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Trump Denies Asking Comey to End Flynn Investigation; Friend of James Comey Breaks His Silence; Trump Claims "No Collusion" with Russia. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 06:00   ET



CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: -- 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.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: We'll walk you through that interview this morning. Also, after a briefing on Capitol Hill, senators say the Russia probe is now considered a criminal investigation.

Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein now says he was being told that Comey was being fired before he wrote that memo recommending his ouster. All of this as the president is embarking today on the first overseas trip of his presidency. We have it all covered. Let's begin with Joe Johns at the White House.

Joe, good morning.


For the first time after a week of explosive developments here at the White House, the President of the United States addressing his interactions with the fired FBI director, James Comey, and also telling reporters what he thinks about the investigation into Russian interference in the last election.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.

JOHNS (voice-over): President Trump slamming the appointment of a special counsel as bad for the country.

TRUMP: 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 always speak for myself and the Russians, zero.

JOHNS (voice-over): The president clearly distancing himself from his own campaign. Mr. Trump also denying reports that he tried to interfere in the FBI's investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 --


TRUMP: No. No. Next question.

JOHNS (voice-over): But after days of conflicting accounts about why he fired Comey...

TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey, my decision.

JOHNS (voice-over): -- the president is now putting the blame back on a memo written by the deputy attorney general calling for Comey's dismissal.

TRUMP: Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision -- and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

JOHNS (voice-over): But Rod Rosenstein gave senators a very different story when he briefed them Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo.

JOHNS (voice-over): This as a friend of Comey is breaking the silence in a new interview with PBS Newshour about his conversations with the now-fired FBI director.

BENJAMIN WITTES, COMEY FRIEND: Trump fired Jim Comey because the most dangerous thing in the world if you're Donald Trump is a person who tells the truth, is dogged, you can't control.

JOHNS (voice-over): Benjamin Wittes recounting the day of that now famous public embrace between Comey and the president at a White House reception shortly after the inauguration.

WITTES: Comey really did not want to go to that meeting. He just really doesn't believe that the president and the FBI director should, you know, have any kind of social relationship or, you know, shows of warmth.

JOHNS (voice-over): Wittes describes in detail why Comey was reluctant to attend. And though 6'8, he even tried to blend in with the curtains in the back of the room in hopes he would not be spotted.

WITTES: Trump singles him out in a fashion that he regarded as sort of, you know, calculated.

TRUMP: He's become more famous than me. WITTES: What he told me was that he was -- it was bad enough that he was there, it was bad enough that there was going to be a handshake but, you know, there really wasn't going to be a hug.

And so if you watch the video, he extends his hand and Comey's arms are really long and he extends his hand kind of preemptively and Trump grabs the hand and kind of pulls him into a hug but the hug is entirely one-sided. Comey was just completely disgusted by --


WITTES: -- disgusted by the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.

JOHNS (voice-over): Wittes says Comey tried to establish boundaries with the president.

WITTES: He saw his role as protecting the FBI from the White House.

JOHNS (voice-over): Wittes said President Trump called Comey once as he was about to board a helicopter.

WITTES: To his surprise, there is no urgent matter at all; the president just wants to chitchat. And he was bewildered by it and, again, thought it was quite inappropriate that, you know, he doesn't think the president and the FBI director should be chitchatting.

He interpreted it as an effort to kind of be chummy and kind of bring Comey into the fold.

JOHNS (voice-over): CNN's Pam Brown has reported that Comey was so uncomfortable with these interactions that he rehearsed what he would say with his team before meeting --


JOHNS (voice-over): -- with the president.

Sources say the president's allies are now trying to convince him that he should stop complaining about the Russia investigation while his advisers are looking for an outside legal team to represent the president through the special counsel's investigation.


JOHNS: The president is, quote, "very close" to naming a replacement for FBI director. The frontrunner that has been floated is former United States senator Joe Liebermann. But Democrats are already expressing concerns about naming a top politician, a former politician to the job.

The president leaves this afternoon for his nine-day trip overseas. First stop, Saudi Arabia, far away from the White House but not so far from the controversy -- Chris and Brooke.

CUOMO: Well said, Joe Johns. We'll check back with you in a little bit.

How about the TGIF panel?

Bring in.

Is it time?

BALDWIN: Let's do it.

CUOMO: All right. CNN political analyst, Maggie Haberman; CNN senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin and CNN political commentator Errol Lewis.

Maggie Haberman, you have reporting in "The New York Times" that advances our understanding.

What's the latest?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": There's so much latest that you'd have to narrow down that category. But what we've reported is, my colleague, Mike Schmidt, reported on how James Comey had kept these more contemporaneous notes about his -- memos about his meetings with the president, where he basically felt like the president was trying to, if not pressure him, sort of try to cozy up to him and try to curry favor with him, for lack of a better way of putting it.

As you have this investigation ongoing, at one point I think there was a phone call -- this is very revealing about this president in a lot of ways -- where the president basically just wanted to chitchat and just wanted to talk, because this president, as we have heard repeatedly, is also fairly isolated.

My colleague, Glenn Thrush (ph), and I have reporting that the president has been speaking to prospective lawyers, given the latest in these probes. It's not a huge surprise. I mean, given what he is facing, you would expect that he might go to somebody who has some Washington experience.

That's not what the current retinue of lawyers that he has possess. But this is money that I suspect he's not going to want to spend and you have a White House that is realizing lots of aides, very extended (ph) aides, realizing what a special counsel means for everyone, which is that a lot of people are going to have to hire lawyers, they're all getting very careful about their phone use.

It's going to be a long slug.

BALDWIN: We'll talk more about, you know, your colleague, Michael Schmidt's (ph) reporting in this interview that he we heard a bit of in Joe's piece.

But just let's back up two steps, Jeff Toobin. On FBI directors in general, you want to have like an arm's length, right, between the bureau and any White House. You never want any perception of chummy, hugging in the Oval Office shots.

Because why?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Because there are often occasions when the FBI has to investigate matters relating to the White House. And this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in now, where the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign, everyone -- many people relating to him.

And you don't want to have the perception that the FBI director is friends with, on the team with, allied with the president.

The complication there, of course, is that the FBI director and the president have to interact to a certain extent about national security, about all sorts of cyber threats to the country.

So how you draw the line between chumminess and a professional relationship is something every president is supposed to navigate with the FBI director. And, obviously, Comey felt uncomfortable.

CUOMO: All right, so, well, let's talk about that. Comey has some questions to answer as well.

This is going to be a credibility contest, right?

So we do have one little test moment. We have this man, Benjamin Wittes, who gave one rendition of what this moment was about, which we'll play for you, and we'll also show you the hug at the same time and see if it reads true.

Here's the sound from Comey's friend.


WITTES: If you watch the video, he extends his hand -- and Comey's arms are really long -- and he extends his hand kind of preemptively and Trump grabs the hand and kind of pulls him into a hug. But the hug is entirely one-sided.

So one guy in the hug is shaking hands. Comey was just completely disgusted by --



WITTES: -- disgusted by the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.


CUOMO: What did you see in the hug, Errol?


CUOMO: Is it a one-sided hug?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, it's a plausible interpretation of what might have been there.

On the other hand, if he felt that strongly, that something that disgusting that might happen to him, maybe you don't go to the event. Maybe you beg off. Maybe you send a tersely worded message back to the White House that you don't want to be a part of this.

Maybe you try to rely on the attorney general. At that point, I guess attorney general designate, that you need some room and you need some clarity.

I think the questions are all very well taken for all the reasons that Jeffrey just described. There ought to be some distance between the FBI director and the president. If the president clearly doesn't want that distance to be there, it then falls on the FBI.


LOUIS: And if Comey didn't navigate it to his satisfaction, I don't know if he has anybody else to blame.

CUOMO: But the maybes matter that Errol is laying out here. This memo got a lot of heat that -- ooh, even, boy, he thought to write it down contemporaneously, this must have been a big deal.

And not a big enough deal to do anything about it and if we know something about James Comey, it's that when he thinks something really matters, he'll break protocol. He'll do things that nobody else has done before and have huge political impact but not about President Trump.

Does it mitigate the impression that he was really offended and thought it was really inappropriate?

TOOBIN: This has become a big Republican talking point in response to this whole controversy.

If it was so bad, why didn't Comey say something?

And it's a legitimate question, there is no doubt.

I mean --


BALDWIN: But Wittes says -- Wittes says he didn't actually maybe think it was so bad, that he felt like it was manageable.

TOOBIN: Right. Well, but if it was manageable, it's hard to argue at the same time it was an obstruction of justice as a crime. So I mean, that is somewhat in Trump's favor.

But from Comey's perspective, you can think, for much of this period there is no attorney general at all, that Sessions hasn't even been confirmed.

So who should -- (CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: Fair point, so who would he have gone to?

TOOBIN: -- and then, very soon after Sessions is confirmed, he recuses himself from the Russia situation.

And also -- I mean, and this is, I think, the main point, Comey thinks, look, if I don't pass the message to my subordinates, there can't be any obstruction because they won't even know that the president is making this inappropriate contact with me.

So I will protect the bureau by dealing with him one on one and then not disclosing it.


TOOBIN: I think that's the argument.

BALDWIN: Let's get some more sound from this friend of Comey's, because, obviously, the question, why does Comey think he was fired, this guy has apparently talked to Comey since the firing. He's not divulging any information from that conversation. But this is his own opinion on why he thinks James Comey was fired.


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, is dogged, you can't control, who is as committed as Comey is to the institutional independence of an organization that has the power to investigate you.


BALDWIN: What do you think of that, Maggie?

HABERMAN: I think that there is some truth to that. It's impossible to know what was in the president's mind, considering he has now given several explanations for why he fired Comey, including yesterday reverting back to the earlier explanation about how it was a recommendation from the Department of Justice.

But I think that you have to look at, on a basic level, Donald Trump takes things very personally. He tends to see any kind of criticism or any kind of anything that he considers uncomfortable as a personal slight; he tends to overreact; he tends to stew on these things.

He had been thinking about this, according to all of our reporting, for several days. And I think that he had been thinking about it, frankly, going back to the transition, when he saw Comey testify before the Senate, when Comey talked about being slightly nauseated -- nauseated, I think was his word -- at the prospect that he had influenced the election.

I think Trump took that very personally. And so I think that you can have what the friend of Comey's is saying be true but think that that might not have been top of mind for Trump. I think it might have just been more sort of instinctual and basic.

CUOMO: Strong insight because, Errol, let's not forget who James Comey is in our political context. He said was -- felt, you know, nauseated by it. He was also seen nauseous -- as inducing nausea -- by Democrats for what he did.

BALDWIN: Good use of language.

CUOMO: He did --


CUOMO: Well, I had to look it up. Had to look it up. It's one of the things we've learned in this new Thunderdome. The idea that James Comey was a little bit ripe for the picking shouldn't be ignored here.

The Democrats had been calling for his ouster. The timing here, Trump's comments about what it was that was bothering him, certainly negate the idea that this was about Hillary Clinton. But he was a good target and he's shown that he would break protocol before. If he was so righteous but had done something about it, there was plenty of political cover for this move had it been done sooner.

LOUIS: Well, it's interesting; we've heard repeatedly that the president was surprised at the reaction. He thought --


LOUIS: -- Democrats would side with him and say, yes, we were ready to get rid of that guy. He seems to have been surprised, in part, I think, because, yes, James Comey was a controversial figure, a more skilled practitioner, somebody with more political experience than Donald Trump, might have simply said, you know, we want a new approach to this. We don't -- I don't like what happened during the election. There are questions surrounding him. I'm sure he's a good man but I'm going to make a change.

That's what another president might have done. That, of course, is not what Donald Trump has done.


HABERMAN: Look, there would have been -- to Chris' point -- there would have been more understandable to do it. I is the timing of this that even Trump supporters say they cannot understand why you would do this as the Russia investigation is -- I don't know if it's taking off but it is certain expanding and it is certainly getting more intensity.

You open yourself up to it. And that is something this president has really struggled with over and over.

BALDWIN: Well, the president kept saying yesterday at the White House, no collusion, no collusion. Let's talk more about that coming up. Everybody stick around, because up next, President Trump denying any collusion between his campaign and Russia, calling this investigation, as we saw on Twitter, "a witch hunt."

Does his defiance, does it change anything?

Our panel will discuss it.

CUOMO: What did he mean (INAUDIBLE)?




BALDWIN: President Trump doubling down, calling the Russia investigation "a witch hunt" and denying any collusion with Russia. But listen closely here.


TRUMP: 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 always speak for myself and the Russians, zero.


BALDWIN: We've got our panel back, Maggie Haberman, Errol Louis and A.B. Stoddard, associate editor and columnist for "Real Clean Politics."

I can speak for myself, A.B. and the Russians, zero collusion.

What do you think?


A.B. STODDARD, "REAL CLEAR POLITICS": It was interesting; it was the first time we heard the president sort of sounding as if he might be separating himself from people who worked on his campaign. A number of them are under investigation for connections to Russians: Roger Stone, Carter Page, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort.

So that's not one, that's not two, that's four people. We know that his son-in-law snuck the Russian ambassador up the back stairs of -- not in the front entrance of Trump Tower -- during the transition. And so as this investigation heats up, you've heard all along that this is a witch hunt but that was the first time we've heard President Trump sort of say I can just speak for myself and I think that was noted by everybody.

CUOMO: All right. So that goes a little bit to the substance of this.

But how about that line before, Maggie, to the politics of the situation?

"I respect the move."

No, he doesn't.


CUOMO: And that's the problem, that -- I get that this could be a little scary, I get this, that they're talking to lawyers. But the politics of this were corrosive, largely generated by the president, I think, objectively.

But if he didn't write those tweets yesterday, I believe the new cycle would have been unity in Washington, D.C.; finally we'll get to the bottom of this.

If there's nothing there with collusion, good and we'll find out how to stop the interference going forward, we'll get better information. But he didn't.

And isn't that why we're in a new cycle of negative appraisal?

HABERMAN: We are here because, at the end of the day, I mean regardless of the question of collusion -- and to be clear, I don't know what they actually think they mean when they keep saying collusion -- but regardless of that question, we are here because the president fired James Comey and because he then went to blame a recommendation by the deputy attorney general, that the deputy attorney general testified yesterday -- or told Senate, not testified -- but told senators yesterday that he knew Comey was going to be fired before he wrote that letter.

I think if Rod Rosenstein did not feel like he had been compromised in some way, I'm not sure we would be seeing a special counsel now. And we are. And the president is reacting to it. And the president has this habit -- and he did it all throughout the campaign -- of getting trapped in this sort of chain-reactive, negative, self-inflicted wound cycle.

And I think that it's (INAUDIBLE) Republicans in Congress are getting very weary all of this because they see that they had this golden moment of governing and of control of the White House and of Congress to be able to pass an agenda and every day gets plunged into this -- and you are correct, the only person who is plunging the president into this at the moment really is the president.

But he will never, ever, ever see it that way. He will always see it as someone coming at him.

BALDWIN: But to your point on Rod Rosenstein, I think that was really significant, Errol, that you watch all these senators yesterday afternoon, coming out of this hearing, where he was answering some questions. And the original story from the White House was, oh well, based upon a recommendation from new leadership for the top of the FBI, you know, Rod Rosenstein is the one recommending X, Y and Z. And then later we saw the president on with Lester Holt, which

obviously he said, well, no, it's not by anyone's recommendation but myself.

Why would Rosenstein write the memo if he already knew that Trump was going to fire Comey?

LOUIS: Rosenstein was in a position that many attorneys find themselves in. Your client wants something and you want to deliver that thing to them. In this case -- and we have to take them at their word -- if the order comes from the president or from the attorney general, "Put together a memo, explaining what was wrong about Comey," well, you do it whether you know what they're going to do with it or not, whether you know he's been fired in effect or not, whether or not the decision has been made, what influence you're going to have on it.

There are some lawyers who, when put into that position, will just do what the client asks. In this case, now, Rod Rosenstein actually goes out and does that. But now he's disclosed what he may have done.

He also has made clear -- we've had solid reporting on this -- that he didn't like being put in this position. And then he further goes and makes the decision to bring in Mueller as the person to sort of clean all of this up.

I think he sort of stands out as a model of what could be happening, that the Trump administration has got to be very concerned about, which is people who are concerned about their own reputation and willing to do something about it. There are members of Congress who are concerned about their reputation and what they may or may not be attached to but they kind of scamper off. They kind of hide from the press.

This is somebody who is making some power moves, who is really sort of stepping up and saying, yes, I'll do what you ask me to do. But you try and put me in a trap, we're going to -- you're going to get some pushback from me. That's what Rod Rosenstein has done.

CUOMO: He did expose himself, though, to scrutiny, Rosenstein, not just for the memo but for this special counsel move after it, which could be interpreted as a revenge move.

Claire McCaskill is out there saying, you know, Rosenstein knew Comey would be fired. So you know, that's a pretty strong source on it.

A.B. Stoddard, so you have this special counsel.

The senators go up there and what they want to know mostly is, what about us?

What about our ability to ask questions and have our committee and be out there in the front of this?

Well, the special counsel --

[06:25:00] CUOMO: -- compromised that.

What are you hearing?

Because the reporting seems very mixed. Mueller may tell you guys to step down; no, Rosenstein says it can still go as this way. Other senators have kind of caught in between and thinking they don't know.

What do you hear?

STODDARD: Well, obviously the members of Congress running their investigations would like to hold their own investigation unencumbered by the new probe run by Mueller, this special counsel. And they had lots of plans, first and foremost, to call James Comey up for a blockbuster public hearing about what happened in his conversations in the Oval Office with President Trump about whether or not President Trump asked him to shut down the investigation to Michael Flynn.

So we're on hold right here. There is some talk that they'll prevail, the congressional committees and that the House Intelligence Committee might be able to get Comey up next week.

But there is more talk that Robert Mueller is interested in having those committees do their work quietly and not bring people forward for testimony that are also witnesses in his investigation.

Obviously Comey is in his probe. And so if Comey actually doesn't come up and talk, this whole thing is going to go quiet for a while. And that actually provides Republicans and the president an opportunity to talk about policy again.

I think congressional Republicans will follow through on that. I don't think Trump will. I think he'll continue to tweet about his grievances and draw attention to this. But that's a big difference if we have a lot of high-profile testimony coming from congressional probes, this consumes the news. Without it, it goes into a quiet period.

BALDWIN: Which, you know, maybe the American public would like to see everything play out in front of all of our eyes but that really may --

CUOMO: Well, it would be nice to know with first person accounts what had happened. But, you know, you have to do what isn't considered in the interest of justice, that's in the hands of Bob Mueller, so we'll see.

Panelists, thank you very much, value-added as always.

Coming up on new day, a lot to digest with our guests. We have players for you this morning. Congressman Sean Duffy, Elijah Cummings, Senators Angus King, Richard Blumenthal and former U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales.

BALDWIN: Also ahead, chaos at the crossroads of the world as a car plows into people in the middle of New York's crowded Times Square. The terrifying video and the details -- next.