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White House Changes Story Again on Comey Firing. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 07:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael Flynn now subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

[07:00:04] SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: The investigation is barely beginning.

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: The White House owes the American public an explanation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. There is a firestorm in Washington over the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The timing and the story from the White House getting shot down from a dozen different directions. There is a flood of new details for you on what led to President Trump's decision.

The White House is continuing to change the story and the timing and the reasoning into why Comey had to go.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Meanwhile, the president is talking about his new job in a just-released interview with "TIME" magazine. Mr. Trump discussing the combative nature of his White House and "The Art of the Deal" on Capitol Hill.

So we will bring all of that to you. We have it covered. Let's begin with CNN's Joe Johns. He's live at the White House.

Good morning, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. It will be very interesting to see what the day brings. And you're absolutely right. The explanation for the firing of James Comey has been very much a moving target over the last 24 hours.

Just yesterday, they were even blaming morale at the FBI. And now we learned that the president of the United States apparently was stewing, perhaps for weeks, over the FBI director; and it was the president who wanted him out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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 mounting 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'd 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: And in the midst of the continuing investigations into Russian interference in the last election, the president met just yesterday with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States in the White House. United States journalists were not invited in. It was photographed by an official Russian photographer and tweeted out.

Chris and Alisyn, back to you.

CUOMO: Joe, appreciate it.

Let's bring in our panel. CNN political analyst David Gregory and editor at large, Chris Cillizza; and politics editor at "The Root," Jason Johnson.

David Gregory, an open letter to the deputy attorney general by "The New York Times" editorial board. Rod Rosenstein, whether he likes it or not, is at the center of this move. He's being used by the White House as a rationale for why they removed Comey, despite the flood of indications that this was not about Hillary Clinton's investigation but about Russia.

[07:05:06] They call on him to appoint a special counsel to restore Americans' faith in the administration of justice. And to do so, and to check the president, even if it costs them his job, how important is Rosenstein right now since that memo he decided to write?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Critically important. Because Rosenstein, who has a great reputation, the former U.S. attorney in Baltimore, is seen widely among career prosecutors and law enforcement folks as highly credible; only on the job for a couple of weeks.

And the reporting here is critical, right? The White House is saying that he acted on his own, that Rosenstein acted on his own to bring up concerns about Comey's performance. And that led to his firing by the president once Rosenstein and the attorney general recommended that.

I don't believe that. I want to hear from Rosenstein himself about what happened. Did he act on his own accord? And does he stand behind the firing of Comey under these circumstances? I mean, let's just pull back and look at what our reporting here at CNN and on other outlets is telling us. The president of the United States, someone we know to be impulsive,

undisciplined, inexperienced and lacking temperament. Decided because he was mad at the FBI director, because he wasn't loyal enough and was aggressive in pursuing this investigation, that he would fire him? This is precisely why you have an FBI director who is in place for ten years. To be immune from that kind of political pique on the part of the president, especially when there's an investigation bearing down on him.

So the rationale doesn't make sense. The White House explanations do not have credibility. And even though there is a basis for firing Jim Comey because of his conduct in the Clinton e-mail scandal. This thing has been horribly handled.

CAMEROTA: Chris, there is another issue about Rosenstein that we need to explore. "The Washington Post" has reporting this morning. CNN has not yet been able to confirm it or match it. However, it's that Rod Rosenstein was so unhappy about being thrown under the bus, having this decision to fire Comey pinned on him, which was one of the narratives coming out of the White House, that he threatened to resign.

So today we are left with why didn't he resign? What was said to him that made him feel comfortable in the role of catalyst for all of this -- Chris.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: I think we have to go back and remember this is -- we're now 30-plus hours into this. There's probably been ten different stories offered by the White House as to why exactly Jim Comey was fired. That's stunning.

I think Rod Rosenstein saw the writing on the wall here, and I trust my colleagues -- former colleagues, "The Washington Post," saw the writing on the wall here. And he thought, "Wait a minute, this has 'scapegoat' written all over it. You know, I'm the guy who's going to be the fall guy in all of this." And believed that. You know, he and Trump had had a conversation on Monday.

It is clear that Trump was unhappy with Comey as the FBI director and was looking for an underpinning to, you know, sort of the backbone to say, "This is why I did it." It's not going to say, "I fired him, because he wasn't -- he wasn't loyal enough to me." But he was looking for that underpinning. And it looks like Rosenstein gave him that underpinning.

Just one more point. David mentioned this. The idea that Donald Trump fired or wanted James Comey fired, because he was -- he was too much of his own man. Isn't that the point? And that's why we have an FBI director. That's why these people -- that's like saying that Supreme Court justice. They're not loyal enough to me. That's the whole point. That's why we have these separations of power. That's why you have people who -- because no one is above the law, because that's why the whole system exists.

CUOMO: Right. I mean, look, I'm sure that Rosenstein is trying to figure out how to deal with the fallout from this situation, because that memo on its own face, people who were cited in it, whether it's Alberto Gonzalez or Ayres, who worked for Bush. Ayres said the reasoning is a sham in that memo.

Alberto Gonzalez came out and said, yes, the timing is really weird here that's going on. So the basis on that memo are getting criticism. And that's on Rosenstein. But he is going to be saved, I think, Jason Johnson here, from any intense scrutiny, because of how obvious it is that this wasn't about the Clinton investigation, and the best evidence of that is the president's own letter.

That second paragraph, where he says something we have been unable to verify with any source at the FBI and anyone who knows James Comey. Which is that it was communicated to the president on at least three occasions that he is not part of the investigation.

One, why would he put that in there if it's not about the Russia investigation? And two, what does it mean if the president is lying? Or that that's not true when he was never told that?

[07:10:05] JASON JOHNSON, POLITICS EDITOR, "THE ROOT": Right. It just seems, Chris -- it seems really unlikely that James Comey would have a sit-down with President Trump and say, "You're not under investigation." What good investigator does that? That doesn't make any sense when it's an ongoing investigation.

We know the president has had a tendency to lie. But even going back to Rosenstein. And I pity him in a way in the situation. If your boss comes to you and says, "Look, tell me how to do something." Right? You know, it's his job to provide that information. But it's sort of like O.J.: "I'm not saying I did it, but here's how I would if you had to."

And so, you know, he didn't want to end up getting blamed for this ultimately, because he still has to walk through the hallways of the FBI and maintain relations with career -- with career investigators; and he wants to make sure that the blood is not on his hands as the scandal spreads.

GREGORY: But it's also important to remember that, you know, there -- there was a legitimate beef. And I'm sure Rosenstein felt that with how Comey behaved himself, because he is among those who -- career people who thought this was outrageous the way Comey behaved.

But again, you have to then look at the broader context. Why is Trump wanting to do this now? Why is he so white-hot about this now? Imagine in the president's thinking. I'm sure he thought, "OK, I'm listening to Comey here." This guy feels bad about all the criticism he's getting over Hillary Clinton and how he handled that. So he's going to just go crazy on this Russia investigation and he's never going to let me alone.

We've got to get rid of this guy. I mean, imagine the thought process like that. And Brett Stevens has got a great op-ed in "The Times" this morning, says the tells are easy with Donald Trump. He mentions the three times that he claims that he wasn't the source of an investigation.

Which by the way, even if that were true, it could change. You know that he's obsessed about this investigation, because it's sort of taking over everything else, only to be outdone by the president's own reaction. And firing without a basis of Comey in this timing, that it really threatens to undermine so much more of his presidency.

CAMEROTA: So Chris, we have a new window into the president's thinking, because there's this new "TIME" magazine out. President Trump is on the cover. And there is a pretty insightful interview with him, so let's read some of it.

This is about whether he was asked whether he thinks his White House is too combative. Here's what he says. "I think it is. It could be my fault. I don't want to necessarily blame. But there's a great meanness out there. And I'm surprised at. I mean, I'm surprised."

I mean, it's funny today. You hear him pivot.

CILLIZZA: That's what I was going to say. He both takes the blame and then blames the meanness in society in literally one paragraph. That's -- that's him. He just kind of says stuff.

I do think he has it right in the first part of it, saying, "Could it be my fault?" I think the in-fighting within this administration is clearly his fault. Because he set up a structure from the top down, from the top four people who -- that's Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon.

They all have amorphous roles. It's not clear who's in charge of what. He plays the off one another. He plays favorites. So he set that up. But then. And I can't -- I know this is an inside media point. But it is illustrative, I think of the broader issue within this White House.

There were 30 people that "The Washington Post" talked to to write their story about Comey.

"The New York Times" talked to a dozen people, "The Wall Street Journal." CNN. You have -- it is a -- all White Houses leak.

I have never seen a White House not only leak quantitatively the -- just the raw number, but also qualitatively. People who were saying, like, He was screaming. He was white-hot. You know, the image painted of him is not -- called not favorable is to do him a favor.

You know, I think that that is important, too. So he has a structure where he's not only isolated, but everyone seems to be positioning. Some jumping off the ship. All of that -- 30 people willing to talk about how he mishandled the James Comey firing. That's remarkable.

CUOMO: Well, and David, look, what does that do? That is going to fuel a defensive posture by the president. I mean, I think it has been a pretty consistent question about how well-served he is by the people around him. And this is a man who's used to doing things unilaterally. This is

never a man who was known for building a strong team around him. He has his own mind; e has his own gut, and it's gotten him very far. The question is can it take him from here to where he wants to be?

GREGORY: You know, anybody in his position is going to go through this incredible transition. You know, President Truman said when Eisenhower wanted to get into politics, he sort of said, "Oh, he's going to have a tough time. He's used to ordering people around, "Do this; go there.' And if he becomes president, he's going to see it's not so easy to deal with an entrenched bureaucracy in the government." Donald Trump has found that in spades.

But you know what? I'm worried about meanness at my kid's school. What I'm worried about here is abuse of power and preservation of democratic ideals. And that is what President Trump ought to be thinking a little bit more about.

[07:15:11] The other piece of this that I think we have to add to the discussion, where is Congress? The news media is doing its job. We'll see if people like Rosenstein ultimately do their job. Where is Congress as a real check and balance? I'm not talking about the Democrats, of course. It's Republicans. Because right now, Republicans are closing ranks. And that's going to be -- going to be a big deal. It's going to help Trump a great deal. Unless there's some pushback to restore some of this appropriate separation. I say that knowing full well this Russia investigation may turn up nothing at all. The president's team may have done nothing at all inappropriate. He's certainly acting suspiciously.

CAMEROTA: Jason, let me read for you. Another piece of this "TIME" -- just-released "TIME" magazine article. This is about how the president considers deal making in his past and business deal making in Washington. He says, "It's never different. I think it's never different; it's always the same. You have to know your subject, and that would be the misconception of misconceptions for that. I mean, it's not that I look. I always had health care for my company. But it's not that it was something that just wasn't high on my list. I had people that negotiated for my company. But in a short period of time, I understood everything there was to know about health care. And we did the right negotiating, and it's actually a very interesting subject."

Now, look, you know what? He is not as great on print -- in print as he is when he speaks. But it's harder to do a dramatic reading from his excerpts than to just listen to him. But you get the point, Jason.

JOHNSON: Yes, yes. I mean, it's hard to read Donald Trump, you know, both psychologically and when he speaks. You know, but I agree, Alisyn. It's key. He is running the presidency like he negotiated businesses. He's using our federal tax money as basically an ATM for his personal business. He has given security clearances to his children and turned the federal government into an internship for his kids. So yes, he is operating the government the way that he operated his

business. The problem is he bankrupted four businesses. And I don't think that we want that to happen in the United States of America.

And I think one of the other things that is really key that I noticed in this interview. The president is still unhealthily obsessed with Bill -- with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. You are president of the United States. It's your job to lead this country forward.

His obsession with beating and reminding people he beat them at the expense of our national security and our economy is a very, very dangerous tendency. It's something I hope he or at least his staff reminds him he needs to get over and move forward.

GREGORY: Just one note on health care real quick. I actually think it's interesting. I think he's rather pragmatic on health care. And I think his own experiences in his company, I'm sure he had generous health care benefits. I think what he's running into is an ideological fight between himself and conservatives who want the market to really take over as opposed to the government being the guarantor. And that's a fight that I don't think he's really raised within his own party and doesn't really realize is there.

CUOMO: Donald Trump. Chris, he wrote in his book some years ago that he believed universal health care was the future.

CILLIZZA: I think he thinks that. And I do think he's a pragmatist. But I do think the telling part of that quote is, you know, "In a very short period of time, I learned everything there is to know about health care."

GREGORY: He didn't.

CILLIZZA: I mean, like, you're talking about a subject that people spend their careers learning on. I mean, I'm sure he got more up to speed on it. But you have to be confident to be president of the United States. Confident of your own abilities. Barack Obama had that, no question. But that sort of insistence that he was able to take in all information as it relates to health care and then -- then do a very good job in his own assessment. Again, Donald Trump, that sentence is the Donald Trump presidency 110, I think, days in, in a nutshell.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you. Great to talk to all of you.

CUOMO: What you hear in that interview is something that's loud and clear, which is the president feels that he's constantly under attack and to the extent that there is criticism, the president deserves the best defense. Trump confidant Roger Stone is here, and he is here to defend the president's firing of James Comey and the president in general.

The question is, did Stone have influence in that decision? We're going to ask him as he walks in and sits down. Good to see you, Mr. Stone.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUOMO: The obvious question is what really led to President Trump abruptly firing FBI Director James Comey. Sources tell CNN that long- time Trump confidant and advisor Roger Stone spoke to the president last week, recommended the dismissal. He's been an outspoken critic now. Stone is here this morning. He denies that he's the source of that story. President Trump says he hasn't spoken to Stone in a long time.

The former Trump campaign advisor, Stone, he has a Netflix documentary premiering on Friday. "Get Me Roger Stone," it's called. And he joins us now.

ROGER STONE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISOR: Chris, nice to see you.

CUOMO: Good to have you.

So the idea that Comey had to go, you were in favor, yes?

STONE: Yes.

CUOMO: And did you communicate that to the president?

STONE: I've always taken the position that conversations between the president and I, in terms of scope or content or frequency in their occasion would remain private. And certainly not going to contradict the president of the United States.

That said, the president made the right decision. Mr. Comey had become unaccountable. He seemed to look into certain crimes that he thought were important, but not other crimes. The president and the country has to have an FBI director who is not politicized who they can trust.

CUOMO: Talk about the grounds. But you know, look, facts matter.

STONE: Yes.

CUOMO: They just do. And it matters that you communicate with the president. And I'm not saying that's something that would be good or bad. But it either is or is not true. And you've said many times, as you know -- you remember what you said -- that you are in regular contact with the president.

[07:25:00] STONE: I said -- I think I said occasionally. I don't speak to him every day. Donald Trump is his own man. There is no Karl -- three is no Karl Rove in this administration.

CUOMO: I -- and I'm not suggesting otherwise. But what I'm saying is why would he deny that he speaks with you on a regular, semi-regular basis? Why would he say he hasn't spoken to you in many months when you have said that's not true?

STONE: I actually don't think that's what he said. "A while," I'm not sure how you define that. But beyond that, I'm just not going to characterize what had been private conversations. Also, Chris, I'm a veteran memo writer. There are ways to communicate besides the telephone.

And Donald Trump is a reader, so I'm a loyal supporter of Donald Trump. I believe he can be a transformational president. I understand his idiosyncratic leadership style. It worked in business. It will work in government. He wasn't vice president for eight years like Nixon or for four years or three years like. He hasn't been a student of the inside-the-Beltway machinations. He's got to get his sea legs, but so far so good.

CUOMO: Telling the truth is not something that you only learn through politics. When he says he hasn't talked to you in a long time, and we know that's not true, it just raises questions. Well, he's not telling the truth about this, and how do we believe him when we go down the line? That's why they keep bringing it up. I just don't understand why the president and people around him get in their own way by these types of things.

STONE: That is a question you have to direct to the president.

CUOMO: Boy, would I love to. He's invited on this show on a daily basis. It would be very helpful for the coverage if we could actually have the president answering direct questions. But he doesn't want the opportunity, Roger.

STONE: Well, I mean, obviously, they have some strategy, and they're going to choose where he speaks. He likes you, Chris. And...

CUOMO: That is an open question.

STONE: I don't think so.

CUOMO: Let's start -- I don't care about me. Let's talk about the situation with James Comey. The second paragraph in the letter, I think, tells us everything we need to know.

If this was not about Comey's disposition on the Russian interference and potential collusion investigation, why include this paragraph, especially when it raises so many questions about whether or not this could be true? "Thank you for -- I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions I'm not under investigation. I nevertheless conclude with the Department of Justice you're not able to effectively lead the bureau."

Now, not only can I not find anybody in the FBI or anybody who knows James Comey who will give that a shred of credibility, they say Comey would never tell the president or someone around him if he had anything to do with an investigation.

But why do you put that in the letter if it's not the focus of where your head is on Comey?

STONE: Simple reason. Because the obvious analogies would be made to Richard Nixon and the Saturday Night Massacre. But it's apples and oranges. Watergate had been in full bloom for 18 months. Nixon...

CUOMO: Criminal investigation. STONE: Nixon himself was under investigation when he dismissed Archibald Cox.

I'm sorry, but the Russian collusion scandal is a scandal in search of evidence. I still see no evidence that would ever hold up in a U.S. court of law of Russian collusion to the Trump campaign.

I myself am very anxious to testify before the Senate and the House committees in public. I don't need a subpoena. I'm not asking for immunity. I'm going to give them whatever documents they've requested. Although I think I -- since I believe I've been under surveillance, they probably have them anyway. They can call me a dirty trickster, but there's one thick that's not in my bag. Treason. And Donald Trump didn't need help from the Russians to beat Hillary Clinton.

CUOMO: All right. Now, you said apples and oranges. To say you haven't seen any evidence is not the same as saying there aren't legitimate questions to investigate. And it is hard to separate the president of the United States from an ongoing investigation of you and others around him and those potential questions.

And firing James Comey is his right. Yes, it's a ten-year term and there's political questions. But the president can do it. But if it were about Hillary Clinton, do it the day you get in office.

When you do it now, the timing tells the story. The Russian investigation, the reports of all these people around him saying he was white-hot about what Comey said in the hearing last week, that he believed that Comey wasn't going to be loyal to him, that he was too into this. He wouldn't investigate the leaks like everything else. This Russian stuff is a hoax. Comey won't let it go. He's got to go. Isn't that the basis for this decision?

STONE: I don't think so. First of all, it is rather disappointing that Mrs. Comey doesn't seem to be interested in -- didn't seem to be interested in looking into the misuse of surveillance data by Susan Rice and perhaps others in the White House; did not want to focus on the question of whether some at Trump Tower had, in fact, been under surveillance.

Let me remind you, Mr. Comey and Admiral Rogers both said under oath in front of the House Intelligence Committee there was no surveillance at Trump Tower. None. That's not true.

CUOMO: How do we know?

STONE: How do we know? "The New York Times" on January 20, page one, "Wiretapped Data Used in Probe of Trump Associates." The story's pretty clear.

CUOMO: But look, the suggestion was that there were things done to target you guys.