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Report: NYT Reports Trump Told Russians Firing 'Nut Job' Comey Eased Great Pressure from Russia Probe; Report Appears 10 Minutes After Air Force Takes Off to Saudi Arabia; A Written Summary of a White House Meeting with Many People in The Room While Trump Spoke. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] MATTHEW ROSENBERG, NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER: Everybody has turned down that offer at this point. I'm not a lawyer so I want to be careful here. But it does -- the one thing that is important about this is this is a summary of the meeting. So, these notes are an official document. This isn't a one-person of a two-person conversation. There were multiple people in the room and this is what the notetaker heard and wrote down.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm glad you made the point that this it is from this official memo of the meeting and you're not a lawyer so I won't put you in bad spot but I have a lawyer sitting to my right, Paul Callan. Paul, listening to Matthew, learning about this piece, you know, it's all about intent, right? This is a glimpse into the mind of Mr. Trump and the firing of James Comey.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, yes. And it's a very, very clear and strong look at intent. What was extraordinarily inappropriate about the comments, remember, the FBI is doing a counterintelligence operation against the two Russians who were in the room, the Russian ambassador and the foreign minister. To tell them that, in essence, the investigation has been terminated, and because he's nuts and he's crazy, words to that effect, just seems incredible and to tell them that the pressure is off on the Russia probe is totally inappropriate.

BALDWIN: So, this news broke I want to say some 10 minutes after Air Force One just took off and let's go to Nic Robertson who is near where the President will be staying there in Riyadh. There's this opportunity to maybe go overseas and it could help the President. But this meeting with the Russians, Nic, just continues to get more surreal.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It's going to come up and dog him here. Obviously, he's going to be asked questions about it. But it gets to that question of when President Trump is in a room with other officials, how does he behave, how does he respond with them? And there's a real danger that while he's here in Saudi Arabia with the king who, by the way, is essentially rolling out the red carpet, has plastered the road with flags of the United States and Saudi Arabia together, has huge billboards that has he and King Salman together and illuminating the hotel where he's staying with the images of President Trump has put a lot on the line here. But when they get behind closed doors, when they have their meetings

and, remember, there will be up to as many as 35 other regional Arab and Muslim leaders here as well, what is the level, if you will, of hubris that goes on behind the closed doors. What do his allies hearsay to him that potentially will put him in an awkward situation like this if the meeting is reviewed under close scrutiny, as this meeting was with Lavrov and Kislyak. From that perspective, behind the closed doors, he may be away from the prying questions of journalists saying, did you do this? Why did you do this? But he may be behind those doors exposing himself to further opportunity to stray from the norm, if you will, of normal. Use that as past Presidential behavior, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Nic in Saudi Arabia, thank you. Covering this incredibly significant trip for the President. Let's go back to former federal prosecutor, you worked with Bob Mueller. He said this just hours after firing the director and now seeing the backlash.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO EX-FBI DIRECTOR MUELLER: Well, the naivety of the President to think that by firing the director of the FBI he was going to somehow ease the pressure on him is startling to me. In the letter of termination to Comey, the President writes that, "I am grateful, Mr. Comey, that you reassured me three times that I am not the target of your investigation" and now the next day he's saying, essentially, I was the target of the investigation and I fired him and this eased the pressure on me and so now Russia, you, we, can restart our relationship. Now, I'm not talking at all geo-politically, whether we restart our relationship with Russia or whether we don't, it's not my purview. But there's that old expression from the world war poster of loose lips sink ships. And it strikes me that if you're going to do a deal with the President in some respects, it undermines your confidence in his ability to maintain the integrity of your conversations, the secret of your conversations. It's just startling to me.

[15:35:00] BALDWIN: It is. As I'm talking to Michael, I'm reminded that we've been covering this conversation from James Comey's friend and I'm hearing these words "nut job" uttered from the President to the Russians and didn't like it when the President approached him and tried to give him a hug in the blue room that time, didn't like it when the President called him up and apparently wanted to talk to him in an urgent manner and just wanted to chitchat. Knowing that and hearing this news that he called him a nut job, what do you make of that?

GARRETT GRAFT, AUTHOR: Well, you know, there are a lot of opinions about James Comey's behavior over the last year in various Washington political circles but I don't think anyone in Washington would ever use the words nut job anywhere close to Jim Comey. I mean, he is -- regardless of what you think of his actions, he's a serious and sober person who has worked very hard over the last year to try to balance a very delicate political football. I mean, he might have strayed too far over a line here or there but it's hard to say that he has been reckless in any way. And it's certainly hard to think that this, in any way, helps Donald Trump with his argument that Jim Comey was just out of control. This sort of sounds like a very bad situation for the President and certainly something that is going to be top of mind as Robert Mueller begins his investigation. These are two men who have worked very closely for many years and Bob Mueller certainly doesn't think that James Comey is anywhere close to a nut job.

BALDWIN: Hang on to that thought. Dan, you have covered the white house. We've gotten this response now to this "New York Times" story and in it they talk a lot about the leak. But what they don't do is deny the story. They are not denying that the President called Mr. Comey a nut job.

DAN MERICA, CNN POLITICS PRODUCER: It is remarkable given the way the white house denies so many stories, even ones that we've seen and in the future, have turned out to be partially true. The timing of this is critical. As you mentioned a little earlier, this happened, the story broke almost mere minutes after Donald Trump took off for his first foreign trip and there were concerns in the white house that all of this, all of this news about James Comey and the special counsel would overshadow his trip and this story and the fact that Trump, according to "The New York Times," bragged in the oval office to two Russian officials about firing James Comey, it has a chance to totally overshadow what aides have already said about his first foreign trip. Most Presidents go to Canada or Mexico, where it's easier to operate, not as difficult or grueling, especially timing-wise.

But this President, who likes the flare for the dramatic, this brings him to the cradle of three major religions. He's going to give a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia. The white house is effectively not refuting this story. Obviously, CNN has not confirmed "The New York Times" report but they say that Donald Trump while in a meeting with these two Russian officials bragged about the decision he made the day prior, firing James Comey. And why that matters is that this is all happening at the same time, now, that the special counsel has been announced, to look into all of this, to look into the Russian meddling of the 2016 election and also what happened after that and how the white house has treated all of this up until now.

BALDWIN: We were just talking to Matthew Rosenberg and he said, listen, in the oval office you have people taking notes and they get circulated around the government. These are documentation of a meeting of this magnitude which is how ultimately someone had a great source and it got out. Michael, just back over to you, since the President has fired James Comey, I know it sounds like an eternity. It's been ten days. When you tune in or read the headlines, President Trump has done nothing but take shots at James Comey. You think back to that NBC interview when he talked about how he was grandstanding to just the press conference yesterday at the white house.

[15:40:00] ZELDIN: It's unfortunate because Jim Comey is a very, very decent and honorable public servant and has been for a long, long time. He and I were prosecutors at the same time in the 1980s, he in New York and I in Washington, D.C., and anyone who has ever worked with him has the highest regard for his integrity and his legal acumen. To do this is really unfair. It's not nice and it's unbecoming of the President. But beyond that, the thing that is amazing to me is that when you think that you're going to fire the FBI director, which is going to lead to a special counsel and that special counsel turns out to be Bob Mueller, you have to be in an oh my god moment here because what you just did to yourself is going to come back to you and haunt you for a very long time, I fear.

BALDWIN: On the "oh my god" moment, that's what I asked Garrett. You wrote the book on Mueller. When it comes to him being appointed this special counsel, what the heck do you think he is thinking with this avalanche of developments?

GRAFT: Well, you know, Bob Mueller has been through the crucible before. He started at the FBI as director on September 4th, 2001. He was actually seated in his first briefing on al Qaeda on the morning of September 11th when the twin towers were struck. So, he has been through incredibly stressful moments before. But even during that 12 years that he was FBI director, the longest serving FBI director since j. Edgar hoover himself, I think it's unlikely that he will ever face something as public and historical as the work that he's embarking upon now. And to be fair, this is a moment where he is on a very short list of people in Washington who are widely respected, bipartisan respect and seen as resolutely nonpartisan and apolitical. So, I think the good news for President Trump is if there is no there there, Bob Mueller might be the only person in America who can actually find Donald Trump innocent. That said, these allegations and these reports as they continue to spool out, as someone said earlier, remember Sergey Kislyak is the center of a lot of these contacts.

BALDWIN: He's the center of the probe. Yes. So much to do about the fact that the Russians were in the oval office, period, and the ambassador because of all of the history surrounding that. You make an excellent point. Go ahead.

GRAFT: We don't even know that Sergey Kislyak was in that meeting. He was not on the list that the white house released. We only know that because of the photos that the Russian foreign ministry released of Kislyak and Trump smiling together in the oval office.

BALDWIN: Right. The photographer is State TV and in line with the kremlin. All of that coming up after the fact. The twists and turns are mind numbing. We have to take a quick break here.

Just as the President's plane has taken off for his first overseas trip, the news from "The New York Times" that in the oval office the President said he felt great pressure was off once he fired James Comey and called him a nut job. More on this breaking news, next.


BALDWIN: Breaking news on a Friday afternoon. If you're just joining me, I have two words for you. Nut job. That is the quote from "The New York Times" which is what they say President Trump used with the Russians in the oval office the day after he fired James Comey about James Comey saying he feels the pressure is off, calling him a nut job. Paul Callan, we know already, based upon everything else that's been going on, that the President's inner circle is urging him to hire outside counsel, which might be a good idea. How do you defend the President in this? CALLAN: I think that the outside counsel would say to the President

that the position here should be that this has always been your policy position, that we have to have friendly relations with the Russians and it was perfectly appropriate for him to be sharing with them the fact that this probe, which he always thought had no merit. Remember, the President has been saying all along there's nothing to the Russian probe and, in fact, it's an impediment. There's nothing to this claim of collusion and so what's inappropriate about me telling the Russians this? Now, the thing I think that's especially troublesome is describing our FBI director as crazy and a nut. But this is entirely consistent with the name calling that the President used during the campaign. I mean, we don't forget lying Ted or crooked Hillary. He uses this graphic and insulting language to apply to his enemies. So, it's Trump being Trump.

BALDWIN: Trump being Trump, so says Paul Callan. Let me bring in Kayleigh McEnany and Jason Cander. Kayleigh, let me begin with you. How do you defend the president?

[15:50:00] KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look. None of us were in the room. These were notes that were taken and provided to the "New York Times," read over the phone, and Sean Spicer had a very clear explanation. You know, you have Jim Comey out there grandstanding on the Russian investigation. We know the FBI ordinarily does not announce investigations. Nevertheless, Comey in fact did creating this shroud of wrongdoing around the Trump administration.

BALDWIN: Kayleigh, Sean didn't deny it. Let's be clear.

MCENANY: Sure, he did not.

BALDWIN: He didn't deny that the President said this.

MCENANY: He did not deny this. That is absolutely correct. You had Senator Dianne Feinstein on this network yesterday saying there's no evidence of collusion and every day this is what we're talking about. We're seeing an obstruction of the presidency within. You have people committing felonies, not once, not twice, three times a day by giving classified information to reporters. It is a wrong. It's a reason.

BALDWIN: Kayleigh, this is the same meeting where the President reportedly gave classified information to the Russians, an adversary of the United States.

MCENANY: And he's able to do that. He's the ultimate de-classifier. That's the job of the President, but you have people committing felonies. A reason under the espionage act for the last century it's been a felony deserving of imprisonment for leaking, and you have people committing felonies deserving of imprisonment every day and I'm very upset that Democrats don't seem to care about this aspect of the story.

BALDWIN: Jason Cander, Democrat, do you care?

JASON CANDER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE, MISSOURI: Well, look, first ever all saying that Jim Comey created a shroud of wrongdoing around the President is the like blaming a meteorologist when there's a tornado. It isn't Jim Comey's fault that there's a shroud of wrongdoing. It's the President's fault, and it's the President's campaign and the people that he works with. President Trump keeps saying, no matter what the white house says, President Trump keeps saying that he fired Jim Comey to end the Russia investigation, to make it stop. I think for once we should believe him about this. He's told it to the Russians. He's told it to the press. He fired Jim Comey, the guy in charge of the investigation, because he wanted the investigation into his to end. That is not OK.

MCENANY: That's just not true. If he wanted it to end, why would you fire Comey? Let the acting director be Andrew McCabe.

CANDER: Ask the President. That's why he did it.

MCENANY: Whose wife accepted money from Clinton allies, why would you want McCabe in power over someone like Comey. Doesn't make sense. It's not logical.

CANDER: Maybe you should advise him because he's the one who has been saying that.

BALDWIN: Go ahead, Paul.

CALLAN: Kayleigh, the President himself said to the Russians that the pressure was off in the Russia investigation, so obviously, the President thought that firing Comey would take the pressure off the investigation, so the President has provided you the answer to your question.

CANDER: I don't think so. I think what he was meaning --

CANDER: The operative word is obvious.

MCENANY: What he was meaning by that the pressure that is unduly put on him by announcing an investigation when FBI directors typically don't do that. It's not that he doesn't want to be investigated and have this closed up in a clean way. What he wants is someone not having an FBI director out there announcing investigations when he's privately confirming to Trump three times you're not the subject of this investigation but nevertheless announcing this and creating this shroud of wrongdoing.

BALDWIN: But if there was no there there, hang on, if there was no there there which he said, he said this time yesterday at the white house there is absolutely no collusion, then why -- why say that, okay, Russians, the pressure is off?

MCENANY: Look, Brooke, you have Senator Dianne Feinstein saying there's no evidence of collusion.

BALDWIN: Don't put it on Dianne Feinstein. Why is he saying to the Russians the pressure is off?

MCENANY: Because you don't have an FBI director out there grandstanding, don't have someone out there wanting to make up for the fact that he handled Clinton poorly by handling Trump poorly, don't have an FBI director out there trying to make a name for himself making a name for himself and the public grandstanding was the pressure.

BALDWIN: Go ahead, Jason.

CANDER: You think James Comey's purpose is to make a name of himself. Literally, the president said of Comey he's more famous than the President. I don't think that's what's going on, I think what's going on is the President of the United States who is under investigation for colluding with the Russians brought a Russian who he knows to be in charge of Russian spies in charge of recruiting Russian spies into his office, gave them classified information that he should not have given them, that has put people's lives at risk and then said to the people that he's possibly under investigation for colluding with, the pressure is off. I got rid of the guy who is investigating us.

BALDWIN: Quick pause? Quick pause. Got to take a break. Back in a moment.


BALDWIN: Last couple of minutes here on the breaking news. We can tell you President Trump is about an hour into his 12, 13, 14-hour journey on his first overseas trip as this news has broken from the "New York Times" that the morning after he fired James Comey he reportedly told the Russians in the oval office that he considers James Comey a nut job and that firing him made him feel like the pressure is off. We're talking to all kinds of people reacting to this news today. Michael Zeldin, final thought from you. You know, there had been questions already because of other pieces of news. Might this be the beginning of obstruction of justice. How do you see it now with this piece of information?

ZELDIN: Well, that's right. I think you ask the question earlier how would you defend President Trump, and the smart answer on the collusion issue was this is just the way I operate. I'm trying to reset the relationship. This has not nothing to do with the investigation. However, from a narrow technical obstruction of justice paradigm, the President has really put himself in a very difficult position with all of the statements that he has made himself about what is his intent here and following on the I've done this to relieve myself of the pressure. So, one of the guests said the leakers are obstructing the presidency, and I might say maybe, and we should look at that. I don't have a problem with looking at leakers, but I think the President is the obstructing his own presidency and perhaps putting himself in obstruction of justice territory with his behavior.

BALDWIN: You used the key word and that is intent, right, Garrett? This is intent. Getting inside the President's mind around the firing of James Comey.

GRAFT: Yes, and the other thing you have to be careful of is you begin to think about the way that a special counsel investigation unfolds is that they often end up their targets up being caught on perjury or obstruction of justice, and when you look at Valerie Plame or Ken Starr investigation, that's where you end up getting charges, and for this administration and their relationship with the truth, that's going to be a real challenge for them over the coming months as they begin to deal with special counsel Robert Mueller.

Great, Michael, Paul Callan, gentlemen, thank you all so very much as this piece of news has dropped on this Friday afternoon. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me here today. Keep it right here on CNN. Special coverage with Jake Tapper continues right now.