Return to Transcripts main page


Comey to Testify before Senate; Lines for the Comey Hearing; Comparisons to Watergate. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired June 8, 2017 - 08:30   ET


[08:30:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Terrorism official Richard Clarke, here to give us his "Bottom Line," next.


CAMEROTA: In just about 90 minutes, former FBI Director James Comey will testify in a room you're about to see live, or not. It's in front of the Senate Intel Committee. There it is. People have been lining up for hours waiting to get inside. You can see some of the media already taking their places, along with others.

So joining us now - look at the line outside to get in. Joining us now is Richard Clarke. He's the former national coordinator for security and counterterrorism under both President Bush and President Clinton. He's also the author of a new book, "Warning: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes."

Mr. Clarke, great to see you.

So you are no stranger to captivating Capitol Hill hearings. What's your take on what's going to happen today?

RICHARD CLARKE, FMR. COORDINATOR FOR SECURITY AND COUNTER-TERRORISM: Well, we know what he's going to say. I think what will be interesting is what the questions are and does he say more as a result of the questions.

[08:34:54] But what strikes me is, Donald Trump has apparently come close to the law or broke the law on obstruction of justice and he must have known that. He spent a lot of time in New York in and around organized crime figures. He knows what obstruction of justice is. He may not be a lawyer, but he knows. And the question in my mind is, did he think he could get away with this? And the answer I think is probably yes. He did this, not just with the FBI director, but apparently with the national intelligence director as well, if you read between the lines yesterday, asking them to do things which he shouldn't have asked them to do. He must have known he was breaking or approaching the law.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Richard, I'm slow to tangle with your mind. I've leaned on your intelligence too many times for answers. But if you're looking at it from Trump's perspective on a legal case, OK, not political appropriateness, not whether or not it was presidential, but you have nobody saying that they felt pressured by the guy to this point.

CLARKE: Right.

CUOMO: Anybody who was relevantly involved. All of his actions seem to be within the purview of his power as president. You know, he can talk to guys about a case if he wants to. Whether he should or not is a separate consideration. But if you can't prove that he was trying to end this probe by his actions and his words in a specific way, won't this just be written off as political misconduct?

CLARKE: Well, I think it will be because no one's going to do anything about it. I don't think the House of Representatives is even thinking about an impeachment at this point. And I, frankly, doubt very much on the basis of this information that Bob Mueller would even think about an indictment. So he is going to get away with it, at least he's going to get away with this part of it.

CAMEROTA: But when you say that you believe that it rises to the level of obstruction of justice, you mean the part where the president purportedly says to James Comey I sure wish that you could find a way to let the Michael Flynn investigation go. He's a good guy.

CLARKE: Well, it was clear to me what the intent was. Now, I'm not a lawyer, but the president has himself said on television what his intent was. He wanted to shut down the Russia investigation. That's why he fired Comey. That's the obstruction part there. And then there's this issue.

Look, I had the same thing happen. I had President Bush lean on me and say, can't you prove that Iraq did 9/11? Now, was that an order? Was that an instruction? Was that a suggestion? When the president looks you in the eye and says something like that, you know what he wants you to do.

CUOMO: Right. But we also know what Richard Clarke did and shouldn't part of this scrutiny today be on Jim Comey, that if it was so bad what he was being asked to do, do you believe he did enough in response?

CLARKE: Well, he has a very interesting answer in the prepared testimony. He said he talked to his colleagues at the FBI and they decided there was no point telling the attorney general because he was going to recuse himself. They instead would hold this information about this event to use it later on in their investigation. That's a very, very interesting line because it suggests that he thought there would be more charges against the president later on in the investigation.

CUOMO: But then why tell the president on several occasions, which was not a Comey-esque type of behavior, that he wasn't part of the investigation?

CLARKE: Well, because I think technically that's right. I think he's not a target of the investigation. He's not a subject of the investigation. His campaign is. And that's a subtle distinction, but it's an important one. CAMEROTA: But Comey did go to the acting deputy attorney general and

did disclose this, he says to him, and he also told the attorney general, I don't want to be alone in a room anymore with President Trump because he's asking inappropriate things of me. So did that, in your mind, go far enough?

CLARKE: No, I don't think it did. But what did go far enough was making the record, talking to his colleagues, contemporaneous record, contemporaneous discussion, and deciding that this should be entered into the file of the investigation, of the larger investigation, for use later in the investigation. That's the line that really struck me.

CUOMO: So, let's squeeze your intellect on what you are hoping is asked today. What are you thinking?

CLARKE: Well, I think we need to hear from him, was this a suggestion? Was it an order? What was you interpretation? When you said the president wasn't a subject of a target of the investigation, why did you say that when his campaign was? Why did you say that you couldn't say that publically because facts might change and then you would have to publically tell everyone that the facts had changed? What suggested to you that the facts might change and later on you might be investigating him?

CAMEROTA: But, I mean, wasn't he just being cautious that - we all know facts might change. All we have is the snapshot of today. And isn't it OK to tell someone that they're not the target of an investigation if they're worried about it?

[08:40:06] CLARKE: No, you should. But the interesting thing is, he wanted him to prove a negative. He wanted him to say, I investigated all of the things in the British dossier and none of them are true. And Comey said, I can't do that.

CUOMO: All right, Richard Clarke, always a pleasure to benefit from your understanding of this type of situation. Thanks for being on the show.

CAMEROTA: Thank you.

CLARKE: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right, we are just minutes away from James Comey telling his side of the story. And that's important to remember, this is just his side of the story. But there's going to be, and there already has been, a lot of parallels to Watergate. How about we bring in some people who were key players in Watergate and get their perspective on how this sizes up, next.


CUOMO: It's being called the most anticipate congressional hearing in decades. And judging by the lines and the mood around this hearing, members of the public can't wait to hear what fired FBI Director James Comey has to say.

We have CNN's Ryan Nobles live just outside the hearing room.

Set the stage for us, my friend.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anticipation, Chris. We're going to show you an example of that right now. Take a look at this line. We're actually in the Dirksen Office Building, which is right next door to the Hart Office Building, where the hearing will take place. And take a look at this line of folks waiting to get in, hoping to get a seat to this hearing here today. It stretches across both of these office buildings.

And for these people at the end of the line, it may be tough for them to get in. There are only 90 seats available inside the hearing room itself. There is another overflow room which seats about 100 people where they have an audio and video feed. We're pretty much at the tail end of the line here, so it may be difficult for a lot of these folks to actually get into the hearing room.

But there's certainly a degree of buzz and anticipation. Keep in mind, we're an hour and 15 minutes away from the start of this hearing and people have been lined up since early this morning. So there is definitely a lot of interest in what's going to happen here today. I'm not sure how many of these folks are actually going to get to see what's going to happen inside this hearing room. But regardless, everyone in D.C. waiting to hear what James Comey has to say later this morning.

[08:45:13] Chris and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Yes, Ryan, in D.C. and beyond. Thank you for showing us all of the building anticipation there.

So, James Comey's memos about his interactions with President Trump are, of course, drawing comparisons to Watergate, as is all of this. So let's discuss this big day with three Watergate era players. We have former Nixon White House counsel and CNN contributor John Dean, we have former Watergate special prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Richard Ben-Veniste, and legendary journalist and CNN political commentator Karl Bernstein.

It is a pleasure to speak to all of you here this morning and to have all of your vast experience.

John Dean, do you think this holds up in terms of a parallel to Watergate?

JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's not quite a parallel yet. You've got to recall, Watergate ran for some 928 days if you go from the arrests at Watergate to the last of the trials. This is very early, but it is compressed and it is moving faster and there are some definite echoes of Watergate. Comey is one of our first public witnesses. We were about this season 45 years ago into the Watergate hearing. So a summer hearing is also a parallel.

CUOMO: Karl, what's your take from those who say, well, it's not Watergate. There was an underlying crime there. This is different. This is just about politics. What's your guidance?

KARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think that's the important question in comparison or differences. I think what we're seeing is that Comey has produced what looks on its face to be a devastating portrait of what occurred, some suggestions of obstruction and abuse of authority. And at the same time, he hasn't had - been before a committee yet where he can be questioned and his evidence, or whatever you want to call it, is subject to impeachment of his veracity, et cetera, et cetera.

But more than that, we're very, very early in the process. Nowhere near where we were in Watergate after John Dean testified, for example. And the other great difference here, aside from the fact we need to know how all of this relates to the Russian investigation. The president is entitled to get before both Mueller's investigation and before the Congress his version of events. We need to do that in fairness and not jump to a lot of conclusions yet.

But more important are the Republicans. The difference so far between Watergate and what we're seeing here is that the Republicans in Congress have not shown that they're interested in getting to the bottom of what happened with the Russians and our elections. That they've been more interested in blindly supporting and defending the president, instead of trying to get to the truth. And there's a huge difference. In Watergate, the Republicans joined in a consensus of, we need to get to the bottom of this.

CAMEROTA: Richard, what do you see as the differences and the parallels?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I see some significant parallels. In Watergate, it was striking that President Nixon had surrounded himself with aides who catered to his dark side. There was no one to say no to him. And with President Trump, I fear he doesn't have the kind of people who have the standing to say no to him. And in the firing of Mr. Comey, it has brought down a series of events that result in having Bob Mueller appointed as special counsel. We need to be thinking about whether in some impetuous moment the president decides to fire Bob Mueller, or fire Rosenstein, who is going to take the action to prevent him from doing that and what is the position of the Republican members of Congress were that to happen. I think we need to be thinking ahead as we contemplate the circumstances of firing Comey.

The second thing that I see as a parallel is the Saturday night massacre was an extraordinary event in the history of Watergate. Suddenly the public woke up to the fact that something very important had happened -


BEN-VENISTE: And why was the president risking firing the person who was doing the investigation and the attorney general who resigned and the deputy attorney general who resigned rather than firing Archie Cox.


BEN-VENISTE: What was Nixon hiding?

[08:50:01] CUOMO: So what do you think, John Dean, the expose is for the president on today's testimony?

DEAN: Well, I think it's considerable. I think there's - first of all, Mr. Comey is going to put a few of the pieces together. And while he can testify to a number of his personal dealings with Trump and Trump's effort to deal with the investigation, Comey has got to look at it from the fact that in the end he was fired and that the president made it very clear he was being removed because of the Russian investigation. So that puts the president at direct jeopardy.

This investigation is about more than simply obstruction of justice, that this is something that has spun out early. I think it's the bigger picture that the president is going to have to address at some point, why is he so concerned about what Michael Flynn might do or not do that he would indeed tell Comey to back off on his investigation. So the pieces are just falling together sort of from the middle out at this point as we put this puzzle together and there's just no question Trump has jeopardy or he wouldn't be reacting the way he is.

CAMEROTA: And, Karl, I mean just to remind our younger viewers of the Watergate era, it was, as John Dean said, June 17, 1972, in the DNC headquarters at the Watergate was broke into. It was that break-in that was sort of the genesis of then what happened. And that seems more tangible to people than what is happening now, which is more nebulous of trying to connect these dots. As someone who did connect the dots back then, what do you - where do you think today leads?

BERNSTEIN: I think what we need to do as reporters, particularly, is to find the evidence, to keep searching for the best obtainable version of the truth. And what we saw yesterday in the resistance of two people in the intelligence community trying to stiff the Congress of the United States was just the opposite of that. And I think it's a - it was a sign and that again Republicans and Democrats on that committee were finally seeing. We've been waiting for years to see the Congress of the United States function in a bipartisan way and try to act responsibly and here we have a Senate committee that seems to be trying to do it and two of the highest intelligence officers in the country, Mr. Coats and Admiral Rogers, tried to stiff it yesterday.

But more important, and you ask about the history of all this, what was Watergate really about? It was about establishing that no one in this country, including the United States is - including the president of the United States is above the law. And what we're seeing now is a test of that. We don't know yet definitively that the president has broken the law, that he has conspired, colluded or anything else. But we have great suggests here in what we know so far of a kind of prima fascia case of obstruction of justice, perhaps abuse of authority. But what we now need to know is, what is the president going to say in his own defense and where are these facts going to lead in terms of the overall sprawling investigation that the special counsel is doing about Russia, Russian hacking and possible collusion. CUOMO: We're hearing from Jim Acosta that the president will be monitoring the situation today. He'll be with his lawyer, Marc Kasowitz. So we'll see if he decides to respond in real-time.

BERNSTEIN: But I mean - I mean not just in real-time. I mean we need to hear -

CUOMO: No, I get you, you mean ultimately.

BERNSTEIN: We need to hear in a definitive way, a methodical way, from the president of the United States what occurred here, what were his interactions with the Russians -

CUOMO: But -

BERNSTEIN: If they were and (INAUDIBLE) Russians. We need to hear from him sooner rather than later.

CUOMO: But he has said he had no dealings. He said it a lot of times. And what happens here, Karl, is that very often it becomes what line of inquiry do you want to follow. I mean Mr. Ben-Veniste today, there's a very good likelihood that when Jim Comey gets up there, some Republican is either going to want to talk about a meeting with Clinton on the tarmac or start going after Comey about how his memo wound up in "The New York Times" and that could take you down a very different road.

BERNSTEIN: I - let me - let me just suggest, Chris, something else there.

BEN-VENISTE: I'm sorry, there is no - there is - there is no - there is no - there is no limit on what the members of the committee can ask about. But I think this hearing will set a tone of what the president thinks about the restraints on the presidency and whether there are any in his mind. The whole discussion of whether the request for a pledge of loyalty personally to the president was a quid pro quo for Comey keeping his job is illuminated by the fact that he's eventually fired. And so the whole question of whether the president gets how the government works or whether he tries to impose how a private company might work-

[08:55:23] CAMEROTA: Yes.

BEN-VENISTE: With its employees, that's a - that's a big difference. And this is an investigation that will go on for some time. Bob Mueller is a superb choice to lead that investigation.


BEN-VENISTE: And it will go into a variety of different areas. But this will set a tone, in my view, of the view of how the president is acting as president.

CAMEROTA: Karl, do you want to finish your thought in ten seconds?

DEAN: Let me - BERNSTEIN: Go ahead.

Yes, that this investigation, like Watergate and Richard Nixon, is closing in on the president of the United States. And by this investigation, I mean Bob Mueller's as well, the special counsel. And we are still in a much earlier phase than we were in Watergate at this time. And we need to know a lot more. And in fairness to the president, we need to know a lot more.

But today we're going to get another indication from Comey of what it is the president was trying to keep from happening. He keeps trying to impede, obstruct, undermine the investigation, the legitimate investigation. Maybe Comey will have some answers about what he thinks and why the president was doing this.


CUOMO: All right, gentlemen, appreciate it. Your perspective needed now more than ever. Thank you.

We're just minutes away from the big event. Former director of the FBI, James Comey, will testify at 10:00 a.m. Our special coverage with Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer is going to pick up right after the break. Stay with CNN.


[09:00:13] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.