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White House Explanation on Comey Firing Unraveling; Questions After Trump Tells NBC News Comey Said Trump Not Under Investigation; Senate Intel Committee Chair Reacts to Trump Calling Comey "Grandstander," "Showboat". Aired 2:30-3p ET
Aired May 11, 2017 - 14:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[14:30:00] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All of those questions still being shouted at Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me.
First to David Chalian, let me bring you in, our CNN political director.
I have one really simple question off the top here. That is, did she say that she doesn't understand why this is all so complicated?
DAVID CHALIAN CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: She did. She said, it's very straight forward. The president fired the FBI director. It's simple. No, it's not simple, because that's the man that's overseeing the investigation into his campaign's ties with Russia.
BALDWIN: Thank you!
CHALIAN: It's totally complicated. What we have here now, Brooke, is a White House in a crisis of credibility. And it is unbelievable to watch Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for now the third day in a row, needing to adjust her story because the president did not send his team out with all the information, so therefore, they were in the position of lying to the American people about why President Trump fired Director Comey. The entire justification on Tuesday night when this happened, from Sarah, from Sean Spicer, from Kellyanne Conway, was about Rod Rosenstein's letter. That was it.
Today, in the interview with NBC News, we learned that President Trump, regardless of whatever the recommendation came from the deputy ag, was going to fire Jim Comey. So we were lied to by the communications staff. President Trump in that interview today threw his own team under the bus and in doing so, created a crisis of credibility with the American people and this White House.
BALDWIN: David Chalian, don't go too far.
We're going to play some of that interview in just a second so stay tuned for that.
Jim Sciutto, let me bring you in.
A piece of this interview that NBC has released pertains to these alleged conversations between the now former FBI director, James Comey, and the president of the United States, where the president is saying, listen, Comey told me on three different occasions I was not under investigation. There are questions over the voracity, A, of those statements and, B, the legality. On the voracity note, you know, as he shouldn't be discussing an open investigation, is that B.S.?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, I have to start with just a reaction to Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House podium today.
SCIUTTO: Because the account she gave is false and contradictory. We have to say that, in those very clear terms. That's not an opinion. Let's just remember what is on the record. In fact, on paper. The president's letter dismissing Comey on Monday says, "I have accepted the recommendation of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general." Those are the president's words on paper. Yesterday, the vice president said exactly the same thing, that the president accepted their recommendation to make this firing. And I don't have to remind you or our viewers, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Sean Spicer aggressively and unequivocally on Tuesday repeated the line that this began with the recommendation of the deputy attorney general. It is false to say, today, that there's no contradiction there. It's just simply false.
BALDWIN: That's exactly what David Chalian just said, yes.
SCIUTTO: It is. But it's a crisis of credibility, not just for the White House press team, but for the president, frankly, because the president's own words in that letter, once again, said he accepted the recommendation. It is something I think we have to say, clearly and definitively.
On the issue of conflict, that's a big one, too, because, keep in mind, as you and as David noted, what's new in all of this since July of last year with the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and Comey's widely criticized remarks then, is, one, that Russia has since interfered in the U.S. election. There was, we know from our own reporting, communication between advisers to President Trump and Russians during that interference. And now there is an active investigation as to whether -- so that's not a closed question. It's not been answered, but it's an open question as to whether there was collusion during those advisers and Russians during that interference in the U.S. election. The FBI is looking at it, and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are looking at it. So it does become a conflict issue. And to have the White House spokesman -- spokesperson there to dismiss the conflict of interest issue, saying, I don't believe there is. The question is, where is our legal leadership in the country? Where's the comment from the attorney general or the deputy attorney general or the acting director of the FBI, frankly, as to whether there is a conflict? Because it's really their judgment that is relevant here, not the spokesperson for the president.
Finally, I would say, in answer to your question, Brooke, is myself and my colleagues, when we've spoken to people who know Comey, they say the idea that he would have told the president, you're not under investigation, just doesn't stand up to reason. So, again, accounts from inside that contradict the story we're getting from the White House.
BALDWIN: That said, the president says otherwise. Here he was today with NBC's Lester Holt.
[14:34:58] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STAES: Look, 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.
LESTER HOLT, ANCHOR, NBC NEWS: Monday, you met with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
HOLT: Did you ask for a recommendation?
TRUMP: What I did is, I was going to fire Comey. My decision --
HOLT: You had made the decision before they came in.
TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There's no good time to do it, by the way. They --
HOLT: Because in your letter, you said, I accepted their recommendation.
TRUMP: Well, they had --
HOLT: You already made the decision?
TRUMP: I was going to fire regardless of -- he made a recommendation, he's highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him, the Republicans like him. He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.
HOLT: Let me ask you about your termination letter to Mr. Comey. You write, "I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation." why did you put that in there?
TRUMP: Because he told me that.
HOLT: He told you, you weren't under investigation with regard to the Russian investigation?
TRUMP: I've heard from others.
HOLT: Was it in a phone call? Did you meet face to face?
TRUMP: He wanted to dinner, because he wanted to stay on.
HOLT: He asked for dinner?
TRUMP: That dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I'll, you know, consider it. We'll see what happens. But we had a very nice dinner. And at that time, he told me, you are not under investigation, which I knew anyway.
HOLT: That was one meeting. What was --
TRUMP: First of all, when you're under investigation, you're given all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn't under. And I heard it was stated a to the committee, at some committee level that I wasn't, number one.
HOLT: So that didn't come directly from --
TRUMP: Then during a phone call, he said it. Then during another phone call, he said it. So he said it once at dinner and twice during phone calls.
HOLT: And did you call him?
TRUMP: In one case, I called him. In one case, he called me.
HOLT: Did you ask him, am I under investigation?
TRUMP: In one case, I did. I said, if it's possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, you are not under investigation.
HOLT: But he's given sworn testimony that there's an ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign and possible collusion with the Russian government. You were the centerpiece of the Trump campaign. So was he truthful --
TRUMP: All I can tell you is that I know I'm not under investigation, me, personally. I'm not talking about campaigns or anything else. I'm not under investigation.
BALDWIN: Laura Coates, here's my question for you, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor. The fact that the president says, at one point, he called up the FBI director and asked him if he was under investigation. They talked about this three separate times. Could that be obstruction of justice?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: At best, it is completely tone deaf, as to what your role is, with respect to the Department of Justice, and with the FBI. Obstruction of justice is very, very hard to prove, but certainly it suggests that he's trying to use his position of authority to try to influence somebody who he knows cannot speak about an issue to give him information or be forthcoming. If those incidents did, in fact, happen, I would be shocked. I'd also be shocked to find that there was any information that was directly responded to with respect to that question. And remember, investigations, if I told you as a prosecutor, you were not being investigated on a Wednesday, Wednesday afternoon, that could very well change. And I think Holt's question, with respect to the fact that, look, you knew in the hearings that were before the different congressional committees that the campaign was being investigated, doesn't that mean you? This is an instance, Brooke, of the right hand and the left hand never coming together for the president of the United States. Because, frankly, it would -- it assisted him to have the narrative that he deferred to the recommendation of a non-partisan widely respected person. Instead, he has confirmed, we think we all knew two days ago, which was this, I wanted to fire him, for probably a politically motivated reason, I needed a cover to make that happen and make that go down very easily. You had the cover, and now he's erased whatever little gains he would have had among people who believe that initial incredible story.
BALDWIN: On that final note, Sara Murray, let me bring you in, in the White House briefing room.
You asked two excellent questions. And a piece of that, he decided to fire Comey irrespective of any recommendation. And your question was about Rosenstein and whether or not -- well, why did you all essentially throw him under the bus?
SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPODNENT: That's right. It was interesting to see Sarah Huckabee Sanders try to sort of address this today. She basically said, look, we didn't try to pin this decision on Rod Rosenstein. That's obviously a very different tone from what we heard from a number of White House officials in the past two days, who said, really, that the president made this decision to fire James Comey at the recommendation of Rod Rosenstein, that this was a key part of the decision-making process. This is how the president arrived at this conclusion. Obviously, we heard something very different from the president himself today, when he said that he had already made the decision to fire to James Comey.
Another thing interesting, Sarah Sanders said she believes the president wants this Russian investigation to continue. That she wants it to reach its completion. And I asked her why you would then fire the person who is overseeing that Russian investigation if you want it to move along speedily. She said a number of other people are working on it. But as you've seen from a number of our colleagues reporting here at CNN, we have the president in private conversations has been fuming about the fact that the attention is always on Russia and that the Russian investigation won't go away and certainly that that was part of the calculus, that he was making his decision to fire James Comey.
[14:40:45] BALDWIN: Maeve Reston, another voice, we want you to chime in.
I don't know if it's the nice way to say the right hand isn't talking to the left versus one side is lying. We don't know. We can't prove it. But the real overarching question is how are the American people supposed to trust the words coming out of the White House?
MAEVE RESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: I think in a lot of cases, they can't. It has been a recurring theme with this White House, is that the communications staff get up and explains the president's decision, and then, you know, Trump contradicts himself. I think that talking to my sources, they have said that President Trump has been making calls for several weeks now, you know, asking what people think of the decision to fire Comey. So, clearly, he has been thinking about this for a long time. It's just very puzzling why someone in the White House would have drafted that letter with a completely different explanation for the firing. And I don't see how the White House didn't think this was going to become just an incredibly bad and messy story for them. I mean, just the damage control alone is what the American people are hearing. And it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the staff there.
BALDWIN: When you have, again, to reiterate, when you have the president saying that he called Comey a showboat and a grandstander, from the NBC interview, and said he wanted him out because the FBI was in turmoil, which is in direct contradiction to what the now acting director of the FBI Mr. McCabe said today in testimony.
Who wanted to jump in? Whose voice was that?
COATES: Hey, Brooke --
COATES: -- I wanted to say, I wanted to make clear, when you're talking about obstruction charges and different stories and narrative that are coming out of the White House and the staff, we talk about lines and we talk about obstruction of justice. In order for that to actually be the case, remember, the more plausible, benign reasons and motivations you may have to do a firing of an otherwise active employee actually can undermine a prosecutor's case in a criminal obstruction charge. Remember, if it's a specific spent to actually undermine or impede an investigation, for really nefarious reasons, and corruptly do so. One of them being a political motivation. But if there are these non-partisan, non-political reasons and motivations, even if they're contradictory, and even if they can't tow the line of a consistent story, they undermine it criminally. But, it's always available in an impeachment setting, where the law has been written far more vaguely to try to be a backstop for criminal prosecution failures. Remember, it was the formation for two articles for Nixon and Clinton for impeachment proceedings. So talking about obstruction and about the lies, there is a difference between what we can talk about in terms of what we should hold accountable politically, and what will be held accountable criminally.
BALDWIN: Got it.
Let me hit pause on all of you. I know we have so much more thoughts and questions to discuss.
When we come back, there's all kinds of news happening. Of course, reaction up on Capitol Hill to what the president has told NBC today, with regard to the FBI and these conversations he had with the now former director of the FBI.
Also today, testifying, now the head of the FBI, the acting director, Andy McCabe, contradicting the White House today up on Capitol Hill in front of this Senate Intelligence Committee. What happened there, when we come back.
[14:48:02] BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN, breaking news. President Trump says he planned to fire FBI Director James Comey, no
matter what, irrespective of anyone's recommendation. This is what he has just told NBC today. The president called Comey a "grandstander," quote, and a "showboat," quote.
Just a short time ago, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee reacted to those words from the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTFIIED REPORTER: The president just told Lester Holt that he was going to fire Director Comey, whether or not he had that recommendation or not, and he called Director Comey a showboat. He called him that grandstander. Do you agree with that assessment? We just heard something different from these --
SEN. RICHARD BURR, (R), CHAIRMAN, SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I'm not beginning to speak for Senator Warner. I'll let him do that. I put out a statement the night of the director's firing. I found him to be one of the most ethical, upright, straight-forward individuals I have had the opportunity to work with. He provided our committee more access to information than any director of the FBI.
Sure, there were FBI employees that disagreed with how he handled the Clinton e-mail announcements and his interaction or lack thereof of the attorney general at the time. The lion's share of FBI employees respect the former director. And it shows the professionalism that he brought to the role that he was in. And I'm sure he will, at some point, have an opportunity to share, if he wants to, his side of the story.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: Manu Raju is our guy there on Capitol Hill. And I know you tossed a couple of questions in to them prior to the
news coming out of that NBC interview, but that was quite a reaction, especially from the ranking member there, nodding and shaking his head, hearing words that the president used.
[14:49:56] MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, indeed, Brooke. And actually, the acting FBI director, Andy McCabe, when he was testifying before this committee made similar remarks, saying that the rank and file of the FBI deeply support Mr. Comey. Actually, he said he had confidence throughout the bureau, contradicting what Sarah Huckabee Sanders said just moments ago at the podium, that a large number of people told her personally, over text messages and e-mails, that they did not have confidence in her.
Now, Brooke, this all comes as the Senate Intelligence Committee is meeting behind me right now as part of their -- meeting with intelligence chiefs as well as they're moving forward on their own Russia investigation.
And just moments earlier today, they also met with Rod Rosenstein, who is of course, now, in the center of this controversy after authoring that memo that the White House said helped lead to President Trump's ultimate decision to fire James Comey.
At this press conference, afterwards, I had a chance to ask Richard Burr and Mark Warner whether or not Mr. Rosenstein expressed any concern about the firing. Here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Any concerns, though, about the circumstances of Mr. Comey's firing?
BURR: We didn't get into details about his involvement. You've got a copy of what he wrote. This is an individual that comes with an unbelievable background. Certainly, he fills the role. But our purpose of meeting with the DAG was to make assure that we had a way forward that the vice chair and I understood and felt comfortable with.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: They said he did not discuss the Comey firing in this private, classified meeting, but they did discuss the issues to make sure their investigation does not conflict with the FBI's investigation on Russia going forward.
So it sounds like even if the White House tries to minimize these investigations, they're going forward. They're still moving forward on this issue of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia -- Brooke?
BALDWIN: Manu Raju, thank you very much.
I've got David Chalian and Jim Sciutto back with me here.
On all the testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, David Chalian, what was your biggest takeaway?
CHALIAN: Certainly the contradiction we were talking about earlier between what acting Director McCabe was saying about morale inside the FBI versus what the White House is saying. Certainly, stuck out to me. I do think, listening to Manu and seeing, of course, that huge gaggle of reporters waiting after Rosenstein met with the Senate chair, the Intel chair and vice chair, we really do need to hear from Rod Rosenstein at some point, from Jeff Sessions, from Jim Comey. As Jim Sciutto was alluding to earlier, the people who are charged with law enforcement here, that are supposed to, while I understand, political appointees, be above the sort of partisan to and from of the moment, we really do need to hear from them and not just rely on the White House account.
BALDWIN: Jim, you agree? At some point, they've got to start talking.
SCIUTTO: The question, is there a conflict of interest, is not a question for the White House spokesperson who works for the president. One, knowledge-based, but, two, also, where her interests align. The question is for the legal leadership of this country. And it's a legal question, but it's far beyond a perception question. A conflict of interest is a problem in business of in government. If you have a president or an administration that have an investigation that they don't like and is making decisions about that investigation, you don't need to be a law professor to recognize that that's a conflict of interest. It's clearly a conflict. So we need to hear from A.G. Sessions, Deputy A.G. Rosenstein, the acting director of the FBI as to whether they view as it as a conflict. Is it a problem? Does it pose problems for the investigation going forward?
The other point I would make is that, you know, in this kind of churn that we're in now, the acting FBI director, I mean, we don't know how long the shelf life is, but we do know the White House is already looking for another acting director, and while it looks for another permanent director of the FBI. So we don't even know --
BALDWIN: Let's underscore that.
Not only are they looking for a replacement for, you know, the top brass of the FBI, they say to replace McCabe, unless they go with McCabe, for the acting director of the FBI, correct?
SCIUTTO: Right. Even the interim --
SCIUTTO: -- is an interim.
SCIUTTO: Even your acting is an interim director. Then you have the question of the next person who will fill that role and then the permanent person -- not permanent, I should say, but the full new director of the FBI. Those are all open questions.
BALDWIN: OK. Hopefully, we will hear from the A.G. or the DAG.
Gentleman, thank you so much.
[14:54:59] BALDWIN: So much more to come here. The breaking news today that we have now heard from President Trump, reiterating in his NBC interview that the former director of the FBI, James Comey, told him on three separate occasions that he was not under investigation. Conflict of interest? Potential obstruction of justice? Let's continue to dig.
We'll be right back.
[14:59:49] BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching breaking news here on CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.
Moments ago, the White House daily briefing finished, exhibiting what CNN's political director, David Chalian, just told me was, quote, "a crisis of credibility." Once again, administration officials had to readjust their accounts of what exactly led President Trump to fire the director of the FBI, James Comey.