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Notes From Trump-Russia Meeting Leaked; Trump's Shifting Timeline on Comey Firing; Trump Leaves on First Foreign Trip. Aired 3- 3:30p ET
Aired May 19, 2017 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for being with me on this Friday. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN.
Let's get to it. The president has just left, Air Force One wheels up there at Joint Base Andrews on his way for this first overseas trip. But he is carrying some heavy baggage, his frustration over the appointment of a special counsel to investigate if his campaign had any ties to Russia, new revelations in the timeline and perhaps reasoning behind the president's decision to fire James Comey, the now former FBI director.
Today, you had the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, telling House members he knew it was going to happen, it being the firing, a full day before he wrote that letter of recommendation. Remember, this letter was sent to the president to highlight James Comey's behavior and recommend new leadership.
Today, Rosenstein refused to answer questions on who specifically asked him to write the letter.
With me now, CNN political director David Chalian.
David Chalian, if he knew that Comey was going to be fired before writing the memo, why write the memo?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, remember, there was a meeting that we have previously reported on with Rosenstein and Sessions and the president before that final decision was made.
And so it's not terribly surprising, I guess, that Rosenstein knew beforehand.
Here's the discrepancy. This is what is so odd of where we are right now, Brooke.
CHALIAN: You will recall that, initially, after the firing, everything that the White House did was sort of hanging on this Rod Rosenstein memo.
But then the president completely walked away from that, told NBC News, no, no, no, I was going to fire Comey regardless of the memo. That was after we had learned that Rosenstein, according to sources, was not very happy with the way that the rollout of the Comey firing went and that everything was sort of being hung on him.
And so then all of a sudden the White House changed its tune and went to, you know, the president said he knew regardless of the memo that he was going to fire Comey, and, remember, said in that same interview that Russia was on his mind when thinking about it.
Why are we now back, after the president's press conference yesterday...
CHALIAN: ... with Rosenstein on the Hill to the original explanation, which, by the way, nobody was buying, that this was all about Comey's poor treatment of the Hillary Clinton investigation?
With everything you have just said, and add on several layers of complications and stories swirling in Washington, you have now the president up in the air heading first to Saudi Arabia. David Chalian, is this trip coming at exactly the right moment for him or exactly the worst time?
CHALIAN: It depends on how the trip goes. If it goes well, it's at the right moment. If there are problems on this trip that expose either, you know, some lack of preparation or lack of competence or what have you, that could dangerously feed a narrative that's out there.
But just watching the images, as you showed them, of Air Force One taking off, of him crossing the tarmac with the first lady to board the plane, it struck me watching that like, wow, we haven't seen President Trump be sort of operating in the traditional visuals of the presidency because of all of this controversy around the firing of Comey and the rationale and whether or not he shared intelligence and pictures with Russians in the Oval Office.
And all of a sudden, you look at this, you're like, wow, this is an opportunity for him to try, at least from a day-to-day messaging perspective, to get the presidency back on course, because it clearly has left their control in terms of day-to-day messaging. And this does open that opportunity to try to put forth some proactive messaging that they want to get out there about their world agenda.
BALDWIN: Looking presidential, meeting with these foreign leaders overseas.
BALDWIN: If it goes well, to your point.
Mr. Chalian, thank you very much.
CHALIAN: Thanks, Brooke.
BALDWIN: Let me bring in -- thank you.
Let me bring in a couple more voices, including someone who has worked alongside Robert Mueller at the FBI. Michael Zeldin is a former independent counsel and federal prosecutor. And also with me, CNN legal analyst Paul Callan.
So, gentlemen, good to see both of you.
And, Michael, let me just begin with you sort of on the same question I posed to David Chalian and his whole point about this like alternating narrative between the Comey firing was because of the Rosenstein memo and then not because of the Rosenstein memo and then back because of the Rosenstein memo.
Let me read a piece of this. This is from the DOJ. This is part of Rosenstein's statement -- quote -- "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, was it written to justify the president's actions, or what?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: So, exactly.
My question to you, essentially, was, so then what is it?
ZELDIN: If it's written just a chronology of things, complaints about the Comey press conferences and treatment of Hillary Clinton for the historical record of it, fine.
But it was used to be the pretext for the firing. Then, as David said, it was not the pretext. And now it's really hard to understand, why would you write that memo knowing that the president is going to fire Director Comey?
It seems like it gives cover to something that didn't really need to be part of Rosenstein's mandate. The thing also that you touched upon in the earlier segment when you were talking with the Ben Wittes interview...
ZELDIN: ... remember, Comey says about Rosenstein, he was a survivor, meaning that he's been in the department a really long time under Republican and Democratic administrations.
And in order to do that, Comey says...
ZELDIN: ... or implies, you make compromises. And so you wonder whether this is the exact type of example that Comey
was alluding to in his Wittes conversation, that this guy will do things that are compromising that he, Comey, might not do, which he, Comey, felt uncomfortable about.
BALDWIN: Point taken, as his point was Comey -- or Rosenstein has worked under the Bush administration, Obama and now confirmed for Trump.
Paul Callan, you have an interesting theory, that simply the president is acting as he would in the private business sector.
PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.
The more I have thought about this, in the private sector, if you don't like somebody and you want to fire them...
BALDWIN: You have made up your mind.
CALLAN: You're going to fire them, and now you have to have a reason to justify it so you don't get sued later on.
So you call in the H.R. department and you say, take a look at his record. I want to know if I have got grounds to fire him, if there's something there that would justify it.
You may call your lawyer in to say, would there be any danger in firing him? And the other example that I thought of, Trump is running the White House like he did with the set of the celebrity.
Remember about people get fired...
BALDWIN: "The Apprentice"?
ZELDIN: "The Apprentice." Remember about people get fired on "The Apprentice"?
He will go around the table asking one person to criticize another in how they sold the product or displayed the product, in much the same way he went to Rosenstein and said, I want you to give me reasons, problems that have to do with Comey. Maybe he doesn't tell him, I'm going to use those reasons to fire Comey.
And like a good lawyer, Rosenstein goes back and he drafts a memo of the problems that he has seen. And all of that, then, is used by Trump to justify the firing.
BALDWIN: Sure. Maybe that is a piece of it.
And I'm actually being told -- hold on just a second, Paul Callan. And, Michael, as well, stand by, because we are getting some breaking news here. Sorry to cut that conversation short.
But now we have "The New York Times" reporting that President Trump told the Russians one day after firing James Comey that removing the FBI director would take the pressure off involving the investigation over possible campaign ties to Russia.
He has also apparently, according to this paper, referred to Comey -- and I quote -- as a nut job. We're going to talk about that. We will be right back.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BALDWIN: All right.
We have yet another bombshell, breaking news to report. This is coming from "The New York Times"' piece that has just hit online. And what they are basically reporting -- this is Matt Apuzzo, Maggie Haberman, Matthew Rosenberg -- essentially, this is the day after the president fired FBI Director James Comey.
And he's in the Oval Office. And we have seen the pictures. Right? This is the Russian ambassador, Kislyak, and also the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. And they are having this conversation. And we had previously reported that the president had divulged classified information to the Russians and why were the Russians even in the Oval Office since they are at the center of this probe?
The news now from "The New York Times" is that he told the Russians, he being the president of the United States, he had relieved great, great pressure on him -- quote -- "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
Mr. Trump added, "I'm not under investigation."
I have got Michael and Paul and now Brian Stelter sitting here.
First, Brian, to you. We thought there were bombshells. This is the biggest leak yet.
BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: This has been a week story of huge "New York Times" and "Washington Post" stories, all of them until up now quickly confirmed by other outlets. So, I'm sure our reporters are digging into this right now.
Think about the timing, Brooke. Air Force One took off just minutes ago for Saudi Arabia. "The Times" had reached out to the White House for comment. According to the story, Sean Spicer did not dispute the details of the story. And then minutes after the plane takes off, this story comes out.
This story now is going to take up the news cycle for all 12 hours the president is in the air.
BALDWIN: Paul, your interpretation? CALLAN: I think this is a quantum leap in the strength of the obstruction of justice charges that are about being talked about with respect to the president.
CALLAN: Remember, those charges are all about collusion with the Russians.
The first opportunity he has to meet the Russians in the Oval Office, what does he talk about? He says the pressure is off on the Russia investigation. He's saying, good news, the guy who is doing the investigation is a nut, and I just fired him.
So there's one interpretation of that, that he's establishing an element of collusion or corroborating it by that statement to the Russians.
STELTER: And just to note the severity of the leak, this is a transcript of the meeting. According to the "Times"' story here, the document was read to "The New York Times" by an American official.
So, someone is sharing the secrecy of this meeting with "The New York Times," really an astonishing leak.
BALDWIN: Michael, I want to come to you, but let me just add another piece of this from the "Times" reporting.
They are saying a third government official briefed on this meeting, right, with the president and the Russians, saying Mr. Trump was using a negotiating tactic when he told Mr. Lavrov about the -- quote, unquote -- "pressure" he was under.
Michael, what do you think?
ZELDIN: Well, I think that when you look at the definition of obstruction of justice, whoever endeavors to impede the due administration of justice, then you look at the specific mental state of the person who speaks the threatening language, this -- as Paul said, this takes you another step closer to being able to prove that as a prosecutor.
You have here now not only the firing of the director, not only the asking for him to stand down on the investigation of Flynn, not only the handshake in the Oval Office and the hug, but now you have him relaying specifically what he intended in his elimination of the director from his job, which was to ease the pressure off him.
If that's not...
BALDWIN: This is intent. You said intended. That is a key word. This is showing intent, right? ZELDIN: That's right.
This is showing what is in his mind, what's in the president's mind when he made the communication to Comey that he was to stand down on Flynn, and now supporting that is that he told the Russians, according to this article, that he did so to put an end, essentially, to this investigation of him.
So that's what takes us much closer to obstruction.
BALDWIN: Let me read -- we have a White House reaction.
Brian appropriately pointed out the story comes out as Air Force One has taken off for this first mega-overseas trip. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in a statement says the following: "The president has always emphasized the importance of making deals with Russia as it relates to Syria, Ukraine, defeating ISIS and other key issues for the benefit and safety of the American people. By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. The investigation would have always continued and, obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it."
"Once again" -- he ends with this -- "the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations," so putting it then on the leaks.
BALDWIN: Let me bring in one more voice, if I can.
ZELDIN: Sorry. Sure.
BALDWIN: Garrett Graff is with us also, author of "The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War."
Garrett Graff, your thoughts on this conversation inside the Oval Office with Trump and the Russians.
GARRETT GRAFF, AUTHOR, "THE THREAT MATRIX": Well, this meeting just sort of keeps getting weirder and weirder as the days go on.
The idea that, you know, this was the only thing that the president of the United States did the day after firing the FBI director, that you have that highly classified information leaked, we believe, from an Israeli intelligence source, about ISIS to the Russians right there, and all of this new information that's coming out this week about the Trump campaign's unexplained and unreported conversations and connections with Russian officials, this is shaping up to be very clearly something that the White House is not going to be getting out of anytime soon.
BALDWIN: Again, to the point of intent, if you're just now joining us, we have got this massive story from "The New York Times" detailing this conversation that apparently happened between the Russian ambassador, the foreign minister and the president of the United States in the Oval Office the morning after the president fired James Comey, in which he's saying essentially that he feels the pressure is off with Comey gone and called Comey -- and we remember from the NBC interview, Brian, he was talking to Lester Holt.
He talked about how he was grandstanding, used all of these other phrases, and now to hear him call James Comey a nut job.
STELTER: A nut job.
You think about where this is coming from. This is from someone in the room in the Oval Office who taking notes at the time to create a record for the American government of this meeting with Russian officials, that person writing down the word job nut job and then circulated within the government. That's how it was leaked to "The New York Times."
The paper says also there's a second source corroborating the broad outlines of what happened in this meeting. But those two jobs, nut job, they are now going to drive the news cycle as Trump is on the way to Saudi Arabia.
And what does this mean both for Robert Mueller and for the search for a new FBI director. If the president thinks the pressure is off now...
BALDWIN: That's a great point.
STELTER: ... that is what he was thinking on May 10, does he still think that today?
BALDWIN: That's a great point. We were wondering if he would name someone before he left for Saudi Arabia. And now obviously they haven't done that yet.
Chris Cillizza, another voice with us, CNN politics reporter and editor at large, just when you thought you would have a quiet Friday afternoon, I mean, boom.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. That's a good way to put it, Brooke.
CILLIZZA: No, this is another explanation of why James Comey was fired, which I had it up to four or five this morning. So this is a return to -- this is a re-flop of a flip, genuinely.
Donald Trump said last week with Lester Holt, because of the Russia stuff. Now we have a return to that. But this is a gigantic problem. The White House continues to focus -- and I just want to make one clear point here. The White House continues to focus on the fact that the real issue is the leaks.
CILLIZZA: That's not the real issue.
Yes, leaking of classified information, it is worth looking into. But to say that the information contained in here, which is that Donald Trump, the president of the United States, called the FBI director a nut job and conceded that he was under -- and I'm quoting -- "great pressure" as a result, related to Russia, and he was going to now be relieved of that pressure, to not one, but two top Russian officials, not just anywhere, but in the Oval Office, that's the real story.
CILLIZZA: You can say that it's not as much as you want. You can blame the leakers, blame the media. But the facts remains, the media didn't make Donald Trump say this to two top Russian officials. And that's what we need to focus on here.
BALDWIN: But you know what I'm not seeing in this White House statement? Yes, they have put it on leakers. There is nowhere in there that it says, this is wrong.
CILLIZZA: Well, do you want to know why that is, Brooke?
I will give you one good guess. Because it's not wrong.
CILLIZZA: Sean Spicer was contacted about this and didn't deny the story.
Look, again, you can put the spin on it and say, well, what Donald Trump meant was -- as Sean Spicer did, it was making it difficult for Donald Trump to foster a relationship with Russia.
But Donald Trump is literally the only person in the Republican Party certainly and -- other than maybe Congressman Dana Rohrabacher -- who thinks that Russia can be our friend.
You hear anyone else, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, lots and lots of other people, say this -- Russia is an adversary. Russia is not looking out for our best interests. Russia is a bad actor on the world stage.
So, the idea that he could use the firing of Comey as leverage in some way to make -- get himself in good with the -- it's just not borne out by logic and it's not something that his party agrees with him on.
BALDWIN: Yes, Paul, I know you want to jump in.
BALDWIN: We do need to take a quick break.
BALDWIN: I promise you, and I'm going to come to you after right the fact.
CALLAN: Thank you.
BALDWIN: We need to sneak a quick break here on the heels of this news from "The New York Times" that the president called the then fired FBI director a nut job and said the pressure was off, saying this to the Russians.
We will be right back.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BALDWIN: If you are just joining us here, another massive piece of news here surrounding President Trump, as he's just taken off on his first major overseas trip out to Saudi Arabia to begin with, this coming from "The New York Times," the fact that the morning after the president fired James Comey, the head of the FBI, he has in the Russians to the White House.
He has the Russian ambassador. He has the Russian foreign minister. This is the same morning when the news broke this week over him sharing classified information with the Russians, and now this.
Apparently, the president told the Russians that his firing of James Comey has taken the pressure off. And let me just quote the president, according to "The Times": "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
Matthew Rosenberg on the byline of this incredible news, Matthew Rosenberg, tell me, how did you learn this? What do you know?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I have got to give credit first to my colleague Matt Apuzzo, who was the guy who got the original tip on this and the original piece of information.
And that meeting just becomes more remarkable the more we hear about it. You know, the way we understand this is, people in the meeting take notes, and they circulated their notes around the government, obviously.
And, in that meeting, Donald Trump, the president, told the Russian foreign minister that he was under an immense amount of pressure and that he just fired James Comey and called him crazy, a real nut job.
That was at the same meeting where Trump also shared intelligence with the Russian foreign minister that had come from Israel and that Israel had asked us not to share with any country, our allies, never mind Russia.
BALDWIN: And so, as we're all just responding to this, another piece of your article includes that some other government official who was briefed in the meeting said, no, no, this was just, what, a negotiating tactic when he was talking to Lavrov and pressure he was under.
ROSENBERG: I mean, that's how they're choosing to portray it.
ROSENBERG: And that's certainly -- you know, it's sort of one way to look at it.
It seems -- it does seem like an awfully kind of curious way, the day after this firing, to portray what is by then already an immense controversy in the U.S. and something that, you know, Trump later has acknowledged that he was speaking of Russia when he fired Comey.
This kind of adds to that narrative.
Well, I have been talking to some very smart lawyers here on talking about intent and what's in the mind of the president, as everyone is wondering, OK, why would you fire Comey? And now we're getting this detail from your piece on that.
And also, Matthew, when we were talking, what was that, a couple days ago, it feels like forever now, on the classified intel that the president apparently shared, that this is -- didn't Putin -- Vladimir Putin offered up the transcripts to help out the White House, am I right, on this very meeting.
ROSENBERG: I believe -- I believe he did, yes, which, you know, I think everybody has sort of turned down that offer at this point.
You know, I'm not a lawyer, so I want to be a little careful here. But it does -- it does -- it does not -- the one thing that is important about this is that these are an official, like, summary of the meeting.
So, these notes are an official document. This isn't a -- one- person's view of a two-person conversation. There were multiple people in the room. These -- this --