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Interview with Senator Ben Cardin; Trump to Take First Foreign Trip Amid White House Turmoil. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired May 17, 2017 - 10:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[10:31:17] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, live pictures right now from Groton, Connecticut. You are looking at Air Force One, the president of the United States just landed there. He will deliver the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy very shortly actually.

The president had no comments on his way on board the plane. We don't expect him to comment on his way off, although we should see that shortly. We do understand there was a briefing during the flight from the White House press secretary Sean Spicer. We should get some notes from that briefing soon, I'll bring you those details the second I get them. The White House pool is sending them out right now.

In the meantime, want to bring in Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. He is the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thank you so much for being with us. Moments ago, we heard from the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, who said, you know what, we need to let the facts lead us where they may. The House Oversight Committee has asked for the memos written by James Comey. We will let the facts bear themselves out. Is there anything wrong with that statement?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), RANKING MEMBER, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: No, I agree with the speaker, but we need to have an independent review of those facts and that's why we need a special counsel appointed in the Department of Justice to do the criminal investigation and that's why we need an independent commission approved by Congress so we've got a full-time nonpartisan commission that looks into all the facts, take it where is goes and report back to Congress and the American people. I'm concerned if we don't have that, the facts may never be fully disclosed or fully allowed to reach the right conclusions.

BERMAN: You call this the most explosive evidence the reports that came out overnight that the president asked James Comey to back off the investigation into Michael Flynn. You call this the most explosive evidence today that the president attempted to obstruct the investigation in the various allegations on Russia. What do you mean?

CARDIN: If the facts -- if what was reported is true, in the "New York Times" that the president used the Oval Office to try to intimidate an investigation, that is obstructing an investigation. That you can't do as president of the United States. So that's why it's critically important that there be an independent review of exactly what took place in that office.

BERMAN: Does it concern you -- one of the criticisms, and we just heard it from House Speaker Paul Ryan, he says look, if the FBI director was so concerned about this, so concerned that he wrote it down in a memo, concerned that the president obstructed justice, which you say is a serious offense right now, obviously it would be if he did obstruct justice, why didn't he come forward at the time? If this happened February 14th, it's now what? It's May 17th. That's a long time to wait.

CARDIN: I think that's a question that needs to be understood, but it doesn't distract from the fact of what is in that memo and a concern about the president of the United States. So let's not be distracted from finding out exactly what the president did and whether he did something that was wrong. Did the FBI director handle it correctly? That's some other issue. Let's take a look at that. That's part of an investigation.

He has responsibilities also. So I'm for a full, independent investigation, but don't lose sight of the fact that what the president of United States at least in that article allegedly did.

BERMAN: I know you're calling for a special prosecutor, which is something I think you've done prior to today and now to today as well. You know, I don't think we're any closer to having that happened. The deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein said he's not about to appoint a special prosecutor. The leadership in Congress says they're not looking to appoint a special commission right now. The various committees that are looking into this, are they doing their work fast enough?

CARDIN: Well, they have responsibilities. They're moving forward on those. I don't know, I'm not a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. I have confidence in our leadership in the Senate Intelligence Committee, but that has a limited role. We need a broader investigation. And I must tell you, every day we're learning more and more things, more and more questions are being raised.

[10:35:05] I think the American people are going to demand independent investigations and they have a right to expect that Congress will facilitate in an independent investigation and that the Department of Justice will use the law as it was intended where there's a conflict and appoint a special counsel.

BERMAN: We're watching the president get off Air Force One right now. He's in Groton, Connecticut. He will deliver -- he will deliver the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in just a few minutes right now. We do understand that the president did not talk to the press on the flight up from Washington, D.C., nor did White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

We are told that as things stand right now, Sean Spicer will brief the press on the return flight back to Washington. What that means is still no comment from the president, who hasn't said anything about these stories that broke overnight out loud or on Twitter. And no Q and A with the White House on them either. They put out a statement saying that the conversations did not happen as portrayed.

Again, the president now in the limousine, you can see right there, on his way to the commencement address.

I'm speaking to Democratic Senator Ben Cardin right now, the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Relations Committee.

Later this week, Senator, the president goes on his first foreign -- first overseas trip. Visiting a lot of countries, a very important trip. Given the events that are going on right now in the United States, do you think he should still go?

CARDIN: Well, I think this is a very important trip. He's going to Israel, he's going to Saudi Arabia, he's going to the Vatican. These are important moments for the United States. So we want to make sure that his trip is successful and I have had a chance to meet with some of the people from the Trump administration. So I think those of us in Congress look at opportunities for the president to visit important strategic partners around the world, that they are opportunities we want the president to do.

BERMAN: You've been giving advice to some people close to the president on this trip. Can you give us a sense of what you told him?

CARDIN: Well, I -- I mean, look, in Saudi Arabia, he has a chance to try to consolidate support for the United States among the moderate Arab states. That's a very important partner in our war against terror. In Israel, our closest ally in that part of the world, who shares our views, we should make that relationship as strong as possible. I think that visit is particularly important.

And with the Pope, we have a chance to put the world's attention on a lot of humanitarian crises we see around the world, from Northern Africa to our own hemisphere in Venezuela. So I think it's an opportunity to really underscore American values. American values in fighting terrorism, American values in supporting Israel. American values of standing up for international humanitarian needs.

BERMAN: Senator Ben Cardin, the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democrat from Maryland. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

On your screen right now, we're looking at a congressman from the state of Maryland. Elijah Cummings right now, the Ranking Member on the House Oversight Committee. This is a committee that will first see the memos from James Comey if the former FBI director complies with their request to take a look at those memos. Let's listen in.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), RANKING MEMBER, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Over the accelerating investigation into his campaign and his ties to Russia, he even admitted this on national TV. Yet two of the committees with jurisdiction, the House Oversight Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, have not even scheduled a hearing on this unprecedented action. Our chairman has issued no subpoenas, not one.

Now we have this exclusive report that the president pressured Director Comey to drop criminal investigation, drop the criminal investigation of former National Security advisor Michael Flynn. Last night, all 33 Democrats on the Oversight Committee and the Judiciary Committee sent a letter demanding that Chairman Chaffetz and Chairman Goodlatte launch an immediate investigation into the actions of President Trump, Attorney General Sessions and top White House aides.

Given the gravity of the events that have occurred over the past few weeks, our committees should already be conducting robust and transparent investigations and oversight. It is unacceptable that we continue ignoring these scandals. And that's exactly what they are.

We're deeply concerned that the continued failure of the House Republicans to take action in the face of this onslaught of allegations will cause significant damage to the faith of the American people have in the credibility and the integrity of our committees in the House of Representatives.

[10:40:03] Of course Speaker Ryan has shown he has zero, zero, zero appetite for any investigation of President Trump. He said he appears to have minimized any oversight whatsoever. Last night our chairman, Representative Chaffetz tweeted that he wants copies of the Comey memos. He said, and I quote, "My subpoena pen is ready," end of quote. The problem is that we have been waiting for months for the chairman to pick up his so-called subpoena pen and use it against the White House.

In March, just a month after the president allegedly pressed Director Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, Chairman Chaffetz and I sent a bipartisan letters to the White House requesting documents relating to General Flynn. But the White House completely refused. The White House is obstructing our investigation, covering up for General Flynn, and refusing to provide not a single document, not a single syllable, zilch, nothing.

Is this what the White House has been hiding since March? Were there conversations and e-mails within the White House about the president asking Director Comey to drop the Flynn investigation? We don't know. So, yes, I'm encouraged that the chairman sent a letter last night asking for Comey's memos.

But we need much more than that, ladies and gentlemen. At this point, it is obvious that we need to subpoena the White House and to demand the documents that Chairman Chaffetz and I requested in March. We also need a hearing with Director Comey in public.

When Director Comey held his press conference last summer, announcing no charges against Secretary Clinton, Chairman Chaffetz him as witness at a hearing before the Oversight Committee within 44, 48 hours. Why is he not doing the same here? Some report that Republicans are not doing their job to hold the Republican president accountable. And so it's our job to do so.

And that is why, as I close, we need to restore credibility, accountability, transparency by passing this legislation to create a truly independent commission. The American people deserve the answers. And I want to thank Representative Swalwell for his phenomenal leadership with regard to this legislation. And with that, I want to pass on the mic to my good friend, a gentleman who's doing a great job as our ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Thank you, Elijah, and at the outset, I want to thank my colleagues, Mr. Swalwell and Mr. Cummings, for introducing the legislation that will be the subject of the discharge petition to form an independent commission. And I want to talk a little bit about why that commission is so important and what the role that committee would be as distinguished from an independent counsel and what we're doing in Congress.

But before I do it, I just want to remark on the extraordinary circumstances that have led up to today. If you look at the Russia investigation through the prism of just one person, it underscores I think just how serious a thoroughly independent and adequate investigation and Department of Justice and independent counsel truly is.

Let's start back when Michael Flynn worked for President Obama as the head of the DIA. He is essentially fired from that job. Some period thereafter, he goes to Russia with the financial support of Russian entities like RT, which the intelligence committee has concluded is an arm of the Kremlin's propaganda arm.

He apparently doesn't get permission to accept the moneys from RT. He apparently or reportedly doesn't disclose the acceptance of those moneys. He becomes a prominent surrogate for President Trump in the campaign. Sometime thereafter and during the transition, he has contacts with the Russians that he later would mislead the vice president to potentially others about. This results in his firing by the president.

The president as we learned from secretary -- from the acting attorney general Sally Yates was advised that Mr. Flynn had misled others in the administration or the vice president, took no action on that until it was disclosed in public.

[10:45:12] Once the president was forced to fire Mr. Flynn, he expressed no animosity or discomfort with the fact that Mr. Flynn led the vice president to mislead the country. Rather he was angry at the press for revealing it. Sometime thereafter, according to the president's own account, he meets and has dinner with James Comey, in which Comey is concerned about whether he can keep his job, and in the context of that dinner, the president wants to know whether he's a subject of that same investigation.

And the president, when he's asked, by the president's account, whether he's going to continue during that dinner conversation to keep Comey on, he says we'll see. And now it is reported that subsequent to that dinner, at another meeting with Director Comey, he asks others in the room to absent themselves, to leave the room. He then has a conversation where the president asks him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn. This is the course of the last couple years' events just involving one

person within the Russia investigation. And I think it underscores not only the seriousness of why this investigation has to go forward, but why we have to ensure that it is fully independent, both in terms of our oversight responsibility but also in terms of if there were laws that were violated that we have an independent voice and decision maker at the Justice Department making those decisions.

The commission brings two things. The commission brings an independent body, completely removed from political consideration to give the country the confidence of knowing that that body will follow the facts wherever they lead, not as a substitute for what we're doing in Congress but as an important additive to what we're doing here, much as was the case after 9/11 when the commission acted independently, but also in conjunction with investigations going on in the Congress.

The reason why an independent counsel is also necessary, is the independent commission doesn't make prosecutorial decisions. We have a Justice Department where the attorney general has recused, at least we thought he was recused from involvement in these issues, up until he played a role in the firing of James Comey, at least recommending that firing.

And it's not enough, I think, for the career professionals at the Justice Department who are very good and I have a lot of confidence in the career professions. It's not that they're not capable of doing that job. It's that the result has to have the buy-in of the public. And given all the circumstances I related just in this one case, I think the argument for an independent counsel is quite profound.

But finally one last point on the commission, and that is, the commission will have the resources necessary to really do this job. It will have not only the political detachment but it will have the staffing and the single-minded focus. We are doing the very best we can in the Intelligence Committee and I think . But at the same time, both our committee and the Senate committees have very limited resources and we have a big day job just on overseeing the intelligence agencies.

We would tremendously benefit in my view from having an independent body that has that single focus and has all the resources that it needs. So once again my thanks to Mr. Swalwell for his leadership. To my colleague, Mr. Cummings, for his. I think this is an absolutely essential addition to the work we're doing in Congress.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Adam, for your leadership on the committee. And thank you --

BERMAN: All right. You have been listening to House Democrats, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, talk about their various investigations right now into the alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia which have taken on this new significance with the news overnight -- the reports overnight that the president of the United States asked the then FBI director James Comey to back off his investigation of Michael Flynn.

We heard Elijah Cummings call for an independent investigation, a special prosecutor. We heard Adam Schiff call for a special commission all together and we heard Elijah Cummings say that he wants to see the memos that James Comey allegedly wrote at the time that the president made this request.

We have much more to talk about including some big news with the stock markets that are watching this development very, very closely. Stay with us.

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[10:54:01] BERMAN: All right. President Trump is set to leave for his first foreign trip on Friday. Five countries in eight days. But given everything that's happened over the last 24 hours let alone the whole last week, there are people questioning the wisdom of this entire trip.

A "Washington Post" opinion writer put it this way. "Here's the upshot of all this. Trump's trip must be cancelled. Our national security, our relationships with allies, and the security of the world are at risk due to the president's erratic behavior and inability to adhere to basic norms of both democracy and diplomacy."

I'm joined now by Robbie Gramer, staff writer for "Foreign Policy," who's talked extensively about this upcoming trip.

Robbie, thanks so much for being with us. Look, if you're in the White House now, how is this trip different than you would have viewed it 24 hours ago.

ROBBIE GRAMER, STAFF WRITER, FOREIGN POLICY: Well, I think this latest scandal couldn't come at a worse time for Trump. He's about to go on his first major foreign trip, where he's hitting, you know, every major religious center and then on top of that going to Brussels afterward and visiting NATO allies for the first time which is an alliance he disparaged a lot on the campaign trail.

[10:55:04] So a lot of allies and adversaries are really going to be watching how Trump reacts on this trip closely.

BERMAN: And look, when you're on a foreign trip like this, there's also a lot of points when you have to face the media. There are a lot of bilateral news conferences. There are a lot of open forums right now, and I imagine he's going to have to face questions about things he doesn't want to have to face.

GRAMER: Yes. Absolutely. And in addition to that, you know, he has an understaffed White House, an understaffed State Department and Pentagon. And these trips can (INAUDIBLE) a lot of bandwidth for staffs. So, you know -- so, you know, trying to handle a controversy like this in the White House and Washington, D.C. is one thing, but trying to do it in a different time zone, you know, constantly on the road, on planes, it's going to be that much more difficult. BERMAN: I will say there is a history of presidents under a lot of

pressure going overseas. Richard Nixon went to the Middle East during the whole Watergate scandal. President Clinton, a meeting with the Northern Ireland and Russia among other places when he was in the midst of impeachment. Sometimes it can draw some of the focus away, we'll have to see, but if you're a foreign leader, if you're one of the many people scheduled to meet with President Trump, how does this reframe how you approach the meetings?

GRAMER: Well, I think a lot of allies are really nervous, and this latest scandal would really just cast another cloud over the Trump presidency. I mean, particularly in NATO, I have spoken with NATO sources who say they're actually catering the entire meeting that Trump's having at NATO, around NATO's -- around Trump's attention span, short attention span and potentially erratic behavior.

BERMAN: They are changing the way they do thing how? One of the things I read you write about is that they're trying to limit the length of time that they speak?

GRAMER: Yes. They're trying to limit other presidents and prime ministers to speak for only two to four minutes. They're not coming out with a meeting declaration afterward which is traditional to help cement, you know, their strategy going forward. And it's all because Trump might not like it, you know, Trump might get bored, you know, Trump might tweet or say something after the meeting that, you know, cast, you know, a negative light on NATO at a time when the alliance needs a lot of unity and solidarity when facing threats like Russia and ISIS.

BERMAN: And what's the big news before last night's big news were the reports that the president revealed classified information in a closed-door meeting with Russian officials. Does that chill perhaps the private meetings he might be having with foreign leaders on this trip?

GRAMER: Yes, I mean -- I mean, that's a good point. It might chill the meetings and leaders might be more reticent to bring up sensitive intelligence. I mean, the issue is, a lot of times in these bilateral meetings or the NATO, you know, it's not top secret classified intelligence being discussed, but it's, you know, wide-ranging policy issues. So they might not bring it up, they might be a little more reticent to, you know, speak openly with the president. But I don't think it's going to completely scuttle the conversations.

BERMAN: And one thing that is nearly always true, we should make note of this, that many if not most of these countries need a positive relationship with the United States more than the United States needs a positive relationship with them. So NATO saying, you know, these NATO countries saying they want to manage the meetings, you know, to cater to the president of the United States. In some cases the United States is the most important country in NATO, so you want to make sure that the U.S. president is happy about it, correct?

GRAMER: Yes, that's absolutely correct. I think what's different here is that Trump has repeatedly disparaged the alliance in the campaign trail. And European allies really see two types of Trump. They see a Trump that can stick to the talking points, you know, act presidential. And then you see a Trump who can tweet something controversial after meeting with a foreign leader or inadvertently leak classified intelligence to the Russians. So they're really worried and rattled about which side of Trump they're going to see on this trip this week.

BERMAN: All right, Robbie Gramer, thanks so much for being with us. Really appreciate it. Terrific article on "Foreign Policy."

GRAMER: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Turmoil at the White House. It is rippling through Wall Street. Look at this, the Dow Jones down nearly 300 points, about 90 minutes into trading. The dollar is now at the lowest level since the election. Investors, they do not like chaos, they do not like upheaval nor do they like the idea that all of this could perhaps derail the president's economic agenda. They want tax cuts. They really do.

And they hope this doesn't get in the way of that. I was talking to Stephen Moore, the former economic adviser to the Trump campaign and he flat-out said that the scandals that are plaguing the White House right now are not good for the economy. There is concern among the investor class in that.

All right. You're also looking at live pictures from New London, Connecticut. That is the Coast Guard Academy. The president of the United States will be delivering the commencement address. This is first commencement address at a service academy. This is an annual tradition. It will be very important to hear what he says. Not just about national security, though. This is the first time we're going to hear him speak since the earthquake of news about James Comey, that memo Comey wrote suggesting that the president tried to get him to back off the investigation into Michael Flynn.

A lot of breaking news this morning. We'll bring you that coming up.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. John, thank you so much.