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White House Downplays Controversy Amid Backlash; Trump Welcomes Russian Officials. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 00:00   ET


[23:59:25] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: That's it for me tonight. I'm Jake Tapper.

Be sure to log on to for all the latest breaking news. Thanks so much for watching.

SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. This is CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. Ahead this hour --

Few clues about why Donald Trump fired his FBI director. The U.S. President would only say it's because James Comey, quote, "wasn't doing a good job". And with the Comey news swirling, Trump welcomes top Russian officials to the White House. How that is creating some awkward timing.

Hello and thank you for joining us. I'm Sara Sidner.

NEWSROOM L.A. starts right now.

If one thing was clear on Wednesday, it's that the White House will not be able to explain away the sudden firing of FBI director James Comey any time soon. The questions just keep on coming, all to President Trump's dismay.

Our Jeff Zeleny has the very latest.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much for being here. Appreciate it.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: There is still one question tonight above all others for President Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why did you fire Director Comey?

TRUMP: Because he wasn't doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.

ZELENY: Those sparse words are all the President had to say about why he fired FBI Director James Comey. For a second day, the bombshell rocked Washington.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The dismissal of Director Comey establishes a very troubling pattern. ZELENY: Vice President Pence praised the President's decision but

shed no more light on the abrupt dismissal of the man leading the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Trump provided the kind of strong and decisive leadership the American people have come to be accustomed from him. And he took the action necessary to remove Director Comey.

ZELENY: As protesters gathered outside the White House, inside the West Wing, the administration struggled to not only explain why Comey was fired, but why now.

SARAH HUCKABEE-SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: The President had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected.

ZELENY: The timeline and its contradictions matter in determining whether it was the President or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who triggered Comey's firing as the White House initially explained.

ZELENY: Does he regret not doing it earlier like on January 20th or January 21st?

HUCKABEE-SANDERS: No. I believe the President wanted to give Director Comey a chance. But he feels that he made the right decision.

ZELENY: Whether tone deaf or intentionally ironic, Russia front and center today in the White House, the President appearing alongside Henry Kissinger.

TRUMP: Everybody knows Dr. Kissinger. And we're right now talking about Russia and various other matters.

ZELENY: Also meeting with the Russian foreign minister, and even smiling in the Oval Office with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, considered a top spy and recruiter of spies by U.S. intelligence. All this as deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders blamed Comey's abrupt dismissal on the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

HUCKABEE-SANDERS: I think also having a letter like the one that he received and having that conversation that outlined the basic just atrocities in circumventing the chain of command in the Department of Justice.

ZELENY: Now, in the days leading up to this decision, the President is growing increasingly agitated by his FBI director. I'm told by talking to multiple sources familiar with this process that the President saw the FBI director as his own man, and could not be trusted in this investigation.

Now going forward here, as the President, as the White House looks for a new FBI director, one person involved in this is the Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Of course, he recused himself from anything having to do with the Russia investigation a few months back. Now he is back in this conversation, this Russian investigation not going away.

The President, the White House trying to get back to their legislative agenda, which has been imperiled by all of this.

Jeff Zeleny, CNN -- the White House.


SIDNER: We, of course, want to talk some of this out. With me now: Democratic strategist Caroline Heldman and Republican Austin James, as well as former FBI special agent Bobby Chacon. Thank you all for joining us tonight.

First to our political strategists -- it was a preplanned meeting, of course, with Sergey Lavrov. And so some of those things, you know, the timing does seem a bit odd. What do you see as the optics of this -- while we're in the middle of everyone discussing the firing of James Comey, who was heading the investigation into whether there was a campaign tie between Donald Trump's campaign and Russia?

I'll start with you -- Caroline.

CAROLINE HELDMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The optics are terrible. The optics of all of this are terrible, right? If he wanted to fire Comey, he needed to do it at the beginning of his term, or he needed to do it after the investigation was complete.

[00:05:01] It could just be an issue with optics. A lot of people are saying that they believe that it's because Comey was getting closer on investigating Russia. In the last couple of days, he had requested more resource. We know that subpoenas went out from a grand jury the last two weeks. So it's possible that that's the pressure.

But at the end of the day, Donald Trump has made a terrible decision optically. And then to compound that, he is now meeting with Russian officials at a time when there is grave concern that he may have fired someone because he was the head of his investigation team pertaining to Russia. So there is no good way for Donald Trump to spin this.

SIDNER: Now I have to ask you. You're a Republican strategist --


SIDNER: -- and so you may have a different view of this.

JAMES: Well, listen, the one thing that we'll agree on -- probably maybe the only thing we'll agree on tonight is that it's about optics. But we elected a businessman for those reasons alone, right. I mean so he is not going to come in polished. He is not a politician. So he is not going to understand the game of optics.

I think, you know, we can go into his motives and his intent with the Comey issue. But I think meeting with -- his meetings today were further proof that these were things planned in advance. He is not playing an optics game. I think he has nothing to hide and he is being very brazen in supporting that. SIDNER: Let me move on to what we're seeing on the Hill. "The Hill"

online publication is reporting that so far 13 Republicans have come out showing concern about the firing of James Comey by Donald Trump, partly because of the timing. 23 of them, though, are supporting Donald Trump.

But, of course, Democrats have been sort of uniformly against the firing now. They probably would have been fine with it back in September --

JAMES: Exactly.

SIDNER: -- when the information -- he brought up the information about the reinvestigation into Hillary Clinton. Let me let you hear from Senator Elizabeth Warren on what she said she thought this was all about.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you think this was a cover-up?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I think that there's just no doubt given the timing, that the reason that Comey was fired was because Donald Trump wants to cut off any investigation. And to any connections that he has with his campaign and connections to the Russians.


SIDNER: I'll start with you now, Austin.

JAMES: Sure.

SIDNER: Do you think President Trump is just trying to make the Russia issue go away?

JAMES: No, listen. It may be a little late on the West Coast for Sesame Street, but I think the letter of the day is H for hypocrisy. I mean Democrats starting back in October led by Harry Reid have been calling for Comey's dismissal, have been saying that he potentially broke the law, you know. He was enemy number one.

And now that Donald Trump has fulfilled that, they're looking for some sort of political jockeying to reposition themselves because they've kind of lost their leg up.

And listen, I would say this about Elizabeth Warren. She has millions and millions of follower, people who follow her on social media. And she has a responsibility to not say things like that if she doesn't know the truth. She is making wild accusations.

And I would argue this. There is a responsibility there that I think she undercut. I would also say this. If he was trying to diminish anything that had to do with Russia, if he was trying to move the agenda back in his legislative issues, I think this was the exact opposite thing he would want to do. So I think that argument is moot. SIDNER: Unless of course his administration and he did not see the

reaction of this coming because one of the things that we were hearing from the Hill is that well, actually they thought that they could spin it because the Democrats initially wanted Comey out.

I want to go to Bobby real quick and talk to you about what the FBI does now. I mean how much has this decision to fire Comey the way he was fired have an impact on the investigation, if any at all?

BOBBY CHACON, FORMER FBI AGENT: It won't have an impact on the investigation. It will have an impact immediately on the morale of the rank and file for a couple of days, maybe a little longer. But the actual conducting of the investigation, it won't change. It won't slow down.

I was in the FBI for 27 years. I worked for five different directors. When directors change there's always a bit of change at the top, and I was there when Director Sessions was fired by Bill Clinton. And, you know, there is a little turmoil. But we always carried on with our investigations particularly this investigation.

I happen to know there is a very senior experienced team of agents and Justice Department officials that are in that room, investigating that case. And they're not wallflowers. And they're not going to shut down an investigation if a new director comes in and walks into that conference room and says this investigation is over. That's just not going to happen.

SIDNER: I do want to ask you this though. The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked James Comey who no longer of course works for the FBI to come in and testify. Is that ever going to happen?

CHACON: Well, actually, I hope it doesn't in the near future because I think that, you know, those agents and those Department of Justice attorneys need to investigate this case out of the public eye and out of the Senate hearing rooms. This investigation will be best served if it's not done in a public forum, and if it's not -- because it not be politicized. And the more it's done in the public forum, the more politicized it gets and the less effective that investigation becomes.

[00:10:07] SIDNER: Thank you so much -- Bobby.

Let me turn to the meeting that happened in the White House today with Russian foreign minister Lavrov, as well as the ambassador, who is sort of in the middle of some of this investigation into Trump campaign potential ties with Russia.

There was a question thrown out at Lavrov asking if there is something that was going to overshadow or be a problem with the meeting with the two of them today. And here is what he quipped.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does the Comey firing cast a shadow over your talks?

LAVROV: You're kidding? You're kidding.


SIDNER: So you can't tell if he is annoyed, being funny -- I don't know. What did that say to you, that response?

HELDMAN: Well, what it says I think to everyone is that it's amateur hour in the White House, right? He had no anticipation of this. The way in which Comey was fired was terrible, put party aside.

But at the end of the day, this isn't actually about whether Comey was fireable, right. I think the left and the right agree on that. If you hated him back in July when he did the press conference and didn't prosecute Hillary Clinton. If you're Republican you hated him; October 28th, if you're a Democrat and he puts out a letter saying that he is reopening the investigation. It's not an issue of whether he is fireable.

It's not an issue of whether it's constitutional for Donald Trump to fire him. It is. It's legal. It's not a matter for impeachment.

The issue here is timing. The fact of the matter is the President of the United States fired this lead person in an investigation that involved his campaign. There is no way around that. It's Nixonian down to its core in the sense that we haven't played out the investigation. We don't know everyone who is involved. So Donald Trump making this decision and then not expecting blowback is absolute amateur hour in the White House.

SIDNER: What I want to ask you, Austin, is one of the things in the letter that he sent out about this announcement that Comey had been fired, the very top of that letter he talked about oh, well, he had come to me and told me that I am not, several times, not the focus of the investigation. I am not being investigated.

And a lot of people have looked at that and thought that is a really odd thing to do when you've just fired someone -- trying distance yourself.

JAMES: Sure.

SIDNER: But it actually kind of put him right in the middle of it.

JAMES: Listen, I mean I'd say this. If you expect Donald Trump to do anything that you have seen or would expect from a president, I think you're sadly mistaken. And I think that's largely why the voters continue to stand by him, those who supported him. And I think that's why people voted him in office in the first place.

I would respectfully disagree. I think that comment, that kind of brush-off and everything we've seen from the White House says to the larger issue that it's not that big of a deal. I think there's probably a bigger issue at play that we can discuss. Is he an egomaniac? Was there feelings hurt about Comey's testimony? Probably. And so I think the word was white-hot that was used. So in a moment of anger, a man who has built a successful business, who cuts dead weight from his corporation probably acted and would act 100 times over in the same way. So the White House made up of politicians are probably trying to spin it as best they can. And we're seeing that divergence happen and play out now.

SIDNER: But to be fair, the White House is not a typical business.

JAMES: Sure.

SIDNER: And I think a lot of people are concerned that these kinds of things can have huge implications internationally as well. Are either of you worried about what this is going to show our allies and some of the countries watching what is happening inside the United States right now?

HELDMAN: Well, I think that Donald Trump in general shows too much, right? So he talked about how he would be very different from Hillary Clinton and even Obama, and that he would not telegraph what we were going to do in other countries.

But he is actually giving other countries invaluable information. They know that he is thin-skinned. They know that he is retaliatory. They know that he has personal reactions.

And I would agree with Austin that this is probably something personal, having to do with the fact that Comey actually said that it made him nausea that he might have been involved in deciding the outcome of the election, which questions and challenges the legitimacy of Donald Trump's presidency.

My guess is it was a reaction to that. But at end of the day, unless he can come out and give us a legitimate reason, not this reason that suddenly I'm concerned about how Hillary Clinton was treated. The reason that he is in hot water, it's not just the timing; it's that he has given us an excuse that doesn't make sense.

And I think that it telegraphs to other countries that we have somebody who is not only not up for the job, but also perhaps very reactionary.

SIDNER: What do you say to that?

JAMES: I would say that if my party lost as well. I think that's probably the talking point. My argument is kind of to the broader point, you know. Donald Trump spun up the media. He spun up Democrats. They were a rubber band ready to snap back. And so this is a great issue for them. I mean this is a great issue, you know --

HELDMAN: And for Republicans, right? 13 Republicans are also very concerned about this.

JAMES: In every issue you're going to have some partisan back and forth within parties. But the broader issue, I mean, you know, Mitch McConnell and others have come out and stood beside Mr. Trump. [00:15:04] I think it's a bigger issue made by the media and Democrats. And going back to what Elizabeth Warren was saying, and what you were saying -- using words like illegitimate, using words -- definitively saying that Russia had some sort of involvement.

I mean they are telling the American people de facto, and that's not the case. I mean there is nothing proven nefarious here. So to relate things to Nixon implies some sort of criminal activity.

SIDNER: Well, General Flynn was fired and there was a connection with Russia there.

JAMES: Sure.

SIDNER: So there are some legitimate things that have happened that indicated there were some of the people in his --

JAMES: Sure.

SIDNER: -- in his circle were having problematic relationships with Russia.

JAMES: Sure. And listen, if there are bad eggs, then you remove them. I think that's what he has done, and that's what he is going to continue to do.

Again, I think the American people brought Donald Trump in to get rid of bad politicians. Comey was a bad bureaucrat. He was a lightning rod from day one and there are many instances. Democrats got on board on the bandwagon, proving that going back to October.

And so he is going to continue to do this. It shouldn't be a surprise. And I think, you know, the media and Democrats are going to continue to try to --


HELDMAN: It's not just Democrats. His polls, his approval ratings -- Donald Trump's have dropped even lower. Historic lows for this early in a presidency.

SIDNER: The trust levels are definitely down.

HELDMAN: Exactly.

SIDNER: I want to go to Bobby Chacon to talk a little bit about inside of the FBI. I mean can you give us a sense if you've talked to some of your colleagues what they thought of Comey? Because there was some dissension within the agency, was there not?

CHACON: Well, he came in with very, very high hopes. I mean he was very well respected. Remember the hospital room incident back when he was with the Justice Department, protecting the AG from the Bush White House, forcing -- trying to force the AG to sign something under duress. So he came in with a lot of integrity. I think he still has a lot of integrity. I think though that he got caught up in a political game that he wasn't adept at. And he was a victim of this vicious division in Washington that we have right now.

And I think that he wasn't quite up to the task to handle himself in that situation. He made a couple of mistakes. And in this environment, there is no room to make those kinds of mistakes, because you get so vilified. You get so torn apart by the partisanship that is going on right now.

And so he made mistakes that basically cost him. And he made one, and then he made another. You know, he made a series of these mistakes. And quite frankly, looking at his Senate testimony of last week, you know, he couldn't come back from it. And I think that he was starting to be seen, you know, inside the bureau as possibly ineffective.

And last week's Senate hearings kind of, you know, showed a lot about that. We -- the director needs to maintain a very good working relationship on the Hill. That's one of his main jobs within the bureau to represent us. And you know, last week's senate testimony, when you have people using nine of their ten allotted minutes to spout rhetoric instead of actually posing questions to him, I mean it made him look ineffective as our leader and to represent us on the Hill.

He just became too much of a lightning rod. But that being said, even the people that kind of thought that his days were numbered, you know are, not supporting the way this happened and the way this was carried out. And that's what bothers -- it's almost universal in the rank and file now, today, even though, you know, two days ago, it might have been a division of some people still backing him.

Some people think you know maybe he could resurrect it, and some people think maybe he should go because of his ineffectiveness. You know, I think it's now universal that this was a terrible way to handle it. That the way Comey was treated is kind of the way the entire bureau was treated. And we all feel slighted by how this was carried out.

SIDNER: You're talking about how he was fired. He learned about it --

CHACON: How he was fired.

SIDNER: -- apparently from seeing it first on television and then getting a letter from one of Donald Trump's bodyguards.

Thank you so much to the three of you -- Caroline, Austin, and Bobby. And we will be talking more about this. There is plenty more to discuss.

But looking ahead, let's look who came to the White House as President Trump tries to deny his campaign's Russians connections -- the optics of this diplomacy coming up next.

[00:19:08] (COMMERCIAL BREAK) SIDNER: Less than 24 hours after he fired the man leading the investigation into his campaign ties with Russia, President Donald Trump welcomed two top Russian officials to the White House. Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov says they discussed Syria. Reporters were not allowed into the Oval Office to witness the meeting.

Mr. Trump also met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak whose contacts with Trump campaign staff are at the center of the FBI and congressional investigations.

Joining us now, Robert English is the director of the USC School of International Relations. This was the highest level encounter between the U.S. administration and Russia since Donald Trump's inauguration and they talked about Syria. They talked about resolving Middle East conflicts. They talked about better relations with Moscow.

But there is an elephant in the room that no one has said that they talked about. There is no press in there to hear if they did or not -- Russia's meddling in the U.S. election. Why do you think that wasn't either told to the press or maybe it wasn't talked about at all? Why not? These are tough times.

ROBERT ENGLISH, USC SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: Why it wasn't told to the press is easy to understand. They want to put this behind them. The Trump administration -- Trump himself are going to act as if it's not an issue, that it's fake news.

Whether they actually touched on it in the meeting, we don't know. It's likely that that actually came up last month in Secretary Tillerson's meeting in Moscow. But both sides have an interest in putting this behind them and trying to get back to business as usual. Of course the politics will not permit that because of this enormous and darkening cloud hanging over the White House.

SIDNER: I want to talk to you about how this is being seen internationally because inside the United States, we can be very myopic and pay attention to every single detail. But this relationship between the United States and Russia, and particularly Donald Trump and his administration and Russia, how is this being viewed to the United States' allies?

ENGLISH: Well, as you know, probably, our European ally, our western allies have been a little uneasy. Is Trump going to give away the store? Is he going to be so soft on Russia that it threatens the unity of NATO and invites Russian aggression? Those kinds of concerns.

Moscow is even more confused. For some time they had reason to believe that this new president would put the sort of Clinton-Obama strings behind and get back to business as usual, and for good, right. There are things we want to cooperate on if we can.

[00:25:01] And they watch progressively our political system and the President himself unravel and sort of bring that all to a screeching halt. It's almost as if they're going through a pantomime of relations as normal. The meeting in Moscow, now the meeting with the handshakes and the friendly smiles here in Washington while everything is falling apart.

And again, no matter how good and how important it would be to make progress on the Middle East -- and by the way, on Ukraine, on the arctic, a whole range of issues. How is it possible as congressional scrutiny and as public demands intensify. They're whistling in the dark, past the graveyard. There is nothing substantive going to happen until we find out what really went on.

SIDNER: Let me ask you about this. It's something that was tweeted out by a U.S. ambassador to Qatar. She tweeted out that basically that this current -- this current presidential decision increasingly make it difficult to wake up overseas to the news from home knowing that I'm going to spend the entire day trying to explain our democracy and institutions to the people where I'm living right now.

Is this something that you think is happening outside of our bubble inside the United States? I mean what are these diplomats having to say as they're watching this play out here in the United States? It is unprecedented.

ENGLISH: It is almost unprecedented. I think if you go back 45 years to Watergate, right. A lot of comparisons have been drawn to our internal domestic scandals in politics. But at that time as well, the rest of the world was flabbergasted. Even our democratic allies hadn't seen this kind of scandal and this kind of public outcry -- congressional investigation bring down a president. They've become rather more open and diverse systems themselves.

As far as Russia goes, they are baffled. At that time, it's interesting. I keep flashing back to the Watergate period. 45 years ago, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev couldn't believe that his work on detente with Richard Nixon could be halted, could be undermined by some petty scandal. I mean how can they do that? He said you're the President. Tell them to stop.

SIDNER: And that was American democracy at work --


SIDNER: -- I mean, in front of the world.

ENGLISH: So there's you know, your question was about our diplomats, our representatives abroad. Maybe 45 years, every 45 years it's a good thing to show the world that even in the worst of times, our system can cleanse itself. The media can rise to the occasion. People can start to put partisanship aside. Maybe I'm being a little overoptimistic about this.

SIDNER: We will see. We will see about that.

ENGLISH: But those diplomats, as difficult as it is for them, and they might like to have business as usual, in fact they are our ambassadors in every respect. Not just as executors of a single policy but representing our country and explaining our country.

SIDNER: Thank you so much. Really great insight. We appreciate your time.

Coming up, President Trump's love-hate relationship with James Comey has had many, many twists and turns. Up next -- we'll take a look at that.



PATRICK SNELL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Patrick Snell in Atlanta and this is CNN.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You are watching "CNN Newsroom" live from Los Angeles. I'm Sara Sidner. Here are your headlines for you at this hour.

A long-time friend of Donald Trump says the U.S. President was white- hot in the days before his decision to fire FBI director James Comey. Of course he's a friend. Mr. Trump was so angry about the constant news reports on the investigation into his campaign's alleged ties to Russia.

President Trump hosted Russia's foreign minister and U.S. Ambassador at the White House. Reporters were not allowed to attend. Sergei Lavrov says they discussed international issues, including Syria, but not U.S. sanctions on Russia.

President Trump's public opinion of James Comey has varied widely for months. He has both praised and criticized the former FBI Director for the way he handled the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and just days before Comey was fired, the White House expressed confidence in him.

CNN's Brian Todd has more on the love-hate relationship.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump now vigorously defending the firing of the FBI director, who he claims had lost his confidence.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because he wasn't doing a good job. Very simply, he was not doing a good job.

TODD (voice-over): Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pinned the firing on what the administration now calls James Comey's mishandling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, quote, "The way the director handled the conclusion of the e-mail investigation was wrong."

Then candidate Trump also was critical of Comey back in July after the FBI director went public with his decision not to pursue charges against Clinton.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Their system is absolutely, totally rigged. TODD (voice-over): He kept up the criticism into the fall.


TODD (voice-over): But after Comey reopened the investigation just days before the election, Trump repeatedly, effusively, praised Comey.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I respect the fact that Director Comey was able to come back after what he did. I respect that very much.

I have to give the FBI credit. That was so bad what happened originally and it took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had with trying to protect her from criminal prosecution. Good job by the FBI.

TODD (voice-over): Here's Trump just three days before the election.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As you know, the FBI -- and I give them a lot of credit because they're fighting forces that they're not supposed to be fighting.

TODD (voice-over): And his, now, attorney general just two days before Election Day with Fox News.

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: FBI Director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence.

TODD (voice-over): Five days after the election Trump wavered when asked by "60 minutes" if he'd ask for Comey's resignation.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't made up my mind. I respect him a lot.

(INAUDIBLE) he's become more famous than me.

TODD (voice-over): Just after his inauguration, Trump singled out Comey for praise and a handshake at the White House.

In April, Trump was pressed by Fox Business Network about asking Comey to step down.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have confidence in him. We'll see what happens.

TODD (voice-over): Three weeks later, just six days before Comey's firing --


TODD (voice-over): Trump's press secretary repeated that.

SPICER: The president has confidence in the director.

TODD (voice-over): But now, the White House says that Donald Trump has not had confidence in Comey for the last six months.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, PRINCIPAL DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE SECRETARY: The president had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected. He wasn't sure that he shouldn't fire him.

TODD (voice-over): The contradiction's now clear. The President publicly praised James Comey, expressed confidence in him during a period when the White House now says he had lost confidence in him.

The contradictions casting serious potential doubt now on the claim from Comey's boss Rod Rosenstein that this was all about the mishandling of the Clinton investigation last year.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


SIDNER: To dig deeper on this issue, we're going to be joined now by CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

First, I want to get to what happened today, although, there's so much happening, it's hard to keep up but, first, how awkward is the timing of this meeting between Donald Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's really an extraordinary spectacle. Not only did the president go out of his way to meet with the foreign minister, he usually meets with a, you know, a fellow head of state but the American press was barred from this meeting and the only cameras there were from the Russian media.

Plus, they didn't talk about the fact that Russia interfered with our elections or their interventions in Ukraine. All they talked about was Syria. So, you know, Trump's continuing genuflection to Vladimir Putin continued even as the scandal unfolds around him.

SIDNER: Can you say there's any parallel that you see between President Trump and his firing of FBI Director Comey as Comey's investigating his campaign and President Nixon who fired the special prosecutor looking into the White House? Is there a fair comparison there?

TOOBIN: I think there's a very close analogy there. Just for our international viewers who might not be so conversant with American history, on October 20th, 1973, as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox, who was the prosecutor who was investigating Richard Nixon.

Yesterday, May 9th, 2017, Donald Trump fired the FBI Director James Comey who was investigating the Trump campaign and its connections to Russia. It is something that is outside the decent American political tradition and I think both are very dark days in American history.

SIDNER: Jeffrey, why do you think that the international world, not just American politic but the international world should be concerned about President Trump's firing of Comey at this time? TOOBIN: Well, the stability and integrity of the American government

is essential to world order and world security and the world economy and the fact that Donald Trump would engage in such a reckless and unfortunate act, destabilizing the politics of the United States is something that I think sophisticated people around the world should be very concerned about.

Now, will the American economy collapse? Will the Trump presidency collapse? Obviously, not but, you know, I think we have a very sophisticated audience and people around the world follow American politics very closely and this is a disturbing and surprising day for us.

SIDNER: I want to ask you lastly because of your legal background, the president, when he sent the letter out about why Comey was fired, he talked about -- the very first thing he said was I was told several times by Mr. Comey that I was not under investigation in the Russian probe. What is he trying to say there and is that a legally sound thing to say in a letter like this as he's firing the person who's investigating whether or not his campaign had ties to Russia?

TOOBIN: It was a deeply bizarre thing to say, in the first place, because under the rules of American criminal investigations, James Comey should not have said anything to Donald Trump about his status in the investigation.

It's not clear that Comey did and Trump's statements could -- Trump's statement in the letter could simply be wrong or false but all of which indicates how irregular this whole process, is and how outside the norms of American political and legal discourse this whole period has been.

Where it's going? I don't know. We have unified republican control of the government, the federal government at this point and they are very interested in protecting Donald Trump. So I think stability is much more likely to be the outcome than any sort of upheaval but, certainly, this has been a very unusual period in recent American history.

SIDNER: It's certainly causing a lot of alarm in a lot of people's minds. I thank you so much for joining us, Jeffrey Toobin there for us, CNN's legal analyst.

Next on "Newsroom L.A.," South Korea's new president wants peace with Pyongyang. Just ahead, why his foreign policy plans could cause tension with a close ally.


Policy plans could cause tension with a close ally.

SIDNER: South Korea's new president is vowing to do whatever it takes to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. CNN's Ivan Watson explains why keeping that promise could prove difficult.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A victory lap for South Korea's newly elected president. Liberal lawmaker Moon Jae-in sworn into office just hours after defeating a crowded field of 12 rival presidential candidates. He faces immediate challenges in foreign policy.


WATSON: South Korea's new president now has to walk a tightrope, balancing between North Korea's mercurial leader Kim Jong-un and the often unpredictable Donald Trump, commander-in-chief of South Korea's closest ally.


WATSON (voice-over): North Korea's threatening to carry out a sixth nuclear test as well as more ballistic missile launches, while the U.S. conducts nearby military maneuvers warning Pyongyang to behave. Saber-rattling that has many South Koreans worried.

DUYEON KIM, VISITING SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, KOREAN PENINSULA FUTURE FORUM: South Koreans worry more that President Trump would do something militarily foolish than Kim Jong-un because of his unpredictability, because of his bluster, because of his outrageous tweets and his threats of force.

WATSON (voice-over): President Moon says he'll immediately tackle the security crisis. Moon says the strategy of confrontation has failed. Instead, he wants to try diplomacy with Pyongyang but while trying to talk to North Korea, Moon also has to handle the thorny issue of missile defense.

The recent deployment of the American THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea angered China which imposed unofficial economic sanctions against Seoul.

South Korea's had a power vacuum for months. After a corruption scandal and impeachment brought down the country's last president. Moon has to remind both friends and rivals that now there is a new president in charge here.

Ivan Watson, CNN, Seoul.


SIDNER: You are watching "CNN Newsroom" live from Los Angeles. I'm Sara Sidner. Thank you for being with us. "World Sport" starts after the break.


SNELL: Hi there, thanks for joining us. Welcome to CNN "World Sport." So, now we know the two teams who will contest this season's European Champions League final in Cardiff.

On Tuesday, it was two-time winning Juventus booking their spot in the Welsh capital, while a day later, a chance to join them for 11th time victors Real Madrid as they defended their three-nil first leg semifinal lead against their bitter local rivals Atletico.

An incredible start to the last ever European (INAUDIBLE) of Vicente Calderon. That's a thumping header from Saul Niguez putting Atletico ahead and then in the 16th minute they were two up (INAUDIBLE) Antoine Griezmann despite slipping converts from the empty spot.

You know, Real had never before conceded two goals so early in a Champions League match. Predictably, though, they get a priceless away goal to kill off the tie, brilliant play by Benzema, Isco making it four-two Real on aggregate. Los Blancos safely through.

Cristiano Ronaldo didn't score in that one, shocking, but he really has been superb in helping his team get this far in the tournament, the Portuguese now up to 103 goals in the Champions League after weighing in with 10 up to this point, not to mention his 5 assists. CR7 netting a staggering 52 times in the knockout stages of this competition and his first leg hat trick, by the way, against Atletico, that was his 47th.

This will be the second time then, Real and Juve will have met in a Champions League final. The first time was back in 1998 and it's (INAUDIBLE) the Spaniards triumphed by a solitary goal to nil but the other four knockout stage meetings in this tournament have all been won by the Italians with the semifinal victories in '03 and 2015.

This year, the road to Cardiff, Juve has seen nine victories, three draws and not one single defeat thus far, with 21 goals scored and three conceded while Real stats reading eight wins, three draws, one loss, 32 goals or 17 against Real, through to a record 15th final by the way.

On Thursday, return of the Europa League semis with Ajax pretty much having one foot already in the final later this month in Sweden after a four-one first leg win over Lyon but Man United and Celta Vigo, though, it's all a lot closer.

The Red Devils did win last week's meeting in Spain with a brilliant away goal, a free kick, sublimely struck by the precocious teen Marcus Rashford. Jose Mourinho's men desperate to win this tournament and here's why, it guarantees passage through to next season's highly lucrative Champions League. Remember United have never lost a UEFA two legged tie after winning the first game away from home.

Taking very much back seat really on Wednesday, Arsenal's visit to Southampton in the Premier League, vital points were at stake for "The Gunners" and their quest for a top four finish and they would eventually get the breakthrough they needed thanks to a great strike from the Chilean international Alexis Sanchez. That was just from the hour mark and they get a second one as well, the French player Olivier Giroud, seven minutes from time, two-nil Arsenal.

Here's the picture. They're up to fifth now. Three points behind fourth place Manchester City. United dropped down to sixth. Right, well, football's world governing body FIFA has been defending

its decision not to reappoint its two leading ethics chiefs, insisting Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbely's replacements are recognized, high profile experts in their respected fields. The Greek judge Vassilios Skouris and Colombian prosecutor Maria Claudia Rojas have been nominated as the pair's replacements.

Now, Eckert and Borbely have been tasked of looking into allegations of corruption at the heart of football's governing body. They were not among those proposed over next four-year term of the association's independent ethics committee.

Since 2012, the duo's investigations had resulted in the removal of high-ranking officials, including the former president Sepp Blatter. That was back in 2015.

A watchdog was established after the FIFA reform process in 2011 which led to the creation of the independent ethics committee in 2012, under Blatter's presidency, since then, it has investigated several hundred cases of possible and alleged wrongdoing, ultimately, leading to the removal of Blatter himself, and now -- and then former UEFA President Michel Platini.

Last year, the current head of FIFA Gianni Infantino was also investigated by the ethics committee but clear of any wrong doing. Well, not surprisingly, the Swiss Borbely condemning the decision, saying it would set the ethics committee back years in its work.


CORNEL BORBELY, CHAIRMAN OF THE INVESTIGATORY CHAMBER, FIFA ETHICS COMMITTEE: The removal of the ethics committee is not in FIFA's best interests. It's against good governance and it's a setback for the fight against corruption. The Ethics Committee weakened and incapacitate the removal us unnecessary and because of that, only politically.


SNELL: Well, earlier Hans-Joachim Eckert spoke by phone with our Christina Macfarlane who began by asking him why he believed FIFA opted not to reappoint him and Borbely.


HANS-JOACHIM ECKERT, PRESIDING JUDGE OF THE BUSINESS COURT DIVISION, REGIONAL COURT MUNICH I: That is a very, very good question and I think the right man would be the president or the people of the council to ask them why they did the decision like that. What could be a reason? Are we too -- are we too strong? Are we too independent? Are there too many cases coming up and there is a fear of some persons that they will be investigated as well? Well, looking for reasons, I don't think it is our person. It must be another thing and what else than a political reason.

CHRISTINA MACFARLANE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Do you think that this represents perhaps a move back for FIFA, that FIFA and Infantino are perhaps not as committed to reform as they said they were when they came into the -- when Infantino came into the administration?

ECKERT: From my opinion, the reform process is -- it's stronger but it is dead. The independence of ethic things is very, very important for FIFA for the view outside, you know, for the people who playing football and even for the media and who (INAUDIBLE) sponsors, you know, all these people are looking to FIFA. What are they doing? Is it coming a new FIFA or is the old FIFA coming back again?


SNELL: Other stories we're covering, and the next Rugby World Cup may still be two and a half years away but we already know who'll be meeting who. We're headed to Japan to break it all down.


SNELL: The next Rugby World Cup doesn't start until September of 2019 but we already know who'll be playing who once the tournament does get under way. Well, the defending champs, New Zealand, looking to win it for a third straight time.

CNN "World Sports" Alex Thomas is there on the ground first in the host nation Japan, where these are clearly very exciting times for sports fans right now.

ALEX THOMAS, SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Organizers at the Rugby World Cup claim their event is the third largest on the planet, behind the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympic games and like those other two tournaments, the Rugby World Cup is breaking out to new frontiers by coming here to Japan for the first time in its history when the 2019 tournament kicks off.

Two and a half years early seems a little bit too premature to be holding a draw for the tournament but remember Japan is also hosting the Olympics the following year in Tokyo in 2020.

So, they want to get the excitement going early and get started with the ticket sales. With that in mind, it was a huge boost to organizers to see Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend the draw ceremony in the Kyoto State Guest House behind me, normally reserved for just the most important international diplomats and visitors.

Can Japan go rugby crazy? Well, the likes of football, baseball, and sumo still have a higher profile in terms of the population and in terms of the culture here but, nonetheless, Japan reacted with joy when their team beat South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, one of the biggest upsets in sporting history.

The coach of Japan then was Eddie Jones, who's now in charge of England's and I spoke to Eddie earlier after the draw was made and he said he is still very pleased with the part he's played in rugby in Japan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) EDDIE JONES, HEAD COACH, ENGLAND NATIONAL RUGBY TEAM: I'm very proud what I did for Japan and I'm (INAUDIBLE) for the country. You know, they've got a world cup here in 2019, that's historic event. The national team is going well. Rugby's thriving. Yes, it's a great time to be involved in rugby in Japan.


THOMAS: Jones was less thrilled about England's draw for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. They've been put in the same pool as France and Argentina. Definitely the hardest of the four groups drawn earlier but as for Japan, the host, well, they arguably got the easiest draw of the lot. Scotland and Ireland, arguably the two easiest of the higher seeded nations, they would have to play against when the tournament kicks off here in two and a half years' time.

If organizers do see a successful tournament held here in Japan, they're hoping not just to boost rugby in this country but also attract a million new players to the region of Asia itself.

Alex Thomas, CNN. Kyoto, Japan.

SNELL: Thank you so much for joining us. Do stay with CNN.


DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT: I'm Delia Gallagher in Vatican City and this is CNN.