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Trump's Rationale on Comey; Michael Flynn Subpoenaed; Trump Hosts Russian Officials at White House. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:08] REPORTER: Why did you fire Director Comey?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because he was not doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: The reasoning sounds simple enough, but we have new details this morning about the president's real rationale for firing James Comey, and it has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, Michael Flynn subpoenaed by Congress. Will he finally hand over documents that his lawyers declined to provide last month? And what does that mean for the Russia investigation?

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Alison Kosik.

BRIGGS: And I'm Dave Briggs. It is Thursday, May 11th. It's 4:00 a.m. in the East.

This firing of James Comey, Alison, is a political backfire along the lines of Trump vodka, Trump steaks, not going well for the White House this morning, because we have new details this morning which paint a startling picture of a scorned President Trump increasingly consumed by a now-former FBI director whose Russia investigation was simply picking up too much steam for the president's comfort.

A source close to Comey telling CNN's Jake Tapper, James Comey was fired for two reasons now.

KOSIK: OK, here come the two reasons. First, Comey never gave the president any assurance of personal loyalty. And second, the FBI investigation into possible collusion by team Trump with Russia, that was accelerating. So, that may explain the timing of all this.

Sources are telling CNN that Comey was fired just a week after asking for more resources to investigate the Russia connection. The White House for its part denies Comey made that request.

Regardless, there is progress reported in that probe. A Senate committee issuing a subpoena to former national security adviser Michael Flynn. More on that in a moment.

BRIGGS: First, the White House doggedly defending its rationale for Comey's firing. Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders using some blunt language to describe the investigator's handling into the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think one of the big catalysts that we saw was last week. On Wednesday, Director Comey made a pretty startling revelation that he had essentially taken a stick of dynamite and thrown it into the Department of Justice by going around the chain of command. 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.


BRIGGS: There are signs that that rationale may not hold up. "The Washington Post" reporting the justice official who wrote the memo justifying Comey's firing -- that's Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein -- threatened to resign after the White House leaned heavily on him as the reason Comey was fired.

KOSIK: Now, today, the new acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, he is set to testify at a Senate committee after meeting face-to-face with the president on Wednesday. It's likely he'll face questions about Comey's firing as the White House intensifies its search for a new FBI director.

Our coverage begins now with CNN White House correspondent Athena Jones.



The White House's explanation of the Comey firing has been evolving over the last couple of days. Now, we're learning the White House says that the president was considering letting Comey go starting from the day he was elected to the office.

And so, late Wednesday afternoon, the White House put out a timeline trying to clarify how this all went down, starting with the president losing confidence in the director over the last several months, then being angered by the director's testimony last Wednesday on Capitol Hill. And then, the president having a conversation, having a meeting with the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to talk about reasons for removing Director Comey.

Now, that's a little more information than we had before. Before, the White House wasn't really answering the question of whether the president had asked Rosenstein to write up that memo that he wrote in the end. One thing, of course, the White House not eager to address, certainly not in this timeline, is the issue of the attorney general having recused himself, having played a role in the firing of the man in charge of the Russia investigation.

So, there's still a lot more explaining to do -- Alison, Dave.


BRIGGS: Athena, thank you.

James Comey refusing to dwell on his dismissal in a farewell letter to his former colleagues at the FBI, Comey writing, quote, I have long believed that a president can fire an FBI director for any reason or for no reason at all. I'm not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won't either. It is done and I will be fine, although I will miss you and the mission deeply.

[04:05:01] KOSIK: Sources inside the White House tell CNN, President Trump kept his decision to fire Comey very close to the vest in the 48 hours before he dropped the bombshell. It did not seek -- he did not seek a wide range of viewpoints and he grew increasingly angry with the FBI director after reaching the conclusion Comey was his own man and could not be trusted.

A longtime friend who spoke to the president over the weekend described him as white hot and complaining repeatedly about, quote, Russia, Russia, Trump and Russia. That friend says the president has regularly expressed frustration that they can't make this all go away, apparently referring to Comey and his staff, among others.

BRIGGS: The president also particularly angry with Comey for testifying he was, quote, mildly nauseous about the possibility that he himself influenced the presidential election. The president also upset that Comey was not putting enough emphasis on investigating the leaks.

Also developing at the White House, closely monitoring the performance of Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She's been filling in this week for Sean Spicer, who has Navy Reserve week. Multiple administration sources say Spicer has been benched, though, and could actually be replaced.

KOSIK: All right, there is new intense reaction to Comey's firing this morning from both sides of the aisle. Some criticism from Republicans, including Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a Trump supporter, calling on the Justice Department inspector general to review the firing.

Chaffetz says in a statement, "Previously, I asked Inspector General Horowitz to review the FBI's actions in advance of the 2016 election. Today, I sent a letter urging IG Horowitz to expand the scope of his review to include the decision to fire Director Comey. I look forward to receiving the IG's findings."

BRIGGS: Other top Republicans coming to the president's defense, like House Speaker Paul Ryan in his first comments since the firing of James Comey.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: James Comey, who is a worthwhile and dedicated public servant, I think he had basically just lost the confidence of a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats based upon his conduct, his actions, and some of the comments that he had made. And most importantly, he lost the confidence of the president. And it is entirely within the president's role and authority to relieve him, and that's what he did.


BRIGGS: Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who Trump personally targeted on Twitter yesterday, suggesting this could become a crisis along the lines of Watergate.


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


KOSIK: President Trump himself still hanging tough on his decision, taking to Twitter last night to post a video of Democrats who have been critical of Comey. He tweeted this: Democrats should be ashamed. This is a disgrace. #draintheswamp.

BRIGGS: While Director Comey's firing was dominating the headlines, former national security adviser Michael Flynn was being subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Lawmakers demanding all documents related to his interactions with Russian officials. The subpoena was issued once Flynn's lawyer informed the senators he would not be voluntarily turning over any of the information they requested in late April. Now, several of Flynn's associates were subpoenaed earlier this week.

We get more on this now from CNN's Manu Raju.



Now, the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into the Russia meddling and any of those ties that exist with Trump associates starting to ramp up now that the intelligence committee has subpoenaed Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, for documents related to anything, any of his ties to Russia. This is because Flynn apparently did not abide by the committee's request for records.

Now, I am told that, really, the committee has only gotten a handful of requests back from those Trump associates, and some of them have not even satisfied what the committee is looking for, including Carter Page, that former Trump adviser, foreign policy adviser, not giving details that the committee wants. So, expect some more subpoenas, potentially, in the coming days.

Now, this comes as later today a major hearing happening in the Senate Intelligence Committee where national security leaders will come and testify about concerns they have worldwide.

One person who will not be there: James Comey. Now, he was scheduled to testify there. Also next week, Comey invited to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, but one catch, this is going to happen in a closed-door session and will not be open to the public, so we may not know what questions Comey is presented with and what answers he gives, particularly behind why he was fired by President Trump -- guys.


[04:10:03] KOSIK: All right, Manu. Thanks very much.

And the first meeting between President Trump and Russian President Putin, that's apparently set after a face-to-face sit-down between the president and Russia's top diplomat, who had a bizarre reaction to the firing of James Comey. We're live in Moscow, next.



REPORTER: Did the Comey firing cast a shadow of your talks --

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MIINISTER: Was he fired? You are kidding. You are kidding.




KOSIK: All right. Despite all the upheaval in the White House, it's business as usual in the Oval Office for the Russians. President Trump hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Remember, it was Michael Flynn's meetings with Kislyak that led to the downfall of the former national security adviser, and bizarre optics there, knowing a day after --

BRIGGS: Holy cow, are you kidding?

KOSIK: -- firing Comey, he not only hosts one high-level Russian official, but another who had talked with campaign officials.

BRIGGS: At least, Alison.

U.S. intelligence officials considered Kislyak a top Russian spy, but that didn't stop a warm welcome from President Trump. Unlike the greeting he had for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key U.S. ally. Just saying. Those are some optics for you.

The U.S. press pool was not allowed into the White House for the meetings with the Russians. Russian state media was permitted inside, and these photos were taken by them. And just this morning, Russian state media announced President Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July.

So, let's go live to Moscow and bring in CNN's Diana Magnay.

Diana, we know that Putin was even stopped at a hockey game yesterday to talk about all of this and the absurd world of U.S. politics right now. What's the reaction in Moscow to all of this?

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Putin acted surprised when he was asked about this, said it has nothing to do with us, it's completely within the president's competence to fire whoever he wants.

And, of course, you heard from Sergey Lavrov, the sarcastic tone which he batted off U.S. reporters' questions about this.

So, I think to a certain extent Russia feels superior, a sense of scorn at the political chaos that they're seeing in the United States. It makes the U.S. look bad. In Russia, that's not necessarily a bad thing here.

But at the same time, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said we hope that this doesn't affect U.S./Russia relations, and I think that's very important. Russia does want a partner in the White House who is predictable on issues like Syria, on issues like the fight against international terrorism, and something -- that is something that President Trump at this stage does not appear to be.

As you said, there is now talk that they will be meeting, President Trump and President Putin, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July, and presumably, Sergey Lavrov and Rex Tillerson will be having to discuss how to make that meeting work, and Syria and the fight against terrorism will be top of that agenda. We know they spoke about Syria and Russia's proposed plans for so-called de- escalation zones last night. But there are blocks in the way, certainly from the U.S. side, namely Iran, Iranian proxies in Syria and the role of Assad.

Back to you.

BRIGGS: Diana Magnay live for us in Moscow -- great reporting.

Look at that, Alison. The Russians, they wanted someone predictable in the Oval Office. You talk about backfires.

KOSIK: Yes, that is absolutely not what they're getting!

BRIGGS: That could not deliver.

KOSIK: All right. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos getting quite a reception at a commencement speech in Florida.


KOSIK: We're going to explain that reaction and what DeVos says about it. That's next.


[04:22:29] KOSIK: Aetna is saying good-bye to Obamacare. The insurance giant is pulling out of its last two remaining exchanges, Delaware and Nebraska, in 2018. Aetna originally was in 15 states. It's just the latest insurer to abandon Obamacare. Humana and United Health, they have also left most markets.

The companies blame costs. For example, Aetna says it's lost millions since 2014 and that's because policy-holders rack up bigger bills than premiums cover, and insurers don't know if the government will continue to share the cost under the GOP replacement bill. So, the uncertainty is adding to this as well.

However, what we will know is how the new bill impacts the deficit, and soon, because the Congressional Budget Office says it will have its estimate in less than two weeks. The House has changed several things since the last report and passed the bill without a fresh score. The more recent reviews say the bill reduces the deficit $150 billion by 2026. However, it also leaves 24 million more people uninsured.

BRIGGS: Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, hoping her next commencement speech goes better than her first. DeVos addressing a hostile crowd of graduates at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black school in Florida. Listen.


BETSY DEVOS, SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: -- Jackson, board of trustees, thank you so very, very much for this great honor and privilege.


I am honored to --



BRIGGS: The graduates booed, standing and turning their backs on DeVos as she spoke, drowning out some of her remarks.

KOSIK: Very uncomfortable to watch. The rude reception prompting the university president to intervene.


EDISON JACKSON, PRESIDENT, BETHUNE-COOKMAN UNIVERSITY: If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.


KOSIK: All right. Students had petitioned school officials to choose another commencement speaker. A primary reason for protesting DeVos' appearance is her statement which she later recanted that founders of historically black colleges and universities were, quote, real pioneers of school choice.

[04:25:00] After the speech, DeVos tweeted this, saying: I have respect for all of those who attended Bethune-Cookman, including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me today. So, she took it on the chin.

BRIGGS: All right. The Department of Homeland Security appears close to an expanded ban on laptops and other large electronics, which could include all flights from Europe to the U.S. Officials are meeting today with representatives of the airline industry to discuss security issues. The initial ban on laptops and tablet devices applied only to U.S.-bound flights from ten airports in the Middle East and North Africa. It was based on fears the terrorists have found a way to convert laptops into bombs capable of bringing down a commercial airliner.

Ahead, James Comey reportedly told associates the president was outside the realm of normal, even, quote, crazy in recent months. So, if that was Comey's mindset of the president, what was the president's mindset leading up to his firing of James Comey?