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Sources: Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him To End Flynn Probe; Chaffetz: Committee Will Get Comey Memo If It Exists; Fox News Has Trouble Finding Republicans To Speak; U.S. Lawmakers Weigh In On Comey Memo 1-2a ET
Aired May 17, 2017 - 01:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[01:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole world is watching this.
DON LEMON, CNN TONIGHT HOST: I got to go with the end of this broadcast. Thank you, gentlemen, I appreciate it. That's it for us tonight. Thank you for watching. I'll see you right back here tomorrow.
ISHA SESAY, CNN NEWSROOM ANCHOR: Hello and thank you for joining us. I'm Isha Sesay in Los Angeles. Let's get right to the breaking news. It's 117 days into the Donald Trump presidency and explosive controversies are starting to emerge daily. The latest bombshell: A memo by the former FBI Director detailing a meeting with the President on the investigation of the five National Security Advisor. Jim Acosta has the details.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The White House is pushing back on a memo written by former FBI Director James Comey that accuses President Trump of interfering with the investigation of ex- National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. White House officials released a statement saying: "The President did not ask Comey to end his probe into Flynn's contacts with Russian officials."
Sources inside the White House sounded anxious about the Comey news - one gloomy sounding official did not even try to spin the controversy telling me: "I just don't know what to say on this one." But other sources close to the White House sounded defiant with one source saying: "all of the outrages may help with the President's base of supporters." Though, Republicans worries are starting to mount over the controversy with (INAUDIBLE) for House Speaker Paul Ryan saying in a statement: "Comey's memo should be turned over to Congress." Jim Acosta, CNN, Washington.
SESAY: Well, joining me now is CNN Law Enforcement Contributor, Steve Moore; Civil Rights Attorney, Brain Claypool; Democratic Strategist, Caroline Heldman; and Republican Strategist, Austin James. Welcome to you all. It's going to be a very busy night, so let's get going. Austin, let's start with you. I want you to take a listen to David Gergen, CNN Political Commentator, also a former advisor to a number of Presidents. Take a listen to what he had to say about this Comey memo.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I was in the Nixon administration as you know. And I thought after watching the Clinton impeachment; I thought I'd never see another one. But I think we're in impeachment territory again for the first time. I think the obstruction of justice was the number one charge against Nixon, that brought him down; obstruction of justice was the number one charge against Bill Clinton, which led to his indictment in the House that he won in the Senate. And I think - I'm a lapsed lawyer, I cannot tell you whether it meets all the definitions but I think - I'll tell you from a lay point of view, it looks like he was trying to impede the investigation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: Austin, how much trouble is the President in here?
AUSTIN JAMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Listen, I may be the one on of the panel here who doesn't it's that big of deal for a couple reasons: One, I mean, you have a Republican Congress that's not going to move to take in a serious action on this. Especially without seeing where the tides are going to fall come election season. I think the bigger issue is with the Comey himself.
You know, he's kind of put himself into a box on this, and so legally, if he thought there was an obstruction of justice, he had to report that to Department of Justice in which he didn't do. And so, just by default, he says that it was uncomfortable for him perhaps, but there was no wrong doing. And if you listen to what was alleged in the memo, it sounds like something we would expect from a man who wrote the "Art of the Deal," nothing more.
SESAY: All right. Caroline, do you see it the same way? I mean, in response to this question of him not going to the DOJ, the sources close to him say it's because he didn't want to impede the investigation, so he kept it quiet and he didn't feel like he had been influenced. What is your read of the situation, Caroline? Are we in impeachment territory as David Gergen said?
CAROLINE HELDMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: We're certainly in impeachment territory. I very much disagree with Austin and I understand that he needs to kinds of parse what happened in that meeting, but it is the confirmation of our worst fears from last week, which is that the President is comfortable going in and meddling with the person who is in charge of the investigation. Whether it is asking him to stop investigating Michael Flynn, or firing him because, perhaps, he was getting too close to the truth.
At the end of the day, this looks really, really bad for the White House. I feel for the White House staff, who have been through the ringer the last couple of weeks; self-inflicted wounds. When it comes to impeachment, it's not a legal criminal standard we're looking at. The constitution specifies it as high crimes and misdemeanors. We've only had two impeachments in U.S. history- SESAY: Let her finish. Let her finish.
HELDMAN: And it's been done for partisan reasons. So, I agree with you that the Republicans probably won't take action because high crimes and misdemeanors is really a political thing. But at the end of the day, they should take action because the American public can see through this. It is - the optics here are awful.
SESAY: Austin, very quickly. Because I want to bring in Brian-
JAMES: You just said, it didn't meet the standard of impeachment. So, why are we throwing this-?
HELDMAN: No, no. A criminal impeachment. I'm talking about progression, they have a different standard.
SESAY: All right. Let me bring in the legal mind here. Brian Claypool, I want you to weigh in on what you're hearing here in terms of the standard - what this means on the face of it? Again, this is just the White House is pushing back on this but this is what we're hearing in this memo. Does it meet the standard for impeachment? Where are we in terms of criminal proceedings? Break it down for us.
[01:05:06] BRIAN CLAYPOOL, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: Isha, not even close to obstruction of justice, and not even close to an impeachment proceeding. The comment by President Trump, "let it go," "he's a good guy," that in and of itself is not enough. You need some additional information. You need evidence of, for example, intimidation, and destruction of records. For example, there are any records that might have implicated President Trump and he destroyed those records; that might lead to obstruction of justice. Intimidation of witnesses is another example of where you have obstruction of justice. We don't have any of that collateral evidence or information that would support an obstruction of justice.
SESAY: All right. I hear what you're saying and I don't want you - I don't want to cut you off, but I do want you to listen to CNN Senior Legal Analyst, Jeffry Toobin. I want you to listen to what he had to say before you continue because he has a different take on this issue of obstruction of justice. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Three words: Obstruction of Justice. Telling the FBI Director to close down an investigation of your Senior Campaign Advisor for his activities during your campaign for President; if that's true, that is obstruction of justice. Why do you think Director Comey wrote a memo to the file about it? Because he was so appalled that a President of the United States would behave in this way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: Brian, why is Jeffrey wrong?
CLAYPOOL: I'll tell you why he's wrong, because if James Comey really thought that this was obstruction of justice, the moment that President Trump told him that and said "let it go, he's a good guy," then why didn't James Comey immediately then go to the Department of Justice and report that? His credibility is diminished by virtue of having waited to have it come forward at this point. So, that's why I think Jeff Toobin is wrong.
SESAY: All right. Let me bring in Steve Moore, he's our former FBI guy here. You hear what Brian says that Comey's credibility is damaged by the fact he did not go to the DOJ and it undercuts the significance of the impact of this memo. You say what?
STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CONTRIBUTOR (via skype): I think that's an indication of not understanding how the FBI works. And I disagree with Brian and Austin with this, I've heard this all day, that Comey didn't say anything. Well, the FBI is not like the police. I mean, when, when Donald Trump said something that Comey obviously felt was criminal in nature or potentially criminal in nature, he doesn't pull out a gun and say you're under arrest.
The FBI looks at things, they calculate things. He went back to the office, he got his lawyers around and he said what are we going to do? Do I call the Justice Department? You mean the one that works for the guy who you're about to, say, committed a crime that might result in impeachment? No, you sit there and the FBI does this as a matter of policy of course. You make your case, and then you go public.
And so, people are saying that he's not going to talk to - not going to notify a person who reports directly to the suspect, it makes no sense that he would even do that. So, that to me is not even a persuasive argument. So, I'm not saying that I think that he - that Trump committed a crime, but I'm saying that the fact that Comey didn't immediately report it to somebody who worked for Trump means nothing.
SESAY: OK. Brian, I've got to give you a chance to respond to that. Because, to that, let me also add the fact that, we are hearing that, James Comey did tell a number of people about the conversation. So, he may not have gone to the DOJ, but he didn't exactly keep it to himself. Give your legal response.
CLAYPOOL: Isha, human response to a comment is very revealing. And I can tell you that if James Comey truly believed that that comment by President Trump to "let it go, Flynn is a good guy," if Comey really truly believed on a visceral level that that comment was meant to interfere with the investigation to stop Comey from getting potential evidence in the Russian investigation. Then, l guarantee you that Comey's been out there in the public before, he would have reported this to Congress and the Department of Justice and something would have been done at this point. That's my view, and I stand by that.
SESAY: All right. OK. Austin, to come back to you here. According to the New York Times reporting on this matter and how this played out, the President asked the Vice President and the Attorney General to leave the room before he launched into this conversation with Comey. I mean, how does that look to you? JAMES: Sure. I mean, listen. Like I said before, I think this is
something you would probably expect from a businessman with no political experience. I think it was a misstep, surely, it was bad optics, but we don't know if any of this is true. I mean, Let's be very clear that these are all things that we're hearing through second-hand sources. And I think, you know, one of the things, when I was in Washington that we were very weary of, is don't pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon. And I think - you know I think what's happening here is the Trump administration marginalize the media, it made the Intelligence Agencies in the community kind of draw line-
[01:10:32] SESAY: Are you saying this is payback?
JAMES: I think there are aspects of it for sure. And so, that's why I'm very - you know, I'm very cognizant of we're parsing our words. You know, so to claim impeachment, I think, this feeds the narrative, and the narrative feeds the headlines. And we have no real facts here, so we should be very careful.
SESAY: OK. Let me also just make a point that our own Jake Tapper did speak to a source that did corroborate the confidence of the memo, of course.
SESAY: The accuracy of that is another method, but the confidence of that this memo exists, that it was written and detailing this conversation as reported by the New York Times; CNN has also been able to also go ahead and confirm. Caroline, let's get back to this issue of if only the optics, according to the New York Times, of asking the Vice President and asking the Attorney General to leave, it's going to raise the question. Did the President know he was straying into territory that was perhaps troubling or troublesome down the line?
HELDMAN: Why else would you have those people leave the room given the fact that you had been sitting in the room with them, having a conversation. And at this point in time, Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence can confirm whether or not that took place, whether or not they were asked to leave. And I will just add that I think it's interesting that folks from the right on the panel tonight are really focusing on Comey. They're focusing on the whistleblower and I think that's strategy that you use when your man is in trouble, and there's no doubt he's in trouble.
I also think it's interesting that we're going to the criminal standard of impeachment; that's not the standards that play. The House of Representatives can impeach some over a sex scandal, as we found that in the '90s. So, they get to the side what high crimes and misdemeanors are. And it's telling that Congressional Republicans are looking into those details tonight. Who knows if they'll go down that path, I think party politics will probably play out, but perhaps it will get us a special prosecutor so that we have some independence in investigating Russia since it is clear from the series of missteps, self-inflicted wounds that the Russian investigation is not independent from the White House at this point. SESAY: Brian, to come back to you. As we try and you know, get a
grasp at least, after the people who aren't legal minds, trying to get a grasp of the standards here as we talk about obstruction of justice. And certain voices start, you know, talking about the possibility of impeachment or at least entering that territory. I want you to listen to John Dean who's a former White House Counsel to President Nixon. Listen to what he had to say about this development.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN DEAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT NIXON: There is an obstruction here. Without getting deep into the weeds of technical legal issues, not always is it an obstruction to just interfere with an FBI investigation - impeded even. It has to be connected with a judicial proceeding, and we don't have all those facts at this point. But there's no question it could be impeachable. Indeed, Nixon was impeached for just this such of act.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: Brian, are the parallels with Nixon correct here?
CLAYPOOL: Well, Isha, let me make one point clear. Obstruction of justice usually results from a pending, like he just said where there's an investigation going on. For example, President Trump is interviewed during an investigation. The context here is completely off. He's having a discussion with James Comey. That's it. And he makes a comment off the cuff because President Trump is used to be in the board not in the White House, so makes that comment. It just doesn't rise to the level of obstruction of justice. Impeachment, I agree with your other guest - you don't have to use the criminal standard for that, but even with this comment, I just still don't think it reaches the level of impeachment.
SESAY: And Steve Moore, it is worth pointing out that this memo does go some way to contradict what the Deputy FBI boss, Andrew McCabe, said in recent testimony Capitol Hill because he was asked whether there'd been attempts to impede the FBI investigation, and take a listen to his exchange with Marco Rubio.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Mr. McCabe, can you without going to the specific of any individual investigation, I think the American people want to know, how's the dismissal of Mr. Comey, in any way, impeded, interrupted, stopped, or negatively impacted any of the work, any investigation , or any ongoing projects at the Federal Bureau of Investigations?
[01:14:52] ANDREW MCCABE, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION DIRECTOR: As you know, Senator, the work of the men and women of the FBI continues despite any changes in circumstances, any decisions, so there has been no effort to impede our investigation today. Simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people and upholding the constitution. (END VIDEO CLIP)
[01:15:18] SESAY: To Steve Moore. Andrew McCabe said, "There's been no efforts impede to the FBI to date again how much is that undermined or how much is it undermined this memo that James Comey wrote."
MOORE: Well it depends on whether McCabe knew about this memo or not at that time that's it's possible but he didn't. The other thing I'd like to address here is that, you know, the thought is that Comey didn't think it was significant or he would have done something. Let me tell you that the language of that memo quoting the President indicates to me as an investigator that that was would memorialize word for word like a prosecutor or an FBI agent would. It's not a little thing.
By the way, the President gave me this bailed request to close the investigation no he set it up as if he was going to testify to it and where I want to -- what I want to know is where is this memo? Is it in the criminal file or is it in administrative file? And that could decide what's going on. Again I'm not saying that I know when something is going to an impeachable level but and I'm not saying that a crime has occurred but I don't believe for one minute that Comey didn't understand the full gravity of what happened.
SESAY: OK. Let us put up the White House statement now. Because let's get their side of things the White House being very clear in pushing back against this let me read this, it's a brush statement I'll read it out all of it. "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 an investigation involving General Flynn. The President has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies and all investigation. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey".
The issue here though Caroline, to you, is, you know, as they say that this is the President that has full respect for law enforcement agencies and all investigation, this is a President who is disparaged the investigation so it would be an ongoing, into issues of Russian possible collusion with the Trump campaign calling it a taxpayer issue raid and our hopes. So again, that does kind of call into question at least part of the statement.
HELDMAN: Well I would call that the entire statement into question given the last two weeks, there appears to this pattern where you at first deny and then you have your spoke people do a semantic dance for a couple of days and then you come out and admit it, right? We saw this with what happened last week with Comey, we saw this with what happened with Russia yesterday. I wouldn't be surprised if this is not the last word that we heard from the President on this issue.
Simply because so much of what has been coming from the White House has been to - it's been to make sure that the American public is misled about what is happening. I was going to say that it was, you know a kind of inadvertent attempt but it's very clear that what we see is at first a denial and then a parsing in a dance and then the President comes out on you know energy with Trump tweeters saying no, I was kidding you know I actually did do this. So I wouldn't be surprised if we see a very different message coming from the White House in the next few days which is a serious issue of credibility that supersedes all of these other issues.
SESAY: And also you can't deny that this is a White House that has credibility issues.
JAMES: Listen I will say this. I mean, there's certainly some structural issues with the communications department and how Trump is going to run his White House.
SESAY: Did you just say structural issues?
JAMES: Structural with quotes. Structures with quotes and listen to me talking some my colleagues back in Washington today, I think there's a lot of disgruntled people walking around the White House and again I think this goes harkens back to the fact that we haven't given a man who's never held political office a grace period and like I mention earlier he's created a lot of enemies, a lot of enemies in the public sphere and so whenever he stumbled up and he kind gives the wink, wink, nod, nod Trump style, I think we're going to jump on that and there isn't a cohesive strategy within the White House on how to restore that.
SESAY: Also, his leader of the free world if you don't give the man who sits in the oval office a grace period, he jumps in and he knows - as you know politically the sense you're ready from day one. So I guess some would say why you're changing the status?
JAMES: As I say grace period on this program but I would say there's probably many Americans out there who say OK, listen this is going actually par for the course, from what we saw on the campaign trail. Again, going back to let's hear -- let's see the entire memo. Anyone who has worked there, the results D.C. especially a good lawyer is going to keep copious memos'? OK, and so the fact that there were memos' with Trump conversation are not unique so let's see all of these, let's put Comey in front of Congress. Let's hear the whole story and then I think we can have those debates in a lot way.
SESAY: Great there's a lot more to come, a lot more this conversation. We're going to take a very quick break. More after this. Stay with us.
[01:22:13] SESAY: Hello everyone more on our breaking news. Sources say fired FBI Director James Comey wrote in a memo that President Donald Trump asked him to end the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. We're told the President made that request in person a day after Flynn was forced to resign for lying about his conversation with Russia's Ambassador to the U.S. The White House is denying that story. First reported by the New York Times and since corroborated confirmed by our own Jake Tapper, he's been speaking to his sources and our Pamela Brown, let's get back to our panel. They're still with us, CNN Law Enforcement Contributor Steve Moore, Civil Rights Attorney Brian Claypool, Democratic Strategist Caroline Heldman, and Republican Specialist Austin James, thank you for staying with us.
Brian to you, this memo and all other notes Comey wrote after his conversations with the President will be absolutely critical to getting to the bottom of all of this. We already know that the House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz has already resented the Deputy FBI boss let me read you some that letter. "It says if true, these memoranda raise questions as to whether the President attempted to influence or impede the FBI's investigation as it relate to Lieutenant General Flynn. So the committee can consider that question and others provide, no later than May 24, 2017. All memoranda notes, summaries, and recordings referring or relating to any communications between Comey and the President". Brian, talk to me about the powers of the House Oversight Committee as they move forward here.
CLAYPOOL: Well I think the House Oversight Committee is going to be very important because as I comment on earlier you can't just take a snapshot on this colicky between Comey and President Trump and draw a conclusion that this is either obstruction of justice or an impeachable offense. In other words, you need to look at the all the chapters involved here between the communication of Comey and President Trump and that's where the Oversight Committee comes in. They want to see all memorandums, documenting even prior conversations, were there any other discussions between Comey and Trump because I think that's going to be pivotable in this investigation If you have more comments by President Trump, then that might rise to the level of trying to impede the investigation. For example, if there's a memorandum where Comey says, well President Trump said that if I don't end this investigation there might be some repercussions, that is a perfect example Isha, of something that I think rises to the level of obstruction of justice.
SESAY: OK. So let me ask you this as you say that. You're saying if there's another written document that could lead you to take the steps of saying obstruction of justice, but what about the thinking that the dismissal of Comey plays into that? He did lose his job. But that does play into obstruction of justice.
CLAYPOOL: That's a good point because what could be argued is this. That President Trump says a couple months ago to James Comey, hi, let it go, he's a good guy with the insinuation maybe that you need to stop this investigation or something bad is going to happen to you, you can read between the lines with that although Trump didn't say that and then here we are a couple months later and Comey is fired an argument I think is going to be made that he what -- Comey was fired in part, because maybe we didn't heed President Trump's advice to let the investigation go.
But Isha, you know, what's ironic about the firing of James Comey is that it actually raises more red flags. It actually loosened up the ability of Comey to bring these memos forward in other words if he was still the acting FBI Director that I don't think we would have seen this memo right now and Comey would have gone about his job. But this firing, meaning, it's such suspicion that it opened up this floodgate now that might lead to additional evidence that might implicate President Trump.
[01:26:15] SESAY: And Steve Moore to bring you in, Jason Chaffetz also tweeted this, "GOP oversight committee is going to get the Comey memo if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready". Do you expect to see subpoena flying all over the place in the days ahead?
MOORE: I don't - I hope they're not needed I think the FBI is going to be pretty responsive to that letter and as far as what Brian was saying, I agree 100 percent. If the President says hi, you know, I hope you kind of, you know, help this guy out, let it go and two years later Comey still is the Director of the FBI, I don't think we have intent. But Comey is gone and I don't know if Comey even thought it was obstruction until he was gone that may have change things right then and there, that may have been the thing that the change in it is mind and in the minds of the agents.
SESAY: Austin to you. Where is the GOP leadership in all of this? I mean, how come they aren't rallying around the President, I want to read you a part of, in fact, I can read it to you the entire statement from Paul Ryan but it was so brief. Let's put it up on screen, "We need to have all the facts and it's appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request this memo" end of. The silence by senior leadership is notable it has also been noted on other network. Let's play this exchange from Fox News a little bit earlier on.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: We've tried tonight to get Republicans to come out and talk to us, and they are not Republicans willing to go on camera tonight as of yet and we'll if that change.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, COLUMNIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: What's really stunning is that nobody, not even from the White House, has come out under their own name and the defense of the President here. You've got an anonymous statement. We don't see any Republicans on camera.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: What about that?
JAMES: Yes, listen, I think Brian actually made a great point which, you know we don't have the full breath of the context in the ongoing conversation between Comey and the President Trump, and so because of that I think everyone's is very hesitant and at the same thing their kind of waiting for the shoe to drop feet and you know listen if I'm a House Republican, I'm very weary of this dragging out nothing getting done legislatively and then having to go back in a week or two to my constituent without a body of work to discuss. I'm now talking this -- I'm now talking about this and answering questions about this. So it's better to wait and see what's going to come then put yourself in a box and have it to walk it back and forth in front of your constituent.
SESAY: Ok. So what are you waiting for more details to merge or for fear that you'll come out to support the President on a daily?
JAMES: What concept? Ok, I think sure no I think like I said I think Brian the head of the hail, I mean, at this point is speculation. And this is again kind of going back to what I was saying about being careful what we say there's a lot of speculation. And so I don't think anyone wants to be, you know, be caught behind the eight ball so to speak in coming out in support of one thing with the other if it's proven that in the larger context maybe Trump did oversteps his bounce.
SESAY: Well, Caroline, GOP leadership may be holding back but Democrats are certainly speaking out. I want to take a listen to Chuck Schumer, Elijah Cummings, and independent Angus King as they have been speaking out. Take a listen to their reaction to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM ANCHOR: If these allegations Senator are true, are we getting closer and closer to the possibility of yet another impeachment process?
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Reluctantly Wolf. I have to say yes simply because obstruction of justice is such a serious offense.
SEN. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: My President has not always been honest with us and on the other hand I think Comey has been a pretty straight shooter and so I mean if this one person work against another I think Comey would come out on top.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate, history is watching.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Caroline, history is watching you for 20 seconds.
CAROLINE: Well, I would say that I share their concerns about the gravity of what this means for our democracy. But at the end of the day, an impeachment it going to come from Republicans and I don't think that there's the political will to do that right now.
SESAY: All right, nicely done for the time. We'll continue this conversation next hour. My thanks to you all. We will keep this going around too next hour so stay with us. We will keep this going.
Stay with us. We're going to take a very quick break. We'll have more on that Comey memo and what it could mean for Trump's future in the White House.
(MUSIC PLAYING) SESAY: Hello, everyone. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay.
Our breaking news: the White House is scrambling to contain another major controversy involving President Trump and his former FBI director, James Comey.
On Capitol Hill lawmakers are demanding answers but they are struggling to find any. Our own Manu Raju reports.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Capitol Hill grappling with yet another bombshell, this, of course, the report of James Comey, apparently raising enough concerns about President Trump trying to get him to quash the investigation into Michael Flynn, his former national security advisers, that he wrote it in a memo, saying that he was concerned about what happened.
Well, a lot of lawmakers also want to know what happened. That is Republicans and Democrats alike wanting to get to the bottom of this, members not being briefed on it, even members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees really have no idea what happened here, other than expressing concerns about what happened including one prominent conservative.
SEN. MARK WARNER, (D) VIRGINIA: If that's accurate -- I don't have any reason right now that it is not, I'm just hearing it from one of our staff people -- to say that we would have some concern would be accurate. That would be troubling. For me to act like it is not a concern would be remiss on my part.
The larger concern is just what seems to be a lack of communication discipline coming out of the White House. And I think some of that is driven by the desire to have an immediate response to everything.
And even, you know, you hate to have to clarify all the time. I would prefer they wait a couple of hours, you know, half day and get everything right the first time so that you don't raise more suspicion.
RAJU: Now, this comes as House Oversight chairman Jason Chaffetz prepared a subpoena for the memo, saying he wants to learn --
RAJU: -- more about it, him and other committees also wanting to hear from James Comey, publicly wanting him to testify.
The question is will he do that and when will he do that?
That is something that Capitol Hill is waiting for -- Manu Raju, CNN, Capitol Hill.
(END VIDEOTAPE) SESAY: For more on this, we're joined now by Michael Pregent (ph), a former intelligence adviser to General David Petraeus and Tom Nichols (ph), a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.
Thank you both for joining us.
Michael, let me start with you. If the memo was written as described and James Comey was accurate in his portrayal of the conversation with President Trump, in your view, what lines have been crossed here by the president?
MICHAEL PREGENT, FORMER PETRAEUS INTELLIGENCE ADVISER: Well, if true -- and again, we -- we should wait again. Again, as I said, it's another piece it cites sources that are unnamed. But let's take the premise that it's true. It looks like influence.
Having said that, I've known Flynn for 20 years. He is a good guy and if the memo is true, Trump said he was a good guy and Comey agreed he was a good guy. Obstruction of justice, I think, is just a high bar to cross right now. It's too early in the process. Let's wait and see what happens.
Again, the memo isn't classified so that's probably why it wasn't leaked to "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post."
SESAY: But, Tom, I put it to you and you respond as you see fit. According to "The New York Times" reporting, it's more than just the president saying that Flynn was a good guy. He goes on to say, you know, I hope you'll think about letting this go and says that repeatedly, according to this memo.
TOM NICHOLS, NAVAL WAR COLLEGE: Yes, and there's a reason -- I should start by saying I obviously don't represent the view of the Navy; it's my personal view. There's a reason the FBI director has a 10-year term because the idea that you would ever dismiss an FBI director is -- would be a highly unusual circumstance and the reason for that is that FBI directors are supposed to be independent of conversations like that with anybody that they're potentially investigating.
It's really not relevant whether Michael Flynn's a good guy or not. He's a decorated American veteran and obviously (INAUDIBLE) served his country honorably and well. But that's irrelevant to the question.
The larger issue is, is the FBI going to be an independent arm of investigation?
And it has to be and I think that's what has so many people concerned. None of us lawyers here as far as I know. So the issue of obstruction of justice, I think, is something I certainly can't speak to because I'm not a legal expert.
(INAUDIBLE) the kind of crimes that Congress would look into, Congress defines for itself.
SESAY: Yes. The White House, Michael, as you know, has put out a statement they're disputing the contents of the Comey memo. But this is a White House with credibility issues, given the regularity with which it misstates facts. It puts out one story then has to backtrack when the president's come out and undercut their statements. It makes it difficult for their statements to stick here.
PREGENT: It does. There's a credibility issue with the White House when it comes to the lack of a concerted strategic message, a concerted strategic message.
However, Comey has a credibility issue as well.
I mean, why didn't Comey share this memo with the Justice Department?
Why didn't he tell the Justice Department that the president was pressuring him to end this investigation?
And Sally Yates didn't know about this memo. Again, we should wait and see what happens. "The New York Times" hasn't seen it. They're relying on two sources that say they're friends of Comey. And if they've seen this memo, let's wait, but again, Comey is as damaged as far as his credibility goes as is the president. So it's -- we should wait and see.
SESAY: Michael, when you take a listen to what CNN's senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, says about all of this, he says the situation looks all too familiar. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Richard Nixon was impeached in 1974 for telling the FBI to stop an investigation of his campaign. That's what Watergate was.
And, you know, if Comey was telling the truth in this memo -- and obviously there's a dispute about that from the FBI -- from the White House -- but if he's telling the truth, I don't know how anyone can see this comment as anything but obstruction of justice.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: Tom, the obstruction of justice piece aside, because you're not a lawyer, the parallels that are being drawn and have been drawn in recent days between this administration and that of Richard Nixon, what do you make of that?
NICHOLS: Well, first, that's going to resonate with people over a certain age. But probably less so with younger people. But there is the court of public opinion, which if it -- there's going to be a dog (ph) test. If it looks like somebody -- if it looks like the president was trying to stop and investigation, that's how people are going to perceive it. And so --
NICHOLS: -- the issue of whether he was fired over this or not, this question is rapidly boiling down to a very small -- I shouldn't; it's a large political question but it's a very discrete single question of, was there some kind of interference with an investigation into --
PREGENT: Well, the tape (ph) said there wasn't.
NICHOLS: -- about the firing or anything else. If that question itself will become central over time.
PREGENT: -- there was no interference.
SESAY: We shall see how this one plays out. I think there's a lot more information to come out.
Michael Pregent, Tom Nichols, my gratitude to you both. Thank you very, very much for the lively conversation.
PREGENT: Well, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
NICHOLS: Thank you.
SESAY: A quick break here and the White House is juggling quite a few controversies at the moment. More on the blowback from President Trump's private meeting with Russian officials -- next.
SESAY: We are following the breaking news, sources tell CNN former FBI director James Comey wrote a memo, stating that President Donald Trump asked him to end the investigation into his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn. Comey was said to be so appalled by the February 14th request that he documented that conversation.
According to Comey's memo, first reported by "The New York Times," the president said, quote, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
The White House responded by saying this, "The president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn."
Well, if the Comey memo weren't enough, President Trump is also facing backlash with discussing classified info with Russian officials behind closed doors. Critics say he endangered whoever provided that intelligence and now we have a better idea of where some of that intelligence came from. Our own Barbara Starr looks at the fallout.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: CNN has learned that Israel provided some of the classified information on terrorism and aviation security that President Trump shared with Russian officials in the Oval Office.
Sharing that Israeli intelligence caused dismay across Capitol Hill, the intelligence community and in some world capitals.
One European diplomat telling CNN, "It's a big deal and we want to make sure sensitive information is handled properly."
The very sensitive intelligence came from another country, which had not given its permission to share it with the Russians, according to "The Washington Post" --
STARR (voice-over): -- which broke the story.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The Russians could figure out exactly what that source was. And they could then take that information that they get from this revelation and they could then spoof the source.
STARR (voice-over): The Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, a top Russian spy, was in the room. In the world of Russian espionage, he would know how to use what the president told him.
LEIGHTON: If it's a human source, that human source could be fed all kinds of information that may not be true or it will be true enough but there will be a detail that will endanger operatives, it would endanger potential operations against ISIS.
STARR (voice-over): The Russians could also feed fake information into vital communications intercepts, secretly changing the overall picture for the U.S. of terror plotting. It's not clear if President Trump knew the sensitivity of sharing another country's intelligence.
LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The president wasn't even aware of where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information, either.
STARR (voice-over): Some members of Congress don't believe it's a major breach but there may be long-term damage.
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The rest of the world is now going to say, hey, we're never going to share information with any intelligence community members of the United States because they're going to give it to the president and he's going to share it with our potential adversaries.
STARR: One thing General McMaster had a little trouble answering was when he was asked at the White House press conference why top White House aides called the intelligence agencies after the meeting with the Russians.
General McMaster said it was just out of an abundance of caution -- Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon. (END VIDEOTAPE)
SESAY: I'm joined now by Middle East expert and editor-in-chief of "The Foreign Desk," Lisa Daftali.
So good to have you with us on a very, very busy night. Let's talk about this fallout from really multiple, simultaneous controversies that are engulfing this White House, all happening just as the president is about to take off for his first overseas trip.
He's supposed to be leaving on Friday.
Is this trip going to happen?
Do you expect calls for him to stay home here in the United States?
LISA DAFTALI, "THE FOREIGN DESK": We're hearing some buzz about that. But I think it will happen because there's a lot of important agendas that the president will address abroad. I think its foreign policy plans and visions for reshaping the Middle East are very much timely with a lot of the changes that we're seeing in the Middle East; for example to rally up a lot of the Muslim countries for a more reformed league of nations, to bring together perhaps the Israelis and the Palestinians, again there being a moment of opportunity here with the Arab world turning its back, first on global terror and secondly on this growing sphere of influence by the Iranian regime.
We're seeing the Sunni-Shiite divide and I think the president has a really good vision for taking this opportunity to focus on that and to actually to walk away from a lot of the controversies that he finds in Washington.
SESAY: But is he hampered?
Is his credibility diminished his ability to achieve something substantive, the fact that he goes into these talks, surrounded by all of this?
DAFTALI: What's funny is that, A, he's still the leader of the free world because he's still the leader of the United States but, secondly, is that this is actually his spotlight. This is where he belongs, talking with other leaders, talking with other leaders who have perhaps a problem with their constituencies.
We saw him with Erdogan today and that was a very interesting way to see him, because we know Erdogan has a problem with the majority of his constituency back at home.
So I think this is the role in which we see the president can do a productive job. And if he is given that opportunity to at least take (INAUDIBLE) a lot of the foreign policy initiatives that he has outlined, it seems as though when he was campaigning, he barked a much louder bark than what we're seeing him do from the White House. He's actually very even-keeled. And he wants to bring these leaders of the world together to say, as long as you follow our interests, as long as you're aligned with the interests of the United States and the West has, we want to play with you as well.
We don't want -- look, he was not very strict or not very criticizing of Erdogan. We didn't -- we saw the same thing with the Chinese --
DAFTALI: We're probably going to see the same thing with Saudi Arabia.
He's said so much about Saudi Arabia. But while he was campaigning, they don't give anything back, we support tem so much. They gave to The Clinton Foundation and all of a sudden we're going to see him want to play along with Saudi Arabia because we need them as a vital player in the Arab world.
SESAY: And speaking of needs, he heads to Israel; Israel, of course, being a constant, a strong ally of the United States. And he makes this trip just as we learn that some of the intelligence that the president shared with Russia was provided by Israel.
Now the Israeli ambassador to the United States has come out and said that Israel has full confidence in our intelligence sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead --
SESAY: -- under President Trump.
Should we believe that the public statements marry up with We'll see if the current statements marry up with what's happening behind the scenes?
What are you hearing?
Did this cause some consternation among the Israeli government?
DAFTALI: I've been following Israeli media all day and a lot of the leaders, as you read the statement, have the same sentiment, that this is OK.
SESAY: Does that surprise you?
DAFTALI: No, because I think regardless of who's in the White House, (INAUDIBLE) we saw a more edgy relationship between Bibi Netanyahu and President Obama, there was still this very organic, very aligned relationship between Israel and the United States.
That's a natural relationship because of the area that they're in, because of what they deal with day in and day out being the only democracy in the Middle East.
And we know that Bibi Netanyahu and Trump have a very strong relationship. So that only furthers the case to say that whatever this was, it was discussed beforehand or perhaps is not as damaging as it is appearing in the headlines and, again, we can learn a thing or two about Israeli intelligence and I'm confident in what I'm seeing in the media, reports of that, they're always two steps ahead of us in terms of what they need to do because this is intelligence sharing and keeping themselves, their borders, their people safe is something that they've for a very long time.
This all leads back to the ban on electronics and to say that if we had some sort of leak or some sort of hint or some sort of reason to believe that there is a threat, then we're going to put it out there and we're going to keep our people safe. And that's what Israel does day in and day out.
SESAY: All right, (INAUDIBLE) let's talk Russia very quickly before I let you go, of course the information was passed on to Russia.
I mean, what is the view right now from Moscow of all of this?
As they look at this administration lurch from one crisis to another and in the case of a lot of the controversies, Russia being at the center of them, is this is a good time to be Vladimir Putin?
DAFTALI: Absolutely. I mean he is probably the world's most important and probably the world's quietest man right now, right? We're watching --
DAFTALI: -- very much on the sidelines, which is a very smart move.
I think was what was a very important moment was watching the Syrian strikes that -- the U.S. strikes on Syria that Trump ordered and to see it from that moment, it seemed that Vladimir Putin went off to the sidelines.
And from that moment, realized that, yes, there are these controversies in the U.S. It seems the media, Washington is not backing down from really holding Trump's feet to the fire and to really look into what kind of information was passed, what kind of involvement we did see from Moscow in Washington.
And they're not going to let him off the hook too quickly, whether it's Putin or Trump. And I think that right now he's being very smart by staying out of the spotlight and allowing all this to die down.
SESAY: These are the (INAUDIBLE) always fascinating (INAUDIBLE). Thank you. We always appreciate it. Thank you very much.
DAFTALI: Thank you.
SESAY: All right. Next on NEWSROOM L.A., Donald Trump's disclosure of information to Russian diplomats has late-night television buzzing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: I have something to say here.
Donald Trump, if you're watching, first of all, you're a bad president. Please resign. Second of all --
SESAY: Well, when the news broke that U.S. President Donald Trump shared highly classified information with Russian officials, it inspired a new meme: #Blabbergate. CNN's Jeanne Moos has reaction.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Trump critics gushed, "Leaker of the Free World."
SETH MEYERS, COMEDIAN: You have to be kidding me.
How can you let highly classified information fall into the hands of Donald Trump?
MOOS (voice-over): Even his national security adviser said the president wasn't aware of where the classified information he mentioned to the Russians came from.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: What did the president not know and when did he not know it?
MOOS (voice-over): Some conservatives called it "fake news" and right-wing blogs blamed "the crap 'Washington Post' hit piece" while liberal hosts lambasted loose lips.
JOY BEHAR, TALK SHOW HOST: I don't think that the people who created our government expected to have a blabbermouth.
MOOS (voice-over): Joy Behar cited Ralph Kramden.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE HONEYMOONERS")
JACKIE GLEASON, COMEDIAN, "RALPH KRAMDEN": A blabbermouth?
MOOS (voice-over): #Blabbergate spread, attracting tweets like, "Make American Gasp Again," suggesting President Trump "revealed more information to the Russians in five minutes than John McCain did in five years to the North Vietnamese."
COLBERT: Donald Trump, if you're watching, first of all, you're a bad president, please resign.
Second of all --
MOOS (voice-over): Doctored videos of executive orders were shared, "Found the leaker, surprise," and "Nuke codes 1-2-3-4-5-6, do not tell Russians."
When General H.R. McMaster came to the president's defense, a new hashtag was born.
MCMASTER: What the president shared was wholly appropriate. It was wholly appropriate to that conversation. That conversation was wholly appropriate, it -- wholly appropriate -- it is wholly appropriate for the -- which was wholly appropriate -- in which it was wholly appropriate. What we shared was wholly appropriate (INAUDIBLE) wholly appropriate.
MOOS (voice-over): But it was wholly inappropriate for Ralph to rail against his mother-in-law.
"KRAMDEN": You are a blabbermouth.
MOOS (voice-over): Jeanne Moos, CNN --
"KRAMDEN": A blabbermouth.
MOOS (voice-over): -- New York.
SESAY: Everyone is reeling. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay. I'll be back with much more news right after this. Don't go anywhere.