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Trump Begins First Presidential Trip Abroad Amid Comey Fallout. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- John Berman. So if a six- foot-eight guy can't hide in the curtains, where can he hide? A new dramatic account from a friend fired FBI James Comey about just how far he went to avoid contact with the President. This comes as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein heads to Capitol Hill very shortly to brief House members behind closed doors on the Russia investigation.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: As for the President, he departs on his first trip overseas just hours from now and he is carrying some heavy baggage, his anger over the appointment of a special counsel and this new account emerging truly from the drapery. A friend of James Comey describing this squirm-inducing encounter between the President and the FBI Director overseeing the investigation of his own administration.


BENJAMIN WITTES, FRIEND OF JAMES COMEY: If you watch the video, he extends his hand -- and Comey's arms are really long. And he extends his hand kind of preemptively, and Trump grabs the hand and kind of pulls him into a hug. But the hug is entirely one-sided, so one guy in the hug is shaking hands. Comey was just completely disgusted by --


WITTES: -- disgusted by the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.


HARLOW: You're going to hear a lot more on that fascinating interview in a moment. Let's get straight to Joe Johns at the White House with more. Good morning.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. The President is setting out in just a few hours on that nine-day foreign trip. First stop, Saudi Arabia, then Israel, then the Vatican. And that's just the start of it. The President leaving the White House but not getting away very much from the controversy.

The President telling reporters just yesterday that he believes he's a victim of a witch hunt and suggesting, in his view, the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the last election, more or less, he says, hurts the country. The President also answering journalists' questions about his interactions with FBI Director James Comey.

Meanwhile, "The New York Times" reporting that a friend of Comey's, Ben Wittes, said Comey rebuffed many times the attempts by the President to get too friendly. Listen.


WITTES: This was somebody under intense pressure. And, look, Jim is a trooper. He handles pressure very well. He's not a whiner, but the color of the wallpaper was that these were not honorable people and that protecting the FBI from them was his day job.


JOHNS: And we here at CNN have picked up information along those lines as well. Justice Correspondent Pam Brown has reported that Comey, more or less, went as far as practicing what he was going to say to the President of the United States with staff. So I'm sure we'll hear more about that in the future. John and Poppy, back to you.

BERMAN: Yes. Imagine that, Joe Johns, you know, the FBI Director rehearsing his lines --

HARLOW: I know.

BERMAN: -- for the President because he's so concerned about what the encounter will be like.


BERMAN: Joe, thank you very, very much. In just a few minutes, the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, Rod Rosenstein, he will brief members of the House in a closed-door session on the Russia investigation. He did speak with Senators yesterday. CNN's Phil Mattingly standing in wait there.

Phil, before we get to this briefing today, what is the status right now of former Director Comey? He'd been called or asked to come testify on Capitol Hill in public. Is that going to happen?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's an open question, and I think it is a very big one. If you talk to House Democrats and Senate Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, including House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, they both say that public testimony still needs to occur. But as it currently stands, Republicans are I've been talking to are very unsure.

Since the appointment of the special counsel, the real question now is, if Jim Comey testifies publicly, will that undercut what Bob Mueller, the new special counsel, is actually trying to do?

Now, it's worth nothing, there is a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the FBI next week where Jim Comey has been invited to testify. The Senate Intelligence Committee has also invited Jim Comey to testify. I'm told at least up to this point, they have not gotten any firm commitments yet. It's a lot of wait and see right now.

And I think, guys, that's one of the major questions, obviously, that senators asked Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein last night for an explanation. Why was he fired? How was he fired? Was there White House influence?

Now, there was some big news last night, apparently, where Rod Rosenstein made very clear, according to several Democratic senators, that he was aware that Jim Comey was going to be fired before he drafted that three-page memo that White House officials repeatedly and then sometime decided not to but then sometime decided again to cite as the rationale for the firing.

[09:04:59] The big question now, I think, guys, becomes what can he say, what will he say, in this meeting with the House of Representatives. Keep in mind, last night, I was told there were very pointed questions, almost inflammatory-wise questions, by several Democratic senators who were frustrated that Rod Rosenstein continued to defer to Bob Mueller, wasn't willing to answer a lot of specifics as to what was going on.

Now, think about it this way. The Senate, guys, has 48 members that caucus with the Democrats. In the House, 193. So if things got a little bit heated last night behind closed doors, I'm told, expect it to get fireworky -- if that's not actually a word -- but the word that was used by one aide this morning in terms of what to expect going forward.

Look, people want answers. The public testimony is something the Democrats believe will provide that. They certainly didn't get answers yesterday. They're going to ask a lot of those same questions today. But I think until that public testimony happens, if it happens at all, Democrats, at least, certainly won't be satisfied.

HARLOW: Why do I think this fireworky stuff is going to leak, leak, leak out to you, you, you, and you're going to bring it to us? Well --

BERMAN: I think it's a Katy Perry song also. Just, by the way, I'm just saying.

HARLOW: Just by the way.

BERMAN: Right.

HARLOW: Of course, like, Berman is the one quoting Katy Perry. Phil Mattingly, thank you. We appreciate it.

Let's bring in our panel. Mark Preston is here, our CNN Senior Political Analyst. Errol Louis joins us, CNN Political Commentator and Political Anchor at Spectrum News. And Jackie Kucinich, our political analyst and Washington Bureau Chief for "The Daily Beast."

Errol, to you, this image that we see now of six-foot-eight tall Comey hiding in the curtains, this rowing account of how uncomfortable he was, really, the whole way through with the President, preplanning his interaction with the President, what he would say, rehearsing that, what is the significance of that, broadly?

ERROL LOUIS, POLITICAL ANCHOR, SPECTRUM NEWS NY1: There are two things, and one is very serious. I mean, at a minimum, it shows that it was in his intention -- and he'll have to confirm this before we could say it for sure -- to sort of act as a bulwark, as a firewall, between the White House and the FBI. Hearing all of these things, having all of these misgivings, sharing them with a friend and so forth, keeping notes about it, it really all suggests that he knew there was something wrong, but he didn't want it to affect what was going on at the FBI. That's the serious thing.

The less serious thing, I think, is did he extend his hand? Was it a hug? Was it a bro hug? Who was doing the hugging? Who was nauseated, who was disgusted? That stuff is, I think, you know, sort of par for the course in Washington.

The serious stuff though is, if he felt that he needed to make records of keeping the FBI safe from interference by the White House, that's going to come out, sooner or later.

BERMAN: That's right. Unrequited man hug. Let's play just a little bit more of the sound from Benjamin Wittes here, because I do think it is important and very interesting. This is about James Comey wanting to literally blend into the drapes. Listen.


WITTES: He really wanted to kind of blend in and not be singled out. And he's six-foot-eight, so when you're --

BRANGHAM: It's kind of tough to do that.

WITTES: If you're six-foot-eight, it's really hard to blend in. If you watch the video of it, he's wearing a blue blazer, and he stands in the part of the room that is as far from Trump as it is physically possible to be and also against blue drapes that are the same color as his --

BRANGHAM: He chose that spot?

WITTES: He chose that spot because it was, you know, almost like a chameleon or, you know, a camouflage against the wall.

BRANGHAM: Blend in.


BERMAN: I know from experience, it's hard to hide when you are six- foot-eight. But, Jackie, I want to talk, you know, less about the substance than the fact of this sound that we're hearing right now. Because I do not think that Benjamin Wittes would be saying these things right now out loud, doing these interviews, if James Comey was not OK, you know, if the former FBI Director didn't want to be sending this message out there to the world. So what is James Comey doing here? Why does he want this out? JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: Well,

since he is not out there yet, I think you're right. This is someone who is close with James Comey. But I think he wants to give his side of the story out there because, right now, all we really have to go on are -- we obviously have the news reports, but in terms of first person accounts, it's really just President Trump and what he is saying happened with this. And that, obviously, is not James Comey's side of the story.

Now, we may hear that in testimony in the House and in the Senate in the very near future, but at this point, it just seems like he wants his side out there. And this was just someone who is really trying to keep up the traditional line between the presidency and the FBI and really trying to keep that distance that President Obama, for example, and many other presidents before him, forged in order to keep that separation of power intact.

HARLOW: Right. Yes. I mean, you bring up President Obama, you know, not having these direct meetings or even phone calls with the FBI Director. It's supposed to go through the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General.


HARLOW: Speaking of the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein --

BERMAN: Smooth segue.

[09:09:59] HARLOW: There you go. You know, I'm back. I got my mojo back. Rod Rosenstein, Comey's friend talked about Comey's skepticism of Rosenstein. Listen to this.


WITTES: He had concerns about Rod, and what he specifically said was -- and I'll never forget it. He said, Rod is a survivor.

BRANGHAM: Meaning he's lived through Democratic and Republican administrations.

WITTES: Yes. And you know, you don't get to survive that long without making some compromises. And so he said, so I have concerns.


HARLOW: Mark, what do you make of that? And by the way, isn't Comey a survivor, too, in a sense?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, no doubt. I mean, what we're seeing here is, battle lines have been drawn, and now they're being very well defined. And people are trying to build up character and take down character, right?

So we've seen that in the weeks leading into this interview, right, with Benjamin Wittes, is that Donald Trump was trying to tear down Comey's character and has been. Now, Comey, who has to defend himself, has to defend himself against that memo that was written by Rod Rosenstein. So how do you do that? You have one of your allies go out there and question what his integrity is.

BERMAN: Yes, amazing, almost like he was going down a checklist during that interview right there.



BERMAN: The more you listen, the more fascinating it becomes. Errol Louis, maybe because of the meticulous notes that we believe now that the former FBI Director took and the accounts of this conversations, advisers to the President are telling him, it's time to lawyer up. It's time to hire a private attorney to handle this. Probably wise, first of all. Why is it significant?

LOUIS: Yes, it is significant. Look, the White House Counsel will normally steer the President through things that will involve the administration, formal and official problems that may come up. Now, we're getting into the realm of problems that are unique to the President personally. And that's when you need a personal attorney.

When you have something like what lawyers call "recorded recollections," somebody who contemporaneously takes notes, tells others about it, that's called a hearsay exception. It could be admitted at trial, even though it's really not --

HARLOW: It's more or less.

LOUIS: You know, it's considered a pretty good proof that something can be taken as serious and as solid. So, yes, as these problems start to multiply, it's going to be in Donald Trump's interest to not have those who are there to protect the administration but those who are there to protect Donald Trump. And he himself gives you a clue to that because he says, look, I can't talk about anybody else. I can tell you about me. There was no collusion with the Russians.

HARLOW: Except when he does say that he could speak for himself and the Russians. Let's listen to what he said about that yesterday in the press conference.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign. But I can only speak for myself and the Russians, zero.


HARLOW: OK, aside from maybe the weird wording there. But, look, his top advisors want him to take this foreign overseas trip, be out of the U.S. for a little bit, and focus, re-focus, on policy and being the President, rather than the chaos that is surrounding him. PRESTON: And the irony is that there are reports, though, that he

doesn't even want to go on this trip. He doesn't like these extended trips. He doesn't like being out of his element, and his element now is the White House. It used to be here at Trump tower.

What I do think we should keep in mind, though, as we're watching this is the indignant denial by President Trump. If he is not guilty, which he's not, you know, given our system as it is right now, until he is proven, why doesn't he just say, open the books? Come investigate. I have nothing to hide. But yet, he looks very defensive.

BERMAN: And, Jackie, we know that there are advisers saying, look, Mr. President, this is an opportunity for you to put that in one area, put the whole investigation in one place, and you should focus on policy, whether it be tax policy when you're home here or concentrate on this foreign trip. It is an opportunity for you to look presidential.

KUCINICH: Yes, but the President doesn't listen to his advisers. He listens to, you know, his own instincts.

BERMAN: Exactly.

KUCINICH: And we've seen that over and over and over again. I mean, just yesterday or two days ago, you had that very staged statement that he put out in the aftermath of the announcement of the special counsel. And then the next day, he was calling it a witch hunt. And you had advisors talking in a great story by "Politico," saying that, you know, he knows the gravity of this.

Well, if that's the case, it seems like, you know, he sees something on television or he talks to someone who might not be in line with the rest of his advisers, and he ends up lashing out. So that is going to continue. There has been no sign that that's something that's not going to continue to happen in this White House.

And I wanted to mention one other thing about the fact that there is a special counsel now. Not only is the President perhaps seeking outside counsel. Other people in the White House, everyone in the White House, might end up having to have legal representation. We saw that in the Clinton White House.

And, you know, for some, that could be a real hardship. So I think you'll see a lot of former Clinton aides really having some sympathy for those younger Trump aides that are now going to have to lawyer up because the books are open.

BERMAN: And we're going to talk to one in just a little bit.


[09:14:57] BERMAN: There's genuine empathy right now from some Democrats who were there for some of these people in the White House right now.


BERMAN: Mark Preston, Errol Louis, Jackie Kucinich, great to have you with us. Really appreciate it.

Now the president does say he has a leading candidate to be the next FBI director. Democrats say Joe no. Why Democrats say they will battle a recommendation of former Democratic Senator Joe Liebermann.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Plus the president is just a few hours away of facing another major test taking off for this first international trip. Will this week's turmoil, though, follow him overseas?

And House Intel Former Chair Devin Nunes, at least in the Russia investigation former, well, he recused himself from that so why is he still looking at the Russia intel?


BERMAN: All right. As we wait for the president to leave on his first foreign trip, we are also waiting for a possible announcement on who will replace former FBI Director James Comey. The president says he is very close to making a pick.

HARLOW: Right. We'll see among the front runners, former senator and former presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman. Even though he has not been selected yet, he is facing this wave of resistance from Democrats.

Let's bring in our Suzanne Malveaux. They really, really don't like Lieberman, if he is the pick. Is this just all going back to 2008? Is this all about abandoning the party?

[09:20:08]SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is mostly about abandoning the party, Poppy and John. I mean, it will be interesting to see if that announcement comes in the next 90 minutes or so, breaking the tradition.

But one of the things we know and Joe Lieberman is such a familiar character to many of us back in 2000 as Al Gore's running mate, but also being in the Senate for more than two decades, but 2008 was critical.

It was pivotal and that was as an independent who had often caucused with the Democrats, throwing his hand in there in the ring, for John McCain, his dear friend as opposed to Barack Obama making that very public speech before the Republican National Convention.

But he has also done things in a nonconventional way aside that and it has really drown the ire of many Democrats. The fact that he supported the Iraq war, that he was critical of President Bill Clinton as well.

We heard from Senator Dianne Feinstein. She was one of many Democrats yesterday who spoke out about this. Here was kind of a diplomatic way that she put it.


SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I think that the political part of this is not the best part for the FBI. I think the FBI has to have someone that every member of that agency respects because they know their law enforcement. They know they're not going to cave to political whims and they know that they're talented in doing the law enforcement job.


MALVEAUX: President Trump has interviewed Lieberman and three other candidates that they have identified at the top of the list. Very quickly here, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, and also former top FBI official, Richard McFeely. And again, John, Poppy, we wait to see if there is an announcement here. He did say he is getting very close.

BERMAN: A lot of news today. Even more possible. Suzanne Malveaux on the Hill, thanks so much.

Joining us now to discuss, Democratic Congressman Bill Keating of Massachusetts. He is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. We should note that Congressman Keating worked with the new special counsel, Robert Mueller, in past various capacities.

Very soon you are going to be attending this all House briefing with the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who will talk to you about the state of the Russia investigation, where it is right now. What do you want to hear from him?

REP. BILL KEATING (D-MA), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: That briefing was asked for a week ago. This is making appointment to the doctors when you have something bothering you and then when the day of the appointment comes out, that symptom is gone. So many of us were there to advocate strongly for a special counsel to be appointed.

Maybe this forthcoming meeting and yesterday's meeting with the Senate preempted that decision a little more quickly. But the big elephant in the room was the fact that we wanted the special counsel. Now that's been done.

I think there will be interest in perhaps not answers but interest in the letter that Rod Rosenstein sent to President Trump, the circumstances around it. There is a lot of curiosity and interest in that aspect.

But yesterday he wasn't for forthcoming. So I suspect today's hearing might not be on your screen with a big graphic that says breaking news.

HARLOW: We'll see about that.

BERMAN: We'll see about that.

HARLOW: Yes, we'll see about that. Let me get your take on the former Senator Joe Lieberman as the possible pick. Sounds like the president among the top, if not his top pick for FBI director. I mean, this is someone you have worked with in various capacities when he was in Congress. Would he be a good pick?

KEATING: I'm looking back at my role. Prior to this I was a prosecutor, but I was an elected prosecutor, an elected district attorney. So I always knew the balance of striking politics and prosecution and it is a delicate one.

In the context that we're in right now, if we can find areas -- and it is important I said we because there is not enough we these days on these issues. If we could find context where we could take politics out of it to a degree, we should embrace those opportunities.

I think Joe Lieberman is viewed as very political for obvious reasons. It doesn't mean he wouldn't do the job well. But if we can have another choice that doesn't have as much political emphasis, I think it is better for the country. There will be more confidence in the decisions made going forward.

BERMAN: Is this Democratic sour grapes over the fact that then Senator Joe Lieberman endorsed John McCain against Barack Obama?

KEATING: I can't speak for everyone. I don't think so. I really think we're in a crisis here, a deepening crisis here in Washington and around the country on this issue.

And I honestly believe there is a lot of members that are putting the country first. And this could be an indication where we're saying, look, let's get politics de-emphasized here, at least here in such an important role and let's go in that direction. And I would rather see the appointment go in that direction frankly.

[09:25:07]HARLOW: In the Boston marathon bombing investigation, you worked, you know, hand in hand with others, but along with former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is now the special counsel in this Russia investigation. Just give us some color and insight into how you think he will handle this?

KEATING: Well, when he was here, he approached congressional hearings I think the way a person would approach going to the dentist to have an extraction of a wisdom tooth. He did not like hearings. He did not like interacting with Congress.

He was really a prosecutor who had his head down, his mission was strong, and I think he's the right person for the times. Jim Comey was very different. When I was involved in the Boston marathon bombing and in Congressional investigation afterwards that was somewhat critical of the FBI.

Jim Comey called me and made an appointment, sat in my office for an hour and a half clearing the air and having a discussion. He actually had a different attitude towards interacting with Congressional members, certainly testifying in front of hearings.

They're both I think real strong people, dedicated people as prosecutors. They had different styles dealing with Washington and Congress, however.

HARLOW: Sounds like you think Jim Comey will testify and do so publically, right?

KEATING: Well, I think he would take advantage of that opportunity. Now with the special counsel, however, there is going to be a real tension of navigation. You cannot go forward in a prosecution and then have potential witnesses where they might be saying the same thing, but coloring it just a bit differently.

People on the defense will parse those words. So I think you are going to see Director Mueller be real hard on saying I don't want these people testifying in front of congressional hearings. Not because the public should know, but if he's ever going towards a prosecution, you don't want two tails.

You don't want two flavors of the same story out there because defense counsel will look at every single nuance and pick it apart and I think the director is going to say, hey, I'm seeing if there is something to prosecute here first. I'm following the evidence. I don't want anything to get in the way of that.

BERMAN: Interesting. That's from a Democrat but also someone who is a former prosecutor right now. Democratic Congressman Bill Keating of Massachusetts. Great to have you with us. Thanks so much.

KEATING: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. President Trump is just about ready to leave the country for his first international trip. He's going to try to leave all that domestic baggage behind. Will it follow him overseas? That's next.