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Gowdy Doesn't Want FBI Position; Trump Hosts Turkish President; Trump Contradicts McMaster's Statements. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 09:30   ET



[09:33:13] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm old enough to remember when the biggest story out of Washington was the president firing his FBI director and the search for a new FBI director. That has been superseded by the news overnight that the president may have passed on classified information to the Russians. Nevertheless, the search for an FBI director goes on. CNN's Jessica Schneider live in Washington with the very latest.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a lot going on, John. You know, we know that right now Congressman Trey Gowdy, he announced on FaceBook that he doesn't want the post, even though he wasn't one of those eight people interviewed over the weekend. And Trey Gowdy gave quite a lengthy declaration when he said this. The Republican from South Carolina, he typed out three paragraphs stressing the importance of the justice system. Of course, he's a former federal prosecutor. And then he broke the news this way. He said, "I spoke briefly with Attorney General Sessions Saturday when I returned and again this afternoon." He was overseas on a trip. He continued by saying, "I shared with him two things. Number one, the qualities I believe are indispensable for our next FBI director to possess and, two, my firm conviction that I would not be the right person."

Now, Gowdy also went on to say that the country deserves an FBI director who will unite the country in the search for justice and truth. And, in fact, that sentiment has been echoed in bipartisan calls we've heard from people like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. They're all calling for a nonpartisan FBI director.

And, in the meantime, we're also hearing from Senator Mitch McConnell about this. Interestingly, in what might be a big surprise to many, Senator McConnell is weighing in on who he thinks should be FBI director. Take a listen to this.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Yes, actually, I have spoken with the president about it. I recommended Merrick Garland.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It might surprise some people. MCCONNELL: Yes, it may surprise people, but he has a deep background in criminal law. He was the prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing case. And I think it would make it clear that President Trump will continue the tradition at the FBI of having an a-political professional.


[09:35:10] SCHNEIDER: So the name Merrick Garland is starting to gain some steam here. It was mentioned last week when FBI Director Comey was fired. Now it seems like more and more senators might be getting on board.

Of course, Merrick Garland was the pick from President Obama when that Supreme Court opening came upon Justice Antonin Scalia's death. But, of course, he never even got a hearing.

Now, when it does come to the search for the FBI director, we know that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he gave the president an update on the search late yesterday. It's unclear, though, whether Jeff Sessions offered a final recommendation or if this was just keeping the president apprised.

So, John, we're keeping an eye on this. Of course, we're looking toward Friday when the president will leave for that overseas trip. The president has said it's possible he could make a pick by then, but we'll see. A lot of names floating out there in the - in the universe.


BERMAN: All right, Jessica Schneider, thank you very, very much.

A big CNN exclusive. Fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates says the Russians had, quote, "real leverage" over former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. CNN's Anderson Cooper sat down with Yates in her first television interview since she was ousted in January.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, "AC 360": The underlying conduct itself was potentially a fireable offense.

SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: You know, I can't speak to a fireable offense. It was up to the president to make that decision about what he was going to do. But we certainly felt like they needed to act.

COOPER: Don McGahn actually asked you at that first meeting whether or not you thought the national security advisor should be fired?

YATES: Uh-huh.

COOPER: What did you say?

YATES: I told him it wasn't our call.

COOPER: Was the underlying conduct illegal? Was illegality involved?

YATES: There's certainly a criminal statute that was implicated by his conduct.

COOPER: You wanted the White House to act?

YATES: Absolutely, yes.

COOPER: To - to do something?

YATES: We expected the White House to act.

COOPER: Did you expect them to act quickly?


COOPER: There was urgency to - to the information?


COOPER: I'm just wondering, just on a personal level, and I don't know if you can answer this or not, but, you know, you were in - you're in government one week. You've been - you get fired and now you're out and you're watching day after day after day go by and nothing seems to have happened to the national security advisor that you have informed the White House about. Just as a private citizen at that point, did it concern you?

YATES: Well, sure, I was concerned about it. But I didn't know if perhaps something else had been done that maybe I just wasn't aware of, but -

COOPER: Maybe that they were keeping him away from certain classified information while they were investigating, something like that?

YATES: Maybe. I just didn't have any way of knowing what was going on at that point.

COOPER: Were you aware that he sat in on a - even from media reports - that he sat in on a phone call with Russia's president?

YATES: Just from media reports.

COOPER: Between the president and Russia's president. Did you find that surprising?

YATES: Well, sure. Absolutely that was surprising.

COOPER: Sean Spicer said on the day after Michael Flynn resigned that it was a trust issue that led to his resignation, not a legal issue. Do you agree there was no legal issue with Flynn's underlying behavior?

YATES: I don't know how the White House reached the conclusion that there was no legal issue. It certainly wasn't from my discussion with them. COOPER: Do you think Michael Flynn should have been fired?

YATES: I think that this was a serious compromise situation, that the Russians had real leverage. He also had lied to the vice president of the United States. You know, whether he's fired or not is a decision for the president of the United States to make. But it doesn't seem like that's a person who should be sitting in the national security advisor position.

COOPER: Michael Flynn was let go after "The Washington Post" reported a story. Some Republicans have accused you of leaking it. Did you leak to "The Washington Post"?

YATES: Absolutely not. No.

COOPER: Did you authorize somebody to leak to "The Washington Post"?

YATES: Absolutely not. I did not and I would not leak classified information.

COOPER: Have you ever leaked information to them?


COOPER: The president seems to suggest that you were behind this "Washington Post" article. The morning before you testified he tweeted, "ask Sally Yates under oath if she knows how classified information got into newspapers soon after she explained it to White House Counsel." He does sound like he doesn't - he seems to believe that you - you're the leaker. Does that - when you heard that, what did you think?

YATES: There have been a number of tweets that have given me pause.

COOPER: You want to elaborate on that?



BERMAN: She does elaborate on a lot else, though. You can watch Anderson's exclusive interview with Sally Yates tonight on "AC 360." That's at 8:00 Eastern only on CNN.

The president sharing classified information could be putting a relationship with many U.S. allies in jeopardy. In just hours, the president with another closed door meeting with a key world leader. How will the new events, the new bombshell report affect this meeting? Stay with us.


[09:44:08] BERMAN: In just a few hours at the White House, the president will have an Oval Office meeting with a key world leader. Now, of course, this meeting might be seen in a whole new light now after the reports that the president shared classified information in a closed door meeting with the Russians. Today's meeting with the controversial president of Turkey. CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon live in Istanbul with more.

Arwa, you know, the countries in that region very involved in the fight against ISIS, very involved in intelligence collection in the fight against ISIS. How is this new report that secrets shared with the United States were shared with the Russians, how might that be perceived in some of these countries?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, of course there are grave concerns because it is these particular countries that you elude to there, John, who are the ones that have the best operatives deep within potentially ISIS territory. And, of course, the overall concern is for their security and also for the security of the broader intelligence gathering operations against an entity like ISIS.

[09:45:12] When it comes to President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's meeting that is meant to be taking place, the big concern that we're being - hearing raised here in Turkey is that perhaps this is going to overshadow what Turkey really views as being a vital meeting. Erdogan is going into this with some key objectives. He most certainly, in his words, wants to try to persuade the U.S. administration not to directly arm the Kurds inside Syria, that Turkey views as being a terrorist organization, one in the same as the PKK that Turkey has been fighting within its own orders since the 1980s.

But the bottom line is that America's so-called traditional allies at this stage are really just becoming to come to grasps with how untraditional of an administration the Trump administration is really turning out to be. And at this stage you really get the sense that everyone is scrambling to a certain degree to see how they're going to navigate this new U.S. way of doing things. And what may be at stake is going to most certainly have much greater repercussions for the region potentially than it is elsewhere.

BERMAN: Arwa, about 30 seconds left, which countries in that region are the most deeply - have infiltrated ISIS perhaps the most deeply?

DAMON: Well, there's quite a few that potentially could have. You have America's, you know, stronger allies, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, some of the other Gulf countries. Of course, Turkey runs some pretty intense operations. And you have all sorts of other intelligence gathering capabilities from countries like Israel, for example. Potentially when it especially comes to dealing with an entity like ISIS, just about every single country you could possibly think of in the region is trying to gather its own information because every country in the region is basing varying degrees of a threat from ISIS itself.

BERMAN: Interesting that the president meets with the president of Turkey today. A phone call with King Abdullah of Jordan. That actually takes place right now.

All right, Arwa Damon, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it. The White House dealing with this last crisis. What are they going to

do about it? They're bringing a special guest to the press briefing today. Can the national security advisor explain away what happened?

And Russia, you can bet it will be an important topic tonight when he hear from presidential candidates - former candidates Bernie Sanders and John Kasich. They will be part of a CNN town hall debate that is moderated by Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. That starts at 9:00 Eastern only on CNN.


[09:52:17] BERMAN: All right, in just a few hours, a special guest at the White House briefing. The president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. General McMaster already taking some heat for knocking down claims that were actually not in the initial "Washington Post" report about the president sharing classified information with the Russians. And now the president himself, as of this morning, he has a different version of events.

Want to bring in CNN politics reporter, CNN editor at large Chris Cillizza.

Sir, thank you so much for being with us.

First off, General McMaster, last night, denies reporting that didn't exist. Now the president actually confirmed some of the reporting that did exist. So, if you're General McMaster, what do you say when you go to the podium today?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Oh, welcome to being on the staff with Donald Trump. The second time in a week, by the way, John, that we've seen this happen. Obviously, the Comey explanation, Donald Trump's just dismissing out of hand what his staff had built up over 48 hours.

Here's the problem if you're a staffer for Donald Trump, particularly if you're H.R. McMaster, you knew what you were getting into. There's no - there's no scenario by which you thought that Donald Trump would be a behind-the-scenes player who would largely take your advice and never freelance, right? I mean that's the exact opposite of what he has been his entire life and his relatively short political career.

What does General McMaster say and do? You know, I think he tries to insist that what he said last night - we've seen this many times over, the White House staff on one track consistently, Donald Trump on a separate track consistently. House Republicans on a third track. Sort of everyone trying to pretend that the other one didn't talk or they didn't hear it. So I think you will see H.R. McMaster talk about what he talked about last night, that this information was available to the public, that he was in the meeting, that he saw it. Now, there's obviously going to be questions about the seeming contradiction offered by the president's tweets.

BERMAN: Right.

CILLIZZA: I don't know how he -

BERMAN: Because the president, to be clear -

CILLIZZA: I don't know how he squares that circle.

BERMAN: To be clear, the president, you know, said things that General McMaster didn't.

CILLIZZA: That's right.

BERMAN: The president said in his tweet this morning, yes, I said stuff and it's OK that I said this stuff.


BERMAN: General McMaster, last night, was basically saying, no, he didn't say stuff. So that is where these two arguments are different.

I do want to take note of H.R. McMaster, though, the general, who is - you know, this is a different cat, you know, if you're looking at this than Sean Spicer.


BERMAN: You know, you're talking about someone highly respected on both sides of the aisle with a military record. And when he says things, people do take notice. It comes with a certain amount of credibility.

CILLIZZA: Absolutely. And I think that's why some folks put - put on the brakes or tap the brakes, at least, when he came out last night outside the White House and said I was in the room, this story is false.

[09:55:01] Now, to your point, a close listening or reading suggests that what General McMaster was doing was sort of denying things that aren't in the story. And you've seen CNN, "The New York Times," Buzzfeed, lots of other people confirm - and in relatively short order confirm the "Washington Post" original reporting, which I think - you know, again, everybody, General McMaster, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, anyone who spent any time in Washington struggles to maintain credibility amid this maelstrom of Donald Trumpism.

BERMAN: You know, it's true, you know, what exactly was shared? That could clear things up.


BERMAN: I doubt we'll hear that from the podium today.

Chris Cillizza, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

CILLIZZA: Thank you, sir.

BERMAN: All right, any minute now, a really interesting voice on this subject. Susan Rice will be speaking at this forum. That is obviously not Susan Rice right now, but she will be speaking at a progressive conference that is taking place as we speak in Washington. What does President Obama's national security adviser have to say about this new moment where information, classified information, reportedly shared with the Russians? We will hear from her very shortly.