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Sources: Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Probe. Aired 5-5:30a ET
Aired May 17, 2017 - 05:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is an early edition of NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, May 17th, 5:00 here in New York.
We begin with breaking news. Another bombshell out of the White House, President Trump asks FBI Director James Comey to drop the FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. This according to a memo written by Comey before he was fired.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The White House issuing a furious denial, but this is now going to be an issue of credibility. Whom will America believe, the president or former director of the FBI? This is the clearest evidence that President Trump tried to directly influence an investigation in the links between his campaign and Russia.
Democrats warning this could be obstruction of justice. This could be grounds for impeachment. So, it comes down to votes and the Republicans.
We have it all covered for you. Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Joe Johns, live in Washington -- Joe.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESONDENT: Good morning, Chris.
Sources telling CNN President Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to end his investigation into the former national security adviser Michael Flynn. If proven true, it's certainly the clearest sign yet that the president attempted to influence the FBI's investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
[05:00:04] This is in many ways a grave turn in the drama surrounding the Trump presidency and a big moment in the investigation.
JOHNS (voice-over): Another bomb shell in 24 hours. The besieged Trump White House now facing accusations of obstruction of justice that could lead to impeachment, at least in theory.
A memo drafted by 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 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.
CNN has not seen the memo. The story was first reported by the "New York Times".
The president told Comey that Flynn did nothing wrong despite the fact that he was fired for lying to the vice president about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Sources tell CNN the encounter happened after a briefing involving Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions who the president asked to leave the room so he could speak privately with Comey.
Comey was reportedly so appalled by the president's comments, he documented the exchange. Just one of a number of memos he wrote out of concern that the president was trying to stop the investigation.
The White House flatly denying the explosive allegations saying the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.
In a tweet last week president Trump threatened or at least warned Comey about potential tapes of their conversations. Recordings Comey hopes exist in order to corroborate his account according to sources. The Oval Office meeting happened just one day after Flynn was fired and two weeks after the president summoned Comey to a dinner at the White House, reportedly asking him to pledge his loyalty. Comey refused. Less than three months later Comey was fired.
The president has openly said Russia was on his mind when he made that decision.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES : When I decided to just do it I said to myself I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.
JOHNS: On Capitol Hill, top congressional leaders stunned at the latest bomb shell and largely silent.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: I think they are shaken and almost shell shocked by this news.
JOHNS: But one Republican, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz, tweeting he is ready to issue a subpoena to obtain Comey's memo if necessary before sending the FBI a formal request to supply all notes and recordings detailing conversations between Comey and Mr. Trump by next Wednesday.
House Speaker Paul Ryan telling reporters he agreed with the move adding: We need to have all the facts.
GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: I saw that Speaker Ryan said some things tonight about getting to the bottom line. Frankly, I think he should -- he should be more aggressive. This is not a time for Republicans to hide.
JOHNS: Democrats on both the Oversight and Judiciary Committees demanding an immediate investigation as a growing number of lawmakers call for Comey to testify publicly as soon as possible. A move sources say the former FBI director supports.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. History is watching.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: If these allegations are true, Senator, are we getting closer and closer to the possibility of yet another impeachment process?
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: I have to say yes because obstruction of justice is a serious offense.
JOHNS: Against this backdrop, the president is preparing for his first trip abroad at the end of the week. No sign those plans are changing. We do expect to hear from the president today. He's delivering a commencement address at the coast guard academy in New London, Connecticut -- Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Joe, thank you very much.
So leaders of both parties want to get their hands on the James Comey memo or memos. Why did Comey take such copious notes?
CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez is live in Washington with more reporting -- Evan.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn.
Well, there are more memos to be revealed according to people close to James Comey, the former FBI director is known to document big moments in his tenure. An associate close to Comey told Pamela Brown that the fired FBI director wrote memos and shared emails with those close to him about major conversations with President Trump, particularly those that left him uneasy. The conversation about Mike Flynn left Comey concern that the president was trying to stop the investigation, according to those people.
Comey also wrote memos about other discussions with the president. Now, Congress has already asked the FBI to turn over any memos and emails that Comey wrote, but with the White House and president now disputing how Comey describes those conversations it's going to be Comey's word versus the president.
Now, one criticism already surfacing is why didn't Comey say something earlier before he was fired? His friend say Comey didn't want to affect the ongoing Russian investigation and he believes he had the issue under control, and he assured that the president's comments did not get back to the agents of conducting the investigation -- Chris and Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Evan, thank you very much.
So, let's discuss all of this major breaking news with CNN political analyst David Drucker, CNN political commentator Errol Louis, and CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
Great to have all of you.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, ma'am.
CAMEROTA: -- obstruction of justice, people are talking about. Where do you think we are this morning?
TOOBIN: Well, we are in a very serious moment. I mean, this is a clear question of obstruction of justice, whether it actually took place or not, we're going to see. But, look, Donald Trump is president of the United States. He -- the Department of Justice and the FBI work for him.
On February 14th, he goes to the FBI director, as we have understood the story, he tells Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions to leave the room and has a one on one with James Comey. First of all, why does he tell them to leave the room, to suggest he something very private and perhaps inappropriate to say. Consciousness of guilt as the lawyers would assert. Then, he says, why don't you just threat go. Let it go.
That means stop the investigation. That is potentially obstruction of justice. Stopping an FBI investigation, that includes Trump himself and his campaign, that's the claim. What do Comey's contemporaneous memos say? And, you know, the big question hovering all of this is, are there, in fact, White House tapes which might --
CAMEROTA: Corroborate --
TOOBIN: -- corroborate or disparage one version or the other.
CUOMO: Although you have to ask, why do you ask people to leave the room if you're taping it anyway? It's going to be recorded.
TOOBIN: You certainly want the tape if it exists.
Errol, there's a whole legal analysis to be done here about obstruction of justice and what was the underlying crime, and all of that. But none of that is relevant, isn't it? This would be a political battle and come down to votes not evidence.
ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's exactly right. And people have to sort of really get over it, especially many of the partisan Democrats. You know, obstruction of justice, I've heard it a million times. Jeffrey just laid out a compelling case for it.
On the other hand, what's your remedy if that's problem. The remedy to deal with the president of the United States, if he has committed this kind of an offense is impeachment.
Impeachment is complicated. Impeachment is political. Impeachment is not just jury trial. It's not like somebody will serve him with papers and he has to go down to the district court. It's a political problem. And no amount of sort of massaging it is going to change that.
So, until and unless the political establishment and by that we mean the Republican majority in Congress starts to develop more information, starts to put more pressure on the White House to come forward with more evidence, starts down that path of holding hearings that then sort of put us on the track to discussing whether or not impeachment is anywhere on the horizon, the White House can, in fact, weather this.
It will be chaotic, it will be noisy, it will be unpleasant, but not as if you sort of say, I think the president might have obstructed justice, now he has to resign. It doesn't work that way at all.
CAMEROTA: David, I mean, look, in a lot of chaotic weeks we had a lot of breaking news here for the past year. But something feels as though perhaps it's shifted in the past 48 hours. What's the feeling in the beltway?
DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So, that's what Republicans are telling me. And, look, Alisyn, as you know, Republicans over these past many months have gotten used to Donald Trump and his crises and the fact that he seems to weathers crises that would fell a normal conventional politician.
But in my inquiring in the past couple of days, what they've been telling me is they fear and they think that possibly this time, things might be different. When you take together the Comey firing and how it was mishandled, this issue with the meeting with the Russians in the Oval Office and sharing intelligence where he shouldn't have, and now this memo from James Comey, they are worried that his could present a level of incompetence to the voters on key national security and foreign policy handling and issues that he could start to lose Republicans and independents that are outside of his loyal base. And then when that starts to happen, you start to see Republicans on capitol hill abandon him and pretty soon the president doesn't have a legislative agenda because nobody on the Hill wants to work with him.
So I think that's what I'm watching for over the next couple of days is, where are Republicans going with this and how much heat do they feel and how concerned are they by the president's leadership, especially as he begins to head overseas?
[05:10:06] CUOMO: So, you have something that is certainly fundamentally shifted. You've gone from words to deeds, saying mean things about Muslims is one thing, right? But now the actions are something that can be assailed in politics in a different way.
This isn't him saying this is a stupid hoax of an investigation. It's him doing something to try to stop it. At the end of the day, how does it work in terms of translating what you did into articles of impeachment? Like what would the GOP have to get behind and how much would it require?
TOOBIN: Well, it's true that this is a political process not a legal process. But it is also an evidence-based process to a certain extent and I think as remarkable as Michael Schmidt's story in "The New York Times" was, Pamela Brown, Jake Tapper's reporting for us at CNN, now it's time for Congress to start looking at evidence. And, obviously, the first place they're going to look is at these Comey memos, which none of us have seen at least in their entirety so far.
That's going to be very important. Are they corroborated in some way? Will Pence and Sessions say yes they were told to leave the room? You know, this is, you know, a serious process of looking at what happened to the extent we can and determining whether Trump's version of this conversation and Comey's version of the conversation is accurate.
Also, we only heard about one conversation between the two of them. Were there more conversations? What else was said? Did anyone else hear it? Just evidence matters.
CAMEROTA: Right. But isn't the evidence complicated? I mean, we learned James Comey was this inveterate note taker and memo writer. But it's still he said/he said. And so, that's it.
CUOMO: Contemporaneous writing is a little different than a straight --
CAMEROTA: But is it? So, if you can prove that he wrote it on February 14th, that memo holds more weight than what the president says happened in that meeting?
TOOBIN: Well, I mean, this is the question of, you know, let's see what they say and let's see how the facts develop. I'm not prepared to say in advance, you know, whose story is more believable. You have to just see what evidence is out there.
But, the process now is unstoppable of getting the evidence. I don't know which congressional committee will do it. I don't know where Comey will testify. At this point, it is undoubtedly true that there will be Comey testimony and these memos will get public.
CUOMO: The decision to do something in the moment is compelling. But you raised the right question, this is going to be about whose believable and that's very soft ground for the president of the United States right now.
CAMEROTA: So, let's talk about how Republican lawmakers are dealing with it. There's an emergency meeting two hours from now. We'll tell you about it next on NEW DAY.
[05:17:O9] CUOMO: News that CNN has confirmed that former FBI director James Comey kept notes about his different communications with the president is really sending shockwaves around Capitol Hill, especially with the Republicans. Remember, all this is still in a political context. The question is, when will enough be enough for the GOP in terms of
what the president does with his words and deeds, for example, here's what Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo from Florida told Don Lemon last night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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. People in this country are talking about politics every day, 24/7 and that is very unhealthy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: All right. Let's bring back the panel. David Drucker, Errol Louis, Jeffrey Toobin.
David Drucker, Curbelo is vulnerable. He's in one of those districts there in south Florida, big Medicaid population, health care was a sensitive thing. He could be primaried, maybe he could deal with a Democrat. So, that's one type of Republican.
What are you hearing from Republicans who are in stronger positions and more fringe positions, who are close to leadership? Is there any kind of momentum of negativity?
DRUCKER: Well, there's definitely, Chris, momentum of negativity. I think the question though what to do about it. As you point out, Curbelo is in a Clinton district and there are 23 Republicans in Clinton districts. Their house majority is only 24 seats. So, that's not significant to see them speaking out, because that's where the majority will be held or lost for Republicans most likely.
I think Republicans are trying assess the situation and figure out what to do here because number one they realize this is serious, number two they are frustrated. They want to focus on deliverables, tax reform, health care reform and things like that. And they feel like the president will not get out of his own way and now he's getting in their way.
And so, this has them concerned about 2018 and just has them concerned about the fact that they might end up squandering an opportunity with full control of government to get a lot of things done that they've been trying to get done for the last 10 or 20 years in some cases.
I thought yesterday, Mitch McConnell's comments we could use less drama from the White House were telling, if you understand Mitch McConnell. He's the Senate majority leader. It sound like a very mild rebuke.
But if you understand Mitch McConnell, he doesn't talk when he doesn't want to and he just doesn't care. And so, when he chooses to speak up and says a couple of times yesterday, cut it out. Coming from him in a public setting, that was actually to me a pretty big deal. So, we'll have to see where this thing goes today. CAMEROTA: So, Errol, less than two hours from now, Congressman Amash
is having this emergency meeting with the House Freedom Caucus to talk about next steps.
[05:20:06] They are motivated because they, frankly, like Mike Pence and they wouldn't mind having President Mike Pence. So, they want to talk about -- I mean, what Amash said reportedly last night, they also had an emergency meeting, staff meeting. And he reportedly told a staffer was told who reported to us, that this is textbook obstruction of justice.
Let me also just play for you John Kasich at CNN town hall last night where he was pressing Speaker Paul Ryan to do more. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: I saw that 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 and hopefully he will
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: We're about to see Republicans speak out more.
LOUIS: We'll certainly see them consolidate a position. That might involve speaking. That might involve hiding, frankly, because, you know, one of the dynamics going on here you got the president who is very popular with the Republican base and until that popularity falls off a cliff, all of the popularity is one number. The popularity among the Republican base is the other. That's the one that really matters I think for the House majority, especially members of the Freedom Caucus, who are largely in safe Republican seats.
Until the president looks like he's kind of on the outs with their constituents, I think they're gong to sort of stay in place. We should also keep in mind despite that sort of delicious kind of intrigue that you sort of hinted at, the notion that like, let's get rid of Trump because we like Pence better as president, I think there are a number of different outcomes short of that that could help get die-hard conservatives of the freedom caucus more of what they want.
There's been all of this talk about a reshuffle of the White House. Well, you got a vice president who has, in my memory, sort of unprecedented access to the Oval Office, to the day-to-day workings of the government. If they do some kind of reshuffle that puts more power, more control of the government in Pence's hands, they might get what they want.
CUOMO: Also, Pence keeps on being put in a position where he comes out with earnest visage and says things that are either probably false or just foolish after we see what the president decides to do thereafter. So, he's not exactly in the strongest position.
But isn't this political, not legally, because they say textbook case of obstruction of justice. It's about whether or not they want to vote on it and whether it bothers them enough to vote on it. They have cover if they want it. OK, so he told Flynn, he told Comey be nice. Flynn is a good guy.
You can see your way to it that would being a great. If I want political cover on it, I can say, well, that's not corrupt influence. I mean, Comey didn't say in his memo I think he's trying obstruct this. He just wrote it down. He writes a lot of things down.
TOOBIN: Well, we'll see what he said. We'll see what he said in his memo. But, you know, we are so far beyond the moment where this is just a communications problem.
You know, remember, at the beginning of the week, people were saying will he fire Sean Spicer or not? I mean, who cares? That's not relevant to today. What's relevant today is what the evidence is going to show and whether the Republicans continue to line up behind Trump or not.
But, you know, this idea that you can have a White House shuffle, that you can put new players in space and that will correct the problem. We are well --
CUOMO: Because this all keeps coming from one place. These are self- inflicted wounds by the president what he decides to say and how he acts on it. But you're making an important point about proof. Let's talk about that.
Let's take a break and then we'll after the break, we'll talk about the legalities involved here. What would be the right standard of proof? Is it a clear cut case of obstruction of justice in this political context? Remember, nobody has gone before a judge.
[05:28:12] CAMEROTA: There was one meeting and two different versions of what happened at it. Sources tell CNN the former FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo afterwards saying President Trump had asked him to end their investigation into Michael Flynn. The White House flatly denies that account.
If it's true, does it mount to obstruction of justice?
Let's discuss this with former U.S. Attorney Michael Moore, and retired FBI chief of staff and special agent James A. Gagliano.
Great to have you both here.
James, I want to start with you. You had a professional interaction with James Comey often, I mean, weekly, even if by telephone, for instance. Do you believe that his account of a meeting can be trusted?
JAMES A. GAGLIANO, RETIRED FBI CHIEF OF STAFF: Absolutely. I mean, if you contrast him with the president, James Comey's word and ethics are unimpeachable. A couple of things to unpack first. It's not out of the realm of possibility that FBI directors take notes going back to J. Edgar Hoover, served under eight presidents, from Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon, he hand-wrote notes or dictated them to his personal secretary, Helen Gandy. She typed them up and put them into the notorious file cabinet.
Today, we don't do things that way. What would happen the director would have gone back to his office, written down some notes which can be subpoenaed. They go into a 1A envelope, which is where our evidentiary notes go and he would basically written up an electronic communication. Those things get attached to a file and they can be subpoenaed.
CUOMO: So, you don't see this as a dear diary moment. You're saying that this wasn't something he secreted away for a rainy day. This is something that's pro forma and Comey was known for this?
GAGLIANO: Absolutely. Not Director Comey's first rodeo. I mean, going all the way back as far 2004 when the infamous, you know, bedside showdown with John Ashcroft and, obviously, Andy Card from the White House, the director has been known in his professional life to take copious notes and to file those away.
CAMEROTA: So, Michael, what's the process whereby we get to see these notes?