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President Announces Nominee for FBI Director Christopher Wray; James Comey to Testify Before Congress; Tensions Between President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions Reported. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired June 7, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: -- committee is going to begin two days of blockbuster hearings. Today they are going to hear from the nation's top Intel official Dan Coats. The "Washington Post" reports Coats told associates the president asked him, too, if he could intervene in Comey's Michael Flynn probe.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: And, Chris, the main event tomorrow, of course James Comey on the hot seat. Comey is expected to refute the president's claims that Comey told him on three separate occasions that he was not under investigation. We're also learning that Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered to resign at one point after several heated exchanges with the president.

We have all of this news for you. CNN's Jessica Schneider is live on Capitol Hill with our top story. Jessica?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, you know, President Trump trying to steal back a bit of the thunder that will be happening here on Capitol Hill over the next two days. President Trump this morning announcing his FBI director pick, and of course doing it only in the way that President Trump does, on Twitter. President Trump tweeting this just a few minutes ago, saying "I will be naming Christopher A. Wray, a man of impeccable credentials, to be director of the FBI. Details to follow."

So the president there teasing ahead to what will be his announcement. Christopher Wray did serve in the Justice Department, nominate by George W. Bush to serve as assistant attorney general in the early 2000s. Interestingly Christopher Wray also served in private practice as the private and personal attorney to Chris Christie during the Bridge-gate scandal. So all of this unfolding at the White House and via Twitter as we gear up for what is the start of a big two days of testimony here on Capitol Hill.


SCHNEIDER: America's top intelligence official Dan Coats set to testify today amid new "Washington Post" reporting that President Trump asked coats to intervene and get the FBI to back off its probe of national security adviser Michael Flynn just two days after then FBI director Comey confirmed the bureau's investigation into potential collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia. This after CNN reported last month that President Trump asked Coats to publicly deny the existence of evidence supporting the probe, a conversation Coats declined to comment about last month.

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I don't feel it is appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president.

SCHNEIDER: Coats is one of four top intelligence officials set to face a grilling today over their encounters with President Trump, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who will answer questions publically for the first time about the circumstances surrounding the letter he wrote recommending Comey's firing. The administration originally pinned the president's decision to oust Comey's on Rosenstein's letter before Trump conceded that he had been contemplating the move for weeks, in part because of the handling of the Russia investigation.

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, what message do you have for James Comey ahead of his testimony?

TRUMP: I wish him luck.

SCHNEIDER: Sources tell CNN that tomorrow Comey will refute the president's claim that Comey assured him three times that he was not under FBI investigation.

TRUMP: I said, if it's possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation? He said you are not under investigation.

SCHNEIDER: One source says it's possible President Trump misunderstood the meaning of Comey's words which were nuanced. Another source familiar with Comey's testimony telling CNN the former FBI director will describe the interactions with the president that made him uncomfortable, including a meeting where Comey says Trump pressured to drop the Flynn investigation. But he will not say whether this amounts to obstruction of justice. According to "The New York Times," that meeting prompted Comey to confront Attorney General Jeff Sessions a day later, telling him he did not want to be left alone with the president again.


SCHNEIDER: And "The New York Times" also reports that James Comey did not reveal to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he felt pressured by the president to drop that investigation into Michael Flynn. "The Times" does report that Comey just didn't know who he could trust at the Justice Department. Alisyn and Chris?

CUOMO: All right, Jessica. So we have news that a new man may be on the way in at the FBI, and we have a story that someone may be on their way out at the DOJ. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had several heated exchanges in recent weeks with President Trump, even offering to resign. And then the administration asked directly, does the president have confidence in the attorney general, and the press secretary refusing to answer. CNN's Joe Johns live at the White House. Sean Spicer saying, "I haven't had a conversation with the president about his confidence in Jeff Sessions," a non-answer that speaks volumes.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right. And we're hoping to hear more as early as today about the president's views on the attorney general. It really paints a picture of a president who was furious after losing control of the Russia investigation.

[08:05:00] And it happened after one of his most fervent political supporters, his handpicked attorney general, removed himself from all things related to Russia, setting off a chain reaction that led to the appointment of special counsel.


JOHNS: Amid a series of heated exchanges in recent weeks between President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sources tell CNN that the president's longtime ally threatened to resign if the president no longer wanted him in the position.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How would you describe the president's level of confidence in the attorney general, Jeff Sessions?

JOHNS: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declining to answer when asked on Tuesday.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I have not had a discussion with him about that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The last time you said that there was a development.

SPICER: I'm answering a question, which is I have not had that discussion with them.

JOHNS: The White House still has not clarified the president's position. One official telling CNN they wanted to avoid giving a definitive answer. The president has frequently contradicted his aids in the past. A Justice Department spokeswoman telling CNN Sessions is not stepping down.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.

JOHNS: Tensions between the two men have been brewing since Sessions announced he would step aside from any Russia investigations in March after failing to disclose two meetings with a Russian ambassador.

SESSIONS: And I did not have communications with the Russians.

JOHNS: Trump was reportedly furious with the recusal, believing it triggered a chain of events that ultimately intensified the Russia probe, leading to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller last month. The president's anger on display this week when he slammed his Justice Department publicly for watering down his original travel ban, something the president had to approve.


JOHNS: Sources tell CNN the president does not intend to accept a resignation from the attorney general. The optics of it would certainly be problematic. There's also a question of how to get a replacement. There would be an uproar on Capitol Hill. And even the temporary replacement would be problematic in the views of some here at the White House. That would be Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who happens to be the same person who named the special counsel in the first place. Chris and Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: Yes, it is complicated, Joe. Thank you for spelling it all out for us.

So let's bring in our panel to discuss all of the breaking news. We have CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza, CNN political analyst Abby Phillip, and CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd. Great to have all of you. Chris Cillizza, Christopher Wray is the name that we now know who will be named to the FBI. What do we know of him?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: The biggest thing we know of him politically speaking right there is he was governor Chris Christie's personal attorney during the whole closing of the lanes in Fort Lee that led to Chris Christie's presidential campaign never going anywhere, led to two of his top aides being convicted.

Interesting in that Christy obviously had put himself way out there for Donald Trump back in February of 2016 with an endorsement, has taken a lot of flak for it, did not wind up getting anything in the White House in the initial hires. He has been critical as recently as yesterday of Trump's Twitter feed, as well as some other people within the Trump world. Possible that Chris Christie recommended this guy to Donald Trump, yes, I think so, a sign that Chris Christie may be having his voice listened to, sure.

But, look, broadly speaking, forget Christopher Wray for a second. Why is Donald Trump announcing this pick, which has been about a month and a few days since Jim Comey was fired? Because we have Rod Rosenstein, because we have Dan Coats on the Hill today, because we have Jim Comey on the hill tomorrow, because there is a whole slew of negative stories out there. Remember, Donald Trump at his heart is essentially a TV producer. He understands that you have to offer some counter programming, and this is an attempt at counter programming.

CUOMO: Well, look, and it is a good move by the president.

CAMEROTA: It is working.

CUOMO: It's got us talking. It is relevant information, and just as a little bit of a sidebar, just to put this to bed once and for all, this was told to us on Twitter. So if you want to know whether or not the president regards tweets --

CILLIZZA: That's right. CUOMO: -- as official policy statements, because that's what this is,

a policy change, he's going to put in a new person, it's a big material move, he did it on Twitter. So forget about what Gorka and Kellyanne and everybody else says about the tweets are just fill-in- the blank some type of nonsense. They matter.

Now, there is something else that matters. We are getting ready for this Director Coats interview today. There is a new statement from the DNI, his agency that he oversees. It is from DNI spokesperson Brian Hale, and it says "Coats does not discuss his private conversations with the president. However, he has never felt pressured by the president or anyone else in the administration to influence any intelligence matters or ongoing investigations."

[08:10:12] So Phil Mudd, give us your take on that statement. Does that conclude any speculation about appropriateness by the president? And what do you make of Christopher Wray coming into the agency?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Let's start with a statement. All he's trying to do, that is, Director Coats, is to go into the hearing, and as soon as somebody says tell us about that conversation with the president, he's going to say, I already told you, I ain't talking about that. He's letting himself off the hook. That does not conclude the conversation about what the president said.

CUOMO: But he did say he's never felt pressured. So what door does that close? What door does that leave open?

MUDD: It doesn't close any door. So the special counsel, Robert Mueller, goes in to say I don't care about pressured. I want to hear what the president said when, and I'll make the determination about whether that interaction was appropriate or not. Those words are very careful. Was he ever asked about the investigation? He didn't say he wasn't asked. He said he didn't feel pressured. I thought that was more about the hearing today than about getting him off the hook for further conversations with Robert Mueller.

On the Wray issue, people like me are going to smell this like two dogs smelling each other on the sidewalk.

CAMEROTA: Thank you.

CILLIZZA: That's an image.

MUDD: Well, you were just talking earlier, Alisyn, about whether females should be involved in health care issues that made me really uncomfortable.


MUDD: Here's the issue. I have no reason to doubt whether he's a good nominee, no reason to doubt that. But the president has options. One of the options was John Pistole, whom I know well, the former deputy director of the FBI. One was the acting director Andy McCabe. Neither has any linkage as far as I know with Trump people. Both of them declined.

So the president chooses someone who does have direct linkage not only with Chris Christie but evidently with a law firm from which the president has selected other individuals for his administration. People are going to say this fellow Wray as a history in federal prosecutions. That's great. Is there anything that suggests for somebody who is going in to, remember, a 10-year term at the FBI, is there anything to suggest that he will give primacy to the White House over simply pursuing the facts in federal investigations? This one smells a little and I'm sure to Congress is going to smell a lot.

CUOMO: How about when the senators ask him, did the president ask you what you think about the Russia investigation and what you would do about it? And whether or not -- because the president's feelings are so strong. What is Wray going to say? Is he going to say it didn't come up? Will anybody believe that? Will it affect his confirmation? Big questions.

CAMEROTA: Abby, what do you think happened to the congressman Trey Gowdy option and the Senator John Cornyn and the Joe Lieberman, and all the other names that have floated? This Christopher Wray one is out of left field.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, well, all those names that you just mentioned are all political people. This is one of the bigger sticking points for the White House. And perhaps to their credit they were thinking about the fact that people in the FBI probably would have gone into full revolt if he had named a political figure, a former politician, a current politician to that post.

So in some ways Christopher Wray is someone who has experience in the agency. Yes, he has ties to Chris Christie, but he is not a politician specifically, and he's been in that building before. He's worked under George W. Bush. So I think the White House is looking in the other direction there because they want to kind of get ahead of some of this pushback. I think they expect a fair amount of it.

But I think there is probably a good chance that Chris Wray is going to be easily confirmed in the Senate because, beyond the ties to Christie, I'm not aware of any huge red flags here, and that's what the White House was aiming for. They don't necessarily want this to be a gigantic fight at this stage.

CUOMO: That's true. But, Chris, also, let's not lose sight, to your own point. Wray has been out there. He was one of the names and there was political speculation about Christie versus Giuliani, you know, and who is going to get their choice in there. And now we know the name. But as you pointed out, the timing is not a coincidence. We can show the hearing room right now which is the beginning of a two-day affair here where we are going to hear questions asked, and, yes, as Phil Mudd says, Director Coats is throwing a big bucket of cold water on any anticipation about him dishing about talking with the president. But the stakes are real, in part that's reflected by the president's desire to shift attention.

CILLIZZA: Yes. So first on Wray, look, the other thing to remember is why did the White House settle on him, and Phil makes this point, other people told him no, right? This is not necessarily a job everyone is clamoring for, particularly if you look at what happened to the last guy. That's number one. Number two, there are no coincidences in politics. This is my attitude when a politician says, oh, I was just driving through Iowa and I'd just thought I'd stop and meet the local Democrats. It is not a thing, right? The reason they do that is because they want to run for president at some time or they think they could be president some time.

Same thing here. Even if Donald Trump didn't have a history, not just with reality TV, but in his back and forth with the New York tabloids, a history of trying to manipulate media coverage to make it look more beneficial to him, to change stories, to throw some chum over here, which he does, even if he didn't have that history, I would draw the conclusion this is clearly meant to take some of that coverage from Comey, Rosenstein, Coats and all the news that's been out there about that and that will be out when they testify over these next 48 hours. And have some of it be, who is Christopher Wray? What's this pick like?

It's a -- it's a card that presidents had to play. I'm not critical of it. Other presidents do the same thing, but he is clearly playing a card here.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So, Phil, it's very interesting. If you do a split screen of what we anticipate current DNI Director Coats who has just said he is not going to reveal any personal interactions and conversations with President Trump and that he doesn't know about anything to offer about feeling pressured. And then with former DNI Director James Clapper, who is at an event speaking about all of this very stuff.

And let me play for you what he has just said.


JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think if you compare the two that Watergate pales really in my view compared to what we're confronting now.


CAMEROTA: Watergate pales in comparison to this investigation?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: That's my reaction. What are we talking about here? Let me step back.

In my world, I know former Director Clapper, he served I think more than 50 years in government. He's very well-respected in the intelligence community as a nonpartisan actor. That said, what the heck are we talking about here?

In Watergate, we had a president resign. We know what happened was a criminal act that is beginning with the break-in of Democratic offices. We know there was a cover up. There's been decades of coverage of that. We know there is wrongdoing up and down the administration of Richard Nixon. What do we know in this case? We don't know what happened during the

election, whether there is any collusion. The only thing we know for a fact in one circumstance is General Flynn made an ethical violation lying to the vice president that led him to be fired. That's not a legal violation.

We don't understand what the cover up is here. We have a president who is nowhere close obviously to resigning. That would be ridiculous, or being impeached. And we want to compare that to Watergate?

The concern I have with former DNI Clapper is that going into this environment, he is undercutting his credibility by comparing this to Watergate. How do you look with someone with that kind of history and say I can believe him?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Especially when another one of his most quotable moments needs proper context, Abby, is when Clapper said I have seen no proof of collusion. Now, when we had him on the show, I tested him on that, and he said, well, that's because I wasn't overseeing the case. I don't know what the book is on the case. I don't know the evidence. So how could I know what they have on collusion?

But still, when he's out there saying I don't know about any collusion and then he says it pales in consideration to Watergate, how do you reconcile those?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, exactly. I mean -- and also, he made it clear earlier that he wasn't even aware about certain parts of this investigation. He -- his knowledge of it would have ended on January 20. So, there is a lot -- there are a lot of questions here about what -- on what basis is he making some of these statements.

I will say just to play devil's advocate here, he seemed to be suggesting that the possibilities here -- we don't know a lot to Phil's point, but the possibilities here to the -- if they go to their fullest extent, could extend beyond Watergate, which may or may not be a fair point. We just don't know. We don't know where this is going, where this is headed, how far it is. It could be absolutely nothing.

And so, it is interesting that he would say that. I mean, I think he's not an average Joe. He is someone who actually does have experience in the intelligence world. So, I don't think that we should totally discount the words that are coming out of his mouth.

But he did undercut himself by basically making the point that he wasn't fully read in and he basically would have lost all knowledge of where this investigation was going way back in January. That's eons from where we are right now.

CAMEROTA: Chris, it's interesting to take the pulse of the American people. Today, before these two hearings, ABC News and "Washington Post" has a new poll out just this morning, why did President Trump fire James Comey? Sixty-one percent of respondent say to protect himself, 27 percent say for the good of the country.

That's where we are. Who knows how they will feel on Wednesday after they hear some of this testimony?

CILLIZZA: Yes, and remember that's far from the only negative poll number out there for Trump. His approval rating, which has never been stellar, has been low to at best mid-40s.

[08:20:01] It's been in the 30s, high 30s for the last couple weeks, I can't imagine this week is going to help that. I guess we sort of to have wait to hear what James Comey says, but I can't imagine it's going to be a big boost for Donald Trump.

And Donald Trump is someone -- his message during the campaign was this amazing sort of virtuous circle, which was, I'm winning. The polls show I'm winning. Therefore, I am winning. The polls show I'm right.

So, it was so poll dependant. He has not tweeted about polling since April 24th. He did it on that day solely to bash polling that suggested he wasn't doing well, saying the polls were wrong in the 2016 election, which I will note, they were not necessarily wrong. They showed Hillary Clinton winning by two to three points. Guess what? She won the popular vote by two to three points. So, take what you will from it.

CUOMO: Right. But they also predicted we would have a different president. We get that criticism. It leaves us where we are --

CILLIZZA: And that's fair, Chris. I always say, look, I did not think that -- nothing that I had read, studied, reported on suggested Donald Trump would win that election. He won. He was right. I was wrong. No question.

But his argument that all polling therefore should be, you know, thrown in the garbage if it doesn't see him doing well, I think is a vast overstatement of reality.

CUOMO: He is the quickest to cite a good poll for himself even now when they come out, even if it actually isn't good, he'll still say it is.

Phil Mudd, you are right that legally we have to be very careful about what we see in terms of proof and what we see in terms of developments. However, politically, this is very different. Let's not forget. This may stay political in terms of its process at all times.

That takes us into the latest iterations, that Sessions may be sideways with Trump, which is shocking to so many because Sessions stuck his neck out like unbutton two buttons off his shirt so he could get his neck out even more so he could stick it out as far as he could and early on for Trump and everybody had an ax in their hands. The idea that Trump could get rid of Sessions, is that politically -- you know, is that politically something he could tolerate? MUDD: Look, if you want me to predict after he fired the FBI director

in the midst of investigation and couldn't foresee that that might lead to a special counsel, I know that wasn't one plus one equals two, but that was one of the dumbest political moves I can see as a nonpolitician in the years that I have been watching Washington.

I think the message, though, Chris, is simple inside government: every man for himself. I remember talking to Vice President Cheney and President Bush before the Iraq war, Director Tenet before the Iraq War, I remember talking to Robert Mueller, the FBI director in a lot of difficult moments, when you are inside that bubble, you feel that everybody is protecting the team. I go up for testimony on Capitol Hill, I'm never going to throw the president under the bus.

What the environment you get here though is, if the president puts -- sets you up, be careful, he is going to stab you in the back eventually.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you very much for keeping up with all of this breaking news this morning. Great to have you.

CUOMO: The Senate Intel Committee is about to hold two highly anticipated hearings. It doesn't matter what side of the political aisle, what outcome you want, you need to hear what is said. We have one of the senators leading the hearing. He's going to be asked what he wants to hear today, what he wants to hear tomorrow, his answers matter.

Stay with us.


[08:27:29] CUOMO: All right. We have breaking news. President Trump announcing in a tweet by the way, which means it is official policy, that Christopher Wray is his pick as FBI director.

The timing is no coincidence. It comes just hours before lawmakers are going to grill the nation's top intel officials and a day before the main event with fired FBI Director James Comey breaking his silence.

What do the senators want to hear today and tomorrow? We have a man in the arena. Senator Mark Warner, the vice chair of the Senate Intel Committee, which is holding these hearings today.

You have the FISA oversight issue. You have DNI Director Coats. He put out a statement. Two big admissions in the statement. One, I don't gossip. I'm not going to talk about what I speak with the president about. Two, I felt no pressure.

What do these two comments mean to you for today, Senator?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Well, Chris, I hope that the -- Director Coats, who is a good friend of mine. He served on our committee, doesn't try to hide behind executive privilege or some other reason. He said when he testified before another committee that he'd be happy

to tell all when he talks to the investigatory committee, and we are that committee. What I want to find out is we've had press reports as recently as yesterday that maybe even more than once, the president tried to intervene with Director Coats to ask him to either down play or dismiss the FBI investigation into contacts between Trump officials and the Russians. We also have and I think with Admiral Rogers, the head of the NSA, will have some additional evidence that there was that kind of intervention as well.

I hope that they will both realize that while they work for this administration, they also have an obligation to the American people. This is such a critically important issue. We have to get the facts out.

CUOMO: Let's discuss why, though. So, if Coats won't answer, OK, or even if he does, but he just iterates what he put out in that statement, which is, whatever happened, I didn't feel pressure. And if Comey says whatever happened and now there is reporting that he didn't want Jeff Sessions to leave him alone with the president, he wrote a memo about feeling uncomfortable about it, but he felt no pressure, doesn't that close the door in terms of how wrong the president's behavior could have been?

WARNER: Chris, I think I will allow the American public to make that judgment. The one thing about our intelligence leaders are, they're supposed to be nonpolitical. They're supposed to speak truth to power. And they're supposed to be responsive, no matter whether they work for Republicans and Democrats.