Return to Transcripts main page


Comparisons to Watergate; Structure of Senate Hearing; Comey Testifying Today; Kasowitz at White House. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired June 8, 2017 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Is one piece, a big piece, but only one part of this mosaic that over the next weeks and months is going to fill in, including the president of the United States and his defense.

And one thing that we see so far is, we see every evidence that Richard Nixon was much more effective in containing what happened for a long time, whether it was a criminal containment or a question of keeping it concealed because he was clever. We haven't seen either the cleverness from Trump or the legal ability to keep this constrained and to keep it under control, that Nixon was able to do for so long. We are still only a few months into this presidency and yet we see this rocking of the boat of the White House ship that is really rocking.

KEN CUCCINELLI, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL, VIRGINIA: Yes, but, Carl, I would think there's a major difference here, and that is that what you call the inability to contain it seems like a complete lack of any attempt to contain it. And that's a very important distinction legally and ultimately politically, even though the White House can look very ham-handed when they deal with some of these things.

And, Anderson, you asked about the structure of the hearing. In my view, if this were a serious fact finding undertaking, instead of an opportunity for individual senators to ask questions, and you're going to hear a lot of repetition in those questions, they would have the counsel doing the questioning because they'd get through an awful lot more material and the senators can still do follow-ups. And, remember, they're going to have a private session of their own when this is over because it is the Senate Intelligence Committee. They can discuss things behind closed doors that they will not discuss in front of the cameras and everything else. So the structure of this hearing tells you a little bit about what's going on here. I think it does point of Carl's point, this is not the end, this is a beginning. And as a beginning, maybe it makes sense. But this - if this was truly investigative, this is not how this hearing would be structured.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Ken's point goes to, I think, what - how we will judge this day. Is it embarrassing or is it imperiling? And his answers I think will help guide us in that way.

But there's the one question that I don't think he can really answer, that is - that screams off of his testimony as released, which is, why did the president of the United States go to such extraordinary lengths to try and get General Flynn off the hook? Why was he so intent on that? That is rooted in the investigation that Jim Comey was conducting and we're told that he can't stray into that investigation. I'm sure that was an agreement with Mr. Mueller for allowing him to testify. But that seems key to all of this.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: One of the few - I mean the direct contradictions between what Director Comey has said - and, Jim, you can speak to this - and what President Trump has said centers on whether or not Comey was asked to lay off Mike Flynn.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Right. I mean that's what we're waiting this morning to see if the president tweets in reaction to any of Comey's comments today. The president has already spoken on one of the central points that James Comey made in his written testimony and that he's going to say again this morning, and that is on whether he pressured Comey on the Flynn investigation. Three weeks ago to the day he was asked about it in no uncertain terms -

COOPER: That was at a press conference.

SCIUTTO: It was at a press conference, asked directly, and let's play the tape so folks can hear it for themselves.


QUESTION: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey, in any way, shape or form, to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn? And also, as you look back -



SCIUTTO: In any way, shape or form, "no. No. Next question." A definitive denial by the president of the United States. You have Director Comey, former director of the FBI, fired director of the FBI saying the exact opposite in great detail. Detailing that conversation, exactly what was said, where it was said, how it was said, contemporary notes of that. So either Comey or the president is lying.

COOPER: We should point out, Preet Bharara, the fired U.S. attorney from New York, is actually in the audience, I'm told a guest of Charles Schumer.

AXELROD: You know Jim Acosta noted that Mr. Kasowitz is there at the White House, the outside lawyer who is leading the defense team for the president. His most important role it seems to me today is any time he sees the president reaching, he should say, Mr. President, put the phone down, back away from the television, don't do anything, because then it will become imperiling.

We've seen already the president has a pension for - I know it's infrastructure. We - he digs big holes and he - and he will continue to dig if he is allowed to comment freely on everything he hears today.

COOPER: And you brought it back to infrastructure.



COOPER: Let's go back to Wolf.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much.

We have a special guest, Ben Cardin, the senator from Maryland, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, a Democrat.

[09:35:01] Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, it's good to be with you.

BLITZER: What's the single most important thing you want to learn as a result of this historic hearing that's about to take place?

CARDIN: Well, I think you're going to see the director to the camera talk about how uncomfortable he was. The president put him in a very difficult position with private meetings, asking him questions about loyalty and then asking him to stop an investigation. He clearly felt very uncomfortable. He knew that something was going on that shouldn't be going on. He made contemporaneous notes. And then he reviewed that with his top leadership. So I think we're going to see from Mr. Comey a direct contradiction what the president of the United States has said and it's going to be, I think, an extremely important moment for the presidency.

BLITZER: Why will it be so extremely important for the presidency?

CARDIN: Because you're going to see on camera the FBI - former FBI director talk about how he has never had these one-on-one type meetings before. This is unprecedented. The FBI is an independent investigative agency. They're doing an investigation involving the Trump campaign, and the president wants to meet one-on-one with the director? That in and of itself is inappropriate. And then to ask the type of questions that he asked is inappropriate. So much so that the director felt he had to make contemporaneous notes and share it with his top management.

So I think you're going to find this is unprecedented, this violates the understanding between the independence of the FBI and the White House, particularly with an active investigation.

BLITZER: The former FBI director did meet twice over three and a half years with President Obama, but he says he never took notes following those meetings. It was a totally different experience, he says, the nine exchanges, the nine encounters he had on the phone and in person with either President-elect Trump or President Trump, and he outlines that in great detail. By the way, we're expecting him to arrive behind us up here on Capitol Hill momentarily.

CARDIN: Well, you know, this is unprecedented, though. The FBI director meets with the president of the United States, but he's never asked to stay back on a meeting to meet one-on-one about an active investigation that involves the president's campaign. That has never been done before in the history of this country. He clearly felt very uncomfortable. I think you're going to see that now by his live testimony.

BLITZER: He has told Senator Burr, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, that this is it. This is going to be his one public testimony. He doesn't want to do anything else. Are you OK with that?

CARDIN: Well, I don't know if that's going to be - be able to hold to that or not. He's a very important player in the - in this. Clearly, it's going to be interesting to Mr. Mueller's investigation. We don't know where that's going to lead. And we don't know where the congressional investigations are going to lead. There may be opportunities that he - he's going to need to return.

BLITZER: We know that Comey, in his testimony, says one thing. The president, a few weeks ago, said exactly the opposite -

CARDIN: The opposite.

BLITZER: As far as trying to influence Comey to drop - to look away from the entire investigation into the fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. It's a he said versus he said. Here's the question. Are there tapes? Do you know if there are tapes of those conversations, whether in the Oval Office, in another room in the West Wing of the White House or the phone conversations?

CARDIN: We've asked for whether that exists or not. We haven't gotten any replies. I think that American people need to know whether the president was taping. And if he did, I think that information needs to be made available. But we do know that contemporaneous notes were made by Director Comey. We know that. We have those notes. And there's no reason to believe that they're not accurately portraying what happened.

BLITZER: Well, when you say you have those notes, have they actually been given to members of Congress? We know Comey has those notes. Others maybe in the FBI have those notes. But have they been handed over to members of Congress?

CARDIN: Not that I am aware of. That's a very good point. I think that also should be made available. We should see the notes themselves.

BLITZER: The contemporaneous notes.


BLITZER: But from your perspective, those contemporaneous notes are as good as what?

CARDIN: Well, I think they're - they reflect what the director happened immediately, and he clearly used that for his testimony that we're going to hear today. He said that. He - it's based upon his notes.

BLITZER: Yes, we don't know if there are tapes. What we do know that in one of those famous tweets that the president had, he's the one who said, Comey, be careful, there could be tapes.

CARDIN: Right.

BLITZER: He used the word "tapes" in quotes that a lot of us remember.

CARDIN: The president hasn't always been forthcoming on his tweets, but it would be - if this exists, we need to know about it and it needs to be made available.

BLITZER: You don't mean forthcoming, you mean accurate.

CARDIN: That's correct. Yes, that's better (ph).

BLITZER: Senator Cardin, thanks very much.

You'll be watching, right?

CARDIN: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All of us will be watching.

The anticipation building up here on Capitol Hill. The blockbuster testimony of the fired former FBI chief, James Comey. We're only minutes away from Comey facing the Senate Intelligence Commission. Our special CNN live coverage continues right after this.


[09:43:55] COOPER: Former FBI Director James Comey has arrived on Capitol Hill.

Welcome to CNN's special live coverage of what we already know will be riveting testimony by former FBI Director James Comey.

I'm Anderson Cooper in Washington.

BLITZER: Anderson, and I'm Wolf Blitzer up here on Capitol Hill.

We're only minutes away from a hearing that in terms of subject magnitude, sheer drama may have its closest parallels in the Watergate hearings more than 40 years ago.

You're about to hear a United States president who's accustomed to crossing lines being accused of crossing a big one, employing one head of the FBI to drop an investigation into the president's former campaign aide and national - fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Even many Republicans are calling that behavior, if true, inappropriate. Many Democrats call it illegal, potentially impeachable. I want to bring in CNN's senior congressional reporter Manu Raju. He's

up on Capitol Hill. Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is over at the White House.

Manu, first, tell us more about what Comey plans to say.

[09:44:59] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, he's really going to lay out in striking detail conversations that he had with President Trump in his time in office before he was fired by the president. Nine interactions he says, according to prepared testimony, talking about the president's ask of him to pledge loyalty, as well as his ask of him to back off the investigation into President Trump's fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and as well as the push by the president for James Comey to clear the president's name and say publically that he was not under investigation, something that Comey did not feel is right. We're going to hear a lot of questions about whether or not the president crossed the line, whether or not he obstructed justice in any way and could be in any legal trouble. That's what those senators want to hear.

And I could tell you, there is enormous anticipation. Hundreds of people, Wolf, are waiting in the hallways here in the Capitol, waiting to get into this room that's packed with hundreds - more than 100 reporters, several dozen guests and as well as some outside guests as well. Preet Bharara, the fired former U.S. attorney, fired by President Trump, in the audience. I just had a chance to speak with him and I asked him, any thoughts about this hearing? He did not want to comment. Said that he is just watching this hearing. He was - actually got this seat from Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, his former - who - he was aide to Schumer. A lot of people waiting for just moments from now, Wolf, for some riveting testimony from James Comey.

BLITZER: It will be riveting indeed.

Jim Acosta, you're at the White House. Set the scene over there. What are officials saying?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think the White House is trying to paint the picture that the president will not be obsessed with Jim Comey's testimony this morning. They say, yes, he will be watching from time to time with aides in the White House dining room, but that he's not going to be, quote, "glued" to the TV. Quote, "that is a good thing" according to one official.

The expectation over here, Wolf, is that the president will not be tweeting during all of this. If you look at the president's Twitter account, astonishingly he has not posted a tweet in a day. Not since yesterday. So he has not been offering any kind of pre-buttle before this testimony. Of course, all of that could change here when Jim Comey starts testifying. But that's the expectation at this point. They're not placing any bets over here.

Also interesting to note, Wolf, and I think this is fascinating, the president's outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, is expected to be over here at the White House for the Comey testimony today. That's an indication that the president is not only listening to what his White House counsel Don McGahn is saying, but he's now also starting to listen to what Marc Kasowitz is saying with respect to what Jim Comey will be testifying up on Capitol Hill.

So, Wolf, all in all, they're trying to paint the picture that the president will be getting down to the business, getting down to the business of being commander in chief and president of the United States. He has two meetings I'm told within the next hour, one at 10:00, another one at 10:30 and so the president keeping busy. We'll be monitoring the Comey testimony, no question about it, but they're trying to make the case over here, paint the picture, that he is not going to be obsessed and riveted with this testimony, that he has other things to do, obviously. He is the president, after all, Wolf.

BLITZER: He certainly is the president of the United States.

Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: All right, Wolf, Manu, Jim, thanks very much.

There a - there's been a liberal amount of Watergate comparisons out there. Is the comparison fair? Carl Bernstein joins us. He literally wrote the book on Watergate. And he's back, along with former Nixon White House counsel and central Watergate figure, John Dean, and CNN legal analyst Richard Ben-Veniste, who was lead prosecutor on the Watergate special prosecution force.

Richard, this idea that Senator Lindsey Graham has floated that special counsel Robert Mueller cannot possibly think there's a case for obstruction of justice against the president if he's letting Jim Comey go out and talk about these conversations publically, do you agree with that?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, I think Mr. Comey's piece of this is a part of investigation, but it is by far only an early piece that sets the tone. I think it's very important that Mr. Comey says that he got the impression on February 14th, in this private meeting with the president, that the president was asking him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn involving lying to the FBI during Flynn's interview with the FBI. That would be a crime under Title 18, Section 1,001, lying to the FBI.

Further, I find it interesting, if my calculation is correct, that the first private dinner that occurred on the 27th, I believe, of January, where Comey was surprised that he was the only guest invited to have dinner, occurs only one day after Sally Yates, the since fired deputy attorney general, went over to meet with counsel Don McGahn, to explained that she was very concerned that Flynn had not been truthful in his testimony - in his statement to the FBI and that this posed a problem for being compromised by the Russians who, in fact, were in a position to know what Mr. Flynn talked to Ambassador Kislyak about. And so these are facts that are very, very critical to an evaluation of motives and the timeline involved here.

COOPER: Richard -

BEN-VENISTE: Of the investigation will go way beyond this.

COOPER: Richard, you mentioned that dinner. That dinner, according to Director Comey, the president called him that day around mid-day and invited him to that dinner. So to your point that perhaps this was in reaction to what Sally Yates had informed the White House about, it wasn't like this was a long-standing dinner that was planned for days or weeks.

BEN-VENISTE: This is an interesting coincidence and something that certainly Mr. Mueller will take note of and Comey will say, according to his prepared remarks, that he was surprised that he was the only guest invited for this dinner.


BEN-VENISTE: So he didn't know he would be alone with the president when this happened. And, of course, this was the occasion when there was, according to Comey, a request that Comey pledge that his loyalty to the president.

COOPER: Yes, so -

BEN-VENISTE: This is something that is very, very unusual.

COOPER: Yes, Carl Bernstein, I mean about that - about that dinner. To Richard's point, the White House - you know, Sally Yates had gone informing the White House that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI and that the interview basically didn't go well and that she believed there was underlying legal issues with his underlined behavior in his conversations with Kislyak in addition to miss-statements or lying to the vice president and others.

BERNSTEIN: Well, there's a disturbing pattern from the beginning involving the president's absolute rejection of saying, let's get to the bottom of what happened with the Russians, what -- how Flynn figures in this. Let's find out the facts. Rather, we have seen the president of the United States, from the very beginning, trying to obstruct, impede, undermine - and I don't mean obstruct justice necessarily in the legal sense, but to keep people from knowing what happened here in a matter of the gravest importance to the national security of the United States.


BERNSTEIN: Which is to say, a foreign hostile power, Russia, tried to undermine our basic democratic process, interfere in our elections and the president, rather than saying what the hell happened here has defended himself, defended those among his codari (ph) and in his campaign without giving us any indication that he has any interest in finding out what really happened. That is really disturbing and the pattern is to continually push away investigators, try to impede and, in the case of Comey, really cross a line from what Comey is telling us that gets to the area of abusive power.

COOPER: Yes, Carl, I've got to - let's listen to what Susan Collins is saying on The Hill. BERNSTEIN: All right.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Today we finally get a chance to question directly a major character in this whole controversy. I will be asking him many questions about his meetings with the president. In particular, I'm very interested in how he responded to the president, when the president asked him to let go of the investigation of certain aspects of Michael Flynn's calls with the Russian ambassador. That will be something I want to flesh out.

There were other meetings and phone calls other than the ones that Mr. Comey commented on in his testimony. I'd like to know what was said during those meetings and phone calls and whether or not he wrote memos each time. So that will be - those will be some of the questions.


COOPER: Republican Susan Collins from Maine.

Let's go back to Wolf on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: All right, what's happening is they're getting ready for the questioning. The opening statement from the former FBI director, Anderson, follows. There will be opening statements from the chairman and the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee as well, Richard Burr and Mark Warner.

Dana, what, there are seven Republicans on this committee, six Democrats, four members, ex-officio members who are not members of the committee but they're invited to participate automatically. The majority leader, Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, Chuck Schumer. The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, John McCain, he can ask questions. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. They're going to have to decide if they do one round, we're told, each senator will have seven minutes to ask questions , they will go down to two rounds, five minutes each.

[09:55:19] DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And it's going to be sort of a game-day decision for the Intelligence chair. My sense is that if there are senators who want to continue asking questions, and there are areas and avenues that haven't been explored, that will probably happen. This is one of those hearings where you don't - where, you know, even and especially a Republican chairman doesn't want to shut it down, especially after what happened yesterday when he had the never mind a fired member of the administration, but the current director of national intelligence, the current - the heads of the Justice Department there not answering questions. So there's definitely a kind of bipartisan situation where they have their back up and they want to really be able to have this conversation with James Comey and really get answers.

And you heard Susan Collins talking about, you know, we have been focused on this unbelievably detailed opening statement that Comey released yesterday. But this is just, you know, what he wanted to say at the beginning. There are so many other potential conversations and potential incidents that these members of the committee want to get at with him.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, it will be interesting to see if members kind of act as a team, where one - where one member focuses on the question, why didn't you speak out before, Mr. Comey, if you thought that what he was doing was so inappropriate that you felt you had to memorialize it. Maybe the Republicans will assign someone to do that. Or why won't you make a legal judgment on this? Or why won't you make a political judgment on this? What do you really believe occurred here? So I - you know, the - usually senators, in this kind of a huge hearing with these kind of stakes, may actually, their staff simply may get together and say, you tackle this and you tackle that so we can cover all the ground we need to cover.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: : And in this case, look, it's a crossroad's day in the Trump presidency. He's at 35, 36, maybe 40 percent depending on which poll you look at approval rating. Will Republicans stand with him after today? And as we get the what, nine times Jim Comey says in his prepared statement, the president of the United States put him in what he believed was an uncomfortable, awkward, inappropriate position, directly talking to the president of the United States, directly talking to the FBI director about an ongoing conversation, and in some of those conversations asking him to dial it back, shut it down, interpret it as you will.

That's what Jim Comey is going to say. The big question I have is why? Why? And can you get at that with Jim Comey today? I don't know. But that is the central question of the investigation going forward. We still don't know so much more than we know. And even after today, we are going to not know so much more than we know, even as we hear Jim Comey.

But, why? This is a president, for three-plus days now, they have not even answered the question, does he still have full confidence in his attorney general. He has left his press secretary hanging out to dry. He has left his chief of staff out to dry. He has not shown loyalty to a lot of people close to around him. If this really happened, why. Why was he so worried about General Flynn?

BASH: That's -

BLITZER: We're told, by the way, that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, Nia, his staff says he's not going to be watching the testimony. He'll get briefed - he'll get updates from his staff.

But John makes a really important point, he is the attorney general of the United States. He's recused himself from the overall Russia investigation. But for three days now a simple question has not been answered by the White House, does the president have confidence in the attorney general?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right. And the president said to be upset about the fact that Sessions recuse himself in the first place from this. And the reporting also suggested at some point Sessions even said that maybe he would resign if that was something that the president wanted. The president obviously has not said that but has kept Sessions out to dry. Remember, Sessions, a real loyalist to this president. One of the

first ones out there supporting him. And so to have that still hanging out there is surprising, but in some ways typical of this president where people are up and down and down when they're not up. So that's typical. And it's certainly a contrast with what we've seen in terms of his treatment of Flynn, going all out, courting James Comey, to save Flynn, at least according to this testimony.

One of the things that's also interesting here is the ways in which this courtship obviously happens at the White House and there are all of these people around, right? At some point Sessions is there. He's asked to leave. Kushner is there. he's asked to leave. At some point Reince Priebus comes in on a meeting and Donald Trump sort of shews him away. And then at some point, and this is when the February 14th meeting, the Valentine's Day meeting, Comey leaves, he's 6'8," and he's - as he leaves the Oval Office, he's going through a crowd of people who include Vice President Pence, as well as Reince Priebus. What did all those people know? Where's the conversation with them?