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Special Counsel Appointed to Investigate Possible Ties between Russia and Trump Campaign; President Trump Tweets about New Special Counsel; Interview with Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Florida. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 18, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Remember, this move by Rosenstein, the man that the president said he respected so much that he took his advice in getting rid of Jim Comey, agreed upon by Democrats and Republicans, when is the last time that happened, now being trashed by the president. Of course Bob Mueller, the former FBI director, is the choice to look into the questions surrounding Russia's interference.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: In addition to his looking into it you have these three separate Congressional committees who want James Comey to testify about what President Trump told him, essentially making him the most wanted man in Washington. And several new damning reports about fired national security adviser Michael Flynn adding to the crises facing this Trump administration. We have it all covered for you.

Let's begin with Joe Johns at the White House. Joe, crickets no longer from the presidential Twitter account. He is firing off this morning.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. What a contrast from last night when he huddled with his advisors issuing a carefully worded, even terse 57 word statement. This morning a much more visceral reaction from the president of the United States to the news of the last 24 hours or so. This most recent tweet, "This is the greatest witch hunt in American history," apparently referring to the investigation into Russian interference in the last election. And then in the previous tweet, "With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration, there was never a special councel appointed," "counsel" spelled wrong. The fact of the matter is, just to make clear, that's apparently a reference to the Hillary Clinton campaign. We also had two other presidential campaigns with her husband, Bill Clinton.

So the status here of course, the most important thing in the last 24 hours is the appointment of Bob Mueller, a towering figure in law enforcement, to lead this Russia investigation.


JOHNS: The White House issuing a statement from President Trump, responding to the appointment of a special counsel. The president says in part "A thorough investigation will confirm what we already know -- there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity." Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein naming former FBI Director Robert Mueller to oversee the investigation into Russia's election interference. Rosenstein signing the order before alerting Attorney General Jeff Sessions and only giving the White House less than an hour's notice before making it public. The surprise announcement comes after mounting pressure for the deputy a.g. to appoint a special prosecutor after President Trump initially cited a memo Rosenstein wrote as the basis for why he fired James Comey.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.

JOHNS: One source telling CNN Rosenstein is throwing President Trump overboard with a special counsel, a move the White House opposed.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There is frankly no need for a special prosecutor. You have two Senate committees that are looking into this. The FBI is conducting their own review.

JOHNS: A statement from Rosenstein explaining "The public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command." The move follows back-to-back bombshells for Trump, including a damning memo from Comey where he documented private conversations with President Trump in which he says the president asked him to drop the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn just one day after Flynn was terminated.

And today more bad news for the embattled administration. "The New York Times" reporting that President Trump knew Flynn was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist on behalf of Turkish interests weeks before the inauguration, and yet still named him as one of his top advisors, giving him access to the nation's biggest secrets. Another report by McClatchy connects the dots further, alleging that Flynn stopped a U.S. military plan that Turkey opposed. The plan was eventually restored after Flynn was fired.


JOHNS: Beyond the tweets this morning, there may be an opportunity to ask the president a question or two for journalists today about the Bob Mueller appointment. He is expected to appear at a news conference with the Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, following a meeting with him here at the White House here today. Chris and Brooke, back to you.

BALDWIN: All right, Joe, thank you.

The Trump turmoil intensifying today, so much so -- let's bring in, I have CNN political director David Chalian, CNN political analyst April Ryan, and CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. I don't know what the record was for the reticence or the silence on Twitter, but that's all shattered as of seconds ago. We'll look at these two different tweets from the president's Twitter account. I'll read for you exactly what he said.

[08:05:00] First up, he says "With all the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign and Obama administration, there was nnever a special councel," with a "c," "appointed." And then he tweeted this. "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history." David, go.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I'm sure if he talked to some of his predecessors at his job they say that THAT feeling may not go away. They probably thought they were the subject of the greatest political witch hunts as well.

But you're right to note here what is really revealing here is that the silence is over. So he clearly is feeling differently and expressing that on his Twitter feed than that very staged statement out of the White House last night from the president where he really tried to sort of take a more measured tone. Nothing measured about this response. This is Donald Trump the combatant who now feels like he is in the fight for his political life.

CUOMO: Look, we know that the president watches this show. We appreciate the viewer ship. He doesn't want to talk to us and come on the show. But it is a moment to talk to him. You know, the question of whether or not you deserve criticism is answered in these two tweets. This is another round of self-inflicted negativity. The special counsel you know needs to be respected. Your White House put out a statement yesterday saying you wouldn't talk about this anymore because you want to respect the special counsel, and now you have trashed him, and you've trashed the cause without cause and it is going to drive a cycle of criticism of your words and your deeds.

And it's not just political. It's also policy oriented. Jeffrey Toobin, the idea of what you needed a special counsel. You could have a good argument. Maybe you do. Maybe you don't. Rod Rosenstein, the man who was made metaphor for the legitimacy of getting rid of Comey, the president trusted him so much that he went on his recommendation. That was the original line of BS about why they got rid of Comey. Now that same man he is accusing of participating and promoting a witch hunt against him. If you ever needed a reason for a special counsel, the president of the United States just gave you one.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And let's just look ahead for a minute. Robert Mueller is going to have to investigate what the White House did or didn't do. That means he's going to have to try to get records and try to get cooperation from the White House. Does that tweet look like he's going to get any cooperation from the White House?

What about when he tries to get, Mueller does, access to highly classified national security agency records? Will the administration fight him or will they cooperate with him? Will there be court fights over access to information, access to records? This certainly suggests that Mueller will not get any cooperation. That suggests fighting in court over access to documents, access to people, could stretch out this investigation a long time. BALDWIN: April, we talked on my show. We take the Spicer briefings,

right? And so generally with these last couple of cycles of stories, whether it is the Comey firing or it's the disclosure of classified information to the Russians in the Oval Office, and now this, it is like you have the statement the night before. The president wakes up and tweets and then Sean Spicer is stuck there, like, how do I, you know, juggle all these questions from reporters like you?


APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He tries his best to juggle these questions. I'm sure Sean is watching right now because he has those TVs in his office and he listens to what he considers the chattering glass, the pundits.

But what is at issue is the fact we're looking for truths. The president not only just talks through him. The president talks to the public via his Twitter rants or his Twitter comments. And at issue, Sean has to deal with, one, the fact that this is now under investigation. He is going to be constrained to a certain point. But there are issues he could help us with and give information to.

But the problem is for Sean is that he could say something and the president says something totally opposite. So Sean is frustrated. Many of the officials in the administration are frustrated, and then that frustration comes back on us so as we are the enemy of the people who are just looking for the truths and trying to find the facts as to what has been happening.

And you have to remember, these issues are real. The issue of collusion is not as tangible right now as the issue of possible obstruction of justice. These are real issues that we have got to get real answers too. But today Sean is not going to brief. It's going to be the president at press conference and reporters will be asking those questions.

CUOMO: But that's controlled circumstance. He is with the leader of Colombia. He may or may not take any questions outside that ambit. That's within his discretion.

But, David Chalian, again, a simple review of the record, there is a war of words going on. The president has decided to make the media an enemy. But if you look at the recent spate of events, we would have never known about the Flynn warnings if it hadn't been for the media in the form of "The Washington Post."

[08:10:08] We wouldn't have known that they knew about Michael Flynn if it weren't for "The New York Times," CNN echoing so much of this reporting. Comey's firing, the canard about the A.G. letter only to be revealed by the president himself in an exacting interview. The divulging of classified Intel from a leak, the Comey memo from a leak. And now from the president himself, clear indications that he will not stay out of this investigation. The facts are clear. This is a president who is intent on influencing that investigation any way he can. CHALIAN: Well, there is no doubt about that. I would add one more to

your list, Chris, which is our reporting and others about how totally upset and disenchanted Rosenstein was with the fact that he was being made the fall guy in the explanation of Comey's firing. When that became clear, we started to understand why the president and the White House was changing its story.

CUOMO: Is this move reaction formation by Rosenstein? Was he so sensitized to the need for independence that it was, in fact, part of the momentum of the president in exposing Rosenstein that way that led to this decision?

CHALIAN: Right, right. And you say this afternoon when he meets with -- has the press conference with two questions from each side, the Columbians and the U.S., yes, that is a controlled circumstance. But we have seen very revealing moments with the president even in those controlled circumstances before. And this Twitter activity this morning suggests to me he is not -- for all the talk of, oh, there is a sigh of relief in the White House. There is no evidence of a sigh of relief here at all, at all.

CUOMO: There was until this.

CHALIAN: There's hyper concern and combativeness. And watching to see how the president keeps that under wraps this afternoon is going to be very, very interesting.

CUOMO: But that's the whole point, is that it is all self-inflicted, April.

BALDWIN: Go ahead, April.

RYAN: Yes, it's very much self-inflicted. You have to remember, though, when your own party says they are concerned, that's a problem. And not only your party, your donors are very concerned. So he's hearing it from his party. That's one of the reasons why his silence is no longer deafening. He's speaking on Twitter.

and also, for Rosenstein, he realized the public outcry was at its height yesterday, and he also has to remember, and what he did with this is the fact that the Department of Justice is tainted. The FBI is tainted. He had to get someone independently to deal with this for the public interest, for the public good, to make sure they got to the root of this.

TOOBIN: And there is the political isolation issue. Mueller's appointment was heralded by Democrats but also lots of Republicans. The president is saying all these Republicans were saluting the greatest witch hunt in American history. That's a pretty isolated place to be. Now, as always with these sort of outbursts from Donald Trump, I always like to remember he got elected president of the United States with these outbursts. So maybe he thinks we're all wrong about what their effect is and he's right, and he's got some evidence that he was right about that.

CUOMO: Teflon don he was during the campaign. RYAN: He has a high bar to be president.

CUOMO: It's true, and April Ryan is right there. Context matters, right, Brooke? It is one thing to talk the talk. He is now walking the walk, different level of scrutiny, different acceptance of reality.

BALDWIN: Sure. Even just his closest friends as Gloria Borger has been reporting here at CNN, just quickly, even some of his closest friends and confidantes thought he would rise to the level of the weight of the Oval Office. And now with everything that's been going on last week they're not sure.

CUOMO: But just be clear as you monitor your news feeds today, this didn't need to happen. This was a good move, the special counsel. Everybody agreed. And now the president has once again created a cycle of negativity. Counsel, thank you very much.

BALDWIN: OK, thank you, everyone.

TOOBIN: How do you spell "counsel"?

CUOMO: Any way you want. Any way you want.


BALDWIN: Thank you. New developments concerning former national security advisor Michael Flynn this morning. McClatchy News revealing that Flynn stopped a military operation that Turkey opposed after he was paid by them as a foreign agent. So let me bring in national correspondent for the McClatchy News Service Vera Bergengruen. She wrote the piece connecting all these dots. Vera, tell me more about when this decision was made, what it was that the Pentagon was weighing with regard to the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

VERA BERGENGRUEN, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY: So the Pentagon has been planning for months this operation to retake the capital of the Islamic State in Raqqa, and they wanted to arm the Syrian and Kurdish forces to do it because they thing that's the most effective force. And Turkey has strongly opposed that for a long time.

[08:15:00] It was decided that the Obama administration would let the Trump administration decide since they might have reversed it otherwise. And it was reported in February that was Michael Flynn who told Susan Rice, his predecessor, to hold off. And that was reported back in February.

But in March, Flynn ended up registering as a foreign agent with the Justice Department and we ended up getting all of these details on how he was paid half a million dollars and how he secretly met with the foreign minister of Turkey and had all of these connections to Turkey. It raises a question of looking back with fresh eyes, seeing all the decisions he might have made who could have benefitted his client who he was secretly lobbying for and we hadn't known about it.

BALDWIN: So, did anyone know? I mean, with regard to not disclosing, working as a lobbyist, getting the paycheck for more than half a million dollars for working with Turkey, who in Washington knew?

BERGENGRUEN: Well, we now know his lawyer, Flynn's lawyer reached out to the White House and ended up asking. We new already he had asked if Flynn registered as a foreign agent. And now, we know he told the Trump administration he was under investigation for these connections.

But nobody -- they knew that he was lobbying for a Dutch firm owned by Turkish businessman. But they didn't know the extent and how much was being paid.

BALDWIN: Vera Bergengruen, with the breaking piece of information here from "McClatchy" -- Vera, hank you so, so much --


BALDWIN: -- on Flynn and his involvement with Turkey and influencing clearly the president's decision with regard to Syria. Thank you very much.

CUOMO: So, with all of these issues of intrigue --

BALDWIN: All of these, yes.

CUOMO: -- a brief moment in time when the special counsel had the GOP and the Democrats on the same page. Good. Now we'll have somebody independent and we expect to get to the end of it.

And the president couldn't leave it alone. He just called this move an extension of the greatest witch hunt in history. Not only is that inaccurate, but it is corrosive to this brief moment of being on the same page, literally derailing his own party's agenda here, and once again distracting from the ability to get anything done for you. How will the GOP respond? We have lawmakers ahead.


[08:20:57] BALDWIN: Back to our breaking news this morning. President Trump decrying the Russia investigation and appointment of Robert Mueller, a special counsel, and series of tweets just now calling the Russia probe the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.

You know, many in the Republican Party hoped Mueller's appointment would allow Congress to focus on their legislative agenda, but is the president preventing that from happening?

Let's ask a Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Florida who joins me now.

Congressman, good morning.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA: Brooke, good morning from Capitol Hill. It's good to be with you.

BALDWIN: All right. So, I know you are on ways and means. I know you would love to be talking taxes with me this morning in this important meeting you have upcoming later today. But guess what? We're not because of the news and because of the tweets from the president.

Your response to him calling this the single greatest witch hunt?

CURBELO: Well, Brook, I think that's unfortunate and you're right there is a big tax reform hearing on Capitol Hill today. I think the best thing that this Congress, that this government can do for the American people is enact broad, bold, comprehensive tax reform that could get this economy growing and give people the jobs and the opportunities they want in this country. But, regrettably, there is a lot of distracting news again today.

And, look, we should all be celebrating that this independent council has been established by the Justice Department, that the investigation will be independent. The person who was appointed enjoys broad, bipartisan support and a lot of respect throughout the country.

BALDWIN: But the president doesn't see it that way based upon his words this morning.

CURBELO: Well, I can understand why this situation is frustrating to the president. It is frustrating to me. I think it's frustrating to every single American.

But what the president needs to understand is until we get to the bottom of everything that happened, and this is a serious issue, and we're not accusing anyone of having done anything wrong. That's what the investigation is for.

But the bottom line is that a foreign government did attempt to undermine our elections, our democracy, that which is sacred to I hope every American and we need to understand what happened and we need to make sure we can prevent these things in the future. So, not only do I think we need this independent counsel, and I think Mr. Mueller will do a good job, but I think that Congress also has to allocate additional resources to this effort by appointing a select committee.

The executive branch has a process ongoing. That's good. We should celebrate that. But I think the Congress also has to invest more resources in uncovering the truth so that the American people can rest easy and know we are going to get to the bottom of whatever happened.

BALDWIN: So, so, yes, and I think Americans will agree with you that they want facts, but if you are someone such as the president in this case and, yes, looking into election meddling but also, he's saying over and over there has been no colluding between my campaign and Russia, if you have nothing to hide, why fight the notion of having a special independent counsel?

CURBELO: Well, my recommendation to the White House, to the entire administration is to cooperate with Mr. Mueller. If it is indeed true that there was no collusion, that no U.S. persons in any way worked with the Russians to try to undermine our elections, that's great. And the American people should know that and that should be the result of a thorough, broad, independent investigation by Mr. Mueller and also by Republicans and Democrats here in the Congress.

If we want to get this cloud of controversy of scandal and doubt out from over us, then we need to go through this process. I hope the president understands that. I hope he cooperates.

I want to get this behind us as well. But we can't do that until we know what actually happened.

BALDWIN: This has been the longest we could watch and it's just Thursday morning, right? With every single curveball every day, every hour, how concerned are you that this noise is really derailing your party's promise and mission to the American voter?

CURBELO: Well, it can be distracting, Brooke, but there are many Republicans and Democrats here in the Congress who, even though it doesn't make news every day, are working on issues like tax reform, like infrastructure investment, like immigration reform -- the issues the American people want us to tackle, a lot of the issues that were discussed during the campaign.

[08:25:18] Take infrastructure, for example. That's an issue that has broad bipartisan support. Most Americans were very happy with that promise the president made. There are many of us who are actually working on making that a reality. It is not going to make front page of the newspapers. It's not going to make breaking news, but it is happening.

BALDWIN: On these issues, you were first to call out the president and the first Republican to suggest that the president could be impeached perhaps if it is obstruction of justice if in fact he truly stopped to stop, you know, this Flynn investigation. What do you want to see and hear from the leaders and your party right now?

CURBELO: Well, I want to make sure that everyone is taking this very seriously and that everyone is committed to finding the truth. If there was in wrongdoing, if this is much adieu about nothing, that's fine. Let's show that. Let's demonstrate that.

If there were people who acted improperly outside the law or outside our ethics rules, then that should be uncovered as well and those people should be held accountable. I remind our leaders. I remind every single member of Congress that our duty is to the Constitution and to our constituents before any political party or any political effort.

That's what I'm committed to. That's what I'm focused on. And many of my colleagues are as well.

BALDWIN: All right. Congressman Carlos Curbelo from Florida there, I appreciate it very much. Have a wonderful Thursday.

CURBELO: Have a good day.

BALDWIN: Chris Cuomo?

CUOMO: All right, Brooke. Thank you very much. We are living a very big moment right now. How will lawmakers respond

to the president's clear intent to influence this Russian investigation, even after the appointment of a special counsel? We have lawmakers from both sides ahead who are players. And it is time to play -- next.