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President Trump Speaks on Special Counsel; Friend of James Comey Gives Interview about Comey's Feelings towards Trump Administration. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Whether it was read, whether it was believed, those are the questions that would have to come from the VP or his staff. But the idea that they never heard about Flynn is somewhat refuted by the existence of your letter of November 18th.

Another question, is it true the White House is still saying they're not going to turn over documents that are relevant to the Flynn assignment process as NSA to your committee?

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, (D) MARYLAND: We haven't gotten the documents yet. We haven't gotten the documents we want. And it is very important right now, Chris, particularly after these allegations that Flynn informed the White House he was under investigation before he got his assignment. And by the way, going back to the receipt you have.


CUMMINGS: You've got to remember, there were months between November and when he got appointed.

CUOMO: Right.

CUMMINGS: You understand that?


CUMMINGS: And somebody, it seemed like they would have said, wait a minute, this needs to be a part of the vetting process. My belief is they really wanted this guy to be a part of their operation, period. But we're a better country than that. That's why we have a vetting process. And so we are going to have to look at vetting no matter who is the president.

CUOMO: Well, you've got a lot of things to look at, Congressman Cummings. Thank you for coming on today to discuss what matters to the American people. You are always welcome here, sir, as you know.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right, there is a lot of news. What do you say, let's get after it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Believe me, there is no collusion. The entire thing has been a witch hunt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is now considered a criminal investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The deputy attorney general learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is mounting evidence of obstruction.

TRUMP: Director Comey was very unpopular with most people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 that's going to be outstanding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're a very divided country. Joe Lieberman is probably the only person who could get 100 votes in the Senate.

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


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

CUOMO: Good morning, welcome to your NEW DAY. Alisyn is official Brooke Baldwin joins me, and thank you for doing so.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: You got it. Good morning.

A defiant President Trump categorically denies he asked 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. He says no one cares about these issues.

BALDWIN: Meantime, a friend of the fired FBI director is breaking his silence. He says James Comey was uncomfortable with interacting with the president and disgusted by that now infamous hug in the Oval Office there. So we have it all covered for you this morning. Joe John, I'm starting with you there at the White House. Good morning.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Brooke. It has been a week of enormously serious developments for an already embattled White House. And the president for the first time actually answering questions about his interactions with the fired FBI director and also talking just a little bit about how he feels 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: President Trump slamming the appointment of special country as bad for the country.

TRUMP: I respect the move but the entire thing has been a witch hunt, and there has been no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. But I can only speak for myself and the Russians -- zero.

JOHNS: 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 --

TRUMP: No, no. Next question?

JOHNS: But after days of conflicting accounts about why he fired Comey --

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

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

TRUMP: Director Comey was very unpopular with most people, and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general.

JOHNS: But Rod Rosenstein gave senators a very different story when he briefed them Thursday.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, (D) MISSOURI: He did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo.

JOHNS: This as a friend of Comey is breaking his silence in a new interview with PBS News Hour about his conversations with the now fired FBI director.

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

[08:05:05] JOHNS: 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 shows of warmth.

JOHNS: 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 calculated.

TRUMP: He's become more famous than me.

WITTES: What he told me was that it bad enough that he was there, it was bad enough that there was going to be a handshake. But 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. He extends his hands 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 the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.

JOHNS: Wittes says Comey tried to establish boundaries with the president.

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

JOHNS: Wittes says President Trump called Comey once while 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 he doesn't think that 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: 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 advisors are looking for an outside team to represent the president through the special counsel's investigation.


JOHNS: President Trump likely very close to naming a new FBI director, and sources tell CNN the front runner is former United States senator Joe Lieberman, though there is still potential for Democratic opposition to that. The president sets out this afternoon for his long trip abroad. First stop, Saudi Arabia, away from the White House, not away from the controversy. Chris and Brooke?

CUOMO: All right, Joe Johns, when it comes down to Comey versus the president, it is a credibility contest. How do we know whom, to believe? We need proof.

Joining us now is correspondent for PBS News Hour William Brangham. He did the interview with James Comey's friend Benjamin Wittes. Wittes also wrote an article about his feelings about this situation. Thank you for joining us, friend. What was your takeaway from Mr. Wittes, starting with, do you believe that James Comey is well aware that Wittes is out there and well aware that somebody leaked what these memos were about?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM, CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWS HOUR: Wittes was very clear with me to say I'm not speaking as Jim Comey's representative. I'm not speaking as his surrogate. I'm simply trying to recount the experiences that he, Wittes, had interacting with James Comey during this very tumultuous period of time. The whole time that this investigation is swirling, that the accusations from the Trump administration are coming down on the intelligence, and Wittes is talking with Comey on the phone. Wittes is having lunch with him. And so Wittes simply said everyone has been leaking information and going off the record and giving this information on background. I, as a friend, want to come out publically and say here is what he told me when all this was all going down.

BALDWIN: So Wittes gives you a couple of different examples, whether it's on the phone when he thinks there's some urgent situation in the White House, and he hops on the phone with the president and the president just wants to chitchat, which he couldn't believe. The other example, we'll roll this out, is when Wittes tells you about this moment in the Oval Office, two days after the inauguration, when Jim Comey decides to go. It's for law enforcement, honoring them, and he's trying to stay away from the president. Here's the clip.


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

[08:10:02] 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 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 it.

BRANGHAM: Disgusted?

WITTES: Disgusted by the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to criticize him in public.


BALDWIN: So I hear the word "disgusted." And when we discussed this this morning, if he was worried and wanted to keep arm's length between Comey and the president, why go to this ceremony in the first place?

BRANGHAM: Right. And we should preface this by saying Wittes pointed this out very clearly that this is not some animus that Jim Comey has for Trump, that he feels this is just a bedrock principle, that the FBI director and the president, no matter their party, should not be chummy, should not be embracing, be seen shaking hands, be having chitchat phone calls. Comey apparently didn't even want to play basketball with President Obama. Comey is apparently a basketball player and we know President Obama was. He thought that was inappropriate too. So this is not a partisan issue. But Comey's point this is just not what an FBI director and a president do, especially in the middle of this big investigation.

CUOMO: It really does seem, though, that there is a need for Comey to testify, because it strains credibility that a friend goes out and talks about this situation without approval, that this information comes out about the memos without knowledge and approval from Comey. And the question is, will he testify now that you have Mueller running and continuing the investigation, and he may ask the congressional efforts to stand down. What is your sense of what that means for Comey testifying?

BRANGHAM: Well, obviously I think Comey wants to come out and put this record forward. Under what terms he does that, my sense, and again this comes from no particular extra intel, is that Comey wants the record out there. That's partly why we believe that he put these memos down, which was to document in real time what he felt according to Wittis was real aggressive interference on behalf of the Trump administration towards him and trying to block the investigation. But it's totally up to the FBI director when and how he testifies.

BALDWIN: OK, so William, stay with us. Let me bring in two other voices, our CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza and CNN political analyst April Ryan. And so I still have more questions for you, William. Just as far as we played the clip where he talks about - Wittes it talks about "The color of the wallpaper was that these were not honorable people." Just one more quickly to you. Did he feel that the president wasn't honorable?

BRANGHAM: He did. And I specifically said that. I said you don't mean just the administration? And he said no, Comey felt that all the way up to the president that there was a not honorable way of approaching their interactions.

And one of the questions that I asked him was, if Comey felt this was so bad, if this was so egregious, if he was asking you for a loyalty oath, why not quit? Why not blow the whistle? Why not go public with all of this?

And Wittes said his sense that Comey felt he could manage it, that it didn't rise to the level of needing to quit. Wittes used a phrase saying I think Comey could throw enough brush back pitches at the president to keep him at bay and manage the relationship. Of course, we know several weeks after that last meeting between Comey and Wittes, Comey was fired.

CUOMO: But look, there are open questions about how Comey really felt and what he was willing to do with it. Cillizza, people are taking it out of context. But to Brangham's point, there was a window of opportunity when he testified. He was asked in context about whether the DOJ had done anything to impede him. And he said, no, there's been nothing like that. McCabe said the same thing. But they were talking about the DOJ, not the White House. But it was an opportunity if he wanted to throw a brush back pitch, to use that expression, he could have done it. He didn't. CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: He could have. I

guess I would dispute the brush back pitch, though, if he had done that, Chris. I think that would be throwing at Donald Trump's head, because, look, I don't think you can say, well, no, I haven't gotten any pushback from the attorney general or the deputy attorney general, but the president did say to me. That would not be something that you could subtly insert into a conversation or into testimony.

But look, I do think that's the fundamental question here is if on February 14th Donald Trump, as according to the memo reported from James Comey, asked the FBI director to either curb or end an investigation into his fired national security advisor, that's an odd thing to say like, oh, I could just keep that under control. That would seem to be obstruction of justice or at least an attempted obstruction of justice, and you would think Comey would seek someone out there. So, that to me, if you are Donald Trump and his legal team, you are looking for ways to either poke holes in Comey's story or simply raise questions about it, that feels like the strongest argument they can make.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: So, April, what did you think, though, taking it back two steps to the moment in the Oval Office. Big law enforcement, you know, ceremony. Comey feels the need, obviously, to show up and it is the long walk across the Oval where he extends his long arm of this 6'8" figure to shake the president's hand and, you know, Chris Cillizza was saying earlier today, well, listen, this is the president who was a former reality TV star, astutely aware of the cameras on him and wanting to make this scene or this moment.

How do you read this?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it was in the Blue Room, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Blue Room, forgive me.

RYAN: Yes, the Blue Room, yeah. But either way, it was very uncomfortable looking. It looked like the president did not understand the separation of powers, and they weren't supposed to look chummy.

What I'm thinking is that what's happening is that many of these officials, these high ranking officials in intelligence and the FBI, what-have-you at that time, was giving the president the benefit of the doubt because he still has a learning curve. And I say that and supporting that when I'm saying, but the fact that life intelligence, just recently was President Trump talking about the issues with the Russian leaders in the Oval Office, the fact they did not give him source and methods because there is a thought that this president is not able to handle it.

And at this piece with Comey, I'm wondering if the president just did not understand yet the significance between the separation of two organizations not to look chummy. So, I'm wondering if that's what Comey was trying to do by giving him the benefit of the doubt and not pushing forward saying, yes, he tried to obstruct justice. So, there is a lot into this whole situation.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Let's not make too much of a moment either. It is interesting to diagnose. From a credibility standpoint, Wittes makes a good point to you, William, about what this was and wasn't. That's why we keep showing it.

But at the end of the day, the president may have been just trying to make a nice gesture and it moves on to another thing.

Here is something that's been underneath a headlines and maybe wrongly so. The vice president says I didn't know about this Flynn stuff until it came out in the news reports. Elijah Cummings has return receipt requested basically in a form of an email, of a letter he sent on November 18th clearly outlining concerns about Flynn's relationships to Turkey. That's November 18th.

Will Brangham, what does that do in terms of the vice president's suggestion he didn't know anything about this? Cummings says either he's lying or he was sloppy.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM, CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR: Well, I think that's the right answer to this. I mean, until we hear testimony from the vice president we don't really know.

Memos and letters get sent all the time. I get sent things all the time. It is not a guarantee I read it. Certainly, you would assume if the man is running the transition, if he is as organized as we believe.

CUOMO: But he knows they got the letter. Cummings says he knows the office got the letter and the VP said he didn't know anything about it.

BRANGHAM: Certainly. And, again, I couldn't speak to what the vice president did or didn't know, but that certainly is the question. It seems like the evidence was there before him. Whether he looked at it, whether he took it on board, we just don't know yet.

BALDWIN: April, you say sloppy?

RYAN: You know, I'm going to say this, I think that interview with Congressman Cummings was strong and powerful. His words were strong. It could be sloppy or he could be lying because not only the congressman say that, and he has receipts that he sent that letter in November, but you also had Flynn running around with the transition officials telling him, yeah, I'm being investigated.

So they knew something was going on and not to check -- I mean, I think the congressman is absolutely right. If they're not lying, it's very, very sloppy.

CILLIZZA: Can I make one argument in favor of sloppy? Which is -- remember, this is of Donald Trump's doing again. But remember that Chris Christie and former Congressman Mike Rogers were replaced in the middle of the transition, early on in the transition by Pence. So, you had a lot of chaos, not only the kind caused by Donald Trump,

but a lot of chaos internally as well. There is a full turnover staff-wise in the middle of this thing. So, that doesn't excuse it --

RYAN: But, Chris, Flynn was running around talking about he was being investigated. So, that raises a lot of questions right there. It -- something is not right.

BALDWIN: All right.

RYAN: There are a lot of questions.

BALDWIN: We're working on getting the questions answered. We know there are multiple investigations into this. We need facts. I want to thank all of you this morning here.

On that piece of it, there is also another conflicting message for President Trump about whether or not he fired James Comey based upon the recommendation from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.

[08:20:03] We have Senator Richard Blumenthal coming up who heard that directly from the deputy A.G. in that closed door meeting. His takeaway next.


CUOMO: Mixed messages from President Trump about why he fired FBI Director James Comey. First, it was based on the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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.

I was going to fire Comey. There is no good time to do it, by the way.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: Because in your letter, you said I accepted their recommendations. You had already made the decision.

TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.


CUOMO: So there is two different versions of it, right? What does Rosenstein say?

Now we know. He talked to senators directly and he told them that Comey was going to be fired before he wrote the memo.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal was there. He joins us now. He's a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the committees investigating the Russia probe. Senator, thank you for being with us.


CUOMO: So you are there face to face with Rosenstein. What does he say?

BLUMENTHAL: He said that he knew that Trump was going to fire Comey when he wrote that memo, which is very significant because it raises all kinds of questions about who helped him write the memo, maybe who edited it, what was the purpose of it, why did he bother writing it if he knew that the president already planned to fire him.

[08:25:13] CUOMO: Good question. Would he say why he wrote it?

BLUMENTHAL: He basically left a lot of questions unanswered. In fact, a lot of missing pieces that need to be filled in by the special prosecutor. And that's why this appointment is so enormously significant.

And one thing he did say, Chris, which was also significant, this special prosecutor will have latitude and the scope of his investigation will include obstruction of justice, which there is mounting evidence is occurring and unfolding right before our eyes in real-time with many of the comments made and some of the other evidence that's coming out, really, day-to-day as a result of the reporting we're seeing from the press.

CUOMO: Don't you think that or do you think that talking about obstruction of justice is one thing to look at it, right? Certainly, Rosenstein's order cites this as a criminal investigation and there is wide latitude within the statute for the special counsel. All true. But obstruction of justice, I mean, do you believe there's real proof of that or there is just questions that should be pursued?

BLUMENTHAL: There is mounting evidence of it.

CUOMO: How so?

BLUMENTHAL: To be careful, we don't want to say there is proof. We don't want to say there are criminal charges because there are none.

CUOMO: Make the case. What's the best evidence of obstruction of justice?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, here is some evidence of it. The pressure of the president to shut down the investigation. If you believe the reporting of the memos that Comey wrote very meticulously and carefully after his conversation, the president very explicitly asked him to shut down the investigation.

CUOMO: But, right now, so easy to shut it down. We got point by point.

The first one, you haven't even seen the memo. You haven't heard from Jim Comey. I'm not saying that the reporting is wrong, but it is just reporting. Way too premature to even call it evidence at this point. Fair point?

BLUMENTHAL: Very fair point, and that's why I say it is evidence. It's not proof.

Second point, the request for pledge for a loyalty. Third --

CUOMO: Again, something we don't know for sure yet.

BLUMENTHAL: Again, there has been very credible reporting of it, and it's been corroborated. Remember, when we talk about these memos, hopefully we will see these memos.

CUOMO: Why haven't you yet?

BLUMENTHAL: Because we're just learning of them and also they may be evidence in a criminal investigation. And we need to be respectful of the special prosecutor now.

As a member of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, I think we have a continuing oversight responsibility. We should have hearings. Rosenstein should come to tell the American people everything he said in that meeting yesterday and there is virtually nothing he told us that he couldn't tell the American people. Nothing classified, nothing that couldn't be made public.

And second I want to see Jim Comey testify before the Judiciary Committee as well. I think he is a man of principle and conviction, with a fidelity to the truth that so far as been lacking in the White House.

CUOMO: Now, one -- two questions. The first one is, let's see what Mueller says because you guys all want to respect his jurisdiction here and he may well say, no, I don't want Rosenstein with a bunch of politicians peppering him with questions that may be self-serving. And I don't want Comey out there either. Let's preserve them for my investigation.

Would you accede to those wishes?

BLUMENTHAL: I certainly respect that request as a member of the Judiciary Committee. I think the Intelligence Committees of the United States Senate and House would have the same respect more as a matter of timing than whether or not the story is told. And I believe very strongly, Chris, that we need an independent commission. Even --

CUOMO: On top of this?

BLUMENTHAL: Even more than the committees, at some point to produce a report with findings and recommendations and here's why. What we saw in the Russian interference in our election is an attack on our democracy, and interference with the bedrock principle of our democratic institutions, our elections.

Everybody has accepted in the intelligence community, as well as bipartisan membership of Congress, everybody who knows about it said it occurred. The questions now are, there was there Trump campaign collusion with it and then an attempt to cover up or obstruct.

CUOMO: Really two of those three questions, you can make a good argument should be left to Mueller. You don't have subpoena power in that regard. You're not going to bring criminal prosecutions. You don't have that authority. Leave that to Mueller.

Deal with the interference and the hacking. Figure out recommendations going forward. We'll see if Mueller draws those lines.

Now, the political question. The FBI needs a head. One of the names that's being floated is a Senate -- former senator, Democrat, Lieberman, your state. Democrats coming out rather quickly and saying, no, no, no, should not be Lieberman.

What do you say?