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Interview With Maine Senator Angus King; Interview With Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings; Comey's Bombshell Memo' Sources Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Probe. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired May 16, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The White House is pushing back against this truly stunning report, even as it struggles with fallout from the president's sharing of intelligence with Russia.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
Breaking news tonight: A source is telling CNN that fired FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo that President Trump asked him in February to end the probe of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired. Comey himself was dismissed by the president last week.
The White House is responding tonight, saying -- quote -- "This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey" -- end quote.
We're covering that, much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Angus King of the Intelligence Committee and Congressman Elijah Cummings. He's the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee.
our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
But, first, let's get to the breaking news.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is with us.
Pamela, tell our viewers what are you hearing from your sources.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we have learned that James Comey, the former FBI director, wrote in a memo shortly after a meeting he had with President Trump in February that the president essentially asked him to end the Michael Flynn probe.
Of course, Michael Flynn was the former national security adviser who resigned because it became public that he spoke about sanctions with Ambassador Kislyak, the ambassador to Russia. And I'm told by a source that James Comey was so appalled by the idea that the president would in essence try to interfere in an investigation like this and asked for him to end it that he wanted to document it, that he wanted to create this paper trail.
And in it, he actually recapped part of the conversation, and at one point he claims in the memo that president asked him, "I hope you can let this go," referring to the Michael Flynn probe.
Now, I'm told that it was common for James Comey and for others in the FBI to document anything that they feel like may be pertinent to a case, whether there's a legal issue or an ethics -- ethical issue. But clearly in this case, James Comey thought it was important to document, thought it was important to create this paper trail.
And he apparently shared this memo with close associates and with senior FBI officials. And I'm told by my source that it was very close hold. He didn't share this memo with many people, frankly, but this is certainly a pretty big deal, given the fact that this is the first clearest example we have, Wolf, of the president allegedly interfering in this investigation.
I should note, though, that White House is denying this, this characterization...
BLITZER: Hold on a moment, Pamela.
Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee, has just emerged from a briefing.
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REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: ... that the president may have asked Director Comey to essentially drop the Flynn investigation.
If true, this is yet another disturbing allegation that the president may have engaged in some interference or obstruction of the investigation. I think we know enough now, there's been enough alleged publicly to want to bring the director back to testify ideally in open session either before our committee or the Judiciary Committee.
But he should come back to Congress and share what he knows in terms of the president's conversations with him on any of the Russia investigation.
I also think that we ought to ask for the notes that were taken contemporaneously or shortly after those meetings. And, of course, if there are any tapes, as the president alleged, those should also be obtained by Congress.
If necessary, I think we should subpoena them, but hopefully we can obtain any of these materials voluntarily. But on the heels of an allegation that the president himself acknowledged that he brought up in the context of whether the director would stay on as director, whether he was the subject of investigation, in the context of reports by the director, or associates of the director, that he was asked to essentially for a loyalty test to the president, and now with allegations that the president urged him to essentially drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, enough is enough.
Congress really needs to get to the bottom of this. We did have an opportunity to inquire further about the reports of the discussion within the White House with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador. I don't have much I can share in terms of our discussions on that.
I can only say that I remain concerned about allegations that the president shared information with the Russians that was not vetted in advance by our intelligence agencies. It's one thing to do this as a product of interagency thought and deliberation about information that needs to be shared.
It's another thing to do it spontaneously, impetuously, or in a way that might endanger sources of information.
So, I think there is still more for us to learn in terms of whether classified information was shared with the Russians. That was an answer that General McMaster was not willing to give today, and also whether any mitigation steps need to be put in place.
And I'm happy to respond to one or two questions.
SCHIFF: Mr. Conaway and I are working together very well.
And I think he has made every effort, we both are, to run the investigation in a completely nonpartisan fashion.
The issues that have come up in connection with Mr. Comey are beyond merely the scope of the intelligence investigation in the Intelligence Committee. I think the Judiciary Committee both in the House and Senate also have a deep interest in this.
And from my point of view, I'm not being proprietary about this. Of course, I would love for him to come before the Intelligence Committee. But either way, he needs to come back before the Congress and I think share with the public what conversations he had with the president that may bear on whether there was any effort to obstruct the investigation or impede it in any way.
QUESTION: Congressman, in light of these new reports on the conversation between Comey and Trump, do you think the president has credibility to appoint a new FBI director right now?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, I think the president has severely undermined his own credibility on anything pertaining to the Russian involvement in our election.
With respect to the choice of the new director, I agree completely and wholeheartedly with Lindsey Graham. I think it ought to be a completely apolitical choice. I think the ideal candidate -- I'm not speaking to anyone in
particular, but I think the ideal profile of a candidate would be someone who is a retired judge or an active judge who is willing to step down from the bench ideally that has prosecutorial experience in the past, but someone, I think, that is very consistent with the necessity of true independence in that role.
So, whether the president is credible on the subject or not, the Senate has an incredible responsibility of making sure that no one is confirmed for that job that we can't have absolute confidence will be fully independent.
And I will say this also about why that is so important. There are three primary investigations going on of the Russia issue, one in the House Intelligence Committee, one in the Senate Intelligence Committee, and, of course, that being done by the FBI. The FBI has far greater reach than any committee in Congress.
They have agents around the world. They have resources we don't have. We can't recreate what the FBI can do, nor should we try. We have to run our own investigations, but we do have to make sure that the FBI does its work in a thorough way, in an impartial way, and without any impediment whatsoever.
SCHIFF: Well, I think we ought to ask the director to come in to testify. I think that will be the first step we ought to ask.
If there are notes, notes that are taken around the time of the conversation would be, I think, very powerful evidence of what took place during those conversations. And then I think we follow up from there.
Clearly, obviously, if the president is being truthful in the threat to Director Comey that he had tapes or might have tapes, we're going to want to get a hold of those.
BLITZER: Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat, top Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, voicing his alarm over this report first reported in "The New York Times."
The headline, "Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation," Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to President Trump, under investigation for his ties to Russian officials, including the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Jim Acosta, very strong denial coming in from the White House so far. What else are you hearing?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. That's right, Wolf.
This is the hour where the news bombshells tend to drop over here at the White House. And that's the case once again. Of course, the question now, it's a very big question for the president, is whether he directly tried to interfere in the investigation into Michael Flynn and these ties between the Trump campaign, his associates, and Russia.
I will tell that you, talking to a senior White House official, they are -- the bottom line here is, they are disputing Jim Comey's version of events here that are outlined in that memo. I talked to a White House official who said a conversation of that nature regarding what Comey describes in that memo did not happen, according to this official.
And here is a statement that the White House put out just a few moments ago.
It says: "While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn. The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."
And the White House official that I spoke with, Wolf, directed me to video of Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director, who testified up on Capitol Hill to the Senate last week. They are pointing to a quote from Andrew McCabe who said -- quoting here -- "There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date," talking about the investigation of those contacts between the Trump campaign, his associates and Russia.
But we should point out, it is not exactly clear at this point -- and we need hear this from Jim Comey himself -- whether or not the former director relayed his concerns, talked about what was in this memo with the acting director, Andrew McCabe. We just don't have an answer to that yet, Wolf.
BLITZER: That's an important question, indeed.
Our chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper, is getting more information as well.
Jake, what are you learning?
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I spoke with a source close to former FBI Director Comey who confirms the details of "The New York Times" report and also adds some more information.
This is a source who has a copy of this memo in question. The source says that Director Comey was in the Oval Office on February 14 briefing President Trump, briefing Vice President Pence, and also there was Attorney General Sessions. After the briefing was over, the president asked the vice president and the attorney general to leave the room. And then, according to Comey writing in this memo, the president said -- quote -- "I hope you can see your way to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," referring to the investigation into former National Security Adviser Flynn.
"He is a good guy. I hope can you let this go."
He also told Comey that Flynn had not done anything wrong. Comey was concerned about what the president was saying, about the impression that the president was trying to stop an FBI investigation, the source tells CNN.
And the source says that Comey wrote a number of memos. A great many, if not all, were about contacts with Trump, particularly the contacts that made him feel "uneasy" -- quote.
The source did not know how many memos Comey had written. And the source, by the way, just one other note on this, noted that Comey wants to testify about this. The reason he's not testifying today is because he didn't want to testify privately with the Senate Intelligence Committee or anyone else. He wants to testify publicly, and also that Comey hopes that President Trump's threat about there being tapes of their conversations, he hopes it's true.
The reason that Comey wrote all these contemporaneous memos and shared them with confidants of his was because he was worried about the uncorroborated nature, that this was going to end up being a he said/he said, and he hopes that there are tapes, and he would love to have them, the source said -- Wolf.
BLITZER: These memoranda, I take it, Jake, and you have got a good source, these memoranda are in the FBI files right now, and I assume maybe Comey, when he left, although he was in Los Angeles when he was fired, I don't even know if he got back to his office.
I don't even know if he has still copies of those memoranda.
TAPPER: It sounds as though, from what I have been told, that James Comey wanted to keep a record of all the times President Trump said things to him that made him uneasy about this investigation.
And it sounds as though they are not only in the FBI, that some of these memos are outside of the building, and that people who are not in the FBI have them as well.
So, I don't think they are under lock and key in a place where only the attorney general can get them. It sounds like they are in safe quarters.
BLITZER: And do we know -- you say confidants. He shared it with close confidants. Do we know if others within the FBI or the Justice Department, top officials, actually saw those memoranda?
TAPPER: The memos were shared with confidants both within and outside of the FBI, Director Comey having some other friends in law enforcement that he is friends with.
It is not just people in the FBI who have these memos. And we should note, this is not unusual for anybody who has followed James Comey's career. When he has emerged in controversies, whether it was the firing of the U.S. attorneys during the George W. Bush administration, or the torture memo controversy during the George W. Bush administration, or the NSA wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration, Director Comey is somebody who was known to keep meticulous and contemporaneous records of things that were going on, whether they were in memos or in e-mails.
An immaculate record of what James Comey thought was going on and what he thought of it at the time usually emerges. And now we're going to see that in full bloom here with this controversy.
BLITZER: All right, Jake, I want you to stand by. Thanks for your excellent reporting.
Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat, is speaking on the Senate floor.
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SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The country is being tested in unprecedented ways.
I say to all of my colleagues, in the Senate, history is watching. I yield the floor.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Under the previous order, the Senate stands...
BLITZER: All right, that was Senator Schumer expressing his alarm.
Let's get some more now.
Independent Senator Angus King of Maine is joining us. He's a member of the Intelligence Committee.
So, give us your reaction to this explosion.
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Well, I think the first thing we have to do, Wolf, is take a little bit of a deep breath, because very few people have seen that memo. We have reports of somebody who read the memo to a reporter. It hasn't been authenticated. It hasn't been fully determined that James Comey wrote it.
But let's assume for a moment that he did. I think one of the important points that Jake made is that Jim Comey is a by-the-book guy. I have worked with him for four years on the Intelligence Committee. We've had our differences. But he is one of the straightest shooters that I have ever encountered.
And it is entirely consistent with what I have seen that he would keep notes, that he would write a memo to the file. That's his style and he has done it, as Jake mentioned, in the past. But I don't want to get don't want to get too far out. We have got
two stories here, both of which involve something that happened in the Oval Office. And we have to verify what was actually said.
The president made this little bit surprising remark the other day about tapes. I think now is the time. If there were tapes, we need to have them. And we need to understand what was said.
This is a very serious matter, if indeed it is verified that this is what the president said to the head of the FBI in the middle of a very serious investigation.
BLITZER: You heard Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst, say that, if this report is true, if the president asked the FBI to end the investigation into Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, you heard Jeffrey Toobin say it would be an obstruction of justice.
And potentially, as you know, Senator, that could be impeachable. That could be an impeachable offense.
KING: Well, that was in fact one of the offenses that was listed in the last two impeachments that the -- that have gone on here in Congress. Obstruction of justice has been part of the discussion.
I'm not ready to declare that a fact at this point. Again, I think we have to be a little bit cautious. This is of immense importance, Wolf. It's one of the most important things that I have been involved with in my political life. And we have to be sure that we get it right. We have to be sure we're accurate, that we're not going off and making conclusions and judgments until we have all the facts.
But if it comes down to James Comey and his credibility, I will tell you, he is a very believable guy.
BLITZER: You just heard our Jake Tapper say he learned that this Comey memo quoted the president asking Comey -- this is quote -- "I hope you can let this go."
If that is all true and confirmed, what should happen to the president?
KING: Well, if that's true and confirmed, I think you're getting very close to the legal definition of obstruction of justice.
And what happens next will rest largely in the House of Representatives. It could come here to the Senate. This is very serious stuff. And we should be very careful about this. We don't want to get into the situation where we're changing our president based upon any kind of political considerations.
The Constitution was very clear. It has to be high crimes and misdemeanors. It is not something that we differ politically or we think the president is taking positions that we don't agree with on policy. It has to be, as I say, high crimes and misdemeanors is the definition. We have only had one president impeached in American history.
actually, we've had two, Johnson and Nixon. Nixon was not convicted. As you know, he resigned.
But obstruction of justice is a very, very serious matter. And we going to have to wait and see what the -- what the terms were. We are going to have to hear from Director Comey. And, also, if the White House has been saying all day that this never happened, then I think they should come forth with whatever evidence that they have, whether it is tapes or notes made by someone at the White House to contradict this, because, as I say, Jim Comey has a pretty serious credibility with everybody who I know that's ever worked with him.
BLITZER: Yes, President Bill Clinton, as you know, he was impeached in the House of Representatives, but not convicted, acquitted when it came up to a formal trial in the United States Senate.
I just want to be clear. If in fact these allegations reported first in "The New York Times" and now being confirmed by CNN and other news organizations, if these allegations, Senator, are true, are we getting closer and closer to the possibility of yet another impeachment process?
KING: Reluctantly, Wolf, I have to say yes, simply because obstruction of justice is such a serious offense.
And I say it with sadness and reluctance. I'm not -- this is not something that I had advocated for or -- and the word has not passed my lips in this whole tumultuous three or four months.
But if indeed the president tried to tell the director of the FBI, who worked for him, that he should drop an investigation, whether it was Michael Flynn or whether it was some investigation that had nothing to do with Russia or politics or the election, it's -- that's a very serious matter.
BLITZER: So what will your Intelligence Committee in the Senate be doing about all of this? I assume you will want to subpoena for presidential tapes of conversations in the Oval Office if in fact they exist.
KING: We met today, as a matter of fact, Wolf, and discussed this matter briefly before we got to the main issue that we were being briefed on today.
And, basically, what we want to know is, what happened, what was said, and what's the evidence of what was said? So far, apparently, and I say apparently, because I haven't seen the memo or had Jim Comey authenticate it -- but, apparently, according to Jim Comey, we understand what was the context of that conversation.
The White House has said it didn't happen. And I think they need to come forth with whatever evidence they have. If it is tapes, now's the time. If it is contemporaneous notes, if there was someone in the room that took notes, if the president wrote a memo afterwards about what was said in that meeting, we need to have that before us.
The important -- and the Intelligence Committee, we're going to be doing everything we can to find out what was said in the office that day, as well as what was said in the office last week about the other matter of intelligence, sensitive intelligence matter, matters being released to the Russians.
BLITZER: Senator Angus King of Maine, thanks, as usual, for joining us.
KING: Yes, sir.
BLITZER: All right, Jeffrey Toobin, you're our senior legal analyst.
You said if, in fact, these allegations first reported in "The New York Times," now confirmed by CNN and other news organizations, are true, you used the words obstruction of justice. Step back and give us the big picture, because this is an enormous bombshell.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right.
Just let's think about the context, February 14 of this year. There was a pending FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, as part of the Trump campaign and his relationship, whether he made false statements about possible collusion with Russia, about collusion with Russia. It's been established without any doubt that there was a pending investigation.
Donald Trump is president of the United States. He is the supervisor of the Department of Justice. He is the supervisor of the FBI. If he goes to the director of the FBI, and says, shh, please shut it down, close it down -- that's the word that Michael Schmidt uses in "The New York Times" story -- that is, as far as I can tell, obstruction of justice.
There is a statute many federal prosecutors are familiar with, Title 18, United States Code Section 1503. It is very -- it is often prosecuted in the federal courts. And it says whoever corruptly -- maybe I can just read it.
I'm sorry to -- yes. "Whoever corruptly influences or endeavors to influence the due administration of justice is guilty of obstruction of justice."
It is not a complicated law. If you corruptly, with bad intent, try to influence or endeavor to influence the due administration of justice, that's a crime.
And that is something that is prosecuted often in the federal courts here. And I think, you know, it's very important that we -- to establish we are at a beginning stage in this process first we learned of this conversation.
FBI -- the White House says there was no attempt to shut it down. If there was no attempt to shut it down, there was no crime, there was no impeachable offense, end up story.
But you have to look at all the circumstances. And, obviously, the first circumstance is, are there notes and are there tapes? And that's what Congress has got to determine very quickly.
BLITZER: Yes, that's critically important right now. Stand by.
I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland. He's the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee.
Congressman, when you hear the CNN report, the "New York Times" report that the former FBI director, James Comey, wrote a memo that President Trump asked to end the investigation of the national security adviser, the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, do you see that potentially as an obstruction of justice?
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: Yes, I do, simple as that.
I think the president has been has -- had basically not -- he hasn't had any -- to answer to anybody, really, up to now. And now he stepped over the line.
Clearly, we have got a smoking gun with a lot of dark smoke. And it is very, very unfortunate, and I think it's a day for our country.
BLITZER: CNN is reporting that this memo that was written by the FBI director, James Comey, says, among other things -- quote -- "I hope you can let this go."
"The New York Times" says the memo also says, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope can you let this go."
Is that potentially impeachable if it is an obstruction of justice?
CUMMINGS: I think we are going to have to look into it a little bit further, Wolf.
But I think say so. And based on what Toobin just said, I agree with him. But there's another element to this too. Keep in mind, Wolf, we have been -- my committee, or the Democrats, have been looking into this Flynn matter for a while.
And the Flynn -- this meeting allegedly took place some time in February. We have been trying to get documents about Flynn from the White House beginning in March. They haven't given us one syllable, not one piece of paper.
And we have been trying to figure out, why can't we get any documents about his tenure there, his being fired, hired, vetted? They have given us nothing.
Now this perhaps provides us with an answer as to why we haven't been able to get one single syllable from the White House.
BLITZER: Will your Republican counterpart, the chairman of the Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz, will he be with you to launch now a new investigation into all of this? Have you yet had an opportunity in the last hour or so, since the story broke, to speak to him about this?
CUMMINGS: No, I haven't talked to him yet, but I would hope that he would.
And I would hope that all members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, will look at this, and please put country above party and address this issue.
I mean, you cannot let this go on and on and on with no accountability. And the reason why I think that these kind of things are happening in large part is because the Republicans will not join with the Democrats to do the right thing with regard to the president.
It is just a moment, a sad moment in our history, but we are sworn not to Donald Trump, but we are sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States and protect the American people. That's our first duty.
BLITZER: As you know, traditionally, an FBI agent's contemporaneous notes, they are credible. They are held up in court as credible evidence.
CUMMINGS: That's right.
BLITZER: So, if in fact the FBI director, James Comey, contemporaneously wrote memoranda about his conversations with the president, you would agree that those potentially could be seen as credible evidence as if comes down to some sort of court procedure.
CUMMINGS: Yes, no doubt about it.
But even more than that, you have got to keep in mind, unfortunately and sadly, our president has not always been honest with us. And, on the other hand, I think Comey has been a pretty straight shooter.
And so, if it is one person's word against another's, I think Comey would come up out on top of that argument any day.
BLITZER: You saw that tweet, that the president raised the issue of -- quote -- "tapes" in his conversations with Comey.
Do you think they have -- that there are these kinds of tapes? And, presumably, if they are, you think they would be made available to you?
CUMMINGS: Well, I can tell you, I don't know whether there are tapes or not.
But if there are tapes -- and the president certainly dangled them out there, acting as if there might be -- we ought to have those tapes. The Presidential Records Act clearly states, even if those recordings were done on an iPhone, that we are -- first of all, they have to preserve -- be preserved.
And then we should be able to get our hands them.
[18:30:16] Again, we need to have all the evidence. The Attorney General Sessions, as you well know, just talked about being hard on crime and trying to make sure that he brings the harshest sentences, telling his attorney generals. Well, that should apply equally, whether it's in the 2100 block of Madison Avenue where I live or whether it's in the White House.
BLITZER: Do you believe, Congressman, that the memoranda that Comey wrote will be released to Congress?
CUMMINGS: Yes. Yes, I'm pretty sure they would. I mean, you've got to remember that I think Director Comey wants to -- his reputation has been seriously questioned. And I think it's logical, Wolf, that he would want that document released.
Keep in mind what he said. He also said, he hoped there is some tapes, because I assume what he's trying to say is that those tapes would bear out that he was on the right side of all of this.
BLITZER: As you know, the White House is pushing back. They've issued a statement, among other things, saying this, and I'll read it to you. "The president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn. The president has the outmost respect for our law enforcement agencies and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."
I want you to respond to that White House statement.
CUMMINGS: It's very simple. My response is very simple. If you have that much respect for law enforcement, then what you do is you back off. You don't try to make a statement every day saying that they are going down the wrong road, trying to stop investigations. You let the process roll out as it should. That's our justice system. Just let the process roll.
And so that's the kind of respect that law enforcement deserves. And I would hope that he would give them that.
BLITZER: So, finally, Congressman, tell us what's going to happen over the next few days. What your committee, Intelligence Committees, Judiciary Committees in the House and the Senate, what can we anticipate?
CUMMINGS: Well, I think that you're going to have a number of committees trying to get any kind of tapes, any notes that the White House might have. I think they'll be getting -- a number of committees will be trying to get Comey's tapes. We'll be asking Chairman Chaffetz to issue a subpoena for the documents about Flynn's tenure at the White House that they have refused to give us so far.
And I think that you will hear about hearings being scheduled to address this issue.
This is a critical moment in the history of this country, and I remind all Americans, this is our watch. And we have to preserve this democracy.
BLITZER: Very strong words from Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
CUMMINGS: Thank you.
BLITZER: Want to go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, right now.
Jim, what a moment right now, coming off only a couple days or so before the president is scheduled to leave the United States for his first overseas trip beginning in Saudi Arabia, then Israel, then the Vatican, then Italy. This is a -- this is a moment in American history.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. What's been missing to this point going back to the Comey firing, the release of intelligence to Russian officials, is a loud audible protest from Republican lawmakers. We've certainly heard it from the Democrats. Of course, the question with this now, is this one different?
So far, I've been reaching out to Republicans and Democrats on the relevant committees: Judiciary, Intelligence, et cetera. We've heard and you've seen on your air, of course, a lot of Democrats, Senators Durbin Feinstein, Warner, Congressman Schiff, Congressman Cummings, Senator Blumenthal, all releasing statements. The independent senator, Angus King.
To this point, no public protest from Republican lawmakers, but I did speak with a Republican lawmaker who, on background, says the following, and this is the kind of comment you haven't heard from Republicans so far. "his is potentially huge. Don't know if an ask is obstruction of justice, but if it is, wow. If it isn't legally obstruction, still, wow." And that's the kind of comments you haven't heard in public yet. And that's, notably, still on background.
But if you begin to hear that from Republicans, we're of course, in a different place than we've been with any of the series of controversies that we've been covering in depth in recent weeks.
I will say this, that from Senator Richard Burr, a very powerful voice on the Russian investigation. He's the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. His first comment on this was that the burden is on "The New York Times" to produce these memos by James Comey, if they exist.
[18:35:08] But I've reached out to his staff, and he said that they are not ruling out subpoenaing these documents. His partner on the committee, the Democratic ranking member on the committee, Senator Mark Warner, is a resounding yes to that question, the desire to subpoena these memos and tapes, if they exist. But from senator Burr we have this comment that "We will follow the facts where they lead," not ruling out subpoenaing both these documents and tapes. That's been a familiar refrain from him. But the questions going forward, Wolf, really is do you have
Republicans audibly and publicly changing their tune, in effect? Is this a different category of potential misbehavior by the president than we've seen their reaction so far?
BLITZER: This is truly a bombshell. Jim Sciutto, stand by.
I want to bring in Phil Mudd. He's our CNN counterterrorism analyst, former member of the U.S. Intelligence Committee; worked by at the CIA and the FBI. If this is true, Phil, what does it tell you about the Trump administration and this Russia investigation?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I think we're just seeing the beginning piece of this. What it tells me is what the FBI -- what the White House was saying about morale at the FBI is incorrect. Why are FBI or other officials leaking this? The reasons that I've been told when I talk to the FBI about their relationship with the White House is they were angry about Jim Comey's departure. That was an obstruction of justice, trying to remove the man who was investigating.
But watch this space, Wolf. We have one document here. Jim Comey documented everything, and he had multiple meetings with the White House. I'm guessing that what's happening here is we're going to get a trickle effect. Every time this story starts to accelerate, another piece of paper is going to show up.
We're missing one final piece of this that is significant. Remember, Jim Comey works for the Department of Justice. That is Attorney General Sessions, who evidently was there in the meeting before he was removed for the private session between Comey and the president. If you walk out of that meeting and you're Jim Comey, presumably, the first thing the attorney general says is, "What happened?" The questions for press officers who are going to the White House, I want to hear what the attorney general says. I've got to believe he knows something.
BLITZER: Is it regular practice for an FBI director to write these memos contemporaneously?
MUDD: I saw this practice all across Washington. When you have a highly-sensitive session, especially at the White House, you come and document it.
Now, Jim Comey might have done this more religiously than others. I did it at the CIA when I went to a White House meeting. There's a name for these. They're called MFRs, memoranda for the record. If you have a significant conversation that involves a decision, you want a contemporaneous account, because you're going to forget what happened over months. This is common across Washington. He's not the only one who does this.
BLITZER: Stand by, I want to bring in Susan Hennessey. She's our CNN national security and legal analyst, used to be a lawyer at the National Security Agency. Susan, "The New York Times," as you know, they first reported this. They have a quote from the memo that Comey wrote, a memo of the president asking Comey, quote, "I hope you can let this go." Do you believe that, if this is all accurate, this would be obstruction of justice? And could it be potentially impeachable?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right, so there are sort of three elements of the obstruction of justice charge here. The first is there has to be an investigation, and the individual has to know about it. On those two features, clearly Trump knew that there was an investigation into Flynn. Clearly, that investigation existed.
It's the third part that becomes really difficult. And that's that you have to prove that there was an improper purpose, a corrupt state of mind. Now notably, it doesn't matter if he had proper purposes, as well. If any part of Trump's intention here was in order to interfere with this investigation, that's going to qualify as obstruction.
BLITZER: From your experience as a lawyer in the government, can an FBI director's contemporaneous notes, assuming there are all these memoranda written by Comey, can they hold up in court as credible evidence if there's a he said/he said argument, the president denying what Comey is saying?
HENNESSEY: Well, first of all, it's overwhelmingly unlikely that this is actually something that's going to go to court and need to be proven. Certainly, the contemporaneous notes of an FBI agent are credible documents of how they understood the conversations to have taken place.
The important thing is also to understand the order of events here. The president can't be charged while he's in office. Therefore, we would be talking about impeachment first and then some kind of criminal prosecution later. Although considering how difficult it is and sort of the complexities of proving the various elements of these types of crimes, that's just -- it's highly unlikely.
BLITZER: Stand by. I want to bring in Bianna Golodryga, who's with us, as well.
Bianna, this comes, what, a day after it was revealed that President Trump gave sensitive material to the Russian foreign minister, the Russian ambassador to the United States.
From your perspective, Bianna, how damaging is all of this for the White House right now, for the president right now? And how much does this just help potential U.S. adversaries like the Russians?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Well, both of these, Wolf, potentially incriminating events we found out about this week. What's stunning about it, on multiple levels, is that it happened in the Oval Office. This wasn't somewhere in an office space outside of White House outside of Washington, D.C. This happened in the Oval Office.
And so we're hearing about it two consecutive days now, two consecutive days where the White House is denying. And the White House has credibility problem. The president has a credibility problem. He can't negotiate his way out of an FBI investigation, Wolf.
And when you look at the timetable that's now coming together, and you look back to when the president said that he lost confidence in the FBI director, it doesn't make sense. Look back at the dates.
He first had the dinner back in January With director Comey, when he said that he was told multiple times that he wasn't being investigated. Then in February, as we're learning today, the president approached the director in the Oval Office, having asked everyone else to leave, saying, "Let's just drop this with Michael Flynn. He's a good guy."
Then a month later, the FBI director testified that the president and his campaign were under investigation for collusion with Russia.
So now ultimately, the president seems to have exhausted any hopes that he had of persuading the director to drop the investigation, and thus we find out about the firing.
With perspective to how this is being interpreted around the world, I think you're seeing a lot of foreign leaders, particularly our allies, really questioning whether or not they can trust the administration, whether or not they can trust this president.
BLITZER: Yes, and as I said, this latest bombshell comes only days before the president's getting ready to leave the White House and head over to Saudi Arabia, then Israel, then Italy. His first overseas trip.
Gloria Borger, the White House, as you know, pushing back very hard, saying the president never asked Comey to end the investigation into Michael Flynn. They're calling this report not truthful. But how should the White House now engage in what's called damage control? How do you see this playing out?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think that's -- that's their effort. What they're trying to do also is say that -- that the -- that Comey's friends are trying to politicize this. That in fact, Comey, if he was so concerned about this, should have talked to the oversight committees about this. Why is it that this is only coming out at this juncture? It's a way for a payback for -- for the firing of Comey.
But I'd have to say, Wolf, when you take these two days and you look at them and you sort of take a step back here, you have to say that this is a president who maybe doesn't understand the office in which he inhabits and that this is really now a question of competency.
And I know we were talking about that yesterday. But in "The New York Times" piece and again in the piece by Jake Tapper and Pamela Brown, there is one detail that stands out to me, which is that Comey had been in the Oval Office this day for a meeting with other national security officials on -- for a terror threat briefing. And the president then asked the vice president, Mike Pence, to leave
and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to leave the room. He asked them to leave. Why did he ask them to leave, Wolf? Was it because he knew that he was going to be doing something he shouldn't be doing? And that he didn't want any witnesses to that?
Or did he think, "Well, I'm just asking for a favor on behalf of an old friend?" And did he not understand the implications and the consequences of what he was doing?
So there are kind of two options there. But the idea to me that he asked his attorney general to leave and his vice president to leave, I think, is quite damaging to him. Because if the White House says the president did not do anything wrong, there was nothing untoward there, he did not ask for any benefit to -- for Flynn, then why did he ask people to leave the room? What was he doing asking them to leave?
BLITZER: That's a good question. Let me get Jeffrey Toobin to weigh in. What's your answer, Jeffrey, to the question Gloria just raised? Why did he ask the vice president, Mike Pence, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to leave the room so he and Comey could have that private conversation?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it certainly is, as Gloria suggests, potentially a very incriminating fact.
But if I can just back up for a second, and -- and if we could maybe just discuss how this would be investigated, because we have this incredible bombshell newspaper story by Michael Schmidt, which suggests that Donald Trump said to -- said to Jim Comey, "Let it go. End the investigation."
But now we have to do -- now Congress and FBI has to do a real investigation of what happens. And certainly, you would start with any sort of paper trail. And obviously, a big part of this story is Jim Comey apparently took notes.
Now, for starters, are they handwritten notes? Did he take hand- written notes and turn them into a more formal record? FBI agents often do that and that becomes an issue in some investigations. The hand-written versus typed up document. Typed up document is known as 302.
Of course, there's the question of tapes. Donald Trump has hinted that there is a taping system in the White House. That could certainly settle the issue of what was said in this conversation.
As Gloria was talking about, Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions and perhaps others were in a conversation with Donald Trump and James Comey, and then they were asked to leave. Will they corroborate Comey's account of being asked to leave? Are there waves, waves of the records of the White House records of people who are coming and going from the White House over the course of that day? Does it corroborate the James Comey was in the White House on February 14th?
All of that is evidence that will help Congress or the FBI or grand jury decide what happens. I mean, this is a very provocative, very important newspaper story, but that's all it is. Now, there has to be an evidence gathering and there's a lot of it to get up.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Jeffrey, I have a question which is, does motive --
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, CNN has confirmed -- CNN, by the way, ahs confirmed a lot of this is as well.
BLITZER: Pamela Brown, Jake Tapper, we've got a lot of this as well.
Gloria, you wanted to make one more point?
BORGER: Well, I was going to ask Jeffrey one question because he knows so much about this, which is, does motive matter? Because if you take a look at the president and you take a look at what happened in the Oval Office, if he did disclose classified information, he clearly -- some people will say -- didn't mean to disclose classified information. If in fact this is some kind of obstruction, did he mean to obstruct justice or did he just not know that that is what it was when he was asking for a favor on behalf of his friend, General Flynn?
So, you know, my question to you is, where does motive come into all of this discussion?
TOOBIN: Well, that's a very good question. And you have to decide, are we talking about a political trial, like an impeachment trial, which speaks of high crimes and misdemeanors, or are we talking about a criminal trial where the laws are very much more closely defined?
The statute that I was talking about, session -- Title 18 Section 2000, section 1503 and 1512, uses the word "corruptly". The defendant has to act corruptly.
Now, that usually is just left up to the jury to decide what's corruptly. But I suppose Donald Trump could say, well, I was just acting out of humanitarian reasons. Frankly, it's very difficult --
TOOBIN: -- to come up with a non-corrupt reason to shut down an investigation of your own campaign.
BLITZER: Lots of questions for the White House.
Yes, go ahead.
TOOBIN: Even if you feel sorry for Mike Flynn, you know, the idea that you were doing this simply as a humanitarian gesture, I think that would -- that would be tough to persuade. But, Gloria, you're right, the issue of motive is certainly a relevant one for this question.
I'm sorry, Wolf. I interrupted you. BLITZER: Yes, I was going to say, in one of those memos that was
written apparently by Comey, he is a good guy, he says, referring to Flynn. I hope can you let this go.
Jeff Zeleny, do we expect any more statements from the White House? Any further comment as far as this explosive story is concerned tonight?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm told that they are still discussing this. I mean, they, of course, put out a statement earlier saying that, you know, this version of events is not accurate. So, as we've seen it happen time and time again with the firing of James Comey, with these other bombshells, we know the president watches this coverage and likes to have his voice in there.
So, I would be surprised if there was not some type of response. I'm told by one official that they are still talking to whether they are going to try and push back on this as the evenings go on, as the hours go on this evening.
Wolf, I think it's important to point out, this is coming on a day in which the White House has just spent hours, several hours with top administration officials calling Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, talking about the other situation on Russia, trying to, you know, sort of ease their concerns, lay their concerns.
And I was talking to so many people today reporting on this, Wolf. And one person said this to me: We haven't done ourselves any favors by picking fights with intelligence agencies. That's someone at the White House here.
Wolf, I think the same thing could be said of the FBI and law enforcement officials here.
[18:50:03] So, at the end of the day here, the frustration that we hear from Republicans on Capitol Hill is that this is entirely derailed, stymied the Republican agenda.
There's going to be a confirmation hearing for the new FBI director. The president is still hoping to make that announcement by the end of the week here. That is going to occupy so much of the summer, now this.
What is going to drive Republicans over the edge is perhaps something political, the fact that they cannot get their agenda through here. So, after hours of what the White House is trying to put out one fire, they're left tonight, Wolf, with a brand new fire.
BLITZER: Yes. He's supposed to leave, as I say, on Friday for this overseas trip.
John Dean is joining us right now. John Dean worked as Richard Nixon's White House counsel, all of us remember.
I want to get your perspective, John. What does this story look like to you right now, these latest developments? JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: It looks like it's very
bad for Mr. -- for the president, Mr. Trump. He's got Looks like he's got some problems.
BLITZER: If there are tapes of the Oval Office of these conversations as President Trump seemed to suggest, should they release them to corroborate the president's side of the story?
DEAN: Well, they certainly can do that. I don't know if he's ready to disclose whether or not he has, in fact, a taping capability. I don't think he has a room wide when he might have a smart phone on his desk that records.
I do think he has a telephone system, though, that is very easily made to record telephone conversations.
BLITZER: Presumably, they could delete conversations very easily.
Richard Nixon, and you can remind us, thought about destroying some of those tapes, didn't he?
DEAN: He did, indeed. He was counseled by his secretary of treasury, Mr. Connally and Pat Buchanan who's just got a new book out.
BLITZER: But what about the memoranda that Comey apparently wrote that are in the files, we assume over at the Justice Department and that he shared with some close confidents. You heard our Jake Tapper report that. What about those memoranda? Those could be evidence in some sort of legal battle as well.
DEAN: Absolutely. As Jeff Toobin was saying, you know, this is going to play out on a political level and a potential criminal trial level while a sitting president is not going to be hauled into a criminal court, an impeachment proceeding will certainly look to see if he's violated a criminal statue. And that raises a real question. Has he now -- do we have evidence of obstruction of justice?
And that raises the question of whether obstructing the FBI is an obstruction of justice. Typically, Wolf, it is not. You have to have it connected with a judicial proceeding. And unless the FBI was acting in behalf of the grand jury in February when these memos were written or when the conversation was held, that's not likely to be a technical criminal violation. But, Nixon, however, was charged with that in the bill of impeachment.
So, it plays out on different levels.
BLITZER: But if, in fact, the president argues, you know what? I was simply trying to help an old friend, Michael Flynn, his former national security advisor, a good guy, a general, retired from the U.S. Army, worked very hard during the campaign, he was just trying to do a favor for an old buddy. Is that good enough?
DEAN: That didn't work during Watergate where good motives would somehow erase criminal intent and juries didn't buy those kinds of arguments. So, it's anybody's guess what anybody would do today. BLITZER: How critical do you believe James Comey's testimony will be?
He's being invited to come up to the Hill, and appear maybe in open session?
DEAN: I think it's very important. You know, I immediately tweeted that I thought he was the kind of person who keeps a record, who makes memos to the file. He certainly did that during the Bush years, so I had every reason to believe that that was the case and now, it's proving it is the case.
BLITZER: John Dietz, stand by. I want to go back to Jim Sciutto, our chief national security correspondent.
Jim, do you think the jeopardy attorney general right now, Rod Rosenstein, and the acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe knew about these, these Comey memos, that they existed when they testified?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is an open question. We don't know. The reporting is from Jake and Pamela and others that Director Comey as a way to create not just a paper trail but a trail of witnesses in effect shared this within the Department of Justice.
Question is, at the time, of course, your attorney general is Jeff Sessions, your deputy attorney general is Rosenstein.
[18:50:02] Were they aware and were they aware of this when they acceded to the president's demand to fire Comey? It's an open question. We don't know the answer to that question.
I'm just going to share one more thing, Wolf, because as I've been sitting here, I've been getting reactions from lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican. I'm going to share this one acknowledging the sort of not the most acceptable language of one of them. But one GOP lawmaker saying that he and his fellow Republicans were, quote, wide eyed and WTF as they heard this news.
The question, of course, is, do Republicans begin to go on the record here with a genuine protest to this and genuine questions about whether this amounts to obstruction of justice.
BLITZER: Yes, Nancy Pelosi put out a statement just a while ago: If these statements are true, the president's brazen attempt to shut down the FBI's investigation of Michael Flynn is an assault on the rule of law that is fundamental to our democracy. At best, President Trump has committed a grave abuse of executive power, she says. At worst, he has obstructed justice.
Jim Sciutto, stand by.
Susan Hennessey, how crucial is the selection right now of a new FBI director in light of all of this?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. So, this is the single most important immediate issue. And probably the smartest thing that the Trump administration can do at this point is pick someone who is a nonpolitical figure, a very strong public stature, a reputation for integrity and independence in order to offer those public reassurances that there is a legitimate investigation, there is an independent Department of Justice.
We've seen him t offer other senators and other elected officials a possible names. That's a violation of longstanding norms. So, this really is a moment for the White House to step back, adhere to tradition here and select a replacement for James Comey who's acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats.
BLITZER: Good advice.
Bianna Golodryga, where do you see this going next?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: Well, look, one of the takeaways, Wolf, that you see from all of this, if the story does prove to be true is how dependent the president really was on Michael Flynn and what a blow Michael Flynn not being in the White House as an advisor for him really was. He was dependent on him for national security affairs. He was dependent on him on foreign relations affairs.
And as we know, he asked him economic questions as well, whether a strong dollar was good or bad for the U.S. economy, to which Michael Flynn said, call an economist.
So, you can continue to see the downfall of not having Michael Flynn with him. I think you are potentially seeing a president who's unhinge, not yet -- not once has he come out and taken ownership or apologized. He has taken ownership but not apologized or acknowledged that he did anything remotely wrong. And, obviously, it's been reported on CNN, the White House is in scramble mode right now.
BLITZER: They certainly are. John Dean, our viewers, of course, remember, you were White House counsel during the Nixon administration. So, what's happening now in the past couple of hours, does this seem familiar to you?
DEAN: Oh, boy, does it. If you'll think back, Wolf, this is a direct parallel to what was in the smoking gun tape where the president asked the CIA to intervene and halt the FBI investigation and that, of course, ended his presidency.
BLITZER: All right. Gloria, I want your final thoughts on what we have been learning over the past two hours.
BORGER: Look, I think we're learning some very disturbing news and I think we have to let James Comey speak for himself and let the process work for itself and let the president speak for himself on this. I mean, these are -- these are disturbing charges and I think the question of whether the president tried to get the FBI director to end an investigation after he had fired General Flynn is something now, given our -- given our system of government, which the Congress needs to investigate and the president needs to talk about and James Comey himself needs to testify. So that all the charges of who's politicizing what, why did Comey's
friends come out with this now and the White House saying, you know, why didn't Comey tell the oversight committee about this, these are all legitimate questions. And I think honestly, it's up to the Congress to get the facts out so that the American public can judge the seriousness of this story, and I think it behooves everyone to let the facts come out and let Congress do its work and let Comey and the president tell their sides of this story, because it's very important to the future of this country.
BLITZER: Gloria Borger, everyone else, thanks very much. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Our live breaking news coverage continues right now. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts.