Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Arriving in Saudi Arabia; Russia Investigation Continues; Sources: Russian Officials were Bragged of Close Relationship with Michael Flynn. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired May 20, 2017 - 02:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): We are keeping an eye on the clock. It's 7:00 am in Saudi Arabia and U.S. President Donald Trump should be landing in Riyadh later this hour. It's the first stop of an eight-day trip.

But even as he is in the air, news continues to break about his embattled White House. We'll tell you all about that in this show.

Thank you for joining us, everyone. I'm Cyril Vanier at the CNN Newsroom in Atlanta.


VANIER: A busy news day even before Mr. Trump arrives in Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president. Sources tell CNN that Russian officials were so confident of their close relationship with Trump adviser Michael Flynn during the U.S. presidential campaign that they bragged about it amongst themselves.

They believed if Mr. Trump won the election they could use Flynn to influence the White House. So that's number one.

Number two, the former FBI director, James Comey, who Mr. Trump fired last week, looks like he's ready to tell his side of the story. He has agreed to testify before Congress in a public hearing. There's no precise date yet for that but it will be some time after May 29th.

We're also learning this: the day after firing the FBI director, Donald Trump told the Russian foreign minister that he had faced "great pressure" because of Russia but that after getting rid of Comey that pressure was, quote, "taken off."

According to "The New York Times" he called Comey "a nut job."

And finally, CNN has learned that lawyers within the Trump White House have started researching impeachment. The White House is also considering hiring an outside legal team.

Following the president on his trip is our White House reporter, Jeremy Diamond, in Riyadh, where it is now 9:00 am (INAUDIBLE). Jeremy, news kept breaking while Mr. Trump was in the plane, Mr. Trump and his staff.

Do you have any idea how the White House, the president or the staff reacted to any of it?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Cyril. So far we have very few responses from this White House. We're anticipating that the president will land here in Riyadh in less than an hour.

But as you said, you know, the president is flying thousands of miles away from Washington, hoping to escape some of these controversies and to really reset the narrative with this foreign trip.

Really what he's finding is that it's really continuing to dog him even as he flies thousands of miles away.

He had also hoped that this appointment of a special counsel to look into this Russia investigation would at least take some of the political heat off his administration amid all of these allegations that he was trying to interfere in this Russian investigation carried out by the FBI.

Clearly that is not the case as we continue to learn more and more, a certain drip, drip, drip of allegations concerning the president but also concerning the former national security advisor, Michael Flynn.

As you said, we're learning this morning that Michael Flynn, you know, tried to use his position to influence President Trump and the Russians believed that, should he become the national security advisor in the White House, that he would actually be able to influence President Trump to carry out pro-Russia policies.

That was at least the concern of former Obama administration officials. That's what we've been told.

While the president, again, was on Air Force One on his way here. The White House is certainly aware of these stories. There's wi-fi on Air Force One. They were probably following all of these developments. They are hoping to land in Saudi Arabia today and reset the narrative.

But again, the challenge is, how can he move past that?

How can he focus on this foreign trip with everything that's going on back in Washington?

VANIER: No doubt. And we're following the news as it was breaking. Mr. Trump is something of a foreign policy rookie. That's often the case with new presidents.

Is there any concern among his staff and advisors given that he's not always the most disciplined president over any potential mistakes or how he might behave with foreign leaders?

DIAMOND: I think some of his advisors will certainly be waiting with bated breath as he goes into some of these one-on-one meetings, waiting to see exactly what he's going to say and if there's something that came from that meeting, that perhaps he went a little bit too far on, as was the case here during his meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister.

But certainly the president has been preparing for this trip every day. He's been receiving briefings from his national security team. It's really going to be a week of powerhouse diplomacy.

Here in Saudi Arabia, of course, he's meeting with the Saudi Arabian king here, as well as other Arab leaders, members of the GCC. On Sunday, he'll be delivering a speech to leaders from --


DIAMOND: -- 50 Muslim countries, where we will have to see whether or not there is a certain reset for the president with Muslims, given his rhetoric from the campaign that really did stoke a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment back in the United States.

After that, he'll be headed to Jerusalem, where we'll see him try and address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in meetings with the Israeli prime minister, the Palestinian Authority president as well.

Following that, he'll be going to the Vatican, where he'll meet with the pope. Even after that, we have still more to come. You have his meeting in Brussels with the NATO allies. And then, following that, the G7 meeting in Sicily, so really a meeting where he's going to meet with world's most powerful leaders.

His diplomatic skills are really going to be put to the test in a way that they haven't so far. Again, he has met with a number of world leaders, many of the world leaders who you will see this week, already back at the White House when they came to visit him.

But this is going to be a test of a different kind. These trips can be grueling. He's going to have to combat fatigue and the delay in the time difference as well while also conducting all of these very important meetings -- Cyril.

VANIER: All right, Jeremy Diamond, coverage for us in Riyadh, we'll be speaking to you again soon. Thank you very much.

Now let's dig more into the news that sources are telling CNN that Russia officials bragged about how close they were to Michael Flynn. Here's CNN's Pamela Brown.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Multiple sources tell CNN that Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated such a strong relationship with former Trump adviser Michael Flynn that they believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team.

Now those conversations deeply concern U.S. intelligence officials and it even impacted what intelligence the incoming administration was privy to because some Obama intelligence officials acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn.

A former official tells our Gloria Borger that the way the Russians were talking about Flynn was regarded as a, quote, "five-alarm fire from early on," according to our sources.

And the Russians' conversations indicated they regarded Flynn as their ally. Officials cautioned, though, that the Russians might have exaggerated their sway with Trump's team during those conversations.

Now Flynn's relationship with Russia developed throughout 2016, months before he was caught on an intercepted call in December, speaking with Russia's Sergey Kislyak. That ultimately led to Flynn's firing as Trump's first national security adviser.

CNN has reached out to both Flynn's lawyer, who declined to comment, and the White House, who said, "We are confident that when these inquiries are complete, there will be no evidence to support any collusion between the campaign and Russia."

Top former Obama intelligence officials and members of Congress briefed on the matter have all said the same thing -- Pamela Brown, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: This is definitely looking like the most tumultuous week yet for Mr. Trump's presidency. It's all happening as the president begins an ambitious first foreign trip. As CNN's Sara Murray reports, the White House is hoping the trip will be the opportunity for a reset.


SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Donald Trump leaving Washington behind as he aims to use a high-stakes foreign trip to escape the cloud of controversy marring his presidency. But just as he took off, a fresh controversy broke out.

"The New York Times" reporting that Trump told Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting that firing FBI director James Comey relieved some of the pressure on him in the Russia investigation, Trump reportedly describing Comey, who was overseeing the Russia investigation at the time, as "a real nut job" and saying, "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."

The White House did not deny the account.

In a statement, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, "By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia.

"The investigation would have always continued and, obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it."

Trump's allies are hopeful the president will use his ambitious five- nation foreign trip as an opportunity to move beyond complaints about the Russia investigation.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The entire thing has been a witch-hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign.


MURRAY: And refocus on his presidential agenda.


TRUMP: We want to get back and keep on the track that we're on because the track that we're on is record-setting. And that's what we want to do is we want to break very positive records.


MURRAY: It's a reset Trump's colleagues are openly wishing for as well.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: He clearly did have a bad two weeks. Clearly it's my hope that he does right the ship, that he improves so that we can just get going.


MURRAY: But in Washington, the discussion is still dominated by the chaos of the past few weeks, largely caused by the president's own actions. As questions continue swirling about the president's snap decision to fire Comey and where the Russia investigation, now helmed --


MURRAY: -- by a special counsel, will lead.

And the president will have a number of pressing issues to deal with as soon as he returns from his foreign trip. Among them, whether to hire an outside legal counsel now that a special counsel has taken over this Russia investigation.

And of course, who he will pick to be his next FBI director after firing James Comey -- Sara Murray, CNN, the White House.


VANIER: All right. Seeing as Russia is at the center of all these stories, let's find out how Moscow is reacting to all of this. Let's go to CNN's Ivan Watson, in the Russian capital.

Ivan, are there any Russian reactions? IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No fresh ones to some of these latest reports that we have. And I think it's important to note that what has been dominating the newspapers in the U.S., the news broadcasts, is almost all reporting coming out of Washington, coming out of leaks and monitoring and eavesdropping of communications allegedly between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

It's not really coming here out of Russia. Russia's consistent position, the Kremlin's consistent position, has been to deny any charges of any kind of meddling in the previous U.S. election and basically to dismiss this either, by mocking what's going on in the U.S. or to suggest that it's some kind of anti-Russian campaign that seeks to hurt the possibility of developing better relations between the Trump administration and the Kremlin -- Cyril.

VANIER: The new United States president is facing a nonstop stream of damaging revelations. Russia is always at the center of it.

Is Moscow happy to see its rival weakened like this?

WATSON: It's difficult to say. What is clear is that there was a great deal of hope when Donald Trump was elected to president. There was surprise here as well in Moscow.

The first weeks of the Trump administration, we saw a great deal of fawning coverage of Trump in the Russian press, which is heavily, heavily influenced, of course, by the Kremlin.

And those days have passed. I've just done a search through a bunch of newspapers in the last couple of days. You don't even see really a photo of Trump in those papers; whereas, again, he was on the front page.

There are certainly big differences still between Moscow and Washington on a number of issues, most recently a U.S. airstrike in Syria against Russian-backed Syrian forces, which the Russian government has said was potentially illegal and they've also condemned.

What's notable, though, is while Trump's Defense secretary and State Department secretary are often quite critical of Russia and suggest a very adversarial relationship, accuse Russia of meddling in recent elections in France, for example, and playing an unconstructive role in places like Ukraine and Syria, Trump himself has not directly criticized Russia, to the best of our knowledge, over the past year.

And the Kremlin has been careful never to actually criticize Trump himself. They'll point out differences; any opportunities that Russian officials have to criticize the former Obama administration, they will do.

But there isn't a kind of direct war of words between the Kremlin and Trump but suggests there's still some hope of mending bridges with the U.S. president himself, even though it would probably be so politically difficult for Donald Trump himself at this time, amid all of this scandal and swirling controversy -- Cyril. VANIER: All right, Ivan Watson, reporting live from Moscow, thank you very much.

We're going to take a short break. When we come back, sources tell CNN White House lawyers are trying to find out everything they can about the impeachment process. What the Trump administration is saying about that -- when we come back.





VANIER: The Trump administration has faced a barrage of damaging stories for weeks. Now some Democrats are openly talking about impeaching the president. Two sources tell CNN that White House lawyers have made a move to defend Mr. Trump. CNN's Evan Perez reports.


EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment procedures. Now this is simply an effort to prepare for what officials still believe is a distant and unlikely possibility that the president could have to fend off attempts to remove him from office.

Two people briefed on the discussions tell CNN the research efforts are informal and being done out of an abundance of caution. White House officials believe that the president still have the firm backing of Republican allies in Congress. And that impeachment is just not in the cards, according to the people briefed on this legal discussion.

Now, we should know that even Democrats have tried to calm this impeachment talk this week out of concern that it is premature. But lawyers in the White House council officers have consulted experts in impeachment and began collecting information on how such precede this could work.

Now a White House official tells CNN that it's not true that White House lawyers are looking into impeachment. But all of this is happening and made a broader internal effort to bolster the president's legal defense and, in particular, hiring a personal lawyer for the president -- Evan Perez, CNN, Washington.



VANIER: And CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer joins us now, he's a political historian at Princeton university. He joins us from New York.

Julian, CNN has learned the White House lawyers are doing research on impeachments. That's a striking headline.

But shouldn't we be really surprised, given the last few weeks that the word "impeachment" is flying around, that the lawyers are actually looking into this?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, we shouldn't be surprised in any organized White House facing these kinds of circumstances, especially as the news changes so rapidly toward these kinds of conversations. You'd expect the White House counsel to be looking into this.

But nonetheless, if you see this on the front pages or on the television screens, it's still shocking, given how rapidly these events have been moving and how quickly this term "impeachment" has entered into the public lexicon.

VANIER: But just to be clear, it would be a lawyer's job in a situation like this to actually look into it and brief whoever needs to be briefed at the White House, right?

ZELIZER: And we shouldn't read anything into it. This is actually what you would expect the counsel to do. It could be not necessarily pro forma. But this is what lawyers would be looking into, just understanding what a process could be. It doesn't mean that process will happen, though.

VANIER: So tell me about James Comey. The fired FBI director, he is going to testify publicly, we learned a short while ago. It sounds like he is eager to tell his side of the story and to tell it himself.

ZELIZER: Well, it's now become clear, from everything we've learned, that he was very uncomfortable with how the president treated him and the president's attitude toward the agency and toward the investigation.

And I think he wants to clear his name. I think he wants to separate himself from this White House that was -- he was a part of.

And remember, this is the FBI director who said he was mildly nauseated at the idea that his announcement on Hillary Clinton might have swayed the election. We don't know how much he is going to say, though, remember.

VANIER: Right.

ZELIZER: Now there is a special counselor who is looking into this and might be hesitant to have Comey say too much in public while this other investigation is taking place.

VANIER: I was going to say, my guess is he can't reveal, really, the detailed content of the investigation or even the general content of the investigation.

So given that and given that we found out a lot already --

[02:20:00] VANIER: -- about how he felt with respect to Donald Trump, what is the worst that could come out of this hearing for the White House?

ZELIZER: Well, the worst that could come out is he will speak more than we think. And he'll actually express some of the sentiment that we've now heard about through his memos and through this story about how reluctant he was to take this embrace from the president early in the administration.

But my guess it is might be less dramatic than we think. I think he might reserve most of his most impactful material for the special investigation that's now taking place through the administration.

VANIER: Donald Trump told the Russian foreign minister last week that there was a lot of pressure on him because of Russia and, now that he's fired Comey, the pressure is off. Those were his words to Sergey Lavrov.

Doesn't that sound more and more like obstruction of justice?

ZELIZER: Sure looks like it. And it sure sounds like it.

If you just look at the sequence of events from the memos we have now read from former director Comey to his firing to this conversation with the Russians, it's hard to reach a different conclusion. That doesn't mean this is the right conclusion. We need to learn more. And we need to know what he meant and what his tone was.

But it's certainly hard not to think that. And that's why an investigation is now essential. There is no more question that we need a very serious investigation into whether the president tried to stop this investigation into his administration and its relations with Russia during the campaign.

VANIER: All right, Julian Zelizer, thank you very much for coming on the show.

ZELIZER: Thank you.


VANIER: And new details are coming out about the strained relationship between Donald Trump and James Comey. We're now learning that it turned sour quickly, in fact, soon after the inauguration. CNN's Brian Todd reports.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The now ousted FBI director and the man who fired him in an awkward television moment that tonight has new meaning.

It started, a friend of James Comey's says, when the FBI director arrived in the Blue Room of the White House on January 22nd. Comey was hoping President Trump wouldn't notice him and even stood as far from the president as possible. Comey's friend says the 6'8" director wearing a blue suit was trying

to blend in with the blue curtains. But the president singled him out.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, and there's James. He's become more famous than me.

TODD (voice-over): Comey's friend says he was annoyed. Comey didn't want to seem friendly with the president. So he tried to avoid getting too close.

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 and the other guy is hugging.

TODD (voice-over): Benjamin Wittes told PBS his friend, Comey, did not want to be at the White House event two days after the inauguration with the president whose campaign he was investigating.

But he felt he couldn't refuse attending a reception for law enforcement. Wittes says that moment was one of a few incidents where Comey felt President Trump inappropriately tried to get chummy with him.

One time, he says, the president even telephoned Comey as the director was boarding a helicopter, not for an emergency, just to make small talk. Wittes says Comey eventually felt he had to coach the White House to not have the president contact him directly.

WITTES: The color of the wallpaper was that these were not honorable people and that protecting the FBI from them was his day job.

TODD (voice-over): Former FBI and justice officials say it's protocol for the FBI director to not appear to be personally close to the president.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: If you have an investigation, if you have allegations made against the president or against members of his administration or people they're considering for the administration, you don't want the appearance of lack of objectivity, let's say, or bias on the part of the FBI.

TODD (voice-over): Former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes says it's possible President Trump simply didn't know better than to reach out the Comey directly. But others believe the contacts were calculated.

NICK ABERMAN (PH), FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: What Trump was doing right from the beginning was trying to get close to Comey, trying to feel him out, trying to get him on board.

And when that didn't happen, I think Trump realized that there was no way that this guy was going to be on board and that his only choice in trying to scuttle this investigation was to get rid of the director of the FBI.

TODD: Benjamin Wittes says Comey was, quote, "disgusted" with the scene where Trump shook Comey's hand in front of the cameras at the White House.

We pressed the White House repeatedly for response to that for response to Comey's reported account that Trump and his aides are, quote, "not honorable people," and for response to the overall criticism that President Trump behaved inappropriately with James Comey. We got no response from the White House -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: U.S. President Donald Trump is about --


VANIER: -- to meet some of the most influential Muslim leaders in the world. Yet while he was campaigning, Trump was pretty vocal about what he thought of Muslims. He even said once, quote, "Islam hates us." Our Brianna Keilar takes a look back.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As a candidate, Donald Trump drew wide criticism when he falsely claimed Muslims had cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11.


TRUMP: And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down, thousands of people were cheering.

KEILAR (voice-over): Just weeks later in December 2015, Trump first announced his proposal to ban Muslims. It came in the wake of the ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California, by a U.S.-born Pakistani American and his wife.

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.

KEILAR (voice-over): As Trump surged in the primaries, he said the religion as a whole was anti-American.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Do you think Islam is at war with the west?

TRUMP: I think Islam hates us. There's something -- there's something there; there's a tremendous hatred there.

KEILAR (voice-over): A message heard loud and clear in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Trump has now dared to give a speech intended, his top aides say, to unite the Muslim world against terrorism.

TRUMP: And it is there that we will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.

KEILAR (voice-over): He'll have a lot of explaining to do, particularly on his travel ban of several Muslim majority countries, now tied up in the court system.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESPERSON: Well, first of all, it's not a travel ban. He has been very clear that it is extreme vetting.

KEILAR (voice-over): And also clear that it was indeed a ban.

TRUMP: We're going to have a very, very strict ban and we're going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country for many years.

KEILAR: That ban authored with significant input from top White House aide Stephen Miller, who is also the main author of the remarks that Trump will deliver on Islam. As a college student, Miller worked with the Terrorism Awareness Project, a group considered an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- Brianna Keilar, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: And President Trump should be touching down in Saudi Arabia shortly. We will be bringing that to you live here on CNN with our correspondents, Nic Robertson, Jeremy Diamond and our guests with the latest analysis on the president's first foreign trip abroad. We'll see what's on the agenda. Stay with us.




VANIER: Welcome back, everyone. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier.

[02:30:03] Before the 2016 U.S. election, Moscow embraced retired U.S. General Michael Flynn as an ally who could potentially influence Donald Trump. Sources tell CNN that Russian officials even bragged among themselves about their strong ties to the Trump advisor. Flynn was fired after less than a month as national security advisor.

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee says former FBI director James Comey has agreed to testify in open session sometime after May 29th. According to "The New York Times," President Trump called Comey "a nut job" the day after Comey's firing. This while speaking to the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office.

President Trump is expected to arrive shortly in Saudi Arabia. It's the first stop in his first overseas trip since taking office. He's set to meet with Saudi and other Arab leaders and make a speech about Islam. Later stops in Israel, Italy and Belgium are also planned.

And Iranian state media says current President Hassan Rouhani is in the lead as the votes to be counted in the country's presidential election. Mr. Rouhani is seeking a second term in office. His main rival is the conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff.


VANIER: OK. We're keeping an eye on Donald Trump, the President of the United States, as he makes his way to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Our Nic Robertson is on the ground, awaiting the president's arrival.

Nic, you've been speaking to Saudis ahead of this visit.

How do they feel about the new American president?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, Cyril, I wanted to get an idea of what they think because what we're getting from the royal family, from the government here, from the king is a very strong and warm welcome.

The king is expected to be out at the airport today when President Trump lands there. And President Trump will see flags at the side of the road, Saudi flags, United States flags, flying side by side. He'll see himself on big billboards, him next to the king.

Even his own hotel last night was illuminated with the Stars and Stripes, a picture of Donald Trump hugely portrayed on the side of the hotel.

So from the royal family, from the king and the leadership in this country, it is a very strong welcome message.

But, of course, there's a lot of questions in people's minds, President Trump's campaign trail speeches about Muslims.

How is that going to play here?

I went out to ask people what they think.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe he make apologize for all Muslim, what he say about Islam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like Trump. He is good.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because he is going to different everything.

ROBERTSON: He is making everything different?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything different.

ROBERTSON: What do you want from it?

Why is it so important?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we would like to confront Iran. Iran has expansionist policy in the region. It has Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has Houthis in Yemen. And we would like to confront this expansionist policy.

ROBERTSON: So is President Trump a good man?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language)




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He try fix the mistake they make with Obama. He make a big mistake.

ROBERTSON: This is the same President Trump who had a very negative message about Muslims in his campaign trail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. But it's always sad that campaign rhetoric tends to change after the election.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And he come into Saudi Arabia because he like Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia like USA.

ROBERTSON: One of the things he is going to do while he is here is deliver a speech to all the leaders here about Islam and to ask the leaders to preach a peaceful version of Islam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it's the goal to confront radicalism but not primarily Islam, I mean. But radicalism is evil and should be confronted here and elsewhere.


ROBERTSON: Cyril, what we heard there a lot from people is about their fears about Iran. And we've heard that from the leadership here as well, the foreign minister saying that Iran needs to be made to act like a normal country, follow international law.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, when he was here a month ago, said the United States must support Saudi's resistance against Iran's mischief in the region. That's what he called it. That seems to be a big concern.

What we didn't hear from the foreign minister here two days ago and what we didn't hear from people on the street is concerns about ISIS. And that is something that President Trump has big on his agenda here when he meets with the regional leaders here as well as the Saudi king, is to get agreement and unity on how to tackle ISIS.

VANIER: Nic Robertson, reporting live from Riyadh, we'll be hearing a lot more from him in the coming hours as Donald Trump prepares to touch down in the Saudi capital. Thank you, Nic. We'll cross back to you in a moment.

James Davis is the dean of the School of Economics and Political Science at the University of St. Galen. He joins me now live from Berlin for more on this --


VANIER: -- first foreign trip for the president.

So tell me, most U.S. presidents in the recent past have chosen to make their first visit, often to Canada, sometimes to Mexico or Central America, someplace that is relatively close and, diplomatically speaking, relatively safe.

Why did Donald Trump choose Saudi Arabia?

JAMES DAVIS, UNIVERSITY OF ST. GALEN: Donald Trump surprises us in so many ways. And this is just one again, another way to surprise us. I think, of course, there are some very big issues on the agenda here.

And I think the president is trying to make a statement that he's going to devote his attention to these issues and try and move an agenda forward. I think, oddly enough, this is one of those areas where this administration has something of an agenda. And we'll see if the president is able to stay on script and move it forward.

VANIER: What's the agenda then?

Because during his campaign Donald Trump told Americans America first. That was his big message.

So now that he's speaking to the rest of the world, what is he saying?

DAVIS: I think the president has come to realize that the United States plays a leadership role in the world and, in particular, in this part of the world. And as I see it, there are four large issues that the president is going to have to confront.

His administration has made it clear that they want to readjust America's engagement in the region and realign things, such that we're able to balance or perhaps thwart the growing influence of Iran. So the first part is the geopolitical challenge posed by the Islamic State of Iran.

The second issue is terrorism and, in particular, the Islamic State and how that plays into the ongoing civil war in Syria. Syria is a place where we see growing Iranian and growing Russian influence. And the president is going to have to try and figure out a way to stop that, to balance that.

We then have the Arab-Israeli peace issue. The president seems to think that there is some possibility to make a deal here.

And so we'll see whether or not he's able to bring Sunni Arabs and Israelis together in a way that not only balances the growing influence of Iran, not only helps gain some leverage in the Syrian civil war but also makes some movement possible on this long festering issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

VANIER: James, it's been widely noted here in the American media that Donald Trump is a rookie when it comes to foreign policy. But as against that, that could be said of most U.S. presidents shortly after they're elected.

Does it matter?

DAVIS: Well, you know, it does and it doesn't. There's a certain advantage to having fresh eyes look at problems, long festering problems. Take, for example, the conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis.

Fresh eyes can sometimes see something the rest of us that have been concerned with the problem for a long time have been blinded to.

By the same token, however, that may lead to a much more optimistic assessment of what the possibilities are because in these issues in the Middle East, we know that the devil is in the details and many a deal has been struck that then crashes upon the shoals of the details.

I think the president may be correct in assessing that there are some geopolitical shifts that make new alignments and new political bargains possible. But he shouldn't be blinded to the very nitty- gritty details of developments on the ground. That's where these problems always break down.

VANIER: So at this stage, what do you think would constitute a successful trip for Donald Trump and what would be a failure?

DAVIS: Well, I think the mere fact that the king is going to meet the president at the plane already suggests that this is going to be, at least from the atmospherics, from the optics of the trip, a success.

The Saudis had the sense that the previous administration under President Obama was no longer a reliable ally. They felt that the Americans had thrown other longstanding allies under the bus in the context of the Arab spring.

Think, for example, of President Mubarak in 2011. And so the Saudis were distancing themselves from the president, President Obama's last trip was -- to Saudi Arabia was not met with welcoming by the king at the airport.

So I think what he could expect is an optic that plays well, suggests that America and Saudi Arabia are once again on the same page. But, again, the devil is in the details. And getting the Saudis to really commit to the kinds of changes that the Americans would like to see, commit more --


DAVIS: -- to the battle on the ground in Syria, commit more to helping to solve the Palestinian-Israeli peace problem, that's where it's going to get difficult. But I think both sides have an interest in making this look like a success and the Saudis are certainly pulling out all the stops to do so.

VANIER: All right, James Davis, thank you so much for coming on the show.

We're going to take a short break. We're back right after this.




VANIER: It is 9:42:00 am in Saudi Arabia. And Donald Trump is expected to touch down in the country any moment now. It's his first trip abroad as U.S. president and it comes as a chaotic time for the White House, which has faced a seemingly never-ending stream of controversies.

So a long trip outside Washington actually could be just what they need. President Trump spends Saturday and Sunday in Saudi Arabia. First on the agenda, bilateral talks with Saudi King Salman, with the crown prince and the deputy crown prince.

Mr. Trump will also meet with leaders of the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council. And he will address the need for a peaceful vision of Islam. That's at the Arab Islamic American Summit.

Now there's one key player in the Middle East whose leadership will not be meeting Donald Trump but they will be watching intently and that's Iran. For more now on this, we're joined by Fred Pleitgen, who's live from Tehran.

Fred, I know there's a regional election, obviously, where you are. We'll get to that in a moment.

First, how is this visit to Iran's rival, Saudi Arabia, being perceived where you are in Tehran?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it's being perceived very critically. One of the things you could see here with the Iranian leadership ever since President Trump has been elected is really a shift in the way they feel about the new U.S. president and the administration.

I spoke to a lot of officials here in Tehran shortly after Donald Trump's election, before his inauguration. They said they believe perhaps the president, Donald Trump, would be fairly similar to the candidate Donald Trump, the businessman Donald Trump.

They believe they could possibly even strike deals with him, that he would be someone who would be pragmatic towards the Iranians. I think that they are slowly finding out that's not going to be the case. This is going to be an administration that's going to be very tough on Iran, very critical of the policies that Iran is following in the region, especially, of course, in places like Syria; to a lesser extent, also, in place like Yemen but Iraq as well.

So the mood has really shifted here in Tehran. I think one of the things we can't underestimate also is that the government, the people in power here in Iran, still are really trying to come to terms with who exactly Donald Trump is and what --


PLEITGEN: -- exactly he stands for. I think they still see him as a president who's very, very difficult to figure out.

One of the moments that was really -- I wouldn't say a watershed but really one that they thought about a lot was when Iran conducted a ballistic missile test earlier this year. He had a very harsh reaction from the White House, from the United States, immediately slapping new sanctions on the Iranians.

That was certainly something where I think the Iranian leadership here realized it was going to be an administration that was going to be very, very tough on Tehran in the time that it'll be in office -- Cyril.

VANIER: Fred, tell me about the election results.

What are we learning about the results of the presidential election, if anything?

PLEITGEN: Yes. Very fresh first indications are coming in here to Tehran; literally about an hour ago we did receive word from public television here in Iran that apparently the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, is in the lead by a little under 15 million votes to a little over 10 million votes for his main opponent, Ebrahim Raisi.

That's with about 25 million votes counted so far; over 40 million people voted here in Iran, very high turnout. It was over 72 percent of people who actually cast their ballots.

At this point in time it is looking fairly good for the Rouhani camp but a lot of votes still need to be counted. So it isn't really clear how this election is going to turn out.

But I could tell yesterday from being at one of the main polling places, there was very large turnout and this was also an election that, of course, is also a referendum on the policy of Hassan Rouhani, of trying to conduct further engagement with the West, also with the United States.

He, of course, had massive difficulties with that because of the new Trump administration, because of their tough line on Iran. That really was one of the reasons why the hardliners here in Iran criticized Hassan Rouhani for trying to foster that engagement. So it's interesting to see how that's going to play out in the

election results in this very important election here in Iran.

VANIER: Fred Pleitgen reporting live from Tehran, because we are getting a live picture of Air Force One as it is approaching the tarmac.


VANIER: There it is in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Air Force One has now landed. You're seeing the Saudi and American flags, flying side by side as the Air Force One taxis toward the red carpet, where Donald Trump will be met by the Saudi king, King Salman.

So this again is the first trip of Donald Trump as president, 120- something days into his presidency.

Let's go back to James Davis, who joins us from Berlin at the University of St. Galen.

James, we're talking about the importance of Saudi Arabia as being the first place that Donald Trump chose to visit. It's quite a bold choice for a leader who doesn't have significant foreign policy experience. And there he is, stepping into complicated, messy Middle East politics.

DAVIS: It's a risky move. But this president has shown that he's willing to take a lot of risks. He's unorthodox at home and he's going to be unorthodox abroad.

I think, of course, it's clear that the ongoing war in Syria, the need to move the peace process forward and the fixation of some of his aides -- I'm thinking of the Secretary of Defense, I'm thinking of the national security advisor -- the fixation of his aides on the geopolitical challenge posed by Iran makes this a logical choice.

But, as you've suggested, it's not only unorthodox but it's also risky.

VANIER: All right, James, first of all, I want to welcome our viewers. If anybody's joining us now, it is 9:48 am in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Air Force One has just landed on the tarmac of the airport. You saw a second ago, red carpet has been rolled out. The U.S. president will shortly, when he steps off that plane, be greeted by the Saudi king, King Salman.

Covering this for us along with James Davis, we've got our correspondent, Jeremy Diamond, who is covering the trip of Mr. Trump, as well as Nic Robertson.

Nic -- you're both together; that's fantastic.

Nic, let me first turn to you.

Why do you think -- and it's the same question I just asked Mr. Davis -- why do you think Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first destination?

ROBERTSON: I think he can be reasonably guaranteed of a warm welcome. This is something that, you know, is obviously very important to President Trump at the moment, that having so much turmoil behind him in D.C., that when he comes here, he knows these Arab leaders here, particularly Saudi Arabia, really wanted to get beyond President Obama.

They'd become really frustrated with President Obama. They felt President Obama didn't do enough to look at their interests in the largest regional war here, Syria at the moment. They feel that --


ROBERTSON: -- Iran is a growing power. They feel that Donald Trump will help hold back Iran's aspirations in the region.

There was a real sense that, during the Arab spring here, that, under the Obama administration, the United States' regional allies here were essentially deserted. President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was allowed to be overthrown in the Saudis' eyes. President Ben Ali in Tunisia fled his country because of the uprising there.

All of this made many of the Gulf countries, Saudi in particular, feel that the United States wouldn't stand behind them and support them at a time of crisis. And they felt that was down to President Obama. That's why the Saudis decided to build up their own security and defense.

They've massively increased their defense spending, massively increased their armed forces. So there's a sense that President Trump brings a change to that and there's an opportunity her, even they say an opportunity that he can influence Palestinian-Israeli peace. That's a big ask but that's the hope.

So that's the reception that he can expect here. And perhaps that's why he chose it first, because it's going to be a warm reception; indeed, the Saudis rolling out the red carpet. They've invited not just the Gulf community leaders here, they've invited more than 35 other leaders from Muslim Arab and regional nations.

So from President Trump's perspective, this is a good beginning to what's going to be a long and detailed trip.

VANIER: Nic, your timing couldn't be better. We're also keeping an eye, of course, on Air Force One, it has taxied now almost all the way up to that red carpet, which I believe is maybe rolled out even further for the arrival of Donald Trump.

Jeremy Diamond now, it looks like we almost have to have two brains when we're looking at this, one for the regional dynamics, the geopolitical impact of this, and the other of course we have to keep and eye on domestic politics -- that's U.S. politics, which are ever present right now for the White House.

And even as Donald Trump was in the air, even as he took off -- shortly after he took off, in fact, for his -- the first leg of this trip, news was breaking and kept breaking, revelations about the White House.

There's several news items on Friday. One is that the White House is looking into impeachment proceedings and how it works and the protocol of that, et cetera, after that word was bandied about in U.S. politics.

Another one is that the Russians were bragging about how close they were to Michael Flynn during the presidential campaign and that they may -- they thought at the time that they may be able to use him to influence Donald Trump.

So all of those things, Jeremy, have been swirling around. And I guess one of the questions is how the White House and the White House staff may have been responding or looking at this while they were on the plane.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, the domestic political implications of this coming week really cannot be overstated. This is, of course, the president's first foreign trip abroad.

And he's hoping this will be a significant diplomatic success for him, a real moment for him to show that he's prepared to take on this world stage and this very important role of the U.S. president as ultimately the world leader.

Of course, his aides are looking at this very closely and we'll have to watch how these controversies unfold in the coming week.

VANIER: All right. Thank you, Jeremy. I'm just going to have to interrupt you briefly. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States as well as our viewers across the world for our live coverage of Donald Trump and Air Force One, which has just taxied all the way to the tarmac where King Salman of Saudi Arabia will soon be greeting the U.S. president as he will step off his plane, as he steps off Air Force One.

The U.S. flags, the Saudi flags flying side by side. We'll soon be seeing the U.S. president and the Saudi King shaking hands, I would presume, in what should be a short moment.

We're covering this live on CNN and we've got our correspondents, Nic Robertson; we've got Jeremy Diamond covering this. We'll have guests throughout the hour to bring you the implications, both in terms of U.S. politics and regional dynamics, of course. So stay with us for that.

And, Jeremy, let me turn back to you. The question I was asking you, whether the White House -- how you thought the White House might be following U.S. political developments even as they were on the plane.

DIAMOND: That's right. Well, you know, this president and his staff have really been hoping for a reset of sorts as they embarked on this several thousand-mile long journey over here to Saudi Arabia. But all of that was undercut once again, while they were on this

plane, a series of stories breaking, some of them from CNN, including the revelation that the Russians --


DIAMOND: -- believed, according to intercepted communications, the Russians believed that Michael Flynn could be used as a tool essentially to influence U.S. policy.

And that, of course, sparked a lot of the concerns from Obama administration officials, who, we're told were actually limiting what kinds of intelligence information was being shared with Michael Flynn even as he prepared to step into this role as national security advisor.

All of that is once again bubbling up, this ongoing controversy, something that is really looking more like a potential scandal here, that the president has not been able to escape his campaign's potential dealings with the Russians and, of course, the FBI's federal investigation into those potential contacts.

We know that a special counsel was named just days ago to look into this inquiry and to really oversee this investigation from a really independent perspective. That was expected to take some of the political heat off a White House and a president who has been accused of interfering in that investigation.

Of course, we know the return of this and these latest allegations are once again putting President Trump and his associates at the center of this growing controversy.

We know that the president huddled with some of his attorneys and the White House counsel's office has also talked to attorneys and they are now looking at what potential impeachment proceedings could look like.

That's not to say that impeachment proceedings are going to begin right away but certainly it's something that's becoming an increasing possibility, something that Democrats on Capitol Hill have begun to talk about.

Some Republicans are also quietly discussing -- some at least. So the White House is preparing itself for what could be a really messy legal battle as this investigation continues from the special counsel and as Democrats grow increasingly incensed that these ongoing allegations have become a drip, drip, drip of sorts in this Russia investigation.

VANIER: All right, Jeremy Diamond.

We're also keeping an eye, of course, on the live footage there. You see the carpet was rolled out and the President of the United States is expected to make his way to the tarmac shortly.

We're looking at pictures of the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh. It is 2:57 am, in the middle of the night, in the U.S. East Coast, 9:57 am Saudi time. We've also got James Davis with us, who's following this from Berlin,

from the University of St. Galen. He does us the pleasure of being with us.

James, I was asking you earlier what you thought a successful trip would be like for Donald Trump on this, his first overseas trip as U.S. president.

DAVIS: Yes, I think if the president is able to come back to the United States and demonstrate that he could hold his own on the red carpet of international diplomacy, if he's able to come back to the United States and say, we've successfully reassured the Sunni Arab allies of the United States, if he comes back after a trip to Israel and says, I see some movement on the peace process, maybe gets a commitment of the Arabs and the Israelis to reengage in a more substantial way than they have been in the last few years, that would be seen as a success.

Of course, the question is, as we were just discussing, whether or not that's going to be enough to change the dynamics of this presidency.

I'm struck by the fact that American presidents usually go abroad to escape the logjams of Washington in the very last years of their administration, when they're lame ducks.

This president is going abroad in the first six months to try and gain some leverage that he can bring back to Washington and reestablish control over the dynamics of a very chaotic White House.

VANIER: All right, James, stay with us.

We're keeping an eye obviously on the live footage of Air Force One, which is wheels down in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

A little nugget of information coming from the White House chief of staff, who was speaking to reporters on Air Force One, saying that President Trump got, quote, "very little sleep" on his 14-hour flight from Washington. Apparently he was working hard with staff. He was reading newspapers on the journey, we're told.

And also -- and perhaps more importantly -- working on his speech to Muslim leaders, which is he is due to deliver on Sunday.

Let's go to Nic Robertson, who's standing by in Riyadh.

Nic, what do we expect from that speech?

ROBERTSON: Well, we can expect something that's going to be respectful. That's what General McMaster, national security advisor, has briefed us on, that this speech will be something that tries to sort of put forward a very nuanced message, recognizing that President Trump had really negative things to say about Muslims during his campaign.

Well, the Saudis have put that to one side. His speech here, in the holiest place, the holiest country if you will in Islam, needs to be very nuanced when he delivers a message that says (INAUDIBLE) all the leaders in these -- in these Arab Muslim and region countries here.