergasted. The President, Mr. Comey told associates, was, quote, ' outside the realm of normal,' and even, quote, 'crazy.'"

So some stunning words coming from Director Comey. And of course, John and Poppy, we know that it was Comey's denial of any wiretapping that really continued to incense the President.

BERMAN: Yes, these details are notable in and of themselves, but also for the fact that they were leaked out over the last 12 hours. Not insignificant. Jessica Schneider, thank you so much for being with us.

HARLOW: Thank you.

BERMAN: Let's talk about this. Joining us now, Mark Preston, CNN Senior Political Analyst; Nia-Malika Henderson, CNN Senior Political Reporter; Bob Baer, CNN Intelligence and Security Analyst, former CIA operative; and Laura Coates, CNN Legal Analyst and former federal prosecutor.

Mark Preston, we are in a different place this morning than we were yesterday. All the reporting now seemed to indicate that James Comey was fired because of the Russia investigation, either he was pushing too hard or President Trump was sick of it. You know, what does that mean for us going forward?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, a couple things. I think we have to take a step back and give pause to what is unfolding right now in real time, quite frankly.

We have a narrative out of the White House that we're learning is actually wrong and false initially, the fact that the White House was saying that was the Deputy Attorney General who basically made the decision that we should see Director Comey be dismissed from his position, to, now, we're seeing a President who's using his office in a very vindictive way to try to keep things going the way that he wants to go.

And I think that that is very troubling. And I think, you know, for all the talk, John and Poppy, that we've had about President Trump potentially using the White House to enrich himself financially, well, you know, that's one thing. The next thing, though, is more important, is that if he's using it to try to be vindictive against people and to basically go against the rule of law in how our government is established, and that to me is very, very concerning.

HARLOW: You know, this President has been, Nia, incensed about any sort of leaks. Well, you know, "The Washington Post" this morning is citing 30 separate sources on this stuff. This is all over the front pages. Not only here in the U.S., right, around the world. And 30 sources, some of them within the West Wing, close to the President.

How does the White House come out from under this? Can it?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, I mean, if you look back at the last couple of days of this White House, it really is a portrait of incompetence, right?

I mean, if you think about Sean Spicer briefing reporters in the bushes. He didn't want to be on camera at that point talking about the firing of James Comey. If you think about the White House's naivete in thinking that firing James Comey wouldn't be no big deal, there would be in political blowback. That is a sign of incompetence as well.

So going forward, it is hard to see how this White House that doesn't really seem to be able to get their stories straight, right, their sort of messaging on this, it is hard to see them coming out from under this any time soon. And then you add to that these friends of President Trump, people in

the White House clearly wanting to talk to the President and get the story out there. You know, he's a president who likes loyalty, but he's also surrounded by people who leak, who are in the White House.

[09:10:11] I mean, that "Washington Post" story as you said, it's West Wing people. It's people of the FBI. It's DOJ people. It's people on the Hill. All wanting to really correct the record and making the White House look bad, making President Trump look like he is someone who is paranoid about this Russia investigation and willing to obstruct justice, in some ways, to get this out of the news, get this off of the FBI's docket as well. So it is a real damning portrait, all of these stories that are coming out about the White House.

BERMAN: Look, disarray is one thing, dishonesty is another. And it does seem as if the initial reasons they gave for the dismissal were dishonest, were fundamentally not true.

HARLOW: Of course, they changed the story completely.

BERMAN: You know, Laura Coates, one of the questions, and there are many, about the last 48 hours on this case is Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, who claimed he had recused himself from anything having to do with Russia. Well, now, we know from the reports that he was part of these meetings, discussing ways to dismiss James Comey.

And if the President was upset over James Comey over Russia, you know, the fact that the Attorney General was part of these meetings, it means that this recusal, was it just a sham?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's what it's looking like. However, there is a lifeline that Jeff Sessions has here legally.

He said he would recuse himself with respect to the Russian investigation. Although Trump's second paragraph, I believe, in that letter indicated that he was referencing in some way, in a gratuitous fashion, the Russian investigation, the letter that was given by Rosenstein and presumably what was explained by Jeff Sessions, did not look at the Russia investigation.

So his lifeline is, I didn't say that I wouldn't oversee the FBI. I didn't say that I would not take into account whether the head of the agency, the then Director Comey, would have some credibility issues with his own people. I said Russia. And that's the lifeline he will cling to.

But as you guys see, this is obviously an example of an octopus trying to put on its socks. Nobody knows what the other hand is doing, and everyone is reacting to the knee jerk reaction of the President and trying to come up with the way to make what's happened palatable. And it's not.

HARLOW: And you'll remember, most people, even close to the President, were not even made aware of this firing of Comey until hours or an hour before it became public and having to deal with how do we message this with no head's up. Bob, to you, as someone who has served in the intelligence community,

a number of these leaks and this information is coming from within the intelligence community. There has been just a vast amount poured out there in the last 12 hours. Do you believe there is an impetus, there is now a rush, for these folks who want to set to try to set the record straight, who wants this information out there, to do so in a more accelerated fashion right now?

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, I think so. You've got to look at the FBI. It is completely demoralized. Firing the Director that way was an insult to the FBI.

I have worked with the FBI for many, many years. I know the way they feel. The message going through the ranks of the FBI is, if you look too hard into Russia, you are going to get fired. Your career is going to be finished just the way it is.

I have been involved in one of these investigations and grand jury, and that's, in fact, the reason I left the CIA, because the Department of Justice was politicized, got in front of the grand jury, asked irrelevant questions, tried to impeach my testimony as a federal official. And I said, come on. You know, if this is the way the U.S. justice system works, I'm leaving. And I did. I resigned.

And so I know exactly what these FBI agents, you know, are feeling at this point. And let's not forget, they are the ones feeding intelligence and facts to the Senate investigations and the House investigations. So we're going to have to see the way this goes.

But, you know, when you politicize the FBI like this, you are in trouble. And I think the administration, the Trump administration, intends to close down the Russia investigation. And, again, look at the fact that he meets the Russian ambassador, the guy at the center of this investigation, the same day this is all blowing up. It is just outrageous.

HARLOW: We have that photo that--

BAER: This is as bad as Watergate.

BERMAN: Go ahead. We have that photo?

HARLOW: So we have that photo. I mean, let's show it because we just got some reporting from our Jim Acosta that the White House was not pleased, apparently, over some sort of -- they didn't think that the photo -- we're trying to get it for you guys -- would be put out by the Russians.

BERMAN: Right, no. Apparently, U.S. photographers were banned from this meeting. The Russian photographers were let in. The White House claims they didn't think the Russians would release it on Twitter and the like.

So it seems that, at least, in this case, the United States, the White House, out-negotiated by the Russians or tricked --

HARLOW: Over a photo.

BERMAN: -- over a photo there. Leave that aside for a second. It is fascinating, though. Laura Coates, "The Washington Post" is reporting this morning that Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, threatened to resign after the White House pinned all of this on him.

HARLOW: On him.

BERMAN: He threatened to resign. What kind of pressure, do you think, he is under right now? And if it is true that he threatened to resign, what is keeping him on the job?

[09:15:01] COATES: You know, what's interesting here is the idea of optics. And you have Trump trying to breed loyalty among people that he has previously spurned. Well, Rosenstein is the person that you want to engender loyalty from in the expectance that he will be an open line of communication on things that are happening (inaudible).

So you have a situation now where you have not only used Rosenstein presumably as a pawn, but what message does that send to him going forward if he's asked a question to make an assessment, how will he know that his words are not going to be used to undermine the ability of him to pursue an investigation against the president of the United States, perhaps.

So you have the optics looking bad in terms over Russia. You have the optics looking bad in terms of being able to have people who are reporting to you or a part of other agencies being able to feel they could openly communicate with you.

And most importantly you have Rosenstein who by all accounts has been nonpartisan across several presidential administrations and now he has said I just can't even think about doing this.

This is telling you what we need to hear from the Senate hearing today, is that the FBI can be the rock of competence that Comey has in this letter and the Justice Department has to function in the same way.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And if you read really closely Rosenstein's letter, nowhere in it does he say I recommend the removal of Comey. People have been pointing to that. Thank you all very much. We'll be checking in with you later in the hour.

There is a lot of ahead for us obviously in this critical morning for the nation. The firing of James Comey sending shockwaves. Minutes from now we're going to get new insight into the mood of the FBI right now before the president goes there because we will hear from the FBI's acting director. We are live on the Hill for all of these fast moving developments.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, a group of reporters was with the president the night he fired James Comey. Did they have any idea about what was coming up? Stay with us.


BERMAN: All right. It was supposed to be a standard intelligence hearing turned upside down after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. You are looking at live pictures right now on this. We will be shortly hearing from Andrew McCabe. He is now the acting head of the FBI. He testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Our first chance to hear from him on a wide number of subjects.

HARLOW: Comey's ouster, though, will likely take center stage here today, especially for lawmakers, not just Democrats. Republicans, too, raising a lot of questions about his dismissal.

All of it as House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz calls the Inspector General's Office to look into the decision to remove Comey and the timing of it.

Our next guest says as a Republican he was surprise by the timing. He is Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. It is nice to have you here. A lot of news to get to.

You said publically you have concerns about the timing here. But now all of this reporting across the board from CNN, "The New York Times, "Wall Street Journal," "Washington Post," it appears that the primary reason according to all of these sources for the president firing Comey when he did is because he was not happy about the direction of the Russia investigation. If that is the case, would that concern you?

SENATOR MIKE ROUNDS (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, I think the Russian investigation will go on. The Senate Intelligence Committee will continue their work. I spoke with our chairman this morning. They are going to continue. They are going to move straightforward with it. So if that was the case --

HARLOW: Senator, my question to you, yes, if that is the case, are you concerned about the reasoning?

ROUNDS: I was concerned about the timing because we were curious as to why it occurred at that time. We don't have that answer yet. We've got some new suggestions that are out there. I think a lot of that will come out in the hearings that the intelligence committee will hold.

I know they have also invited Mr. Comey to come back in and give some additional testimony as well. I think what we really wanted was to have a committee that could take responsibility for asking the appropriate questions and to do it in a timely fashion.

That particular committee is well respected. The ranking member and the chairman are both respected. They work together. They are set up to do it. It is something that they do during the rest of the year.

They ask questions. They get to the bottom of things and we just felt like they were the right committee to take the lead in this particular case. At this point, I still think that's the right committee to do it.

BERMAN: OK. That's a separate question about whether there should be a special prosecutor or the Senate Intelligence Committee take the lead. You think the Senate Intelligence Committee should take the lead right now.

By the way, they did issue subpoenas yesterday for records concerning former General Michael Flynn on that front. But the question gets to if the president is firing the FBI director, the man in charge of the investigation that could have connections to his campaign, you as a senator, isn't it an incumbent upon you to find out if he is somehow trying to obstruct justice?

ROUNDS: If it is a question of obstructing justice, that would be one thing. But remember, the first thing is that he does have the authority to be able to remove Mr. Comey.


ROUNDS: The reasoning behind this may very well play into other parts of an investigation. But the fact that he could terminate his employment and he could do it at will is I think pretty clear. What his motives are, unless it is part of another investigation, he doesn't have to give us his motives, but it might fit into the investigation.

BERMAN: He doesn't have to, Senator. But as you sit here this morning, are you satisfied with the motives he has put out, or do you think he needs to explain them more?

ROUNDS: I think in this particular case, we'll know more after the intelligence committee has their report. I think part of it is we can speculate about what it is and I know there is reporting going on right now, but let's wait and let the intelligence committee do their work. I think those questions will be asked. Let's do it in a reasonable fashion, straightforward, have that committee take charge of it, work their way through the process and get the real facts.

HARLOW: But Senator, isn't it just more than speculation at this point in time? We're not just talking about one newspaper. We're talking about 30 sources alone for "The Washington Post."

[09:25:04]We are talking about our reporters here at CNN with all arrows pointing to this president incensed about Russia, incensed that Comey dismissed the wiretapping claim, incensed that Comey was not focused on leaks. Isn't that more than speculation, Senator?

ROUNDS: If it is, he still has the authority to be able to terminate Mr. Comey's employment. The question is, what will it have to do with the rest of the investigation which is ongoing? That's the reason why we're still suggesting that the intelligence committee is where those questions clearly should be answered and we'll get a lot more information when we go back to the sources.

BERMAN: It's encouraging, Senator, that you want answers. I think the one thing that all of us want to is to get to the truth here. As you say, perhaps the Senate Intelligence Committee is the place to do that at least in the coming days. Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, thanks so much for being with us.

Again, we are watching what could be a very revealing hearing in the Senate. Just moments from now, we will hear from the acting FBI director, the first time he will speak since his former boss was fired.

But first, a revealing interview, a group of reporters at the White House hours before the president fired James Comey. What did they see that indicated something might be amiss? That's next.