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Report: Senator Graham Says Russia Probe Seems to Be a Criminal Probe; Deputy AG Briefs Senate After Naming Special Counsel; Joe Lieberman Is Front Runner For FBI Director. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired May 18, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: At as part of this criminal investigation. It doesn't mean he's done anything illegal. Or that he's the focus of anything. But he was the head of national security matters for the Trump campaign. And that may or may not figure in part of the FBI's investigation and we should keep it in mind. I don't want to task any aspersions only to say that it's relevant and one of the reasons he should have recused himself even earlier than he did.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Tim Naftali, you're listening to this important conversation and as Graham said that he feels this has crossed the threshold into a flat-out criminal probe.

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Let's parse that a little bit. If it was just a counterintelligence investigation, it would be an investigation of the Russian covert action to undermine our democracy in 2016. If it's become a criminal investigation, it means that there is reasonable -- there's a reason to suspect collusion by Americans. You're not going to pursue a criminal investigation against Russian intelligence officers. If you have a criminal investigation, there's probable cause of suspecting collusion and they may be looking into obstruction of justice. The stakes have just gotten much, much higher for the Trump administration.

BALDWIN: Forgive me. Carl, Rory Little

is joining me, former assistant deputy general and knows both Rosenstein and Mueller. Rory, your response here to these two senators coming out of this meeting with Mr. Rosenstein and saying, A, that it appears to be a criminal investigation territory and, B, it appears that Rosenstein wrote the letter recommending the firing of Comey after he had learned he would be removed.

RORY LITTLE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I want to go back and correct one thing. He did not recommend that Comey be fired. In fact, this letter said very clearly that the decision to fire the FBI director should be taken with great care and study and thoughtfulness and he refrained from recommending it.

BALDWIN: But didn't he recommend new leadership in the letter?

LITTLE: Well, what he said was we need an FBI director that has the attention and command and respect of everybody. It turns out, Comey had that respect. I think what rod wrote in that letter is what he really believes and I've known him for many years, as I've known Bob Mueller, they are people with deep integrity and independence. A lot of people believe Comey did not handle all of the public appearances that he made traditionally with regulations. Rosenstein was very careful to say this should be done thoughtfully and maybe we need new leadership and, President, that's your decision.

BALDWIN: But Carl Bernstein said it himself, that this almost furthers the proof that Rosenstein was more or less the window dressing to the President's desires to oust Jim Comey.

[15:35:00] LITTLE: We're probably going to get a fresh start at the FBI and the selection of Bob Mueller indicates where Rod's feelings are here. Bob Mueller was director of the FBI for 12 years. He's a long-time, experienced special prosecutor. He has the respect of the FBI as a special counsel and so I think rod selected somebody who, frankly, Comey replaced Bob Mueller and a lot of people thought they were the same person. So, I don't think the President bought himself any special loyalty by firing Jim Comey.

BALDWIN: Can you talk, Rory, to me about the relationship between Bob Mueller and Jim Comey? We know that Comey was deputy attorney general when Mueller was the top brass at the FBI. They were both involved in the Ashcroft hospital room scenario and knowing that at least Mr. Mueller, what do you think the likelihood is of Mr. Comey testifying?

LITTLE: Well, in the special counsel investigation, as to whether he'll testify in Congress, my guess is he will testify in Congress if he is still invited but I don't think you'll see Jim Comey take the fifth amendment or anything like that. All of these things go back to David Margolis in a sense was the friend that links all of these people. They are all special, long-time career public servants who have always put the interest of the American people and justice system ahead of a political party. In that sense, I think Comey will do what he thinks is right and I think Mueller will do what he thinks is right. I don't think you're going to see any --

BALDWIN: Here is Senator Marco Rubio.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO R-FLORIDA: All of those are in the hands of director Mueller. He is widely respected and he'll conduct a fair and thorough investigation. I have full confidence in the counterintelligence side of the matters.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Based on the briefing, senator, is it your belief that this has crossed a threshold from a counterintelligence situation that typically does not result in criminal charges to a criminal matter and that will impede Congress' ability to call witnesses and obtain evidence?

RUBIO: I can't comment on the justice department's efforts. It's now in the hands of a special counsel who I have full confidence in. The counterintelligence matter goes forward. I hope they won't be in conflict with one another and I don't believe they need to be.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it your understanding that Rosenstein knew that he was going to be fired before he wrote the memo? RUBIO: I'm not sure he said that with clarity.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is an acceptable nomination of Lieberman for you?

RUBIO: I think he can do a fine job. Ultimately, that's the President's decision to make.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Appointing a special counsel, the President says, hurts our country terribly. Is that an assessment that you agree with?

RUBIO: We're a nation of law. We're going to follow the laws. Everyone should fully cooperate so they can conduct their work and put forth an investigation that is fair.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The President also called this a witch hunt.

RUBIO: We're a nation of laws.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Does that hurt the process?

RUBIO: The President is entitled to his opinion. That's not a criticism of the President. That's a reality that our institutions work. The acting attorney general has the authority to appoint a special counsel and has done so and in that -- the acting attorney general in the fact that he's refused on Russia matters and in that capacity, he has appointed a special counselor, a person of high esteem who I have tremendous respect for. I have full confidence that he will conduct a full, independent and fair investigation. The Senate will be doing its work on its aspects in this matter. Everyone should fully cooperate with both.

[15:40:00] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Based on what you heard today, are you more comfortable or less comfortable with what has transpired in the last week?

RUBIO: I don't know if it's a level of comfort. We are a nation of law and we have institutions irrespective of our politics or people's political views. Those laws and rules will be followed. That's what is happening here now. There is a special counsel who I believe will conduct a fair and thorough investigation that will establish facts and lead us to the truth, wherever that may be. I have full confidence that they are continuing to conduct its investigation on the counterintelligence aspects of Russia interference and everyone should fully cooperate with both. That's outside the purview of what we're here to talk about.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What do you know about the Comey memo?

RUBIO: Again, he's very careful in everything he said, very limited in what he said because, as he said, didn't want us to come out here and tell you. So, look, I understand the desire of those in the justice department to ensure that no American is treated unfairly. I understand that Congress has an important role to play both in oversight and constitutional authority and that should not be impeded and hopefully there will not be conflict between the two roles and there should not be. I really have to go.

BALDWIN: All right. So, we're hearing from the different members of the U.S. Senate. We're about to hear from the President of the United States standing alongside from the President of Colombia at the white house. So, for that, let's go to my colleague Jake Tapper who is standing by live in Washington. Jake?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon. I'm Jake Tapper. At any moment, we'll hear from President Trump in a news conference with the Colombian President Santos. There's been a cascade of revelations about his conduct and Russia investigation including quite consequential decision by the attorney general to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel to head the investigation into any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. At the very least, that decision ensures that questions about Russia will continue to dog the President for months to come. Now, just moments ago, President Trump told some journalists, including myself, that the appointment of a special counsel is, quote, a very, very negative thing.

He said, quote, I believe it hurts our country terribly because it shows we're a divided, mixed up, not unified country and it happens to be a including myself, that the appointment of a special counsel is, quote, a very, very negative thing. He said, quote, I believe it hurts our country terribly because it shows we're a divided, mixed up, not unified country and it happens to be a pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election that they should have easily won because of the electoral college being slanted so much in their way. That's all this is. That's after tweeting this morning, "this is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history."

President Trump says he is making progress on replacing James Comey, the FBI director, with a new FBI director. A source telling CNN that the front-runner is former senator and vice Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. That's not all. The President also may face questions about a "New York Times" report that even before Michael Flynn officially became Trump's first national security adviser, he informed the white house that he was under investigation for having improperly lobbied for the government of Turkey but the white house kept him on anyway. A decision that a lot of even Republicans are questioning today across the way on Capitol Hill investigators are not letting up on their inquiries. Rod Rosenstein just briefed senators about his role in the firing of FBI director James Comey and CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is joining me now from the capitol. Senators are coming out from this meeting, this closed meeting with the deputy attorney general. What are we learning from them?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly some details are starting to trickle out that senators are coming out of that classified meeting. We just heard from Senator Claire McCaskill. She said during -- sorry. Right now, we're listening to another senator.

SEN. DICK DURBIN, D-ILLINOIS: Gained a lot of support from his decision last night to appoint Bob Mueller as the special counsel when it comes to this investigation of the Russian interference in our election and any involvement by the Trump campaign. Mueller is widely respected. He is smart. He's principled. Most of us who know him and have worked with him for years believe he will always put the country first. That's critical for credibility. Mr. Rosenstein answered a lot of questions today but also declined to answer a lot as well because of his concern to interfere with the investigation by director Mueller. We left with more information but not all of the information that we were seeking.

[15:45:00] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Based on what you heard today, sir, do you believe that the deputy attorney general knew before he wrote that memo that James Comey was going to be fired?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What was it that he said that led you to --

DURBIN: He knew it the day before.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Was he pressured into writing that letter?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We heard from senator graham who said, based on the briefing, this has crossed from a counterintelligence investigation to a criminal investigation. Is that also your assessment?

DURBIN: That's the ultimate responsibility of director Mueller to determine whether any law has been broken and crimes have been committed. We have to leave it to him and I trust him. I want to make that extremely clear. I thought deputy attorney general Rosenstein faced a very stark decision. He could either appoint someone with the stature of director Mueller or resign to protect his own credibility as a professional prosecutor. He made the right decision in appointing Mueller. Mueller now has the job of deciding whether laws were broken.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did he explain why he decided to appoint a special prosecutor?

DURBIN: Yes, he did. To make sure that the integrity of the department of justice was protected and make certain that the American people felt this was going to be handled fairly and justly.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did he say how he knew that he was going to fire him before the memo?

DURBIN: He didn't say that. Other than that May 8th he learned.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Does this take a back seat to --

DURBIN: There is counterintelligence investigations which go beyond any violation of law or any commission of a crime and those are critical investigations and I trust they will meet their responsibility. I think there's more to be done. I think there should be a bipartisan and independent commission that asks a fundamental question, what are we going to do the next time Putin decides to come after us on an election.

SERFATY: There were a lot of questions about what was actually revealed in this secure briefing and we heard from Senator McCaskill just a few minutes ago, she said the big things coming out of that meeting was that the deputy attorney general, he revealed that he knew FBI director Comey was going to be fired before he sent that memo outlining why they were going to fire him, of course, that was used as a general justification coming from the white house of why Comey was going to be fired. We also heard from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, he said this now enters a phase he feels has shifted to a criminal investigation.


LINDSEY GRAHAM, SENATOR, SOUTH CAROLINA: It was a good decision to pick a special counsel, a lot of confidence in Mr. Mueller. I think the shock to the body it is now considered a criminal investigation. Congress' ability to conduct investigations of all things has been severely limited, probably in an appropriate fashion


[15:50:00] SERFATY: One of the chief criticism coming from one senator, Lindsey Graham, that he believes that appointing a special counsel will potentially hamper, and essentially solve all the numerous investigations going on up here on Capitol Hill, but the chairman of the senate intelligence committee say that they will continue their work, their investigation will go on.

TAPPER: Sunlen Serfaty, thanks. Let's bring in CNN's Jeff Zeleny. We're going to monitor what is going on at Capitol Hill. I apologize if I have to interrupt you. The President could be making a big announcement in naming a new FBI director very soon. Any minute, really.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Jake. As he told you and other anchors earlier today, he is very close to making a decision and told reporter as few moments ago that Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic senator and former vice President candidate is it hi is leading contender. Senator Lieberman did not know about this 48 hours ago. He was summoned to Washington for a meeting with the President. They met for less than 30 minutes late yesterday afternoon and we believe that he's the finalist for this job now. He's not the first person the President wanted. Earlier this week, we are told by sources, Manu Raju and I reported this yesterday, that John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate was the President's top choice.

He declined that so now Joe Lieberman is the second. Certainly, a very different kind of pick here. But the President would like to make that announcement before he leaves tomorrow about this time for Saudi Arabia and the beginning of a five-country tour, Jake. But the reality is that the new FBI director does little to blunt or he's the frustration the President expressed to you and others about this special prosecutor, this special counsel that's investigating this Russia decision here. The President clearly saying politics deeply, deeply involved in that. He's seething by that and they are trying to gather their way forward here because they know this will be with them for months to come, perhaps years to come as these special investigations often are, Jake.

TAPPER: That's right. The President said that he thinks this, quote, hurts our country terribly because it shows we're a divided, mixed up, not unified country. He also, of course, referred to the witch hunt.

ZELENY: Right.

TAPPER: Which he included the independent counsel, the special counsel and all the investigations. Meanwhile, as you know, white house aides are getting ready for this big first international trip of the President, which starts tomorrow. Do you think that naming an FBI director before the trip might quell concerns from fellow world leaders when he faces them overseas?

ZELENY: I'm not really sure that it does, Jake, because the reality is, the weeks started with the firing of the FBI director was the biggest thing but now the reality here, the blunt reality in Washington is this special counsel has surpassed all of that. The head of the FBI is not something that really is dominating this story line. As the President, he's distracted by this, he's angry by this and that is what some of his advisers here in the west wing are worried about, quite frankly, his state of mind, his mindset going into what certainly is a challenge for any President, having these meetings with the world leaders. He's not traveled outside of the country as the President. His advisers here in the west wing are worried about, quite frankly, his state of mind, his mindset going into what certainly is a challenge for any President, having these meetings with the world leaders. He's not traveled outside of the country as the President. In fact, he's done little travel like this at any point in his life. It is an interesting and trying moment. The FBI director, one official said if he makes the announcement before tomorrow that's great, he would like to, but the reality here, Jake, this was all going to be waiting for the President when he comes back.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, stick around. Let me go to Sara Murray now who is in the room waiting for the President and the President of Colombia to come out. Sara, President Trump I'm sure will be asked about the big developments, the former FBI director claiming that the President asked him to ease up on the Flynn investigation, to let it go, and then, of course, the appointment of a special counsel.

[15:55:00] SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. There are a number of questions for the President about just the events that have unfolded over the last few days. Of course, Jake, as you know, these sort of bilateral press conferences can be a little challenging to predict. Each side gets questions in, so the Colombian press will have an opportunity to ask questions of the President as well as of the Colombian leader. You can bet the question coming from American press will be more about how the President feels about this decision to appoint a special counsel. I think also just whether he bears any responsibility for the way these events have played out.

I mean ultimately it was his decision to fire the FBI director and, you know, based on your reporting, the reporting of our other colleagues it was the President's decision to suggest to Jim Comey that maybe he back off the Flynn investigation, the Russia investigation. So, I think there are going to be also questions about the President's role in all of this, and it certainly is coming at a time, as my colleague Jeff Zeleny was saying, when the President doesn't want to talk about this anymore. He's sick of talking about Russia. They want to look ahead to the foreign trip, to their new FBI director. I don't think it would surprise us if we saw the President rush to make this announcement of a new FBI director just to change the news cycle.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thank you so much. Our political panel joins me for more. We will go to the east room of the white house there as soon as the President and the President of Colombia come out. We are joined by Jen Psaki and Gloria Borger. There's one point I want to make sure doesn't get lost in the news that comes our way. That is that the President is going abroad, he will be going to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel and the Vatican. It was said that he would like to stay in NATO but he would not stay in NATO unless they make more progress, we will see changes to NATO or form a different way of going about things. The change, as we know, President Trump has talked about other countries contributing more to their defense spending as they all agreed to. All Presidents have been, since the NATO alliance was formed, frustrated by other countries not pulling their weight, that's a legitimate point, President Trump is right about that, but I never heard a President threaten to leave NATO.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He did during the campaign. General Mattis came out and right out of the box said, NATO is important. We're going to stay in NATO. It is an important alliance that we would never leave. And so, this statement comes as a surprise I would believe to many of our allies and perhaps to some people in the white house actually. And so, I think the President needs to clarify what his position on NATO is because until that came out we were all believing, I think, that the President had committed himself to NATO. I mean don't forget he met with Angela Merkel, strong supporter, and there hasn't been in conflict coming out of those meetings in regards to NATO. So --

TAPPER: Although in those meetings by all accounts the President pushed for chancellor Merkel to pay more on defense.

BORGER: Right, and that's fine. You know, pay your fair share is absolutely fine, supported by a majority of the American public and a good idea for people to pay more, although she had a little disagreement with him on what her fair share might be, how much she should raise your contribution. But the threat of leaving NATO now rears its ugly head again.

TAPPER: Jen Psaki, when you were at the white house, this is something that people that worked in international affairs with President Obama complained about. I think there are 28 NATO countries -- they just added one, correct me if I'm wrong. But only five according to the last count saw actually pay the 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense spending, which is what they all agreed to. So, this is a source of frustration.


TAPPER: But I never heard the threat we might pull out of NATO before.

PSAKI: That's right. This is something President Obama raised privately and numerous times publicly. It is not a new ask. There's been a consistent ask by U.S. Presidents over the course of time on this specific issue because the United States for a long time has been the primary funder of NATO. We're in NATO because it is an important security partnership and there's a lot of give and take you get from that. It is important and valuable to the United States. It is not clear they're thinking about that.

[16:00:00] TAPPER: David Urban, bringing you in here, you ran the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania. Let me just ask you, when you see comments from the President or from people close to the President threatening to withdraw from NATO, how much do you think that's real, he's really going to consider that or how much do you think this is -- this is just the art of the deal? He's putting out something stark so as to get Germany and other countries to do what they agreed to do?