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Source: White House to Hire Corey Lewandowski as Advisor on Russia Probe; Comey Friend: Trump Should be Scared of Comey Testimony; Trump Calls Meeting with Pope "Fantastic"; Catholic Sean Spicer Left Out of Pope Meeting. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired May 24, 2017 - 14:30   ET



[14:34:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: The White House is preparing for what could be a long and challenging fight over the Trump/Russia probe. And the administration could be turning to a controversial figure from the campaign trail for help. Sources tell CNN that former Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, is discussing possibly coming on board as the administration's top crisis-management adviser. Trump fired Lewandowski after the primaries last year.

And in the meantime, Republicans keep getting questions like this.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Does it concern you that he was asked to leave and then he asked the FBI Director Jim Comey to let Flynn go?

REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Yeah, so I don't know the voracity of these things. But that's why


RYAN: OK. But that's why we have an investigation. What I'm not going to do is comment on things that are under ongoing review. We've got three investigations going on right now. We have a House Intelligence Committee investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, and a special counsel ran by Bob Mueller, who I don't think anybody has any problems with his credibility. He's a highly credible person.


KEILAR: CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash; and "Bloomberg News" White House reporter, Shannon Pettypiece, joining me right now.

All of this is happening as we see this new Quinnipiac poll out and it shows that most Americans think that President Trump has abused his power and his approval rating is really not good.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's not good. Just to be fair and for context, this particular poll tends to skew a little lower for Donald Trump than others. However, even by the context of this poll, it isn't good. KEILAR: Compared to last month?

BASH: Yeah.


BASH: Last month, it was much better for the president. Now it's lower. It's 37 percent. I mean, that is really alarming and it's not just that. If you look into the poll, it's -- some of the core support that he's relied on, working-class white voters, they are still supportive of him, but he's slipped with those voters. That's something that there's no question that the White House is watching and, most importantly, the Republicans who are all on the ballot on the House side are looking at as well.

KEILAR: That must be very alarming to the White House.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: There is a lot of optimism and they have their own polls. Republican strategists were telling me that the approval rating is improving this week, that the overseas trip has been good for him and they are looking to getting back on their agenda this week. They acknowledge that it's been a rough ride. They are very optimistic and hope with a special prosecutor, it will cool the temperature in the room and things will get back to normal in Washington. But how many times have we heard that open optimism before. We'll see.

BASH: Exactly. One of the things in terms of numbers and politics and how the president's approval rating may or may not affect it, it's not just about 2018, it's about tomorrow. Literally, tomorrow. There's a special election tomorrow in Montana and then later in Georgia. Montana Republican strategists focused on this are worried. They don't think they are going to lose it, but the polls have tightened, and not in a good way.

KEILAR: They should want to be very comfortable with that.

BASH: Exactly.

KEILAR: The president is putting forth a budget. What does that mean for his core supporters if he's shown losing support?

And then check this out. Listen to a Republican describing some of the math used in this. This is Mark Sanford.

Actually, no. We're going to talk about John McCain. So, Mark Sanford, the congressman, has come out and said this is not real, this idea of the growth, really the math, projected economic growth, and how everything would have to be constructed around that number.

You spoke to Senator John McCain as well about this, right?

BASH: And this is really what is fascinating. I'm not sure they have the sound. We have it. Let's play it and talk about it on the other side.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R), ARIZONA: My reaction is it's probably dead on arrival. My second reaction is that there's that old line about figures lie and figures lie, or something like that? That's not a 10 percent increase in spending. It's a 3 percent increase in spending.


BASH: So, the White House needs to obviously realize that when they are trying to explain to Republicans, especially those who are debt and deficit hawks, those who are very keen, like John McCain, on increasing defense spending, much more even than the president proposed, that they need to know that they have people like that out there. And so that is -- again, these are Republicans saying dead on arrival because they believe that these numbers, that these books are cooked, and even he said that these are lying numbers.

PETTYPIECE: And his budget is really politically toxic to a lot of people. And Republicans, even before it came out where they had a sense of where it was going, they were quick to say, listen, these priorities are not our priorities. We believe you get a bigger bang for your buck with diplomacy. We don't want to see millions of people losing Medicaid. Even some of the deficit hawks say we don't want to go after PBS and Big Bird, like when they put out the skinny budget a while ago. They realize it's not politically appealing for their base either.

KEILAR: Shannon, Dana, thank you so much.


[14:39:24] KEILAR: Next, a personal friend of former FBI Director James Comey says President Trump should be scared. Hear why, next.

And the pope once suggests that the president doesn't act like a Christian, and then today, they came face-to-face today. See what happened.

And how White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, a devout Catholic, is reacting after he was not included in the VIP meeting with the pope. Let's just say, he's not happy.


KEILAR: Welcome back. As we return to the investigation of Trump campaign ties to Russia, the big question hovering over the Beltway, will fired FBI Director James Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee as expected after Memorial Day? Washington insiders wonder if special counsel, Robert Mueller, is even going to allow it.

If it does go through, though, a friend of James Comey gave an ominous hint about what could lie ahead for the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BENJMAIN WITTES, FRIEND OF JAMES COMEY: I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable. This is a guy with a story to tell. I think if I were Donald Trump, that would scare me a lot.


KEILAR: I want to turn now Eric Lichtblau, the assistant managing editor of CNN's Washington bureau.

Wow. He's saying that Comey has things to say that are going to be damaging to President Trump.

ERIC LICHTBLAU, ASSISTANT MANAGER, CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU: And that he wants to say them publicly. You know, we're hearing the same thing, that if and when Comey testifies, which is probably the week after next, he certainly wants to do it in public. He doesn't want it to be behind closed doors. He wants the spotlight, which he's been in before and he has some stories to tell.

[14:44:59] KEILAR: Donald Trump said he's a showboat. You know, he's sort of accused him of that.

LICHTBLAU: He's said worse than that.

KEILAR: He's said worse than that. But it also seems that Comey, certainly, recently, when it comes to some of these issues, he wants to hear them and he wants them out there. Some people have said that's not really, when he was FBI director, that's perhaps not the best way but he's compelled to do.

LICHTBLAU: Sure. You remember last July, the famous press conference over the Hillary Clinton e-mail case, which was unprecedented with the FBI director out there giving a 12-minute recap of an investigation that didn't even bring charges. He got a lot of criticism for that. And 10 years ago, he gave a very famous Senate testimony about his confrontation in a hospital room with George W. Bush's lawyers. So he is -- he's very comfortable in that spotlight. Trump may call him a showboater but others would say he's just someone that wants the story out there.

KEILAR: That July moment that you're talking about related to Hillary Clinton, that one was of the things that the deputy A.G. cited, the idea that you would have a press conference to explain that there aren't going to be charges brought.


KEILAR: So Bob Mueller, who's now been appointed by the Justice Department to go ahead and look independently at these possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, he's going to speak to Comey before this.


KEILAR: That's what we know, right? LICHTBLAU: Yes. And they are very close. They worked together for

years after 9/11 when Mueller was the head of the FBI and Comey was at the Justice Department. Jim Comey is not going to do anything Bob Mueller --


KEILAR: Mueller says, look, can you just cool it so I can do my investigation? What is the expectation on whether that is going to happen?

LICHTBLAU: I'm sure they will have a conversation. I'm sure that they will talk out what the legal complications could be. It you go back to Iran-Contra 20-plus years ago, 25 years ago, you know, the spectacle of Ollie North and Poindexter testifying before Congress created all kinds of legal problems with the Justice Department and the case was ultimately thrown out because it was seen as tainted in some way. The last thing they want is to have that congressional testimony to hurt any possible criminal case. My guess -- and it's only a guess - is that, at the end of the day, Comey gets the green light to testify but not about the investigation itself, not that he'll say, you know, the Russia investigation is off limits but that he would be able to talk about what the president said to him and be able to quash the investigation.

KEILAR: Which is the big deal anyway.

LICHTBLAU: Which is the blockbuster and some say it's the smoking gun.

KEILAR: We will see.

Eric Lichtblau, thank you so much for that. Interesting for sure.

LICHTBLAU: Pleasure.

KEILAR: Next, "The Art of the Deal" visits the Vatican. President Trump meeting Pope Francis face to face after previously calling the pope "disgraceful."

Also, Sean Spicer feeling slighted after not being able to meet the pope, which is a huge honor for a devout Catholic.

And back to our breaking news. The brother of the Manchester bomber arrested while plotting an attack of his own. We'll have details, next.


[14:52:24] KEILAR: A meeting of minds over a year in the making has finally happened. Pope Francis and President Trump putting a war of words behind them inside of the Vatican. The two met today in a private 30-minute session, and reports are that the mood was kind of tense in the beginning, but when it was over, here's what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much. I won't forget what you said. Good luck.


KEILAR: That's pretty good, right? The relationship has not always been this cordial. Pretty contentious, in fact. Remember some comments during the election like this.


POPE FRANCIS (through translation): A person who thinks about building walls wherever they may be and not building bridges is not a Christian.

TRUMP: If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which, as everyone knows, is ISIS' ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.

For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful.


KEILAR: What a difference an election makes.

Joining me is Tara Palmeri, CNN political analyst and White House correspondent for "Politico." And also joining us on the phone, John Allen, CNN senior Vatican analyst ad editor of "The Boston Globe's" "The Crux" and also the author of "The Francis Miracle."

Thanks to both of you for being here.

There are reports that the pontiff left quite an impression on the president, and that the topics of terrorism, the Paris Accord, the environment came up.

John, when the president clearly said to the pontiff that what he had said made a big impact on him, what do you think that could have been?

JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR VATICAN ANALYST (voice-over): Well, I think actually from President Trump's point of view, this meeting probably went about as well as he could have envisioned. Frankly, if he had scribbled out the outcome on a cocktail napkin with a pen, which would be in character for this president, I don't think you could have envisioned a better outcome. First of all, the chemistry between the two men, particularly towards the end of the meeting, was obviously quite warm. Secondly, if you look at the statements that the Vatican put out afterwards, there was a deliberate effort to play down issues of contention and to play up the issues where Pope Francis and President Trump might be able to find common ground. The statement led with the joint commitment of the defense of human life, which is, of course, Vatican speak for the fight against abortion, religious freedom and freedom of conscience. There was recently an executive order put out on religion freedom. Despite the obvious differences between Francis and Trump, their differences on immigration, climate change, poverty relief, war and peace, and so on, that in this meeting, they wanted the climate to be upbeat and the focus on where they could agree.

[14:55:37] KEILAR: Tara, I want to ask you a question about protocol because it's so important on these visits. And to that point, the issues of veils is something that many observers were wondering about, is Melania, the first lady, going to wear a veil in Saudi Arabia. She did not. Some have said her outfit evoked, even though she didn't wear a veil. But she did at the Vatican, and so did Ivanka Trump. What did you think about the choices on protocol there?

TARA PALMERI, CNN POLITICAL ANAYST: I think the difference is that the pope requested that they wear a veil. This is standard for anyone who is visiting the pope. And whereas in Saudi Arabia, they didn't actually make that request that they wear veils. It's not illegal for foreign women to veils. So I think the difference is the request and symbolism of it and its respect for the pope and it doesn't have a broader implication.

KEILAR: Tell us, John, about the gifts that they gave to each other. This is significant and a lot of thought behind them.

ALLEN: Yes. If should be said, every time a head of state comes to the Vatican, he or she presents gifts to the pope and the pope does likewise. This is hardly something that is unique to the president of the United States. But President Trump presented Pope Francis with a collection of the writings of Martin Luther King Jr, which is a carefully thought-out move, because, if you remember when Pope Francis spoke to Congress last September, he lifted up four great Americans that he admired in a particular way, and one of them was Martin Luther King. So Trump has been well briefed about the likes of Pope Francis. Pope Francis gave the president a mini statue, a bronze medallion, coined by a Roman artist that was the depiction of an olive tree, which was described as a symbol of peace, saying that he wanted the president to be an agent of peace, he wanted him to be someone who would work for peace. And it's quite likely that, at the end of the meeting, when we overheard President Trump on the way out saying to Pope Francis that I will not forget what you said to me, that may well be part of what he had in mind.

KEILAR: Tara, I want to ask you about something. As we look at this opportunity, this photo opportunity, there's someone missing, and a lot of people are talking about how Sean Spicer, the very visible representative of the White House, who is an extremely devout Catholic, was not included. And we actually have some reporting by CNN that he felt left out by this, which you cannot blame him for. What happened?

PALMERI: I think what you're seeing is the disenchantment that President Trump has expressed to his aides with Sean Spicer. My sources have told me that he suggested that he feels that some of the newcomers that came on with the RNC, Reince Priebus, they are not as loyal to him as Keith Schiller, who had a chance to go and visit the pope. He's a bodyguard. He's been around since the beginning of the campaign. And Dan Slaven, who has worked for the president for 18 years. White House officials are saying that you may not see Sean Spicer again at the podium after this trip, so it would make sense that the president would start limiting his appearances. And these people are very close to Trump. They are literally family. He really values loyalty and blood. And there is something to it. As a reporter, when I make a phone call to the press office and it's about Reince Priebus, I get a quicker response than I do when it's about the president. There's a sort of loyalty towards him because he was the one who brought them into the White House and Trump wants to know that the loyalty is to him, first and foremost.

KEILAR: Very good point.

Tara Palmeri, in Brussels; and John Allen, thank you to both of you.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[14:59:58] I'm Brianna Keilar. We're beginning this hour with our breaking news. The brother of the Manchester concert bomber has just been arrested, accused of planning a separate terror attack in the Libyan capitol of Tripoli. Back in the U.K., five people are now in custody in connection with the bombing as police there now say --