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Trump Reverses Course on Comey Explanation; NY Times: Comey Became Unsettled By Interactions with Trump. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired May 18, 2017 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:00] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening.

Tonight, witch hunts and whiplash. Witch hunt is how President Trump described the Russia probe today. Whiplash is what his latest answer today on the firing of FBI Director James Comey is causing, that's because once again, and for the third time in nine days, it is the opposite of the answer that came before.

So, in addition to everything else we'll be talking about tonight, Russia, Michael Flynn, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and the search for the new FBI director, the president's upcoming trip overseas and more, we begin with yet another verbal back flip from the president of the United States.

Here's what how he explained the Comey firing today at a joint press conference with the president of Colombia.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.


COOPER: Just to quickly dispose of that first claim about him being unpopular with most people, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe recently testified under oath no less that that is simply not true. Director Comey happened to be widely respected according to Mr. McCabe.

And "Keeping Them Honest", as to the rest, just sum up how the president describes it, the deputy attorney general, that's Rod Rosenstein, wrote a memo, he read it and was persuaded to one extent or another to fire Director Comey. That is his account today. Yes, so is this just seven days ago.


TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. I -- there's no good time to do it, by the way. They --

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: Because in your letter, you said I accepted their recommendation. You had already made the decision.

TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless.


COOPER: Oh, I was going to fire regardless. The president also said Russia was on his mind when he made that decision. Again, this was last Thursday, saying it was all him not Rosenstein.

Now, rewind your brain to a couple days before that interview of Lester Holt to the day Comey was fired, which is Tuesday, on that day, according to White House surrogates, and even the Vice President himself, it wasn't President Trump's idea, it was all Rosenstein. As you can see, all Rosenstein all the time.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Trump made the right decision at the right time, and to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president accepted the recommendation of his deputy attorney general.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: He took the recommendation of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.

PENCE: He brought the recommendation to the president the director of the FBI should be removed.

SANDERS: Look, I think when you receive a report that is so clear, and a recommendation by someone like the deputy attorney general, you have no choice but to act.

PENCE: He provided strong leadership, and to act on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.

CONWAY: He is taking the recommendation of his deputy attorney general.

PENCE: And I personally am grateful we have a president who's willing to provide the kind of decisive and strong leadership to take the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to remove an FBI director who had lost the confidence of the American people.


COOPER: So, today, the president readopted that narrative, the one he then counter-spoke against right after all those statements were made.

Our slogan years ago where the news comes full circle, little do we know one day it actually would. Now, perhaps ordinarily, how the president explains his decision to fire the FBI director might not matter that much. This time, though, it does. It is the focus of a probe into whether anyone, the president included, obstructed justice. It's only part of it.

On top of all that, three Democratic senators said Rod Rosenstein's latest account just today contradicts the president's latest account just today. You can't make this up.

Again, it's not our only story on all of this tonight, merely the first of many. More now from the White House and CNN, Sara Murray.

So, a busy day for the president. Let's start with today's news conference that we played a little bit of. What can you tell us?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president certainly was not hiding his displeasure about the fact that a special counsel has been named. He declared that it was divisive for the country. He compared this investigation to a witch hunt.

Listen to what he had to say today.


TRUMP: Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. But I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero. I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.


MURRAY: Now, he shared a very similar sentiment to that in a lunch with news anchors and a very different tone from the president today in that lunch and in that press conference than the somewhat demure statement we got under the president's name last night, essentially saying that there would be no collusion but he would wait to see how this went forward, Anderson.

COOPER: As you reported, the president felt blind-sided by Mueller's appointment of special counsel. Some of his allies feel this could actually be positive for the president.

MURRAY: They do. They see this as sort of an opportunity, a way for the president to move beyond questions about the Russia investigation and for his staffers to essentially say, when they're asked about Russia related questions, look, there's a special counsel overseeing the investigation, we'll wait and see what happens, and to pivot back to his agenda, back to the things that people elected him to do in Washington, they're sort of looking to the foreign trip as an opportunity to do that, to sort of reset, to help President Trump appear presidential once again and get back to sort of their main message.

[20:05:15] Of course, Anderson, this only works if they adopt some kind of message discipline. That has been difficult for Trump's team and it's also particularly difficult for the president when he's frustrated.

COOPER: Well, that's what I was going to say. It's not so much his team that has a problem staying on message because they seem to get their talking points and execute them pretty well. It's the president himself, the person they're working for, keeps reversing everything -- all their hard work.

I mean, they go out, they scurry to the cameras when they need to and the next day, the president tweets and continues the conversation. I mean, today, he didn't need to tweet calling this a witch hunt, he could have just continued talk about his legislative agenda moving forward, his foreign trip coming up. He's still looking back.

MURRAY: And it's worth noting that one of his friends that I talk to earlier today basically said, the more we're reacting, the worse this is going to get for us. We just need to leave this alone and move on and talk about other things.

But as you said, Anderson, it's very difficult for the president to do that when he feels he's under attack. And that's certainly how he feels in the wake of this news about the special counsel.

COOPER: Yes. Well, we'll see if he changes. Sara Murray, thanks very much.

More now from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue tonight, that's the president's close advisors are now talking about getting to him to lawyer up.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny has late word on that and joins us now.

You've been digging in this. The president outside counsel, what do you know?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, throughout the day, a small circle of advisors of the president have been talking about who they should hire for outside legal representation here. Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer, seen in the White House earlier today, having these meetings to talk about a strategy here going forward.

I mean, this is an entirely new horizon that about to happen here in Washington. A special prosecutor can look into everything essentially. So, what I'm told is a small circle of advisors says the president needs more firepower on the outside. So, they are going to present a plan to him to hire some type of lawyers, a team of lawyers to help represent him in this going forward.

COOPER: I mean, you know, plenty of legal scholars we talk to say the president should absolutely do this, but are actually surprised he hasn't already.

ZELENY: That's a good question. I mean, it's certainly typical for a president who's under this type of scrutiny and investigation to have someone from the outside because the White House counsel's office, you know, is handling the work of his current job.

This is about a private action, something that happened during the presidential campaign. But, you know, we know President Trump is slow to sort of accept new people, new advisors. So, he's being presented a plan who he could trust here and it's up to him to sign off on that. Some advisers want him to do so before he leaves Washington tomorrow, unclear if he will do that or not.

But, of course, you know, the clock is running out here a little bit, but that's' why there was a meeting today here at the White House and they're presenting him this plan if they haven't already, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, thanks for that reporting.

Today, as we mentioned at the top, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was on Capitol Hill briefing senators behind closed doors. Now, depending on which senators you ask, he also potentially said something that throws a monkey wrench into the White House explanation, at least the latest rationale for dismissing James Comey.

Our Phil Mattingly has that and joins us now.

So, what have you learned about this closed door meeting?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, its' interesting, Anderson, depending on the senator, you heard largely deferential to Bob Mueller. He was careful. He was cautious.

Except on one issue specifically -- several senators came out and made very clear it was their understanding that Rod Rosenstein was aware that Jim Comey was going to be fired before he wrote the three page memo the Trump administration officials have repeatedly cited as the reason, and as you noted, Anderson, the president himself cited for the reason for the firing today, even though the president has also cited another reason for the firing.

Now, here's what I'm told actually happened. Mr. Rosenstein made clear he was not pressured by the White House but made the day before that the firing was likely to happen and then he decided to write the memo. So, it's very clear, Anderson, that kind of at the crux where the White House differed repeatedly on this story as to why this firing actually occurred and how this firing actually occurred, Rod Rosenstein was clearly aware before the memo was actually written.

Here's what he didn't answer, though, just about every other question related to the firing. I talked to a lot of Democratic senators who came out frustrated, felt that more answers should have been given. He will have another opportunity up on the Capitol Hill tomorrow while he briefs the House.

But I'm told -- don't expect more to come from there. He's being very careful especially given the appointment of the special counsel.

COOPER: And what's been the congressional response to Mueller appointment as special counsel?

MATTINGLY: Look, there's bipartisan phrase for Bob Mueller. Obviously, most of the members up here work with him when he was FBI director. His credentials are unimpeachable at this point. But there is actually concern, and that is there are multiple congressional probes going on and there's a lot of concern as to what his separate investigation or his investigation as special counsel will do to those probes.

[20:10:09] Take a listen to what Lindsey Graham, a senator who is running one of those probes, had to say.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: But the takeaway I had is that everything he said was that you need to treat this investigation as if it may be a criminal investigation. So, I think the biggest legal change seems to be that Mr. Mueller is going to proceed forward with the idea of a criminal investigation versus counter-intelligence investigation.


MATTINGLY: And the senator's point here is this -- they don't want to bump into a criminal investigation. They don't want to be subpoenaing documents that might get in the way of a congressional investigation.

John Cornyn, who's on the Senate Intelligence Committee, a committee that's running its own investigation, said he believed this was the recipe for a train wreck. So, what senators are trying to figure out right now, what leaders are trying to figure out right now is how to kind of grasp onto a single point of contact. But leaders have been very clear, Anderson, they expect the congressional investigations to continue, they expect the committees to continue their work in spite of, or perhaps along with Bob Mueller.

COOPER: What does this mean for the congressional agenda moving forward? I mean, is it stalled?

MATTINGLY: Yes, there's no question about it. Look, I asked Speaker Paul Ryan about this specifically today. I asked him, does all this drama essentially undercut what you're trying to do? And he said, look, the drama doesn't help, but we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

And to a degree, that's true. Look, they've had hearings on tax reform. The House has passed an Obamacare repeal and replace. But the reality is, when you talk to Republican aides, at least that I've been speaking to over the course of the last couple of weeks, these are huge, ambitious items that they're trying to actually move through.

And if you want to do that, you need the White House laser-focused on those issues, outselling those issues, only talking about those issues. They simply haven't gotten that up to this point. And there's a lot of concern, while there's relief on the short term about the special counsel being made, that all this is going to do is tie the White House up even more in the days, weeks, months, perhaps even years ahead, and frankly, that draws a lot of concern about those very ambitious agenda items that they had planned for 2017, Anderson.

COOPER: But all the congressional committees on Capitol Hill, on Congress, and the Senate, that are investigating, all those investigations continue -- will continue to move forward despite -- I mean, regardless of Mueller?

MATTINGLY: Yes. That's exactly right. And the leaders have made very clear that's exactly what they want. Senate Intelligence Committee, both the chairman and the vice chairman, Democrat and Republican, have said their investigation will continue.

The House Intelligence Committee actually requested the Comey memos today. And several -- a total, Anderson, of four committees have requested those memos from James Comey over the course of the last couple of days and made very clear and Nancy Pelosi repeated again today, she wants James Comey to publicly testify.

Anderson, I think the big question right now is, as this moves forward two-fold kind of, will anything run into anything else? Will these committees bang into one another? Will they get in the way of Bob Mueller as the FBI director, or sorry, or as special counsel and what he's trying to do?

And perhaps most importantly, are these investigations just going to be surface-based? At this point, will they essentially be undercut by everything that's going on or will they actually come to a real conclusion? I'm told, Anderson, that when you look what the Senate Intelligence Committee is trying to do right now, think of it more as counter-intelligence investigation, that will be their focus. But again, it's an open question right now. They're kind of in unchartered territory right now.

COOPER: Yes, certainly seems that way. Phil, thanks very much.

"The New York Times" has a new article that just out. I want to read from it.

President Trump called the FBI Director James B. Comey weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation, according to two people briefed on the call. This again is reporting by "The New York Times."

They go on to say: Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau's investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquiries to the Justice Department, according to those people.

It goes on: After explaining to Mr. Trump how communications with the FBI should work, Mr. Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line after a series of encounters he had with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardize the FBI's independence at the time Mr. Comey was overseeing the investigation to links between Mr. Trump's associates and Russia. That's Michael Schmidt's reporting in "The New York Times".

Jeff Zeleny is back with more.

This is -- Jeff, I mean, this is fascinating stuff, the idea that there would be this direct contact which goes against all protocol. ZELENY: Anderson, it's very interesting, and again, more reporting

from Michael Schmidt who broke the story earlier in the week about those memos. And I think what it speaks to the president's mindset, certainly even before he was sworn into office, that he was seemed obsessed by someone clearing him of any wrongdoing in any of this.

So, that's why he started those, you know, conversations with the FBI director. But it's so clear, based on this reporting, at least, that James Comey has a deep paper trail. The White House has said, look, those conversations didn't happen, but that's really all they've done. They've not sort of refuted it in any serious way in terms of, you know, specifics about this.

[20:15:05] But James Comey, he's known across Washington as being very meticulate in taking notes like this. And the president was trying to move from it at the news conference earlier today and said, no, no, next question, and was not talking about James Comey.

But, Anderson, what this shows is, there's more to hear from the James Comey side that will come out either in congressional testimony if he testifies or with the special counsel. But I'm also struck by remembering that day in January, when the FBI director, who stands 6'8". He's a towering figure. The president called him up and brought him sort of into a bear hug.

COOPER: Yes, we're looking --

ZELENY: In video, we've seen so many times, Anderson. And that, according to this story and other reporting we've done, made the FBI director so uncomfortable at the time, at the moment.

Now, we know why if this reporting is to be believed. But again, it's more layers of the onion with the unusual contact with the president and FBI director.

COOPER: You know, Jeff, I mean, what's so fascinating about the call "The New York Times" is just reporting on is just the personal nature with which the president of the United States believes he can influence things or sort of his desire to do things personally, whether making that call or whether it's, you know, getting Jeff Sessions out of the office and getting the vice president outside of the office and having a private conversation with the director of the FBI, which the White House is now refuting.

Although, frankly, I don't know why anyone would believe what the White House says because some unnamed White House official saying, oh, that conversation between Comey and the president never happened. The only way they would know that is depending what the president of the United States told them and we know that the president has told them things either not true or which he then refutes a day later.

ZELENY: No question about it. The credibility is on the line. Every thing -- every story that has come out, and, boy, this week, there have been so many of them. The instant response from the White House to say, no, that did not happen, that is not true. The reality here, though, the communications people in this White

House only know what they are told, quite frankly. All of this emanates from the Oval Office itself. And the president did not -- he had the opportunity, a forum this afternoon, of course, to explain his side of the Comey story and he quickly moved on beyond that.

He also said something else that I'm just remembering now, Anderson, at that news conference today. He said, even my enemies have said I'm not implicated in this at all. Well, that's just not true. The fact of the matter is people across the board have said, look, we don't know if there is collusion, that's why there needs to be an investigation.

But, boy, beside from James Comey, we're getting more and more of this, certainly must be frustrating to the White House, as of yet we have not seen the president sort of release anything to refute any of these very detailed recollections from James Comey.

COOPER: Yes. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Coming up next, the president's insistence that he is the real victim here. We're keeping him honest on that.

And later, what our legal minds have to say about what Congress and now a special counsel are investigating.


[20:20:06] COOPER: I just want to quickly recap "The New York Times" remarkable piece, to call it the backdrop literally to his video of President Trump calling the FBI Director Comey over, an awkward moment for the director apparently, because Trump, the president, had called him earlier to ask to be cleared in essence on Russia.

The president kept talking today as he often does when he's angry with a tweet or two. From this morning on the naming of a special counsel, quote: This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.

Moments later, he tweeted, quote: With all the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign and Obama administration, there was never a special counsel appointed.

Keeping them honest, it's hard to know exactly what the president is referring to, there was the Petraeus affair, which was prosecuted fully. There was Benghazi, which was extensively investigated. The FBI investigated Hillary Clinton on her e-mail server and found no criminal wrongdoing, just bad judgment.

And in general sense, the Obama administration was by most accounts notably short on major corruption scandals.

As to the whole witch-hunt aspect, the president was already on a roll on that from the day before. Here is his commencement speech yesterday at the Coast Guard Academy.


TRUMP: Look at the way I've been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.


COOPER: Can you imagine if that was your commencement address? One for the memory books. The four U.S. presidents who were shot dead might disagree also with that statement.

Joining us now: Yahoo News and finance anchor, Bianna Golodryga, Jeffrey Lord is here, Mary Katharine Ham and Brian Fallon.

Jeffrey, I mean, is it helpful for the president to portray himself continually as a victim, as the greatest victim of all?

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: What he's saying, I was in the White House for the Iran Contra affair. Ronald Reagan stood up at some point, he had the New York Jets there for the Super Bowl ceremony and he referred to, I think it was Lawrence Taylor, you know, his fans, and all of a sudden, he stopped and said, I don't have many fans anymore.

Presidents think this way when they're under assault. I would make the point, particularly have been through Iran Contra, that the media -- the media insisted that he had personal responsibility. It turned out he didn't.

But every single night on the news, there was that finger-pointing at the president and saying he was responsible. So, I understand exactly what the president is going about. This is about agenda politics.

COOPER: I guess there's a difference between an offhand remark by President Reagan and giving a commencement address, which is how bad things are for him, go forth unafraid, I got to tell you how bad things are for me, and constantly talking and tweeting about -- I mean, every legal expert for the last couple of days have said, you know what, the best thing he can do is be quiet, don't keep talking about this investigation.

LORD: But he does see -- he clearly sees a double standard. I see a double standard. You know --

COOPER: Who would agree, though, that it's not wise for him to continue to tweet and talk about this? He can talk about his agenda moving forward.

LORD: I -- but he should do that, you're correct. He should move the agenda forward.

COOPER: Brian, I mean, this is an opportunity -- you can look at it as an opportunity to the president to say, you know what, there's a special counsel, there's investigation, we give it our blessing, we're moving forward and that be done with it. BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. In the long

term, Bob Mueller is going to investigate this aggressively. And if there's any wrongdoing, he's going to find it and it's going to be uncomfortable for a lot of aides that are going to have to retain private counsel and potentially answer questions.

But in the short term, it really is a blessing in disguise for this Trump White House, for two reasons. Number one, Bob Mueller does his work methodically and he does it quietly, meaning that this investigation will probably take a long time and there's not going to be leaks, because that's not the way Bob Mueller operates.

And that gives the Trump White House the space to duck questions and say, hey, look, there's a process afoot. We're going to let that play out. In the meantime, focus on their agenda.

The second is I think it actually might quiet James Comey. James Comey is a long-time friend and also views Bob Mueller as a mentor figure. He is going to be loathed I think now to start leaking out these memos and perhaps even not want to testify on Capitol Hill anymore, knowing that it would undercut Bob Mueller's investigation.

COOPER: It also could be a blessing for the president in that if Mueller finds nothing illegal, no actual legal behavior, maybe poor judgment, maybe collusion, no actual illegality, he may not make a report about it, saying there is nothing to prosecute here and it's done, and the full story might not actually be known.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: Well, if, because as we know, the president seems to be his own worst enemy. He can't help himself. He keeps tweeting. He's the one, by the way, who fired Comey. He's the one who invited the Russians into the Oval Office without the American press. He's the one who said in an interview that, oh, I fired him over the Russians.

So, the big if is whether or not the president can control himself. We know these investigations can take months if not years.

COOPER: It's also fascinating that this president believes that he's able to talk his way out of stuff. In fact, the more he talks, the deeper he gets in. I mean, today, he reversed himself again going back to Rod Rosenstein's memo, days ago he said, oh, no, I knew what I was going to do before that.

[20:25:06] MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he talked himself into the presidency by doing that. So, that he's -- that's what he's referring to. He's looking back and going, oh, this has worked so far and I don't think it will work on this occasion.

He can't see where he has an opportunity to say, there's an investigation going on, we give that investigation our blessing, this guy is well-respected and we can't comment on it right now. That's a great opportunity. Now, let me turn to talking about what I'm actually trying to do.

I think he's on safe political ground saying, look, I have political adversaries who want to take me out for any reason. That's certainly true and it's true of any president.

He's also safe framing it as, you know, media fight versus real America and I think that would be politically useful to him and he can speak about his agenda in that way.

Once you go beyond that and start talking about the investigation and contradicting all of your aides along the way, it just makes things more complicated and messy for you and you're already a complicated and messy person.

COOPER: The White House has also reached a point -- and I say this with no glee at all. I mean, I think everybody wants to be able to trust the word that is coming out -- the White House makes an official statement, you want to believe that it is real. You know, they're making a statement that, oh, this conversation between then director Comey and the president, it didn't happen, it didn't happen the way that it's being reported.

The only two people who know are the two people who are in the room at the time. And the president has a history of saying things to his aides which turn out not to be true or not telling his aides what actually were said. I mean, we saw this when he was briefed on that two page summary of that 35-page dossier, he didn't tell his aides and his aides went out there, they came on CNN, they attacked CNN, saying your reporting is wrong.

We were right. He was briefed and it later came out.

HAM: Yes. And what I think that causes further problems for him because, for instance, with the Rosenstein thing, Rosenstein picks this special counsel I think in part because he was undermined a week earlier. He was in the Trump orbit two weeks and he was undermined pretty largely by the president. And so, you get the situation where he's built a reputation for many, many, many years and needs to make sure he is preserving it as an honest broker, and part of that is bringing in the independent guy to look into this.

GOLODRYGA: And there's also a credibility problem on the president's part as well. I mean, you see time and time again that his aides trying to defend him and he throws them under the bus. I think what we're seeing in this "New York Times" article is really backing up, a lot of Comey's aides are coming to his defense. You're not going to see that much coming from the president's aides, because time and time again, they seem to be undermined by their boss.

LORD: There is a question here, I'm sure the Trump White House is aware. Certainly, I've heard this in conservative circles.

If you go back to the Obama interview with Chris Wallace of "Fox Sunday" back in April of last year, in which he says, uses the language that Hillary Clinton didn't intentionally do -- have her e- mail problem and it wasn't intended, and then, a couple months later, Director Comey uses almost exactly that same language.

So, the question is raised, was President Obama sending a visual signal to Director Comey, this is where I want you to go, because that is in fact where Director Comey went.

COOPER: And I remember a lot of questions being asked about the president saying that, where everyone was saying, how can he say that?

LORD: I'm just saying the feeling is out there that the media firestorm, I mean, I've seen this in print over there at "National Review" from Andy McCarthy, who's a former prosecutor, that the firestorm following this for President Trump isn't there -- wasn't there for President Obama.

COOPER: That's not true. I mean, I remember reporting. I mean, I can't speak for the --

LORD: Weeks on end?

COOPER: -- media in general, but I do remember raising that issue when the president of the United States said that. I mean, it raises all sorts of questions.

LORD: Then, so correspondingly, should there be a special counsel to go back and look?

COOPER: You're -- I mean --

LORD: No, no, I'm asking rhetorically.

COOPER: I mean, I think there seems to be a whole -- a lot more evidence here. I mean, look, Rod Rosenstein looked at the evidence, the Department of Justice looked at and he's the one who appointed the special counsel. The White House just last week was singing his praises to how credible he is, to now suddenly, you know, be questioning whether, you know, he should have done this.

HAM: Well, when it comes to the firestorm, because I do think there's a lot of, like, the smoke gets billowing and billowing and billowing, and sometimes with help, and you're not really seeing the facts that clearly. I think Mueller being quiet and having not so many leaks and having a clear plan here, he's a very methodical guy actually could help some of the distinguishing between what is smoke and what is fire.

GOLODRYGA: But you have to --


COOPER: Sorry.

Jeff Zeleny, does the -- do you have the sense the White House sees a problem? Do they think they have a credibility problem?

TAPPER: Sure. I mean, most advisors, particularly the ones who worked in Washington for any time at all know they have a credibility problem. They can tell it in the questions that are asked of them at briefings. They can, of course, read newspapers.

I mean, this is not a one-sided song here they are hearing they have a credibility problem. This is coming from surround sound across Washington, from friendlier place, conservative voices and other things, saying that they have a credibility problem. They hear it from Capitol Hill.

And it manifests itself, Anderson, in the legislative agenda. If you talk to people in Speaker Ryan's office, in Leader McConnell's office, they will say that they told the White House and reminded them the credibility is central here because --


[20:30:03] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- it from Capitol Hill. And, it manifests itself, Anderson, in the legislative agenda. If you talk to people in Speaker Ryan's office and leader McConnell's office, they will say that they've told the White House and reminded them the credibility is essential here because they're still trying to get on the same page and get the agenda through.

So, what the White House is trying to do -- I've noticed a couple changes over the last week, I don't know, I would say week or 10 days or so in this sort of firestorm of whiplash of stories. They are saying more and more, Sean Spicer and other aides are saying, I don't know, let me ask about that, but I don't know the answer to that.

The reality is because the president changes his mind, sort of gives a different thing. So they know they have a credibility problem. The question is how to fix it.

And probably, it's going to be a change at that press podium at some point and they're hoping this foreign trip starting tomorrow changes the subject. It's certainly a high wire act.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Yeah, all right. Thanks everybody.

Just ahead, Pres. Trump said flat out he didn't collude with the Russians but can only speak for himself, not his campaign. Should campaign and transition staffers be worried? I'll talk to Alan Dershowitz, Jeffrey Toobin, and Carl Bernstein, ahead.


COOPER: As we said today, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein gave a briefing to the whole Senate one day after he appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the investigation into possible coordination between Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.

Here what Sen. Lindsey Graham said just after the briefing.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: It was a good decision to pick a special counsel. A lot of confident and Mr. Mueller, I think the shot to the body is now considered a criminal investigation and Congress's ability to conduct investigation of all things. Russia has been severely limited probably in an appropriate fashion. It was a counter-intelligence investigation before now. It seems to me now to be considered a criminal investigation.


COOPER: Well, Sen. Graham was referring to four congressional investigations currently looking into the Trump campaigns ties to Russia. The naming of a special prosecutor, as Sen. Graham noted, has implications for how they'll proceed.

Lots to discuss, joining me is Alan Dershowitz, Jeffrey Toobin, and Carl Bernstein.

Professor Dershowitz, you know, for the last two days you have been saying the president should lawyer up and stop tweeting and be silent and now here he is publicly saying this is a witch hunt.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: How many clients that we will had as lawyers who haven't listen to what we advised them to do? And what he said was so foolish, any of us who lived through the age of McCarthyism or anybody who lived through the age where, you know, so many other kinds of witch hunts really occurred to say that the president of the United States who has access to so much information, who has Fox News, basically on his side, and other media on his side.

I just don't feel sorry for him saying that this is the subject of a witch hunt. Though I think he will be the beneficiary of the appointment of the special prosecutor. Why? Special prosecutor is supposed to investigate crime. And most of the things that have been leveled at the Trump administration are not criminal acts, collaborating with the Russians to get yourself elected, not a criminal act.

[20:35:13] COOPER: Might be --


COOPER: Terrible.


COOPER: Morally wrong.

DERSHOWITZ: Morally wrong.

COOPER: Not illegal.

DERSHOWITZ: But not criminal. The same thing is true with leaking of the information to the Russians.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: But isn't it also true that, you know, you got advice, of course, the advice you would give. But do you think Bob Mueller is going to really judge him more harshly because he said a nasty thing? I mean I think he's a politician. He's mobilizing his base. He is attacking the investigation. This is how he got elected president. I don't think it will hurt him at all.

DERSHOWITZ: But it did hurt him when he tried to put the blame on Rod Rosenstein.

Look, people are heroes but they all want themselves to emerge well. I think one of the reasons Mueller did the stupid thing he did during the Hillary Clinton campaign is he put his own --

TOOBIN: Comey.

DERSHOWITZ: Comey. He put his own dignity in front of the interests of the country. I think Rod Rosenstein was thinking also about what his reputation will be. People care deeply about their reputation.

COOPER: Carl, I mean calling the witch hunt. It is consistent with how he's blasted the Russian investigation in the past. But the irony is that this decision was made by his own Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, someone he himself appointed who his administration has been praising in the, you know, in the days after Comey was fired.

CARL BERNSTEIN, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Let's cut to the chase. Rod Rosenstein threw a monkey wrench into a cover-up that the White House has been engaged in.

Exactly what the cover-up has been about, what it is that the president of the United States does not want us to know, what it is the president of the United States thought that he need to impede an investigation to undermine it, to dismiss it, treat it with disdain. We don't know yet the specifics.

What we know is that he feels very threatened by this investigation. And what Rod Rosenstein did and said enough already we're going to have a special prosecutor. This president tried to use me, manipulate me. And I have no choice now but to make sure the rule of law prevails. And Trump is threatened by this. That's where we are.

And the idea of self-pity is part of his ammo. It has been part of his ammo throughout his adult life, throughout his campaign. It worked for him in the campaign. But what we are seeing in the Trump presidency is that all the things that worked so brilliantly in the campaign are working to undermine him as president of the United States.

TOOBIN: I'm not prepared to agree with that. I mean I think he is, you know, he is still the president. He is supported by his party. You know, all this talk of Republicans abandoning him is -- you know, just a couple of politicians saying they're concerned.

COOPER: Let me play something that he said at the news conference today. Because the president gave a blanket denial on behalf of his campaign then kind of suggested he was more comfortable speaking only for himself. So let's just play that.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) U.S. PRESIDENT: There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign but I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero.


COOPER: How significant do you think that was?

TOOBIN: If I were Paul Manafort or Carter Page or Michael Flynn or even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, I would be uncomfortable listening to that, because he seems to be setting up while these other people were talking to the Russians. I don't know what they were doing.

DERSHOWITZ: Let's assume that's true. Show me the criminal statute. I still sit here as a civil libertarian. I don't want us ever to become what Stalinist Russia became when Stalin was told by Lavrenti Beria, show me the man and I'll find you the crime. What is the crime?


COOPER: Professor, because -- what the president has said is there was no collusion period.

DERSHOWITZ: I understand that.

COOPER: There's a difference between there was no illegal collusion and there was collusion.

DERSHOWITZ: I agree with you. That's a political issue. But that doesn't give that Mueller jurisdiction. Mueller has no jurisdiction to explore whether he made political mistakes, did terrible things, engaged in wrongdoing, only criminal conduct.


TOOBIN: Aiding and abetting the hacking of telephones.


DERSHOWITZ: -- you're in abetting requires more than knowledge.

BERNSTEIN: This is an extraordinary situation that we need to know about. And for the first threshold to cross, you seem so convinced that there has been no criminal violation. Let this investigation proceed, professor --

DERSHOWITZ: But we will then --

BERNSTEIN: -- and then we'll find -- can I finish, please?

DERSHOWITZ: We will never find it out.

BERNSTEIN: Can -- can --

DERSHOWITZ: It will always be done in secret. It should be a special investigative committee which everything is done in the open. Even Nancy Pelosi called for that today and I'm calling for that again, because there, we have both sides presented. We have it out in the open. We don't have it in the black box of grand jury that will never know. We'll only hear about leaks selective leaks. We won't hear the whole truth.

[20:40:02] TOOBIN: You know, Alan, you don't like Grand juries --


TOOBIN: Grand juries have been around since the 18th century, in the bill of rights.

DERSHOWITZ: I know. They were in the bill of rights for a good reason and prosecutors have abused that. They were -- bill of rights as a protection.

If you put 100 criminal lawyers in front of you now and ask how many of you would abolish the grand jury, a 101 would say abolish the Grand jury. We don't want the Grand jury the way prosecutors have abused it.

COOPER: All right, we're going to leave it there. Jeff Toobin, Professor Dershowitz, Carl Bernstein, a master class. Thank you all.

Coming up, multiple red flags about former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn are come back to haunt the vice president. Now there's a report that Flynn himself told the transition team which was headed by Pence that he was under investigation for his ties to Turkey during. What the White House is now saying next.


COOPER: Going questions tonight not only about the president but also the role of Vice President Mike Pence, plays in the ever changing narrative.

As we reported after the Comey firing, Vice President Pence came out with talking points that the president contradicted just two days later. It could be happening again.

As the head of the transition team, the vice president is now facing new scrutiny as timeline of warning about Michael Flynn snaps into show for focus. A senior administration adviser tell CNN this is all taking toll on the vice president, saying he looks tired but he'll continue to be in this advisor's opinion, "loyal soldier," because he's relentlessly positive. CNN's Athena Jones has more.


ATHENA JONES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: The White House tonight is denying a "New York Times" report that Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn told the Trump transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under investigation.

The report puts renewed focus on Vice President Mike Pence who led the Trump transition effort. Pence has maintained the first time he learned of any investigation was months later in March when the retired general registered with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent, a move that seemed to surprise the vice president at the time. MIKE PENCE, (R) U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: Well, let me say hearing that story today was the first I heard of it. And I fully support the decision that Pres. Trump made to ask for Gen. Flynn's resignation.

JONES: A Pence aide telling "CNN Today," "The Vice President stands by his comments in March upon first hearing the news regarding General Flynn's ties to Turkey and fully supports the President's decision to ask for General Flynn's resignation." That despite the vice president also receiving a warning about Flynn's foreign ties in a letter last November from Democratic Congressman, Elijah Cummings.

REP. ELIJAN CUMMINGS, (D) MARYLAND: I sent him a lengthy letter warning him of it.

JONES: The letter detailed Flynn's lobbying work for a Turkish firm and payment he received for a speech in Moscow that was quote, "highly critical of the United States."

During the height of the presidential campaign, Flynn's consulting firm was paid more than a half a million dollars by a Turkish owned company. Cumming says, has later told that he had no recollection of receiving the document.

CUMMINGS: Basically, when I asked him about it later on, he said that, you know, he just (inaudible). And he doesn't remember getting it.

[20:45:06] JONES: Pence, who has often acted as a Trump translator dating back to the campaign --

PENCE: Donald Trump is a good man.

JONES: -- is facing a growing credibility problem.

Just last week, when he was dispatched to Capitol Hill after the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, Pence repeated the White House line seven times, stating that the decision to fire Comey was based on a recommendation from the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein.

PENCE: He provided strong leadership and to act on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.

JONES: Only to be contradicted by the president hours later.

TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. My decision, I was going to fire regardless.

JONES: Athena Jones, CNN the White House.


COOPER: Back now with the panel. Joining the conversation, Gloria Borger and Matthew Rosenberg, who wrote the "New York Times" piece, the White House is denying that. Let's start with you, sir, on your reporting that the Trump transition team knew Gen. Flynn was under investigation before he came to the White House, again, the White House denying it. If it's in fact true would Vice President-Elect Pence have known that Flynn was under investigation since he was overseeing the transition team?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: you know, it's a really good question. And the White House is welcome to deny this. They had the opportunity to do that yesterday hours before the story was published and they chose not to comment.

Today, they've decided, I guess, they're going to comment. I don't know what went on inside that transition. And if the warnings they were given were not communicated to Vice President Pence who is running that transition, that's another story and that's a significant problem, too.

I mean at what point that this become, you know, a story about an organization that failed to vet properly, I mean didn't take, you know, years of investigation to figure out. People were already talking about it in November, that Flynn was representing Turkey. Did nobody do any due diligence here?

And I think there are serious questions both about the vetting done by the Trump transition and about why they went forward knowing what they did about General Flynn.

COOPER: It's also fascinating, Gloria, I mean just -- the sheer volume of people who have been around the president or even candidate Trump who end up getting tarnished in some way or thrown --


COOPER: -- under the bus or misled and they go out and put their reputations as spokespeople on the line only to be undercut hours later by the president, you know, in the early morning tweet storm.

BORGER: I know. I mean -- you know, Mike Pence is perhaps the best example because he looks like he was either out of the loop or he was lied to or he was dissembling. And none of those choices are particularly good. And I spoke with a senior administration advisor tonight particularly about Mike Pence and said he to me, he has enormous peace about his role in this administration.

And, he said it's just kind of washes off his back, in a way, and that he also believes that next week, you're going to see Pence while the president is abroad, you're going to see Pence take a big role in the budget rollout and he's going to be up on Capitol Hill talking about tax reform and healthcare. But, you have to think, although Pence is so stone-faced about it, you have to think that this is a man who has got to be worrying --


BORGER: -- about his reputation.

COOPER: Mary Katharine, this is a guy who was -- you know, the White House has informed that Flynn, not only is under investigation but, you know, lied to the vice president about, you know, of what the vice president then went out and told the public and wasn't let go for 18 days. And it's not clear when the vice president was, you know, told that he'd been lied to.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yeah, I mean I think this is the challenge with Trump. I think many of these folks are people with good reputations, who are good actors who went into this situation thinking, I will do my best for my country. And then -- it doesn't mean they're not ambitious people, but you also end up in a situation where you're having to serve somebody who requires a lot of loyalty, but doesn't really give you a lot of loyalty and consistency in return and that can put you in a really, really bad position.

And I think that Pence is a guy who wants to do the best for his country and think he should be there. I'm not sure how much influence he's had. And that transition was incredibly chaotic. I think that's important to keep in mind as unclear what any one knew at any given time, so, the intent in Trump. You couldn't find more polar opposite --

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: But you can't say that they've been close. Who you can't say was close was the president and Michael Flynn, throughout the campaign. Michael Flynn was always there at his side. The president really does seem to have a dependence on Michael Flynn for many reasons, for economic support, for foreign policy support. I remember reading that op-ed that he wrote in November strongly supporting Erdogan. I'm wondering, why would he write this? Well, now we know he was paid by the Turkish government.

And I really do think when it comes down to the president and what he said today about wanting to bring the country together. I do think that something needs to be said about that video of Erdogan's bodyguards, really attacking the Kurdish protesters.

[20:50:11] And if the president wanted to bring the country together, remind the country of what this country really is about. The freedom of protest. He should have said something about that today.

COOPER: Not overseas protests --


COOPER: -- here in the United States.


COOPER: His guards are beating people up on the streets of Washington, D.C.

GOLODRYGA: And you see video of Erdogan watching this, and some reports that he actually ordered this to take place. And yet the president rewards him by bringing into the Oval Office.

HAM: I think this is an opportunity which, of course, the Trump White House does not see to have a really good moment where in a really natural Trump moment of strength to say like, you don't do this on our soil. Contrast a bit with Obama, something similar happened under his administration. There was no strong response. But he has a tendency to like --

COOPER: Hold that thought, Gloria, we'll coming right back to you. We're going to continue the conversation. After a quick break, we're going to hear what fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told me about her warning to the White House about Michael Flynn, next.


COOPER: The White House says the vice president is standing by his comments in March that he didn't know about fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's ties to Turkey that despite a "New York Times" report that says Flynn told the transition team two weeks before the inauguration that he was under investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkish interest during the campaign.

As that's the Turkey side, then, of course, there's the Russia side which as we know Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House about before she was fired. She warned that Flynn could be open to blackmail by Russia. Here's what Sally Yates told me this week.


COOPER: Was the underlying conduct illegal? Was it illegality involved?

SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: There's certainly a criminal statute that was implicated by his conduct.

COOPER: Do you agree there was no legal issue with Flynn's underlying behavior?

YATES: I don't know how the White House reached the conclusion that there was no legal issue, it certainly wasn't from my discussion with them.


COOPER: Back now with the panel. Matt, do we know how Vice President Pence factored into that warning from Yates on Flynn? Because we know the White House Counsel informed the president the day of their first meeting with Sally Yates right away. But was the vice president in the loop as well that he'd been lied to?

ROSENBERG: I don't believe he was. Actually, I'm not entirely clear on the timeline here, --

COOPER: Right.

ROSENBERG: -- but I don't believe he was, and I mean, this is -- at what point do we kind of just say, OK, what is it? Are you just complete out of the loop and you are have no role on this or you know and you're not being straightforward with the American public? The vice president can't have it both ways. But this is a White House that seems to want to continually do that. And it's very seem to be the case with Flynn where the president is going on and still has praised him recently, yet even kind of they whisper and they talk and say, oh, well, you know, he really betrayed us, lied to us. It's all done under the cloak of anonymity. And you really have to wonder what's going on here. I think it goes to a point your earlier about, you know, the president expects a tremendous amount of loyalty from people around him, but he doesn't offer much in return.

[20:55:03] COOPER: And Gloria, I mean, Sally Yates, you know, said very likely -- you know, there's a case to be made that there was illegally there and that's what --


COOPER: -- she informed the White House of. The White House even after Flynn was like, go said -- he was let go because he lied, not that there was anything inherently illegal about what he had done.

BORGER: Right.

COOPER: Clearly Sally Yates disagrees.

BORGER: She does disagree. I mean she went over there with her hair on fire and said I can't talk to you, Don McGahn, White House Counsel, about this over the phone. It's so important that I have to go over to the White House and I have to let you know. And she let him know and then we don't know what happened after that.

And so, I would -- I would argue that there is no loop in the White House to be out of. I think there's only one person in the White House and that's Donald Trump.

And, he has, I've been told by sources close to him, that he's been complaining an awful lot about his White House Counsel, Don McGahn. I don't know what the reason is, maybe it's because he -- the president felt he was out of this loop.

I just, you know, I don't have any idea, but it's hard for me to think of any other White House in which, you know, she would go down to the White House, tell the White House Counsel these issues that she had with the National Security Adviser, you know, being subject potentially to blackmail and that a White House wouldn't act on that very, very quickly. It's stunning.

COOPER: It is incredible, though, to have the president of the United States, you know, basically seeming to blame all the people around him constantly without any self-realization that at a certain point, it's not everybody around you who is making errors.

HAM: Is the president also -- I mean, when it comes to Flynn, I think Gloria is right, he might have been the loop. He likes this guy, he seemed invested in protecting him even when he was firing him, he was effusive in his praise of him and I think when Donald Trump likes you, even if it's for a brief period of time, that's the force that -- COOPER: There's another view of it, which is whether he likes him or

not, that he knows something --

HAM: Right.

COOPER: -- that Flynn knows and wants to keep him close for that reason. Keep him loyal.

GOLODRYGA: They're in it for the long run. My colleague Mike Sikoff today reported that he found out from sources that they're still exchanging text messages. The president was texting with Michael Flynn just a few weeks ago telling him to stay strong, so is it because he's so attached to him personally or because maybe they're in on something together that's a bit more nefarious?

HAM: I always go with incompetence than nefarious for the most part with Donald Trump. That doesn't mean there isn't nefariousness. But I --

GOLODRYGA: He knows more Russian than I do. And I know a lot of -- HAM: But I do think there's another issue with this White House which

is, like, their blacklist is so large of people that they don't trust that link with so many Republicans and conservatives that they're having trouble staffing so a Yates or an Elijah Cummings coming to them, they -- I can imagine that they're immediately discarded and sometimes there might be some reasons for being suspicious about information brought to you but not all the time.

COOPER: I want to thank you. Sorry, go ahead, Gloria.

BORGER: No, I just going to say, look, this is all about loyalty with Donald Trump. He was warned about Flynn by his first transition team. He saw Flynn misbehave at their original briefing when they got their first briefing, and he said, yeah, I know, but I'm told he said, yeah, I know, but, you know, he was loyal to me and he was the first person with brass on his shoulders that came out and supported me.

COOPER: All right, everyone, thank you.

Coming up, the latest from a White House under scrutiny. The president calls it a witch hunt. The latest on what he and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are saying about the Russia investigation just today. Next.