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Interview with Representative James Comer; Dozens of Ambassador Posts Empty Amid Global Turmoil; Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired February 1, 2018 - 10:30   ET



[10:31:32] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Another Republican congressman opts out. Trey Gowdy, big named Republican, says he'll retire after this term.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You know, the congressman is the chair of the House Oversight Committee. He is the ninth committee chair to announce his resignation since the president took office. In total, 36 House Republicans are leaving after this term.

Joining us now, Republican Congressman James Comer. He is joining us from the Republican retreat in West Virginia.

We're glad you made it there safely, first of all, let's establish that. 36 of your colleagues including nine committee chair running for the hills. You know what's wrong? Does it smell bad or something in the House? Why is everyone leaving? This can't be a good sign.

REP. JAMES COMER (R), OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE: Well, I think that Republicans for the most part believe in term limits. A lot of these chairmen have been here a long time and I think it's time to move on. They've given their time and public service and they're ready to move on.

I'm certainly going to miss Chairman Gowdy, he's chairman of my oversight committee, he's probably one of the more popular members of Congress. But I certainly understand his decision to move on.

HARLOW: Well, hope you're not calling Trey Gowdy an old man. He's not an old guy. But I hear you, I hear your answer, and we want to get you on a few other things, sir.

The intelligence community ahead of the FBI handpicked by this president now at complete odds with this president on whether to release Devin Nunes' memo, very controversial memo. The White House has made every indication it will do that. They're going to make a final decision today.

The FBI feels like this is definitely not something that should be out there so much so that they issued a rare public statement that reads, "We have grave concerns about material omission of facts that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy." This isn't we prefer they don't. This is the memo has inaccuracies and it shouldn't be out there. Do you think the White House should release the memo?

COMER: Well, I think that we should be transparent at all levels of government and every agency. As a member of the Oversight Committee, I take my role on the Oversight Committee very seriously. I had a chance to review the memo. In my opinion, there is nothing in that memo that would jeopardize our national security or unmask anyone or do anything that some of the people on your show today have suggested. So I think it is something that certainly is up to the president, if the president wants to release the memo, I certainly support that.

BERMAN: You say you're all for transparency. In the interest of transparency, would you then support releasing the Democratic interpretation of these same issues at the same time? If you want to be transparent, show everyone everything at once.

COMER: Yes, I think so. I don't have a problem if the Democrats want to release a memo, that's fine with me. Certainly the --


BERMAN: And so should the Republicans -- should the Republicans wait then? What I'm saying is --

HARLOW: They would have to wait.

BERMAN: The Republicans would have to wait. The president would have to wait then and you think that's a good idea. Maybe wait to release the Republican version until the Democrat one is ready?

COMER: Well, I don't know. But, you know, I think that -- the things that are most important about this is Congress has tried to get the FBI to come testify over the past year on different occasions and they clearly avoided that. And I think that there are checks and balances in our wonderful democracy here and certainly I think that this should be transparent. If the Democrats disagree, which I know they do, then certainly I support them getting their position out there as well.

But the bottom line is there is a lack of confidence in the FBI by many Americans right now, especially many in Congress, so certainly I think the more that we can get out there, the better this is all going to end.

[10:35:12] HARLOW: But you sort of can't have it both ways. Either you support full transparency, which would be both of these memos coming out at the same time, or you don't. And you think the president could go ahead and release the Republican memo today because for the Democrat memo to go through all of the different checks, the Republicans would need to wait. The president would need to wait and not put Nunes' memo out today.

Should the president wait and should both these memos come out at the same time, yes or no?

COMER: Well, that is certainly up to the president. I think that --

HARLOW: I'm asking you.

COMER: Soon enough --

HARLOW: You've reviewed the memo.

COMER: Right.

HARLOW: I'm asking you as a member of Congress, should these come out at the same time?

COMER: Right.

HARLOW: Should the president wait?

COMER: Well, I think the president can release the memo whenever he wants. The Intelligence Committee voted, a majority voted to release the memo upon the president's decision, if the president decides that, I think that's fine, and if the Democrats want to come back and release a memo, I certainly would not have a problem with that either.

BERMAN: All right. You're not answering the question, but I don't think you will, so let us move on. CNN reporting that the president in December, which is, what, like six weeks ago, asked Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, he wanted an update on the Russia investigation, not sure that's fully proper to begin with. But then asked the deputy AG, are you on my team?

Are you comfortable with what seemed to be repeated questions from the president to people in law enforcement about their personal loyalty?

COMER: Well, you know, the president appoints the top leadership at the Department of Justice and -- you know, who knows if he asked that question. When Rosenstein testified before Congress, it is my belief that he indicated that he was never pressured, the only oath he was asked to take was his oath of office, so, you know, it's not uncommon for a president or a governor or anyone in an executive position to ask someone that they're making an appointment for that, you know, are you certainly going to be on my team?

I don't think there is any hint of obstruction of justice there or anything like that. Certainly the president wants people that aren't going to be around him that are going to be constantly running to the press and leaking things out and disrupting his time in office because, you know, the American people right now and the polls are showing are pretty happy with the direction the economy is going.

They're very happy with the tax cuts and I think that this whole special investigator, it's just been a big distraction on the president.

HARLOW: Well, a majority --

COMER: I can understand his frustration.

HARLOW: Hold on, Congressman. Because a majority of the American people also think that the Russia investigation is a serious issue. They also think --

BERMAN: Yes, all these things can be true at once.

HARLOW: They cannot -- yes, they're not mutually exclusive. Before you go, and you're right, that on December 13th, Rosenstein testified in front of Congress, yes, I don't feel like I was asked to do anything inappropriate or pledge this loyalty, but our reporting is multiple sources that he did say, are you on our team, and the context of why he was asking Rosenstein that matters.

What would you do, though? Because we also have reporting that the president at one point said he wanted to get rid of Rosenstein. If the president did move to fire Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, what would you do?

COMER: Well, what you have to understand is the American people wanted an outsider. They wanted someone that --

HARLOW: That's not what I --


COMER: -- politics. And I think that --

HARLOW: That's not what I'm asking you. I'm asking you if he moves to fire Rosenstein, what would you do?

COMER: The president, time to figure out --

HARLOW: Just really direct question.

COMER: If he decided to fire Rosenstein?

HARLOW: Yes. Yes.

COMER: If he decided -- well, I think that's the president has the ability to fire his at-will employees. So if the president fired Rosenstein, I would support that. I think that there are a lot of people in America, especially in my district in Kentucky, that are very disappointed in the attorney general and Rosenstein and, you know, if there is something there with Russia, then let's get it out.

This has been a year, this has been a distraction. The press is obsessed with this Russia investigation while the American people are obsessed with the economy. We want to get people off welfare and into the workplace. I think we're seeing signs of that happening. So it is unfortunate that so much time is being taken on this Russia investigation. So I certainly would encourage the investigators if they have something there, let's start getting it out there because this is taking up a lot of time and a lot of effort and we can really accomplish some great things in this Congress, but this whole Russia investigation has been a big distraction.

HARLOW: Republican Congressman James Comer, thank you. Enjoy the retreat.

So turning pages, amid global turmoil, President Trump leaves several key ambassador posts empty, still a year into the job.

[10:40:00] We're going to talk about that and the potential risk it poses next.


BERMAN: More than a year into the presidency, and President Trump's State Department still does not have ambassadors in some key areas around the world.

HARLOW: And some really critical spots, in regions rife with conflict, like the Korean Peninsula, Turkey remain unfilled.

Nic Robertson reports.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): From Belgium to Belize, South Korea to South Africa, President Trump has a problem. His embassies have no ambassador. Nearly 40 posts vacant with around 30 still awaiting a nominee. Meaning one in every five ambassadorial posts is unfilled.

A quick scroll down of the State Department's home page for senior State Department officials shows us similarly scanty covering of key positions. Six of the top nine positions vacant.

Trump is a year into his presidency and has a third of fewer ambassadorial nominations in his predecessor Obama over the same timeframe.

[10:45:06] On Capitol Hill, alarm bells are ringing.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: The foreign service is being hollowed out with a significantly lower number in the incoming classes, putting at risk the next generation of leaders.

ROBERTSON: But Trump has an answer. On foreign policy, only his opinion counts.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We don't need all the people that they want.

ROBERTSON: And during his State of the Union speech, Trump doubled down. No problem here.

TRUMP: As rebuild America's strength and confidence at home, we are also restoring our strength and standing abroad.

ROBERTSON: At the European Union, an institution Trump criticizes, they would beg to differ. There is frustration they've been without an American ambassador for a year.

The E.U. represents over 500 million people and opposes Trump on some of his top topics -- trade and Iran. But it's in the Middle East where U.S. overseas policy seems most collectively exposed. Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, all without ambassadors.

Secretary of State Tillerson meeting this week with his Qatari counterpart, saying he was as concerned now as he was six months ago that the tiny Gulf nation's rift with regional rival Saudi Arabia. In public remarks, Tillerson has acknowledged persistent vacancies. Some of the blame he insists lies with the Senate who are responsible for confirming the president's nominees.

But opponents of the administration insist the problem is mismanagement at every level of the department from career officials being cut from policy decisions to failing to fill important vacancies.

CARDIN: The Foreign Relations Committee has promptly processed the vast majority of nominees and only a handful are currently awaiting a Senate vote. We cannot confirm nominees who have not been nominated.

ROBERTSON: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been scathing in an editorial. "If the U.S. military were facing a recruitment in retention crisis of this magnitude few would hesitate to call it a national security emergency." Adding that, "While it saddens me to criticize one of my successors, I have to speak out because the stakes are so high."

Stakes that put American lives on the line. Turkish new Syria offensive potentially adding to risks to U.S. forces nearby.

Ambassadors are no indemnity against misfortune, but they can improve the odds.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Abu Dhabi.


HARLOW: Nic, thank you very much. Eye-opening to see all those positions still open.

Ahead for us, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell facing the media ahead of the big game this Sunday. What did he say when he was asked about concussions in the league? That's next.


[10:52:32] HARLOW: Do you just smile when we get to --


BERMAN: I see Tom Brady's name on the teleprompter, I smile. I do. I do.

HARLOW: Tom Brady making his eighth appearance at the Super Bowl on Sunday. This one is extra special due to his close ties to the home state of Minnesota. They're always -- I have to read this.

BERMAN: They're always special. They're all special.

Andy Scholes has more in the "Bleacher Report" in Minneapolis.

Hey, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Hey, good morning, guys. You know, Tom Brady grew up in California, but he has close ties to this state of Minnesota because his mom's family is actually from a small town called Browerville, Minnesota. It's got a population of less than 800 people. It's about two hours away from where we are here in downtown Minneapolis.

You know, Brady has an aunt, uncle, his cousins that still live in Browerville. And they're home at their home, you'll find the biggest Tom Brady shrine outside of the city or outside of New England and outside of John Berman's basement, I imagine.

And Brady, when he was speaking with the media yesterday, he said, you know, he's got such fond memories as a kid of spending summers in Minnesota at his grandparents' farm.


TOM BRADY, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS QUARTERBACK: It is very special. I've come here my entire life. I mean, since I was a baby, I've been coming to Minnesota in summers and winters and, you know, love the experience, I love the life here. You know, being some of great memories I had as a kid were growing up and, you know, coming here and milking cows with my grandpa and hanging out in the silos and up in the haystack above his barn.

And it was great. I mean, it's just -- I love being here. I love the people. And being at my mom's here, you know, such a special connection.


SCHOLES: Brady's number one target, Rob Gronkowski, said he's on target to play in Sunday's game. He, of course, suffered that concussion in the AFC championship game.

And concussions and players safety always a big topic during Super Bowl week. And legendary quarterback Brett Favre, he spoke with CNN's Christiane Amanpour and said there is only one way to make the game of football safer.


BRETT FAVRE, FORMER NFL QUARTERBACK: How do you make the game safer? You don't play. You know, I mean, is that going to happen? No, I think the NFL is here to stay.


SCHOLES: So Brett Favre says you don't play. Well, we asked Commissioner Roger Goodell at his State of the League address what he thought of Brett Favre's comments.


ROGER GOODELL, NFL COMMISSIONER: This has been a major focus for us in trying to make our game safer. Our level and all the way through every level of football, the game of football is much safer than when I played it.

[10:55:05] But that's part of our responsibility and we take that seriously. And it is something we'll continue to focus on.


SCHOLES: And this "Bleacher Report" is brought to you by the new 2018 Ford F-150.

And Poppy, I actually have a question for you.


SCHOLES: Since you're from Minnesota, it's negative two degrees outside right now. That's why we're inside.

HARLOW: And you're a wimp.

SCHOLES: I've got this protective --

HARLOW: You're a wimp. Yes.

SCHOLES: Well, it's physically impossible, I think, to stand outside and do television out there. But I was just wondering how you do it.

HARLOW: Oh, yes.

SCHOLES: How you do it in Minneapolis.

HARLOW: I've done it. I've done it many, many times, Andy. I hope you're comfortable inside. Enjoy my hometown.

SCHOLES: I will.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks, Andy. Just moments ago, President Trump departed for a Republican retreat. Much more coming up.