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EARLY START

Trump: Russia Probe is a "Witch Hunt"; Trump's First Foreign Trip as President; Iran Presidential Election; Stocks Rebound from Biggest Selloff of 2017. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 04:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[04:32:24] 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 --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, no. Next question.

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DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump defiant as he breaks his silence on the Russia investigation. Will his first big overseas trip provide the reset his administration needs?

Welcome back to EARLY START, everybody. I'm Dave Briggs.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Happy Friday morning. It's Friday.

BRIGGS: To you, my friends.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's Friday. Thanks for joining us.

President Trump with pushback against a week now of bad headlines. At a White House news conference, Trump called the Russia probe a witch hunt. He flatly denied former FBI Director James Comey's claim that Trump asked Comey to end the Michael Flynn investigation. The president is also calling any talk of criminality or impeachment, quote, "totally ridiculous".

BRIGGS: Now, we're learning several of the president's allies are trying to get him to stop complaining. Instead, sources close to the president tells CNN they want him to use the special counsel appointment as a chance to pivot from Russia and focus his agenda.

ROMANS: 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 begins our coverage. Senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny begins our coverage.

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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.

[04:35:02] He will 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.

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BRIGGS: They sure will. Sure will. Thank you, Jeff.

At that 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.

ROMANS: 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.

BRIGGS: 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 pretty confident Comey will take the panel up on his invitation to testify, perhaps as soon as next Wednesday.

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

ROMANS: CNN has also learned House Intelligence Chairman Devon Nunes is still reviewing intelligence in the Russia investigation despite recusing himself last month. Sources tell CNN the Republican congressman went to the CIA this week to review the Russia intel. The news angering Democrats who believe Nunes violated the spirit of his recusal.

Since stepping aside, Nunes has retained his spot on the select Gang of Eight. That includes top Republicans in the Democrat and Senate who are briefed on intelligence matters.

BRIGGS: The president also closing in on choosing a new FBI director. He tells reporter he is 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.

This appears a miscalculation by President Trump, figuring that he selects Lieberman, Democrats are unanimously behind it, similarly to firing James Comey. Not the case. They still appear opposed to just about anything President Trump proposes.

ROMANS: I'll say.

All right. President Trump hoping to leave the tensions and unanswered questions in Washington as he leaves on his first overseas trip. The president planning to visit Israel, Italy, Brussels after starting his five-country pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. So, what constitutes a successful trip to this president in all the wake of all the setbacks here at home?

Our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour stops by.

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[04:42:37] ROMANS: All right. President Trump departs in a few hours for his first foreign trip since taking office, with stops in the Middle East, the Vatican, NATO and the G-7 summit. The itinerary focuses heavily on religion and it poses a serious test of the president's diplomatic skills.

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

So nice to see you again this morning.

And I got to tell you, Dave and I were just sitting here thinking about how this president was elected by putting America first, by saying that all of these global interactions lead to an America that had been -- became a loser, that was at the losing end of all of these global alliances and that radical Islam was this danger knocking on the door. Now, he has to take that philosophy right to the doorstep of the very people he criticized to be elected. It's remarkable.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is. I mean, the fact that he is making the president of the United States a first official foreign trip to Saudi Arabia is unprecedented. As you know, presidents usually make their trips next door. First to Mexico and Canada, right? But he's taking it farther afield.

Now, it actually does according to if you listen to the national security adviser and White House officials they say it dovetails with his America first agenda, on the business level, on the attempt to pure sure up more support and contribution to fighting ISIS and all the other things the president and the White House talks about. And H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, I heard him quoted as saying America first doesn't mean America alone.

Look, there's many ways you can finesse campaign slogans and all sorts of things to fit what you're actually doing in reality. I think it will be weird or slight, as I say, cognitive dissonance to hear this president that's not particularly religiously inclines who has had issues with Muslims particularly during his campaign and in the early days of the presidency with the Muslim ban to actually go out and make a speech. We don't know what's in the speech or what the tenor will be, but it is kind of strange that this particular personality who's not necessarily known for building those kinds of bridges will be talking about uniting all three major faiths.

But behind it lies a more strategic objective. Business, trying to get America first, trying to get all sorts of deals and that in itself creates certain problems because not every American foreign policy issue is about business.

[04:45:00] There are many other strategic imperatives that keep America safe, that promote American values, and try to influence countries that may be sort of outliers in terms of moral values and treatment of women and all sorts of things. So, all of this is counter intuitive but that's where he's going and the Saudis and the Israelis are going to make sure that he gets a very, very good welcome and make his trip a success.

BRIGGS: Nic Robertson reporting they are rolling out the red carpet like he has never seen before.

The importance of what Bob Gates said of sticking to the script on this trip of upmost importance. But let me ask you about something Rex Tillerson. People in the rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what is happening here in the United States.

You have a good sense of what people focus on and how much attention they pay to the U.S., what do you make of that characterization as the president heads abroad?

ROMANS: Yes. Do they know that he's so embattled here?

AMANPOUR: Yes, without a doubt. I mean, this is front page news all over the world. I was in Germany when the issue of firing Comey and then the special prosecutor and this side and the other, in Germany, here in London -- I mean, these are front page news, top of the television broadcast, radio, guests talking about it.

Look, it is absolutely clear that an American president carries a disproportionally large throw weight. What America does, what the president says and does is news and important for the rest of the world because the president of the United States is not just the president of the United States. He is the de facto leader certainly of the Western Alliance, and that is a big deal. And, you know, there's all of these strategic imperatives that go with being the president of the United States.

So, it's not correct that people won't be listening. That won't be paying attention that are too busy too, but it is true that the leaders of the trips where he is going will not bring that stuff up. That they will not talk about.

ROMANS: Right.

AMANPOUR: It's going to be interesting in Israel because we're already seeing from veteran intelligence and security professionals, not those currently in government, but those that have been in these positions are pretty upset about the sharing of intelligence with Russia. That's going to be a big deal.

When he goes to Europe, he's going to find an alliance very keen to make sure that President Trump continues to stand firm against Russia's interference not just in the United States but around Europe, in NATO, in the E.U., in European institutions.

ROMANS: But he spent much more time criticizing those NATO members for not paying their fair share than on standing firm with them against Russian aggression.

AMANPOUR: Well, look, he's been saying that. Presumably, that message is already being taken there. I'm not sure whether he's going to spend his time, you know, beefing that message of him. I'm sure he'll say it. But all the Europeans and NATO partners have sort of admitted, yes, we all need to beef up our contribution. And we've been trying to do this for the last several years.

President Trump is not the first leader to have said we need to do our fair share, but when the president says it, it does give other countries more cover to be able to insist that their partners do the same thing.

But in NATO, for instance, in that meeting, we're already hearing reports that they're having to tailor the meetings to suit what they have been told about president Trump, famously short attention span, somebody always looking for reaffirmation and flattery and putting his name into all sorts of photographs that will be spoken about him, you know, flattering and trying to do the best to keep his attention, shortening meetings from maybe 30 minutes or 40 minutes or an hour to much, much shorter, you know, giving paragraphs worth of information rather than, you know, longer.

So, you know, they're busy tailoring. It's fair to say that journalists and foreign leaders abroad have never faced and never encountered a leader of the United States that's quite like this. So, those -- that also presents some challenges.

ROMANS: Sure.

AMANPOUR: On the other hand, as you've seen, many foreign leaders who met with the president and there have been many in the first 100 days, have talked about his personal warmth and his ability and willingness to listen and his personal demeanor towards them.

ROMANS: Interesting.

BRIGGS: Christiane, talk about the flattery. Recep Erdogan calling the election win a legendary triumph. He was well-aware of how to play to President Trump's desires.

ROMANS: Oh, yes.

BRIGGS: Christiane, go ahead.

AMANPOUR: Dave, we do have to actually say something there because that's where the danger comes. Look at what's happened in Washington under the Recep Tayyip Erdogan visit. It is appalling. It's appalling.

But these leaders think they can take cover and that's where the president and his people have to be very, very careful. That they may have to have these relationships but they cannot allow these countries who claim to be democratic, who claim to be allies. Turkey is a NATO ally.

And that fisticuff outside the Turkish embassy was really appalling.

[04:50:01] And that's where the challenges, you know, lie.

ROMANS: With Turkish security personnel right there on American soil --

BRIGGS: John McCain said the ambassador should, quote, get the hell out of the United States.

AMANPOUR: Not only that, cracking down on democracy, on women, on journalists at home as well. That's where the president has to be careful when he cozies up to Sisi in Egypt, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, et cetera, et cetera.

ROMANS: All right. Those people and representatives of those people have all been right there in the Oval Office in the beginning of this.

All right. Thank you so much, Christiane. Nice to see you this morning.

BRIGGS: Thank you.

ROMANS: Ten minutes to the top of the hour. The stock market rebounding from its biggest selloff this year. Earnings ease investor panic over delays to Trump's economic agenda which is still on track, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Mnuchin told the Senate Banking Committee tax reform will happen this year. Something Speaker Paul Ryan also vowed and why it's necessary.

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STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: I believe that a goal of 3 percent GDP or higher economic growth is achievable if we make historic reforms to taxes and regulation.

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ROMANS: Economists dispute that target growth, but tax cuts will please corporate America as well walking back plans to regulate Wall Street banks despite calling for a 21st century Glass-Steagall. Those are, you know, Depression Era banking laws. The White House's version lacks its defining feature.

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MNUCHIN: The simple answer which we don't support is breaking up banks from investment banks. We think that would be a huge mistake.

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ROMANS: Wall Street banks don't seem concerned. Their stocks have flourished under the Trump presidency.

Just look at the right side of that screen -- 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent. Those are the big banks.

BRIGGS: But remember, they need less oversight.

ROMANS: He is asking me wait a minute, why are they crippled by oversight if their stocks are up 50 percent. BRIGGS: They can't lend, right?

ROMANS: And the profits are up, too. Yes.

BRIGGS: Making profit.

All right. The presidential election underway in Iran. A referendum on the landmark nuclear deal. What will voters say?

Our Frederik live in Tehran. We'll go there when we come back.

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[04:56:21] BRIGGS: Iranians are headed 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 are very lucky to have CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen live in Tehran with a little pull back behind the curtain of Iranian politics as people head to the polls this morning.

Good to see you, Fred.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Dave. Yes, good morning.

And, you know, many people are heading to the polls this morning. I want you to look around here at where this polling station in the northern part of Tehran, and if I walk around a little bit then you'll see that there's really many, many people lining up. Some of them have been here for two to three hours really and the reason for that, Dave, is what you have been talking about, because this is a very important landmark election for the people here in Iran.

They say right now, they have the choice between a moderate candidate that wants engagement with the West and engagement with America or someone that's more of an ideological hard liner that wants to be more combative and more confronting toward the United States. So, many, many people are turning out here. And one of the things that we have seen in the days before this is there was a delicious election campaign between these two sides, between the hard liners and the moderates where they accused each other of corruption, where they accused each other of wanting to ruin the country and that's also one of the reasons you're see so many people who are coming out to vote.

Folks that we've been speaking to say they believe it's their civic duty and they feel they have to come out here because this election is so important for the future of their country but, of course, it's also going to be very important to determine what sort of Iran the U.S. is going to be dealing with in the next four years to come, Dave.

BRIGGS: Fascinating look at the scene there in Tehran. Thanks so much, Fred. We appreciate you being live there. Unique perspective.

ROMANS: It really is.

BRIGGS: From Frederik Pleitgen.

ROMANS: Glad to have him.

All right. Fifty-eight minutes past the hour. We want to note this morning the passing of Roger Ailes. The long time FOX News chief died early Thursday. A family friend says Ailes suffered complications after a fall at his home in Palm Beach, Florida. Roger Ailes was 77 years old.

BRIGGS: As you would expect, the news met with a very mixed reaction to say the least. There's no disputing Ailes huge effect on both cable news and politics. He transformed both in this country during his reign at Fox and before it. But his legacy was badly tarnished when he was forced out amid growing sexual harassment allegations last year.

On a personal note, I can't escape the fact that I owe much of my career to Roger Ailes and his vision and his refusal to just accept what everybody else did in television. He was a brilliant man. Change -- imagine changing politics as we know it today and television.

But it's a complicated legacy. I liken it to Joe Paterno and people who screamed at me for that. Not comparing their sins, but comparing the fact that they have complicated legacy, and it really depends on how you view their transgressions --

ROMANS: Two larger than life personalities that shaped a culture of their sphere of influence.

I will say George Bush 41 yesterday put out a statement saying without the guidance of Roger Ailes, he probably wouldn't have been president.

BRIGGS: Well, you could say the same about Nixon, about Reagan, and certainly a CNN piece online right now says Roger Ailes gave us Donald Trump as well. So, think about essentially every Republican president since Nixon, he had a hand in.

ROMANS: Fascinating.

All right. Let's get a check on CNN "Money Stream" this morning.

Global markets and futures higher after Wall Street rebounded from its biggest sell off this year. The Dow up 50 points after losing more than 370 the day before. The news of a possible Comey memo, of course, sent stocks reeling but more strong earnings calmed investors.