Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Asked Comey to Drop Flynn Investigation; Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired May 17, 2017 - 03:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.


[03:00:14] JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Telling the FBI director to close down an investigation of your senior campaign adviser, that is obstruction of justice.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Here we go again with another extraordinary day in the nation's capitol for an embattled White House.

James Comey says President Trump asked him to end the Michael Flynn investigation. That conversation documented by Comey himself before Trump fired him from the FBI.

Good morning, everybody, and welcome to an early, EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Christine Romans. Nice to see you this morning, or late at night, wherever you happen to be. It is Wednesday, May 17th, it is 3:00 a.m. in the East. We welcome all of our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

All right. This is the major story in Washington, again a potential threat to this presidency. Sources familiar with the matter says the president asked James Comey to end the FBI investigation inform National Security adviser Michael Flynn.

It the clearest sign yet President Trump tried to pressure the Justice Department over the Russia investigation. Our sources say -- CNN sources say Comey was so concerned, so appalled he documented the president's request a short time later in a memo which CNN has not seen but which sources have described for us.

BRIGGS: In this memo first reported by the "New York Times," Comey says Trump him, quote, "I hope you can your way clear to letting this go. To letting Flynn go, he's a good guy. I hope you can let this go,: unquote.

Now Comey shared his memo with senior FBI officials.

ROMANS: This blockbuster developments triggering immediate alarm on Capitol Hill. Many Democrats saying the president is guilty of obstructing justice with those on the Oversight and Judiciary Committees demanding an immediate investigation of the president, the attorney general and top White House aides.

BRIGGS: Republicans also expressing extreme concern with Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz asking the FBI to hand over everything related to communications between Comey and the president by a week from today even threatening a subpoena. The White House with all hands on deck fighting back despite its own compromised credibility.

Our coverage begins with senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, 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 --


[03:05:46] ROMANS: Historical perspective. It's only been eight days, eight days, Dave Briggs reminds me, since the FBI director was fired. It's only been justice under 120 days of his presidency and it is scandal after scandal, after misstep after perceived incompetence one thing after another. Put for me in perspective what we're seeing here.

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is a huge scandal that certainly compares with what we saw with Watergate and it's moving much more quickly. Richard Nixon was elected in 1972 before this broke. This is a fresh presidency. This week everything turned. From the Comey firing, to the intelligence sharing with the Russians, to this potential Comey memo, we have shifted to impeachment discussion. And that's pretty rapid.

ROMANS: Is that appropriate? I mean, is -- are observes getting a little historical here about this president, we're just so used to missteps and misstatements and mistakes, frankly?

BRIGGS: What's the impeachable offense, to be clear?

ZELIZER: Well, right now we're talking about obstruction of justice. And if there is a memo from the FBI director -- the former FBI director saying that the president told him this, in the middle of an investigation into collusion with the Russians in the 2016 election, that's pretty big. And that is the realm where Congress certainly has room to act, if Republicans are willing to do so. That's the million- dollar question.


BRIGGS: OK. And that is the million-dollar question, Maeve. And Julian makes the point that this is similar to Watergate. Watergate had Howard Baker, a senator, a Republican saying what did the president know and when did he know it. Who will be that Republican? How will the House and Senate Republicans handle this latest scandal?

MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, it's been really interesting to watch that over the last couple of days because as we know and as Christine just pointed out there have been so many scandals and controversies with this president but I don't think that any of them have reached the -- the gravity of the situation that you have this week after -- you know, talking about the president disclosing classified information to our adversaries followed by a day where we had -- what we had happened here with the Comey memo.

Again, there's a lot that's going to happen in the coming weeks, you know, potentially with Comey testifying. We need to actually see what's in the memos but you are seeing a shift in tone among Republicans where no one was rushing to his defense last night. There weren't a lot of Trump surrogates on the air, you know, laying out a coherent case as to, you know, what happened here. And I think that -- that this is a breaking point where they're deciding, Republicans right now, whether or not this is going to damage chances of holding on to the House in 2018. And they're going to have to see how this rolls out over the next couple of days.

ROMANS: You know, you say they weren't out there, you know, supporting him, but couldn't they have been condemning him a little bit more? It almost as if, Maeve, I feel like Republicans are trying to figure out how to play this.

RESTON: Exactly.

ROMANS: I mean, if this is just management incompetence. You know, they want to work with this president for -- to get his agenda through. To get their agenda through. Tax reform. I mean, they're going to be talking on the Hill with Steve Mnuchin today and Gary Cohn about tax reform amid all of this.

RESTON: And how is it possible to get beyond the cloud of all of this. I mean, I think that's why Republicans are at the breaking point. They had a chance here to push things like tax reform and, you know, their repeal of health care and they cannot get out from underneath this cloud of the Russian investigation and it's Trump himself who is both complaining about that being the focus of the media and also, you know, bringing more attention to it.

ROMANS: Right.

BRIGGS: Of course let's remember, Republicans in the House, the Senate, they work for their constituents. And they will tell you that their constituents say this is fake news. This is anonymous sources based on a memo that no one involved in this has yet seen.

[03:10:03] Believe me, I hear from these people in droves every day. They're not buying this.

So, Michael Moore, what needs to happen? What's the next step to shed some light on what really happened?

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA: You know, at some point the nonsense from the administration really becomes indefensible. And I think -- and I've said this before, I really would urge that we start looking for a special prosecutor and a special investigations of the matter that by somebody who's qualified and trained to do it that it's outside of the political purview and that would remove any taint of partisanship. That would remove I think a lot of the criticism that we hear. You know, last week in the hearing with the Sally Yates and --


BRIGGS: But sorry to interrupt. This isn't about Russia anymore, is it not? I mean, Julian, does Russia have anything to do where this goes from here?

ZELIZER: No, this has now shifted. Look, the Russia investigation is still looming in the background but the conversation now moves to obstruction of justice and what the president was doing in response to the original claim rather than the original claim, and I think you're hearing more Republicans slowly at least uttering something.

ROMANS: Right.

ZELIZER: Even Senator McConnell said we need a little less drama and more legislation, which for Senator McConnell is a lot to say in public, and I think that's a signal that they're getting restive. They're unhappy that their legislation right now is stalled and they don't know what the news is going to be within eight to 24 hours coming from the White House.

ROMANS: All right.


BRIGGS: This is still about Russia.

RESTON: The most important statement may be also yesterday was John McCain talking about these issues for the Trump White House becoming, you know, of nearly Watergate size and he's continually talked about the cloud of Russia as being the centipede where just another shoe is going to drop all the time. I think that that is the tone that we're hearing now from Republicans.

ROMANS: All right, guys. Don't move. We're going to talk about all of this. We got two hours of conversation and analysis. So don't go away.

All of this taking a big focus of another problem for the White House. President Trump defending his sharing of classified information with the Russians. Now the fallout growing ahead of the president's first international trip.



[03:16:01] SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), SENATE MAJORITY: I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House.


ROMANS: All right. That was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoing what a lot of people believe on Capitol Hill and beyond. This is before we learned President Trump asked James Comey to drop the Michael Flynn investigation. McConnell was talking about the president's sharing of classified information with the Russians. We've since learned Israel was the source of some of the ISIS bomb- making information that the president revealed to the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Ambassador Kislyak.

BRIGGS: Newspapers in Israel reported months ago that U.S. officials warned their Israeli counterparts to be careful about what they tell the White House fearing it could be leaked to the Kremlin and passed on to Iran, a major Russian ally and Israel's main regional adversary.

ROMANS: Now that those fears may have been realized, some U.S. allies appear to be reassessing their intelligence sharing policies with the U.S. This will no doubt impact the president's upcoming foreign trip which includes a stop in Israel.

I want to bring back our panel, Julian Zelizer, Maeve Reston and Michael Moore.

And Maeve, just -- this idea that important relationships between United States and its allies and information sharing may be compromised here, how difficult is this for this presidency, for this White House on the eve of this important foreign mission?

RESTON: Well, I think it's a such a huge hurdle for them. As the president is taking what is -- you know, his first major trip abroad, given the fact also that it was one of our -- you know, our closest allies in Israel that was potentially compromised here. I mean, I think that's going to be a huge hurdle for Trump to overcome and the White House has not really been able to, you know, get out a clear explanation yet of why this happened, why in the moment --


ROMANS: Well, you know -- because H.R. McMaster yesterday, General McMaster stood there in front of the cameras and said this was wholly appropriate. The behavior of the president was wholly appropriate.

RESTON: Right.

ROMANS: So the view from the White House, Maeve, is still denying that there's almost -- a hysterical media with so many leakers and we just don't understand.

RESTON: Right. But, I mean, it's fair to say that there are many people who disagree with that and it's really interesting because McMaster, you know, certainly one of the people who is most highly respected in the administration.

ROMANS: Right. RESTON: Someone who has broad and deep support and respect from many

members of Congress but it has cast a huge shadow over the trip and distracted away from the message that the Trump administration would like to extend as they embark on that mission.

BRIGGS: Yes, General McMaster as you said widely respected, but he would not say if this information was indeed classified. One can safely assume if it was not classified information, that the president was relaying the White House would have pushed back against that notion.

But, Michael, is it whole appropriate what happened in the Oval Office?

MOORE: No. It's not appropriate. I mean, the Russians shouldn't have been in there in the first place and so it's not appropriate. The president can give classified information if he or she believes that's appropriate. But in this case he basically let out the information that put some of our allies or the intelligence sources at risk.

But let me go back to one thing and we keep talking about this, but I was saying at the break. It is about the Russia. I mean, if we think about it, Mike Flynn, the investigation about Russia, declassified or classified information sharing coming out about Russia, the firing of Jim Comey, whether or not that was over the Russian investigation, the meddling in the election of 2016. All about Russia.

The worst thing the Democrat cans do is to get sidetracked and just chase one of these rabbits down the hole when we've got the whole Russia picture that we ought to be talking about and that's why we need a special prosecutor to look into it. So I go back to that and say and we cannot just be talking about the firing of Jim Comey, we cannot just be talking about the classified information being spewed out in the Oval Office.

[03:20:00] We need to be looking at the big picture if we're going to regain credibility with our allies and around the world because right now they think we leak like a sieve and they think we've got a president in the White House who doesn't know how to control his mouth or his Twitter thumbs.

ROMANS: Julian, talk to me a little bit about credibility. I mean, we were just discussing in the break, you know, the president says, the White House says this didn't happen. This conversation with Comey didn't happen to go back to the -- to the big scandal of yesterday. But the president has said things before. He uses words in a different way than most people do. He has said things before that have been wrong, that had been completely reroll the tape, you know. How many times has he said something happened but didn't.

ZELIZER: Sure. That's his style. And he said contradictory things. He said things that aren't true. That's far, though. That partisan firewall has helped and that didn't matter and he did get away with it. But again we are in a different period right now. There's not only questions about Russia, it's not only questions about obstruction. There's a crisis of confidence, I think, that many people feel especially after the sharing of the information with the Russians.

And so all those attributes of President Trump I think now are starting to have a cost and are starting to concern Republicans on Capitol Hill and it will hurt him overseas. Leaders in other countries pay close attention to what's going on domestically. Not only do they not trust him sharing information but they don't believe he can deliver on some kind of deal in the Middle East.

BRIGGS: What all this have in common is more is needed, if it's the story with the Russian Oval Office story, well, then we need transcripts. We need notes of what was said in that conversation. When it comes to Comey, we need the memo that James Comey wrote. Congress needs this. The media does not.

So, Maeve, short of all that, short of getting the tapes that Donald Trump has threatened, the memo that James Comey wrote, or that, lastly, the conversation in the Oval Office. Where does this leave the American public? Where does this leave the president of the United States?

RESTON: Well, I think that there is a lot of open questions here that may, in fact, never be answered. I mean, there may in fact be no tapes. The whole idea of tapes came up out of this mysterious, you know, tweet that Trump put out there without saying one way or another. And Sean Spicer and the rest of the White House has refused to comment on whether there's recording apparatus in the White House.

You know as far as the Comey memos, it may -- they may in fact not get those memos next week. It depends on what the FBI decides, whether, you know, actually the release of the memos could impede the investigation that is underway right now. So we may be looking at many months where you essentially have a he said-he said situation. And -- and no conclusion and again, you know, that's going to come down to the -- the question that Christine just raised which is, how much credibility does this White House have.

ROMANS: Right.

RESTON: And do the people who have stood for so long by Donald Trump, will they be troubled by these new revelations because they do, you know, impact national security and our relationships with our allies, et cetera? Does that change? And do Republicans stand behind him? Because if those two things start to crumble then you're in a completely different situation.

BRIGGS: And because Donald Trump has so muddied the water and so downgraded the definition of truth and been so effective with that fake news notion, you wonder that short of proof of any of these stories, does it just leave us running in circles. But --

ROMANS: All right. A lot to talk about, a lot to chew over the next hour. So thanks, guys, don't move.

Could the revelation of possible Comey memo finally shakes the market? We're going to tell you what's happening to stocks overnight, next.


[03:27:16] ROMANS: All right. Some evidence the latest Trump-Comey revelation may be finally shaking the market confidence. The U.S. dollar and stock futures plummeting overnight on reports the president asked James Comey to end the FBI's probe into his ex-National Security adviser. The dollar index which measures the green basket of rival currencies has hit the lowest level in six months. Down about 1 percent. That erases all of the post-election gains. Right now it's falling particularly hard against the yen.

The latest report is feeding concerns the president's political trouble will doom his economic agenda. The promise of tax cuts and deregulation fuelled just a phenomenal Trump rally and so far stocks have shrugged off Washington's antics and the credibility issues for this presidency. Markets sitting at a near record high, mainly for two reasons. An earnings renaissance. This is the best earnings season since 2011. Companies are making a lot of money and fresh news on tax reform. Top administration officials meet today with House Republicans to talk tax cuts. Could this latest news cause Wall Street to flinch? Maybe.

Right now Dow futures down more 100 points. Global markets have also turned lower as the president gets ready to embark on his first foreign trip as president of the United States.

BRIGGS: All right. A rare bipartisan message from Washington.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Enough is enough. Congress really needs to get to the bottom of this.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA: This daily dose of controversy, of scandal, of instability is bad for the government and I think it's also very taxing on the American people.


BRIGGS: The latest on the president's possible obstruction of the Russia probe and perhaps of justice, next.