Return to Transcripts main page

EARLY START

Trump Asked Comey to Drop Flynn Investigation. Aired 3:30-4a ET

Aired May 17, 2017 - 03:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[03:32:04] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Watching the Clinton impeachment I thought I'd never see another one. But I think we're in impeachment territory for the first time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The White House reaching new levels of damage control. Did this president obstruct justice by asking James Comey to forget the investigation when Comey was head of the FBI.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Dave Briggs. Another dizzying day in the nation's capital. We welcome all of our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

Another big threat to the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the matters said the president asked James Comey to end the FBI investigation into former National Security adviser Michael Flynn. It's the clearest sign yet President Trump tried to pressure the Justice Department over the Russia investigation. Our sources say Comey was 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.

ROMANS: In this memo first reported by the "New York Times," Comey says Trump told him, quote, "I hope you can see 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.

BRIGGS: The blockbuster developments triggering immediate alarm on Capitol Hill with 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.

ROMANS: 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 here.

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 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 glooming sounding official did not even try to spin the controversy telling me, quote, "I just don't know what to say on this one. The 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 spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan saying in a statement that Comey's memo should be turned over to Congress -- Dave and Christine.

BRIGGS: All right. Thank you, Jim.

One big focus now. How many Republicans remain in the president's corner and for how long? There are growing calls for the GOP leadership to take a stand. Listen to Ohio Governor John Kasich in a CNN town hall last night talking about how Speaker Paul Ryan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[03:35:06] GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: Speaker Ryan said some things tonight about getting to the bottom line. Frankly, I think he should -- he should be more aggressive. I think he should speak out more. This is not a time for Republicans to hide. And I also don't think it's a time for Democrats to exploit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: A spokesperson for Paul Ryan had earlier released a statement calling it appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request the Comey memo from the FBI.

Let's bring back our CNN political analyst, Julian Zelizer, historian and professor at Princeton University, CNN national political reporter Maeve Reston, and Michael More, a former U.S. attorney for the middle district of Virginia.

So nice to see you all here today, 35 minutes past the hour.

Michael Moore, I'll ask you first. What is the difference -- what makes something not just gross incompetence but actual obstruction of justice. Where is the line there?

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA: Well, when you look at any criminal act you try to see, was there some type of criminal intent, and that's usually the difference between just a negligent act and whether or not somebody has committed a crime. So, you know, and I think that's why the obstruction statute that we keep talking about talks about a corrupt intent.

And generally what I think what they would be looking for is what did he do to try to thwart the investigation, and in this case he essentially went to a subordinate and leaned on him, and leaned on him as the commander-in-chief and the president of the United States, he leaned on the FBI director and said, hey, can't you make this go away, basically? So that will be the question.

Now remember that it's unlikely that a sitting president is going to be indicted. That's been a debate for some time. But, you know, the chances of that, I think, are slim. I mean there can be scholars' debate on the law but impeachment is another matter. And elsewhere these definitions didn't matter in the House of Representatives if they bring Articles of Impeachment. So there really are two different standards going on and two different arenas where this thing can play out.

ROMANS: Can I just say it's remarkable having this conversation? I mean, we're having -- this is an actual conversation about the 45th president of the United States.

BRIGGS: It is hard to believe. The "Washington Post," Maeve, writes this morning the country needs to hear from James Comey. Quote, "More than a generation has passed since the country so badly required an aggressive independent investigation into White House behavior. Tuesday's news only raises more questions. The country needs to hear from Mr. Comey, see his memos and hear White House tapes to the conversations if they exist."

President Trump did hint at the existence of some sort of tapes. Short of hearing those tapes, short of seeing a Mr. Comey memo, what does Congress do here? What should they do this morning?

MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, they are -- you know, they are requesting all these information, you know, the Chaffetz letter, which you all referenced earlier, asks for, you know, all Comey memos, and says that, you know, any material should be turned over essentially. That would be helpful in getting to the bottom of this. So I think that, you know, you are seeing not just Republicans calling for this information, but -- but not just Democrats but Republicans as well now.

And I think that -- that for Congress the question is going to be how far they want to go with this. Obviously Republicans have control here and we're going to have to see, you know, how much of an outcry there is around the country about this and whether or not, you know, this turns into something major that the administration has to deal with over the coming months or, you know, if people are willing to accept the White House explanation thus far. ROMANS: Julian, the credibility of this White House, I mean, how does

it get control of the message from here? Or is it -- is it just out of its hands at this point?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They won't get control of the message. This is not a president who controls his message, nor will he work with his own subordinates to control the message. So I think Republicans have to accept this is what they're going to work with. Contradictions, tensions playing out in the public and that's the judgment they're trying to make. Can we withstand this? Should we withstand this or do we need some kind of investigation from Congress or in a special prosecutor to counter act this?

BRIGGS: Right.

ROMANS: What about the cover -- I want to ask you just quickly about the public because he has an adoring fan base. Do they look at this and see a hysterical media feeding off of unnamed sources and it's all part of the narrative that brought him to the White House?

ZELIZER: They do and that's what I think we'll see in the polls in the next few weeks. They'll be more frustrated with the investigator rather than the person being investigated. And again that's what of what he's always counted on. But the Republican Party is broader than his base and I think that's what people are looking at. So far the rest of the Republican Party has joined the president, but some of what's happened in the last few hours or the last few days I think the happened in the last few hours or the last few days I think the sharing of this memo, not simply these memo. I think the sharing of intelligence --

ROMANS: Yes.

[03:40:05] ZELIZER: Classified intelligence in an ad hoc basis really shook some Republicans on the Hill. And that's where that base might not be enough to protect him from an investigation anymore.

BRIGGS: This is the ad hoc presidency. That's what we're seeing here.

But Michael, let me ask you. When it came to the firing of James Comey, the president says, and he's right, I can fire whomever I want whenever I want. When it came to disclosing potential classified information to the Russians, he said, I can de-classify whatever I want. He's right on that account. When it comes to this memo, asking Mr. Comey, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go." What would be his cover on this one?

MOORE: I don't know that he's got cover on that one. I guess he could say that Comey didn't hear him right or he didn't ask the question that way or give the direction that way, but you know there -- we think about statements like that or the memo and we give more credibility to statements that are written contemporaneously with an act. So for instance, if you have an act in a car wreck somewhere and somebody writes down what happens, the two ran the red line, that makes more sense. And we'd allow it more if they wrote it right there as opposed to two years later when the case actually gone to trial.

So here you've got a memo written by Comey supposedly right at the time that this conversation took place. He was worried about it then he shared it with his colleagues back at headquarters so I think that's going to be given a great deal of reliability and it bolsters his description of what happened. It supports it, it corroborates it. So you just can't, if you're the president, and you're subject of an investigation or at least your campaign or people associated with you, you can't come in and tell the FBI director, hey, back on off. I sure do hope you'll let this go, sort of wink-wink, nod-nod. That doesn't cut it and I just don't know that he's got cover on that part.

ROMANS: All right.

RESTON: And I think to that -- to that point, I mean, just quickly, I think that the question here, the only explanation that the administration potentially could have is that, you know, Trump didn't realize the import of the words that he was saying or, you know, that he didn't -- it didn't grasp the significance of that and that's not a good explanation either. I mean, the fact that you have a president who clearly may not sort of understand the parameters of the job and what the limits of his power are, that is something that is scary to a lot of people in Washington.

ZELIZER: That's even more troubling in some ways if that's the response.

ROMANS: Yes.

ZELIZER: Because then you have a president who's out of control.

ROMANS: Right.

ZELIZER: So either way you don't have a good answer for the GOP.

BRIGGS: And we await that response through the form of 140 characters this morning as we have the last eight days.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks, everybody. Don't go away. A lot more to talk about.

BRIGGS: All of this a distraction, albeit not a welcomed one after the president shared classified intel with Russia. Turns out the intel was from Israel. So how will the leak impact the president's trip there in just a few moments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[03:46:48] SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), SENATE MAJORITY: I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: That of course Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell 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 in the Oval Office. We've since learned Israel was the source of some of the ISIS bomb-making information that the president revealed to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

ROMANS: And 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.

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

Let's bring back our panel, Julian Zelizer, Maeve Reston and Michael Moore.

Maeve, how will this impact the president's trip abroad?

RESTON: Well, I think that it's just raised so many questions about not only his competence, but what he gets briefed on every day. You remember during the campaign there was a discussion where Trump said that he didn't need to have these intelligence briefings every day because he's a smart guy and, you know, he would grasp the concepts, but this past week has raised a lot of questions about that and whether he's focused on the right things, there was -- you know, it certainly has been reporting and our sources have told us that, you know, Trump wants everything boiled down to one page or in some cases a series of bullet points and in this case it's really raised questions about whether or not he understands the -- you know, the nature of the information that he's sharing when he meets with people.

So I think that that's going to be something that he's going to have to explain on this trip. It's obviously an embarrassing thing to have happen before he leaves.

ROMANS: Right.

RESTON: And, you know, it's also just -- just not what the White House wanted to be talking about as they looked forward to this trip where he's going to be, you know, honoring the three great religions of the world.

ROMANS: Right.

RESTON: And, you know, going to the Western Wall and all of these other things that he's going to be doing.

ROMANS: Well, yesterday -- we heard from the National Security adviser yesterday who laid out the parameters for that trip, again, before this "New York Times" blockbuster report came out but the laying out the premise for this trip and telling reporters again that the president did nothing wrong in that meeting with the Russians. I want to listen to H.R. McMaster here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: What the president discussed with the Foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation. He shares information in a way that is wholly appropriate. He made the decision in the context of the conversation, which was wholly appropriate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: I think there were seven or eight times, Michael Moore, I counted the phrase "wholly appropriate." Maybe even more. That is the message from the White House. Does it make it true?

MOORE: No, it doesn't make it true.

[03:50:02] I mean, while the president can declassify information, the fact that he was careless about it, and may have put our allies or our intelligence source in jeopardy is another matter. But I want you to think for a second how unbelievable this is. If the president had not said one word, we had the Russian leadership in the Oval Office, the most powerful office in the world, and let them take propaganda pictures inside the White House and the Oval Office. That's what we did. And it's unbelievable to me that that happened. And that either is sheer in confidence or somebody trying to curry favor with the Russians and even one of those is a terrible thing and sends a terrible message to our allies.

BRIGGS: Julian, Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher tweeted, "Regardless of what was shared in the meeting, it's dangerous to believe that Russia can be a reliable counterterrorism partner." Republican congress. Does he have a point?

ZELIZER: Well, sure. And many Republicans have agreed with that all along. Republicans have been the most hawkish on Russia in general. So this has always been a clash with the administration, this effort to either appease or work with the Russian government. And many Republicans don't buy what McMaster said. And it's not whether it's appropriate or legal. It's was that the right thing to do and many agree, many experts on both sides of the aisle, that is dangerous and costly to simply share information off the cuff.

ROMANS: Julian, he's on the verge of growing on this big major trip. They've been working on this for several days.

ZELIZER: Yes.

ROMANS: He's had several days of like no public event, the president did, because he was preparing for this trip. What is the reception going to be like, do you think, from world leaders to this president?

ZELIZER: It will be angry, it will be nervous, it will be distrustful. I think leaders in all the different areas that he's going to right now especially the Israel whose intelligence has just been shared, which again, can be costly, not simply in terms of the intelligence but in terms of human lives. Don't trust him and they won't believe that when he comes back here he can deliver any kind of a deal. So he goes as a weakened president. Just as Richard Nixon went to the Middle East in June of 1974 at the height of the Watergate impeachment, the first sitting president to go to the Israel right in the middle of this.

MOORE: Let me -- let me jump in, if I could for a second. Let me throw this at to you. So he meets with these world leaders, he's given an impression now that he secretly records his meetings with his Cabinet officials and other people on the administration. So imagine these world leaders who are thinking about coming and having a heart- to-heart or face-to-face meeting with the president of the United States wondering, now, if after that hearing he'll whip out a tape recorder or threaten to use it against them later should something not go his way. So all of those things were in play as he goes overseas.

ROMANS: All right, guys. Don't move. We have a lot to talk about this morning. It's 52 minutes past the hour. We're going to go back to all this in a moment, but first, some really good news for retail. One big name isn't losing sales to Amazon. We'll tell you who it is on CNN's Money Stream.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[03:56:26] ROMANS: All right. Let's get a check on money this morning. Is the latest Trump-Comey revelation shaking markets? The U.S. dollar and stock futures down overnight on these 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 back against a basket of rival currencies, it hit the lowest level in six months tumbling nearly 1 percent. That erases all 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, the promise of deregulation has fuelled a Trump rally and has really emboldened companies. So far stocks have shrugged off Washington's antics, markets are at or near-record highs, mainly for two reasons. An earnings renaissance. The best earnings season since 2011. And fresh hope and fresh news on tax reform. Top administration officials meet today with House Republicans to talk taxes. But could this latest news cause Wall Street to flinch? Maybe. Right now Dow futures down more 100 points. Global markets have also turned lower.

Want to tell you about that big retailer that isn't feeling the Amazon slump. Home Depot, unlike most brick and mortar stories the home improvement chain sales grew in the first couple of months of the year. Why? A surprisingly strong housing market. Home prices are up. Prospective sellers often do improvements before hitting the market and contractors don't buy a lumber or concrete online. They go to Home Depot apparently. Home Depot is not ignoring the online marketplace. Its digital sales rose 23 percent in the first quarter.

BRIGGS: All right. So much to get to in the nation's capital. Another extraordinary day in D.C. as EARLY START continues right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Another extraordinary day for this 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.

Thanks for joining us. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: And I'm Dave Briggs. It is Wednesday, May 17th. And another dizzying day in D.C. 4:00 in the morning out East. We welcome all of our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

And the clearest sign yet President Trump trying to pressure the Justice Department over the Russia investigation. Sources familiar with the matter said the president asked James Comey to end the FBI investigation into former National Security adviser Michael Flynn.

ROMANS: The sources say Comey was so concerned, so appalled, he documented the president's request a short time later and shared it with senior FBI official. The blockbuster developments triggering immediate alarm on Capitol Hill.

BRIGGS: Even Republicans expressing extreme concern. 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.

Senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns starts our coverage from Washington.

Good morning to you, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, guys. Sources telling CNN that President Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to end his investigation into the administration's first National Security adviser Michael Flynn who was fired.