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Trump Leaves for Foreign Trip; Deputy AG on Capitol Hill; Trump Talks Russian Collusion; Comey Friend Talks about Trump. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: "Newsroom" with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Here we go. Top of the hour. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Let me welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world because any moment now Air Force One will leave for Saudi Arabia. President Trump's first foreign trip since taking office, and as he's looking back in his proverbial rearview mirror, the dark cloud hanging over Washington. The investigation into whether there was improper contacts between Trump associates and Russia spiraling into talk of obstruction of justice this week and even, depending on who you ask, impeachment. The president no doubt hopeful his trip will be a positive step forward.

But, the president's first order of business could be his toughest speech yet. The subject, Islam. The audience, representatives of more than 50 Muslim nations, some of whom are listed in the president's travel ban. And the speech, by the way, that speech from Saudi Arabia written by this man, Stephen Miller, who drafted the travel ban.

So, let's begin here with this trip. Athena Jones is our CNN White House correspondent.

First stop, Saudi Arabia. Talk us through his agenda.


Well, this is - this is a big deal. We've heard White House officials in various briefings talk about the goals, the Saudi Arabia portion of his trip. It's going to be - it's going to involve a summit of leaders of multiple Muslim-majority countries to talk about working together to counter terrorism. We're likely to hear the president in this speech echo a phrase that some considered controversial, radical Islamic terrorism.

But what's interesting here is that not only is this speech being largely drafted by Stephen Miller, who was one of the chief architects of that much contested and now currently blocked travel ban, you also have a president who, you know, during the campaign told our own Anderson Cooper, Islam hates us, and who called, of course, for a ban on all immigration from Muslim countries during the campaign. So it is a tall order for him to try to communicate this message to the Arab world, to the Muslim world, of working together. And we know he's likely to talk about the need for Arab leaders to promote a religion of peace. But it is going to be a tough - a tough audience potentially for this first stop on this - on this big, high stakes trip.


BALDWIN: We'll talk much more about the trip. Again, live pictures, Joint Base Andrews. Pretty blue skies, look at that, over Maryland. Wheels up time, in just about eight minutes from now.

Athena, thank you so much.

As the president is preparing to leave, his rationale for firing FBI Director James Comey coming under even more scrutiny today. In his second visit to Capitol Hill in two days, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told House members today that he knew President Trump was going to fire James Comey a full day before Rosenstein then wrote that memo. Remember, this was a letter that he sent to the president to highlight Jim Comey's behavior and recommend new leadership.

So who specifically, then, asked him to write it? Rosenstein won't say. House members telling CNN that he was, quote, "frustratingly cautious," often deferring answers to newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller. So do lawmakers feel that they can put their trust in this special counsel, this independent investigation going forward? Listen.


REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: The confidence in the investigation is very limited. It does not reflect on my respect for Director Mueller, but I believe that there are a number of cover-ups that I question whether or not all of them can be investigated pursing the directions given to Director Mueller.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), RANKING MEMBER, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Mueller is a pro. Come on, now. I believe that there will be no problem with - there may be some disagreement, but no problem with us sitting down and working with Mueller and his assistants and coming up with a plan so that we don't interfere with his investigation and we're allowed to do what we have to do.


BALDWIN: Phil Mattingly's our man there on Capitol Hill.

And, Phil, we'll talk to other members' responses to the closed-door meeting, but in addition, you know, there were reports that prior to Comey's firing he had asked for more resources for the investigation from DOJ, but now Rosenstein is saying otherwise?

MATTINGLY: Yes, that's exactly right. And obviously the Justice Department also said otherwise at the time, willing to go on the record and say that that was wrong. Now the deputy attorney general, I can tell you, Brooke, from people that were inside the room, he was explicitly asked about this, whether or not this is something that actually occurred. And he explicitly said, no, it was not something that ever occurred. He was never asked for more resources by FBI director - then FBI Director Jim Comey.

[14:05:15] Most interestingly, though, the member who asked the question then asked the deputy attorney general, hey, this is a classified briefing. Can I go outside and talk about this? The deputy attorney general said, yes. So it's very clear, Brooke, that they wanted this out, that they wanted to make very clear that at least when it came to somebody specifically asking Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein whether or not or whether they could have more resources for the FBI investigation into Russian meddling, that never happened.

BALDWIN: OK. Phil Mattingly, thank you very much.

Let's talk through all of this with my panel. I have all ladies with me. CNN political commentator Mary Katharine Ham, Caitlin Huey-Burns, national political report for RealClearPolitics, and Asha Rangappa. She is a former special agent for the FBI, is now the associate dean at Yale Law School.

So, ladies, great to see all of you.

And, Asha, let's just begin with you. Coming off of, you know, Phil's point a little bit about Rosenstein and the DOJ releasing this statement on behalf of him, and part of it reads as follows. "My memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination. My memorandum is not a survey of FBI morale or performance."

So as he's told these members of the Senate and now the House today, Asha, if he knew that Comey - you know, if he knew that the president was going to fire Comey the day before he wrote the letter, then why write the letter with the recommendation?

ASHA RANGAPPA, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Well, I think this gets to the issue of timing and motive for the president to fire the former director. And you can't look at this out of the context of some of these Comey memos as they're being called in terms of the interactions that the president had beforehand leading up to the firing. So, you know, the president can fire Comey for any reasons he wants. He can ask the deputy attorney general to give his assessment of a performance. But I think the question is whether the decision to do it was for the reasons that were ultimately stated in the memo even after the fact or if that was a pretext for some other motivation.

BALDWIN: I know that was the biggest takeaway - let me just turn to both of you ladies - the biggest takeaway from, you know, senators we've talked to and members of the House, the timing of the memo. Add to that, I think it also may be a little bit more confounding, that initially, you know, the president and the White House put it on Rosenstein. Then president Trump comes out and talks to NBC and says, no, no, no, I made this regardless of recommendation. Then he reversed himself again yesterday at the White House saying, well, I did get a really strongly worded note from Rosenstein. MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, the inconsistency of the president is going to keep tripping him up. He trips himself up repeatedly. And this is a really - this is the most severe example probably -


HAM: Because it deals with his own personal conduct. I am not surprised that Comey has notes on these meetings. If I were working for Trump, I would have copious, contemporaneous notes on the things that we were talking about.

BALDWIN: It's FBI training too, by the way.

HAM: Yes. Like - I do want - have any of us actually seen the memos yet? They have not been subpoenaed. Reporters have not actually seen them, so I want to withhold judgement on exactly what's in there.


HAM: I'm not surprised he has them. But this is going to continue to trip him up. And, again, this deals with his actual conduct, not just possibility of conduct around his associates.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: And you're having Rosenstein trying to kind of separate himself and promote himself as kind of an independent person, right, saying that, yes, everything that I said in these memos, I wrote, I support. But this was in no way an effort to justify this firing.

This comes, of course, this week as Rosenstein appointed a special counsel for this case, really angering, as we saw from Trump's response, the president of the United States. So you have Rosenstein trying to keep his reputation intact and his independence as the White House has been kind of shifting their storyline for the reason for this firing. That's why it matters.

BALDWIN: So some of this shifting came yesterday when he was addressing that from reporters at the White House. But there was this other piece of sound that many people are making much ado of because curious about how his inner - how his inner circle will feel, or his campaign inner circle once they've heard him utter these words. Roll the sound.


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


BALDWIN: I can always speak for myself. Mary Katharine, so if you're Paul Manafort or Carter Page -

HAM: I mean -

BALDWIN: Are you feeling a little uncomfortable?

HAM: No, I think everybody reasonably feels uncomfortable when they hear that if they're - if they're in his orbit. I think it's one of the issues. I think you're right, that plausibly there might have been some more time before a special council if he had not sort of undermined Rosenstein, who has spent many years building a reputation as a straight shooter -

[14:10:03] BALDWIN: In multiple administrations for both parties.

HAM: Right. And then he gets undermined and he has to sort of flag this and say, look, I am the independent guy.

I think what his memo also shows is, look, there were reasons that you could fire Comey. The question is whether the reasons are what Trump said they are or what Trump said they were Tuesday. We're not sure. And I would note also that McCabe, who is the acting FBI director, said that he was not asked for more resources and denied -

BALDWIN: Correct. You are correct.

Let's move on. I want to get to some sound on - this is from PBS "Newshour." This is a fascinating interview with a friend of Jim Comey. He said he had lunch with Comey and he described a couple of instances and this also jives with what Michael Schmidt (ph) wrote this morning in "The New York Times," that apparently Jim Comey was feeling uncomfortable in certain incidents, the president seeming desire to become maybe closer to him, personally close, not as - let me just play the sound and we'll talk on the other side.


BENJAMIN WITTES, FRIEND OF JAMES COMEY: He really wanted to kind of blend in and not be singled out. And he's a - he's 6'8". So it's -- when you're -


WITTES: And when you're 6'8", it's really hard to blend in. He's wearing - 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 -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He chose that spot?

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



BALDWIN: So, Asha, let me just go to your first because it's important to explain, you know, the FBI director, and any president, with any White House, wants to keep kind of an arm's length distance between him and the White House. Tell me why that's important.

RANGAPPA: Absolutely. The FBI is a law enforcement agency. It can't wear a political hat. So even though it's in the executive branch, the FBI and the Department of Justice have to be insulated when it comes to investigating crimes because no one is above the law. Now, Comey was in a difficult position because when you're actually involved in an ongoing investigation that might implicate the president, it's hard to keep an arm's length from your boss. And so when that line starts to get blurred, I think this is why you have these memos. It makes complete sense to me that Comey, in this situation, would want to and need to. I suspect even with oversight from the FBI general counsel to make sure that all of these meetings where the investigation may have come up in any way would be documented and put down on paper.

BALDWIN: And, Caitlin, I should add that, you know, apparently this friend, Benjamin Wittes, had pointed out that even Jim Comey didn't want to play basketball with President Obama at the time for exactly the same reason.

HUEY-BURNS: Uh-huh. And there have been a lot of questions about whether the president actually understands kind of the independence of this - of the bureau given that he hasn't served in government before -

BALDWIN: He may not have.

HUEY-BURNS: He may not have. But the problem, of course, is that if, you know, people around him should and should give him that education.

But what's interesting about Comey is, Comey is kind of the man of the hour right now, right? Everybody on Capitol Hill wants to talk with Comey, wants him to come to their committees. He's gotten tons of invitations, hasn't accepted any of them yet, and there are questions about whether with the new special counsel, whether that kind of puts Comey back into, let's let this play out, whether he wants to still come forward at this point. Lots of lawmakers are waiting to see.

BALDWIN: But isn't the question - isn't the question, if Jim Comey was feeling so uncomfortable, or if he - like why show up at the ceremony for law enforcement just after the inauguration? Why not blow the whistle?

HAM: Yes, I - I have that question as well.


HAM: And can we just take a moment because it's good for the soul in these times to recognize the goofball (INAUDIBLE) nature of the 6'8" man hiding in a very -

BALDWIN: In a blue suit and the blue drapes in the blue Room.

HAM: At the Oval Office. And it's like you ran into your sort of high school acquaintance at Kroger (ph) and you don't want to talk to them. BALDWIN: The long walk, slow mo across the room.

HAM: And then it's just, oh, yes, hi. This is where we are.

But I do think, to your point, the fact that Mueller and Comey are known to have a good relationship and the fact that Mueller's known for not leaking a bunch, it's going to be interesting to see how these investigations fight against each other for the attention of someone like Comey -


HAM: And where he's willing to go at what time.

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes.

I'm listening to you. I've also got an eye on my seen. This is moments ago. You had the president and the first lady heading out - I presume they're heading to Marine One to then head over to Joint Base Andrews, to then head off to this first mega foreign trip, first stop, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Vatican and Belgium for a NATO conference. And so it's the whole family, even including their son, Barron, and then Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and the rest.

And so we'll talk about that and how significant that trip is or even just as we're staying on the pictures. I mean this is - this is so important. Normally previous presidents will go to Mexico or Canada on the first big trip. And, you know, maybe in a sense you give the president credit for going straight to the Middle East.

[14:15:01] HUEY-BURNS: Sure.

BALDWIN: On trip number one.

HUEY-BURNS: Sure. This is a huge trip. Of course it comes as the president is embattled, but also when the president of the United States goes abroad, he's the president of the United States, right? These are our people who want to have a relationship with him, particularly a new president. But compared to other presidents, he also has somewhat of a history. I mean remember when he was feuding on Twitter with the pope, right?


HUEY-BURNS: He is going to be going to the Vatican and meeting with the pope. He's going to be going to Brussels. We are not sure exactly what his stance on NATO is. Remember he's been talking about removing him from that. Saudi Arabia, Israel, of course, has - there have been a lot of headlines over the past week about him deciding against a campaign promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem. So lots of policy here with all eyes still on him as he's abroad.

HAM: I think as with Trump always there's a chance for him pleasantly surprising with some discipline and with some - you know, the right message for America and people feeling good about that. But he's getting to a point in his presidency where pleasantly surprising people is not going to maybe be enough to make up for the times when he unpleasantly surprises them.

BALDWIN: Right. Right.

On the president, Asha, and just going back to the conversation we were having, we understand that, you know, his close circle of advisers is advising him to lawyer up, right, to seek outside counsel. What - why - why is it important to have outside lawyers on this investigation for him?

RANGAPPA: Well, that's excellent advice, I will just start off by saying. So the Office of Legal Counsel is actually an entity that's inside the Justice Department. It's a government entity. It's there to advise the president and the attorney general on policy issues. Things like, you know, even controversial issues like, say, the travel ban. But those lawyers are not there to advise the president in a personal capacity, particularly if he's being exposed in any personal way to criminal liability. And what he needs is an attorney who is going to look out for only his interests and give him what I believe is some much need advice at this point.

BALDWIN: OK. Asha, thank you. Mary Katharine, Caitlin, thank you as well.

We watch the president and the first lady up those red stairs on to Air Force One and then away they go.

Coming up next, we'll talk about the potential land mines of this nine-day, five-city, you know, whirlwind first tour for him and where he'll have opportunities to shine for the United States.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.


[14:21:44] BALDWIN: We're back with the breaking news on this Friday afternoon. You're watching CNN.

We just saw the president and the first lady embark upon Air Force One as they begin this nine-day, five-country tour overseas. His first overseas tour. First stop, Saudi Arabia, where he will be the first ever president actually to travel to the Middle East for his very first foreign trip. But a president who has really stuck close to home. The only dress rehearsals he's had has been on his turf meeting with foreign leaders at the White House or at Mar-a-Lago down in Palm Beach.

So let's start there. I have Wendy Sherman with me, former undersecretary of state in the Obama administration, and Michael Allen, who advised President George W. Bush as a senior director on the National Security Council.

Good to see both of you.



BALDWIN: Wendy, let's talk about just expectations on this trip. I know you told one of my producers, President Trump will have to pay close attention to all the nonverbal cues and make sure he listens well. Why do you say that?

SHERMAN: Well, I say that because we know - we've seen that the president sometimes has a shorter attention span than he might like and at these multilateral meetings in particular, when he meets with not only the Gulf Coordinating Council in Riyadh but also presidents and heads of state from all the Muslim nations, lots of coalition member who are helping in Syria and in Yemen in the fight against counterterrorism, he actually has to listen. And sometimes it's a long process. And, you know, the expectations for this president are incredibly low. If he doesn't make a major gaff, I think everybody will have a great sigh of relief.

But, quite frankly, Brooke, that's not good enough. He's the president of the United States. We have serious national security interests in every single one of these stops and he has to really rise up to the occasion.

BALDWIN: Point taken.

Here's some context. And, Michael, you know this. But just - you know, here -- this is a president who, especially during the campaign, you know, criticized Democrats for not using the term radical Islamic terror. We now know his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, this 31-year- old anti-globalist was tasked to write this speech. So here's a reminder. We've put together some sound of exactly what the president has said about Islam in the past.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think Islam hates us. There's something - there's something there that - there's a tremendous hatred there. There's a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it.

When it comes to radical Islamic terrorism, ignorance is not bliss. It's deadly.

You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center, because they have papers in there that are very secret. You may find it's the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia giving $25 million, Qatar, all of these countries. You talk about women and women's rights. So these are people that push gays off (INAUDIBLE) - off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly.

Radical Islamic terrorism is just, you know, taking over and we can't let that happen. We cannot let that happen.

Radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American.


[14:25:01] BALDWIN: What if he utters those words, Michael? I mean how will that be received?

ALLEN: Well, it wouldn't be received well, but I don't think he's going to do that. Look, I think that there's a way for him to talk about that a perverted strain of Islam has corrupted one of the world's great religions and has manifested itself in a dangerous force around the world without offending the king and without offending one of the most populist religions in the world. I think the building blocks are there for President Trump to move forward with a countering violent extremism-type strategy because I - we hear the team -

BALDWIN: So this might be an opportunity - it might be an opportunity for him.

ALLEN: Yes, we - it is. I mean he's going to have to curb his rhetoric when he's overseas and I think the king is going to make an address in Arabic about stressing the non-violent tenants of Islam in a very powerful message to his subjects and those around the world who might decide or otherwise feel like it's acceptable to contribute to its extremist causes.

So, you know, look, this is a high-wire act. I mean he's going straight into the NFL. I might have gone somewhere easier first. But the building blocks are there for some success and some evolution.

BALDWIN: So he's going straight to the NFL, but he's dealing with some injuries, just to continue your metaphor. I mean, Wendy, we've spent the first, you know, 20 minutes of my show going through just the latest, you know, stories swirling in Washington. And when you're talking about a nine-day, five-city trip, long, you know, flights, jet lag. I mean if you already have tension with your staff, it will only be worsened. Am I right?

SHERMAN: It's very tight quarters. It's an incredibly demanding trip. This would be a demanding trip for anybody given the nine-city tour. But more than that, Brooke, he really needs to understand these issues. He needs to know the detail. He needs to be careful about what he says. And, quite frankly, domestic concerns are going to follow him because the press corps will follow him. And not only our press corps, but the international press corps will ask questions that he would just as soon not answer. And it will create a great deal of difficulty.

I think that leaders will treat him with respect because he does represent the United States of America. They will want to have the toughest conversations in private. But, nonetheless, there's going to be a lot of opportunity here to do well, but also to do ill.

BALDWIN: One of our senior correspondents, Nic Robertson, you know, wrote that he thinks that perhaps president Trump will fit in, that he'll do well in the Middle East among, you know, the strong men there. They know how to stroke his ego, which depending on who you ask, has really taken a beating. How - how - would you agree with that, Michael? And then also, how are you hearing that these foreign leaders are preparing to meet him?

ALLEN: Well, I do think that the president is going to actually get a breath of fresh air out of going on this trip. I mean, Washington does, like in "The Godfather," have a way of pulling you back in and we never know what kind of new stories are going to break. But I think it's going to be great for him and, frankly, the American people to see him broaden his scope, get out overseas, to tackle some issues that need attention beyond just the things that we're obsessed with here in Washington. So I think this will potentially be a good trip. Nine days is a long time, even for me on vacation. So it will be really tough to pull it off, but there's a lot of good that could come from it and he's probably glad to get out of D.C.

BALDWIN: OK. All right, Michael Allen and Wendy Sherman, thank you both.

Again, live pictures as we're about to see Air Force One take off. There are two planes. I'm told one, of course, carrying the president and the first lady and then the other with his staff heading first to Riyadh, to Saudi Arabia.

Thank you all.

Coming up next, Joe Biden unplugged. What the former vice president is admitting about Hillary Clinton as a candidate and what he thinks about his own political future come 2020.

Plus, a friend of ousted FBI Director James Comey is speaking out. Why he says Comey was, quote, disgusted by this moment with the president.