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Trump: Probe "Greatest Witch Hunt" in U.S. Politics; Deputy AG to Brief Senate on Comey Firing Today. Special Counsel Pick Earns Bipartisan Praise. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 18, 2017 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: There is nothing special about a witch hunt, at least according to the president of the United States, angry this morning about the fact that a special counsel was named to investigate alleged Russian meddling in the election and any possible ties to the Trump campaign.

He wrote just a short time ago, "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" It is worthy of note that this special counsel was appointed by someone who works for the President of the United States and was appointed by the President of the United States, so it's a witch hunt caused by a Trump appointee. White House staffers, no doubt are getting ready for the president, who will answer questions from reporters later this afternoon. Will he repeat these witch hunt claims out loud when he gets a chance to talk in a few hours? We're watching that very closely.

Let's get straight to the White House now, Joe Johns there with the latest on a dramatic night - a dramatic night, Joe, at the White House, to say the least.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Certainly a dramatic night here. And interesting to see what the day brings, John. That special counsel you referred to, Bob Mueller, very well known in Washington as the longest serving FBI director in history with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover.

The statement from the White House last night muted after the president sat down with his advisers, crafted 57 words. I'll read them to you. "As I stated many times, in a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know that there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country."

So, last night's statement coming once again as the administration was reacting, as opposed to directing events. Clear that the White House was told, as opposed to asked, about Mueller. They got about a half hour's heads-up, we're told. This information was not relayed to the attorney general before Rod Rosenstein decided and signed the papers, as one source suggested the administration, or I should say, Rod Rosenstein, was really in some ways throwing the administration and the White House overboard. So, we're going to see whether the President of the United States, given an opportunity at this news conference this afternoon, the news conference with the president of Colombia, will repeat his claims of this being a witch hunt or if he'll use some words that are a little bit less inflammatory, John.

BERMAN: Well, if he'll be given that opportunity, will he take it? That will be interesting to see. Joe Johns in the White House, thank you very, very much.

You're talking about Rod Rosenstein, who said yesterday that this investigation is necessary for the American people to have full confidence in the federal investigation into the Russia election meddling issue. Joined now by Phil Mattingly, who is on Capitol Hill. Phil, a lot of reaction, positive reaction, from both Democrats and Republicans there.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a little bit jarring. It was almost bipartisan agreement on something up here, John, which is actually fairly interesting. Republicans almost to a person, almost to a lawmaker saying they welcome this development and that's obviously a reversal or at least a shift after weeks upon weeks of basically every time I've asked any of them if a special counsel is necessary, with the exception of maybe five or six, almost 200 individuals. They have said no, absolutely not.

But there's kind of a behind-the-scenes story here that matters. These lawmakers, these Republican lawmakers especially, as it's been described to me by multiple aides, are essentially beaten down at this point. Every single day they have to answer questions about the Russia investigation. They have to answer questions about the White House, about the president and this, as one aide told me, is a bit of a pressure relief for them. It's a pressure relief valve, if you will, kind of releases that, gives them something to point to anytime we ask these questions.

Now, that doesn't mean there are no concerns. In the short term, this might be helpful to their members, but several aides last night made very clear, one of the key reasons Republicans, John, up to this point have been opposed to a special counsel -- obviously, they've talked about the ongoing congressional investigations, but they keenly recognize what a special counsel actually means, most importantly, what it could mean to their agenda, how it could tie down the White House, how it could suck all the oxygen and frankly, a lot of the manpower out of the White House as they continue to try and chase things like tax reform, things like completing the repeal and replace of Obamacare.

So, those concerns still exist, but it's also noteworthy, John, that there are still a lot of concerns from Democrats and some of those concerns may be addressed today with some very hard questions, behind the scenes in a classified briefing, when deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein comes up to Capitol Hill. Take a listen to what West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin had to say earlier this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I want to hear why he took the position he took in justifying Comey's firing. Everything I've heard about Mr. Comey, he was not a hot dog. He was not a glory hound or anything people have said. He was an ultimate professional. And with that being said -- with saying that and looking back on what we've done, why did Mr. Rosenstein write such a letter justifying why he had to get rid of him?


[10:05:02] MATTINGLY: Now, the deputy attorney general, John, will be briefing all 100 senators in that classified session. Democrats are saying they want to come out and be able to talk about some of the explanations they heard. Republicans saying, not so fast, this is a classified briefing. It will be interesting to see how that comes out.

Also, another key question we're waiting for an answer to right now. Democrats still want former FBI director Jim Comey to testify. Multiple committees have requested that testimony. Does the appointment of a special counsel put an end to that or short-circuit that in some way, shape or form? We don't have an answer yet, but those are certainly questions we're asking right now.

BERMAN: Yes, that's a huge question. Phil Mattingly for us on Capitol Hill. Thank you so much. So, who is Bob Mueller, the new special counsel investigating this matter? He was nominated to the FBI director in 2001 by then President George W. Bush, just one week after taking the reins after the September 11 terror attacks, which led to the largest criminal investigation in the FBI's history. Mueller had worked for the Justice Department for years. He was a U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office in both San Francisco and Boston.

So, what's his job going to be like now? How much power does a special counsel have? I'm joined by CNN's Supreme Court reporter Ariane de Vogue, who has a closer look. Ariane?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Well, you know, this was a big step, right? And it took a lot of people, including the president, by surprise. But the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, he relied on Department of Justice regulations to make this appointment and those say that, look, if there's a conflict of interest or other extraordinary circumstances, this appointment can be made. Rosenstein made sure to say this. He said, I'm not saying that crimes have been committed, but based on the unique circumstances here he thought it was important to make this appointment and he chose Mueller, like you said, an FBI veteran, broad support on both sides.

And it takes the Justice Department leadership out of the equation here, right? Mueller gets his resources and he has this mandate to look at any possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, but he also gets this -- and this is important -- he can look at any other matter that may arise and that's why critics don't like special counsels. They say, look, that gives them too much power, but supporters, they here think this was really necessary and they think that Mueller's independence is key, John. BERMAN: All right, Ariane de Vogue for us in Washington, thank you very, very much. Just getting started, Bob Mueller is, on this new job. Want to bring in James Wedick, FBI agent and CEO of Larry Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at University of Virginia. Kerry Harvey is a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky and Gloria Browne- Marshall, a Constitutional Law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice here in New York.

Gloria, let me ask you the news of this morning is the President of the United States going after the notion, saying that this is all a political witch hunt, the greatest political witch hunt in American history. A risky move politically, legally or both?

GLORIA BROWNE-MARSHALL, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW PROFESSOR JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Both. But also keep in mind his supporters have always said they wanted this outside person. He's the one who said he could kill somebody and still be elected, who's been told that he was inciting riots when he was working on the campaign. So, now he's in the presidency and he's doing all these very nontraditional things, but he's gotten himself into hot water, professionally and personally.

BERMAN: Right. The issue, though, is, if he's going after a special counsel, what kind of jeopardy specifically does that put you in?

BROWN-MARSHALL: Well, the special counsel, based on the code of 600.4, which is the basis for Rod Rosenstein's ability to do this, says he goes after any investigating as well as criminal prosecution for federal crimes. That's very broad. And also, he has the authority to follow up with the appeals. So, this could go on for years, if there's an issue on appeal.

And I go back to the case of United States versus Nixon and when you think that case had an issue on executive privilege that went up to the U.S. Supreme Court because Nixon would not reveal those tapes. Who knows? He will not reveal tax returns. He will not reveal any information. The tapes that Trump may have, all those issues could go up on appeal as well and take years to resolve.

BERMAN: Kerry Harvey, you actually wrote an op-ed suggesting that Robert Mueller be appointed as a special counsel before he was. So, you were a man who predicts the future here. What made him the right pick in your mind?

KERRY HARVEY, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY: If you just take a look at Mr. Mueller's career, he has shown throughout his career that he exercises power with prudence and restraint. He won't be deterred from the task bi-politics. He's been here before. He knows that when you lead a politically charged investigation, at the end of the investigation, you're probably going to be criticized by hyper partisans on one side or the other. And I suspect that won't bother him a bit, so that makes him the perfect person for this job.

BERMAN: You know, James [], there's a lot of talk right now that the White House might have reason to worry. [10:10:01] Bob Mueller is an investigator who is going to find out. If something went wrong, he's going to find it out. But you know, James, that there's another person here who should also be a little bit wary and that may be James Comey. Why?

JAMES WEDICK, RETIRED FBI AGENT: Look, Bob Mueller worked with Comey, but he's going to be looking at Comey with a critical eye. It's stunning that the memo by the "Times" in where Comey reports that the investigation is being influenced. But what's equally stunning is that he makes no mention of it to his deputy director, Andrew McCabe, nor does he go to the Department of Justice. He was required to do something if he felt there was, in fact, an obstruction going on.

BERMAN: So, in other words, if James Comey did something improper, perhaps even illegal, not quite sure what that would be, Bob Mueller has the authority to investigate that and might start asking the questions.

Larry Sabato, obviously, we are in a very different place this morning than we were yesterday. There is now a special counsel investigating people inside or investigating things that people inside this White House were at least involved with or connected to. What do we know about what it's like to be a White House under investigation?

LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR CENTER FOR POLITICS AT UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Well, it does lots of things and certainly, I've heard Republicans say, well, this gives them an out in their districts or commenting to reporters. They can say I'm not going to add anything to this because it's being handled by a special counsel. But you see there are no stopping good sources, calling good reporters. Go back to Watergate. You had special counsels there, independent prosecutors. You still had big headlines every day.

So, it's going to bog down Washington. It's going to make it more difficult for the president to get his agenda passed. And let's remember, he was already having great difficulties, whether it was health care, tax reform or other things. So, it's going to have a big impact.

And it's also important to remember, John that this is the first president since polling began in the 1930s that has not been above 50 percent on a single day of his presidency. Not above 50 percent on a single day. He's back down to 39 percent to 40 percent. He's got a strong base. They'll stay with him. But let's remember, they're a minority. A majority of the country doesn't support him already and this investigation can't help.

BERMAN: And Larry, does this mean, necessarily -- you brought up a good point there with the investigative reporting is still going to go on here. Does this mean that Congress grinds to a halt, these committees that have been looking into this all of a sudden stop working. We'll stop learning things from them?

SABATO: It's a big distraction. You know, they're political human beings and all of the House members and a third of the senators, at least those running for re-election, are on the ballot in November 2018. They have to actually start running in just a few months and they have their primaries about a year from now.

So, they are political creatures. They're going to pay attention to the polls. They're not going to associate themselves with Trump programs if Trump is very unpopular in their districts and states. That's key. If they come from a deep red district or state, they'll stick with Trump, but you need those middle people, the ones who are in districts, Republicans in districts carried by Hillary Clinton, for example. They have to be there to get anything passed.

BERMAN: All right, guys, Larry Sabato, Kerry Harvey, Gloria Browne- Marshall, James Wedick, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

We do have breaking news this morning. Less than a year after resigning from Fox News, former Fox News chief Roger Ailes has passed away.

Also, this week that's hitting this White House with all these changes and controversies, it happens at a crucial time for this White House, the president getting ready for his first foreign trip. How will this affect his days on the road?


[10:17:45] BERMAN: All right, President Trump just a few hours away from taking questions from reporters. Will he elaborate on this morning's Twitter activity? He wrote this, "With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign and Obama administration, there was never a special counsel appointed."

"This is the single biggest witch hunt of a politician in American history!"

Joining me now Patti Solis Doyle, a CNN political commentator, former Hillary Clinton presidential campaign manager and Jason Miller, a CNN political commentator, former senior communications adviser for Donald J. Trump for president.

Jason, if you were still advising him officially, would you tell him that tweets like this the morning after a special counsel was appointed are a good idea?

JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS ADVISER DONALD J. TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT: Well, good morning. I would tell the president that to do this once I think is good to remind people that there is a bureaucratic state that's never going to stop attacking the president and leaking information. But after putting this out once, that's all he needs to do. The president and the administration need to focus on this foreign trip that's coming up and those core messages of taxes, trade, immigration, defeating ISIS. These are really the core principles that the president ran on and won this past fall in a decisive victory. There's great news that the administration is making and he doesn't need to keep talking about this.

BERMAN: Would you warn him to steer clear of anything that sounds like criticism of Robert Mueller himself?

MILLER: Well, I think what the president is probably speaking to and I obviously have not discussed this with him directly, is this broader double standard that we saw from the previous administration and the lack of following up on some of these things. And then now, what we're seeing where a number of these, like I said, the deep state, the administrative state that are constantly going out there and trying to undermine this president in a way that we've never seen previously.

BERMAN: Although Rod Rosenstein was appointed by the President of the United States. Rod Rosenstein is the one who called for the special counsel here. So, if he's part of the deep state, he's part of the deep state that the president chose.

Patti Solis Doyle, my friend Manu Raju, great Capitol Hill reporter, he noted that Democrats wanted Jeff Sessions to step aside, they got that. They wanted Devin Nunes, his recusal from the investigation in the House, they got that. They wanted a special counsel, they got that. Are Democrats getting everything they want here? And if that's the case, do you just stand back and let this happen now?

[10:20:00] PATTI SOLIS DOYLE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER HILLARY CLINTON PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Look, I think this special counsel is a very, very good first step here. There was a real crisis of confidence after the Comey firing and after the memo came out that, you know, where Comey said that Donald Trump basically asked him to drop the investigation on General Flynn. So, I think this is a great first step.

Bob Mueller has a fantastic reputation, an impeccable reputation, but I do still think that we need an independent commission. I think you'll find that Democrats will continue to call for that. The FBI and Bob Mueller is going to go after the Trump administration and see if there's any criminal activity that was happening. But a sort of 9/11- type independent commission can really look into the broader scope of how the Russians actually were able to hack us. And you know, and make sure that something like this never happens again.


BERMAN: Hang on one second, Jason. I just want to point out that that is what the Senate Intelligence Committees and other groups are looking into right now. And Jason, before I get to you though, I do want to ask Patti one question here, because I don't think you have great love necessarily for the Trump White House, but I think this morning you may have great empathy for people who work inside of it, now that there's a special counsel, because you worked in a White House, the Clinton White House, when there was an independent counsel. What does this mean now for White House staffers?

DOYLE: You know, John, it's so true. I do have empathy for them. I lived through the Clinton administration. I worked there for eight years. I lived through the Ken Starr Whitewater investigation.

And look, I have a few pieces of advice for the staff. One, try and keep your head down and do the job as best you can. During the Clinton administration, I think they were pretty smart in that they separated the people who actually had to deal with the investigation on a day- to-day basis, separate lawyers, separate communications people, so that the rest of the staff could really focus on the job at hand and working for the American people.

I would also say, you know, strap yourself in and prepare yourself for any possible outcome. Remember, Ken Starr started investigating a real estate deal and ended up with an affair with an intern. So, who knows where this investigation is going to lead. Bob Mueller has a really broad mandate and he's going to follow the facts and the evidence where it leads.

And finally, I would advise him to get a lawyer. This is a very stressful time. And even if you're not in any way, you know, doing work with the investigation or you think you're not involved in any way -- for instance, I was relatively, you know low-level staffer. I was young. It just so happened that the day that Vince Foster tragically killed himself, I received a couple of voice mails from people trying to reach the first lady who I worked for at the time.

I did nothing, but those voice mails, the investigation seemed pertinent, so my records were subpoenaed, my schedules were subpoenaed. I had to testify in front of Congress. I had to testify in front of a grand jury. I was deposed. And you know, I had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. So you know, I feel badly for them, but it is what it is.

BERMAN: And that can't happen. I just think that's an important note right there and I think you say that genuinely that you feel for the people who are inside the White House.

Now, Jason Miller, you can answer whatever you want to this, if you want to make the point you just wanted to make, but I do want to get you on one other thing. Overnight, "The New York Times" reporting that during the transition, Michael Flynn told transition officials that he was under investigation because of foreign contacts that he had had with Turkey at the time, told the transition and then the president appointed him as national security adviser anyway. You were working in the transition at the time. Were you aware of this? And was there any concern?

MILLER: This is the first that I'm learning of it or with this article that just came out, but there's a very important point that I need to make here that we've seen with all of these leaked stories that have come out lately, is that frequently, we don't get enough information to really make a determination of what happened until after the initial article.

So, for example, we don't know exactly what General Flynn said to members of the legal team on the transition. And as we know that sometimes when General Flynn has described things in the past, hasn't necessarily been accurate. So, we don't know what was then communicated to the legal team and we don't know then what was communicated from the legal team to any other higher ups.

But there's a more important point that I want to get back to what Patti was talking about a moment ago. There are so many in the Democratic Party and in the media who have been clamoring for a special counsel, that now that we have one, especially one with such an undisputable, terrific track record like director Mueller, we have a special counsel in place. We have to let it run its course. And I think to come back and say, well, a special counsel isn't enough, we need a special independent commission and try to go further and further. Look, this is simply Lucy yanking away the football and playing political games with this. I think it's completely ridiculous. You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

[10:25:06] BERMAN: Well, I will say, whether it's necessary or not, then I'll leave it aside, but if you look at Watergate there was a special counsel, there were also congressional investigations. Iran- Contra, there's a special counsel and there was a select committee investigating. They can't happen at the same time whether or not that's necessary here. We'll leave it aside. Patti Solis Doyle, Jason Miller, thank you all so much for being with us. Appreciate it, guys.

DOYLE: Thank you.

BERMAN: Less than a year after he resigned from Fox News, Roger Ailes, a giant in the history of media, has passed away. We'll talk about the impact that he had on TV, politics and his now complicated and checkered legacy, next.