Return to Transcripts main page


New Details About Why Trump Fired His FBI Director; Chaffetz Asks Inspector General to Probe Comey Firing. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 06:00   ET



DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Very simply, he was not doing a good job.

[05:58:48] SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When you fire probably, arguably, the most respected person in America, you better have a very good explanation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we have now is really a looming constitutional crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jason Chaffetz will now ask the Department of Justice to look into the firing of James Comey.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He had been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: It is clear that it's now time for a special prosecutor.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Thursday, 6 a.m. here in New York. President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey has ignited a firestorm in Washington. We have new details for you about what led the president to this decision as the White House continues to change their explanation for why this happened.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Amid all the indication that the president ousted Comey because of the Russian investigations, the probe grinds on. The Senate Intel Committee has now issued a subpoena for fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, and in just hours, they're going to question the acting FBI director, the man who took Comey's place in a public hearing.

We have it all covered. Let's begin with CNN's Joe Johns, live at the White House.

Good morning, Joe.


That firestorm over the firing of James Comey only intensifying here in Washington. There are new reports suggesting the president of the United States was stewing for weeks over Comey and very much wanted him out.


JOHNS (voice-over): New details emerging about Donald Trump's closely-held decision to fire James Comey. A long-time friend of the president telling CNN he was white-hot over the Russia investigation. That as anger had been mounting since Comey rejected the president's still-unproven claims that President Obama wiretapped him.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I have no information that supports those tweets.

JOHNS: CNN reported two months ago that Director Comey was in disbelief over Trump's baseless allegation about Obama, but "The New York Times" going a step further this morning.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST/"NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: He felt the president was beyond normal, almost crazy.

JOHNS: A source close to the president telling CNN Trump was spewing expletives over this comment Comey made during last week's Senate judiciary hearing.

COMEY: It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly, it wouldn't change the decision.

JOHNS: Other sources say the president ultimately concluded that Comey was, quote, his own man, fiercely independent, ultimately firing him for never providing Trump personal loyalty and because the Russia investigation was accelerating.

CNN also learning that Comey requested additional resources for the Russia probe from the Justice Department the week before he was fired, a report the DOJ denies.

This as the White House continues to change the narrative on how the president reached his decision. Initially touting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's letter, which cited Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation as the primary reason Comey should be fired.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: The president took the advice of the deputy attorney general who oversees the director of the FBI, brought those concerns to the attorney general, who brought them to the president, and they made a decision to remove him.

JOHNS: The president's explanation changing yesterday amid mountain scrutiny.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why did you fire Director Comey?

TRUMP: Because he wasn't doing a good job.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: Frankly, he's been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected.

JOHNS: White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters Wednesday that the reason for the firing actually went beyond Rosenstein's letter.

SANDERS: 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. Any person of legal mind and authority knows what a big deal that is.

JOHNS: Huckabee Sanders calling Comey's actions an atrocity, but in November, she had a very different take on NEW DAY.

SANDERS: I think everybody wants to attack Comey and make him the enemy here. I think he's done the right thing by at least opening it up and searching for those answers.


JOHNS: In the midst of all of this, the president meeting on Wednesday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.

Kislyak is known to work very closely with Russian intelligence services. You'll also remember he's the individual the president's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had contacts with; caused trouble for him. Flynn was eventually fired.

American journalists were not allowed into that meeting. The pictures of that meeting were shot by a Russian official photographer and tweeted out.

CAMEROTA: Right, Joe. I mean, that is just one of the many ironies. We're now getting our information here in the U.S. from the Russian official photographer. Joe, thank you very much.

Let's bring in our panel. We have a lot to discuss. We have CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein; politics editor at "The Root," Jason Johnson; and White House correspondent for "The Washington Examiner," Sarah Westwood. Great to have all of you.

Ron, the pieces of this puzzle...


CAMEROTA: ... seem to be coming together this morning, and there are a lot of pieces of this puzzle that went into whatever this prompted President Trump to make this decision about Comey this week. What do you see?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I think the more evidence we have, the more clear it was that the only thing that is really relevant here is that the president fired the senior law enforcement official leading the investigation into the conduct of his campaign in 2016 and whether it colluded with the Russians in their efforts to destabilize the U.S. election, and everything else is noise. I mean, that is ultimately what happened.

And I think you have to see this as part of a pattern we have talked about before. It goes along with the attacks on the "fake news," on "so-called judges" who rule against him, on members of Congress who vote against him. I mean, this is a president who simply is systemically committed to delegitimizing and undermining any institution that he believes can check or challenge him. And I think we all know that now. And all of the members of Congress know that now with this decision.

[06:05:13] And really, the only question is how does the political system respond? Does it have the will to defend the traditional checks and balances that have constrained the arbitrary exercise of presidential power? That is the question. Now, President Trump has kind of indicated his direction. The real issue is how everyone else responds.

CUOMO: Sarah, what do we know on that, in terms of any type of bipartisan resolve? I mean, McConnell seemed to throw a big bucket of cold water on the idea that there would be any legislation for a special prosecutor.

SARAH WESTWOOD, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER": Right. I think the Republicans have been resistant to the idea of a special prosecutor since that was first floated at the beginning of President Trump's term, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions was coming in, and there were doubts about the truthfulness of his Senate testimony in his confirmation hearing.

And unless another shoe drops in terms of evidence or a development that implicates more of President Trump's team, I don't think Republicans feel as though they're in a position where they have to support a special prosecutor.

At this point, the Trump administration is scrambling to find someone whose law enforcement credentials are unimpeachable. Because that's really the only way that they can move on from this controversy, is to nominate someone who is a bipartisan choice to put Democrats in a position of having to obstruct someone who is well-qualified, if that's the route they plan to take.

Because if they do nominate someone to replace Director Comey that comes from a political background who has a resume that isn't up to snuff, they're going to face the wrath of Democrats who are already energized heading into the mid-terms and who view this as one of President Trump's biggest misstep to date.

CAMEROTA: Jason, how do you see it? JASON JOHNSON, POLITICS EDITOR, "THE ROOT": Like I said, this is --

this is how democracy dies. And that's not hyperbole. When you have a situation where issues of national security are sublimated in favor of the personal desires, whims and loyalty pledges to the president of the United States, that is no longer a functioning democracy.

This is a clarion call to every single member of Congress to stand up and call for an independent investigation of this entire administration, above and beyond what happened with Russia.

So it doesn't matter who the president picks. It doesn't matter who he picks to replace him. This is a constitutional and a sovereignty crisis.

And I have to say this, Chris and Alisyn. I think this is really important at the end of the day. Comey probably should have gotten fired anyway. But the timing of this is what makes it so problematic. And the reasons behind why the administration did it, basically because he wouldn't give them a cheat sheet about his testimony last week. That's not how democracy is supposed to function.

CUOMO: Well, Ron, let's unpack that for one moment. The initial defense of the move, in terms of political fallout from the White House, was, "What are you Democrats so upset about? You've been trashing Comey forever." All the big-shot Democrats were saying he was in the wrong job or he should be out of a job.

But the tale is in the timing. If he had taken out Comey when he first came into office, not out of deference to Democrats, because he didn't like what happened with the Clinton e-mail investigation either, although there were a lot of contraindications that the president seemed very supportive of Comey, that would be one thing. But doing it now, it strains credibility to believe it could be about Clinton. Fair point?

BROWNSTEIN: Right. I think, look, it's beyond straining credibility.

You know, we talked about this before. I mean, the original explanations were so palpably absurd, so paper-thin that it kind of reinforces my belief that the White House often really is not interested in making arguments that they think will kind of pass the plausibility test with the broad public. In many cases, the only goal is to provide what Kellyanne Conway called "alternative facts" to a conservative transmission belt, a media ecosystem that is designed to activate and energize their supporters.

You know, like the idea that president -- the real issue in 2016 was that President Obama allegedly tapped, you know, candidate Trump.

So this is not really about, I think, talking to the broad country and trying to put out a convincing argument that after a year and a half of chanting, "Lock her up" and accusing the FBI of being too soft on Hillary Clinton, that suddenly, they were gripped by a crisis of conscience, that the FBI had been unfair to her? I mean, that was never going to get off the ground. And to this -- one last other point, no matter who they appoint to

replace James Comey, that person enters office with the knowledge that the guillotine fell on James Comey precisely as the Russia investigation was heating up. So no matter who enters this job, they -- the president has sent a clear message that he simply does not respect the boundaries, the limits on the arbitrary exercise of presidential power vis-a-vis the FBI that, I think, have governed other presidents. And so that will always be there.

And again, the issue is will -- will Congress and other institutions react as forcefully as they did, for example, when Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox? And so far the evidence is no, that we have seen this more through a tribal lens than through a national security or institutional or constitutional lens.

[06:10:14] CAMEROTA: OK, so Sarah, that leads us to the deputy A.G., Rod Rosenstein. Because he is the person who the president said presented the letter to him, made the case for Comey to be gone. The president got that letter and immediately acted. That was one of the first narratives coming out of the White House.

So now there's this "Washington Post" reporting, and it is based on a single source. We should say, we normally need two sources. But this one is based on a single source. And it is that Rod Rosenstein so -- was so confounded by the president basically throwing him under the bus and making him take the blame for this, that he threatened to quit over this.

I mean, to your point, Sarah, about how, you know, there needs to be people who have great credentials and who are highly regarded around the president. He is one of them, but now we see tension there.

WESTWOOD: And the narrative surrounding Rod Rosenstein's arrival at the Department of Justice being the catalyst for the decision is one of the areas where the White House has been inconsistent in putting forward this timeline.

The White House came out yesterday and then said that President Trump had been stewing on Comey's performance since inauguration day, that he's long been displeased with the FBI director. And yet, the decision to remove him was executed so hastily that Comey discovered he was fired from seeing it on TV while he was on the other side of the country.

So it was executed with such urgency that it really doesn't fit with this argument that this was the result of long-simmering tensions and months of deliberation. That's a question that the White House hasn't quite answered.

But to Ron's point about this being all about stymieing the Russian investigation. What all the reports point to is really that the president was more concerned about FBI Director Comey's public pronunciations about the Russia investigation and less about the internal progression of the Russian investigation.

He was unhappy that Comey repeatedly referenced the Russia investigation. He was unhappy that Comey wouldn't publicly speak to the wiretapping allegations. He was unhappy with Comey's public displays of disloyalty or public displays of independence. What he wanted that public facing echoing of the White House narrative, that this investigation wasn't serious.

CUOMO: Well, Jason, you know, one of the reasons that it might be a brilliant political move for the president to say, "Bring me legislation for a special prosecutor" is because, if he has nothing to fear about the substance of the investigation -- and he keeps saying that, and his supporters keep saying, "You're not going to find any proof of collusion. We don't care how long you look" -- then this would be the best political move.

Put it in the hands of three judges. Let them pick the person. Let it be independent. Sign the legislation. Show "I did transparency in a way that no president would. Nobody was going to sign this law the way I did." And he would remove himself.

But we see no indication of that, and it raises the question, who are you going to believe about any of these matters now? The FBI is compromised, because the director was removed, and a new director may be afraid. And the White House came up with this ugly contrivance of trying to get rid of Comey when their reason was obvious and different than the one they offered. Whom do you believe?

JOHNSON: Well, look, no one is going to believe this White House. No one in the administration even believes the story. That's why they keep changing things, and that's why there are reports that the president was so unhappy that no one was out there defending him.

This is a uniquely damaging, irresponsible and petty type of behavior. I mean, literally yesterday, you had the Nixon Library trolling President Trump on Twitter, saying Nixon didn't fire the head of the FBI. That's how bad this has gotten.

So it doesn't matter who he picks. But Chris, I think the larger problem here, and we saw this with the intelligence agencies last fall, with Trump attacking them and now going after the FBI.

These are career civil servants. These are people who are dedicated to the United States. If he was angry about Comey for not stopping leaks before, he just needs to wake up tomorrow morning, because the leaks are going to be coming fast and furious for the next couple of weeks as people in the FBI feel like, "Well, look, if you're not going to respect the job we're going to do, I guess we're going to have to take it to the press."

CAMEROTA: We need to talk about what Congress is going to do. Hold that thought, Ron. Because we're going to come back and talk about all of that.

CUOMO: All right. House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz is asking the Justice Department's inspector general to review the firing of James Comey. Remember, the inspector general was already reviewing Comey. That adds to the awkwardness of having someone else review Comey within the Department of Justice, which is what the White House did in the form of Rod Rosenstein. That all this comes as the Senate Intel Committee has just issued a subpoena to fire national -- to fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux live on Capitol Hill with more. Of course, the reporting had been that Flynn wanted an immunity deal. There was no movement on that. Now he gets a subpoena.

[06:15:04] SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Chris. I mean, what you're seeing here in Congress is investigations being ramped up on all sides. Some of these, of course, already in progress.

On the House side, you had mentioned the House Oversight chair, Jason Chaffetz, already involved and charged with an investigation into the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mails. Now calling for the inspector general at the Justice Department to ask those tough questions about what was behind Comey's firing.

And really, what makes this extraordinary, Chris, is that this is one of the few Republicans who is not in support of Trump's decision, not silent on Trump's decision, but asking the tough questions, at least planning to. He is on his way out. He has nothing to lose. That may be part of that reasoning there.

On the Senate side, look to the Senate Intelligence Committee. You had mentioned, of course, that they've subpoenaed the former, fired national security adviser Mike Flynn. This is over documents regarding his relationship with Russian officials.

They -- the committee very frustrated they didn't get it on a voluntary basis. They didn't get what they needed. And so they are now forcing them to turn over those documents. We are learning to expect additional subpoenas, as well. That same committee today is going to be holding this open hearing on global threats. It's an annual open-to-the-public hearing that they have.

But what is different about today is all eyes on who's going to be attending that hearing. It was supposed to be Comey. He is not going to be there. Instead, it's the acting FBI director. That is Andrew McCabe. But he will go forward and talk about and potentially be asked about what was behind Comey's firing.

And finally, look to next week. Next week, that is when Comey goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Of course, it is going to be a closed hearing, and so we are still going to have a lot of questions about what happens behind those closed doors -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: There sure are, Suzanne. Thank you very much for all of that reporting. So subpoenas, testimony and inspector general reviews. Where is all of this headed? We discuss the actions Congress will take next.


[06:20:59] CUOMO: The Senate Intel Committee is ramping up his investigation in the possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The panel issuing a subpoena for fired former national security advisor Michael Flynn, not about testifying yet but documents related to his interactions with Russian officials.

Let's bring back our panel. Ron Brownstein, Jason Johnson, Sarah Westwood.

Ron, we had ended on you. The significance of this move?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, first, can I just -- just respond to one thing that Sarah said earlier? That -- from the reporting, the president was more upset about the public actions of James Comey than the private. I think that is a distinction without a difference.

First because it is equally inappropriate for the president to, I think, try to shape the public utterances of the law enforcement official.

But more importantly, in effect, what President Trump has been trying, I have felt from the beginning, has been trying to do with the FBI director is lock him into a conclusion about the investigation that would shape the -- that would prejudge the outcome and ultimately shape and constrain the investigation. I mean, the constant kind of -- even again, in his statement about the dismissal that he had told me repeatedly that I was not the subject of investigation, which FBI sources are telling the "Wall Street Journal," which is completely false.

All of this is about, I think, trying to lock the FBI into a conclusion from the outset that would make it very difficult to reach a different end point. Look, I think the Senate intelligence investigation is the one real game remaining in town. But it does have limits.

You know, a congressional investigation, as opposed to the criminal investigation, is a very different beast. And often in previous scandals, it has been personal legal liability, criminal liability for individuals anywhere involved in the chain of the story that has proven the break that moves forward our understanding of what truly happened. So yes, it is an important front, but it is not the most important front. That remains the FBI.

CAMEROTA: Let's talk about Michael Flynn, Jason. Because he has said through his lawyer he has a story to tell. Then he doesn't produce the documents that Congress asks for, and they have to subpoena them. So what game is being played here?

JOHNSON: I mean, Michael Flynn is still under some desperate belief that this is like law and order and that he somehow is going to get immunity so he can go in and tell a story.

And Congress, the Senate, at least at this particular point, is like, we're not going to give you immunity unless you can provide us with some information that says that you're going to be helpful in this investigation.

And I think there's a good chance, given that he's sort of stalling. He's dragging his feet.

Look, Michael Flynn has already lost his job. He still wants to be able to be a power broker in these sort of international relations issues. So I don't see any reason that he's really going to turn any damning evidence over about Donald Trump or even if he were in a private testimony he would do so. I think right now, it's pretty much a red herring unless he can produce the documents the Senate wants.

CUOMO: Sarah, the McCabe testimony today, obviously, it was supposed to be Comey. It is not point specific. It was really an open public review for oversight purposes. What are we expecting today?

WESTWOOD: Obviously, we're going to see a lot of questions about the series of events that led up to the removal of James Comey. There were reports that the Justice Department is denying that Comey had requested more resources for the Russian investigation just before his removal. You can expect that that will come up at the hearing today.

And look, part of the reason why we can expect to see more out of the Senate Intelligence Committee is because it's going to start moving towards doing more of these closed hearings. And it's counterintuitive to think that that's how the investigation moves along.

But if you watched Sally Yates's testimony, if you watched James Clapper's testimony, when they were asked some of the meatier questions, they had to deflect, because they were in that open setting, because they could not discuss classified information. But officials, they don't have that luxury when they're in a closed classified setting. They have to answer those questions. And so that's where the real progress and comfort in this investigation, not in these open hearings but in these closed ones.

CAMEROTA: But in terms of real progress, Ron, here's what is so confounding. We keep seeing these, you know, guests, who are these subjects being called in front of the Intel Committee or the Judiciary Committee.

[06:25:06] And then we have, on our program, members on those committees saying, "What we really need is a special prosecutor. What we really need is an independent commission on this."

And so it just leaves you wondering what can Congress really do if they sort of don't trust their own powers to make progress on this?

BROWNSTEIN: Look, I think there are limits. As I said, I think there are limits to what a congressional investigation can do. And that ultimately, the main arena, although the Intelligence Committee investigation is important, the main arena is the FBI investigation.

I mean, you know, there are questions even about the full extent of the access of the Intelligence Committees to the underlining signals intelligence, for example, that may be relevant to this investigation.

You know, I was talking about it before. If you go back and you look at what happened after Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox in October 1973, what you saw was a broad range of voices, both inside and outside of the government.

Across party lines essentially uniting to defend the rule of law. The people who criticized the decision, including Barry Goldwater, who was the Republican presidential nominee immediately before Richard Nixon. The president who fired Cox.

The ABA, the American Bar Association, held an emergency meeting to condemn the action. The AFL-CIO, which had been neutral in the '72 campaign rather pointedly, unanimously condemned it and called for impeachment. In fact, that was the beginning of that process.

Not saying that we're anywhere near that today, but what I am saying is that, you know, President Trump has, I think, absorbed the lesson that Republicans and Congress are willing to accept almost any kind of infringement on traditional checks and balances, because they view them, view themselves as part of a common political project with them, and they want him to sign their legislation.

He has signaled his direction, that he will fire Sally Yates, fire the district attorney of Southern New York, U.S. attorney. People are investigating people in his orbit.

The real question is, is there any pushback? Because without it, you can bet this is not the last time we have seen some of these traditional boundaries be overrun.

CUOMO: So Jason, what would be pushback? We hear talk of a special prosecutor. But first of all, we don't know what there would be to prosecute right now. There's not a criminal investigation that's going on for him to harness. And there doesn't seem to be the bipartisan approval.

OK. Then you have Blumenthal saying, "Hey, this may be grounds for impeachment." I don't know where he's coming. It seems like he's matching hyperbole on that. And then you've got Chaffetz saying, "I want the I.G. to look at this." Chaffetz, of course, a Republican. What do you see here in terms of the most likely pushback against the Comey ouster?

JOHNSON: I think there's a chance of the I.G. coming in. But I honestly think that most of these members of Congress, certainly what we're hearing from McConnell, certainly what we're hearing from Paul Ryan is they're going to try to slow roll this as long as they can. I don't think they want a sort of modern-day Ken Starr running around, snooping inside this investigation.

That's why you've seen so much focus on it. You even saw it in some of the hearings this week, where members of the Republican Party were saying, "Well, you know, but did it affect the election? Did it affect the election? If it didn't affect the election, should we really be digging into it?"

To which I've always felt the problem is this. It doesn't matter if it affected the election. Attempted murder is still a crime. If the Russians attempted to do this and the Trump campaign helped with it, that's still a crime, and it's still worth investigating. CUOMO: I'll tell you what. That image from yesterday just sticks

with me of Lavrov laughing at the media when they're asking about the Comey firing and the Russia investigation. And the secretary of state saying mum. Boy, the irony in that.

Panel, thank you very much. Appreciate your being with us.

All right. So when all the investigations are done, then what? Where does it really lead you? And that's what Alisyn was talking about. What can Congress really get done? Wasn't this always going to reside with the FBI? Does the president have to answer to the law here? We're going to debate it next.