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Sources: Comey Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Probe; Trump Shared Confidential Info with Russians; NYT: Trump Told Comey Reporters Should Be Jailed. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired May 17, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[03:58:30] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Dave Briggs. It's Wednesday, May 17th. 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 say 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 officials. 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.

White House with all hands on deck fighting back despite its own compromise credibility.

Senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns starts our coverage from Washington.

Good morning to you, Joe.


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.

[04:00:08] Now, here's the importance of it. If this latest allegation is proven true, it's a clearest sign yet that President Trump attempted to exert command influence on the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. So, this is already being described as a grave turn in the drama surrounding the Trump presidency, raising questions of attempted obstruction of justice which in turn is raising questions whether the case is reaching the level in what could be described as high crimes and misdemeanor, and that is a constitutional standard for impeachment of a U.S. president.

Now, this memo drafted by the now fired FBI Director James Comey details President Trump asking him to shut down the Michael Flynn investigation during a February meeting in the Oval Office, saying here's the quote, we haven't seen this memo yet, we have to say. But here's the 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.

This story, of course, first reported by "New York Times". The president told Comey that Flynn did nothing wrong, we're told despite the fact that he was fired for lying to the vice president about his conversations with Russian ambassador.

Sources tell CNN this encounter happened after a briefing involving Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions who the president asked to leave the room, according to sources, so that he could speak privately with Comey.

Comey was reportedly so concerned by the president's comments that he documented the exchange in just one of a number of memos he wrote out of concern. The president was trying to stop the investigation.

The White House for its part has flatly denied these allegations, saying the president never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end the investigation. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.

Now, we do know a lot of background here. In a tweet last week, the president threatened Comey or at least warned him about potential tapes of their conversations, recordings. Comey has actually said he hopes exists in order to corroborate his account of what happened.

So, a lot going on here in Washington this morning. And we'll just have to see what the day brings.

ROMANS: Joe, this FBI director, former FBI director has a history of writing memos, you know? He has a long history of putting things down for the record. Do we have any indication of when we will hear from James Comey if he is looking forward to or planning to -- you know, if invited if he'll speak to Congress or in a speech or to the media?

JONES: Well, he sent signals he's interested in testifying, but the question is under what circumstances. And suggestion has been that the former FBI director would very much like to do any testimony in public and in an open forum.

And you're certainly right about him writing down memos. I've covered Mr. Comey for a number of years, and it is his habit as is any good prosecutor and good lawyer to the memorialize information, because if you don't write it down, if there's not a record of it, essentially, it didn't happen. Very common for lawyers to do that, especially people dealing with criminal cases.

So, not surprising that he did this. And there's probably a number of other memos that a lot of us certainly in Washington, D.C. would be very interested to see.

ROMANS: All right. Joe Johns for us in Washington, another busy day ahead for you, sir, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

BRIGGS: Let's bring in our panel. CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer, historian and professor at Princeton, CNN political analyst, David Drucker, senior congressional correspondent for "The Washington Examiner", and Michael Moore, former U.S. attorney for the middle district of Georgia.

Good morning to all of you. Thank you for being here.

David Drucker, let me start with you.

John McCain said last night, quote, this is reaching Watergate size and scale. Is he correct?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we're going to have to find out what happens today at 5:00 after Monday and Tuesday. You never know where this thing leads.

Look, I think what threw a lot of people for a loop here in D.C., all kidding aside, is that we have the revelation of a memo that Comey prepared. What anybody thinks about Comey, that he's a grandstander or didn't get the Clinton investigation correct, nobody ever questioned his honesty. In some ways, he was criticized for being too honest, and too public about his honesty.

[04:05:03] And so, these revelations are very problematic for the administration because even Republicans on Capitol Hill that I was talking to yesterday, they don't want to beat up on the administration. They don't know if it would help them to beat up on the administration. But a lot of them are starting to think they don't have a choice.

And what I would say for the president his major problem is that the story is believable. And it gets to his credibility on issues like this where, you know, with a lot of presidents we expect them at times to skirt the rules, or to walk a fine line, but there are just things we wouldn't expect from them and we sort of do a double take and really research things before we move forward, and we should do that here. But with this president given his behavior over the past four months, this sounds like could it have happened.

ROMANS: Michael Moore, the legality of this? Where does just not managing your message, not managing your brand, not being ready or fit to be president where does that end and obstruction of justice begins here? MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, MIDDLE DIST. OF GEORGIA: Well,

in most criminal cases, Christine, you look to see whether or not there's criminal intent. And the statute for obstruction that we keep talking about actually calls for a corrupt intent, and in this case, I would suggest that that means his actions to kill off the Flynn investigation. Ultimately that's a decision that has to be made whether it'd be in a court or in Congress in impeachment proceedings.

But remember that it's unlikely that the president and scholars debate this, but it's unlikely the president could be indicted while he's in office. So, we really may be talking more about, if it goes to an impeachment hearing, the Congress, the House of Representatives would make their minds on whether or not there was evidence here to support an obstruction case --

BRIGGS: Michael, let me -- let me ask you, did James Comey do the right thing? Many are asking this morning why he didn't immediately go to Congress?

MOORE: I think he did the right thing. There's nothing unusual what he did. He documented contemporaneously with the act. He made a memo of it. He papered the file. That's what prosecutors or good investigators. So, there's nothing unusual about that. And I think he also protected the investigation. It allowed him to continue with the investigation without blowing the lid off of it over something he felt like at the time he could control and protect himself and the bureau and the investigation by way of the memo.

BRIGGS: That's an important distinction.

ROMANS: Yes, it really is.

Julian, what about Republicans, the response from Republicans here in Congress? You know, they -- the president really kind of had the perfect mix when he came in, right? He won the presidency. He had both chambers, you know? He had a really good, all the ingredients for success.

Now, it will be up to the Republicans to decide what happens here next, won't they?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Those rare moments when you have unified government are terrific for a political party because you get lots of legislation, you change the agenda. None of that has happened.

And so, the question is do the Republicans who still control both chambers and in the House, they are very conservative Republicans, will they open up a more thorough investigation and will they move somewhere towards considering impeachment? We don't know that yet.

What we do know is that between the release of the classified information to the Russians and this Comey memo that is being circulated and discussed, more Republicans are saying something is wrong and something needs done. And that's the first break in the Republican fire wall that I've at least seen in the first 100 days plus.

ROMANS: All right. Don't go away, everybody. We're going to talk about that release of information to the Russians after this break.

BRIGGS: And we haven't even talked about the president asking James Comey to jail reporters that publish leaks.

ROMANS: Right.

BRIGGS: A lot to get to today. President Trump also defending his sharing of classified information with the Russians. Now, the fallout growing ahead of the president's first international trip. We'll discuss, next.


[04:13:07] BRIGGS: Welcome back to EARLY START.

Before we learned President Trump asked James Comey to drop the Michael Flynn investigation, the White House was already dealing with 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, U.S. officials warned the 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.

BRIGGS: Now, some U.S. allies appeared to be reassessing their intelligence sharing policies with the United States. All this will no doubt impact the president's upcoming foreign trip overseas, which includes a stop in Israel.

Let's bring back our panel, Julian Zelizer, David Drucker and Michael Moore.

Let's start with H.R. McMaster's explanation of what the president relayed to the Russians in the Oval Office. Here he is.


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's wholly appropriate. He made a decision in the context of the conversation which was wholly appropriate.


BRIGGS: Michael Moore, was it wholly appropriate what the president ad libbed to share with the Russians in the Oval Office?

MOORE: Well, I would say no. I'll give you this caveat, though. The president is allowed under the law to declassify information he or she deems appropriate. The problem here is that I think the president was shooting off the cuff and may have very well put some of our allies, or other intelligence sources at risk.

So, from that angle I will tell no. And I feel a little bit sorry for H.R. McMaster out there. I think he's had a long and distinguished career and he's basically put out front to explain why the president couldn't control his mouth in a meeting that shouldn't have happened in the first place.

[04:15:01] ROMANS: David Drucker, what's your read on that? You know, McMaster trying be the grown-up and show there's a national security apparatus around this president, getting ready for this big trip, but they just keep getting knocked off message by the commander- in-chief himself.

DRUCKER: Right. No matter how good your team is and the president has, to his credit put together a very good, very highly qualified national security team in place, if the guy at the top doesn't want to take direction, then it doesn't matter how good your team is.

Look, I thought was interesting about McMaster's explanation it was subjective. He said over and over again what the president did was wholly appropriate. And went on to describe it in other ways but didn't debunk the stories about revealing classified intelligence inappropriately per our relationship with the source.

And nothing that McMaster said actually had anything to do with that. It was more or less that the president made a decision he wanted to discuss this and so he did. It's legal and the president can choose to make those determinations. But it didn't do anything to undermine the story.

And, look, if you're an ally of the United States and you're providing intelligence and you don't expect the intelligence to be revealed, especially to a U.S. adversary, then the whole thing is problematic and the reason we were able to find out about this is because it wasn't contained within the Oval Office. They went after the fact, the administration did in trying to do clean up duty. So, they knew it was a problem.

I think the issue for the president is whether or not he understands these things and it sort of gets us back to the point I was making with the issue of the Comey memo. When we first started hearing what the president discussed with the Russians, nobody really looked at themselves in the mirror and said this can't be true because this president would know better and wouldn't do something like that. This is a president who for better or worse, and it worked for him on the campaign trail with a lot of voters who were disgusted with Washington and felt like all the smart experts let them down, who decided that he didn't need to do all of the prep that most candidates do.

ROMANS: Right.

DRUCKER: So, he literally is learning on the job, not just because he's a first time politician not been elected to anything before, but because he didn't do any of the prep that might have put himself in a better position to handle these situations.

BRIGGS: And it was interesting. Right at the tail of that H.R. McMaster press conference, he left the reporters with their jaws dropped the president didn't know the source of this information, which shocked everybody in that White House press corps.

But, Julian, let me ask you as we turn towards the president's first trip abroad. You say there's some historical perspective on presidents going abroad in the midst of scandal. What is that and how might all of this impact this very trip?

ZELIZER: Sure. The best comparison is when Richard Nixon went to the Middle East in June of 1974 at the height of the Watergate investigation, also trying to broker some kind of peace agreement, do something dramatic to take attention away from what's going on here in the United States. But that's almost impossible to do.

So, presidents sometimes try to do this. They try to distract or move the conversation to something bold or something bigger, but it's very hard when back in the United States, the story is corruption, incompetence, all of this swirling around in a potent mix.

ROMANS: Even as Michael Moore pointed out, the idea that maybe you're going to be taped if you're having a heart to heart with President Trump. You don't know. I mean, he drops these hints or warnings. It's remarkable.

Everybody, sit tight. We want to talk a little bit about the president making no secret of his disdain for leakers and his suggestion to James Comey about how to handle it, throwing journalists in jail. Brian Stelter is coming and join the conversation, next.


[04:23:01] BRIGGS: As we've been reporting, James Comey memo says the president asked Comey to end the Michael Flynn investigation.

ROMANS: "New York Times" reports the president began that discussion with Comey by condemning media leaks and saying the FBI should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.

When we start talking about reporters going to jail, we like to bring in Bob Stelter. He's the senior media correspondent and the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES".

I want to read exactly what was in this "New York Times" piece. Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information according to one of Mr. Comey's associates. That's remarkable.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Obviously, press freedom groups already alarmed by this, saying the comment like this from the president crosses a dangerous line. I mean, I think it's noteworthy, Dave and Christine, that the White House has not commented, in other words, not refuted, not denied this aspect of the "New York Times" story. There's been no push back denying the president said this.

So, if he is, in fact, in private conversations saying let's lock up the journalists for publishing this sensitive information, some of these leaks coming out of the White House, it goes to show the president's mindset, his mood, how angry and paranoid he is about the leaks coming out of his own administration.

BRIGGS: These are tactics we've from strong man authoritarian, Erdogan who is in town, as this story breaks. But --

STELTER: Turkey is one of the world's leading jailers of journalists now, by the way. Not exactly any country should be proud of.

BRIGGS: He stood side by side with Erdogan yesterday. So, the last eight days dizzying, to say the least in D.C.

How is the conservative media handing the last eight days and last 24 hours?

STELTER: There are situations where I think pro-Trump commentators don't know how to react to some of these stories. They are silenced at first and then strange denials or deflection. We've seen at least from some from the conservative media some notable reaction in the last day or two, this one-two punch in "The Washington Post," "New York Times" that left the White House reeling.

[04:25:07] Here's a "Wall Street Journal" op-ed I think is gong to get a lot of attention this morning in this morning's newspaper, "The Wall Street Journal", a conservative-leaning editorial board, saying in part: Mr. Trump needs to appreciate how close he is to losing the Republicans he needs to pass his agenda. That will determine if he's successful.

The op-ed went on to say, millions of Americans recognize Mr. Trump's flaws but decided he was a risk worth taking.

So, it went on to say essentially, guys, loose lips sink presidencies. I mean, a pretty bold statement from "The Journal" editorial page.

ROMANS: You can see how if you're a Trump supporter that these leaks from intelligence community, the president has been at war with for some time, you know put out there, then, by a media that's against the president too. I mean, he can spin it in his populist way that he won the election that way.


STELTER: Deep state, liberal media, right.

Well, two things on that. Number one I was surprised by Erick Erickson's column on Tuesday. Erickson is a conservative pundit, well-represented in GOP circles. He said I know one of the sources about the story about Russians in the Oval Office. I know one of the sources. This person is a Trump supporter who is deeply concerned about what's going on and trying to help the president.

So, it's not just anti-Trump sources, not just Obama officials who are leaking information to the press. It's people that are trying to blow the whistle, maybe trying to help this administration, number one.

Number, two it's unusually quiet as you just alluded to. The silence from the White House, from Trump and his aides has really been deafening the past 11 hours. The story came out in the "New York Times," we heard almost nothing from the White House. Not the usual spin. Not the usual pushback. Maybe that's because the lawyers are advising the president not to comment. Maybe for once he put the phone down and decided not to tweet. We'll see if that changes later today.

BRIGGS: The president has put a lot of this blame according to reports on his communications office, oddly enough. Beware, watch Twitter, let's see how quickly we get a 140-character response from the White House.

ROMANS: Brian Stelter, thanks, Brian.

BRIGGS: Thanks, Brian.

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


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Enough is enough. Congress 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.


ROMANS: The very latest on the president's possible obstruction of that Russian probe. That's next.