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Trump Dismisses Russia Probe; Trump Heads to Saudi Arabia; Iran Presidential Election. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:10] REPORTER: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?

And also, as you look back --



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump looking to move on from troubles, big troubles here at home. His harsh words on the Russia investigation as he prepares for his first overseas trip as commander- in-chief.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.


ROMANS: I know. What a week.

BRIGGS: It's been a long week indeed. It's been a long ten days as well for the president.

ROMANS: It's been a long year and a half.

BRIGGS: Good morning, everybody. I'm Dave Briggs. It is Friday, May 19th.

That trip abroad about to happen. Christiane Amanpour will check in with us shortly. We'll talk about the potential pitfalls for President Trump on this major trip, including a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, just to mention a few of the potential pitfalls.

But President Trump with some blunt push back against a week of bad headlines. At a White House news conference, Trump called the Russia probe a, quote, witch hunt, and flatly denied former FBI Director James Comey's claim that Trump asked Comey to end the Michael Flynn investigation. The president also calling any talk of criminality or impeachment, quote, totally ridiculous. ROMANS: Now, we're learning several of the president's allies are

trying to get him to stop complaining. Instead sources close to the president tell CNN they want him to use the special council appointment as a chance to pivot from Russia and focus on his agenda.

BRIGGS: All of this comes ahead of another opportunity for the president to change the subject: a major overseas trip to the Middle East and Europe.

Senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny begins our coverage.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, President Trump is heading out to Saudi Arabia later today, the first stop on an eight-day international trip, the first such trip of his presidency.

But he's not leaving behind the challenges and the controversies that are here at the White House. First and foremost, that Russia investigation and the special counsel appointed earlier this week. The president fuming about this decision his aides tell me privately. He called it a witch hunt. He said it's dividing the country.

He talked about it in length during a press conference yesterday in the East Room of the White House.

TRUMP: Well, 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. I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.

ZELENY: And the president said again and again, believe me, there is no collusion. He said, I can speak only for myself. Not his campaign operatives -- an interesting distinction there.

But even as the White House tries to move beyond this, the president's own circle of advisors were huddling at the White House on Thursday, trying to present a plan for a team of outside legal advisers. They believe that this is where this ultimately will go. The president will need to do a Washington sort of phrase here, lawyer up. He'll have to get an outside team of advisers, lawyers to help move this forward here with the special counsel's office.

Now, the president is going into this trip certainly under stress, under strain from this. His advisers hope that this will be a moment to reset this conversation, but, Christine and Dave, there's no question here at all, this special counsel will be a sound track of the summer likely for much longer here and the president comes back right before Memorial Day. Certainly, all of these challenges will be right here waiting for him -- Christine and Dave.


ROMANS: That is indeed true. All right, Jeff. Thank you so much. At the same news conference, President Trump once again contradicted

earlier explanations for the role Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein played on the firing of the FBI director. Trump said he acted on a very, very strong recommendation, in a memo from Rosenstein. That circles back to the initial explanation that Jim Comey was fired because of Rosenstein's memo criticizing Comey's performance in the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe.

But just last week, the president told NBC the firing was connected to the Russia investigation.

BRIGGS: Then, yesterday, several senators say Rosenstein told a closed door Senate briefing he knew the president planned to fire Comey before he wrote his memo, countering the president's claim he fired Comey based on the memo. The same day Rosenstein is set to brief the full House on the Russia probe today.

ROMANS: All right. James Comey maybe only days away from speaking out about his sudden firing as the director of the FBI. A Republican member of the House Oversight Committee, Will Hurd of Texas, telling CNN that he is, quote, pretty confident Comey will take the panel up on his invitation to testify, maybe as soon as next Wednesday.

A senior Republican source had earlier told CNN it was unlikely Comey would testify now that a special counsel has been named to investigate those possible ties between Trump associates and Russia.

[04:05:07] The president is also closing in on choosing a new FBI director. He tells reporters he's very close to a decision and confirms former senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman is among the top contenders. The two met this week. A source says Trump found Lieberman agreeable.

But already, Democrats are pushing back. A leadership aide tells CNN the overwhelming majority of Democrats are against naming a long time politician to that post.

BRIGGS: All right. President Trump hoping to leave the tensions and unanswered questions in Washington as he leaves on the first overseas trip. The president planning to visit Israel, Italy and Brussels after starting his five-country pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

That's where we find CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robinson.

Nic, great to have you on this morning ahead of this Toby Keith concert in Riyadh on Saturday.

What are the potential pitfalls? What are you expecting to hear from President Trump in Riyadh?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: He's going to deliver a message here that's going to say to the gathered Arab, Muslim, and regional neighbors here, a message that they need to preach and put forward a more tolerant version of view of Islam. That is a difficult message to sell in the region because those leaders already believe that. This is Saudi Arabia, the home to the two holiest sites in Islam. The

king here, King Salman, is the custodian of the holy sites. Any nuisance that is wrong (ph) in the language will reflect badly on the king.

But the Saudis here are rolling out the red carpet here big time. I mean, for them, they're casting this as historic. There are U.S. and Saudi flags on the lamp posts here. That's normal for a presidential visit, but what we're seeing are huge billboards here with the president and king side by side.

And this is a newspaper here. I'll hold it up. This is Saudi king, King Salman, and the headline here is this is where history begins. That is this is historic.

The Saudis are expected Trump to be tough on Iran. They're expecting President Trump in their words to be courageous on finding an Israeli- Palestinian peace deal. The expectations here that this, that President Trump is going to be very different to President Obama. That this is a leader that they think they can do business with.

So, the Saudis here are really looking way beyond that campaign rhetoric of President Trump that was widely seen as anti-Muslim. They're looking way beyond the chaos back in Washington. They're looking to this as a reset and historic reset they say between the West and the Arab and Muslim nations -- Dave.

BRIGGS: So, perhaps this is just what President Trump needs after the rough week. Nic Robertson, thanks so much.

It is an interesting trip, Christine, and to hear that the Saudis according to Nic are that excited, we hear the same about Israel. They're excited after the relationship they had with President Obama.

Here is the trip. Starts in Saudi Arabia moves on to Israel and Sicily, the Vatican, Brussels. What stands out to you when you look at this big trip?

ROMANS: What I see is the end of that trip. Brussels, the NATO Summit and G7 Summit. So, he will have to -- you know, he's been critical of some of the big institutions and big alliances. What will he say about those alliances and will he be able to sooth fears that he's rocking the boat on those.

BRIGGS: He was also critical of the pope in the campaign, so that will be interesting news in the Vatican, and the speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia for a man who wanted this Muslim ban, that should be fascinating to see the dynamics of that.

ROMANS: All right. Eight minutes past the hour.

Will the rough week here at home cloud that agenda as he embarks on the first overseas trip since taking office? We're going to put that to our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [04:13:01] BRIGGS: Welcome back.

As you well know, President Trump departs in a few hours for his first foreign trip since taking office with stops, including the Middle East, the Vatican, NATO and the G-7 summit. The itinerary focusing heavily on religion and posts a serious test of the president's diplomatic skills.

Joining us live from London, CNN chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour.

Great to have you.

ROMANS: Good morning, Christiane.

BRIGGS: Ahead of this trip.

This is a chance for President Trump to potentially reset, but it's also fraught with peril. What do you see as the pitfalls for President Trump first starting in Saudi Arabia?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Let's take the big picture. This is a very ambitious agenda for a new president. He's going to some of the most sensitive countries in that region and then on to the most sensitive missions between allies with the NATO and the G-7 Summit. And this is a president unlike any other in modern times, and the leaders around the world are having to calibrate their reactions and their receptions based on what they see so far from President Trump.

So, we know that he is going to get a very, very warm welcome in Saudi Arabia. I talked to many officials. Both those advisers to the Saudi Kingdom and U.S. officials about what we can expect there.

They want to make this a success for President Trump. They want to realign Saudi policy with President Trump, after an Obama administration that they did not get along with.

They didn't like President Obama's nuclear deal and rapprochement with Iran. They did not like President Obama's refusal to intervene in Syria. They did not like President Obama's reaction during the Arab Spring to distance America from let's say the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, and support all of those demonstrations against regimes like the Saudi regime.

So, they want a new American president to be more aligned with their own views of the world. That's what they're hoping to get in Saudi Arabia from President Trump, Dave.

[04:15:03] ROMANS: When we talk about successes or wins on this trip, the president will have to come home from this big trip with lots of different countries and objectives with something, right? They're going to want to be able to say this is what we bring home. This is what we achieved. What is going to constitute success for the Trump presidency here? AMANPOUR: Well, having said that they're all hoping to have a very

successful trip. First of all, in Saudi Arabia, they're going to make it about business. They're going to have a big social media conference. There's going to be a huge Twitter fest. It's going to be massive.

They've got tons of heads of states from around the region coming to Riyadh, the capital as well, and they want to provide the Trump administration I have been told with offers of billions of dollars of investment in the United States economy, places where perhaps jobs can be created, purchases of arms and the like, as well as trying to get from President Trump a more politically sort of convenient realignment for themselves, notably to isolate Iran. That's what they want from President Trump.

Now, I was told by Leon Panetta, the former Clinton chief of staff, Obama defense secretary and CIA director that President Trump must be with, quote/unquote, adults in the room. He must not be allowed to go off-script. He must be properly briefed. He must be able to not go improv, if you like, in these very sensitive meetings because that's going to matter. What the president of the United States matters.

And the same is going to be true in Israel where he will go after Saudi Arabia, and President Trump already signaled he wants to create the ultimate deal. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

And the Israelis are worried, certainly the far right elements that have joined the Bibi Netanyahu government. They don't want to talk about stopping settlement building with President Trump, has already said needs to go on hold. They don't particularly want to talk about the compromises and sacrifices that have to be made in order to have a two-state solution. They're worried about what might happens when he goes off and talks to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority in the Palestinian territories.

So, you know, there's a lot of potential for awkwardness, but on the other hand, there's a lot of potential from distracting from the travails that President Trump faces at home. So, we're going to see what happens there.

When he goes to NATO, we're already hearing that leaders are having to calibrate their meetings and interventions with him in what they have been told is a president with a short attention span, who requires a lot of flattery, who needs to have, you know, paragraph shaped briefs and not monologues and long discussion, particularly in translation.

BRIGGS: Christiane, you talk about the potential awkwardness. The business deal, that's in President Trump's wheel house with the Saudis, but religion is the focus of this trip. Never seems to have been his strength, especially considering the statements on Islam, the criticism of the pope.

How risky is the focus on religion for this president in particular?

AMANPOUR: Look, the imperative is great. The idea to reunite or unite or try to find commonality between Christians, Muslims and Jews, the three Abrahamic faiths that have so much in common in terms of their religious text and yet so much difficulty in all the sort of ethnic fights we see within the religions, between the religions over the course of this millennium, certainly since 2000.

So, the idea of trying to bring these faiths together and figure out what unites them is great but this is a president who has made, some would say, Islamaphobia, anti-Muslim bias, a feature of his campaign, a feature of his early presidency. There's the Muslim ban. There's the, you know, keep Muslims out of America on the campaign. There's all of that.

Then he goes to Israel. It's less contentious there, but then he goes to see the pope at the Vatican, and, you know, he made disparaging comments about the pope himself, calling certain comments that the pope made disgraceful. All of that kind of stuff.

So, you know, trying to bridge those divides is going to be challenging and it comes against some very sort of, you know, cognitive dissonance if you like in terms of optics. And the speech, we understand that the president is going to deliver, at least as being reported from the United States, has the first draft been made by Steven Miller who himself is considered, you know, even from a young age at Duke University on the more Islamophobic end of the spectrum.

So, all of these provide challenges ahead.

ROMANS: Indeed. And we know you'll be walking us through all of those challenges over the next few days.

Christiane, thank you so much. Nice to see you this morning.


ROMANS: From religion and politics to things we'll talk about at the dinner table, to money, and other things you shouldn't talk about at the dinner table. President Trump is ready to renegotiate NAFTA, fulfilling a campaign promise to help U.S. manufacturers. A letter to Congress Thursday triggers a 90-day consultation periods, talks could begin as early as August.

[04:20:03] Renegotiation of the trade deal took center stage during Trump's campaign. The president blames NAFTA for killing manufacturing in America. However, nonpartisan research shows it hasn't had a huge impact on jobs and American shoppers have enjoyed cheap goods as a result. Trump officials have not said what it wants to change, but negotiations could put the president in a tight spot with supporters. Many Republicans and business groups like NAFTA. They don't want him to scrap it.

BRIGGS: Another reason this trip potentially is potentially fraught with peril.

All right. Ahead, a very scary scene in Times Square as a car speeds on to the sidewalk sending dozens running for their lives. Charges filed overnight. Details next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:25:11] BRIGGS: Iranians are going to the polls today for a critical presidential election. The incumbent Hassan Rouhani seeking a second term in office. The election widely seen as a referendum on the landmark nuclear deal struck with the U.S. and other world powers and shepherded by Rouhani.

We're very fortunate to have CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen live in Tehran.

Good morning to you, Fred. What is the expectation ahead of this momentous election?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know what? I think, first of all, good morning. The people here understand how important this election is.

Now, I just want to walk along the line you see behind me here. These are the people who are actually cueing up standing in line to be able to cast their vote. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Iran. The temperature is in the mid-90s. It's really hot. There are some people have been standing in line for 2.5 hours at least to try to cast their ballot.

That's how important they feel this vote is to them and you're absolutely right. This vote really is about for many Iranians international isolation versus international engagement. Confrontation with the United States versus trying to engage and negotiate with the United States and other Western countries as well. And I think that's something that the people here really fundamentally understand.

We've been speaking to many people who say it's their civic duty that they feel to vote here, that they say despite the fact that they have to stay in line so long, it's something they're willing to do because they understand that they have two contenders here in this presidential election. The moderate Hassan Rouhani who wants to engage with the West, and then the hard liner, Ebrahim Raisi who wants a more confrontational stance towards the United States that could fundamentally shape and alter the course that this country is going to take over the next couple of years.

So, it's a very, very interesting election and certainly one, Dave, that's also going to have very big implication for U.S. policy as well, Dave.

BRIGGS: That is a fascinating look at the political system there. Fred, thank you so much.

ROMANS: All right. Twenty-seven minutes past the hour.

Murder charges have now been filed against the man police say plowed his car into pedestrians at Times Square. I want to warn you, the video we're about to show you is chilling.

Surveillance cameras captured the truly horrific scene. The driver, 26-year-old Richard Rojas, also faces attempted murder and other charges. A source tells CNN Rojas tested positive for the drug PCP and told police god made him do it.

BRIGG: Just seeing that video is startling. A source adds Rojas suffers some psychological issues and expected police to shoot him. An 18-year-old tourist from Michigan was struck by the car and killed. At least 22 people were injured. Police and the mayor say there were no sign the incident was terror related. Rojas had two prior arrests for drunk driving.

ROMANS: That's such a busy part of the city there. Part of that was turned into a pedestrian walkway, so people who are just walking thinking that it's perfectly safe and then this car just barreling through there. Just awful.

All right. Twenty-eight minutes past the hour.

President Trump says once and for all he didn't collude with the Russians and calls the investigations a witch hunt. More of what he said and how it affects his first big foreign trip.