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Trump Dismisses Russia Probe; Trump Heads to Saudi Arabia; Pillar Suspended 2 Games for Anti-Gay Slur. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 05:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The news of a possible Comey memo, of course, sent stocks reeling but more strong earnings calmed investors.

[05:00:05] Watch out Amazon. Walmart's online sales are growing and fast up. Look at this -- up 63 percent from a year ago, as most brick and mortar stores lose out to online shopping.

Walmart is expanding its digital side, buying up online start ups and offering shipping deals that compete with Amazon. Wall Street loved it. Walmart stock up 11 percent this year.

Four car companies and millions of drivers reached a settlement over faulty Takata air bags. The flaw caused explosions in some cars linked to 11 deaths and 180 injuries. The deal which comes eight years after the initial recall is for $553 million. Final approve expected later this year.

The FCC could roll back net neutrality. The commission voted 2-1 Thursday to repeal an Obama error regulation that prevents Internet providers from speeding up or slowing down traffic to specific sites. The FCC chair says it eliminates regulations but this could lead to a power grab by a few companies. The regulation now enters a public comment period before the final vote.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: We'll keep an eye on that.

EARLY START continues right now.



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 --



BRIGGS: President Trump looking to move on from troubles here at home. His harsh words on the Russia investigation as he prepares for his first overseas trip as commander-in-chief. That is the trip fraught with peril, but he hopes to show some leadership on religion in particular as he heads to Saudi Arabia.

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

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Friday, May 19th. It's a little after 5:00 a.m. in the East.

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 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.

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 on 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 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 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.


ROMANS: All right. Thanks, Jeff Zeleny, at the White House for us.

BRIGGS: All right. Joining us this morning from Washington to discuss all of this in the wild last 8 or 10 days, Jenna Lifhits. She is a reporter at "The Weekly Standard" covering all things politics.

Good morning. Great to have you.

ROMANS: Good morning.

JENNA LIFHITS, REPORTER, WEEKLY STANDARD: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

BRIGGS: Let's start with what President Trump said there about the special counsel. It is a witch hunt. Is it?

LIFHITS: Well, President Trump believes that it is and I think those statements are throwing off Republicans on Capitol Hill who have been wary to comment on the president's repeated seemingly bombastic tweets.

[05:05:09] I mean, before he made that statement during the press conference, he tweeted out early in the morning. And it's sort of -- it's all part of a larger lack of messaging, lack of coherent messaging.

ROMANS: Right.

LIFHITS: Because the day before on Wednesday night, the president put out a relatively calm statement about the special council appointment.

ROMANS: Let's listen to what the president said at the White House news conference yesterday. Specifically about how he only speaks for himself but thinks all of this divides the country.


TRUMP: We need a great director of the FBI. I cherish the FBI. It's special. All over the world, no matter where you go, the FBI is special. The FBI has not had that special reputation with what happened in the

campaign, what happened with respect to the Clinton campaign and even you could say directly or indirectly with respect to the much more successful Trump campaign.


ROMANS: All right. That was a different sound bite than what I was talking about. He said he respects the move about the special counselor but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. There was no collusion between myself and the campaign, but I can only speak for myself which I think was an interesting turn of phrase, the FBI in the second, but I can only speak for myself.

It seems as though he's sort of, I don't know, fine-tuning what his message here is going to be about this witch hunt.

LIFHITS: Yes, it does appear that the president was sort of backing away from prior claims that he had made about no collusion between his associates and as you know the FBI investigation pertains to Flynn and Manafort, a range of Trump associates and individuals affiliated with the campaign.

BRIGGS: Perhaps looking for some distance but himself and Michael Flynn.


BRIGGS: But let's ask about that FBI director. The reports are, Joe Liebermann, the former Democrat-turned-independent, vice presidential candidate on the Republican side. It appears that President Trump thought this would be widely celebrated on the left. It is certainly not been.

Will it be widely celebrated on the right? Will that be smooth sailing in terms of a confirmation?

LIFHITS: In general, I think you're seeing Republicans supportive of Lieberman, but there's also some and, of course, there are Democrats who say that he doesn't have the requisite law enforcement experience necessary for this role.

And as we saw, this is supposed apolitical or nonpolitical role, and Lieberman, of course, though he is an independent as Texas Senator John Cornyn has pointed out, he still has extensive political experience and has voiced his political leanings for many years.

ROMANS: It's so fascinating. It was a PBS interview where the guy named Benjamin Wittes, who is a friend of Jim Comey, the fired FBI director. And in this PBS interview, this friend sort of laying out kind of the mindset of Jim Comey as this presidency began. And this president was reaching out to him to have dinners and reaching out to him for some show of loyalty.

And I want to listen to this sound bite and get your response.


BENJAMIN WITTES, FRIEND OF JAMES COMEY: This was somebody under intense pressure and look, Jim is a trooper. He handles pressure very well. He's not a whiner, and -- but the color of the wallpaper was that these were not honorable people and that protecting the FBI from them was his day job.


ROMANS: Remarkable insight. Jenna, I'm wondering -- oh, you're seeing pictures of this awkward hug where Jim Comey was trying to stay back and basically blend into the wall and that's why the president said to him you're getting more famous than I am, which is apparently a kiss of death.

BRIGGS: That's a problem.

ROMANS: But I'm wondering when we're going to hear from Jim Comey himself. I guess it depends on where the investigation goes.

LIFHITS: It does and the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel might throw a wrench into whether the public ends up hearing from James Comey in testimony. He has been invited by multiple -- by the Senate Intelligence Committee, by the House Intelligence Committee and the House Oversight Committee to testify. But it's unclear now whether the special counsel will have jurisdiction over Comey and whether he can actually go and testify on the Hill.

BRIGGS: But you do wonder with the relationship will he want Comey and Mueller, will he want Comey to go clear his name.

ROMANS: First.

BRIGGS: Right. To get that memo out in front of the public.

Jenna, we'll see you in about 30 minutes. Thank you.

[05:10:01] ROMANS: All right. Thanks, Jenna. Nice to he see you this morning.

LIFHITS: Thank you.

ROMANS: Grab a cup of coffee and come back in a few.

All right. 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 period. Talks could begin as early as August. Renegotiation of the trade deal took center stage during Trump's campaign. The president blames it for killing American manufacturing.

However, nonpartisan research doesn't have the same conclusion. It hasn't had a huge impact on jobs and American shoppers have benefitted from the resulting cheap goods. Trump official have not said exactly what it wants to change. Many Republicans and business groups like the deal. They like NAFTA, they don't want them to gut it.

BRIGGS: Indeed.

All right. So, will the rough week here at home cloud the president's agenda as he embarks on the first trip overseas since taking office?

We're live in Saudi Arabia next.


[05:15:01] ROMANS: 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 and Brussels after starting his five-country pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia where he will give a speech on Islam. That speech getting push back over Trump's campaign rhetoric.


TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our countries representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. I have friends that are Muslims, they're great people, but they know we have a problem. They know we have a real problem.


ROMANS: That's where we find CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson there for us this morning. So, a president who -- a campaigner that won by saying America first and keep Muslims out of America is now going to Saudi Arabia where he will talk about Islam.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, and I was here a year ago talking to people on the streets about that and they were pretty angry at President Trump. Some people liked him but were really against that message.

But right now, it's a very warm welcome that the king is extending here. You see U.S. flags flying next to Saudi flags on the streets. You see huge billboards with the king and President Trump together.

For the Saudis, this is a big deal. This is one of the popular newspapers here. It says this is where history is going to be written. They see President Trump's visit here as historic, as a resetting of the relations between the West and the Arab and Muslim relations.

They expect and want him to be tough on Iran. They think that he is a courageous leader that can potentially deliver on the thorny issue of peace. For president Trump's part he has a very difficult speech to make here. There's going to be 35 different Muslim Arab and regional leaders represented here.

And message that General McMaster says President Trump will deliver is one that these leaders need to sort of put out a much softer and more peaceful message and image of Islam and they already think that. That's what makes the particular speech tough. The king is the custodian of the two holier sites here in Saudi Arabia. So, to get that message wrong would be a very damaging thing when expectations are so high.

ROMANS: Yes, expectations are so high and certainly, here, Nic, the president needs to come away from there with wins. With a stately persona and concrete things that he can point to that are wins for him.

All right. Nic Robertson in Riyadh for us -- thank you, Nic.

BRIGGS: Such a good point and you consider that Steven Miller, the one writing the speech and responsible from what we're told the inauguration speech which people say focused on American carnage so that is a perilous speech potentially.

But meanwhile, murder charges have now been filed against the man police say plowed into pedestrians in Times Square. We want to warn you this video is chilling.

Surveillance cameras captured the truly horrific scene. The driver, 26-year-old Richard Rojas 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.

ROMANS: The source adds Rojas suffers from psychological issue. He expected police to shoot him. He got out of the car and was like running away later.

An 18-year-old tourist from Michigan was struck by the car and killed. Just a tragedy. At least 22 people were injured. Police and the mayor say there's no sign the incident was terror related. Rojas had two prior arrests for drunk driving.

BRIGGS: And the cover of "The New York Post" showing moments after the crash, the driver running from the scene. A horrific scene. You're almost thankful just one casualty. A scary scene.

All right. Coming up, can Kentucky Derby winner always dreaming make a run at horse racings Triple Crown? That's always the hope this time of year. The next big test comes tomorrow.

Andy Scholes with our "Bleacher Report", next.


[05:23:51] BRIGGS: All right. Let's talk a little sports. Toronto Blue Jays suspending centerfielder Kevin Pillar for two games for yelling an anti-gay slur at a Braves pitcher.

ROMANS: Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report".

Hey, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good morning, guys. You know, this happened during Wednesday night's Braves-Blue Jays

game. Kevin Pillar was not happy with pitcher Jason Mott because he quick pitched him which made him strikeout so that was when he used the anti-gay slur. You can see the Braves immediately not happy with what was said.

After conferring with Major League Baseball, the Blue Jays suspending him for two games and last night before the series finale, Pillar apologizing for his actions.


KEVIN PILLAR, BLUE JAYS CENTERFIELDER: There's no place for this type of language on a baseball field, at home, in a clubhouse. There's words out there that are very offensive to a lot of people regardless of how you use them or when you say them, but that was the word that came out and I regret saying it wholeheartedly and I look forward to making it right.


SCHOLES: Nashville Predators had former "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson sing the national anthem before last night's western conference finals game.


[05:25:19] SCHOLES: Clarkson tweeting afterwards please win or they will blame me. The Predators were undefeated in the playoffs and every game thus far a country star sang the anthem. And, unfortunately for Clarkson, the Predators did lose to the Ducks 3-2 in overtime. That series now tied at two games a piece.

Ten horses set to run in tomorrow's Preakness Stakes. All eyes on Always Dreaming as he tries to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. This will be the first time ever Always Dreaming has ran on two weeks rest. He's the heavy favorite going in.

Now, riding Always Driving is John Velasquez. He is the fourth all time leader in prize money but never won the Preakness. Post time set to 6:48 Eastern.

All right. Finally, Jaguars offensive lineman Malik Jackson doing what he can to help pets in Jacksonville find a home. Jackson paying the adoption fee for 181 homeless pets over the weekend and he not only paid the fee, he showed up to meet with fans and help the staff there helping with the adoptions.

Pretty cool to see, guys, especially since Jacksonville apparently all the pet facilities are pretty full, so pretty cool to see Jackson doing what he can to help all the pets find a home.

BRIGGS: You got an aw out of Christine.

ROMANS: I love pets.

SCHOLES: That's my goal on Friday.

BRIGGS: Well played. All right. Thank you, Scholes.

SCHOLES: Andy Scholes and puppies, those are two things that make me happy.

BRIGGS: And cute kittens. It's a good Friday. Thanks, man.

SCHOLES: All right.

ROMANS: All right. A defiant President Trump says once and for all, he did not collude for the Russians. He did not ask James Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn. Now, he tries to leave the domestic drama behind him on his first overseas trip.