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White House's Changing Explanations for Firing of FBI Director Comey Examined; Reporting Indicates Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Threatened to Resign Over White House Narrative that Rosenstein's Memo Convinced President Trump to Fire James Comey. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 08:00   ET




[08:00:05] DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Very simply, he was not doing a good job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 has now asked the Department of Justice to look into the firing of James Comey.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is clear that it is now time for a special prosecutor.


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

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. And we have new details for you about what led to President Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. This as the administration continues to change their explanation, and it comes as the acting FBI director will be on Capitol Hill today to testify before the Senate.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Also, there's a revealing new interview with President Trump in "TIME" magazine. He opens up about the job, about deal making in Washington, and whether his White House is too combative. We've got it all covered. Let's begin with CNN's Joe Johns live at the White House. Good morning, Joe. JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris. No public event

on the president's schedule today as the White House hopes for things to calm down after the uproar over Jim Comey's firing. The shifting explanations haven't helped, and now we're learning that the president was essentially seething over Comey apparently for some time, and it was the president who wanted him out.


JOHNS: New details emerging about President Trump 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 his 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 allegation about Obama. But "The New York Times" going a step further this morning.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": 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 prove 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 PRESIDENT 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 had 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.

HUCKABEE 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.

HUCKABEE 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: And what is Comey saying about all of this? We have at least a hint of this in the letter he sent to the FBI. In it he says the president has a right to fire an FBI director for any reason at all or for no reason. He says he's not going to dwell on the decision or how it was made. And we have this graphic. In the letter he says "I have said to you before that in times of turbulence the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence. What makes leaving the FBI hard is the nature and quality of its people who together make it that rock for America. It is very hard to leave a group of people who are committed only to doing the right thing." So I think you can say there, Chris and Alisyn, that the former FBI director has taken the high road.

[08:05:03] CAMEROTA: OK, Joe, thank you very much for that.

So "The Washington Post" is reporting this morning that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein threatened to resign over being singled out by the White House as the catalyst behind the president's decision to fire James Comey. So joining us by phone now is that "Washington Post" reporter. She is Sari Horwitz. She got that reporting. CNN has not yet been able to match it. Good morning, Sari.


CAMEROTA: What more can you share with us about Rod Rosenstein's threat to resign?

HORWITZ: Well, the main part of that story is that since President Trump fired James Comey the narrative from the White House, as you said, has been this idea generated with the Justice Department. The White House spokesman Sean Spicer said when he announced this the president has accepted the recommendation of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general regarding the dismissal.

And what I learned, what my sources told me, is that was not at all how the firing happened. It was President Trump who decided over last weekend to fire Comey because of his growing anger over the Russia investigation and other issues. And what actually happened is that Trump summoned his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who is his ally, to the White House, along with Rod Rosenstein, and told him that he was firing Trump and to write-up a memo explaining this case against Comey.

CAMEROTA: So is it your understanding and reporting that Rod Rosenstein now feels sort of thrown under the bus.

HORWITZ: He -- what I understand is that he did, and he threatened to resign over this. We don't yet know the administration's reaction except that yesterday they were not still pushing the Rosenstein narrative as hard as they were earlier and Rosenstein is still there. And in case the people watching don't know a lot about him, he was just confirmed by the Senate, Rod Rosenstein. He's a long-time U.S. attorney from Baltimore, highly respected by Democrats and Republicans. He has actually served in both Democrat and Republican administrations starting with Clinton, Bush and Obama.

CAMEROTA: Sari, sorry to interrupt you. But who did he make that threat to?

HORWITZ: We don't know. We know that he made the threat. We know he's still there.

CAMEROTA: When did he make the threat to resign?

HORWITZ: After Tuesday night when the narrative came out of the White House that it was -- that White House officials said Comey was fired because senior Justice Department officials concluded he had violated the DOJ principals and procedures last year in the Hillary Clinton investigation. What of course we are now hearing is this really had to do with the Russia investigation and the idea that Comey was not loyal and supportive, President Trump felt, to him.

CAMEROTA: Sari, do you know why Rod Rosenstein did not resign? Why did he decide not to?

HORWITZ: We don't know that yet. We're working on that. But the White House did sort of back off yesterday and especially into the evening of pushing the narrative that Rod Rosenstein was the reason behind this and the president just accepted his recommendation. So we know that there was a softening of the White House narrative regarding Rosenstein.

CAMEROTA: CNN along with other media outlets went to Rod Rosenstein's house -- he lives in Bethesda, Maryland -- this morning to try to ask him the questions about this. And if you have a monitor, Sari, you can see that he happily jumped into his vehicle without answering any of the reporter's questions. When they asked are you going to resign, did you want to resign, and he obviously declined answering any questions there. But is it your sense that Rod Rosenstein sort of didn't know what he was in store for when he took this job?

HORWITZ: What I understand from my sources is that Rosenstein was surprised by the White House narrative coming out putting this all on him and on a memo. The officials in the White House released a memo on Tuesday from him laying out the rationale behind Comey's dismissal and attributed it to the handling of the Clinton case. And they said that Rosenstein began examining Comey's shortly after being sworn into office two weeks ago. So they really put this on him as the prime mover of the decision to fire Comey, and what I understand is that it is absolutely not the truth.

CAMEROTA: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary for the White House, was on another morning show this morning, and she said she didn't know anything about his offer to resign. She also said this about whether or not the president directed Rosenstein to come up with some evidence. Listen to this.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: He did not direct him to write the context of the memo. He asked him to put the comments that he had already made directly to the president in writing.

[08:10:01] Again, I think that you're trying to beat up the process. But the point here is that the findings in the letter, in the recommendation, were original thoughts by Mr. Rosenstein.


CAMEROTA: Sari, does that comport with your reporting?

HORWITZ: What I was told from my sources is that the president in his meeting with Jeff Sessions and with Rod Rosenstein laid out an outline of his rationale for why Comey should be fired and did direct them to file a memo.

CAMEROTA: Sari Horwitz, thank you very much for sharing your reporting with us this morning. Obviously, we will continue to follow what happens next for Rod Rosenstein. Thanks so much for being here. Chris?

CUOMO: All right, well, look, it is a very troubling report. And let's talk about what it means. We have CNN political analyst David Gregory, CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza, and chief White House correspondent for the "Associated Press" Julie Pace.

David Gregory, if it's true that Rosenstein, you know, look, he's got a complicated picture here because he didn't have to do what they asked him to do. It seems that there was an indication they wanted reasons to get rid of Comey. He's only been in there two weeks. This was his initial task he was given to do, but that he doesn't want to be seen as the fall guy for this situation. How big a deal is it?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it is a really big deal because it gives you some insight into a process that lacks credibility. Rod Rosenstein has a great reputation, Sari was noting, and he's only been on the job a couple of weeks, and there's a number of questions here.

Why was he asked to draw up a memo outlining his grievances against Jim Comey when the inspector general of the Department of Justice is already in the middle of just such an investigation and preparing his own report? Why repeat that? Why have that done at a different level? Did Rod Rosenstein question that? Did he question whether he was being used here, whether he was being set up to be the reason, the pretext for why he was fired?

I think the reporting from Sari is very important because it gets to that very question. Was he being used, and it sounds like he then came forward and said, no, no, no, you're not going to use me to say this was the pretext. And it all goes to the fact of what CNN is reporting and other reporting indicates that, in fact, what really made the president mad was Comey was not towing the line, that he was his own guy, that the Russia investigation was accelerating. He was mad at certain things he was saying. And you know how the president thinks. You know he's thinking, wait a minute, this guy is not investigating the leaks about all this Russia stuff from the national security apparatus of the country. He's only pursuing the Russia investigation. He probably feels bad about how he handled Hillary Clinton. He's going to come at me really hard.

This is how you raise the specter of abuse of power if a president is taking on an FBI director in just such a way. I don't believe what the White House says, that he was following the advice of the Justice Department.

CAMEROTA: Chris, this is why it would be really important to hear from Rod Rosenstein because obviously if the reporting is accurate, and we have no reason to believe it's not, he doesn't want to be seen as the fall guy. But I'm sure given his stellar reputation that he doesn't want to be seen as a stooge for the White House. So is there any chance we will hear from Rod Rosenstein?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: I never say never in politics, especially in this administration, so sure. But Alisyn, I would note, there are two people who I think we really need to hear from. Well, three. Donald Trump, who we've heard a little bit from. But I would say more importantly James Comey and Rod Rosenstein.

Remember, let's not forget that in the letter that Donald Trump sent firing James Comey, he insisted that he, Comey, had told he, Trump, three times that he was not under investigation. There's some reporting that suggests Comey allies say that's not accurate. Who knows? Comey needs to talk. I think we need to hear from Rod Rosenstein.

The point here is that it looks very clearly that Donald Trump asked Rod Rosenstein to come up with some justifications for getting rid of James Comey. The real justification was he didn't like the pursuit of the Russia investigation. He didn't like the credit claiming that Comey said it made me mildly nauseous that I might have decided the election. And he didn't like that Comey didn't report to him, didn't pay him fealty. Those are very concerning. And so we've heard now a lot of different versions from the White House, a lot of stories from the White House. The origin story of how this came about has changed a bunch. But what we really haven't heard is James Comey's perspective and certainly Rod Rosenstein's perspective. I think we will get Comey's perspective. Rosenstein I think is more of a hit or miss because he's still a federal employee.

CUOMO: Right. Look, Julie, if Rosenstein was told find reasons to fire Comey, then he's going to have some stink on him. That's just the way it is. The letter on its face, this two and a half page memo, has its critics. Some of the people named in it, the deputy A.G. that worked under Bush 41 said their basis is a sham. Alberto Gonzalez, we had on the show yesterday, he was cited in there as a critic of Comey. He said the timing here raises a lot of bad questions.

So he's got some things to answer for in this. But isn't it what Cillizza is talking about here? Isn't the real that matters, the president, and that if it wasn't about Russia, why did he include that paragraph with something that is almost unconfirmable. No one who I have talked to who knows James Comey said he would have said anything like that around the president.

But if it wasn't about Russia, why is it in the letter?

JULIE PACE, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Right, there this glaring disconnect where you have the deputy attorney general saying this is about Comey's behavior in the Clinton investigation and then the president himself raising the specter of the Russia investigation. And everyone that we have talked to not only people who are around Comey but also just career prosecutors, long-time officials who have worked at the Justice Department say it is just hard to imagine that any FBI director would make that kind of statement to a president, to go to them not just once but three times to say you are not personally under investigation when there is an open inquiry that the FBI just doesn't know the answer to at this point.

But it speaks to this president's growing anger and frankly obsession at some points with the Russia investigation and how it's being covered and the fact that no one in a position of authority can really come out and exonerate his campaign at this point, in part because the investigation again is just ongoing.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it is also important to say that, you know, there is an argument from the White House that is completely specious. When they feign the outrage at the hypocrisy of the Democrats for saying, well, you guys wanted him gone. I mean, you said everything he did was so terrible.

That should be put aside. That is just propaganda and it is ridiculous because the grain of truth in that is exactly what Rosenstein writes in his letter. You ask my career prosecutor or law enforcement figure who has not been politicized, they will tell you the way Comey handled himself in the Clinton investigation was to throw Justice Department procedures over the rail.

It was completely inappropriate. But that does not justify -- and that and there is no way that would be a reason why the president decided to fire Jim Comey now. Let's remember, candidate Trump threatened to put Hillary Clinton in jail. That was his commitment to justice department ideals, to threaten his political opponent in such a way. So he doesn't care about that. This was a pretext.

And I think Van Jones, our colleague said the other night something that was well constructed, which is the right decision. In other words, there is a real basis to fire Jim Comey for undermining himself. Wrong timing, wrong reason. And I think that's what has to be considered here.

CUOMO: So, how could a no brainer turn into a nightmare, Julie Pace? I mean, so many people dumping information on reporters about how this was about Russia and Trump was white hot and he was upset about this and Comey is not loyal and they're asking for more resources. How big of a nightmare is this within the White House.

PACE: It is a pretty huge nightmare. The story really is that the president has been angry at Comey for weeks, which is what we know to be true at that point. Why they would come out in the initial telling of this and blame this on a deputy attorney general, put the responsibility on him? You would expect that they would know that this would unravel pretty quickly, which it already has.

But, look, it is important to remember with this White House in particular that a lot of the directives about the specific lines that are going to be sent from the briefing room podium, the lines that aides are going to be saying on television come from the president himself and he could change those lines in an instant.

CAMEROTA: Go ahead, Chris.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & EDITOR-AT-LARGE: I was just going to add. That is the most important thing. You know, we have written a lot and talked a lot about Sean Spicer in the bushes and the briefing and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and what she said not being consistent with what the president said.

All of that is true and odd, but it's because Donald Trump just does stuff, right? He does things and then leaves it to other people to explain. His communication staff was clearly caught totally flat footed on this. The reason that the explanation that Rod Rosenstein gave is different than the reason that Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave, that Sean Spicer gave, that Donald Trump has given is because the real reason is that he was annoyed with Comey. He decided to do it. He asked Rod Rosenstein, I'd like to do this, can we have a justification, a sort of an underpinning for it. But that was never the real reason, right?

So they're scrambling because this president just does stuff, says and does things, from the campaign to his life as a reality TV star to his life in the 1980s as a real estate developer in New York City, that is the common theme.

[08:20:15] He does things. Then he declares victory. Then he leaves it to other people to assess while he moves on. This is -- if there is a through line of Donald Trump's life, it is:

say stuff, let other people explain, move on. That's what we're seeing.

CUOMO: Motive -- motive may be consistent, but the action here is different. This ain't a tweet. This took planning. This took coordination.

You know, maybe it wasn't messaged the right way, but this is an animal of a different stripe than we've seen from the past in terms of chicanery.

CILLIZZA: And, Chris, this isn't page six, right? This isn't page six.


CILLIZZA: This is the presidency.

CUOMO: Right, right.

GREGORY: And that is the point. This is running roughshod over our democratic institution. That is the difference. In the name of America's citizens, that is what is not appropriate, is that the communication strategy, what Sean Spicer does, is completely irrelevant. That's a White House that doesn't know what it's doing. That's the least of the problem.

CUOMO: It's one thing to shout fake news when you don't like something, when people believe that justice the fake, now you've got a problem.


CUOMO: Yes. So the public, confidence has been shaken in the administration of justice with this move. So how do you fix it? Where are the strong voices in Congress? What can the American people be told to ensure that you will have fair investigations of the questions surrounding the Russian hacking?

We're going to get insight from former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden, next.


[08:25:21] CUOMO: A sense of crisis seems to be gripping the White House after James Comey's firing. There are all these calls for an independent investigation now because the idea of public trust in the FBI's Russia investigation seems to be compromised.

Let's discuss with General Michael Hayden, a CNN national security analyst, and the former director of the CIA and NSA. He wrote about the firing in an op-ed for "The Hill".

What is your take, General? GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, what I said

in the op-ed, Chris, was it looks like -- a lot like Nicaragua here in the United States with the multiple firings and the difficulty of getting an accurate and consistent story out from the White House.

And so, I do think there is some fundamental threatening of the processes on which we relied for two and a half centuries to keep ourselves a free and a safe people.

CAMEROTA: All right. Let's talk about this. I want to get your take on Rod Rosenstein and what happened.

The White House says that the deputy AG went to the White House for a visit with Jeff Sessions, by the way, the attorney general, and shared their opinion about Director Comey. And they felt that he had, sort of, lost his ability to I guess leave the FBI.

And President Trump said can you put all of that, your opinions and thoughts on paper? And that became the predicate for firing him. What do you think of that narrative and if rod Rosenstein was somehow duped.

HAYDEN: Well, looking at the reporting that's now available, it looks as if the original White House narrative that this was spontaneous combustion over in the Department of Justice, that the new deputy AG was so surprised and upset by what he found that he crafted the memo and brought it to the White House and that was the cause for the presidential action. Current reporting suggests that is not what happened, that the decision had already been made to get rid of Director Comey and the White House was looking for some documentation on which to publically base the decision.

And I think the deputy attorney general now is based on reporting feeling a bit used in that he is being suggested as the predicate for the firing rather than creating a document that somewhat justified it.

CUOMO: General, you know Comey. You know protocol. What are the chances that that second paragraph in the president's letter will check out, that on three separate occasions, Comey communicated that the president was not a part of the investigation?

HAYDEN: Well, first of all, Chris, as you have said earlier this morning, it is just weird that that shows up inside of this document. And then beyond that, it's something that I don't think any prosecutor, any director of the FBI would say to a chief executive. I just don't think they would have a conversation even in that depth about an ongoing investigation with the president of the United States.

CUOMO: I mean, I just feel like that can't get enough attention. He could have said something in there about what he did during Hillary Clinton and I can't let it go in light of this memo. But he didn't. He talked about the Russia investigation.

And then this fact, if everybody who knows Comey and protocol says this is not something you should say and this is not something he would say, then where does that leave us in terms of whether or not you believe the president of the United States about something of such fundamental importance?

HAYDEN: Chris, you bring up something I think is really fundamental. And coming from someone like me and the institutions I used to be a part of, the intelligence community, it appears right now that the Oval Office is not a welcoming space for the truth. One of the sins that Jim Comey is alleged to have committed is that he did not go along with the president's story about wiretapping Trump Tower in New York.

Our job in the intelligence community is to present the truth and we get challenged from time to time when we have to go in there and present the unpleasant truth, the unwelcomed truth. But that's our job, and the president needs that.

I fear he is now creating an atmosphere in which we would have to have unusual bureaucratic courage for folks to go in there, institutions to go in there and tell the president things he just doesn't want to hear.

CAMEROTA: So, General, where does that leave the investigation into Trump's ties, Trump's team ties to Russia?

HAYDEN: Well, look, I'm instinctively opposed to special prosecutors and special processes when we facet these kinds of problems.