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Sources: Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End the Flynn Probe; White House Denies Wrongdoing; Are Republicans at Breaking Point with the President? Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired May 17, 2017 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:58:12] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Wednesday, May 17, 6 a.m. here in New York. And we do start with breaking news.

A memo written by former FBI director James Comey says that President Trump pressed him to stop the investigation of former adviser Michael Flynn.

Now Democrats are saying if true, this may raise the specter of impeachment.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: The White House denies any wrongdoing, but already, questions are starting about obstruction of justice. Congress is ready to subpoena the FBI for any of those memos of conversations between James Comey and the president. The big question, of course, who will Americans believe? The president or James Comey?

We have it all covered for you, so let's go first to CNN's Joe Johns. He is live at the White House. What's the latest there, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, sources tell CNN the president of the United States asked the former FBI director to end his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The White House denies it.

But if this is true, it marks a very dark moment in the investigation into coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.


JOHNS (voice-over): Another bombshell 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 a 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 (R), 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 bombshell and largely silent.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: I think they are shaken and 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-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. History is watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: If these allegations, Senator, are true, are we getting closer and closer to the possibility of yet another impeachment process?

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Reluctantly, Wolf, I have to say yes simply because obstruction of justice is such a serious offense.


JOHNS: This crisis comes after the White House spent Tuesday trying to clean up the fallout from another damaging disclosure that the president shared highly-classified information with top Russian officials in a meeting in the Oval Office.

CNN has been told that information came from Israeli intelligence. The president is expected to visit both Jerusalem and Bethlehem as part of his nine-day international tour starting on Friday. Sets up the possibility of more drama while the president and his top aides are on the road.

Chris and Alisyn, back to you.

CAMEROTA: Joe, thank you very much.

So members on both sides of the aisle want to see James Comey's memo. Even if a subpoena is needed. CNN's justice correspondent Evan Perez has that reporting for us. He is live in Washington with more. What have you learned, Evan?


The potential bad news here for the president is 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 director wrote memos and shared e-mails with those close to him about major conversations that he had with President Trump. Particularly those that he felt left him uneasy.

The conversation about Michael Flynn left Comey concerned that the president was trying to stop the investigation. Comey also wrote memos after other discussions with the president. Congress has already asked the FBI to turn over any memos and e-mails that Comey may have written.

The FBI -- the White House and the president, however, are disputing how Comey described the conversation. And so it's going to be Comey's word versus the president's. One criticism already surfacing from critics of James Comey is why didn't he say something earlier before he was fired? His friends say that Comey didn't want to affect the ongoing Russia investigation, and he believed he has the issue under control.

Now Chris and Alisyn, he insured that the president's comments did not get back to agents conducting this investigation.

[06:05:03] CUOMO: All right, Evan, appreciate it. Thank you very much. We'll check back with you in a little bit.

Let's bring in the panel. CNN political analyst David Gregory; CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin; and reporter and editor at large for CNN Politics, Chris Cillizza.

David Gregory, where are we in terms of the level of gravity of crisis?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: We're in the deep end of the pool, as far as I can tell. This is a very serious situation at this stage of the presidency.

For me, I think this is a time of reckoning for Republicans in Congress. They have to make a decision to what extent they are going to rein the president in, to what extent they are actually going to investigate what it is he's been up to with regard to the Russia investigation and why and how he has allowed his self-destructive insecure personality to sabotage the early part of his presidency.

What he is doing is showing open contempt and reckless disregard for the institutions of our country. That is what is at the heart of his dealings with Jim Comey. And that has to be dealt with.

There's another aspect, too, which is somehow, President Trump, whose vast experience involves real estate and building golf courses and hotels, thought he could come to Washington and pick a street fight with the FBI. And he's learning that, actually, he can't do that, because people take notes. They write memos. And, you know, then "The Empire Strikes Back." And that's what we're saying here.

CAMEROTA: You know, I think that you're onto something. And Chris, I want you to build on that if you can. You know, President Trump was going to do things differently. The same rules didn't apply. Obviously, his supporters liked that very much. He was going to be able to break through the Washington bureaucracy.

And so he possibly thought that he could go to the director of the FBI and just make his wishes known. But there are still rules that apply, and they have serious consequences.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: That is right, Alisyn. Remember, the campaign that he ran was effectively -- campaigns are not governed by a lot of laws in terms of what you say.

He said lots of things that, if he had been president, would have gotten him in a lot of trouble. But during the campaign and, frankly, a campaign most people didn't think he would win. He -- I don't want to say he got a pass, but he was able to weather those things.

You know, I think that Donald Trump brought this business perspective where, you know, hey, if somebody is doing something you don't like, you bring them in. Talk to them. That works in business. There are laws against that sort of thing for good reason, when you're the president of the United States.

Again, we talked about this a lot in a different context. But Donald Trump is, let's remember, the first person ever elected with no military experience or no prior governing experience. That was seen as a massive thing in his favor during the course of the campaign.

But he doesn't know how this stuff works and, frankly, he's shown this, and he has very little interest in learning how government works. So I think he says and does things in public and private the way he would do in business. There are rules against that.

The one thing that would suggest that he is not sort of blindly blundering into these things, the sending out of Jeff Sessions and Vice President Mike Pence before that one-on-one, alleged one-on-one conversation with James Comey where he said he wanted the Russia and the Flynn thing to go away. That would suggest a level of sort of savvy planning and knowing that he probably shouldn't be doing what he was doing. That belies the that he just kind of blunders into these things and doesn't know better.

CUOMO: Look, I'm very slow to paint all businessmen with the same brush as Donald Trump. I think that these behaviors are unique to him, and they've been going on a very long time. And he is well known in political circles for trying to exercise influence. So we shouldn't be surprised about that.

The difference between words and deeds is being playing out now. You can say all these crazy things, and it's about politics. But now that we see actions, if he did try to stop this investigation, if that is why he fired James Comey, we keep talking about it legally. Is this a case of obstruction of justice? What are the realities here in terms of what would need to happen to trigger the most likely consequence, which would be impeachment, not an indictment?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right. I mean, impeachment is a political act. It's not a legal act, and people should, you know, realize that in a criminal courtroom, the decision of whether to try and convict someone of a violation of Title 18, United States Code Section 1503, that's not what Congress is going to be looking at. Congress is going to be looking at is did this person violate the law? Is this person fit to be president, in a broad political sense?

However, that judgment will be made based on evidence. And, you know, as compelling and as important as this story was originally in "The New York Times," then reported in CNN, there's just a lot more to come out, starting with these memos. I mean, what do the memos say about these conversations, you know, as we've been discussing?

[06:10:11] Contemporaneous notes of a conversation are usually very good evidence of what went on in that conversation. And that -- and these memos exist in the world someday, somewhere. And we are going to see them sooner rather than later. Also, just, I mean, the other point is are there tapes? I mean, you know, Donald Trump insinuated there were tapes. If there are tapes, we're going to see them. I'm sorry, David.

GREGORY: No. No, he's barreling down the highway as he has been for a long time. And America is not a court of law. Right? America is not an impeachment proceeding.

America will take this in. Those people who are -- should be doing their job with regard to oversight over the executive branch will take this in. And this is wholly consistent with what Donald Trump has been saying for many, many months.

Let's not forget, the same intellectual rigor that he brought to sparking the birther nonsense lie that launched him into prominence as a politician is what he brought to the campaign when he threatened to put Hillary Clinton in jail and maybe not accept the results of the election.

I remember being in this very spot saying that he marinates in authoritarian thinking. And that's what he's brought. I mean, he's meeting with Erdogan. He's doing nothing -- he has done nothing but show contempt for the idea that Russia could be manipulating America, our electoral system, or him. He could be subject to it, too. But he just is thinking about his legitimacy, what makes him look bad, his insecurity.

And now he's talking about a White House staff shakeup? I mean, this is a joke. It's him. It is the president and his destructiveness. And this is where Republicans have to get a sense of, OK, we're a highly-politicized environment. Let's not get out of hand here. Let's focus on digging deep into those areas that we have got to protect of our system. That's, to me, that point of reckoning for Republicans right now.

CAMEROTA: So Chris, one of the questions this morning is who will Americans believe? James Comey or Donald Trump?

And as you may recall, the acting FBI director after James Comey was fired, Andrew McCabe, went before Congress last week and he said that no one had impeded their investigation. Listen to this.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Has the dismissal of Mr. Comey in my way impeded, interrupted, stopped or negatively impacted any of the work, any investigation or any ongoing projects at the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: The work of the men and women at the FBI continues despite any changes in circumstance, any decisions. There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date.


CAMEROTA: OK. Chris, is it possible, are we learning that James Comey did not share his memo with anybody?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: That is my first impression, that we don't know how widely this was shared, particularly extemporaneously. Because it is possible that Andrew McCabe hasn't seen it.

The other thing is, Rubio's question is. is there anything in the dismissal of James Comey that has impeded the investigation.

CUOMO: Not really relevant.

CILLIZZA: Obviously, this stuff happened well before James Comey was dismissed.

So again, Jeffrey keeps making this point. He's exactly right, which is the legal front is not what's eventually going to take the lead here. It will be the political front. But you have to listen like a lawyer, I think, although I didn't go to law school like my mom wanted me to.

But you have to listen like a lawyer, I think, because the language, the tenses, the language, just like H.R. McMaster denying things that weren't in "Washington Post" reporting that regards what Donald Trump told the Russians.

So listen carefully. That's about the dismissal. So -- and again, we don't know how widely this was distributed.

But just one other point here, too, Alisyn, you asked about who's America going to believe. Lots of America are going to believe Donald Trump, because they will believe whatever Donald Trump says. But that's almost beside the point.

The issue here is what does the Comey memo say? Are there tapes, and what do those says? There is actual evidence that will be produced here.

CUOMO: And you know what that means if nothing else? Time. Distraction from the agenda. Distraction from tax relief. And it assumes a vacuum of response in the White House, which we know was very likely. I can't believe the president hasn't tweeted yet this morning.

So this is going to take time. We've got to look at the memos. Comey wants to come in. Chaffetz wants all documentation. Now there are going to be hearings. Who do they call in from the White House? What does the president say in the interim that inflames or downplays this situation? This is time.

TOOBIN: Well, it is time. But also, you know, in a 24-hour environment, it has been striking that the White House has said nothing except that single statement, which didn't even have a name attached to it. It was just sort of a White House statement denying -- denying Comey's version, as it...

[06:15:09] CUOMO: They say it didn't happen. TOOBIN: ... ran in "The New York Times." But where's Kellyanne

Conway? You know, where's Sean Spicer? Where's Ms. Sanders? I mean, there's just -- nobody has come out to defend him.

GREGORY: Right. Because when you lie, you lose your credibility. Nobody can be believed. Who knows who knows what? I mean, that's all the -- and I just think we have to add to this discussion the outrageous mess of the silence from Republicans.

Again, we -- everyone -- insert "President Hillary Clinton" into this sentence. And I mean, you know, the independent prosecutor would want -- would need a vacation at this point, because he or she would be working for so long.

It is ridiculous that Republicans are sitting back, going, "Well, come on, guys. Get in the game. Get in the game here. Get in the war. And start doing your job here to just oversee and reign in what's going on, which is clear to at least get to the bottom of it.

CAMEROTA: Things are happening this morning. We will tell our viewers about what Republicans are doing and whether the Comey memo is the last straw for them who have been standing with President Trump.


CAMEROTA: The James Comey memo has Washington in a frenzy. Are Republicans reaching a breaking point with the president? Joining us again, we have our panel: David Gregory, Jeffrey Toobin and Chris Cillizza.

So David Gregory, you were just beseeching Republicans...


CAMEROTA: ... to do something. But it does feel, I believe, in the past 48 hours, that something has shifted.


[06:20:06] CAMEROTA: And by the way, 40 minutes from now, the House Freedom Caucus is having an emergency meeting at the behest of Justin Amash about what next steps are. So things are percolating.

GREGORY: Yes, and again, I'm not rushing into all the legal and political end of this: impeachment, obstruction of justice. You know, that is going to play itself out. I think the situation is grave enough to focus on what's immediately ahead of us.

And from a political point of view, Republican leaders and Republican rank and file have to concerned about why they are in Congress. Right? Which is twofold. Which is to pass legislation, to pass law, and to act as an appropriate check and balance in the system.

You have a president who clearly shows, as I said before, reckless disregard, if not contempt for the notion of checks and balances. The idea that he can bully his way through, sweet talk, make a deal, whatever. He doesn't have to pay attention to these things until he's conducting himself this way.

They have to protect their interests around legislation and an agenda which has been completely thrown overboard and, if they had any opportunity to work with Democrats, that's really gone, as well as providing oversight.

I mean, Jason Chaffetz, who's House Oversight Committee, I mean, we saw, we conducted himself during Benghazi. Now again, get in the game; do your job. Now, he's saying he's not running for reelection. So now he's Mr. Independent. So good. Play it up. Get all this out.

CUOMO: And he's one of the few. He wrote a letter, asking for all these documents to be contained and delivered over to the Oversight Committee.

Chris Cillizza, so to David's point, this sets up for Republicans somewhat of a Hobson's choice. There's no "if" things have changed. Of course, things have changed. It's no longer about talk. It's about actions. What he did in that intel meeting with the Russians, what he did firing Comey what he just may have done with Comey, with respect. Those are all deeds. It's different than just not talk.

But it sets up as a Hobson's choice. They have a free choice. They can do whatever they want. But either way, they're going to come down to doing one thing or doing nothing, which is checking the president and owning the mandate of their party and their responsibility to their party constituents. But as plain as that sounds, why aren't we seeing it?

CILLIZZA: So two things. One -- and you won't like either of these, Chris. But I talked to a bunch of Republicans over the last 72 hours.

Now, I have not talked to that many since this Comey memo, because it happened about 12 hours ago. But what I'll tell you in the run-up to it, and his includes talking to folks after Donald Trump's conversation with the Russians.

One is that Donald Trump seemed to be unstoppable as a candidate, in that things that would kill off other candidates, the "Access Hollywood" tape being the most obvious, but his fight with Khizr Khan, the Gold Star family, during the convention, the comments about John McCain at the start of the campaign. That these are things that would end other candidacies. He somehow survived them. They would jump -- the traditional pattern was they would jump off the ship and then they would kind of slowly swim back to the ship when it became clear that Donald Trump was still ahead, Donald Trump was still likely to be the nominee.

The other thing -- now again, let me remind you, this is not in the last 12 hours. And I do think the Comey memo is -- I hate to use the word "game change." But in the -- in a series of unbelievable occurrences, this is the most unbelievable occurrence.

What I was told was the reason that you don't see more Republicans jumping off the ship is also because the electoral consequences are not yet clear. They haven't -- they didn't lose the Georgia 6 special election outright. They didn't lose other special elections. They haven't lost anything that they think they should win.

But there's a Montana special election May 25. They're at the Georgia run-off June the 20th. Those were seen as sign posts, sources told me, sign posts of if we lose those, then you'll see outright panic. Now, I would argue that the last 12 hours have changed that.

I think you will see outright panic before those events. But that was the explanation given to me in the run-up to this as to why you didn't see more Republicans jumping ship on him.

CAMEROTA: Yes. I mean, and look, Speaker Paul Ryan, you get the sense that he's been just so excited to have a crack at the Republican agenda, that something's going to be able to get done, that he's overlooked some things that otherwise would have bothered him. But now he's being called out for it.

Just last night on CNN town hall meeting, John Kasich, Governor Kasich was there, and he called out Paul Ryan specifically. Listen to this.


KASICH: 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.


TOOBIN: Not exactly a brutal insult of Speaker Ryan. But it is a little...

CAMEROTA: No. People are openly, publicly -- look, we have all of the reporting from Chris Cillizza and all of our other great reporters that privately on Capitol Hill, people would whisper these things to reporters. But now people are saying it publicly.

[06:25:10] TOOBIN: Well, that is true. And, you know, I've been writing about Watergate. I covered the Clinton impeachment.

The one thing that drives a president out of office is when his own party turns on him. You know, on August 7, 1974, Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott and John Rhodes, three pillars of the Republican Party, went to the White House and to Richard Nixon and said, "We can't support you anymore." And he announced his resignation the next day.

When I used to visit Paul Begala in his office in the White House, he would always say, "Look, as long as the Democrats are with us. As long as Richard Gephardt," who was the Democratic leader in the House at the time, "is still with us, we're going to be fine." And the Democrats stuck with Clinton.

So the political question is will the Republicans stay with Trump? So far they have. But we're in the middle of it.

CUOMO: It's not even that dire, right? I mean, because that was -- those were crisis points, right, where it was existential. TOOBIN: Right.

CUOMO: This is just bout checking in more and demanding better and interfacing with the White House and calling out what they say and do. It's not about abandoning the president. I don't think anybody is expecting the Republicans to run away from Trump and say, "Yes, he should resign." It's just about what you're saying: get in the game, own the accountability and oversight. Be the effective check and balance you're supposed to be.

GREGORY: Right. I mean, there's levels to it here. First, you've got to figure out did he actually threaten the FBI director? Did he -- did he try to tamper with the investigation and tell him to call off the Flynn investigation to send a signal that he wanted the Russia investigation to stop? You have to deal with all of that. You have to get to the bottom of the Russia business.

Maybe it's a select committee. Maybe it's a special counsel. I mean, so this is the level of oversight. It's also a question of who fears Donald Trump. You know, you want to look at guys like Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who understands he's going to have a primary opponent and who thinks and knows full well that the president will oppose him and oppose him aggressively.

If he starts to feel, "I can weather that," then all of a sudden things have turned. And I don't know that we're there yet, but there's going to be a lot of pressure for people to get beyond politics and defend the institutions of government.

CILLIZZA: I just want to say, I take your point, Chris, about the seriousness. And you know, this is really just about checks and balances. But the one thing I'll say is they've got a lot of Republicans are worried about the Pandora's box that opens here.

That sure, this is just right now about, OK, well what happened. Does the memo exist? But now there is a clear road that leads to a place that is absolutely politically toxic and perilous for the Republican Party. It's a slippery point. That was point one.

Point two. I was thinking about this as Jeff was talking about the Clinton -- impeachment trial and Clinton and Watergate. Donald Trump has been president for just 117 days. I mean, it's stunning. I mean, you know, this is not like the seventh year of Donald Trump's presidency where you're like, "Well, all presidencies get mired down in some level." He has been president for 117 days.

CUOMO: As he says, he's very active. Nobody ever said or done the kinds of things he does. But your point is well made and well taken, Chris.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you very much.

Coming up on NEW DAY, we will get reaction from two Republican lawmakers, Senator Susan Collins and Congressman Adam Kinzinger. We will also speak with the Democrat Congressman Adam Schiff. CUOMO: The legal fallout over the Comey memo. Obstruction of

justice. You keep hearing it. What is the law? How would it apply here and what does it mean ultimately for the president? Is this legal or really political? Answers ahead.