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Trump Threatens Comey, Press Briefings in Twitter Outburst. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 12, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:03] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman. The breaking news this morning, the President of the United States just threatened a man he fired as FBI Director.

Now, there will be people who say that this is Donald Trump being Donald Trump. He says things on Twitter. But remember, this is the Commander-in-Chief threatening the man, who, for three years, helped battle crime, fight terrorism, and, yes, lead an investigation into the President's own campaign, an investigation that is still ongoing. The President just wrote, "James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press."

I want to bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider in our Washington bureau. Jessica, this has to do with, apparently, calls for pledges of loyalty and also claims from the President that he was assured by the FBI Director that he wasn't under investigation.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, you know, John, these tweets really threaten to further erode the relationship between President Trump and the FBI. President Trump, here on these tweets, coming out on the attack, really threatening former FBI Director James Comey, saying he better hope that there are no tapes of our conversation before he starts leaking to the press.

So some of the differences in how those conversations between Director Comey and President Trump were in the dinner meeting that they had earlier this year. But, of course, we know that the FBI Director was really well respected at the FBI. I've heard it from a few of the FBI agents that I'd spoken with, and, of course, we heard it from the Acting Director, Andrew McCabe, when he testified yesterday. He said that Director James Comey was very well respected, very well received.

And despite the White House saying that morale at the FBI is low, we know that, in fact, morale at the FBI was high. Many people respected James Comey. So it is unclear at this point why the President is coming out on the attack, especially in light of the fact that he was considering, the President, visiting FBI headquarters today.

We know that plans were in place for him to potentially go over to the headquarters. They have been making preparations for that at the Bureau. But then two officials telling our Jeff Zeleny that those plans were scrapped because of the timing of this. And of course, now, John, with the timing of these tweets, the optics of this, and the relationship between the President and the FBI seems to continue to erode. The President not doing himself any favors with these tweets, John.

BERMAN: No, you bring up a great point. How will this be received by the current members, the agents, at the FBI? Jessica Schneider, in Washington, thanks so much.

We do have more breaking news this morning. Honesty is an unreasonable expectation. That is a message from the President of United States this morning after the initial explanations released by the White House this week about why the FBI Director was fired were proven to be untrue.

Moments ago, he wrote, "As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy. Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future press briefings and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy."

You could cancel briefings. You could do that. Another choice would be to cancel lies. This was the White House on Wednesday on the issue of who first decided to fire James Comey.


HALLIE JACKSON, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So it is the White House's assertion that Rod Rosenstein decided on his own, after being confirmed, to review Comey's performance?


JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Is it true that the President had already decided to fire James Comey, and he asked the Justice Department to put together the rationale letter for that firing?



BERMAN: So this was the Vice President of the United States that same day.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The President took strong and decisive leadership here to put the safety and security of the American people first by accepting the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General to remove Director Comey.


BERMAN: And now, this is the new official presidential version from last night.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was going to fire Comey. My decision. It was not --

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: You had made the decision before they came in the room?

TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.


BERMAN: Happy Friday, everyone. A phrase, by the way, first coined by the President after he came up with "prime the pump." Joe Johns for us at the White House.

Joe, this has been really an incredible unprecedented week of attempted clean ups at the White House to really explain why they said things that were not true.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, and there has been a lot of cleaning up to do. The truth of it is, especially in early administrations -- and I have been through four of them, in and out the White House from time to time -- you do have a problem with coordination of the message between, say, the President of the United States, the higher up officials, and the people who are actually talking to the media.

But the problem with the President suggesting getting rid of the briefings and putting out paper statements is one of the things that distinguishes the U.S. system from a lot of the other systems around the world is the appearance, at least, of transparency and openness that comes from a senior aide taking daily or almost daily briefings and questions from the media. So that's clearly a problem.

[09:05:16] But this administration certainly has been working very hard to change the dynamic between the press shop, the President, and the news media who cover the President very closely. This is yet one example. Not clear at all the extent to which the President really wants to do that, but I guess we're just going to have to see.

One other note. I did check in with the people in the press shop here about the President's tweet relating essentially to, you know, what the President wrote saying maybe Comey needs to be careful if there are any recordings of the conversations. I checked in with them, and the press shop certainly did not want to weigh in, telling me, among other things, I think it is what it is and I don't think there is anything to add beyond what he said. So the administration's communication shop at this juncture being very careful not to go further than the President in his tweets.

BERMAN: It is what it is, Joe, but it isn't what they say. At least it wasn't on Wednesday. Important points to make. Joe Johns at the White House. Thank you very, very much.

Joining me now Chris Cillizza, CNN Politics Reporter, CNN Editor-at- Large; Errol Louis, CNN Political Commentator, Political Anchor at Spectrum News; Mary Ellen O'Toole, former senior FBI profiler and former FBI special agent; Steve Vladeck, a CNN Contributor, professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law.

Guys, I suppose let's break this into two parts. Let's separate the politics of this for a moment and just take a moment to recognize that the President of the United States did threaten James Comey saying, you better hope that our conversations were not taped. You know, Mary Ellen O'Toole, you know, you worked at the FBI for, what, 28 years. How will that message be received within the FBI?

MARY ELLEN O'TOOLE, FORMER SENIOR PROFILER, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: Not well. Not well at all because the agents and all the staff of the FBI would look at that and take it very personally. Because they all are very supportive of Mr. Comey still, so that will not sit well with them.

BLITZER: And Steve Vladeck, to you, Steve, you know, what line was crossed here? There's been all this talk about, is the President obstructing justice? Did he obstruct justice by firing James Comey? Did he cross a line by asking James Comey to dinner on January 27th? Am I being investigated? And now today, threatening the FBI Director that he fired here.

STEPHEN VLADECK, PROFESSOR OF LAW, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS SCHOOL OF LAW: Yes. I mean, John, there are two different statutes we should be talking about. There's the federal obstruction of justice statute. But also, thanks to President Trump's tweets this morning, we're going to be talking now about the federal witness intimidation statute, which, you know, I suspect we probably will conclude President Trump didn't violate. But the fact that we are having the conversation is pretty preposterous.

And really, the larger problem is the transparent and comprehensive violation of this much stronger norm that the White House doesn't interfere in ongoing criminal investigations, a norm that exists exactly for this circumstance, so that we can have faith that when the Justice Department and the FBI are actually carrying out a criminal investigation, they're doing it for the legal rather than political reasons.

BERMAN: No, it's a great point. There are laws and then there are norms, and sometimes norms are what this country has been built on or grew on over the last couple centuries.

You know, Chris Cillizza, you're nodding your head in agreement. That will always get you called on next. You know, I think this is an important moment, I mean, because people will say, again, this is Donald Trump being Donald Trump. He uses Twitter to communicate with his base.

But threatening the former FBI Director and then suggesting that honesty is too high of a standard all within five minutes, those are very significant statements that we have to take pause and recognize as meaningful.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: John, one of those statements in a month would be a huge story. Two of them in the space of the time it takes me to walk outside this building and get a tea is really, really -- we have to mark it. I think you're right.

I think it is difficult with Donald Trump because he does so many unconventional, unorthodox things and revels in it. It is hard sometimes to see the forest through the trees. I think some of that might be intentional on his part.

But floating the idea of getting rid of the press briefing, let's see if he just said that or if that's an omen of something. Remember that they've talked about in the run-up during the transition, in the run- up to his presidency, there was some talk of changing the way in which the press briefing was done, it's frequency, who was invited, how they would do it. The Comey one, I think, is even more troubling.


[09:09:59] CILLIZZA: You stated it but it can't be stated enough. This is the sitting President of the United States, 72 hours after he fired the FBI Director for unclear reasons but largely because, I think, he wasn't enough of a company guy, threatening him into silence. I mean, this is the stuff of movies, you know, outlandish movies that political people roll their eyes at and say, ah, that would never happen, except it's happening.

BERMAN: Yes, in the safety of the United States not threatened by movies. Errol Louis, these two stories come together on this important point, the dinner between the FBI Director and the President on January 27th, OK? The President claims that the FBI Director told him that he wasn't under investigation.

Now, through leaks in Jake Tapper's great reporting on Thursday, you know, we understand that the FBI Director was asked to declare his loyalty to the President. Donald Trump has one version of events. James Comey appears to have a different version of events. The President of the United States not giving us a lot of reasons to believe his version when there had been so many untruths from the White House this week.

ERROL LOUIS, POLITICAL ANCHOR, SPECTRUM NEWS NY1: Well, that's right. And look, Donald Trump does not want to get into a squaring contest with James Comey or, frankly, anybody else. We've heard enough non- truths from the President that he refuses to back down from that his word is questionable, to say the least.

You know, if it were a normal conversation with a normal person, you could say there is room for ambiguity. That if he said something along the lines of, you're not under investigation at this time. Well, that could change the following morning. So, you know, maybe there's just an honest misunderstanding.

When you see the threat, though, behind it, it tells you that there is something else going on there. And I would just say, I'd like everybody to sort of remember what we all learned in the schoolyard, that it is sort of bullies with empty threats are the ones who make those threats. It is a product of frustration and powerlessness, and I think that's probably where the President is coming from. BERMAN: And bullies don't typically bully guys who are six-eight,

like James Comey, who may have, you know, a paper trail of one kind or another to prove something out there.

You know, Mary Ellen O'Toole, the loyalty pledge. Again, Jake Tapper first reported this, which is key, that Donald Trump, the President of the United States, apparently firing James Comey among other reasons because he would not declare his loyalty to the President. When you were at the FBI, did anyone ask you to declare your loyalty to anything other than the constitution? And had they demanded it, what would your response had been?

O'TOOLE: No, I was never asked that question other than commitment to the United States. And had that question been asked, it really would have raised some serious red flags because the question comes from not a need to be loyal in the righteous way, but a commitment to someone that may cause me to have to step over moral, ethical, or legal lines, which, of course, would be unacceptable. So there is loyalty and then there is the need to practically own someone, and there's a big difference. So this, for me, would raise a tremendous red flag.

BERMAN: Go ahead, Steve. Were you talking? No, OK. Steve, one second. I heard some nice in my ear at that point.

There is another point, which you bring up. There are plenty of actors, you know, in this unfolding yet serious drama right now. One of them is Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, who we have learned will go to Capitol Hill to brief senators in a closed door meeting next week about his role in the firing of James Comey.

Of course, remember, the White House first claimed it was all based on a recommendation from Rod Rosenstein. This does not turn out to be true. We know that because the President told us, finally, it wasn't true yesterday. You say either Rosenstein didn't realize he was going to get played or he did. The former makes him seem like a fool, the latter comes off much worse. Explain.

VLADECK: Well, I mean, I think the real question is why does someone like Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, a career federal prosecutor, someone who has been around the block, why does he write that memo if he even suspects that it is going to be appropriated to the ends that it was?

And if he does write that memo knowing that it was going to be used as cover for a decision that the President himself later admits as all about not trusting Comey and being worried about the ongoing Russia investigation, is Rosenstein then complicit in this entire matter?

And, John, I think this is the most important point. Yes, all of this noise out of President Trump, all of the sort of inconsistencies from the White House are alarming, but let's not forget what this is all about. This is all about the underlying investigation into what role, if any, the Russian government played in the election.

You know, President Trump is not going to be able to make that go away. I think the real question now is, does Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein pick up the thread and run with it to sort of prove his independence, or does the focus shift to Capitol Hill and really put the ball squarely in Congress' court?

[09:14:50] BERMAN: And, Chris Cillizza, last question to you. Again, the President is threatening the FBI Director James Comey over leaks. And I don't know whether James Comey, the FBI Director, has been leaking since he's been fired. But there have been a lot of stories coming from people who know James Comey over the last few days, who are providing information which fills in the blanks here.

I have to imagine. You know Washington. You know how things get shaken loose. I have to imagine the president threatening James Comey would only cause it to shake more loose?

CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Oh, my gosh yes. Number one, on the leak front or on the sort of people willing to defend Comey without their names attached to it. The other thing is, my guess here is that Trump basically threatened James Comey and then with the weird like Nixonian, hope there aren't tapes, which is an odd thing to throw out there given the week that we've had and the comparisons to Nixon and the Saturday night massacre.

But it would like it more likely in my mind that Comey would speak out. You now basically have Donald Trump calling him a show boat, blow hard, you know, a show pony and then basically saying you know what we talked about.

Better not -- I mean, really raising questions about a guy who might not be the every person's favorite FBI director ever, but was certainly someone that people said this guy is a credible, serious person for the job.

I mean, if you're James Comey, I don't know how you don't say something in the wake of this because you're watching the president of the United States drag your name through the mud.

BERMAN: Errol, just a quick last word here as we end this remarkable week, smart move for the president to bring up tapes, harkening back to tapes harkening back to Watergate, which is something that everyone has been comparing to this week to begin with?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, of course not. You take the Watergate overlay and you put it on top of it, I was tweeting out that at this point in the Watergate investigation, about 60 plus percent didn't think there was anything serious about it. It was only when the hearings began that the country really woke up to what the so-called insiders were talking about. So we seem to be marching down a very familiar path here.

BERMAN: All right, guys. Thank you all so much for being with us. A lot of breaking news to cover this morning. So many mixed messages. The president defending those mixed messages, threatening to cancel the press briefings.

We will talk to two men who might very well have been press secretaries under different circumstances. What do they make of what's going on?

And then caught in the middle of this controversy, the deputy attorney general of the United States apparently unhappy about how he's being portrayed. Rod Rosenstein called to Capitol Hill to give his version of events of what happened. We are going to speak to someone who knows him well.



BERMAN: All right, new this morning, the president threatening the former FBI Director James Comey. Also threatening to cancel press briefings. He's doing that at the same time he's issuing a bold defense of inaccuracy.

He wrote on Twitter this, "As a very active president with lots of things happens, it is impossible for my surrogates to stand up at the podium with perfect accuracy."

I'm not sure perfect is the right standard there. Occasional would be a welcome development. All right, joining us to discuss this, Brian Stelter, CNN senior media correspondent, host of "RELIABLE SOURCES," Alice Conant, former RNC spokesman and communications director for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, and Tim Miller, who is a communications director for Jeb Bush's presidential campaign.

One disclaimer. Both Alice and Tim worked hard to beat Donald Trump during the primaries and frankly each other, but I take it they will get along right now very, very well.

You know, Brian first to you. You know, perfect accuracy. Is that a fair standard? Is the president being straightforward?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: There should be a high standard, if not perfection. We should expect the best out of every White House as far back as we were born. This suggestion is no standard at all. I think the story of the first hundred days was dishonesty.

So far the biggest story of the second hundreds days has been dishonestly and that's disappointing whether you are a Republican or Democrat or you don't care about politics at all.

We should expect as accurate as possible statements from the White House and Trump seems to be saying no, that's not going to be possible.

BERMAN: All right, Tim Miller to you, how would you grade the performance of the communications office of the White House this week?

TIM MILLER, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, JEB BUSH PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: Oh, boy. Their boss has left with them a really tough task. Here's the thing, John, you know, you can't turn Donald Trump into the ten-point plan guy and you know, all communications directors are going to spin and (inaudible). And we have to give these guys a little bit of leash because their boss is so unconventional.

But here's the line, you can't go out there with ridiculous lies and when they came out on Tuesday and said that James Comey had been fired because a career bureaucrat, that nobody heard of, named Ron Rosenstein had made this suggestion to the president based on the fact that Comey was too nice to Hillary Clinton.

And then the president said good point, Ron, I'm going to fire Comey now, I mean, that's preposterous and it's insulting to us to come out with that kind of lie. And I think that is the crux of the problem here.

It is not a communication strategy problem. It is the fact that it was just such a bold and ridiculous lie that they were trying to sell.

BERMAN: Look, it is possible that Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not know that she was saying things that were untrue. So you can question whether the word lie matters here. The same thing which --

MILLER: Rosenstein was the reason why Comey was fired? Come on.

BERMAN: If she did not think so, then she was lying, and she should have refused to say it. I mean, I think we can all agree. Alex, go ahead. You know, Nicole Wallace, who was the communications director under George W. Bush says she claims that she was never asked to go out and lie.

And had she been she would have refused and she would have quit. Again, if you know you are saying things that are untrue -- you work for the American people here. You just don't work for the president. Do you owe it to yourself and to the country to not say it?

ALEX CONANT, FORMER RNC AND WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: I mean, you are only as effective as your credibility. Once you ruin your credibility, you are not an effective spokesperson. That's why Nicole said that she would never go out in front of a TV camera and lie to the American people when she worked at the White House.

[09:25:04]I worked at the White House for Nicole and I had a very similar standard. I would never knowingly go and lie to a reporter because it is my own credibility. It is my own name that's at stake.

And, so, when President Trump sends his surrogates out to say things that the president knows is not, he is ruining their credibility and ruining his administration's credibility and he's ruining his own credibility which matters in the long term.

Look, there will be crisis that this administration needs to face and if you don't have credibility, if nobody believes that you're telling the truth, it's a lot harder. In fact, that's made this week harder.

Because he lied so much during the first one hundred days, when they came out on Tuesday night and said this is why we're firing Comey, a lot of people didn't believe them because they have just a record for being dishonest. It's a growing problem and frankly, I don't know how you correct it at this stage. STELTER: We got two PR pros here, Alex and Tim both say this is not a communications problem, this is about the substance. It is like if I open a restaurant, John, and the restaurant has a rat infestation and I say the problem is the marketing, the sign outside. If I put a new sign outside, the restaurant will be fine.

No, the problem is the rats and I think that is the take-away I've experienced this week is it is not about what the Trump's aides are saying or even the vice president is saying. It is what the president himself was thinking. It's about the top not the bottom of this pyramid.

CONANT: I would just add, Brian is absolutely right. When things go badly --

STELTER: By the way, I am never going to open a restaurant but.

CONANT: Well, when things go badly in politics, it's always the communicators that are the first ones to blame. This is not -- even if it's the underlying problem, you know, the policy is wrong or the way the president handles something is wrong.

I actually think this is a case where the communications are at fall. There are legitimate reasons to fire Comey and I think if the administration had had a concrete roll-out plan where they leaked out in advance the president is considering this and built a public case for it, by the time it happened it was graceful.

Nobody was surprised, we would be in a very different world than we are right now where they announced it with no thought into the roll- out. It was a communications debacle. They obviously had talking points that were faulty. That has made this crisis so much worse for Trump and his tweets this morning are not going to play out well.

BERMAN: It is important what Alex said there is he thinks the policy of firing James Comey is perfectly justifiable, Alex says, in of itself.

Tim Miller, to you, you know, as someone who has been yelled at by you, you don't necessarily think reporters are always the best people in the world and you often don't like the way that we do things. Are the press briefings important? Do you think it is important to have reporters there asking questions of the press secretary?

MILLER: I always yelled at you in good spirit, John, when you messed things up, which you did with regularity. Look, of course, it is important to have these briefings. I do think the Trump tweet this morning is kind of ironic because yesterday I sort of said we might not necessarily have to have these briefings if the press secretary is not going to know or say what the truth is.

And if the president is going to continue to undermine them. So it is important to have these, but it is important to have press briefings where they are basing what they are saying in facts and truths.

Obviously you are going to spin and put the best face on an argument that you can. But when you say one thing and 20 minutes later the president goes on NBC and says exactly the opposite and undermines your credibility and he does that consistently, it starts to wonder like what is the point. Why are we asking Sarah Huckabee these questions if she isn't able to give the answers?

BERMAN: Fair question. Brian Stelter, Alex Conant, Tim Miller, great to have you with us. Thank you all very, very much. You can yell at me any time, Tim.

The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, reportedly telling the White House to set the record straight on his role in the firing of James Comey. This as lawmakers push to learn more about Rosenstein's role. He is headed to Capitol Hill. We are live there in a moment.