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Sources: Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Probe; Lawmakers React to Comey Memo. Aired 6:30-7a ET
Aired May 17, 2017 - 06:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[06:33:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Obstruction of justice. What does it mean? How does it apply to this situation if the president asked then Director Comey to stop the Flynn investigation? What does that expose him to?
Boy, do we have two good minds for you on this very question.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and Alan Dershowitz, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School.
All right. Professor, obstruction of justice, are we dealing with the right category of infraction, and where does it go from there in terms of the analysis?
ALAN DERSHOWITZ, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL, PROFESSOR EMERITUS: I wish I was still teaching at Harvard Law School. I could teach a whole course on this subject. It's so complex.
Under the unitary executive theory, the president has the right to tell the FBI what to do, the Justice Department what to do.
Thomas Jefferson micromanaged the trial against Aaron Burr threatening the chief justice if there is no conviction, he is going to get him impeached. President Kennedy, President Johnson interacted repeatedly with the Justice Department and with the FBI. But things have changed since Watergate.
But did the law change? The fact that he is the president cuts both ways. On the one hand, he has the power to tell the FBI what to do. On the other hand, since he is the only guy who can fire the director of the FBI, is he obstructing justice if he merely suggests to the director we'll go soft on this guy, he is a good guy? A very complex, very difficult issue, which we'll never reach because nobody is going to ever indict the sitting president for obstruction of justice.
CUOMO: So that is the beyond a reasonable and high standard. That's when you hire Dershowitz. You are going to need to help you in that situation because it's complex.
But this is politics.
CUOMO: High crimes and misdemeanors, it turns out, means neither crimes nor misdemeanors. This is about appropriate behavior, inappropriate behavior, and votes.
So, how does this situation size up in terms of political analysis of wrongdoing by the executive?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, ultimately, you know, high crimes and misdemeanors, which is the standard for impeachment in the Constitution, is what the House of Representatives decides it is. It is not a legal definition.
[06:35:00] It's a political definition reached each time the House of Representatives has to make a judgment. They've only had to make it formally twice for Andrew Johnson and for Bill Clinton.
CUOMO: Because Nixon escapes it because he resigned before they could return the article.
TOOBIN: Correct. But the issue of obstruction of justice is there an attempt? Doesn't have to be successful, but is there an attempt by someone to interfere with the due administration of justice? That's what the statute says.
And I think, you know, if Comey's memo says what the "New York Times" and what CNN says it says, it certainly sounds like obstruction of justice because if you are in charge of the FBI, as the president is, and you say to the director of the FBI, let it go, end this investigation, that is an interference with the due administration.
CUOMO: Additional fact. Then you fire the same person.
DERSHOWITZ: Now, Chris, you said you were reading law books, law review articles. You should have been watching "The Godfather." That's what this is all about.
CUOMO: It always comes back to "The Godfather."
DERSHOWITZ: If the godfather walks over to somebody and said I would like to you maybe to think about going soft on my friend, that's very different from if an ordinary guy.
DERSHOWITZ: Now, the president is the godfather here because he has the power to fire the director, and so a soft request from the president is very different than a soft request from somebody else.
On the other hand, the president has the constitutional authority to direct the FBI what to do. This is a case of first impression, novel constitutional law. President Trump has created a full employment program not only for the media, but for us constitutional law professors. Thank you, Mr. President. But get back to governing the United States. CUOMO: Well, that's the ultimate political reality is this is going
to be a distraction. It's going to take time. You are going to find out what really happened.
Let me ask you this. Do you think that he has provided fertile ground for Republicans, if they were so politically motivated -- and I understand it has to be in caps and bold and italicized -- to say this triggers a high crime. Behavior by someone of high standing that is inappropriate and worthy of political argument for impeachment?
DERSHOWITZ: I think you have three steps that have to be taken first. First, you have to appoint an independent commission, ala 9/11, to get all the facts. The independent commission can then maybe suggests an independent or special prosecutor, who can then look at whether or not there are indictable facts, and I think only then would the Republicans think about articles of impeachment.
Now, that may not happen until after the midterm elections when maybe the midterm elections become a referendum on the continuing presidency of Donald Trump.
CUOMO: The people passing the record.
CUOMO: So, Dershowitz's supposition, you have to make the decision. Was the attempted kiss by the president of James Comey back whenever it was -- do you think that he was giving him the godfather kiss?
TOOBIN: Did he make him an offer he couldn't refuse, in other words?
CUOMO: Is that what that was?
TOOBIN: Well, I mean, that's the question. We're going to know.
I mean, just before we get to, you know, how much drama ahead, let's see what the memos say. That's very simple. And I think we are.
DERSHOWITZ: I have a prediction here. There are no tapes. Why? If there were tapes, the White House would not create a credibility contest with Comey. They'll lose that one. They were assertive saying it didn't happen because they know there are no tapes.
CUOMO: Gentlemen, appreciate it. Helpful.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Chris. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demanding answers from the Trump White House over the reported Comey memo. One GOP leader says he wants to see it and he has his subpoena pen ready. We have a live report from Capitol Hill next.
[06:42:53] CUOMO: It can only be described as a new bombshell. Sources tell CNN a memo written by fired FBI Director James Comey says President Trump asked drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle now want answers.
CNN's Suzanne Malveaux live on Capitol Hill.
It's more of an and than a but. You have both sides now saying we need at a minimum to get to the bottom of what the facts are.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Chris. I ran into Senator John McCain. This was early yesterday morning in the elevator. I asked him how was his morning going, he said horribly. This is before the Comey memo actually came out.
And that is illustrative of what is happening on Capitol Hill, how people are feeling here, a grave sense of concern, of frustration. They feel like they do not want with this administration. Getting their act together. Those are the polite words that they are using.
Late last night, McCain telling Republicans about this scandal saying in his words it's reaching a Watergate size and scale. Now, all of this is happening as moderate Republicans, particularly those on the House side, are looking at very vulnerable districts in their races in 2018, wondering if, in fact, that all of this trouble, the scandals regarding the crisis of the Trump administration is going to rub off on them.
We heard from Congressman Carlos Curbelo. He is from Florida, and here's how he put it.
(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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: And not surprising, Democrats on the oversight and judiciary committees are calling for the president, the Attorney General Sessions, as well as top White House officials for further investigations to look into this Comey memo. They are also demanding that Comey at least very strongly at this point requesting that he go before in an open forum to talk about what has taken place, produced a memo, and all these other reports in a public forum.
What is notable, however, is the chair of the House Oversight Committee Jason Chaffetz who says that he will use his subpoena power to get that Comey memo.
[06:45:08] At the same time, you've got conservatives here on the Hill this morning openly having a meeting in about 30 minutes, talking about the idea of potentially obstruction of justice charges and possible impeachment -- Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Yes. A lot is happening today. Suzanne, thank you very much for laying it all out for us. So there was a protest outside of the Turkish embassy in Washington
and it turned violent yesterday. Nine people were injured in the demonstration. This was hours after Turkish President Erdogan met with President Trump.
So, these protests got bloody when Erdogan supporters and critics clashed. Police made two arrests.
CUOMO: Right down the street from the White Bouse. Boy, that was nasty.
All right. So, how will the latest White House crisis impact President Trump's first foreign trip? We're going to talk to the former U.S. ambassador and former national intelligence director, John Negroponte, next.
[06:50:02] CAMEROTA: So, the latest White House firestorm is overshadowing President Trump's upcoming overseas trip. There are even suggestions that the trip should not take place.
"The Washington Post" op-ed says, quote, Trump's trip must be canceled. Our national security, our relationships with allies and the security of the world are at risk due to the president's erratic behavior and inability to adhere to basic norms of both democracy and diplomacy.
Here to discuss is Ambassador John Negroponte. He was the first director of national intelligence.
Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for being here.
AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE, FORMER DIR. OF NATL. INTELLIGENCE: Good morning.
CAMEROTA: So, what is your reaction to the idea that James Comey may have these memos that he wrote down that President Trump asked him to let go of the Michael Flynn investigation?
NEGROPONTE: Well, I think, first of all, resident has a tendency to think out loud. He said, OK, I hope you can let this go. I don't know. We'll see where that goes. It doesn't sound to me like necessarily that serious a statement.
These investigations are ongoing, and I think that will continue. But the idea that the president would cancel his trip I think it's exactly the opposite is true. I think this upcoming trip is an opportunity for the president to demonstrate the importance and significance of the presidency of the United States in the rest of the world.
CUOMO: OK. So, no big deal to you. Other people are saying this rises to the level of obstruction of justice. Why don't you think him telling the FBI director let the investigation go is a big deal?
NEGROPONTE: Well, look, I listen to Mr. Dershowitz earlier. I don't think you can get instant wisdom on subjects like this. Let it be looked into.
But in the meanwhile, there are the affairs of state to attend to. The one thing that is absolutely certain is that this -- all of this controversy and flutter has been a big distraction from the business of governing.
Now, he's got an opportunity to go to Israel, to Saudi Arabia, to Europe, to Brussels and to Italy. He is probably going to meet with at least 40 leaders from that part of the world, chance to establish some rapport. Once again, perhaps get the presidency a little bit back on track. I think that's what ought to be the objective of this trip.
CAMEROTA: Well, look, this wasn't the first -- this whole Comey stuff is obviously not the first bombshell. In fact, in the past 48 hours, it's the second because we also learned that the president appears to have divulged classified information to the Russian ambassador and to the Russian foreign minister.
NEGROPONTE: Well, as long as I can remember, and I was in the State Department and in the national security community for 44 years, there are many times that we have shared classified information with the Russians for the purposes of arms control, for the purposes of counterterrorism.
The issue, as Mr. McMaster pointed out, is not whether classified information was discussed. It's whether sources and methods were divulged.
And I cannot tell from what's available publicly about the conversation whether that happened, but I doubt it did. You know, Arafat needs to know about these kinds of threats just as much as an American would.
CAMEROTA: Yes, but is this how you would divulge classified information in this sort of -- in this setting where there may have been photographers, in this sit-down with this Russian ambassador who, as you know, some in Washington say doubles as a spy? Is that how you divulge classified information, or is there a process by which it happens?
NEGROPONTE: Well, what -- when a president gets together with an ambassador and they discuss the sensitive matters, we can talk about the situation in Syria or the situation with regard to terrorism. What is he going to do? He's got to talk. Almost the entire conversation with international leaders involves some classified information or another.
What do you think they're going to talk about in Israel and in Saudi Arabia? They're going to talk about the fight against ISIS.
CAMEROTA: You dealt -- just one second because you -- I'm interested because you personally dealt with Sergey Lavrov.
NEGROPONTE: I have.
CAMEROTA: This ambassador, as you know, is considered a -- sorry -- that's the ambassador who people consider a spy. Do you think that he can be trusted with classified information?
NEGROPONTE: I don't know on what basis or others say that Mr. Kislyak is a spy. He has been the ambassador of Russia here in Washington for a number of years and prior to that he was the deputy foreign minister.
CAMEROTA: So you disagree --
NEGROPONTE: I think the allegation that he is a spy is just simply because some people think that inappropriate things were told to him by Michael Flynn or they discussed inappropriate topic. But that doesn't make him a spy, and I don't see -- you don't have any basis for saying that.
[06:55:02] CAMEROTA: Well, this is how the intel organizations have classified him.
NEGROPONTE: Ah, well, OK.
CAMEROTA: You disagree. I mean, I hear you.
NEGROPONTE: I tell them to be careful before they go around talking like that.
CAMEROTA: OK, you think he can be trusted? You are not bothered by the fact that president Trump shared this information, nor are you bothered by the fact that he might have said this to Director Comey?
NEGROPONTE: Look, I think it's incontrovertible that President Trump needs to be more careful about how he goes about his business. But I haven't seen anything yet that goes over the top.
But I do think a little more orderly process has to be established in the White House and in the way we conduct our national security business and our dealings with others, and maybe as a result of what's happened over these last couple of weeks, maybe the president will take some lesson from that situation and hopefully the situation will normalize because we can't go on like this with just constant controversy and cacophony around here. We're just not going to be able to get anything done.
CAMEROTA: Ambassador John Negroponte, thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.
NEGROPONTE: Thank you.
CUOMO: The political question remains, what will Republicans do? You got the revelations about potentially pressuring Comey back off Flynn prior to firing him by the president, and the allegation that Trump divulged highly classified info to the Russians. There is a big GOP member meeting this morning. What it could mean next.