Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Had Russia on His Mind When He Fired Comey. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired May 12, 2017 - 06:00   ET



DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was going to fire Comey. My decision.

[05:58:45] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president's timeline contradicts everything the White House has been saying.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When was the decision made to fire Mr. Comey?

TRUMP: He's a showboat. He's a grandstander.

ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING DIRECTOR OF THE FBI: Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI.

TRUMP: "Am I under investigation?" He said, "You are not under investigation."

SANDERS: I don't see that as a conflict of interest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This investigation will go forward and will be completed.

TRUMP: I said to myself, Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

MCCABE: Simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing.

TRUMP: If Russia did anything having to do with our election, I want to know about it.


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

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Friday, May 12, 6 a.m. here in the East. Alisyn is off. Poppy Harlow joins me this morning.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good to be here.

CUOMO: And this is a big day. It is good to have you.

Up first, the initial explanation for why Donald Trump fired Jim Comey was untrue. The president contradicting himself and worse in an interview we're going to bring you this morning. The president acknowledging he actively tried to interfere in the Russian investigation and that it was his displeasure with that probe that drove his ouster of the FBI director.

HARLOW: The president also detailing for the first time those three conversations he claims he had with director Comey about the Russia investigation. This as the White House is struggling not to keep up with this firestorm, but changing its story time and time again. All of this effectively stalling the agenda.

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


The president's latest interview a fascinating look inside his head, with plenty of contradictions and also some key admissions, eliminating almost any doubt about the president's motivations for the firing of the FBI director.


TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. My decision.

JOHNS (voice-over): President Trump changing the message again, saying now it was his decision to fire James Comey, not the recommendation of the top two Justice Department officials.

TRUMP: He made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it.

JOHNS: Contradicting days of statements from the White House.

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He provided strong leadership to act on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: The president took the advice of the deputy attorney general.

JOHNS: The president personally castigating Comey.

TRUMP: Look, he's a showboat. He's a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil.

JOHNS: And for the first time, admitting the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia was on his mind.

TRUMP: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, "You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won." JOHNS: A source close to Comey telling CNN he was fired over the

accelerating Russia investigation and Comey's refusing to assure the president a personal loyalty.

The president was pressed about this paragraph in his letter firing Comey, where he claims that Comey assured him three times he was not personally under investigation. Trump explaining how it transpired.

TRUMP: That dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, "I'll, you know, consider. We'll see what happens." So he said it once at dinner. And then he said it twice during phone calls.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: Did you call him?

TRUMP: In one case, I called him. In one case he called me.

HOLT: And did you ask, "Am I under investigation?"

TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, "If it's possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?"

He said, "You are not under investigation."

JOHNS: That exchange raising eyebrows.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Isn't it inappropriate for the president of the United States to ask the FBI director directly if he's under investigation?

SANDERS: No, I don't believe it is.

JOHNS: Comey has not confirmed the president's account as the White House continues to change their explanation of why Comey was fired. Comey's interim replacement, Acting Director Andrew McCabe, contradicting this account from the White House.

SANDERS: The rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.

MCCABE: Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day. I don't believe there is a crisis of confidence in the leadership of the FBI.

JOHNS: The Trump administration suggesting that firing Comey would help end the FBI's investigation into Russia's election meddling.

SANDERS: We want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.

JOHNS: Something the acting FBI director vowed not to let happen.

MCCABE: You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing.

JOHNS: The president claiming he wants answers on Russia.

TRUMP: There is no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. If Russia hacked, if Russia did anything having to do with our election, I want to know about it.

JOHNS: Insisting he did not try to interfere with the FBI's investigation.

HOLT: Did you ask him to drop the investigation?


HOLT: Did anyone from the White House?

TRUMP: In fact, I want the investigation speeded up.

JOHNS: President Trump also explaining why it took 18 days to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn, even after acting attorney general Sally Yates met with the White House counsel to warn that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians.

TRUMP: My White House counsel, Tom McGahn, came back to me and did not sound like an emergency of any sort. He didn't make a sound like it was. You know, and she actually didn't make it sound that way, either in the hearings the other day like it had to be done immediately. I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don't even know and immediately run out and fire a general.

JOHNS: Trump defending Flynn, who lied to the vice president about his contacts with Russia, and for concealing payments from foreign governments.

TRUMP: This man has served for many years. He's a general. He's a -- in my opinion, a very good person.


[06:05:08] JOHNS: A little bit more about the timeline, that dinner the president had with James Comey appears to have occurred just one day after acting attorney general Sally Yates warned the White House counsel that the president's national security adviser Michael Flynn might have been compromised by the Russians.

There had been some expectation that the president might visit FBI headquarters here in Washington, D.C., today, but plans for that, if there were plans, have now been scrapped, given the continuing uproar over the firing of James Comey.

CUOMO: Joe Johns, appreciate it. Thank you. Let's bring in our panel.

CNN political analyst David Gregory; associate editor and columnist for Real Clear Politics, A.B. Stoddard; and CNN political commentator Errol Louis. David Gregory, Sally Yates, acting A.G. goes there, gives a sense of

agency and despite what the president just said. You've got trouble with Flynn. Act on it.

The next day, the president meets with the director of the FBI and acknowledges that he tried to interfere with the investigation and make sure that he was clear. We focused on that second paragraph in his letter dismissing Comey for a reason. It is a window into what this was all about and the major concerns for impartiality of any investigation into this matter going forward.

GREGORY: That's the important point here, Chris. I mean, there's two aspects of this that are so troubling. The president of the United States is on record on Twitter and in person, in interviews, dismissing the importance of a probe into Russia's attack on America to hack the election to manipulate the results, which is not to say that they had an impact on the results. The president won fair and square, but it was an attack on America. Those are words, by the way, of Republican Senator John McCain.

Two, his open contempt for the investigation only followed up by the fact that he demanded loyalty of the FBI director who is responsible for that probe. Demanded loyalty of a person who runs an independent agency who gets a ten-year term precisely so that he can be independent of politics or a -- the political party of a president. We must focus on this act. No matter the future of the Russia investigation. This act is done in such a way that these two facts combine to undermine our democratic institutions. Full stop.

HARLOW: A.B., the president went counter to everything that his own White House has been trying to do for the last 48 hours. When he said -- when Lester Holt asked him about why you fired Comey and why you did it when you did.

He said, quote, "When I decided to do it, I just said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia, it's a made up story. The president inserted that in his answer. Not once in his answer did he bring up Hillary Clinton's e-mails which was the justification they tried the first time around with Rosenstein's letter. How critical is that? How does the White House get around that this afternoon in the press briefing?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATED EDITOR AND COLUMNIST, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: They can't. The president went on an interview and spoke extemporaneously. There were no talking points. It wasn't planned. That was staff. Someone in staff didn't think it was good for them to do the interview. He threw them all under the bus, including Vice President Pence, people who had gone out and said that this was all on the recommendation of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. And all on Comey's performance during the last year, most particularly with the Clinton e-mail server investigation.

And now Trump has said, basically, that he cooked up this idea, because he believes the Russia investigation is, you know, a fake story. And just as David Gregory says, he has never treated -- forget the collusion part, which might end up being unfounded, although there are new leads accelerating these investigations into that part.

But the actual meddling in the election part, Donald Trump, President Trump has never acknowledged the gravity of -- of Russia interfering in our election's, in France's elections, in the Brexit vote and in what they might attempt to do in the Angela Merkel election in Germany. This is something that just doesn't concern him, because he never, ever talks about it.

And so it's really time for Republicans in Congress and all of Trump's, you know, most fervent supporters to realize that he doesn't have a problem admitting he canned the guy who he's not allowed to talk to about whether or not he's a target. He gave himself away in that initial letter, saying, "Thank you, basically, for exonerating me three times." And he basically was -- felt it was fine to -- to fire a guy who was running the FBI investigating connections between Russia and his own team.

[06:10:06] And so he's -- there's no more cover-up. He's blown the lid off of it. And it's basically going to be a new line today for senators and members of Congress, when they're asked about this, to defend.

CUOMO: A little bit more troubling, until we hear it from James Comey, there's every reason to believe that those conversations never happened. Everybody around James Comey, those who are with him and close with him at the FBI, cannot imagine him having ever given that kind of comfort to the president. Not just because it was inappropriate, but it would have been inaccurate. That simply is too premature to make that kind of call.

Now, the differences between the truth and what the White House was selling was so stark that we put together a mendacity montage for you of the conflicting statements. Here it is.


TRUMP: I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.

HOLT: So there wasn't (ph) really room.

TRUMP: He made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.

CONWAY: He took the recommendation of his deputy attorney general who oversees the FBI director.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: That makes no sense.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He made a determination that the FBI director had lost his confidence. Made a recommendation to the attorney general.

PENCE: 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.

SANDERS: The president accepted the recommendation of his deputy attorney general to remove James Comey from his position.


CUOMO: Then, in his own letter, he said that it was about the recommendation. And then, Errol Louis, in his interview, he exposed that for the B.S. that it is.

And the question becomes is this a gotcha moment? Absolutely not. This is a clear window into this president's open and honest decision to thwart an investigation into Russia and get rid of the man that he didn't trust to conclude it the right way. How big a deal is this?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it is a very big deal. And within that, it's worth keeping in mind, Chris, that he's talking like somebody who's worried about his own personal position. He's not talking -- he's not saying Manafort had nothing to do with it. He's not saying General Flynn was OK. He's not saying that everything was OK with his campaign and his transition.

He's saying, "The FBI director told me personally that I was not under investigation." He's been talking about issuing some sort of certified letter, as if you know, sending it by postal carrier would make it more credible. Sort of saying that "I have no investments in Russia," when that's really never been the question.

The question is what have the Russian oligarchs, the Russian government invested in the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign? And perhaps President Trump himself? That's the question that the investigation needs to get to. I mean, it was as clear to me as day for him to say to Lester Holt that, you know, "I've got nothing that -- I asked about -- I asked myself about Russia. I used that as the reason to fire him."

To me, it's sort of game, set, match. That is exactly why there's been so much frustration, I think, within the White House, where they don't speak with one voice. The president will countermand everything that's been said.

HARLOW: You know, and David Gregory, so often we talk about that, the contradictions this White House makes, et cetera, et cetera. This is bigger than that. I mean, you know, Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat. He said earlier this week, "This is a constitutional crisis." Right? At this point, is this a constitutional crisis? How big is this?

GREGORY: You know, it's funny. I was just reading something on that this morning from some wonderful constitutional scholars who know more about this than I do. I don't know that that's where we are yet, because the president is certainly within his rights to fire any senior officer like this. And I think he is both within his rights and could also be undermining democratic institutions at the same time.

HARLOW: But he's not within his rights to obstruct justice, right? And that's the question.

GREGORY: And, you know, that's a judgment that others will have to make. I mean, it strikes me as highly inappropriate to have the kind of conversation that "The New York Times" reported on, where he's demanding his loyalty or calling him and saying, "Hey, could you just let me know, am I under investigation?"

But we should also point out, as a matter of law, that it's quite possible that Comey would have said to him, "Look, at this point, Mr. President, you are not being investigated. That does happen. And it could change tomorrow. It could change with different circumstances," so it could also be misinterpreted. So I don't know that we should think about that as being completely as an outlier.

I do think we have to focus on, again, some of the -- the sequencing of the firing. So if the president wanted to fire him all along, I think it goes back to this original point, which is that he wanted his FBI director to be loyal. He had open contempt for this investigation, both of which are extremely troubling, as I've already talked about.

Secondly, then -- then the whole issue with Rosenstein. As I pointed out before, there was already a Justice Department inspector general investigation of Comey and his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation. Why, then, did they turn to Rosenstein and say, "Hey, look at this again and give us a recommendation." Were they setting him up? A guy with a sterling reputation, to make a recommendation, so they could use him to say, "Oh, we fired him on his recommendation"?

[06:15:17] That happens. That's the original narrative, which is not true. So they were -- the White House misled the American people. And then Rosenstein apparently, according to reporting, says to the White House counsel, "Hey, I don't like this. You guys need to back this off and take some responsibility here." And then I think Trump comes out and says -- to try to soften and says, "Look, I was going to fire him all along." And Rosenstein also wrote to it.

It's a question: Did Rosenstein stand behind this the whole time and back the firing? It's something I'd like to know.

HARLOW: A little bit later on the show, we're going to have a man join us who has worked in the Department of Justice with Rosenstein for 25 years. We're going to ask him about exactly that.

Guys, thank you very much. Stick around. We've got a lot more coming up on all of this, including more of the president's interview. Why it took 18 days to fire Michael Flynn, a man under investigation, a man the president just called a very good person, but James Comey's firing much quicker than that. What the president says about it, next.


COMO: President Trump revealing new details about the days that led up to his firing of the former national security adviser, General Michael Flynn. The president justifying the 18 days it took to fire him after repeated warnings from the Justice Department. Let's bring back our political panel. You've got David Gregory, A.B.

Stoddard and also bring in CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd. Let's play the relevant part of the exchange from the NBC interview, and then we'll discuss it.


HOLT: Sally Yates recently testified that the White House was notified that he had been compromised; he was at risk of being blackmailed. It was 18 days later that he was finally fired. During that 18 days, he had access, I assume, to all the nation's top secrets. One day you meet on the issue of Comey and you fire him, in a humiliating way, while he's sitting in a room with his colleagues, and that's appearing on the TV.

TRUMP: My White House counsel, Tom McGahn, came back to me and did not sound like an emergency or anything. He didn't make it sound like he was. You know, and she actually didn't make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day, like it had to be done immediately.

This man has served for many years. He's a general. He's, in my opinion, a very good person. I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don't even know and immediately run out and fire a general.

HOLT: It was your acting attorney general at the time.


CUOMO: So Phil Mudd, I've seen that the difference in disposition to the president was one guy he liked, so he took it slow. One guy he didn't like, so he did it right away.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think it's even more basic than that, Chris. Look, if you go back a few months, you look at the president attacking the former CIA director. He didn't nominate that director, but that director was among those who participated in the conversation about Russian meddling in the election. That embarrassed the president.

James Comey embarrassed the president by getting out in front of the American people and not only talking about the investigation but saying the president's allegations about wiretapping Trump Tower were wrong.

Flynn, on -- by contrast is an embarrassment to the president if the president doesn't come out and say he's a good guy. He's his man. So the message here is pretty straightforward. If it's an embarrassment to the president and he doesn't know you, he's going to throw you under the bus. If you're his guy, he's going to pretend you're a good guy, because appointing you suggests that his judgment is poor. Pretty straightforward, Chris.

CUOMO: Now, I want your take on something else. And again, it could be true. The president could be telling the truth about his conversations with Comey. But we cannot, to this point, get anyone at the FBI who would think that it would be appropriate for the director to tell the president or anybody whether or not they were the subject of an investigation. And that personally to Comey, people who know him can't imagine him ever saying that.

What is your take on the likelihood that a conversation like that would have taken place once, let alone three times?

MUDD: Pretty little likelihood of that. I think we'll see the same situation, dramatic situation that we saw in the wake of what I just mentioned, the allegations of wiretapping of Trump Tower.

You'll remember that when Jim Comey came out to testify on that, he said clearly there is no information in the FBI that indicates anybody wiretapped Trump Tower.

Believe me, Chris. Believe me, Jim Comey, despite mistakes, is an honorable man. He will be in front of open testimony in the coming months. And here's what's going to happen. Somebody is going to say, "Did you -- did you tell the president of the United States that he was not the subject of an investigation during three conversations?" I'm going to lay some money on the table. He's going to say no.

HARLOW: A.B., sort of lost in all of that is also the fact that, as Lester Holt rightly pointed out, you know, the president said, "Well, you know, I mean, I didn't have to fire Flynn right away, because this person that we don't even know just came to the White House and told us that maybe we should." That person, the acting attorney general. Granted, on her way out, likely, and of course, he fired her for not implementing the travel ban. But the significance of that, that he is so obsessed with this loyalty. He asked Comey for this loyalty pledge at the dinner, according to "The New York Times," and he would say that the acting attorney general didn't know what she was talking about, and so he didn't feel an urgency to fire Flynn.

STODDARD: Poppy, loyalty is the key word. If you prove your loyalty to Donald Trump, you're pretty unassailable in his eyes, and you can embarrass him, actually. Corey Lewandowski embarrassed him in an incident with a reporter where it was caught on tape that he was physical and knocked her down, and there was differing accounts of it. But Donald Trump stuck by him for a long time until his kids insisted that he be fired as campaign manager and sometime in the summer of last year.

He sticks by people even when things get really tough if they have been loyal to him. And I believe that Donald Trump will continue to run his administration like his family business. And he, according to "The New York Times" accounts, asked Comey at this dinner on January 27 to be loyal to him.

And there is an interesting timeline about when Sally Yates actually told Don McGahn, the White House counsel, about Flynn and the fact that he could be compromised and potentially blackmailed by the Russians, and then obviously, the 18 days that they took to act on it within the White House. Then he -- after he learned that information, he took Comey to dinner to frame accounts about who asked for the dinner.

[06:25:14] But the reporting shows that Comey told associates of the FBI he didn't even want to go to the dinner. He was afraid to turn the president down, but was concerned of what it would look like to be chummy with the president at a dinner. And it was at that dinner where President Trump asked him twice for loyalty. Loyalty is everything to Donald Trump. And people really need to realize about the way this West Wing operates. It is all based on that. People are given an extraordinarily long leash.

Michael Flynn was always on the plane with Trump. He was always a fervent supporter at those campaign rallies, as we know. "Lock her up" at the convention. Michael Flynn really could do no wrong. And he continues to compliment him. And according to a story in "The Daily Beast," has been desperate to reach out to him over the advice of his aides, who are begging him not to speak with a witness under several investigations.

CUOMO: You know, do you hear that? You know what that is? The sound of Republican leadership standing up and talking about what we just heard in this interview with the president. Crickets. They were asked to come on this show this morning. We ask them on a regular basis. Nobody has said anything meaningful about what to do in light of these obvious allegations that the president didn't like what was happening with the Russian investigation and moved to stop it.

To A.B.'s point, put up the timeline, because it really smacks you in the face, what this was really about. On the 26th, Yates comes, and by the way, she wasn't alone. She came with a senior official to give some heft to the message she was communicating.

The next day is the Trump-Comey dinner, where Trump seemed, at a minimum, unduly curious about his exposure to what was going on with this Flynn and larger Russian investigation. A few days later, three, Yates is fired over the travel ban. But now you have to ask, was it really just about the travel ban or what she had started in the mind of the president and his people around him about exposure -- exposure in Russia?

And then you start to get this chronology of things moving along about what was known and what wasn't. And of course, the pivot point, David Gregory, was that "Washington Post" article that made all this public. And then it wound up precipitating some action.

So again, we're back to where we started. What happens now? Who stands up? What can be done?

GREGORY: Well, congressional leaders are not standing up. Republican leaders are not standing up. And it's unclear to me who is going to fight for Democratic institutions and an appropriate way to protect the system.

I will say that those on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr and Mark Warner, are working hand in glove together and, I think, are showing a lot of integrity in how they're pursuing the investigation. I don't think you're going to get a wider investigation.

But we have to say something else, that President Trump is bringing the same intellectual rigor to this Russian hacking investigation that he brought to the birther lie that he perpetuated into national prominence against President Obama. He has this blind spot, this conspiracy-minded thought about -- that all of these investigations are a way to delegitimize him and him winning the presidency. And that they're all after him and that President Obama personally wiretapped him. It's nonsense. It's all nonsense. And it has clouded his and those around him, their judgment, all of them.

So when you have somebody saying to him, "Look, you've got a national security adviser who's compromised by a foreign power," he thinks it just should be laughed off and that this is a general and he's a good guy, and that it should be fine. Have Lavrov, the foreign minister, have him into the White House. Let's kick out the U.S. reporters.

HARLOW: In the Oval Office.

GREGORY: And "Oh, it's amazing how the Russians tricked us." Because it never occurred to him that, in fact, the Russians could do this.

HARLOW: You know, and he also said in that interview, "if Russia hacked." And then, when Lester Holt points to the 17 intelligence agencies, he says, "I don't even think we have 17 intelligence agencies."

CUOMO: He's wrong. But look, to hear from the president directly is so powerful right now.

All right, Panel, stay with us.

Up now, up next, what does all this mean to the FBI's ongoing Russian investigation? That's the question. Right? How do you get an impartial administration of justice? Next.