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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 7-7:30a ET
Aired May 19, 2017 - 07:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. Alisyn is off. Brooke Baldwin joins me.
Thanks for helping me --
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: You got it. Good morning.
CUOMO: President Trump taking on the controversies of the most challenging week of his presidency. Mr. Trump denies that he asked James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, raising the specter of will Comey testify.
There's some developments on that. We have them for you this morning.
We're also hearing from a friend of the fired FBI director. He says Comey was uncomfortable interacting with the president and "disgusted" by this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO (voice-over): Do you remember this?
The president calling Comey "a star," saying "he's more popular than I am," trying to give him a little smooch.
What was this about from Comey's perspective?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: All right. We'll talk about the hug moment in the Oval Office. Also this morning the president is blasting the appointment of this special counsel on the Russia investigation, saying it divides the country and arguing that he is the victim of "a witch hunt," all of this as the president gets set to take on his first foreign trip in just a couple of hours from now. We have you covered this morning on NEW DAY.
Let's begin with you, Joe Johns, live at the White House. Good morning.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Brooke. It's really been a week of explosive developments for a White House embattled from the very beginning.
And now the president for the first time addressing questions about his interactions with the fired FBI director James Comey, also telling journalists what he thinks about the Russia investigation.
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 --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Disgusted?
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 --
JOHNS: -- 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 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: We've gotten multiple signals that the president is very close to naming a replacement for the FBI director and the frontrunner, we're told, is former United States senator Joe Liebermann, though some Democrats are suggesting they don't like the idea of putting a career politician in the job.
The president leaves this afternoon for his nine-day international trip, starting out in Saudi Arabia, where this controversy is likely to follow him -- Chris and Brooke.
CUOMO: Joe Johns, appreciate the reporting and we will take on the question this morning of why Democrats are moving so quickly against one of their own, a former senator Joe Liebermann. We'll talk about that.
Let's bring in our political panel, CNN Politics reporter and editor at large, Chris Cillizza; associate editor and columnist for realclearpolitics.com, A.B. Stoddard and CNN senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.
Mr. Cillizza, you posit that the president is staking his presidency on four words: "No, no, next question." Explain.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNNPOLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you played it in the clip. He was asked directly, did he at any point tell Jim Comey to either end or curb the investigation into Michael Flynn. Those four words were his response.
What does that mean?
Look, I don't know that Donald Trump put a tremendous amount of strategic thought into how he would respond to the question but, as a matter of fact, you now have what we would expect to hear James Comey's side of the story, whether through congressional testimony, through the release of the memo or memos or both.
And it's very likely that you're going to have the former FBI director, a very well regarded person within the law enforcement community, say, the president said we should end or curb this investigation. You'll have the president saying, no, no, next question. Now if it's just a he said-he said, nothing else comes out. Bob
Mueller's investigation produces nothing, the congressional investigation produces nothing, Donald Trump will survive politically because it will be James Comey's word against his, impossible sort of to prove.
If anything comes out that suggests that Donald Trump's absolute flat, 100 percent, no wiggle-room denial is not entirely accurate, it begins to undermine his presidency, to be quite honest. It calls into question when he is telling the truth and when he is not.
So I don't know that he knows that he's put a big gamble down yesterday in those four words but I think he did.
BALDWIN: OK. So, "No, no, next question." Big gamble from Cillizza.
Jeff Toobin, what about you?
Just listening to the president, still not changing his tune with regard to deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, still blaming him.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: It's just peculiar. We've had several different explanations of why Comey was fired. At first you had all these administration officials, including the vice president, saying it was completely due to the memo that Rod Rosenstein wrote.
Then President Trump said, I was going to fire him, anyway, so all those explanations became irrelevant. Then today or yesterday it seemed like the memo was part of the explanation again. You know, if people care, they are likely to be confused.
CUOMO: And it wasn't just that they were irrelevant, it exposed them as false, that it wasn't about the A.G.'s letter; it wasn't about what happened with the e-mail situation. And we learned that from the president's mouth, which is rare, where he winds up upsetting his own apple cart.
A.B. Stoddard, the special counsel. For the first time in this administration, we saw Republicans and Democrats saying, you know what, this is a good move, it's the right guy, let's figure it out. And now they're a little -- now that they're figuring out what it means, they're like, well, wait a minute --
CUOMO: -- what about me?
What about ability to have say in this investigation?
And they're dealing with that. But the president's saying that it's "a witch hunt," that this is a bad move, what has that done with his standing with the men and women of his party?
A.B. STODDARD, "REAL CLEAR POLITICS": That's the problem, is this week we saw a shift after the memo was reported. It's what seems like years ago in the Republicans' posture in terms of defending Donald Trump. They ran for the hills. They didn't want to talk.
And when they did, they said this is really of great concern. We're going to have to find out what's in that memo, we're going to have to subpoena the memo, we're going to have to hear from former FBI director Comey.
So that was the break. That was the breaking point. It was after many other things, the firing of Comey, the Lester Holt interview, where the president said, I did it all because of Russia. And even the news that he could have released, shared sensitive information with Russian officials in the Oval Office.
That was the breaking point, was the idea that in the Oval Office he might have told Comey, I'd like you to shut -- I hope that you will see clear to end this investigation into Michael Flynn.
So now they have this reprieve where they have a special counsel and they have an excuse to say I can't really talk about this, it's all in the hands of the special counsel.
At the same time the Congress wants to assert themselves, they have their own investigations and their own probes going on that they started before this. They were all in the works and they want to continue. So there will be sort of a turf war going on about that.
But, in the end, I think it's better for Republicans on Capitol Hill to try to proceed with whatever is left of an agenda, whatever is left of momentum that they have and there's very little left at this point. They're very frustrated and they're actually really angry because they're being told, both by pollsters and donors, that this is just hitting the skids.
But I really think that picking a big fight with Mueller at this point over who can come up and testify is probably a mistake. Everybody has to proceed with their probes and carry on but the business is legislating and they have to remember that.
BALDWIN: OK, let's talk about the now fired FBI director James Comey and how the heck he's feeling and how he felt in his brief time during the Trump administration. We now have a window into his perspective because of his friend, Benjamin Wittes, who talked to PBS Newshour and specifically talked about how James Comey was feeling uncomfortable by maybe some of the president trying to have more of a comfy, cozy relationship that Comey wanted nothing to do with.
So here's a piece of this interview, where he talks about the now infamous hug moment in the Oval Office.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BENJAMIN WITTES, COMEY FRIEND: 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 --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Disgusted?
WITTES: -- disgusted by the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Huggate.
BALDWIN: (INAUDIBLE) Huggate and then Chris Cuomo asked for it.
BALDWIN: Chris Cuomo asked for it. We have the (INAUDIBLE) of the --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Slo-mo.
BALDWIN: -- reach --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow.
CUOMO: This is a credibility contest and I think it's very interesting that the focus was on the hug and not the smooch, Cillizza.
CILLIZZA: And he does -- by the way, (INAUDIBLE), look --
CUOMO: We're Italians, we're OK with that.
CILLIZZA: I've spent -- that's very true.
BALDWIN: -- Cillizza. I've seen all your GIFs on Twitter, you have way too much time on your hands.
CILLIZZA: -- I do and I've spent a lot of time analyzing this, to be honest. He also does like a weird pursed-lips thing at the beginning before he calls him over. OK. But that's beside the point.
Look, two things here. One, Benjamin Wittes is not talking before he talks to James Comey, right?
I don't think Ben Wittes is freelancing. I'm sure -- I'm sure he checked with him.
Number two, as you pointed out, Brooke, there is a long history of weird handshakes and Donald Trump: Prime Minister Abe of Japan, if you look at that in the Oval Office, strange; Neil Gorsuch, when he announces Neil Gorsuch.
So yes, Donald Trump, I think, views all of these things -- always remember, what is Donald Trump?
What has he spent his years in the run for the presidency being?
A reality television star, right?
So is constantly staging scenes as either power moves -- well, not even -- not going to give you another option -- as power moves.
So I think the calling over of Comey, the sort of blessing of him, the, like, hey, this guy, I can say that I'm famous and he's more famous, all is -- that sort of stuff is very Trumpian, it's very reality TV star, it's very sort of made for television moments and he does it a lot.
And for a guy like Comey, look, when you're 6'8", you don't blend into the curtains anywhere. He should have probably not gone into it (ph).
CUOMO: Or he should have just not gone if he was that concerned about it.
And, A.B. --
CUOMO: -- that is a legitimate area of examination here because we're hearing from Comey's side and it is -- it strains credibility to believe that he doesn't have any influence out of this message about the memo that came out. And this guy Wittes doing this interview and writing this piece.
So if he wants to get out there, he should probably come out and testify, we'll see what happens with that.
But the big question for him maybe is, if it mattered so much, if you worried so much, if you were disgusted, why didn't you tell anybody?
Wittes, his friend, gave an answer to that question. Let's play it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WITTES: I'm certain that he wouldn't quit if he thought that the FBI needed somebody there to protect it institutionally.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: Nothing short he could have done other than quitting, what's your read on this component?
STODDARD: Right. I think what's interesting about this is that there are things being leaked to tell the Comey side of the story. Benjamin Wittes, Chris is right, obviously didn't come out and fly solo on this and start talking about Comey's inner thoughts.
Comey wants to tell his story. As we talked about before, if Robert Mueller said he's a witness and I don't want him to testify in Congress in an open setting and consuming the news with his story, then Comey will not get his chance and we'll probably be seeing more of these leaks.
The interesting thing about your question, Chris, about why Comey decided not to report this, why he didn't go ahead and alert his superiors, he felt that there was, according to Wittes, a need in the FBI for him to stay and protect the entirety of this investigation.
That might be influence coming down from Sessions, the head of the FBI or -- excuse me, the attorney general. At that point, even if he wasn't confirmed, he had been nominated. He knew he was a close associate and friend and campaign supporter of Trump's.
But it is really strange to me still why he didn't go to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and bring it to their attention.
That's the one question I think we would all like to hear answered and we don't know if we'll get the chance because we don't know if Mueller is going to stop him from testifying.
BALDWIN: You know, Wittes kept saying, though, he felt like he had it managed, that he was this protector between the reach of the White House and the FBI and he felt that incumbent upon him and that he felt like he had the situation under control.
Again, this is all according to Wittes in this absolutely fascinating interview. We're talking to the guy who interviewed him coming up in the next hour.
CUOMO: Right. And a quick button that Jeffrey Toobin had made that informs that point, who would he have gone to?
CUOMO: All right, appreciate it, thank you very much to all of you.
CUOMO: I don't even have to talk. I like that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't do as well as you --
BALDWIN: OK. Coming up on NEW DAY, we have Congressman John Duffy and Elijah Cummings, also Senators Angus King and Richard Blumenthal and former attorney Alberto Gonzales, all joining us live.
CUOMO: All right, so Republicans, are they on the same page as President Trump?
Well, it depends.
You're talking about the agenda, you're talking about the special investigation?
The president says it divided the country but it seems lawmakers believe the opposite, that it's the first time they've agreed on something in this administration. We have Republicans and Democrats in Congress -- ahead.
CUOMO: All right. If there is one objective truth, it's that we have not seen the Left and Right agree on much. However, this appointment of a special counsel started to bring both sides together and especially putting the ex-FBI chief, Robert Mueller, in control of overseeing the Russia investigation.
But the president has decided to go in the opposite direction, to call it a hoax, a witch hunt, to basically denigrate those who believe this was a good idea and, in effect, the man who will now be heading the investigation as well.
Let's discuss with Republican congressman Sean Duffy from Wisconsin.
Congressman, always a pleasure to have you on the show.
REP. SEAN DUFFY (R), WIS.: Hey, it's good to be with you, Chris. Thanks for having me on.
CUOMO: Special counsel, good move?
DUFFY: Listen, I didn't approve of it. I think with a House, a Senate and an FBI investigation, it wasn't needed. But now that it's there, I'll support it. I mean I think this -- it doesn't make any sense to push back on a special investigation.
CUOMO: Bob Mueller, right choice?
DUFFY: Yes, listen, I don't know him well. I came in after his tenure. But from all I've heard, he's a stand-up, good guy and will do a good investigation. But I don't know much about him, again, as a newer congressman.
CUOMO: Why support something that you think is a bad idea?
DUFFY: Well, listen, I can't roll it back.
CUOMO: Right. That doesn't mean you have to support it. You can say, I think this was a bad idea. It's still a bad idea.
DUFFY: I'm going to -- I'll shrug my shoulders, Chris, but listen.
Do I think the FBI can do this investigation?
Based on all your reporting, no matter what was happening on the outside, it seems pretty clear that the FBI is pretty intent on getting the facts and getting those facts out.
And so what, now, is three investigations aren't enough, we want four investigations, and do we want five?
How many investigations are appropriate to look at this information about Russia?
I don't think it's necessary.
CUOMO: I think that the motivation for Rosenstein was to have one that people can trust, that he can trust, that seems to have integrity and seems to have some arm's length after what seemed to be pretty clear indications for the President of the United States he wanted to influence this investigation.
DUFFY: But I want to take a pause on that. On the influence of the investigation as CNN, a news network, what information do we have about this memo, about this influence?
All you have is a phone call to the FBI -- I'm sorry -- to "The New York Times," an undisclosed person, an undisclosed memo. We should be able -- as two attorneys, we should be able to evaluate the credibility of the person who makes a statement to "The New York Times."
We should be able to look at the full context of the memo. We have none of that information, Chris, and to jump to conclusions about influencing, that's a far reach. You and I wouldn't convict anyone on that evidence.
DUFFY: We wouldn't even charge anyone with that evidence. We would go, hold on a second, I have to see this stuff. I want to talk to the person who read it. We haven't seen any of that.
That's what concerns me on that front. I have all the faith in the FBI. I do think there is great people in that organization. They look for the truth, they don't look for politics. I think they could have done the investigation.
But again, there is no win in trying to resist what is inevitable with Mr. Mueller. If it's going to happen, I think he'll do a good job.
CUOMO: You make a lot of points here that deserve consideration, Congressman. First of all, I hope that you have the same perspective on so many members of your party who say that there is no evidence of collusion because we both know at attorneys it is naive at best to suggest we could know. We don't know what the FBI has or what they don't have now in the hands of Bob Mueller.
And to suggest that this relatively early in an investigation for the FBI, they often look at things for years, that they should know or they should have told people what they have and the proof should out there, that's equally deceptive, don't you think?
DUFFY: So, again, I'm not buying into the fact that there was any collusion between President Trump and Russia.
CUOMO: But you can't know whether there was or not. That's my point.
How do you know there was none, how do you know that there was?
You can't know. You don't know the proof.
DUFFY: But, Chris, I agree with you but you don't know that, either. And we're running -- I mean, the cable news networks are a flame of running stories about collusion between Trump and Russia. And you don't know and I don't know that.
CUOMO: Right, but it's equally wrong. If you don't like that some media -- and I know you're not talking about us because you know I'd never front-run it. But if you don't like that people are artificially saying there was collusion, to say artificially there was no collusion is equally wrong, right?
You're not being better in that situation; you're being a manifestation of the same problem.
DUFFY: What I think is happening is, there is a conversation about collusion. Ad my point is there's no evidence of collusion.
CUOMO: We don't know what the evidence is.
Why do you think you would know if there's evidence of collusion?
Why would you know?
DUFFY: Here's why I think I would know. Washington is leaking like a sieve. There is no secrets. President Trump can't have a conversation with the president of Mexico without it being leaked. There can't be a conversation with a foreign diplomat without that conversation being leaked. There are no secrets.
And whether it's the conversations that Flynn had, that information was unmasked and leaked. Leaks everywhere. If there was evidence, if there was information about Donald Trump colluding with the Russians, I have every confidence that that would have been leaked to the press and you would have been able to run with that story because everything has been leaked.
There are no secrets. There are no secrets, there are no private conversations. And that's why I have some pause --
CUOMO: You can have pause. You can have pause. There is every reason for pause because it's an unknown. I'm just saying it's such a gross assumption that you're making, because it didn't leak, we should assume it's not true.
However, when information does leak, you question it because it was leaked.
I mean, don't you see the politics at play in that? DUFFY: No, take a step back. You have no evidence of -- that there was collusion or there wasn't collusion. There is no evidence to either of our sides.
CUOMO: No, no, no, that's not accurate. We don't know. What I'm saying is I don't know what they have. You're saying, yes, but it would have leaked and it hasn't leaked, so there must be none.
That's what you're saying.
DUFFY: OK. So there is no public information right now about collusion between Donald Trump and the Russians, right?
CUOMO: I say that's a fair statement. Some people argue otherwise but I take your point.
DUFFY: But I would what is the evidence?
I haven't seen any evidence to that --
CUOMO: Right and I'm saying that absence -- you know the old notion from Barry Scheck when it came to DNA evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?
Remember we always tried to figure out what that means?
And the point of it ultimately winds up being, just because we don't know doesn't mean you should assume the negative, that it must not exist because I don't know about it yet. The investigation is ongoing.
Isn't respected the process, not speculating on what you know and what you don't?
You guys make that point all the time.
DUFFY: So, Chris, but if you're a viewer of -- or a consumer of news, I don't think that point has been made. I think you're making a reasonable point, that I don't know.
But I think if I listen to different panels on different networks, I think the drumbeat is, there must be something there, there's got to be evidence, there is collusion.
Why are people talking about impeachment?
I've heard the impeachment story for days, Chris. It's because there would have been evidence then of collusion between President Trump and the Russians. And you just pointed out and agree with me that we haven't seen any evidence thus far publicly to that fact.
So why is there a drumbeat of impeachment?
CUOMO: Politics. And what I'm saying is it's equally egregious to assume -- I'm saying it's equally egregious. But you're feeding the opposite narrative which I'm saying is symptomatic of the same problem of politics. That's all. I think they're equal; I think they're equally egregious.
Saying that there should be impeachment when you don't know the proof is the same as saying, well, there will never anything wrong because there is no proof because they're both based in ignorance.
DUFFY: I don't want to ping-pong with you but I want to be very clear on one point.
DUFFY: If there is evidence, I would love to come back and talk about that evidence. I think the news media and Democrats are jumping the gun and they're talking about impeachment and they're talking about --