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Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Probe; Israel Source of Some Intel Trump Gave Russia; Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Probe. Aired 2-3a ET
Aired May 17, 2017 - 02:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.
ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us. I'm Isha Sesay in Los Angeles with our breaking news.
The controversy over alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia is depending with another stunning development. Sources say a former FBI director, James Comey, wrote a memo saying that President Trump asked him to end the investigation of former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, this news came as the White House was responding to another bombshell that President Trump share classified information with senior Russian officials last week.
The White House says the Comey memo as reported is "not a truthful or accurate portrayal" of the conversation. More now from Jim Acosta.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We worked over the last year.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The FBI is completing its investigation.
TRUMP: We love you very much.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And referring the matter to --
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And 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, quote, "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 outrage may help with the president's base of supporters. Still Republican worries are starting to mount over the controversy with a spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan saying in a statement that Comey's memo should be turned over to Congress -- Jim Acosta, CNN, Washington.
SESAY: All right, there's a lot to dig into. Joining me now, CNN enforcement contributor Steve Moore; civil rights attorney Brian Claypool; Democratic strategist, Caroline Heldman (ph) and Republican strategist, Austin James. We have a full house.
Austin, let's start with you and let's start with that White House statement, shall we. Let's put it up on the screen so our viewers can read along.
It says this, "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."
They are putting out this statement, they're trying to push back. But this does not look good.
AUSTIN JAMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, listen, I don't have the Democratic talking points in front of me so I think you have to take it at face value. Those around Trump know that he's a very loyal individual. And so it sounds like he -- if you read what was in the memo, it sounds like he was just giving a wink-wink, nod-nod.
There was no direct order to stop the investigation. There was simply something to the effect of I hope you can find your way to that because he's a really good guy. And that's just something that he said in private, as you would do in business meetings as private sector 101.
And so I think this may be a bunch to do about nothing until we see the body of work, all the memos, that gives us give context for that engagement.
SESAY: Caroline, you're going to respond to that, a bunch of ado about nothing, it was just a former CEO just having a chat, you say?
CAROLINE HELDMAN (PH), DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I say it would be much ado about nothing if this person weren't in charge of investigating links between Trump's White House and Russia. The fact of the matter is he went in that room, asked Pence and asked Sessions to leave so that he could have this conversation.
So it wasn't off the cuff. He knew what he was doing and, at the end of the day, he asked the person in charge of the investigation to drop it. He's the President of the United States. Of course, this is an issue --
JAMES: We both know Comey wasn't the investigator. He wasn't the FBI.
JAMES: We're talking two or three levels down.
SESAY: OK, Caroline.
JAMES: Two or three levels down, I mean, he wasn't even the deputy director said this investigation will go on. This has done nothing to impede. There was nothing that actually is impeding the investigation.
So I'm not --
SESAY: Is there nothing about the situation that troubles you?
Let's just be clear, Austin.
Is there nothing about this situation, although it has -- we don't have all the facts. Let me the first to say. But the optics of it.
Is there nothing here that --
JAMES: Listen, the optics aren't good. And I would -- anyone could sit up here or anybody would who sat up here and said otherwise would be basically lying, right. I mean, these are -- he has done nothing to help himself.
And by that I mean President Trump. He's asked the White House in a large way to step out on a limb and then in a midnight tweet kind of cuts the limb off. And so again, it just goes back to trying to function in a White House that is, you know, a public sector entity and kind of dismissing your engrained business ways.
And so I think we -- we need to take it with a grain of salt if there's nothing here. We need to take it with a grain of salt and move on.
SESAY: OK, Brian Claypool, to you, you hear Austin here, (INAUDIBLE) this -- at least giving the benefit of the doubt and saying we should be willing to see this maybe a little bit more innocently than some people are right now.
I want you to take a listen to David Gergen, senior political analyst --
[02:05:00] SESAY: -- who has been an adviser to a number of presidents, both Democratic and Republican. Take a listen to his read of the situation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: I was in the Nixon administration, as you know. I thought after watching the Clinton impeachment, I thought I would never see another one but I think we are in impeachment territory for the first time.
Well, I think that 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. He won in the Senate.
And I think -- I'm a lapsed lawyer. I cannot tell you if it meets all the legal definitions but I can tell you, from a lay point of view, it looks like he was trying to impede the investigation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: OK, Brian, help us understand this. Break this down for the viewers, the non-legal minds out there, the obstruction of justice piece, the impeachment piece. Give us context and what is your view as to where things stand?
BRIAN CLAYPOOL, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: Yes, Isha, just to make it easy for your audience, I have the definition of obstruction of justice. It's "an attempt to hinder, the discovery, apprehension, conviction or punishment for anyone who's committed a crime."
And the examples given in the legal arena for obstruction of justice are bribery, intimidation, use of physical force or destruction of records.
Now with that definition in mind and I gave you for good examples, the only possible example of impeding an investigation here would be President Trump using some form of intimidation with James Comey.
And the reason I say that is because he didn't come out and say, Mr. Comey, if you don't end this investigation, I'm going to fire you. President Trump didn't say that. But the problem he's running into from an optical standpoint, as you mentioned, is that a couple of months later, we now have James Comey being fired.
So an argument can now be made implicitly. And as you remember, you can prove facts to direct evidence, which is the memo, and indirect evidence. They're both equally forceful in an obstruction of justice or in impeachment proceeding.
And it does present now, I think -- a better way to say this, the memo fuels the argument that the reason for President Trump possibly firing James Comey is because he didn't stop the investigation and, in fact, around the time of the firing, James Comey asked for more resources to expand this investigation. SESAY: And let's not forget the president did tell Lester Holt that the Russia thing was on his mind when he fired James Comey.
CLAYPOOL: That is not a good comment to make because that supports the argument that I'm making, that it does suggest that -- I'm not saying this is the truth but it suggests that the firing of James Comey is retaliatory; in other words, you didn't end this investigation and now, because you're trying to do more with this investigation that might make me look bad, I'm going to do what I used to do in the boardroom and say, "You're fired."
The only problem with that --
SESAY: Knew someone was going to say that.
CLAYPOOL: Yes. But Isha, the only problem with that is it works well in the business sector. In other words, when I'm watching "The Apprentice" years back and hear Trump say, "You're fired," my reaction is, hey, this guy is powerful and strong. I respect him for doing that.
But the difference in the political forum is, when you fire someone like a James Comey, it breeds a lot of suspicion and distrust. And that's what he's coping with now.
SESAY: Let's bring in Steve Moore to that point, that the firing of James Comey breeds a lot of suspicion, a lot of distrust. I mean, that was obviously -- you tell me, was that really evident even before Comey was fired, in the sense that he kept this memo and, according to sources, several others.
I mean why would do that?
Why would he keep such notes?
STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well all FBI agents are going to keep notes for any meeting, any interview, in which they believe someone has said something incriminating or they believe that their credibility might be taken into account.
And so Comey's memo was not just a discussion of the fact that, by the way, the president said something that might be construed by some as telling me to quit the investigation.
No, what he said was, these are the exact words. And Comey likely didn't know whether a crime had been committed but he certainly knew when, ethically, a line had been crossed. And so likely he brought this back.
And again, I kind of have to agree with Brian, had -- you know, if we were two years down the road hearing this and Comey was still the director of the FBI, I get that. But he was fired and --
[02:10:00] MOORE: -- and he was fired in a way I'm surprised there wasn't a horse's head in his bed. It was the worst way you could do it. And so there -- it smacks of retaliation.
Does that make it a crime?
I don't know, I wouldn't want to bring that to trial. But you know, with an impeachment and people are calling for that, you're not having to meet that same standard.
Austin, to you, as, you know, people in the media, analysts, commentators are all talking about this, that notably GOP leadership are noticeably quiet or quieter than they have been when past crises have risen to the surface.
Why is that?
JAMES: I think they made two good points. One is -- rather kind of the larger conversation is this is a really good point, you know, we don't know enough. And that was kind of my argument, too. And so I'm not defending those actions. I'm simply saying we don't know enough.
And so I'm one not to quick and jump into the impeachment bandwagon, conversation.
And so certainly I think people -- the GOP, Hill staffers and the GOP congressmen on Capitol Hill, are thinking, OK, wait. We don't know what's coming next. Let's not forget, it's Tuesday. We were talking about something completely different on Monday.
And so if you're in communication crisis mode on the Hill, you're thinking let's wait until Wednesday.
SESAY: OK. But to that point, in terms of what you do say, let's put up Paul Ryan's statement put out by his spokesperson. This is what she said.
She said, "We need to have all the facts and it is appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request this memo."
Are you surprised by that, that the House Speaker is basically throwing his weight behind Jason Chaffetz of the House Oversight Committee, saying, yes, absolutely, request this memo; let's get it in, as opposed to giving a full-throated support for the president?
JAMES: Absolutely not. And so at some point we do have to put our chips on the table here. And so the White House came out and said this is not what was said, this is not what happened. And so I think Paul Ryan at some level is calling that bluff and saying, listen, either they're right now or they're wrong. Let's get all this out here because his larger objective is to get things passed, is to get the country moving again. There's a great agenda that Trump has put forward that we're not
talking about, I think that's his longer-term goal and I think this comment is a move in that direction.
SESAY: So you don't see a crack in GOP support for the president?
JAMES: Not yet.
SESAY: Not yet, OK.
Caroline, the Democrats have been speaking out. We have heard from Chuck Schumer, we've heard from Elijah Cummings and independent Angus King. Let's play some of the sound so we can talk about the Democrats' next move here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: If these allegations, Senator, are true, are we getting closer and closer to the possibility of yet another impeachment process?
SEN. ANGUS KING (I): Reluctantly, Wolf, I have to say yes simply because obstruction of justice is such a serious offense.
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MD.: 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 it is one person's word against another's, I think Comey would come out on top.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), N.Y.: The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate, history is watching.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: So Caroline, here's my question. I know that Democrats obviously, they saw the news; they jumped on it. They're all over it. Democrats think it is a big deal on Capitol Hill.
But do ordinary Americans think it's a big deal?
That's the question in terms of are Democrats in danger of overplaying their hand here.
HELDMAN (PH): I don't think they're in danger of overplaying their hand. They're doing exactly what they need to do. I think if you put different pieces together, the loyalty oath, if that proves correct; the now admission or the request to stop the investigation with Flynn and then the president's admission last week that, indeed, he was thinking of Russia when he fired Comey.
I think for the lay person it's pretty obvious when you connect those dots. With that said, of course, the Democrats are going to be beating the drums of impeachment. I disagree with Austin in the sense that I think that Republican shocking (ph). I think Republicans are actually really concerned. I think their silence is indicative of the fact that this yet now the third controversy in about a week.
These are self-inflicted wound that the president is essentially punching himself in the face again and again and again. And I think that Republicans are exhausted. This is stopping their agenda as Austin points out. It also doesn't bode well for the 2018 elections. So their silence actually speaks volumes. If they didn't have something to worry about, they would --
JAMES: Self-inflicted wounds but we don't know if they're fatal. And I think that's where everyone --
SESAY: (INAUDIBLE) question, right?
JAMES: -- and that's -- I think that's where the silence on Capitol Hill is coming from.
SESAY: OK, self-inflicted wounds. We don't know if they're fatal. We're talking about the president's fate.
But what about the country?
Brian, to you; I want you to take a listen to Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut. Listen to what he says --
SESAY: -- about where the country is right now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONN.: What we're seeing, Anderson, is a obstruction of justice case unfolding in real-time. And I am still stunned that more of my Republican colleagues are not standing strong and speaking out.
But I think they are shaken and almost shell-shocked by this news, as I was because, as stunning as the developments of recent days have been, this one really is a bombshell that tops all of them so far.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: Brian Claypool, Richard Blumenthal's point that he has made is the last two days is that the country is facing a constitutional crisis.
Do you agree?
CLAYPOOL: Well, I don't think we're facing a constitutional crisis. I think what we're facing is we have two parties, we have a Democratic Party, that -- let's be straight with each other -- there's a fervor to find reasons to oust President Trump.
So when you have that premise, when something like this happens, Isha, when you have a memorandum and you combine that with this fervor to eliminate President Trump, then what it does is heightens things to a point where you get irresponsible statements made by Mr. Blumenthal, saying that, oh, we have obstruction of justice unfolding.
We don't yet have it unfolding. What we have is a major red flag. And what we need to do, though, is separate that and gather the information. We can't have a knee-jerk reaction. We need to have the House Oversight Committee come in and subpoena.
For example, let's subpoena any e-mail exchanges between President Trump and his staff and/or with Comey about the Russian investigation and whether he wanted it to end.
Let's subpoena any text messages, let's see if there are any audio recordings of conversations that might shed light on a true pattern.
In other words, we have to show that President Trump truly wanted to impede this investigation and we need to do that through evidence that the House Oversight Committee has to generate before we can all make this global conclusion that President Trump has violated the law and should be impeached.
SESAY: All right. We're going to leave it there for just a moment and take a very quick break. The panel is sticking around and when we come back we'll have much more analysis of our top story.
Sources say President Donald Trump asked the FBI chief to end the Flynn investigation. We will dig further into that.
And coming up, we're live in Moscow and Jerusalem as Donald Trump has said he has every right to share intelligence with Russia. Do stay with us. There's lots more to come.
SESAY: Hello, everyone. More now 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 adviser Michael Flynn.
We're told the president made that request in person a day after Flynn was forced to resign for lying about his conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. The White House is denying the story first reported by "The New York Times."
Back with us, senior law enforcement contributor, Steve Moore; civil rights attorney, Brian Claypool; Democratic strategist Caroline Heldman and Republican strategist Austin James.
Whew, we got through all the names. (LAUGHTER)
SESAY: Steve Moore, let me start with you.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Comey needs to get back to Capitol Hill to testify. Listen to a little bit more of what he had to say earlier.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIF.: 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 an open session, either before our committee or the Judiciary Committee.
But he should come back to the Congress and share what he knows in terms of the president's conversations with him on any of the Russian investigation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: So Steve, my colleague, Jake Tapper, has been told by a source that Comey does indeed want to testify. He wants to testify in public. Talk to us about the ripples this would send.
MOORE: He does.
SESAY: Yes, indeed. Talk to us about the ripples this would send throughout the FBI and the intelligence community.
MOORE: Well, I think that what it would send is the message that if bad things happen, sometimes you get back. Comey was given up for dead. And one things, you know, he was accused of being a showboat.
If he was a showboat and he had this memo when he was fired, it would have come out right then. I think Comey is waiting for the opportunity to be brought back and given the chance, really almost forced to testify on this issue.
The other -- the thing here that might be complicated is if it was in an official FBI file, he can't take those files when he leaves. So it not be -- it would be Comey testifying from memory unless we could get copies through the committees.
SESAY: Austin, of course, this was a former FBI boss, had a paper trail. Of course we're talking about this memo but there's also the questions of the tapes.
You know, it's not just that he said, he said. There is issue that the tapes could clear all of this up. I mean, the president did hint at tapes being in existence. Let's put up the tweet that President Trump himself wrote, "James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversation before he starts leaking to the press." These tapes. I mean, this is the question, do you want them out now
or do they create even more headaches?
JAMES: Well, we don't know what are on the tapes. That's a difficult question to answer. I mean --
SESAY: Yes, and if they indeed exist.
JAMES: -- innocent. I mean, yes, exactly, I mean, look at the source. This is unchartered water. As someone who's spent almost 10 years in D.C., having to -- relying entire communications team around a tweet that you didn't see because you were sleeping is just insane.
I would say this. I believe actually a CNN reporter earlier, that someone close to Comey said that he's looking forward to a public -- a chance to speak publicly. That's worrisome. He seems extremely confident and as if somehow he is going to wash away his sins.
One of the things that I think is important is that regardless of what we're talking about, the clips you keep showing are from Democrats. And there's a real vacuum of bipartisan speech. And so if you have Comey coming back with confidence, you have Democrats using the word "impeachment" now, you know the White House kind of gives you a blanket statement as they try to prepare for the arrows to circle the wagons, Republicans aren't saying anything. This doesn't look like it's only going to get worse. And that's probably the bigger fear.
SESAY: And, Caroline, your take on this. At the end of the day, we are seeing Democrats come out and speak. They are probably emboldened, one would assume, by the fact Comey is so willing to come out and testify.
HELDMAN: Sure and I'm being a little speculative but I wouldn't be surprised if Comey, if this was baiting, if -- perhaps this is the smoking gun. But my guess is there is probably more in these memos. He wanted a public airing of this.
When he was fired, perhaps it's retaliation or perhaps it finally getting the story out. But he's definitely pulled the White House into a vortex. I don't think that this is what Donald Trump intended last week. I don't think he thought through the firing of someone who knows where all the bodies are.
And I agree that with Austin. It's definitely going to get worse as Comey goes before Congress.
SESAY: Brian Claypool, to bring you back in here, to Austin's point, the Democrats are coming out --
SESAY: -- they're talking impeachment. They are rallying and they're certainly sounding confident, that this could be the smoking gun to finally get -- to pin something that sticks on this president.
But take a listen to Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, famed legal mind. Listen to his assessment of where the president is in the midst of all of this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALAN DERSHOWITZ, ATTORNEY: When it's the President of the United States and we have separation of powers, the courts are going to resolve these issues in favor of the president if what he did was lawful.
If he destroyed tapes, if he refused to comply with a subpoena, that's one thing. But there's going to be -- we're going to see -- there's going to be erring on the side of presidential authority and presidential power.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: I don't want to overstate it, but from what Dershowitz is saying, the president maybe doesn't have a whole lot to worry about or shouldn't be as worried as everyone is saying he should be.
Is that your view?
CLAYPOOL: I'm not sure I agree with that. I think I was on your show a month or so ago, we were talking about the travel ban -- remember that travel ban?
And we had a couple of judges that were -- issued scathing orders against our President Trump. You remember that?
SESAY: I do indeed.
CLAYPOOL: I'm not sure -- yes, I'm not sure that judges are going to be out there, patronizing President Trump, Isha.
One other point I wanted to make before we finish is I find it ironic that President Trump fired James Comey -- if he fired James Comey, if he did that because he wanted to try to slow down the Russian investigation, it may have backfired because what it's done is you now seem to have an emboldened James Comey, in other words he's ready, willing and able to walk in to a Senate committee and give testimony that he otherwise, Isha, might not have been able to give if he was still the FBI director because he would have had to say, well, wait a minute. We still have an investigation going on. I can't talk about that.
But guess what?
He can now talk about that. And that may backfire ultimately for President Trump.
SESAY: Yes, it does seem as though the gloves are off. We shall see how this all plays out. Austin James, Caroline Heldman, Steve Moore, Brian Claypool, thank you so much for the great conversation. We'll see how this one plays out and get you all back for round three.
All right, quick break here. Still ahead, the White House defends Donald Trump's move to share intelligence with top Russian officials. Reaction from Moscow -- coming up.
Plus sources say Israel, one of the United States' biggest allies, is the source of some of that intelligence. We'll bring you a live report from Jerusalem after this quick break.
ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay. Back to our top story: another bombshell out of Washington.
Sources tell CNN that fired FBI director James Comey wrote a memo stating that President Donald Trump asked him to end the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The White House is denying that report even as it struggles with fallout from Mr. Trump's sharing of intelligence with Russia.
U.S. officials now say Israel was the source for some of that information. For more on this story, CNN's Diana Magnay joins me from Moscow; Oren Liebermann is in Jerusalem and Middle East expert Lisa Daftali joins me here in Los Angeles.
Welcome to you all.
Oren, let me start with you. The president heading to Israel as the news emerges that some of the intelligence he shared with Russia was provided by Israel.
Will this be a source of tension during the president's visit?
OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Isha, it will certainly cast a shadow over the meeting between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, no matter how much Netanyahu wants to keep this controversy as far away from Jerusalem as possible.
No Israeli official has commented on the report that it was a Israeli source that may very well have been compromised in these conversations between the U.S. and the Russians. In fact, the prime minister's office here directed us to the Washington embassy, Israel's embassy in Washington, for a response.
And that response was essentially a glorified "no comment," saying that the intelligence connection between the U.S. and Israel remains strong and they look forward to be strengthened when Trump visits the region.
It seems Netanyahu wants this controversy as far away from Jerusalem as possible, as it is now one of a mounting series of misunderstandings or worse between the U.S. and Israel, including over the embassy, over the Western Wall and now what appears to be the biggest of these -- the revelation that it was an Israeli source that may have been compromised in these conversations between the U.S. and the Russians.
So Netanyahu trying to keep this as far away from here as possible; remember, Netanyahu has never once criticized Trump. He wants the conversations and the meetings to go as well as possible but all of this will certainly cast a shadow over Trump's visit now in less than a week.
SESAY: And Diana, Russia one of course in the spotlight, once again in the headlines here in the United States, regarding this handing over of intelligence to the foreign minister and to the Kislyak, the U.S. ambassador.
It does seem though that Russia has its fill of this controversy that is engulfing this administration, judging by recent statements.
DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Goodness, I think that happened a while ago, Isha.
MAGNAY: Yes, the tone from the Kremlin, from the foreign ministry seems to have increased to one of exasperation, you definitely get a sense of that. Their response yesterday to the supposed passing over of intelligence, classified intelligence, was we absolutely do not want to have anything to do with this nonsense. That came from the Kremlin.
And the lines that we've been hearing over and over again, we did not meddle with the election; there is no evidence to substantiate that. This stream of reporting is fake news. The sourcing that is coming out in that reporting, we question it as anonymous.
These are the lines that you hear over and over again. And I agree, there is a sense that the Kremlin wants to disassociate itself from this endless trickle of reporting that is coming from the States.
At the same time, it does keep Russia at the top of the agenda. It does make President Putin look like a force to be reckoned with and that can't be but a good thing for the Russians.
SESAY: Yes, so Lisa, let me ask you that, if you're --
SESAY: -- Vladimir Putin right now, one would be inclined to think that this is a good moment because the President of the United States is embroiled in one crisis after another.
What do you do in this moment if you are President Putin?
LISA DAFTALI, "THE FOREIGN DESK": Well, with Putin, the show always goes on. And he cares about just one thing. It's Russia, Russia, Russia. And I think regardless of whether there's a Democrat in office or a Republican in the White House, Putin takes his agenda forward.
He had a more shaky relationship with President Obama and what we were hearing from Hillary Clinton was going to be more of the same. And with Trump we have statesman to statesman, he wants to perhaps be -- have a better relationship with him.
But right now we see Trump is focused on his domestic issues here at home, all the controversies, the investigations. Now that he takes the show on the road and heads toward the Middle East to sit down with some leaders in the region, I think that Putin's going to get a little bit more upset about that, where Trump is expanding his sphere because that's what Putin wants to do, expand his sphere.
And I think that this is where we're going to see maybe Putin come out again. We haven't heard much from him because, again, I think he is using this side, this opportunity while Trump is very busy to take his agenda forward.
SESAY: Owen, back to you. With President Trump heading to Israel to meet with Netanyahu with all these crises following him, does it affect the agenda for the talks in Israel and the expectations for what will emerge from this trip?
LIEBERMANN: It certainly adds some questions there; part of that is because Trump has never been clear on what his Middle East policy and what his policy in regard to embassy is or in regard to Jerusalem. So those questions have only grown larger as we come up to this meeting in just a few days here.
It is very clear what Israel, the officials want more and more of them are calling for an embassy move, calling for recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, even as speculation mounts here that Trump won't move in that direction.
So what will they talk about?
Jerusalem still expect to do very high on that agenda, to see if it's possible to sway Trump in one direction or another. But then it'll be the basic topics, economic cooperation, security coordination; that will be strong as it's always been.
And they will make sure to emphasize both sides, that is the U.S. and the Israelis will be sure to emphasize how strong those remain.
It would be surprising to see either of them mention the controversies. Again they're trying to get past all of that. It is worth nothing that it will be interesting to hear what comes out of the meeting between the U.S., that is to say President Trump, and the Palestinians, President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas gets to see Trump before in Saudi Arabia. He'll join him there before coming here.
Trump has made it clear he wants to advance the peace process but has forwarded no concrete plans there. So perhaps this visit will be a chance for Trump to clarify what his Middle East policy and how he intends to pursue because right now there are certainly more questions than answers there.
SESAY: Diana, of course, as you mentioned, there seems to be this growing exasperation on the part of Moscow for these constant headlines embroiling Russia in President Trump's woes here domestically.
But does Vladimir Putin gain anything domestically from the crises that President Trump is immersed in?
MAGNAY: I think there are sections of society here who are pleased to see the chaos in the White House and it does make President Putin appear particularly statesmanlike in contrast.
I think there is also a degree of consternation, though, because President Putin does require a stable partner in the U.S. if he wants to make, for example, a deal in Syria, if he wants long-term to see sanctions lifted.
President Trump as exemplified by that U.S. missile strike, is an erratic and unpredictable leader, certainly as far as Russia is concerned and that remains a slight concern for the Russian president.
But I do think that there are people here who, as much as President Putin perhaps himself take a degree of satisfaction from seeing what's going on in D.C. -- Isha.
SESAY: Lisa Daftali, last word to you, as President Trump heads out on this first overseas trip with all of this surrounding him, talk to me about the impact it will have in terms of the optics of this trip, in terms of the takeaways.
Will it hobble his ability to cross something meaningful in these talks with these various parties as he makes this multicountry trip?
DAFTALI: I think this is a great opportunity; I think again that it coincides with the shifting of a lot of the elements within the region. We're seeing a lot of these moderate Muslim countries coming together and turning from this global -- the growth of global security but also the growing sphere of Shiite Islam -- by the Iranian regime of course. And I think this is a great moment, where Israel's no longer the bogeyman in the region and a lot of these Arab countries have supported a Palestinian- --
DAFTALI: -- Israeli peace deal. I think that President Trump has definitely said many times that he would be very much wanting to push that forward, although we don't know the specifics.
And I think that, at this moment, it would be a wonderful time for him to step away from a lot of the domestic issues and take this trip on the road and really focus on what he is actually good at, and that's being that CEO at the table and sitting across from another leader and perhaps talking some concrete, productive agenda that can really profit and be a productive and benefit the global community as a whole. I think that he's been very strong at supporting this global war on
ISIS and I think a lot of these other countries have that same concern about keeping this element of extremism out of their borders and, at the same time, he's had this ability to have this interest-aligned foreign policy rather than be critical of, for example, of Turkey's human rights records or Saudi Arabia not pulling their weight. And I think that this is a good time for him to shine where he hasn't obviously for a very long time.
SESAY: Well, a lot could happen between now and Friday, when the president is supposed to take off.
We'll all be watching very closely. Diana Magnay, Oren Liebermann and Lisa Daftali, my thanks to all of you. Thank you.
All right. Some news just in to us here at CNN. There is a shootout going on inside the state television building in Eastern Afghanistan. Reuters reports gunmen entered the station in Jalalabad and started shooting at security forces.
Local officials say they don't know who the insurgents are or a possible motive. We will update you with any new information as it comes into us here at CNN.
We're going to pause for a quick break here. President Trump faced political backlash over his decision to fire James Comey but a month- old memo from the former FBI director may pose the biggest threat yet. More on our top story coming up.
SESAY: We are following breaking news for you, 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 adviser Michael Flynn.
Comey was said to be so appalled by the request on February 14th that he documented that conversation. Well, 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, to letting --
SESAY: -- "Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
Well, 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.
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 the issue of whether --
NICHOLS: -- 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 -- (CROSSTALK)
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: Still to come, the CNN exclusive. Former U.S. acting attorney general Sally Yates speaks out after President Trump fired her for refusing to defend his travel ban. Their take on fired FBI director James Comey -- next.
SESAY: Back now to our breaking new story. Sources say fired FBI director James Comey wrote a memo detailing the meeting where President Trump asked him to end the investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
The White House denies the allegation. Flynn was forced to resign for lying about his conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. And CNN spoke exclusively with the U.S. official who warned the White House the Russians could blackmail Flynn.
Now this is the first television interview for former acting attorney general Sally Yates since President Trump fired here for refusing to defend his travel ban. It was recorded before news broke about the Comey memo.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: What did you think when you heard that Director Comey had been fired?
SALLY YATES, FORMER U.S. ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I think this is a really troubling situation. I think there are serious questions about both the timing and motivation of the president's actions.
COOPER: James Comey reported directly to you when you were Deputy Attorney General.
YATES: That's right.
COOPER: What was he like? As you know, the president has called him a showboat, a grandstander.
YATES: Well, you know, Jim is obviously a very qualified and experienced guy. He had held my position before, Deputy Attorney General. He had been a United States attorney in the southern district of New York and AUSA as well. So, we had a common background. And I found him to be a straight shooter and candid.
COOPER: Did he strike you as a showboater or grandstander?
YATES: No. I think, you know, Jim would speak his mind. Some might call that showboating, but Jim would speak his mind.
COOPER: Did the multiple reasons that White House gave for firing Director Comey, did they make sense to you?
YATES: You know, I don't want to -- since I'm not at DOJ anymore, I don't really want to go much more into it other than that.
You know, the explanations seem to change on what is almost an hourly basis right now. So it seems to me --
YATES: -- that there's only one truth and we ought to get to that.
COOPER: The idea of a director of the FBI being asked for some sort of a loyalty pledge. The president, the White House says Pres. Trump did not ask him for loyalty. There are reports that that was asked at that dinner. Is that appropriate?
YATES: No, not to him individually. Our loyalty at the Department of Justice should be to the people of the United States and to the law and the Constitution and no one and nothing else.
COOPER: Why is that? Why isn't loyalty to the president something that should be pledged?
YATES: Because our oath is to uphold the Constitution and the law. And that means we got to be able to call it like we see it.
COOPER: So if you were as a -- when you were in the Department of Justice, if somebody had asked you to pledge loyalty to them, what would you have said?
YATES: I wouldn't have done it.
COOPER: It's inappropriate?
YATES: It's inappropriate.
COOPER: The president said to NBC News before he fired Director Comey, he said, "When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia with Trump and Russia is a made up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election they should have won."
In your view, was Russia the reason the Russia investigation the reason that Director Comey was fired?
YATES: I can't speak to that. I think that's one of those important questions that we all need answers to.
SESAY: CNN reached out to Sally Yates after news broke about Comey's memo. She did not want to comment on it. And you can watch the entire interview with Sally Yates in about an hour, right here on CNN, 4:00 am in New York, 9:00 am if you are in London.
And You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay. The news continues with our very own Rosemary Church after this very quick break. Stay with us.