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Trump: Russia Probe Is A "Witch Hunt"; President Denies Collusion With Russia; Aides Meet Over Outside Lawyers For Trump; White House Hopes Foreign Trip Changes The Subject. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 05:30   ET


[05:31:05](BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER BAKER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: 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 --



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN HOST: 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, I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN HOST: I'm Dave Briggs. It is a Friday. It's been a long week for the Trump administration, probably welcoming this trip. President Trump with some blunt pushback 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 "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 counsel appointment as a chance to pivot away from Russia and focus on his agenda.

BRIGGS: All 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 is certainly 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 appointment earlier this week. The president fuming about this decision, his aides tell me privately. He called it a "witch hunt" and 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 is no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign, but I can only 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 advisers 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 -- legal advisers -- lawyers to help move this forward here with this 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 soundtrack of the summer, likely for much longer here. And when the president comes back right before Memorial Day, certainly all these challenges will be right here waiting for him -- Christine and Dave.


ROMANS: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you. At that same news conference President Trump, once again, contradicted earlier explanations for the role Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein played in the firing of the FBI director. Trump said he acted on the 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 email 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. Rosenstein is set to brief the full House on the Russia probe today.

[05:35:00] ROMANS: All right. Joining us this morning from Washington to discuss all of this, Jenna Lifhits. She's a reporter at the "Weekly Standard." Thanks for coming in so bright and early for us. I want to listen to the president -- President Trump at that White House news conference yesterday and everyone, listen very carefully to how the president -- how the president said that he -- BRIGGS: Parsed his words.

ROMANS: -- parsed his words about collusion between his associates, his campaign, himself, and the Russians.


TRUMP: Well, I respect the move but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign, but I can only 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.


ROMANS: "The naming of a special counselor is a witch hunt, it divides the country. In terms of collusion, I can only speak for myself." His denials have shifted a little bit or am I reading too much into that, Jenna?

JENNA LIFHITS, REPORTER, WEEKLY STANDARD: No, an interesting thing to watch will definitely be his explanations and the administration's explanations of the Comey firing, if they give any more or if they give any more explanation to Congress. I mean, there's an apparent contradiction between what the deputy attorney general reportedly told senators yesterday.

He gave a post hoc justification for the Comey firing and that raises a lot of questions about was he providing cover for the president for some reason? Was it because, as the "Times" has reported, Trump asked Comey to pledge loyalty and Comey would not, or was it because Comey was overseeing an investigation that involved any potential links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin?

BRIGGS: So as we move forward, question. How will House Republicans, Senate Republicans -- how will they help the president get things back on the rails? And at the heart of that, Peggy Noonan writes in "The Wall Street Journal," "Democracy is Not Your Plaything." She says, "It would be good if top Hill Republicans went en masse to the president said 'stop it.' Clean up your act. Shut your mouth. Do your job. Stop tweeting. Stop seething. Stop wasting time." She's not done yet. "If you don't grow up fast you'll wind up abandoned and alone. Act like a president or leave the presidency." This from Republican -- lifetime Republican Peggy Noonan in "The Wall Street Journal."

Any indication that Republicans will begin to be more honest and open with this president, starting with Mike Pence, who many have criticized for basically echoing some of the things the president has been dishonest with him about?

LIFHITS: Well, the vice president has been a little bit missing in action the last week and a half, unfortunately, as controversies escalated. I think -- a lot of Hill Republicans told me that -- they lamented that Pence wasn't on the Hill and he's usually there often for lunches and meetings with senators. But I think that without much White House guidance senators have been started to speak out more. You have a top Trump ally, Senator Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, sort of reluctant to say whether he trusts the president with classified information. He said sure, but it was a bit of a tepid answer.


LIFHITS: And you have Lindsey Graham, yesterday, telling me that -- I asked -- I asked him about the witch hunt tweet and he said the president should stop tweeting. Marco Rubio also reluctant to defend that tweet. So I think -- I think they're getting a little bit concerned about --

ROMANS: The president's not going to stop tweeting. He's not going to stop tweeting because you know what, it bypasses -- he bypasses the elites in his party, he bypasses the Democrats, he bypasses the media, and he speaks directly to people and says what he wants without a filter. And that is what got him elected and he's never going to -- I'm on the record. He's never going to stop tweeting.

BRIGGS: No, you're right.

ROMANS: Let's talk about this friend of Jim Comey, Benjamin Witt -- or Wittes. He talked to PBS -- gave his interview, so he close to Jim Comey, and he talked about that awkward meeting in the Oval Office with the president, the vice president, and a bunch of other people, and Jim Comey there, trying to kind of blend into the curtains almost. If you look at the pictures --

BRIGGS: All six foot, eight inches of him.

ROMANS: -- it looks like he's like trying to blend into the pictures. And this Benjamin Wittes has talked about how uncomfortable that meeting was and his handshake was for Jim Comey -- listen.


BENJAMIN WITTES, FRIEND OF JAMES COMEY: Comey was just completely disgusted by it.


WITTES: Disgusted by the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public in a way that would -- that would so -- and emphasize concerns that half of the electorate had about him and the Bureau. And this took place five days before the dinner at which the loyalty oath was requested.


ROMANS: We're going to show you some of the video there of that moment. It was interesting, too, because Donald Trump, for the cameras, was sort of like -- I think he said there. Didn't he say look, Jim Comey, you're more famous than I am?

[05:40:00] BRIGGS: Yes. ROMANS: What do you make of what we're hearing from Comey associates and when do you think we're going to hear from Jim Comey?

LIFHITS: I think that Comey associates, certainly those still in the FBI, are very upset about his firing because they say him as a man of integrity. He had full backing of employees there, as Andrew McCabe, the acting director, testified before Congress last week. And in terms -- in terms of Comey coming back -- coming to the Hill and testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee or any other committee, it's looking a little bit less unlikely. You have senators like Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson saying that the special counsel appointment might throw a wrench in that because the special counsel is such a wide-ranging probe, as the deputy attorney general told senators yesterday.

BRIGGS: Of course, you wonder now that the president has flatly denied asking Comey to stop this Flynn investigation -- you wonder if they want that memo to be out there ahead of Congress. But let's shift to the Democrats, something we don't often talk about --

ROMANS: No. Democrats in the wilderness.

BRIGGS: Yes, those five little words they have longed to hear from Joe Biden, "I may very well do it" regarding a potential 2020 run.

ROMANS: There are a lot of caveats, right? He said --

BRIGGS: There are, yes.

ROMANS: He promised his wife he'd pay off the mortgage. He'd have to be healthy -- he'd be 78 in 2020.

BRIGGS: Seventy-eight. Now, still vigorous, Joe Biden still an awful lot of energy. Does this show the desperation, though, of the Democrats -- the fact that they are lost in the wilderness a bit without a true leader of the party?

LIFHITS: All I can say is that's it's been a crazy election and I think that the Democrats are just grappling for some common ground. Biden is a unifying figure, generally very well-liked. And so I think they're just trying to get back to that -- get some love back in the party.

ROMANS: Well, he's somebody who definitely would appeal to that, you know -- the white, rural, lunch bucket Democrat.

BRIGGS: It would counter --

ROMANS: Right.

BRIGGS: -- the message, yes.

ROMANS: But a liberal progressive message that would appeal to women and -- you knows.

BRIGGS: Really getting younger, aren't they? ROMANS: I know.

BRIGGS: I mean, it is a surprise for --

ROMANS: Seventy-eight is the new 58. What can I say, right?


BRIGGS: Don't rule him out.

ROMANS: All right, Jenna Lifhits, nice to see you. Thank you so much. Have a great weekend.

LIFHITS: Thanks for having me. You, too.

ROMANS: All right, from politics to money. The stock market rebounding from its biggest sell-off this year. Earnings eased investor concerns over delays to Trump's economic agenda, which is still on track if you listen to the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Mnuchin told the Senate Banking Committee tax reform -- tax reform, Dave Briggs, will happen this year, he says.

BRIGGS: This year?

ROMANS: And something Speaker Paul Ryan also promised, and this is why it's necessary.


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


ROMANS: Now, economists dispute that target growth but tax cuts would certainly please corporate America, as will walking back plans to regulate Wall Street banks despite repeatedly calling for something called a "21st Century Glass-Steagall." The White House version lacks its defining feature.


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


ROMANS: Which Glass-Steagall did, actually, kept investment banks -- anyway -- Wall Street banks don't seem concerned. Their stocks have flourished under Trump. I love to use this. This is since November 7th. It just shows you how Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and many others have done very, very well. Those are huge returns.

BRIGGS: Perhaps makes it more difficult to argue in favor of getting rid of Dodd-Frank.

ROMANS: Or you argue the reason why they rally so much is because they know --


ROMANS: -- that Trump is going to get rid of Dodd-Frank.

BRIGGS: That is a good point, indeed. Some say, though, Dodd-Frank really hasn't taken place though, right? Really hasn't taken hold --

ROMANS: It is --

BRIGGS: -- of these banks yet.

ROMANS: It is complicated --

BRIGGS: It is, indeed.

ROMANS: -- as the Facebook people say.

BRIGGS: As everything in D.C. these days. So what constitutes a successful trip for President Trump? This all in the wake of a rough week here at home. A live report from Saudi Arabia, next.


[05:48:20] BRIGGS: President Trump hoping to leave the tensions and unanswered questions in Washington behind as he leaves on this first overseas trip. The president planning to visit Israel, Italy, and Brussels after starting his five-country trip in Saudi Arabia where he'll give a speech on Islam. That speech getting pushback 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 country's 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.


BRIGGS: All right, fascinating to reconcile that with what he may say tomorrow. CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson in Saudi Arabia ahead of the president's arrival. Great to have you on, Nic. You say they are rolling out the red carpet there like never before. Why are they so excited for President Trump's arrival?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, it's clearly not because of what he said on the campaign trail. The message that he's going to deliver here is that these leaders, and they'll be 35 of them -- not just the Saudis but other regional Arab and Muslim allies from the region. The message that he'll be delivering is that they need to get out to their population a softer, more peaceful image of Islam. Of course, they believe they do that already.

But why are they rolling out the red carpet? We'll have to quote the newspaper here with the king on the cover, King Salman, because this, they think, is going to be historic -- "This Is Where the History Begins." What they want from President Trump is they want him to be tough on Iran. The foreign minister, yesterday, said that Iran needs to be made to behave like a normal country and follow international law.

[05:50:08] And they think that he is -- President Trump is perhaps a hope because he can operate outside of the box, as they've seen in Washington. A hope to deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace. Iran and that peace are two huge things to the Saudis and to the region here so this is what they -- this is why they're rolling out the red carpet. This, it seems, is why they're willing to ignore some of that campaign rhetoric, Dave.

BRIGGS: All right. This should be a fascinating trip and all eyes on this speech. We also want to tell you about a great op-ed Nic has on today. It previews Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia, discusses how this could be a good opportunity for Trump's bruised ego. We will tweet that out on the EARLY START handle her on Twitter. Nic, great to have you on. Thank you.

ROMANS: I look forward to reading that.

BRIGGS: Yes, it's good stuff.

ROMANS: Ten minutes to the top of the hour. It's been a bad earnings season for retailers but Walmart proving to be immune to the sales slump. There's something going right at Walmart. I'll tell you what it is, next.


[05:55:15] BRIGGS: Iranians are going to the polls today for a critical presidential election that has incumbent Hassan Rouhani seeking a second term in office. The selection 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 for us in Tehran as he peels back the curtain a little bit on this poll and on these elections here in Tehran. Good to see you, Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Dave, yes, good to see you as well. And, you know, it really seems as though Iranians very much aware of the fact of how important these elections are and you can really see that by the turnout. We're going to pan around a little bit and you can see that this entire area -- this polling station is in a school. It is full of people and many of them have been waiting for -- I talked to some who have been waiting over three hours and, you know, it's the high nineties here. I'm slowly turning into a lobster. So people really have been waiting for a very, very long time to cast their ballot because they understand how important this election is going to be. And, you know, earlier today I was on hand with the supreme leader of this country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who voted. And he, himself, said also he wants every Iranian to come and turn out because he thinks it's important for the stability of this country but, of course, it's also important for the direction of this country. Hassan Rouhani, the moderate president -- he wants to continue on a course of engaging with the West, engaging with America. Whereas, his hardline opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, wants more confrontation with the U.S. and the West, and doesn't want to engage also on an economic sphere as well.

So many of the people that we've been speaking to say look, this is about the direction this country is going to take and to us, from what we've been seeing here, from how full this polling station is, it really seems as though the people here in Iran understand the importance of this election and understand how this is going to define their country. Of course, it's also going to define the type of Iran that the U.S. is going to be dealing with in the next four years, Dave.

BRIGGS: So fascinating. Frederik Pleitgen live for us in Tehran. Thank you.

ROMANS: All right, let's get a check on CNN Money Stream this Friday morning. The Friday edition always my favorite -- my favorite day of the week to do money. Let's take a look at futures. Global markets and future are higher right now after Wall Street rebounded a little bit from its biggest sell-off this year. The Dow adding about 50 points but that's after losing more than 370 the day before. The news of a possible Comey memo sent stocks reeling, but then more strong earnings calmed investors on Thursday.

Watch out, Amazon. Walmart's online sales are growing, and fast. Online sales up 63 percent from a year ago. As most brick and mortar stores are losing out to online shopping, Walmart is expanding its digital offerings, buying up online startups and offering shipping deals to put it head-to-head with Amazon. Wall Street likes it. The stock is up 11 percent this year.

How's this for an investment? This painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat -- look at that -- sold for $110.5 million at auction. Dave, that's $110 million worth of art.

BRIGGS: Worth of --

ROMANS: That's the highest ever for --

BRIGGS: You need a viewer warning before showing that painting.

ROMANS: That's the highest ever for an American artist. It's called "Untitled" and it was painted by Basquiat in 1982. The record for an American work was previously held by an Andy Warhol piece that sold for $105 million. One hundred and ten and one-half million dollars -- now that's an investment right there.

BRIGGS: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I mean, that would give me nightmares, my friend.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks for joining us, I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. "NEW DAY" starts right now. Have a great weekend, everybody.


TRUMP: Believe me, there's no collusion. The entire thing has been a witch hunt.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: It's now considered a criminal investigation.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, (D) MISSOURI: The deputy attorney general learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D) CONNECTICUT: There's mounting evidence of obstruction.

TRUMP: Director Comey was very unpopular with most people.

WITTES: Trump fired Jim Comey because the most dangerous thing in the world, if you're Donald Trump, is a person who tells the truth.

TRUMP: We're going to have a director who's going to be outstanding.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, (R) TEXAS: We're a very divided country. Joe Lieberman's probably the only person who could get 100 votes in the Senate.

MCCASKILL: I think it's a mistake to nominate anyone who's ever run for office.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Friday, May 19th, 6:00 here in New York. Alisyn is off. Brooke Baldwin joins me once again --


CUOMO: -- and good to have you, once again. There are several big developments, so here's the starting line. The president categorically denies he asked James Comey to drop the FBI's investigation into Michael Flynn, declaring once again that he is the victim of a witch hunt and blasting the appointment of a special counsel despite the wide agreement among lawmakers that Mueller was a good move. A friend of James Comey is breaking his silence. He says Comey was uncomfortable interacting with President Trump and that he was disgusted by that now-famous hug.

BALDWIN: We'll walk you through that interview this morning.