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Former FBI Director James Comey Gives Interview on Upcoming Book about Experiences with President Trump. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 16, 2018 - 8:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Comey suggesting that President Trump may have obstructed justice when he asked him to let go of the Michael Flynn investigation, and that it is possible that Russians have dirt on the president that could be used as leverage.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: The president launching a preemptive Twitter attack ahead of the Comey interview, calling Comey slippery, not smart, and again saying he is a slime ball. The president's focus between Comey's accusations and an investigation involving his longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen. Cohen will be in court later today for a hearing on the records that were seized by the FBI in the searches last week. Some legal analysts say that could be a bigger legal threat to the president than even the Mueller probe. Let's begin with CNN's Kaitlan Collins. She is live at the White House. What is the latest at this hour, Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, I'm not sure we have ever seen anything like this where the former FBI director is publicly attacking the sitting president. To be clear, James Comey and President Trump have been feuding for a while now, almost a year. But if there was any chance this feud didn't turn into an all out war, it evaporated last night when James Comey unleashed.


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I don't think he is medically unfit to be president. I think he's morally unfit to be president.

COLLINS: Fired FBI director James Comey unleashing a scathing criticism of President Trump's character, blasting him as unfit for office and a stain on those around him.

COMEY: A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they're pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person is not fit to be president of the United States on moral grounds.

COLLINS: In his first televised interview since the president fired him last May, Comey reveals he thinks the president might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump? COMEY: It always struck me and still strikes me as unlikely. I would

have been able to say with high confidence about any other president I dealt with, but I can't. It's possible.

COLLINS: Comey reflecting on the February meeting when he says President Trump asked him to drop the investigation into his former national security adviser Michael flynn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could you have said, Mr. President, I can't discuss this with you? You are doing something improper?

COMEY: Maybe. Although, if he didn't know he was doing something improper, why did he kick out the attorney general and the vice president of the United States and the leaders of the intelligence community? Why am I alone if he doesn't know the nature of the request?

COLLINS: Trump denies he made the request, but Comey believes it bears weight in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was President Trump obstructing justice?

COMEY: Possibly. There's certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What will it mean if President Trump tries to fire Robert Mueller?

COMEY: It would, I hope, set off alarm bells that this is his most serious attack yet on the rule of law.

COLLINS: But when asked whether Mr. Trump should be impeached?

COMEY: I hope not because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values. And so impeachment in a way would short circuit that.

COLLINS: Comey comparing the president's behaver to that of a mob boss, saying he repeatedly demanded loyalty, most notably at a one-on- one dinner.

COMEY: He said I expect loyalty. I need loyalty. And I just stared at him and had this little narrative with myself inside, saying don't you move, don't you dare move. Don't even blink.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why not say no?

COMEY: I think because I was caught totally by surprise.

COLLINS: Trump denies he's ever said that. Comey says President Trump dominated the conversation, talking about himself the whole time.

COMEY: Constant series of assertions about the inauguration. His inauguration crowd was bigger than that of Barack Obama's first inauguration. That is not true. That's not a perspective, that's not a view. That's just a lie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you are listening. Are you thinking President Trump is a liar?


COLLINS: Comey recalling his infamous handshake from Trump in the White House shortly after the inauguration. He says even his family knew how uncomfortable he was.

COMEY: They know that is my oh no face.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not exactly what Patrice said.

COMEY: I didn't want to say it on television. She said that's Jim's oh -- face.

COLLINS: Comey revealing how it felt when he discovered he had been fired.

COMEY: I don't remember being angry. I thought it was crazy to fire me. I'm leading the investigation of Russian influence and particularly whether anyone in the Trump orbit had coordinated and conspired with the Russians. That makes no sense at all.

COLLINS: Comey also reflecting on his controversial decision to inform Congress that he was reopening the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation just days before the election.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did it feel like to be James Comey in the last 10 days of that campaign after you sent the letter?

[08:05:00] COMEY: It sucked. I walked around vaguely sick to my stomach, feeling beaten down. I felt like I was totally alone, that everybody hated me, and that there wasn't a way out because it was the right thing to do.

COLLINS: But the fired FBI director adamantly defending his handling of the Clinton probe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you knew that letter would elect Donald Trump would you send it?

COMEY: I would. Down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in America life. If I ever start considering whose political fortunes would be affected by a decision, we're done.


COLLINS: The White House hasn't said yet whether or not President Trump watched that interview last night. But we'll likely find out soon enough whether it's on Twitter or when the president leaves the White House. He is going to south Florida here in a few hours for a tax cut event and then spending the rest of the week at his Mar-a-Lago as he waits on the Japanese prime minister to come into town. Chris and Alisyn? CUOMO: Kaitlan, thank you very much, appreciate it.

Let's bring in CNN political analyst David Gregory and CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. I've got to tell you, I'm a little surprised, David. Here we are 15 hours into the show this morning and still no word from the president about what happened on TV last night. You surprised?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He got out ahead of this pretty well over the past few days.

CUOMO: He has had like nine tweets about it. But last night was the main event.

GREGORY: Yes, no doubt. No doubt. I'm sure there will be more to come and Kellyanne Conway will be on and there will be a lot more. Look, I think what we have to remember is what is still a devastating fact against President Trump, and it comes from him. He fired Jim Comey because he didn't like how he was investigating. That is clearly inappropriate. And I think that is what makes Jim Comey so vitally important potentially to Robert Mueller's probe in looking into obstruction of justice and other questions about Russian influence in the 2016 campaign.

Aside from that, there is a lot about the interview that I didn't like. And just to focus on one example of it, I have a hard time with Jim Comey who talks about how surprised he was that the president demanded his loyalty and that he was flummoxed by the fact that he wanted to meet alone with him to ask something that was clearly inappropriate. I'm sorry, this is the big, bad FBI director who made a big show of the independence of the Justice Department during the Bush administration over wiretaps to protect the attorney general from the encroaching executive, and he can't handle this reality star turned president who wants to do something inappropriate. He couldn't say I'm sorry, Mr. President, that's just not appropriate. That's what sat with me from last night. I have a hard time with that reaction.

CAMEROTA: Let's listen to that moment. I think he expounds on it. So let's listen to the reaction to the loyalty request.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you cross a line when you promised him honest loyalty? Would it be fair for him to think I have a deal here?

COMEY: I don't think so. It was a compromise on my part to try to avoid a really awkward conversation, get out of an awkward conversation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was it a mistake?

COMEY: I don't know. Maybe. Maybe it would have been better to be more explicit, say sir, I can't promise you loyalty. But in the moment, frankly, it didn't occur to me. And maybe I didn't have the guts to do it. I wanted to get out of this conversation without compromising myself, but in hindsight you're probably right. I probably should have done it differently.


CAMEROTA: That's pretty candid, Jeffrey. He talks about just wanting to get out of an awkward conversation. I think we can all relate to that, not that we are all the head of the FBI. Maybe something more was required of him.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: It's true. I thought that was a genuine human reaction both to Stephanopoulos and to describe his emotions at the time. I have a lot more problems with other things he did. His whole explanation for why he reopened the Hillary Clinton investigation publicly on October 28th was completely not persuasive to me. But I think today what really matters is -- David made this point, is that he is a very strong witness that the president obstructed justice.

CAMEROTA: But wait a second. I just want to ask you about that. Is he, because he says things like it is possible? So is he a strong witness?

TOOBIN: I think he is not drawing the legal conclusion. But when the president of the United States says lay off Michael Flynn after he has told everyone else to leave the room, that is devastating evidence.

CAMEROTA: But we did know that already, so was there something about what he said last night that moved the investigation?

TOOBIN: With all respect to ABC and his publishers, I don't think there was that much news in all of this. Comey at least had the decency to testify fully before the Senate Intelligence Committee last year. That was devastating, important testimony. The book is basically just an elaboration of his testimony in front of the committee.

[08:10:00] CUOMO: You can't take him at his word right now about whether or not there is obstruction. He is a witness in the case. He says, putting it in context, I'm a witness in the case. I can't talk about whether it is or isn't. So he is qualifying it there explicitly.

So here is something interesting, David. The president of the United States has made a decision to attack Jim Comey. There is tons of reporting that they are mounting and significant and coordinated effort to go out and destroy this guy as well as they can, rip him apart is one of the quotes that comes out of the reporting. Right move?

GREGORY: No, not the right move because all you have to do is play the videotape from the president who says I fired him because he was investigating me. I didn't like the investigation. That is all the special counsel needs, because that is what is so devastating.

And I think Jim Comey is credible when he talks about his interactions with the president, which I find appalling and even supporters of the president should find appalling, because it's not just that he didn't know. It was just contempt for the independence of the FBI and of the rule of law in the country.

But let's also remember once we established that that is what matters, and I think Jeffrey makes that point, Jim Comey is yet again offering himself up as a character witness against the president of the United States. And he is cooperating with this very maudlin production with the music and the b-roll of him writing the book. That's what they do to sell books. It's all fine. That's what network news does. That's what Jim Comey did, fine.

But you know, he did yet again inject himself into politics. He is doing it here. As Jeffrey said, his explanations about Hillary Clinton were just preposterous, the idea that he didn't want her to be illegitimate if she were president. And yet he is making a political calculation just in that, and he did that all the way along. And so he constantly projected himself and injected himself into the political process and tried to manage the FBI's media standing and political standing. And it just wasn't appropriate. And now he is doing it again by I think inappropriately spreading this innuendo about this dossier and saying it is possible that the Russians -- it's the kind of stuff he did against Hillary Clinton that I thought was inappropriate then because he never charged her. And I think it is inappropriate now.

TOOBIN: And he also says unfair things about Loretta Lynch in the book and says I know secret things that are bad about Loretta Lynch. What kind of fairness is that. But, and I hope I'm not being unduly cynical here, but when Donald Trump took office his approval rating was about 40 percent. Despite everything that happened over the past 15 months, his approval is about 40 percent. So I don't think Jim Comey's book is going to make any difference.

CUOMO: What he is doing in Florida. The president is down there talking about his tax cuts. And at the end of the day if people feel he made more money in their pocket and made them feel better it is going to outweigh all of this stuff absent charges.

TOOBIN: We'll see.

CUOMO: You see it right now in the polls. Nothing has changed.

TOOBIN: The tax cut didn't change the numbers particularly.

CUOMO: No, but I'm saying in terms of things that hurt him. The tax cuts have to play out, people have to see its impacts and then they'll measure.

GREGORY: Can I make this one point, Jeffrey. I do think what's important, I do think it's a mistake. Again, we have already made clear what is really important in the investigation and what the president has done and so forth and we'll see where that plays out. I do think it is a mistake for the likes of Jim Comey and Brennan and others in their positions to get in the mud with the president because this not only strengthens those who makes the preposterous argument about the deep state. But I think if they are defending independence of these institutions I just don't think they ought to be in the political fray like this. TOOBIN: That's the decision Mueller has made. Mueller has not

leaked. Mueller has not said anything. The contrast between the two is certainly noticeable.

CUOMO: The point is I think Maggie told us earlier this week that she believed Comey's book and interview would be a Rorschach test for partisans based on where they go into it. And I have to tell you just judging from social media in terms of how people take the interview, if you don't like Donald Trump you believe everything Jim Comey just said. If you do like Donald Trump you think Jim Comey is a big fat liar who shouldn't be anywhere there. So at the end of the day --

GREGORY: And can I just say, Chris, I think if you are really being fair and looking at this you can hold opposing views in your head at the same time about Comey.

CAMEROTA: You can. I'm not sure that everybody can. But David Gregory, thank you, Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much. So we are going to hear a lot more from James Comey this week. Comey will talk to our Jake Tapper live on Thursday at 4:00 p.m. eastern.

CUOMO: Be very clear, the president is not just letting Jim Comey talk. He is not rising above this. There is a concerted effort to come after him, and a big part of it is going to join us later this morning. Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to the president, will be here.

CAMEROTA: Meanwhile the Republican National Committee is going after Comey's credibility. They're also branding him a liar. So we have the RNC chairwoman who is going to join us with the details of that plan next.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: -- committee is going after Comey's credibility. They are also branding him a liar. So, we have the RNC chairwoman who is going to join us with the details of that plan next.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump?

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I think it is possible. I don't know. I think these are more words I never thought I'd utter about a president of the United States, but it's possible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's stunning. You can't say for certain that the president of the United States is not compromised by the Russians.

COMEY: It is stunning, and I wish I wasn't saying it, but it is the truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CAMEROTA: All right. Fired FBI Director James Comey suggesting the Russians may have blackmail on President Trump. The RNC and the allies of the president are going after Comey's credibility in a coordinated way.

Here to discuss that and more is Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. Rana, good morning.


CAMEROTA: So, what is the plan this morning to discredit James Comey?

MCDANIEL: Well, we just want to remind the American public of James Comey, the things that had happened during the 2016 election, him inserting himself, some of the testimony he gave that he hadn't leaked when in fact he had to a friend to give information to the press. We just want to put a counter narrative out there because we know he is putting his opinions out, his versions of the truth. I think it is important to push back.

CAMEROTA: We have I think an e-mail, an image that you have sent out in an e-mail to I guess supporters and it says here James and the giant breach obviously a play on James and the giant peach.

[08:20:09] That is an awfully playful take on some of this. What are you hoping to accomplish with an e-mail like that?

MCDANIEL: Well, it is important to point out James Comey's record. I mean, he has discredited himself. I think you have discussed that today extensively on your show, the fact that he inserted himself into this election and broke FBI longstanding protocol that now he is writing a tell all book for millions of dollars.

I think it speaks for itself and it is important to take this as one man's opinion, one man's version. The president pushes back on a lot of the things that James Comey asserts, and we are here to put that narrative out there because he is doing his media rounds and getting his attention and trying to sell his book. It is important that the American people see both sides.

CAMEROTA: So, are you concerned that the former head of America's law enforcement agency does say things like that he thinks that President Trump is morally unfit to lead the country? That he does talk about how President Trump did ask him for a loyalty oath? What most worries you?

MCDANIEL: I think James Comey put his opinion out. I think millions of Americans who voted for President Trump would disagree when you see our economy humming, when you see record unemployment across Hispanic, African-American communities, women at an 18-year low.

When you see the decisive actions, he took with Syria over the weekend to put Assad in his place, to call him the monster that he is to push back on chemical weapons, when you see him strengthening our military, taking care of our veterans. I mean, the actions of this president show that he is a moral leader because he is working for the American people and pushing back on monsters like Bashar al-Assad.

CAMEROTA: Do you think it is possible that by going after James Comey and talking about him that you are actually helping him sell books?

MCDANIEL: Well, I think he has his media rounds. You know, he will be on CNN this week as you have advertised. He had the big interview with George Stephanopoulos. It's part of our job to pushback and he will sell his books. Look at the salacious details he has put in these excerpts that have been released.

I mean, this is somebody who wants a pay day. He has taken private conversations with the president and monetized them. I think that is something that is discrediting. We will pushback. I think that is important for the American people to see both sides and remember who James Comey is.

I mean, Democrats and Republicans have called out James Comey. It's the one thing we have had bipartisan agreement on in the past year and a half. If you go to the website all of the criticism on there is from Democrats, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, Tim Cain, Hillary Clinton's running mate. I mean, this is somebody who really lost the confidence of our country as FBI director.

CAMEROTA: And yet, I mean, as you know the latest polling shows that more Americans trust James Comey. This is the ABC News poll, taken before the interview than they do President Trump 48 percent to 32 percent.

MCDANIEL: Yes, I don't think most Americans have paid attention to James Comey and that is part of the reason why we have done this campaign. I think you have heard Loretta Lynch come out and say that James Comey is misrepresenting that he broke traditions of DOJ protocol.

You have seen Lanny (ph) Davis write his op-ed saying that James Comey is a liar with the way he handled the Clinton investigation and the reasons why he reopened that and disclosed that to the public.

I mean, this is something that is coming from across all corners. I don't think the American people have dialed in. Obviously, the president, somebody who is well known, gets a lot of media coverage. Not all of it is positive. James Comey is somebody who is relatively unknown.

CAMEROTA: Are you more worried at the RNC about James Comey or Michael Cohen?

MCDANIEL: You know, I am worried about the midterm elections. I want to make sure we keep this comeback for this country. Our country has turned around under President Trump. I saw it in Michigan. People who had lost hope and felt like they were stuck, whose wages had stagnated for a decade, they are now seeing their wages go up and paychecks are bigger. Jobs are coming back to this country. Manufacturing is coming back to this country. I want to make sure we keep majorities that are going to continue to work with this president and keep this comeback alive. That's what I think about every day. That is my focus as RNC chair is these midterm elections.

CAMEROTA: Ronna, I have to ask you about what has been going on with the RNC, finance committee. So, Michael Cohen, as you know, who is now being investigated by the FBI in terms of his payments to this porn star, Stormy Daniels.

Steve Wynn, obviously, who was an important official at the RNC in terms of fundraising, he is being investigated. He lost his position because of so many sexual harassment claims against him.

And then this guy, Elliot Brody, who impregnated a "Playboy" model while he was married and arranged this $1.6 million to try to keep that quiet. What does this all say about the culture at the RNC?

[08:25:10] MCDANIEL: Well, I think you're calling out three cases. Elliot and Steve resigned. Obviously, the charges were troubling. I mean, we have hundreds of fundraisers, 500,000 small online donors for this president. We are focused on the midterm elections.

I am the key fundraiser along with our president and our finance chairman, Todd Ricketts (ph). We are out there every day keeping our eyes on these midterms. Nothing will distract us from our mission of keeping majority.

CAMEROTA: Yes, but I'm not just talking about in this "me too" moment, what does it say that your finance committee is embroiled in this?

MCDANIEL: This is something that is across party lines. Democrats have had this issue. You have Republicans who have had this issue. We need to make sure that we take swift action which we did with Steve Wynn and Elliot Brody (ph) who resigned.

I'm sure Democrats have fundraisers out there with similar issues. This is about the American people. It's across party lines. This isn't just a Republican issue. The "me too" moment is affecting Republicans and Democrats.

CAMEROTA: For sure (inaudible), but I'm just saying this is something with the culture.

MCDANIEL: The number one fundraiser for the RNC is me. I am out there every day raising money for these midterms. Nothing is distracting me from my mission because I look at how far our country has come under Trump's leadership.

I look at people in my state who are seeing jobs coming back. Home prices going up. Our military being funded. Our veterans taken care of. That is what I think about every day. This is just a distraction. I think main street America is more focused on is my paycheck bigger? Am I going to have a job next week? How is my family doing? That's what they are thinking about.

CAMEROTA: Is Michael Cohen still a part of the Finance Committee?

MCDANIEL: Michael Cohen has not been charged with anything. He's under investigation. I believe in due process. I am sure you do, too. So, we'll see what happens right now --

CAMEROTA: So, he is still part of the --

MCDANIEL: He is distracted. He is focusing on some other things. I'm out there fundraising every day to keep our majorities, put resources on the ground. We have a national day of action and volunteers across this country. We are in the best position we have ever been as a party going into midterm. We have made more voter contacts. We recruited more volunteers. That's what I think about every day.

CAMEROTA: I get it. I understand, but you are saying at this moment, he is still part of that Finance Committee?


CAMEROTA: OK, Ronna McDaniel, thank you very much. Appreciate you weighing in on all of this.

MCDANIEL: Thank you so much.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: We have been waiting and now it has happened. The president has tweeted a response to Jim Comey's interview last night next.