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NYT: Trump Told Russians In Oval Office That Firing "Nut Job" Comey Eased "Great Pressure" From Probe; Sources: White House Lawyers Researching Impeachment; Comey To Testify In Public Before Senate Intel Committee; Sources: Russians Bragged About Relationship With Flynn; Embattled President Trump Sets Off On First Foreign Trip. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 21:00   ET


[21:00:02] DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah. So, I just think pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. We still need to give the president, you know, his fair day in court. He needs to be able -- his side needs to be able to present the evidence.

But nonetheless, the way this is breaking with the selected leaks, paints a very dark picture. And I think that it suggests -- I argued here the other night, we're in impeachment territory and now we know that the White House lawyers are investigating how impeachments take place even though they think it's down the road. I think it's down -- any impeachments way down the road, but we're in deep, serious issues now.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Fareed, I mean the fact the White House isn't really denying what the president said to the Russians now on this latest reporting by "The New York Times." I mean, they're saying that -- in fact, what Sean Spicer said is that, "By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation to Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia." Do you buy that?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": Yeah. Then there's some other administration official who's mirrored that kind of language saying you have to understand what the president was doing in that meeting with the Russians when he was saying he was trying to extract concessions from the Russians by saying, "I'm under pressure, so give me some concessions." Now --

COOPER: Which by the way Jeffrey Lord had brought up.


COOPER: President Obama said to, you know, to inform Putin that, you know, after the elections I'll have a little bit more freedom.

ZAKARIA: But here is why that's all pretty illogical, because -- so think it's true. The argument would be that Donald Trump would say to the Russians, "I'm under a lot of pressure here. You need to make a concession for me." But what he actually says in the meeting, according to "The New York Times" is, "I was under pressure. I fired Comey. Now I'm not under any more pressure."

So, he doesn't -- you know, all of a sudden he is saying, "I'm now free to do whatever I want." So, you would be telling the Russians the opposite if the point was, "Hey, I'm in trouble here. Help me out by giving me some concessions." That's not what happened. He told the Russians, it's over. We don't have to worry.

And as Toobin is saying correctly, the key point is he says, "I was under pressure. I fired him. I'm -- the pressure is now off." What that suggests is I fired him to get the pressure off me. That does sound -- look, I'm a layman. It sounds like he is saying, "You know, I had this guy investigating me. It was a problem. I didn't like the pressure, so I fired him."

COOPER: David?

GERGEN: Right. And it's all -- to back up what Fareed is saying, there's no evidence that he went on to ask the Russians for anything.


GERGEN: And he didn't ask them for any concessions in any of the notes we've been shown so far. Let the other side produce those notes and show that the president did that. Otherwise, I don't see how that argument holds up.

COOPER: All right. David Gergen, Fareed Zakaria, thanks very much.

For everyone just joining us, a quick reminder, the late news which broke tonight, a CNN exclusive, CNN has learned about intercepted Russian communications and the degree to which they alarmed the Obama administration about Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn long before he was fired.

CNN's Pamela Brown and Gloria Borger have the new reporting. They join us right now for an update. Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: We can tell you Anderson that multiple sources say that Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated such a strong relationship with former Trump advisor, Michael Flynn, that they believed they can use him to influence Donald Trump and his team.

And those conversations deeply concerned U.S. intelligence officials. It even impacted what intelligence the incoming administration was privy to according to these sources we were speaking with, because some Obama intelligence officials acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn out of concern that Flynn or others within the transition would share information with Russia.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And, Anderson, one former intelligent -- one former official told me that the way the Russians were talking about Flynn was regarded as what he called a five-alarm fire from early on. The Russians' conversations indicated they regarded Flynn as their ally, sources told us. Officials cautioned us though that the Russians might have exaggerated their sway with Trump's teams during those conversations.

Now, we all know that Flynn's relationship is a long one and it developed with Russia throughout 2016 months before Flynn was caught on an intercepted call in December speaking with Russia's Sergey Kislyak. That ultimately led to Flynn's firing as Trump's first national security adviser.

Anderson, we've reached out to both Flynn's lawyer, who declined to comment, and the White House which said this. "We are confident when these inquiries are complete, there will be no evidence to support any collusion between the campaign and Russia. Top former Obama intelligence officials and members of Congress briefed on the matter have all said the same thing."

COOPER: Pamela, we're also learning for the first time details about Flynn's conversations with the Russians.

BROWN: That's right. And one major concern was the subject of conversations between Flynn and Kislyak that took place shortly after President Obama slapped new sanctions on Russia for meddling in the election.

[21:05:01] Now, sources tell my colleague Jim Sciutto that Flynn told Kislyak that the Trump administration would look favorably on a decision by Russia to hold off on retaliating with its own sanctions. And then the next day Putin said he wouldn't retaliate as you recall.

Now, sources also say that Flynn told Kislyak that the incoming Trump administration would re-visit U.S. sanctions on Russia once in office. Trump angrily denied any collusion with Russia this week. He denounced the newest investigation that is now in the hands of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. As you know, he called that a witch hunt.

COOPER: Despite all of this, Gloria, President Trump obviously has remained steadfast in his support.

BORGER: Yes. He's very loyal guy as you know. And the most obvious example of his loyalty came out during this memo that we just heard about this week from James Comey in which Trump reportedly asked the director of the FBI to let the Flynn investigation go.

COOPER: All right. Pam Brown, Gloria Borger, appreciate the breaking story right now.

Shortly, before that story broke tonight, this one dated (ph) answer a big question we all had in the wake of Robert Mueller being named as special counsel in the FBI's --Russia probe, namely, would this mean that fired FBI Director James Comey would no longer testify before a congressional committees? Tonight, we know he will and it's going to be an open session.

Sunlen Serfaty has the latest on that, joins us now from Capitol Hill. So what have you learned?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, James Comey will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. That's the committee chaired by Richard Burr and Ranking Member Mark Warner. As you said, it will be an open committee hearing, which is significant the fact that James Comey will be testifying in public in front of cameras, not in any closed door setting.

The date has not been set on his testimony yet, but the committee in releasing this information this evening indicating that they will put it on the books for after Memorial Day, so potentially indicating that it's their expectation that this will happen very soon.

Now, it's a significant development the fact that Comey is testifying at all. Of course, he was called on by both Democrats and Republicans to do so, but there had been concern up here in the halls of Capitol Hill just this week that potentially would not happen in the wake of the special counsel being chosen.

COOPER: And some senators, I understand, are upset that he declined other appearances.

SERFATY: That's right. He was actually invited on -- to three committees up here on Capitol Hill in addition to Senate Intelligence. He was also invited on House Oversight Committee and a Senate Judiciary.

And the Senate Judiciary wasted no time tonight coming out with a statement from their ranking member and from their chairman, a joint statement basically registering their displeasure that he has turned down their invitation. In that statement Chairman Grassley and Dianne Feinstein say that they are extremely disappointed and they believe there's no reason he can't testify at both.

COOPER: All right. Sunlen Serfaty, thanks very much for that.

So we got a lot of breaking stories tonight. There was a story about Michael Flynn conversations with the Russians and concerns the Obama administration had about it. Then there was the story about Director Comey is now going to testify. Before all that happened, this happened.

A piece hitting "The New York Times" home page with seismic impact, the headline on Maggie Haberman and Matthew Rosenberg story is, "Trump Told Russians That Firing 'Nut Job' Comey Eased Pressure From Investigation."

They write, "President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the FBI Director James Comey had relieved 'great pressure' on him according to a document summarizing the meeting."

The piece quotes the president as telling the Russians, "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job." The president also reported saying, "I face great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."

And remember, that meeting also featured the president sharing code word classified information on ISIS gathered by Israel that may have put lives at risk. Maggie Haberman, one reporter who broke that story for the "Times" joins us again.

So, it just explains what we now know about this meeting. What you've learned with Matthew?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. So this meeting had already raised eyebrows because the president had this indiscreet slip about intelligence and a laptop that was secured that was upsetting to allies. He also talked about the Russia investigation.

As we know, this president has a habit of talking about what's on his mind and we know this investigation wrangles him a great deal understandably so. But, you know, he had just fired James Comey and he talked about it. And he described him as a "real nut job." That is a phrase this president uses really frequently.

He said that the investigation had put some pressure on him, that pressure is now off. He was in adamant that he himself was on under investigation. My sense of that was that he was actually referring to what he's been referring to this whole time, which is that he has always been adamant that he personally is on under investigation. Comey I think has not actually said that publicly.

He, you know, then made other chitchat about policy such as Ukraine and looking for Russian intervention there. He talked about his crowd size at the inauguration. He made a joke about how the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, had met with almost every other official on his campaign why didn't he ask Trump for a meeting. This is the Donald Trump that we have come to know.

[21:10:03] The Donald Trump who is dispersive and who talks and he sort of talks in circles and doesn't always have a point. And who often says the same thing privately that he says publicly, but he was saying this to Russian officials while there is not just one investigation going on, but several investigations going on the day after he had fired the director of the FBI and with people suggesting he may have obstructed justice.

And the things that he said are going to appear to reaffirm that for people who fear he did. The defense that was given about him was that he was essentially using what had happened in Russian meddling in the election. And to be clear, he's been sort of iffy on that publicly whether he accepts that Russia was behind the hacking.

But he said it out right in this meeting supposedly that he was using that as a leverage point, almost trying to make the Russians feel guilty for casting a cloud over him because, of course, that wouldn't be the case. And he was using it to extract concessions in the future. This is unusual diplomacy to say the least and unwise at best when you are under investigation.

COOPER: One of the -- I think it was Fareed or Jeff earlier who pointed out -- Jeff Toobin, that by saying that he was basically -- that the pressure had been relieved somewhat by or eased by the firing of Director Comey, it undercuts the argument that he was trying to use this as a leverage point like, "Look, I'm under a lot of pressure. You got to give me a concession." HABERMAN: There -- you know, the argument -- the push back that we got was that, you know, essentially what he actually meant when he was saying that according to this push back is I was under political pressure, undue political pressure, because Comey had "been a grandstander" as the president said.

And, therefore, the investigation is still going on. I'm not -- you know, there's no connection to it involving Comey and there's no cloud. In that way, I'm free to, you know, negotiate and try to establish a better relationship.

You know, that's a hard place to get to, to understand the logic there. It is the kind of logic that I could see him actually thinking, but I think people are going to have to decide which version of events they believe.

COOPER: You know, it's also interesting just about the personality of President Trump. I mean, you know, I interviewed him a little bit. You've interviewed him far more than I have a little (ph) more, but he does seem to try to -- there's a charmingness to him that he tries to reach out to somebody and sort of --


COOPER: He wants --

HABERMAN: To win you over.

COOPER: He wants you win you over. And he also does it by -- he wants you to like him and to you be fair to him. But, he wants you to like him and I wonder when I was reading this -- about this meeting, I could sort of -- one way to look at it is him basically trying to establish some sort of rapport in some way.

HABERMAN: Right. I mean, I think that is a potential read of this. Look, I had a tweet about this the other day when we learned about the disclosure about the laptop and the intelligence that he talked about where, you know, I've interviewed him in his office in Trump Tower. I believe you have as well.


HABERMAN: He got that collection of like souvenirs.


HABERMAN: OK. So upstairs by the window, he's got this collection of almost toys. And one of them is a signed shoe by Shaquille O'Neal.

COOPER: All right, yeah.

HABERMAN: The giant shoe. And he likes to brag when he meets people and he likes to sort of show off. And it is about winning them over. I think I don't know how much of it is about being liked, although some people say that is what it is. And a lot of it is that he's just always selling. But I think this was the intelligence version of Shaquille O'Neal's shoe. This may very well have been, you know, the investigation version of Shaquille O'Neal shoe. But, again, this is where he is not at all adapted to the legal circumstances that are in front of him to the realities and constraints of the Oval Office and at the presidency.

One of the characteristics of Donald Trump is he gets people around him to sort of bend to his view of events and his view of reality. There is a whole other view of reality out there that does not comport with this and I think that there is increasingly a divergence based on these currents of these investigations crossing.

COOPER: Fascinating. Great reporting. Maggie Haberman, thanks very much. Are you following Matthew Rosenberg as well?

HABERMAN: And Matt, of course, (ph) I should say about --


COOPER: Maggie will be back with the panel a bit later tonight.

Again, this broke just as the president was leaving for the first overseas trip of his presidency. CNN's Athena Jones is here now with all the latest on that.

So the president several hours into his trip to the Middle East. Have they reacted to any of tonight's breaking news? I mean, obviously they're still flying in there.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Anderson. That's right. They are still flying. But as you mentioned, this broke just as they were leaving.

We did get a statement from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and what is noticeable -- what is notable about that statement is that he doesn't deny "The New York Times" report and said he focused on this idea of director -- former Director Comey having been a showboater, or his word was grandstanding.

He said that Comey was grandstanding and politicized in the investigation into Russia's activities, which created unnecessary pressure on the White House's ability to engage and negotiate with Russia.

He brings up a couple of deals that he says the president was hoping to reach with Russia on Syria, on Ukraine, on defeating ISIS. But then he ends his statement by saying that the real story is the threat to national security from this leaking of private and highly classified conversations.

[21:15:04] So it's clear the White House is not happy about this latest headline as they head off on this high stakes trips that they're hoping will be something of a reset. They're hoping that to have a successful trip would mean a shift in the narrative around the president. But with these constant breaking headlines, that's going to be difficult.

COOPER: Yeah. And, again, I mean, its headlines based on things the president himself has said, you know, and there have been a number of developments just -- since the president has been in the air. Is it going to affect the international trip? I mean, it's obviously going to impact it in some way, but could they may be just ignore the stuff and just focus on, you know, what they went over there for in the first place?

JONES: My guess is they're not going to be ignoring this. They're going to be trying to respond as best they can to any new news that comes out. But, of course, they have an agenda -- past agenda for the president. His first stop, Saudi Arabia.

He is set to deliver a major speech on Islam, which is interesting on itself. I mean, it's a high risk -- potentially high reward speech giving to some 50 Muslim leaders. The hope, according to him, is to show the Muslim leaders that they should encourage their people to promote Islam as a religion of peace.

But, again, this is a president who said to you during the campaign that Islam hates us and had some pretty harsh rhetoric for Muslims as well proposing this Muslim ban. The chief architect of the travel ban, the now blocked travel ban that targeted six Muslim majority countries, Steven Miller, is the chief writer of the speech on Islam. Steven Miller himself has a long history of anti-Muslim rhetoric. So it's going to be very interesting to see what's in this speech, how it's received in Saudi Arabia.

We have an early draft that shows that the words radical Islam and terrorism are not part of the speech, at least far. That's also very interesting because that is a word -- a phrase we heard the president use a great deal on the campaign trail and he criticized others for not using it. So, a lot of eyes will be on that speech. Anderson?

COOPER: Athena Jones, we'll explore that a little bit more later tonight as well. Thanks for the reporting tonight.

Meantime, the avalanche of news just keeps rolling tonight. Coming up next, how White House lawyers are preparing in the event that president has to deal with some sort of impeachment proceedings. We'll talk about that ahead.


[21:20:52] COOPER: Yet more breaking news now on top of all the rest were that White House lawyers have begun early preparation for likely or not possible impeachment proceedings. CNN Justice Correspondent Evan Perez joins us now with details on that. Evan, what are you learning?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment procedures. Now, this is simply an effort to prepare for what officials still believe is a distant and unlikely possibility that the president could have to fend off attempts to remove him from office. Two people briefed under the discussion tell CNN that the research efforts are informal and are being done out of an abundance of caution. White House officials believe that the president still has the backing of Republican allies in Congress and that impeachment is not in the cards, according to the people briefed on these legal discussions.

But we should note that even Democrats have tried to calm some of this impeachment talk this week out of concern that it is premature. But lawyers in the White House Counsel's office have consulted experts in impeachment and have begun collecting information on how such proceedings could work.

We talked to the White House earlier today and after our story published they said that these lawyers are not actually doing any of this, Anderson.

COOPER: Does this mean that the president needs to hire an outside lawyer? Has he, do we know?

PEREZ: Well, we don't know if he has yet, but that's certainly a discussion that's being had in the White House at this moment. Now, there's a broader internal effort to bolster the president's legal defense which has become a lot more complicated with the Justice Department's appointment of a special counsel to pursue this investigation into the Russian meddling of the 2016 election.

Earlier this week, close advisors to the president, including two lawyers who have served as surrogates for the president, Michael Cohen and Jay Sekulow, visited the White House to discuss his need to hire personal attorneys for the president, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Evan Perez, thanks very much.

Let's bring in the panel. Mary Katharine Ham, Laura Coates, Maggie Haberman, Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, Charles Blow, Steve Hall, former GOP presidential candidate, Rick Santorum with us, also Garrett Graff, author of "The Threat Matrix: The FBI At War."

Professor Dershowitz, you've been saying for days he should hire lawyers. It seems prudent for them to at least be refreshing themselves on any sort of impeachment proceedings even though that's not in the cards.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Yeah. No, I think if he is thinking about how to deal with the special counsel, he has to get a private lawyer outside of the White House --

COOPER: That's crucial.

DERSHOWITZ: -- represents Mr. Donald Trump, not President Trump. On impeachment, I think he can use White House counsel. That is a kind of political attack on the presidency itself.

What concerns me a little bit is we're now getting leaks of lawyer/client privileged information. I mean, if one of -- if I were preparing for a client and somebody leaked it to the press, I'd be outraged. Where are the civil libertarians?

You know, the first casualty of partisan politics is that civil liberties takes a back seat. And I will continue to focus on these civil liberties issues wherever the chips may fall. Sometimes it will hurt Trump. Sometimes it will help Trump. But the ACLU has neglected their role and civil libertarians have to speak up.

There are real concerns here about what's going on. There are legitimate areas to investigate, but we have to distinguish between bad conduct politically and what is impeachable conduct, what is criminal conduct.

COOPER: Charles, what about that?

CHARLES BLOW, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I mean, there are different kinds of leaks happening here, right? So there is this client/attorney privilege stuff that, right, I think -- that should not be leaked.

Here, I think that you could -- people inside the White House are people with knowledge of things that they considered to be bad and feel they have absolutely no recourse. There is no -- you can't necessarily report it to the Justice Department because, you know, the head of the Justice Department is appointed by Trump.

Where would you take the issue if you felt like legitimately there's a problem here, I see something that worries me, I do not have a recourse to give it to anybody or report it up the chain, who do I give it to?

DERSHOWITZ: So it's an act of civil disobedience, because some of the leaks are felonies, leaks by the Intel people of what went on in that conversation in the Oval Office. That's a felony and a serious felony. Others are not.

[21:25:04] I wrote an article early on in the Trump administration talking about a new form of checks and balances. And I said leaks, one of the new forms of checks and balances. When you have all the branches of the government in the hands of one party, then media is an important check of balance, the academy. And leaks are an important check and balance.

But, you have to distinguish between different kinds of leaks. People should not be able to take the law into their hands and violate the law without being willing to pay the consequences.

COOPER: Senator Santorum, I want to get your reaction to CNN's reporting that Russians bragged about their relationship with General Flynn. Now, we don't know if the Russians were overstating, you know, what any -- if there was a relationship. If they were just overstating, if they were bragging to each other and make themselves seem more important. How big a problem do you think is this for the Trump administration potentially or for Michael Flynn?

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yeah. I don't really take that seriously what Russians say to each other and what's leaked from those conversations. You know, if you're in that business, you're going to have probably try to make yourself look good that you have all sorts of connections and -- again, I just don't give much credence to that. I don't think it's a story that people are going to pay much attention to what Russian say about us.

I'm sure when -- back in the Cold War when we got a Democrat in office, you know, that -- after Ronald -- you know, after George Bush and Ronald Reagan, they were probably saying, "Oh, we got some friends, you know, we got some friends there, too." So I don't think that that's important.

I want to get back to this point about these leakers because, you know, I hear the reporters say all the time, "Well, these are people who have no recourse and they're real patriots and they care a lot about the country."

If you think what's happened over the past 10 days is really been good for the country, do you that think this type of indiscriminant leaking of classified information, of lawyer crime proliferation information, other types of information that undermines this president is good for the country, then you probably are not in my mind a patriotic American.

This is not -- bringing this administration under a complete diversion away from his first foreign trip, a whole lot of other things that need to be done at the Congress is not in the public interest. So don't play this waving American card that I'm just doing my patriotic duty when what you're probably doing is just trying to undermine someone you don't agree with.

COOPER: Charles?

BLOW: If Trump is in a hell, he built that hell. He is the architect of his own demise. The things that we are learning about what Trump -- that are creating problems for Trump are things that he himself has said. He built the hell that he is suffering in.

So, if you look at that and say, people are not -- people are unpatriotic because they are revealing to America that the leader of this country, the person who has their finger on, you know, on the button is a person who is intemperate, who talks to Russians who -- presumably he is meeting for the first time and tell them all sorts of things about civil service, you know, in our government and what he has done to help the relationship between these people he has never met before, how is that not an act of patriotism?

How is it not an act of patriotism to say America, we have a problem? And I -- it is incumbent upon me or somebody --

SANTORUM: America voted for this problem (ph).

BLOW: Excuse me --


SANTORUM: Charles, you may not have voted for this person, but America voted to this man.

BLOW: I did not interrupt you. That is an act of patriotism.

COOPER: Let me ask -- Maggie, I mean, you talked to people who leak information. I don't know if you can say. What do you find to be people's motivation?

HABERMAN: I really try not to talk about source in any direction because I don't want to give people a thread to pull on here in that regard.


HABERMAN: But I do think that it is difficult for this president to talk about -- look, President Obama -- and, again, I don't like when people do, but President Obama, but I do think it is worth remembering that President Obama did criminalize leaks too. So it's not like this is a new thing.

The way this president has talked about, it is very different in that respect, including supposedly having discussed it with Comey, the head of the FBI, whether this was doable to jail reporters.

I think that this president got elected in part because of the revelations from WikiLeaks, which were someone's personal stolen property. And he would read them aloud at rallies and he would say, "I love WikiLeaks."

It's -- I think very hard to then -- WikiLeaks is a site that has been revealing secrets about how the CIA does its business. So I don't know how you can say -- and I don't think the president has commented on that at all. But he has talked about everything about himself.

COOPER: Steve, I mean, you know how the Russians work. This is what they want. They train spies to build relationships like this. Does it surprise you that the Russians were apparently bragging about a relationship with General Flynn?

And, again, to Senator Santorum's point, you know, it's very easy to look at this and say, "Well, look, these are -- you know, maybe these Russians are just lying to each other and building themselves up by saying they have more of relationship than they did."

[21:30:] STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: To start for the record, I considered myself a patriotic American and I think the president has brought this on himself. The leaks, you know, have always been here. The Russians have always talked about it.

I -- really for the Russian perspective, I think this is a win, win, win situation. I mean, the more we talk about impeachment, the Russians view that is essentially, you know, maybe there's something that they can do to help that version of regime change, which is something that they accuse us of all the time.

If the president never gets as far as impeachment because the investigation doesn't bear it out, that's perhaps a win for them, too, because then we can get back to the Trump that they knew during the campaign who was talking about the lifting of sanctions and who was talking about, you know, it doesn't matter about Crimea. So that's a win for them, too.

And here's the last big win for them, which is something that we forget sometimes which is how our allies, in particular our NATO in western allies, see all of this. They see us talking about things like impeachment. They see us, you know, wrapped around the axle about leaks, which frankly had been around in this town for, you know, God knows how long. And the Russians see that as a wedge. They're all about dividing and concurring.

And so, really there's very few scenarios right now that the Russians don't actually get something out of this, whether it's talking about leaks, impeachment or the discomfort that our western allies have to feel right now.

I mean, imagine you're Angela Merkel right now looking at the picture book that the White House gave you of your visit with the president and then imagine the old boys back slapping in the Oval Office, except this time that it's with the Russians. So it's really a win, win, win for the Russians across the boards, I think.

COOPER: We got to take a quick break. We're going to continue the conversation right after this. We'll be right back.


COOPER: It's going to be a tough ride on Air Force One right now. Still be in the air for about another five hours before landing in Saudi Arabia. It's a sign that kind of week it's been that the whole story has changed in several dramatic ways from the time the president got on the plane. Back now with the panel.

Garrett, you've written extensively about the relationship between former FBI Director Comey and Robert Mueller, the newly appointed special counsel leading the investigation. How do you see Comey's testimony playing out now that we know he is going to testify in an open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing after Memorial Day?

[21:35:09] GARRETT GRAFF, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR, "THE THREAT MATRIX: THE FBI AT WAR": This is going to be a very big deal because we are only just now beginning to learn this full scope of Comey's interactions with President Trump, what was said and what was documented.

We know that Jim Comey has many of these memos documenting these conversations. We don't know what exists in the other memos and what --where we have seen this conversation unfold.

I think that you're reporting tonight about the Russian conversations around Michael Flynn also begins to fill in some of the information that we don't know, because we know that there was deep concern within the Obama administration last fall and last winter as this investigation was beginning to unfold. But we haven't really seen clear evidence yet of what the evidence was that was causing that deep concern. That we know these telephone conversations between Sergey Kislyak and Michael Flynn happened. But we don't know the content of the conversations that was actually the cause for concern.

COOPER. Mary Katharine, where do you think -- I mean, where does the administration go from here in the next couple days? I mean, they're on this important foreign trip. They're going to number of different places.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think the foreign trip as with most things Trump, there is a chance for pleasant surprise by him being fairly disciplined. There's also the chance for pleasant -- unpleasant surprises. And I think he is reaching at a point at which, you know, sort of hitting the pleasant surprise. Mark (ph) doesn't help with the rest of this.

I think he'll likely be unable to not address this in someway either because of his own tendencies or because he'll get ask questions about it. But he is in environment where he can divert to other things more easily than if you were at home.

And if he did get protocol right, if he did have a couple of good moments on the road, then that things could look up. But he can never seem to keep a lid on his id for more than a short while and that tripping him up.

COOPER: And, Professor, you were saying if he comes away with a few accomplishments out of that that's something the administration can --

DERSHOWITZ: Yeah. And I think the accomplishments have probably already occurred. Normally when you go to a place like Saudi Arabia and Israel, you've already been told that certain considerations will be given you.

For example, the Saudi plan in relation to Israel is a very promising plan. Saudis have said that in exchange to Israel not building new settlements, which Netanyahu has already essentially said he might be willing to try to do, the Saudis will allow Israeli planes to fly over Saudi territory. We'll have direct telephone lines. We'll have the beginning of what looks like a relationship. If he can come back with that deal from Saudi Arabia and Israel in his pocket, wow, that's more than Bush and Obama accomplished in 16 years.

COOPER: You know, Laura, I mean one of the things that former official told, I think it was Gloria Borger, in this new story that CNN was breaking tonight with Pamela Brown was that the Flynn-Russia relationship was viewed as a five-alarm fire from early on. Does that factor into -- I assume that factors into Mueller's investigation. I mean, Mueller's investigation is far reaching that would clearly be something that he would be focusing.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely. The dragnet is quite large and that's the directive of the nature of his work. And although it's true that maybe his international trip will do a lot of good politically speaking, it will do nothing to curtail the FBI investigation or Mueller's overall achievements or overall goals in the investigation and there's a very big reason for that because they have to have a simultaneous parallel investigation going on.

For every accomplishment, there is still be this cloud of suspicion. In order to alleviate that, you have to complete the investigation. So, yes, it's true. There may be some short gains, politically speaking, but you will always have, as words of Andrew McCabe last week, the FBI never curtails its investigations and Robert Mueller's appointment will only fortress that particular investigation.

So, yes, it was a five-alarm fire then. They were trying to put out pillows (ph) to go what they had to investigate it wise. It's continued now that you have the complex of all these other factors to say there is some smoke and a five-alarm fire coming from that.

COOPER: Senator Santorum, what do you expect -- I mean, how far do you think Mueller will go in this open testimony given the fact that there is this criminal investigation that -- not Mueller, I'm sorry, Comey will go given that there is this criminal investigation by his friend and former colleague Robert Mueller?

SANTORUM: Yeah. You'd have to ask the person who writes more about Comey than I do. I don't know. I mean, what I do believe is that if the president goes to the Middle East and he does what Professor Dershowitz talked about, you know, put some tangible agreements on the table as to, you know, show that he is, you know, working on a relationship that is already, you know, been worked on, which is, you know, the Saudis, and Egyptians, and the Jordanians and the Israelis, you know, beginning to develop a little bit more relationship and Trump can now help weave that together.

[21:40:02] This investigation, you know, minus whatever other revelations may be leaked out, is going to get to work and that's not going to be a headline every day. I mean, you know, these investigations don't produce headlines. They produce work and they take a long period of time and that eventually is going to subside. But it's not going to subside unless the president comes forward with something that's going to replace it in the news cycle, and so far, he hasn't been able to do that.

COOPER: Right. I mean, that's a huge opportunity -- potential opportunity for the administration if they don't, you know, the gaps --

HAM: Undercut.

COOPER: --undercut.


COOPER: They're going to say, "Look, there's an ongoing investigation. We're not going to talk about it. We've got a lot of important stuff to get to."

HAM: Yeah. That's the always the question. And I think, you know, it would be better for them and for many consuming news if they would say, look, there's an investigation ongoing because people are getting sort of --

DERSHOWITZ: We can't comment. Yeah.

HAM: -- with this stuff and say we can't comment on this, but we'd like to talk about this that we're doing --


HABERMAN: That's what Jason would say (ph).

HAM: Yeah.

DERSHOWITZ: I think the special --

HAM: As a whole.

DERSHOWITZ: I think the special counsel is a gift to Trump because it allows him to basically say, "Everything is a secret for the next year."

COOPER: Right, if he's able to say that.

HAM: But it hasn't done that.


BLOW: But that is -- right, there's the counsel, but there's also other human beings who know things. There's no muzzle on these other people who know things. There's nothing preventing other people from divulging what they know. There is nothing guarantees that the headlines will go away.

COOPER: I want thank everybody in the panel.

As we said the president is in the air on his way to Saudi Arabia with all the story is breaking around him. Coming up next, two people who've been on the plan at such crucial moments, David Axelrod and John Kirby, join us.


COOPER: It's been quite a night from the Flynn intelligence reporting at "The New York Times" bombshell that president reportedly boasting about firing James Comey to late word that he will indeed be testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and this is all happening with the president airborne on Air Force One.

Joining us is two people who know what that is like, David Axelrod and retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

So, David, this news CNN reporting that the Russians were bragging about the influence they had on Michael Flynn, again, they could have just been bragging and may not have had the influence they were claiming they did. They thought that they could use him to influence Donald Trump. I mean, does that matter? I mean, does it -- will people just say, look, some Russians bragging to each other, as Senator Santorum said, you know, what does that matter?

[21:45:07] DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it will matter to some people and not to others. You know, I know that during all of these wild events this week and with the Trump administration on its back legs fighting off all of these things, his poll numbers have eroded, but there's sort of leveled off in the high 30s.

You know, his base is his base and they're not much connected to the story. It does hurt him dramatically in terms of his ability to persuade others and it could limit his ability to ever grow. But -- you know, so I think there's some comfort for him in that. But, you know, it is just the cascading of these things that is making it very hard for them to get out.

And as he wings his way over to Saudi Arabia, it would be good for the president to think about just how much jet fuel he personally has added to turn this into a runaway rocket. The story -- there's so many instances and the last one that we know about is this strange conversation with the Russians.

I mean, Kislyak who was in the room is a Russian spy master who is at the center of this whole story. He was the guy who Flynn was consorting with according to some. And Trump is bragging to him or unloading in front of him about how he fired this nut job Comey to get the Russian -- take the heat off of the Russia investigation unthinkable. So the first rule of politics is if you want to get out of a hole, stop digging. And the president has been digging furiously for some time here.

COOPER: Yeah. I mean, Admiral Kirby, as someone who, you know, works in administration as spokesperson, you know, what do you do to try to turn the corner on something like this because as -- I think what Senator Santorum and others said, and Professor Dershowitz said, this could be an opportunity. This special counsel could be an opportunity for the president to say, "Look, that conversation is done. We support the investigation. It's ongoing. I'm talking about jobs. I'm talking about illegal immigration, whatever it is."

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yeah. I agree -- I think that's right and I just wish he would take that opportunity. This is the time to stop talking about this stuff. And you got the special counsel which, of course, we wouldn't have if he not fired James Comey, let's remember that. But now we are where we are.

That's a good excuse now for them to say, "Look, we're going to let the special counsel handle this. We're going to let the investigation on. We want the facts to go where they lead us. We're going to focus on X, Y, Z, whatever it is."

And he's got a big trip right now with lots of important visits and lots of opportunities here to try to change a little bit of a narrative. I don't know that he will. He ought to take advantage of that. Now is the time to use this to his advantage as much as he can, but he keeps -- as Mr. Axelrod rightly points out, he just keeps digging the shovel into the dirt again.

COOPER: David, is there a, you know, the other -- one of the big story today was that attorneys in the legal counsel's office in the White House -- the office of legal counsel have, you know, have been researching the whole impeachment proceedings just out of an abundance of caution. Not that they're thinking they're there, not that there's any evidence that's where it's going to go. Does that make sense to you? I mean to someone who's work in a White House, I mean lawyers are paid to be cautious.

AXELROD: Yes. That makes sense to me. I'm wondering where the abundance of caution was before the president had multiple conversations with the FBI director and talked to him about an ongoing investigation in which he himself might be involved. You would think they would have briefed him on that. That seems to me like an abundance of caution there.


COOPER: To your point David, what's fascinating about that is, you know, he had dinner with Comey, if memory serves me correct, the very night that Sally Yates, -- the day that Sally Yates informed the FBI -- informed the White House legal counsel office about Michael Flynn and that he had lied and been interviewed by the FBI and done badly in that interview and the legal counsel informed the president, then the president went right out in that dinner with Comey.

AXELROD: Yes. And it's also the White House counsel who apparently -- or we're told never informed the vice-president who was head of the transition committee that Admiral Flynn -- that General Flynn was under investigation as they were about to appoint him as national security adviser, who didn't inform the vice-president that he had been lied to, you know.

So it may be-- yes, I have no problem with them thinking about impeachment. I think we're along way from that, but they should be prepared for that. But, boy, this president -- either he has ignored advice or he's been really poorly advised throughout this whole episode.

COOPER: Admiral Kirby, I mean, what would you advise them to do? I mean, is there a right way to navigate through this?

KIRBY: Well, first of all, take away his iPhone or whatever he uses to get onto Twitter. Secondly, he needs to, again, refer to the special counsel.

[21:50:02] You have three investigations going on. One of them headed by a special counsel, use that as a way to stop getting yourself mired in all of this and deferred of that. Number three, and this is really important, he needs to start thinking about the larger communications aspect as he is making decisions.

I was Admiral Mullen spokesman for 11 years. I can count on one hand the number of times where I wasn't in the room when he made a major decision or when I had to -- when reporters asked me, "What's the boss think about this?" I had to go ask him, the same with Secretary Hagel, the same with Secretary Kerry.

It's important that he keeps the communications with staff closely and he also listens to them. Back to advice, as Mr. Axelrod said, they have to listen to advisors and slow down a little bit before he moves out on making statements and going on script.

COOPER: Yeah. Admiral Kirby, David Axelrod, thanks very much.

So much has happened today. There it could be easy to forget what's going on in the background. President Trump is about to make a speech in Saudi Arabia. He is going to talk about Islam. That obviously has been more than a year talking about banning Muslims, saying other potential inflammatory things about the religion. He railed against President Obama and Hillary Clinton for not using the words radical Islamic terror.

Now, U.S. official says those words are not in the current draft the president's upcoming speech. That could change. Brianna Keilar has more.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As a candidate, Donald Trump drew wide criticism when he falsely claimed Muslims had cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.

KEILAR (voice-over): Just weeks later in December 2015, Trump first announced his proposal to ban Muslims. It came in the wake of the ISIS inspired attack in San Bernardino, California by a U.S. born Pakistani-American and his wife.

TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

KEILAR (voice-over): As trump surged in the primaries, he said the religion as a whole was anti-American.

COOPER: Do you think Islam is at war with the west?

TRUMP: I think Islam hates us. There's something -- there is something there that -- there is a tremendous hatred there.

KEILAR (voice-over): A message heard loud and clear in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Trump is now headed there to give a speech intended, his top aides say, to unite the Muslim world against terrorism.

TRUMP: And it is there that we will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries. KEILAR (voice-over): They'll have a lot of explaining to do, particularly on his travel ban of several Muslim majority countries now tied up in the court system.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, first of all, it's not a travel ban. He has been very clear that it is extreme vetting.

KEILAR (voice-over): And also clear, that it was indeed a ban.

TRUMP: We're going to have a very, very strict ban and we're going to have extreme vetting which we should have had in this country for many years.


KEILAR: That ban authored with significant input from top White House aides, Steven Miller, who is also the main author of the remarks that Trump will deliver on Islam. As a college student, Miller worked with a Terrorism Awareness Project, that is a group considered an anti- Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Anderson?

COOPER: All right, Brianna Keilar. Brianna thanks.

A programming note at the beginning of this week, which feels like a thousand years ago, I spoke with fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates in an exclusive interview. Stay tuned to a little over an hour from now for that interview tonight at 11:00 Eastern.

Up next, a first take in the bombshells exploding the Washington from third-graders, too young to vote, but they have a lot to say about the president and politics.


[21:56:37] COOPER: Well, we are kind of running out of words to describe the avalanche of news tonight so we thought it might be enlightening to hear voices not often to heard in moments like this, kids. What do they make of all of this? Gary Tuchman went to Monroe County, Pennsylvania, one of the closest races in the presidential election to find out.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the Swiftwater Elementary School in Monroe County, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Pocono Mountains. On Election Day, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton finished within one percentage point of each other in this county.

(on camera): And we are sitting here with some of the third-graders at Swiftwater Elementary. Are you ready to talk about President Trump?


TUCHMAN (on camera): What do you think Donald Trump and his campaign are being investigated about?

IKE TSCHEME, THIRD-GRADE STUDENT: I think he is being investigated about, like, how he got elected as president a little bit. And then if he is working with the Russians or not.

A.J. FORMICA, THIRD-GRADE STUDENT: They are investigating him because to see if Russia hacked into the campaign to give him more votes.

BRIELLE BATT, THIRD-GRADE STUDENT: They maybe just don't like him so they're just trying to make up with this?

JULIAN NISH, THIRD-GRADE STUDENT: I feel like it would be good to know whether if something like that would be real or not. But if they're investigating him like if he ate a sandwich or not --

TUCHMAN (on camera): Yeah. The sandwich investigation any pocket, that would be a waste of taxpayer money.

NISH: Yes, they're pushed too.

TUCHMAN (on camera): What do you think the best thing Donald Trump has done so far?

BATT: Lower the taxes.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Well, he's been talking about it, but he hasn't done it yet. But you think it's a good promise?

NISH: I think the best thing he has done so far is promising to lower taxes, because I don't want to be 80 paying a million dollars taxes.

TUCHMAN (on camera): How much do you want to pay when you're 80?

NISH: Not much.

TUCHMAN (on camera): No. Give me an amount.

NISH: Maybe like $100.

TUCHMAN (on camera): What don't you like about what he's done so far?

BATT: Building the wall in (inaudible), because what if someone like in Mexico and stayed there for a couple of years, when the wall was built they won't be able to get back home.

JADEN VAN WHY, THIRD-GRADE STUDENT: Building the wall because people from Mexico might want to go back to the United States.

TUCHMAN (on camera): So Donald Trump gave a graduation speech. I want you to watch this and then we'll talk about it.

TRUMP: No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.

WHY: It's not true because he said mean stuff about Barack Obama that he was born in Africa but that wasn't true because he was born in the United States.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Maybe Donald Trump is hurting deep down inside and needs to get it out. Do any of you think that's maybe true?

WHY: Yes.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Do any of you feel sorry for him?


TUCHMAN (on camera): If Donald Trump walked into your class and said, "Ike, tell me what you want to tell me." What would you say to him?

BATT: How much money do you make per day?

TUCHMAN (on camera): Good question. He's a financially minded guy. He would probably answer it. What would you ask?

TESS DELGROSSO, THIRD-GRADE STUDENT: What is your favorite part about being president?

TUCHMAN(on camera): What do you think his answer would be?

DELGROSSO: Playing golf.

TUCHMAN (on camera): It's been a pleasure talking with you and thank you for inviting us here.



[22:00:00] COOPER: Time to hand it over Jim Sciutto and Pamela Brown, the CNN Special Report, "White House in Crisis" starts right now.