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Trump Threatens Comey in Twitter Outburst; Trump Contradicts WH on Firing of FBI's Comey; Trump Threatens Comey and to Cancel Press Briefings. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 12, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: -- received. And of course, now after this tweet, John, that icy reception seems to be a lot more likely than ever. John?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jessica Schneider for us in Washington. Thank you so much. We have more breaking news this morning.

Truth is too much to ask. That's according to the President of the United States. He's justifying the changing stories from the White House on the firing of James Comey, stories that turned out to be wrong.

He says, "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???"

Joe Johns at the White House and Joe, the context here is that the thing that the White House was saying, things that the press secretary, the deputy press secretary, the senior counsel or Kellyanne Conway, things that they were saying about the firing of James Comey, initially, they were not true.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right. And the truth of it is -- to use that word -- that whenever you have the President of the United States and his staff saying completely different things on the same issue, it creates questions on the outside of credibility and on the inside, it creates questions as to whether the people who work for the president and speak for the president actually are in the loop and have the president's ear and are understanding fully what is going on.

One of the great examples of that comes into view when you talk about the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. He, of course, wrote this lengthy letter explaining reasons for the president to fire James Comey. At first, the press shop said, this is why the president fired Comey. But when the president got into that interview with NBC News, he said he had already made up his mind before he ever got the letter from Rod Rosenstein. Listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

LESTER HOLT, NBC ANCHOR: You had made the decision before they came into the room.

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

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.

QUESTION: So, does the White House assertion that Rod Rosenstein decided on his own, after being confirmed, to review Comey's performance?


QUESTION: Isn't it true that the president had already decided to fire James Comey and he asked the Justice Department to put together the rationale for that firing?



JOHNS: So, this morning the White House press shop is being very careful. In fact, I did get over and ask them about that tweet from the president, essentially warning James Comey that there better not be tapes, or whatever, of their conversations. I asked him if that was a threat and the White House, the press shop essentially said, I think this is what it is. I don't think there's anything to add beyond what the president said, so being very careful this morning after all the contradictions flying over the last 48 hours, John.

BERMAN: Again, when you hear from the press shop at this point, it is what it is. We have to remember that earlier in the week, Joe, it wasn't what it is. Joe at the White House, thank you so much.

Joining me now to discuss this, CNN political director David Chalian, Dan Pfieffer, CNN political commentator who was the communications director under President Barack Obama and Alice Stewart, a CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz, also worked for Mike Huckabee as well.

You know, David Chalian, to you, sir. The president says this morning that he's very, very busy. He's a very active president with a lot of things happening. Is that a valid justification for saying things that are not true from the White House?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, there's no valid justification for saying things that aren't true from the White House. I can't think of one. I think that completely undermining your staff is certainly not a good way to go about business. I don't know why he thinks that the American people should believe what they hear from his staff anymore if he has said they can't always be accurate when they go out there. So, that's a problem, you know, a real credibility crisis going on there.

But then the threat of the FBI director -- I mean, John, this week started with the president firing the man in charge of the organization looking into his campaign's ties with Russia. It included a photo op with Henry Kissinger and then now, ends with a reference to a taping system in the White House that he's using to threaten the fired FBI director. You cannot write this! I mean, you can't make this up!

BERMAN: No. And again, we're going to talk about the firing of the FBI director. We're going to wait to do that a little bit later.

But Alice, you can't get past it. I mean, he threatened the FBI director that he just fired today. You know, how does that help? I know, for instance, Alice, you think that firing the FBI director was totally justified.

[10:05:02] Or you know, he's well within his rights to do it. Legally, he certainly is. But how does it help you, who are Republicans, who want to take this and move on? How does it help you move on past that?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I personally think feeding into this narrative doesn't help. I think tweeting as he did this morning in what many would see as a threatening manner to Comey, unless the president does have the tapes himself, it's not a positive thing. But look, at the end of the day, could they have handled this better? Should he have reached out to Comey directly? Absolutely. Should the White House press shop been a little bit more armed with instances of Democrats who have been demanding Comey's dismissal for quite some time? Yes, they should have. But little did they expect the blowback they would get from Democrats on this.

But I do think it's really important in this matter. Comey should have gone -- he portrayed himself as the last best Washington Boy Scout and he refused to do the right thing time after time after time after time. He should have gone. All evidence pointed to that. And I do not think it's inconsistent for the president to say he had been thinking about this for some time, this is what he wanted to do, this is what should have been done and after receiving the letter from the deputy attorney general, that was the final decision, it was the final straw in making him make up his mind. I don't think it's inconsistent for him to say he's been thinking about it for a long time and that was the final straw.

BERMAN: The problem though with that, Alice, just to be clear, is the president says there was no final straw. He was already done. He had already had as many straws as he wanted before he asked for whatever memos he got there. And just, Dan, before I come to you, Alice, you know Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Obviously, you must know her very, very well. What kind of a position does this put her in? You know, she may not have known that the president had already made up his mind, but what kind of a position does it put her in to go out and say things that were later proven untrue?

STEWART: I think the fact -- as I said, I do not think these statements are inconsistent. I think, say if you're going to get a divorce. You think about it for quite some time and finally you decide to make that tough decision. Donald Trump has been thinking about this tough decision for quite some time and he finally decided, this is what I needed to hear, I'm making this decision and that's when he decided to make it public.


CHALIAN: Alice, he said regardless of the recommendation. He said regardless of the recommendation. Those are the president's words.

STEWART: That was -- exactly. He was going to make this decision and this just solidified his decision. Look, at the end of the day, the American people don't care if he made up his mind when he was nominated or over Christmas dinner. They are pleased with the fact he made his decision. I truly believe as much as I have concerns about the way it was executed. The American people are pleased with the fact that James Comey is no longer in his position and we're going to put someone at the head of the FBI that will restore confidence in this important aspect of our government.

BERMAN: You know, Dan Pfieffer -


BERMAN: Is the argument over honesty? And I'll let you explain why you're laughing in a second. But is the argument over honesty here what's important, or is the argument over whether or not firing James Comey was the right call? Is that what's important or are they both important?

PFEIFFER: Well, they're both important. Look, I think let's be very clear what happened here. Donald Trump, by his own admission, said he wanted to fire the FBI director to put the Russia investigation behind him. But, so, the White House staff gets together, they realize you can't actually say that publicly. They concoct a totally fake reason. They get Rod Rosenstein to write a fake memo coming up with the justification. They put it out. All the circuits go out and make that point. Trump decides he's not going to abide by his own lie and actually tells the truth and says why he doesn't -- it puts people like Alice in this terrible position to defend in absolutely indefensible act that was handled with the absolute utmost incompetence.

I mean, the whole thing - I mean, it's farcical what's happening here, but it's also dangerous, because we have the President of the United States trying to hand-pick the person who is going to investigate his campaign for working with Russia to tilt the election, like, it's really unfathomable and kind of sad that Republicans feel an obligation to defend that behavior, whether you like Jim Comey or not. It is not appropriate for the person who's being investigated to fire the investigator and hire a new one. It just doesn't work that way.

BERMAN: And again -


BERMAN: Go ahead, Alice.

STEWART: Look, I think -- first of all, you're wrong to sit there and accuse me of sitting up here and defending the president's behavior. That's not what I'm doing. What I'm simply saying is that I think it is part of the way they handled this was wrong. But at the same time, it is not inconsistent what he's saying in terms of when he made up his mind and whether or not this last letter from the deputy -- the U.S. attorney had an impact in him making his decision.

The fact is, Comey needed to go. He made that difficult decision and it's important for people to have confidence in that. The American people do not care about this back and forth as to when the decision was made. They care about making sure that we restore -- and you can laugh all you want and that's extremely not helping the situation.

[10:10:01] Look at all the Democrats who have been crying for Comey to be let go for months and months and now they're up in arms that he's no longer there. That's where the hypocrisy is right there.


PFEIFFER: Well, look, Alice, it is -- you are not required by law to defend Trump on this. This is an indefensible action. It is shocking to me that Republicans, conservative Republicans, many of whom stood up to Trump, would abide by this. It's just -- imagine what you would be saying if in the middle of the presidential election, President Obama had -- while Comey was investigating Hillary, had fired Jim Comey. Articles of impeachment would have been drawn up before the press release hit people in boxes.

And so, it's OK to criticize Trump on this and it is inconsistent. Trump said exactly that he was not waiting for Rod Rosenstein or the commission. Rod Rosenstein associates had told the press that he was not the pretext for doing this and is angry that people are putting this on him. So, this is just simply indefensible place that, where Trump has put Republicans and he makes it worse every time he takes out his phone and tweets. And this is -- let's not forget, he threatened the former FBI director to not publicly disclose what he -- you know, their conversations. We're in a dangerous place here.

BERMAN: David Chalian, you've been waiting very, very patiently. You know, look, this is the end of a remarkable week, David. And I'm not quite sure where it goes next.

We know the FBI director has been invited to go talk to the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors. If he does that, I suppose we could learn more about his version about what he was asked to do by the president and not to do. We know Rod Rosenstein's going to talk to members of Congress as well. That will fill in the timeline. You know, this is not going away anytime soon. If the president wanted to get beyond Russia quickly, I'm not sure this was the most effective way to do it.

CHALIAN: Oh my God, not at all. This wasn't the most effective way to do it, John. And yes, we need to hear more from Rosenstein, more from Comey. I assume we're also going to get a new maybe interim, if not permanent FBI director and that will tell us a lot. If that person is sort of an unimpeachable character that both Republicans and Democrats rally around, that may help the president turn the page from this horrendous week for him. But the investigation is clearly not going away. It's only intensifying. And I just think that the president is with each day this week has made this story worse for himself.

BERMAN: Remember, in some cases, it's not just a story. There is an investigation here, too and there are facts and they may very well come out over the next days and weeks and months. David Chalian, Dan Pfieffer, Alice Stewart, great to have you with us this morning guys. Have a terrific weekend.

STEWART: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: The president threatening to cancel White House briefing and as we've been talking about, he is threatening the FBI director that he just fired. We're going to have much more on what really is, is a wild morning and a new player at the center of the controversy. Well, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. He said he had recused himself from anything to do with Russia, but did he in the end? We're going to hear from him in just a few minutes.


[10:17:24] BERMAN: The breaking news this morning, President Trump is threatening the man he just fired, the former FBI director James Comey. He wrote this morning on Twitter, "James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

Joining me now, Steve Moore, CNN law enforcement contributor, retired supervisory special agent for the FBI, Matt Lewis, CNN political commentator, senior columnist for "The Daily Beast" and Page Pate, CNN legal analyst and constitutional attorney.

Page, I can't believe I have to ask this, but I think we need to just make this clear before we move on. You know, they don't tape things at the White House anymore, where the president had dinner with the former FBI director, correct? And their conversations could not have been recorded either. Is that right?

PAGE PATE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST AND CONSTITUTIONAL ATTORNEY: John, I'm almost certain those conversations weren't recorded. Generally, you need to have the permission of both people who are involved in the conversation of consent to record it if you're going to record it and preserve it and the other person needs to know they're being recorded.

What I think is happening here is that Donald Trump knows very well that there are no tapes to that conversation and even more importantly, I think he intends to try to insist on executive privilege to keep Jim Comey from telling his side of the story. So, it puts Jim Comey in a very difficult position.

He may want to come clean. He may want to say, look, I want to tell you exactly what the president and I discussed, but I can't. It's the same thing Sally Yates went through before she testified. She went to the White House and said, can I go ahead and discuss this? And they let her do it, but they could assert executive privilege here, leading us to a really big problem, because we won't be able to hear Comey's side of the story.

BERMAN: Would there be a compelling legal argument for executive privilege in this case made?

PATE: He could try. And Comey being who Comey is. He's going to want to follow the law. I mean, that's the one thing I've always said about Jim Comey, he is not as concerned about the political ramifications as he is following the law. He is a true Boy Scout. And if he thinks that executive privilege prevents him from responding directly to the president, then I don't think he's going to respond, unless he's required or compelled to by a judicial subpoena.

BERMAN: Though I will say that there are some critics of James Comey, say that James Comey also cares a lot about James Comey and if he feels like his honor is being impinged here, he might desire to go forward with that.

Steve Moore, aside from that point, when you have the President of the United States threatening the man who was just fired as FBI director, a man that the acting FBI director just said yesterday still engenders a considerable loyalty within the ranks of the FBI. What does that do to morale within the FBI today? If you're an FBI agent, if you're an investigator on the Russia case, on anything, what are you supposed to think today?

[10:20:00] STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CONTRIBUTOR: You know, in a professional football, there is a thing called bulletin board material, where the team that you're about to play says, trash talks you and they put it on the bulletin board to motivate the team to go out and beat the team that's talking about you. This is bulletin board material for the FBI. There is very few people threaten FBI agents or FBI directors because there's just no money in it. It's not going work out for him.

BERMAN: Matt Lewis, I read everything you say on TV and Twitter with extraordinary precision and I get the sense that you thought, at least in a way, as of last night, the White House and the president had maybe turned the corner a little bit on this. That the worst of the storm was over and they started to give some explanations that were plausible here in terms of why James Comey was fired. But now this morning, with this tirade, what does that do not just to the messaging but to the credibility of the president and the White House here?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND SENIOR COLUMNIST "THE DAILY BEAST": Yes, Donald Trump doesn't seem -- even when he's doing well -- you know, the other week we had, you know, he was on a roll. He had finally passed health care in the House. You had -- he obviously had Neil Gorsuch appointed and confirmed to the Supreme Court. You could have made an argument at the 100-day mark. In fact, I did. That Trump had done much better than he was getting credit for and then he does this.

It seems like, you know, he will grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. He has to have drama. He can't let well enough alone. And he can't remain quiet. I think that this is a guy who in many ways is childlike. I think that it's entirely possible that this story is not as nefarious as people think in terms of the Russia angle. It could simply be that Donald Trump has a fragile ego, demands absolute loyalty and has no impulse control. And frankly, you could argue that's more dangerous in a president than the notion that they were coordinating with the Russians in advance of the election.

BERMAN: If it is dangerous in either case, Matt, is it dangerous enough that Republicans on Capitol Hill will step in and say, enough? Do they feel like it's time to say enough?

LEWIS: Well, I think that there's going to be -- that that is a process, obviously. Republicans have -- there's something -- there's a benefit to having a Republican president who appoints Supreme Court justices like Neil Gorsuch and who in some cases does act appropriately, right? So, for example, you know what they did in Syria. A lot of conservatives, a lot of Republicans applauded that, a decisive action. So, there's a hesitation to drop this guy completely, to wash your hands of him completely.

But I do think that every time he does this, it's harder and harder to defend the indefensible. If you look at the senators coming out against him, people like Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse and John McCain. It's not a good sign for a president that already has a lot of problems when you have members of his own party distancing themselves. And I think there is a Trump fatigue that is taking place, certainly.

BERMAN: Steve Moore, to you. At issue here is this dinner that happened January 27th between the president and the FBI director. The president claims he asked James Comey, is he under investigation. He claims that James Comey said no. People close to James Comey are now saying that Comey was asked for loyalty to the president. He would not guarantee that. Without being at that dinner, as none of us were, you know, whose version of it do you find more credible at this point?

MOORE: Well, I find it incredible than anybody would, that a sitting president would ask the FBI director if he was under investigation, but I believe it happened. There is -- you can say to the president, you're not under investigation, but that doesn't mean that you're not investigating the Russians and his name hasn't come up. You can honestly look at him and say, well, you're not under investigation, but that doesn't mean your name's not all through the files. I still think James Comey probably wouldn't have answered that question. I wouldn't have answered that question. It's not in the FBI culture to say yes or no, you are or are not under investigation.

BERMAN: And Page, there are questions of legality -- was a law broken? Was it, you know, by the letter of the law obstruction of justice to ask that question, if it was asked? And if the answer to that is no, then, you know, does it violate a norm that might be just as important?

PATE: Well, John, I certainly think it violates all sorts of different norms about how you govern yourself as the chief executive of our country, but I don't think we've actually heard enough to conclude that it violates the federal law against obstruction. There are different types of obstruction.

[10:25:00] But without going through all of the different legal hoops, the bottom line is you have to show that the president influenced, corruptly influenced either a witness or an official proceeding and that's just difficult to prove with the facts that we have. Now, if we find out what actually was said in that meeting, perhaps we can get closer to an actual crime.

BERMAN: Yes, but we don't think there are any tapes, despite what the president mused about, this morning on Twitter. Steve Moore, Matt Lewis, Page Pate, great to have you with us this morning guys, have a great weekend.

All right, Jeff sessions, the attorney general of the United States, he said he was recusing himself from all matters having to do with Russia. Did he, in fact, recuse himself? Has he issued an ethics violation by his involvement here? We're waiting to hear from him. Will he address the matter? That's coming up.