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Comey Reportedly Recorded in Memo That President Trump Asked Comey to End Investigation into Michael Flynn; Interview with Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Aired 8-8:30a ET
Aired May 17, 2017 - 08:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[08:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: And that is that Putin says that President Trump did not share classified intelligence with Russian diplomats, and Putin says he can prove it. Will Congress believe Vladimir Putin? Will they call on him? W
e've got all this coverage, so let's begins with CNN's Joe Johns live at the White House. Give us the latest, Joe.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. The real concern is whether the president tried to influence an FBI investigation at the very top, and then fired the man ultimately in charge of that investigation. The White House is disputing this account, denying this conversation ever occurred. But if it did, it's a huge problem for President Trump.
JOHNS: 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 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 Jefff 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 bombshell and largely silent.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: I think they are shaken and almost shell-shocked by the 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 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 publically as soon as possible, a move, source say, the former FBI director supports.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. History is watching.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": 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: All of this coming after the White House spent yet another day trying to clean up yet another controversy. Of course, that's the one involving the president giving highly classified information to Russian diplomats during a meeting in the Oval Office. CNN has been told that information was supplied to the United States by Israeli intelligence. Israel is one of the countries the president is expected to visit in his nine-day tour starting on Friday. Today we expect to hear from the president giving a commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. Back to you. CAMEROTA: OK, Joe, thank you very much. And more on that other big story and bombshell. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is ready to provide the U.S. Congress with a transcript of President Trump's meeting with their foreign minister, and he insists that President Trump did not pass any classified intelligence to them.
[08:05:12] CNN's Matthew Chance is live in Moscow with all of the breaking details. What is the president saying, Matthew?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, President Putin caused some consternation and panic in the press corps here because he used the Russian word for recording. He said that he had a recording of the conversation that took place between President Trump and Sergey Lavrov and he was willing to pass that on the U.S. Senate and Congress if the American side deems it appropriate.
The idea, of course, that the Russians in that room recorded it is absolutely astonishing, and the Kremlin have been quick to roll back on that phrase that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, used. What they're saying is it is more of a record, a transcript. They're saying there was a stenographer present in the room that was specifically designated to record this meeting and to provide transcripts to the Russian side at least, presumably to the U.S. side as well, and they've got that document and they are willing to provide it to the U.S. if they don't have a copy of their own, although I can't imagine that they don't.
It was all done in the context of a relatively joking response to a question to Vladimir Putin about this issue of the passing of secret facts or secret details by the U.S. president to the Russian foreign minister. He laughed about it and said, look, we have to find some kind of punishment for Sergey Lavrov, the Russia foreign minister, because he didn't share that secret information with us. And it is in that context, that joking context that he made those comments about passing on a record, a transcript of that conversation. But it is first the detail I've heard certainly here in Moscow that there is such a transcript of what actually was talked about in that meeting.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Matthew Chance, thank you very much, if there is such a transcript. Appreciate the reporting. Another joke apparently once again on us.
So let's bring in our political panel, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, reporter and editor at large for CNN politics Chris Cillizza, and CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd. Chris Cillizza, file this under the category of "you can't make it up."
CUOMO: Quick to the defense of President Trump is Russia, just like when Lavrov mocked questions from the U.S. press corps about Comey's firing, just like when we had to learn about the meeting between Lavrov and Kislyak and our president from Russian media. And now they say Trump did nothing wrong with intelligence and we can prove it. What does this mean? CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: Two things. One,
between the potential for a transcript out of this meeting and Donald Trump floating the idea that he's taping phone calls, it affirms my belief that everything is being recorded at all times everywhere in the world.
CUOMO: I think even this show is being recorded.
CILLIZZA: No, no, this is fine. You can say whatever you want here.
But my point, too, is that this is Russia being Donald Trump's worst enemy in some ways, right? If ever there was a time that you didn't necessarily want Vladimir Putin, who every Republican short of Donald Trump said this is not a good guy. This is an adversary to the United States. Vladimir Putin saying, yes, yes, we have a transcript. Yes, we'll ship it right over to you, further affirming the trying to prop Donald Trump up here on this issue.
Plus, look, given what we know about Vladimir Putin, are we ready to believe for certain even if there is a transcript that that is exactly the nature of what went down in that meeting? It's just very -- and again as Matthew reported, it was said in a broadly joking context, so it's not even clear that that exists. But even if it did exist, I'm not sure that that's the evidence Donald Trump is going to be looking for to exonerate himself.
CAMEROTA: But, Phil, maybe this is a threat actually, a veiled threat from Vladimir Putin. Maybe he does have a transcript of it. Maybe President Trump did divulge that information. Maybe he doesn't want Vladimir Putin to release anything. Maybe he's sending a message.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I don't think he is sending a message. I think this is pretty straightforward. They see each other as partners, that is, Putin and Trump, and Putin is looking for an opportunity to defend the president. I hope that plays 180 different in the United States.
Let's step back and offer just a moment of perspective here. Weeks into this presidency the national security advisor loses his job because of an inappropriate conversation with the Russians. The man investigating that, by all accounts, regardless of what you think of his actions, an honorable man, the FBI director gets fired for investigating that.
[08:10:00] And the president of Russia says he's the one who is going to defend the president against inappropriate charges. I mean, I don't know what you say. I think we have to step back for a moment and acknowledge two things, that Congress needs to proceed with an investigation so that we can take a deep breath out of partisan politics. And let's not forget the forgotten story. The FBI needs to proceed with a criminal investigation because some time, I'm expecting in 2017, somebody from the Department of Justice is going to say forget about the congress, here is who is going to be indicted from the administration or from the campaign. This is not going to go away for months or years. CUOMO: Let me ask you something. If this is all true about Comey and
the memo, which really isn't a memo. It is one of the EC documents, a contemporaneous account. The FBI has five days to then put it into an electronic file and that's what Comey was doing and he was known for doing. Let's accept all that for truth just for now. Why do you think, Phil Mudd, that Comey didn't go to the DOJ if he had any type of reasonable concern that the president was trying to influence the investigation? I get why he would document it. But if it was real, why wouldn't he go to the DOJ?
MUDD: Well, first he can't go to the attorney general because the attorney general has recused himself of the investigation. What are you saying, the president tried to influence the Russians?
CUOMO: It was before that. Even if it were someone else, even if that were the case, which it wasn't.
MUDD: Well, he could have. And my assumption is he did.
CUOMO: You think he did?
MUDD: In Washington the walls have ears. I think he spoke to somebody in the Department of Justice for the FBI who typed up --
CUOMO: If there's a chance that Sessions or maybe even Rosenstein knew that James Comey had been pushed up on by the president and still went forward putting forward together a memo calling for his dismissal if they knew that, you think they'd do that? It'd make their position pretty tough to hold.
MUDD: First, Rosenstein has only been there for a few weeks. I'm not going to presume how much he knows. From what I've heard inside Washington the attorney general despises former director Comey. So I think the personal relationship may play into that.
But other people know, Chris, and we keep talking about one memo. Who thinks there is only one memo from the FBI director who had multiple conversations with the president? This is going to be drip, drip, drip and the president is going to be shivved in the back over the course of weeks with multiple memos, in my judgment. The walls are starting to close, but this is not the end of this one.
CAMEROTA: Jeffrey, where are we today?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, look, there is a serious accusation out there that started yesterday in "The New York Times," later confirmed by CNN reporting, that a possible obstruction of justice took place on February 14th between Donald Trump and James Comey. There are these memos that exist in the world. I don't think anyone believes these memos have disappeared. Congress has to get them and make them public. Comey has to testify. And then we'll see where we are.
CAMEROTA: Jeffrey, what if it turns out that this is just Donald Trump being Donald Trump, that he was just speaking off the cuff and he does just say I sure wish this could go away? And is that obstruction of justice, if that's just him sort of vamping one-on-one with the director?
TOOBIN: You know, when you're president of the United States and you are talking to the FBI director who works for you, that's not just vamping. Even if Donald Trump has a style that's unusual, the setting and the participants and the nature of their relationship make those comments significant.
CUOMO: Especially when you wind up firing the guy. Maybe if he hadn't fired him it would have been --
CAMEROTA: For showboating. Donald Trump has been all over the map about what he claims he fired Comey for.
CUOMO: He said in the interview, I thought to myself this Russia thing is a hoax. I said, Trump, what is this about? Comey shouldn't do it.
TOOBIN: That's right. But firing an FBI director and asking an FBI director to end an investigation of your campaign, you know, I don't care what your style is and whether you're vamping or whether you are just thinking out loud, it is very significant. Now, is it actually an obstruction of justice? Is it an impeachable offense? I certainly don't know at this point, but it is certainly worthy of this investigation.
CUOMO: Your first main question, right, Adam Schiff talked to us about this on the show this morning, Chris Cillizza, is, well, we have to get some kind of independent investigation done on this. That's going to require GOP movement on this.
CUOMO: All roads lead back to the GOP. They will have to make anything happen. There will be no judge. There will be no courtroom involved in this subject to Jeffrey's different take on that, that this isn't going to be about a crime of obstruction of justice. It is going to be about political reckoning. And do you think it is likely that the GOP is anywhere near getting ready to tighten the screws down on an independent probe of the president?
[08:15:02] CILLIZZA: Nearer today than they were at 6:00 p.m. last night, yes. I think this is different in kind than even the Trump conversation with Kislyak and Lavrov and what he told them and what he didn't. Interestingly, remember, there is strong push back in a lot of White House stories on that story.
What have you heard in terms of push back on this story? And the answer is from the White House and everybody on the Republican side, zero. The only response you have heard is this morning saying we need an independent investigation. It is just -- again, in politics you have to think of what is a credible, plausible place to land, a middle place to land here that's not calling for impeachment if you're Republican because we're just not there yet. You heard Adam Schiff, Democrats -- most Democrats aren't going to do that.
Where is a safe island they can land on that is defensible politically when they go home to people who are not the core Trump base? And to be honest, that's 70 percent, 65 percent to 70 percent of the public. An independent counselor, special prosecutor, whatever you want to call it, that's the thing that's defensible. So, my guess is given the silence over the last 14 hours, that's where Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, most of the House Freedom Caucus, some of the house freedom caucus is going to land.
There is going to be a lot of members in swing districts, people worried about losing reelection, to say, wait a minute, we need to do something more than saying, well, that's just the president being the president.
CAMEROTA: That is what we are about to talk about. Panel, thank you very much for setting it up so well for us.
So, is this Comey memo or memo a turning point for the GOP? We have Republican Senator Susan Collins joining us to talk about this live next.
[08:20:31] CUOMO: Big question this morning. You will be hearing about it all day. Is the James Comey memo a turning point for the GOP?
Well, what is the proof that we're seeing any changes?
Senator John McCain was at a dinner and he leveled one of the harshest criticisms about the president yet. Here is a taste.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think it is reaching a point where it is a Watergate size and scale and a couple of other scandals that you and I have seen. It is the centipede, and the shoe continues to drop and every couple of days, there is a new aspect of this really unhappy situation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: Joining us now, Republican Senator Susan Collins. She is a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Always a pleasure to have you on NEW DAY, ma'am.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Thank you, Chris.
CUOMO: So, do you share the urgency and characterization of Senator John McCain? Do you believe it is time for an independent commission to look at these allegations?
COLLINS: The Senate Intelligence Committee on which I serve is vigorously pursuing all of the allegations involving Russian influence on the campaign, including the vital question of whether there was collaboration between any member of the Trump campaign and the Russians. That is a bipartisan investigation. It is now moving up pace. We
have subpoenaed Michael Flynn and his records and I believe we will find out more from that congressional investigation about exactly what happened.
CUOMO: But what about these questions about the president's actions with Comey in the firing, the different stories, the divulging of the intelligence in the meeting with the Russians? Do you think those demand completely nonpartisan appraisal, meaning an independent commission?
COLLINS: I think the Senate intelligence committee is perfectly capable of doing that kind of independent work. It is vital that our work be grounded in the evidence and thus accepted by the public once we finish. But we should pursue all of those allegations. And that means not only getting access to Mr. Comey's memo, but any other memos or transcripts even tangentially related to this issue and we need to hear directly from Mr. Comey himself about what occurred in that February discussion with the president.
The tone of the president, what he said, the actual words are so important, and that's why we need to hear and soon from Mr. Comey.
CUOMO: How troubling are the allegations to you about the Comey memo, about the firing?
COLLINS: They are deeply troubling. They raise very serious questions. The problem is that what we have now is speculation getting a bit ahead of the facts.
We need facts, and that's why we need the actual documents and we need evidence and we need testimony from those involved. I've spent parts of three days out at CIA headquarters going through the raw intelligence that normally we would not see because it's not vetted. And I'm going to continue along with the rest of the committee and our two leaders who are working together in a bipartisan way to pursue the evidence wherever it may lead.
CUOMO: First, do you after going through the raw intelligence, do you share the president's appraisal that the Russia investigation is a hoax?
COLLINS: No, I certainly don't. If there is one conclusion that I've seen enough evidence on to get to a finding it is that the Russians had an active campaign to try to influence the presidential elections last fall. That I believe has overwhelming evidence to support it.
The other questions, including the critical question of was there collaboration between the campaign and the Russians remains to be answered.
[08:25:10] CUOMO: Now, people take that remains to be answered to mean there is none. You should have it by now or it would have leaked, and that fuels suspicion that that part of the inquiry is just political brinkmanship, Democrats trying to hurt the president.
Do you agree?
COLLINS: No, I really don't. The committee has taken the investigation that we've invested with very seriously. And we are issuing subpoenas.
We are -- we have interviewed -- the staff has interviewed more than 30 people. We are now getting closer and closer to the principals, the names that you read in the paper and I am confident that we will do a good job. I do think it would help if we brought in an experienced former prosecutor or an experienced investigator, and I have made that recommendation to both the chairman and the vice chairman.
COLLINS: Well, I have made a specific recommendation, but I think I should keep that between the chairman and vice chairman.
CUOMO: Come on, Susan Collins.
COLLINS: You would know his name and think he was well-qualified. Let me put it that way.
CUOMO: Is it Comey, like your brother senator from Maine?
COLLINS: That doesn't make any sense at all. He's the witness in this investigation. You don't put a witness in charge of the investigation.
CUOMO: Two more quick things, Senator. First, there is a likelihood that these questions surrounding why the firing, what happened with Comey's memo, was there any pressure from the president, it's going to come down to credibility. Do you believe at this point you can take the president or the White House at face value with what they say the truth is on any of those questions?
COLLINS: Unfortunately, the administration has given such conflicting information that president's tweets at times seem to contradict the statements made by his staff, and that's why we need to have an interview with the former FBI director and we need all of the documents. And if there are transcripts, we need those transcripts as well.
But I've got to tell you. We don't need them from the Russians. The idea that we would accept any evidence from President Putin is absurd.
CUOMO: What does it mean to you that you have these two different dynamics going on, one, that Putin, whether he's joking or not, was suggesting that they have a record of what happened in that meeting. And that Russia is consistently on these issues vigorously defending President Trump. What do you make of that?
COLLINS: Well, I can't help but wonder if this is a Russian plot to try to undermine confidence, further undermine confidence in the president and in our democracy.
But, unfortunately, when the president meets with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador, he gives more fuel to the fire.
So, I think he should stop meeting with the Russian leaders. They are not our friends. They are our adversaries. And as far as president Putin's opinions on what's going on, I'm more interested in how he's treat in treating the annexation of Crimea, the problems he's creating throughout Western Europe and trying to influence those investigations, the support for the Assad regime, which the Russians are giving -- and it's a regime which is murdering its own citizens.
Those are the issues that concern me about Russia. And I think that it is not helpful. I wouldn't trust any evidence that the Russians suggest that they could provide.
CUOMO: Senator Susan Collins, thank you for being on new day as always.
COLLINS: Thank you, Chris.
CAMEROTA: Did President Trump obstruct justice? We will look at that question and the future of the Trump White House, next.