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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Fired FBI Director Speaks to CNN As Trump Feud Escalates. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired April 19, 2018 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:33:03] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

My panel is with me to break down everything we just heard from fired FBI Director James Comey.

First, let's just do a whip around. Jackie, start with you. What struck you the most of what he had to say?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, we were just talking about this, but I think one of the biggest things, that he seemed to walk back the idea that the president possibly colluded with Russia. Or that -- and that in and of itself I think -- because you kept on pressing him and pressing him, and finally he kind of took a step back and said unlikely.

TAPPER: Unlikely. What did you think?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think James Comey is on the James Comey rehab tour here a little bit, try to polish his own image. He came out so strongly and looked so partisan in the book and really put the 35,000 men and women of the FBI in a bad spot and has been criticized widely by senior leadership -- retired leadership of the FBI and he's trying the polish his own image at this point.

TAPPER: What did you think?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Change the book title to it's possible. I haven't done the word search yet but how many questions of yours which was very specific and I won't suck up -- it's a terrible interview -- that's a terrific because you went specific interviews and he kept -- questions and he kept saying, well, it's possible.

TAPPER: Right.

BEGALA: I think he owes the American people more than that.

TAPPER: It's possible. Yes, I did try to point out that could mean it's also possible that it's not true.

BEGALA: Right.

TAPPER: Laura, what did you think? LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I was talking for the first time you see a real criticism of Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein by James Comey, saying they had a very, very key role in his firing. He noticed the memorandum that was written, saying that he should be (INAUDIBLE) firing for the Clinton interview. Hadn't heard that before and seemed to be in line with what the president of the United States said in agreement with them to support his own claim about the narrative that the FBI cannot be trusted and only Rosenstein and interestingly Sessions should be instead.

TAPPER: And earlier this afternoon, just a few moments before the show actually we found out that the inspector general at the Justice Department had referred a criminal complaint to the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C. about his former deputy Andrew McCabe lying to investigators, lying to Comey, and I asked him about that and the role he might play.

[16:35:02] Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Did you, do you have a general sense of how that investigation is going to end up?

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: In some respects, I did at the time, but not completely. I suspect that the team that's investigating it now has a general sense. I have no idea what that is. But again, it's a general feeling on the current course and speed, we'll likely to end up in this direction or that direction.

TAPPER: And where did you think it was going to end up? Do you think it was going to end u with people around President Trump being found guilty of conspiring, aiding and abetting with Russians?

COMEY: I can't say. I've left it out of the book for reasons that are -- should be obvious. I can't talk about classified information or sensitive investigative details.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That was obviously a different answer. But let's talk about that one. That's when I asked him, he had said about the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, when people on him about how could you be writing this memo exonerating her before you interviewed her, and he writes and he said if you don't know where an investigation is going you're incompetent. So, I said, well, OK, you were there for the Trump investigation for ten months of it, what did you think? And basically, he didn't really give much of an answer.

KUCINICH: He didn't give us of an answer to several of those questions and I think he's possibly trying to be careful possibly in terms of what we can talk about and what he can't talk about, but I mean, I think I leave it to Paul. He's probably the most frustrated about --

BEGALA: He did say in the book -- KUCINICH: Right.

BEGALA: -- that every single member of the investigative team agreed that Hillary didn't commit any crimes, every single one.

KUCINICH: Right.

BEGALA: What has me as a Clinton person upset is despite that, his job is simply to refer charges or not. That's it. He is not the federal bureau of opinions.

So, in July, he calls a press conference and attacks my friend Hillary. And he wrestled with you, Jake, maybe super careless is better than reckless. That's not his job.

I'm still angry about it, because then she survives that barely and 11 days before the election, he sends the electorate -- if he believes the Trump presidency is a forest fire, he is the guy who poured the gasoline and lit the match. He has to live with that and he has not owned up to it.

KUCINICH: What about the FBI? This is about protecting the FBI. He says once in the book that this is about making sure Hillary wasn't an illegitimate president. But throughout the book, whenever he talks about any of this, it's about protecting the FBI and the FBI's reputation.

BEGALA: But what has he done instead? Both Democrats and Republicans now distrust the FBI because he politicized. He should have followed the rule book.

(CROSSTALK)

COATES: Well, they don't distrust the FBI. They distrust him particularly. And one of the issues here, of course, is the great irony that once again, he's saying, I want to take the heat to prevent her from being considered illegitimate. Loretta Lynch, for example, he wanted to held a press conference because he said, if she were to hold a press conference or even to issue an opinion following the tarmac with Bill Clinton it will delegitimize the Obama Justice Department.

Now, we're seeing again, if I don't -- if I allow Clinton to having a press conference about this issue, a delegitimacy issue again. And I say, I'm not sure why he assumes that role if nothing other than integrity --

URBAN: I agree. Look, for a guy saying he's not political, he is the most political guy in this whole campaign.

BEGALA: He's just terrible at it.

URBAN: Right. He's not good at it. I don't think Jim Comey is a bad guy. I think he started out. He is a career public servant, 35,000 folks he led, great organization. And, you know, under his watch, talk about a book on leadership, two of the folks he supervised, McCabe, will now be prosecuted for not telling the truth to the FBI agents, and Peter Strzok was dismissed. And his whole handling of this was kind of ham-handed. I don't think he was starting out with bad intent here, but it surely ended up very badly.

TAPPER: Let's talk about McCabe for a second because I do think we have the right bite cued up, which is when I asked him about the fact that he might be called to be a witness against Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COMEY: Given that the I.G.'s report reflects interactions that Andy McCabe had with me and other senior executives, I could well be a witness.

TAPPER: How do you feel about your former deputy according to the inspector general lying, lying to you, lying to investigators for a leak that the inspector general said was only motivated to preserve his own reputation, having nothing to do with the FBI or the public's right to know?

COMEY: Conflicted. I like him very much as a person, but sometimes even good people do things they shouldn't do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: We just got a statement from Andrew McCabe's attorney. Quote: We were advised of the referral, that's the referral to the U.S. attorney's office, within the past few weeks, although we believe the referral is unjustified. The standard for an inspector general is very low. We've already met with staff members from the U.S. attorney's office. We are confident that unless there's inappropriate pressure from high levels of the administration, the U.S. Attorney's Office will conclude that it should decline to prosecute.

There you see the attorney Michael Bromwich for Andrew McCabe, basically setting the stage if there's a prosecution, it's because of President Trump and President Trump's people.

BEGALA: Right, and what is the news story that Andrew McCabe facilitated?

TAPPER: It was bad for Hillary Clinton.

BEGALA: We leave that out of the discussion. Andrew McCabe was part of --

TAPPER: I did.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Thank you. You did.

Andy McCabe was part, allegedly, of planting a story that harmed Hillary in the closing days of the election.

[16:40:04] TAPPER: Confirming that there was an investigation into Clinton Foundation.

URBAN: And to pull that a little further, you have the director sitting here talking about his own leak or maybe didn't --

KUCINICH: But he's the one who referred that to the division.

URBAN: But his own leak, his own leak to "The Wall Street Journal" later through his professor friend, he leaked to a surrogate, right?

TAPPER: Yes.

BEGALA: His notes.

URBAN: His notes, right? To spur the special counsel on. I think that's incredibly important just as McCabe is here, you know, leaking to save his own soul and his own skin and his own professional reputation. I think the same is true here with --

KUCINICH: It was a little bit different, though, because he was a private citizen when he gave his notes to -- I'm not -- I'm just saying it is different than McCabe --

URBAN: To defend the reputation.

COATES: Well, McCabe was authorized in his right to be able to disclose certain information. What is doing him in for the I.G. report is that he has misled people about his role and played dumb about whether or not -- lack of candor. And, of course, the transparency --

TAPPER: FBI --

(CROSSTALK)

COATES: Lying. And legally, it's the lying but the idea of lack of candor and transparency keeps being the common theme in all this and when I heard him saying this to you, Jake, I thought to myself, you have described everyone's criticism of you. Maybe you're a good person but acting out of self interest not on the integrity of the FBI, we've got a problem with it.

TAPPER: But he would say -- just nobody's here going to defend Comey, so I'll try right now, he would say he didn't lie. He hasn't told any lies. I'm just saying, that's what he would say, Paul.

BEGALA: I'm not sure he has told lies. I think he is not telling the truth about what he did and why he did about Hillary and that letter that swung the election to Mr. Trump.

But here's the thing. He does strike me as a good person who loves his country and really is an institutionalist, which is something we need in this country when all our institutions are under attack.

I think what he lost sight of is a difference between himself and the institution. If you're an institutionalist, that institution has rules. He famously had the letter to Dr. King where the FBI was trying to force Dr. King to commit suicide, such an abuse of power, to remind him not to abuse the power.

What you do in the tough cases if you're an institutionalist is you simply follow the rules and the rules were, you shut up. You investigate without fear or favor, then you make your referral and you shut up. You don't talk about Trump. You don't talk about Hillary. That's what he got wrong.

He thought -- if I talk more, I can protect the institution.

URBAN: That's why he leaked, again, because you just heard him talk about, he said -- look, I don't have faith that Rod Rosenstein would do the right thing in this case, right? And the Department of Justice. He didn't say --

(CRTOSTALK)

URBAN: So, he made a political judgment just like about Loretta Lynch, just like he did about Sally Yates. He thought, I'm better suited to deal with this than the Department of Justice. That's why I'm going to stand up here and do it --

KUCINICH: It just seemed like he felt -- he didn't say it outright in the book -- but felt burned by Rosenstein. He had just had a meeting with him and had talked about leadership or something with him and then he got fired the next day on the television. So, I feel like he -- that also --

TAPPER: And Rosenstein provided the original memo with the fake reasons saying because he was too mean to Hillary as to why he got fired.

COATES: Right. Fake in terms of whether or not Trump believed the reason he acted. Fake for Rosenstein (INAUDIBLE) to justify it.

We keep using the term leak. He actually didn't give classified information over to the Columbia law professor. So, the term leak in terms of legal nuance is different. But he did give the information disclosed in a way he thinks was appropriate.

URBAN: Four of those seven memos, Jake, said he acknowledged were classified, so I don't think --

(CROSSTALK)

COATES: No, he's not given those. But I draw the distinction only to suggest that the nuance is very clear what he thinks McCabe did wrong versus himself and interesting, Jake, in your interview, you talk about the idea of being a witness against McCabe, but it goes to that. He could be a witness if it comes to that in an obstruction case against the president of the United States and it didn't silence him and it didn't have that affect on trying to muzzle him.

I find it very ironic in this case and it led me t believe that perhaps Mueller has already gotten everything he'd like to get out of James Comey on this issue, and, obviously, the book vetted prepublication -- TAPPER: By the FBI, yes.

COATES: -- and perhaps, he will not be a witness in that particular case.

TAPPER: The other thing of today's headlines, Michael Cohen, the president's lawyer, he's under criminal investigation, which is not to say he's been found guilty of anything. But he's under criminal investigation from Comey's former office, the U.S. attorney's office for southern district of New York and I asked him if Cohen was vulnerable in the Russia investigation since he is mentioned in that Steele dossier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: We know that Cohen's name is in the Steele dossier. We know that the FBI has been trying to verify whether or not parts of the -- the entire dossier is true or not. Is he vulnerable in the Russia investigation, Michael Cohen?

COMEY: That's not something I can answer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, again, not something he could answer. Something he could have ruled out if he wanted to. I guess it's not his role, though.

BEGALA: Back to Laura's point about, if you're a witness, if this is James Comey's case, he would never want a witness writing a book and giving dozens of interviews. And I have seen some of his friends say, well, and they have a good point, he is smart, he's locked down his testimony, but he's already wiggled a bit, he's already moved a bit.

He told George Stephanopoulos that it was possible that the president was compromised by the Russians. He told you it was possible but unlikely, right? He told Congress under oath that the election played no role, the polls and the election played no role when he 11 days out wrote his famous letter about the e-mails. Then he said in interviews, well, yes, I guess I did presume Hillary --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Yes, to be fair to him, he said -- he said looking back on it, is it -- is it -- his construct again, is it possible? Is it possible that this played a role? Yes, but I don't know. He doesn't say it definitely did, he says he acknowledges that maybe it did.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, I think the Director is a very bright guy, right? He takes copious notes, pays attention to every intricacy, right? I told you he dragged pin on the war for the paper cup on the flight back. This guy doesn't miss a thing. For him to say like, I can't recall whether that played a role in this. I'm not buying it.

TAPPER: You're not buying it at all?

URBAN: No, I'm not buying it at all. TAPPER: It's hard for people to project back to October --

URBAN: Paul and I were there. We can remember.

TAPPER: But I'm just saying -- but there really was -- I mean, it was -- it was considered very unlikely that Donald Trump would win. Even the Republican National Committee thought it was very unlikely that Donald Trump would win. Even the Trump Campaign thought it was very unlikely --

URBAN: I don't know about that.

TAPPER: Not you. Not you and other individuals on the campaign but as a general (INAUDIBLE), people on the Trump campaign, senior levels who thought we're not going to win tonight.

BEGALA: But that's why you simply follow the rules irrespective of who's going to win. You get in a position that you put him in which is you have an investigation of Hillary which cleared her and yet you're talking about that which harmed her desperately. An investigation of Trump which has not cleared him yet cleared him still has not yet cleared him, you didn't talk about that. That is unfair and unjust.

TAPPER: Although he did talk about it five months later and we'll talk about that when we come back with this commercial break. Everyone stick around. What some White House officials say is really bothering President Trump right now. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] TAPPER: President Trump apparently believes that former FBI Director James Comey's book has had little impact on him and his reputation but he is consumed by legal issues involving his personal attorney Michael Cohen. That's according to a White House official. CNN's Jeff Zeleny is traveling with the President and joins me now live from West Palm Beach, Florida. And Jeff, the President, and his allies have been preparing for this Comey media blitz.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, they really have. For the last week they have been preparing to discredit and you know, simply raise questions about the objectivity of the former FBI Director. And a week after the first excerpts were released, the White House believes that they have largely weathered this storm. I was talking to several Republicans who have spoken within the President this week here at Mar-a-Lago and one said this, Jake. He said, so far he's weathered, Comey. It's Cohen that's consuming him. Cohen, of course, Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer here. So that's what the White House is focused on far more than this. The Republican National Committee, of course, taking a lead on all this. They are trying to use Democratic voices to raise questions about James Comey, as well. They believe that's largely been a success. They believe that you know, several questions have been raised about this. But Jake, first and foremost, they believe most all of this has been about James Comey, not Donald Trump. The White House sees that as a win. Jake? TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny traveling with the President in West Palm Beach, Florida, thanks so much. I'm back with the panel. Do you think the President, his reputation, isn't being damaged at all by the James Comey book?

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: I wonder if it's already baked in. A lot of the things that James Comey is talking about, if you -- if you -- kind of a litmus test. If you think James Comey is the greatest thing ever, you probably don't really like the President. If you are say David Urban and you really like the President you're going to think James Comey is a liar and out for himself. So I really -- I really think that it's hard to say that this has moved the needle on the President, just the book itself.

TAPPER: And the book is worth reading and I think it's interesting. There isn't anything really new in terms of factual points about his relationship with President Trump about things that -- interactions he had with President Trump. So Jackie might be right. It's big things from last year.

URBAN: I think it's a political Rorschach tests as Jackie points out. The President's numbers haven't moved. The Gallup, recent Gallup poll I think he's 85, 87 percent amongst Republican based voters. So this isn't -- this isn't moving the needle with them whatsoever. And just a quick point back to the interview you did there when you pressed him on the notion about General Kelly calling the President a liar. You said --

TAPPER: He called him -- I thought he call -- dishonorable or suggested.

URBAN: Euphemism. And you pushed him on it. He suddenly couldn't recall that -- who he was talking about. Well, it might not have been the President. It might have been somebody. It might have been General Kelly or it might have been somebody else. It might have been the President or it could be the Attorney General. I mean, there's a lot of haziness about a very specific, you know, point.

TAPPER: Well, just to be fair to him. I think Kelly said something along the lines like I don't like working for dishonorable people and I assume he had been talking about President, but he said maybe he wasn't.

URBAN: Who -- in the chain of command --

TAPPER: That's what I said.

URBAN: If you look at the chain of command, who does he work for?

BEGALA: Who else is he talking about?

URBAN: Look at the wire diagram, he reports to the President.

TAPPER: No, I agree. Do you think that this book and the book tour is hurting President Trump at all or is it just reinforcing previous impressions? BEGALA: I think Jackie is right, and it doesn't matter what I think. If it were hurting the President, Democrats would be running on it. I talk to scores of Democrats running for Congress. I mean, it's pro bono but go I talk to them.

URBAN: So kind of you, Paul.

BEGALA: I am. I'm a good guy. I want my Congress in the Democrat's hands. None of them are going to run on Mueller, impeachment, Stormy Daniels. They're going to run on the tax bill which they think is unfair to the middle class, they're going to run on Medicare, they're going to run on Social Security. It's hard to get a win on that. That will be the weather vane that tells us. And I think the Democrats are right to run on those middle economic issues and not this stuff.

TAPPER: Well, what about the legal matter here, because there's a lot of whether it's Michael Cohen or the Russia probe, is there anything that Comey's saying to contribute to that aspect of the case against Donald Trump as it were?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. Remember, he is somebody who's key in the obstruction charge if there were to be an obstruction charge and in many ways, his story and the story of obstruction begins when his tenure at the FBI ends. He's in a very unique position. Is he a flawed messenger? Absolutely. And all of my trials, I wish I had the perfect witness to testify against somebody without a vendetta, no ax to grind and never said anything poor. Unfortunately, you take your witnesses as you can find them. And for him, the vendetta actually doesn't undermine his credibility in my point because he has somebody who is in the unique position. One of the only people in the world to sat with the President privately talked to him about the salacious aspects of the dossier, heard him talked about Michael Flynn who has now pled guilty to a crime of lying, has been the one to receive information from the President. And in that particular scope, in that particular unique place, his credibility is still intact. If he flawed, is he petty at times? Sure. But informants are really good witnesses, as well even if they are somebody who is a little bit compromised.

URBAN: He doesn't have an animus. You heard him. He's no animus towards the President.

COATES: He doesn't even dislike him.

URBAN: I would -- I would not want to be Comey's enemy.

TAPPER: Another thing he said that I thought indicated how skilled an operator he is, I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism, was he is called for voters to go to the voting booths and vote against the values that Donald Trump represents. So I thought it was an obvious question. You think that he is morally unfit. You think that people should vote against what he represents. Do you think the nation is better off if Hillary Clinton were president? Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Do you think the nation would be better off if Hillary Clinton had won?

JAMES COMEY, FORMER DIRECTOR, FBI: I can't answer that. That's something that -- that hypothetical is too hard to go back in time to try and answer.

TAPPER: You paint a pretty dire picture of President Trump. It's hard to imagine how you don't think the nation would be better off if Hillary Clinton had won.

COMEY: Yes, I don't think about it in those terms, though, Jake. I think we have the current president who was in my view legitimately elected, is serving as president. The question is, is he adhering to our values? He is clearly not so what do we do about it? And I think the first thing that we do is not get numb to it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I respect that answer. I do not believe that answer. What do you think?

COATES: Well, to me it was hedging because he didn't want to come across as a partisan and continue in the theme. He's trying to have some credibility rehabilitation as we said before on this particular book tour. But when I look at his answer and hear about that morally unfit, you combine that with the Stephanopoulos interview where he said that he doesn't believe he should be there, he talks about the idea this being somebody who should not be in this position. It's hard to actually hear him say that answer today again and have any credibility assigned to it. It leads me to believe there's an ulterior motive for saying it possibly self-interested which again is the theme for James Comey.

BEGALA: His reputation --

URBAN: Jackie is mentioning earlier.

KUCINICH: Well no, so, a couple of things. I don't think James Comey is a partisan. I do think he's not really thrilled with this president and he doesn't -- and he said many times he doesn't think that --

TAPPER: I agree with that.

KUCINICH: Yes, so -- but another thing he said was that -- you asked about president Trump, and he said he's a counterpoint in the book about --

TAPPER: He said the book isn't about --

KUCINICH: It isn't about -- yes it is. When you read the book, Donald Trump is a theme throughout the book. Whether or not he says his name, he is -- if he is a counterpoint, he is a point counterpoint, point counterpoint throughout the book for an example of leadership that doesn't work. I can't imagine -- maybe James Comey would have written a book without Donald Trump at some point but I don't think it would be this book.

TAPPER: But I think it's about his reputation. He doesn't want to be out there as a member of the resistance.

URBAN: And I think that what his strategy on the book tour. I think, he started out on the book tour in one place, and after the interviews and senior FBI, former senior FBI officials kind of coming against the timing of the book, some of the ways he's talking about certain things, I think -- I think Comey's trying to rehab his image.

BEGALA: Can I clean up one think that apparently, I got (INAUDIBLE). Laura told me during the commercial. She didn't said it on the air. I thought he had walked back his statement that it was possible the President had been compromised by Russia by adding to you unlikely or possible. Laura said, he said the same thing to Mr. Stephanopoulos at ABC. So in that sense --

TAPPER: I have to go back and look. I think he said possible but likely about the prostitutes and the -- and the urine but I don't know. I'm not -- I'm not --

COATES: Again, I'm too polite to mention that too on air, as well.

TAPPER: It's a medical --

URBAN: It's a medical --

COATES: It's a medical term. It's a Latin term. You're right, golden shower.

TAPPER: Do you -- what do you -- let's put the urine aside. What do you think about him not saying yes I think the nation would be better off with Hillary?

BEGALA: He thinks the president is a forest fire. It would be better off without a forest fire? That's a pretty low bar. He couldn't even clear that.

KUCINICH: But then the other things grow after the forest fire is the metaphor that he uses.

TAPPER: What now --

URBAN: I'm going to sit back and let Jackie oppose me. I can't even disagree.

TAPPER: It's also -- it's also -- development about I want you guys your perspective on this, we only have 80 seconds, which is the question about whether or not Michael Cohen will flip. A former attorney for President Trump said that he should be worried, be concerns about Michael Cohen testifying against President Trump to avoid jail time. What do you think?

KUCINICH: I went to watch the Twitter feed to see if the President is really worried about it. It seems like yes.

TAPPER: You're not?

URBAN: Michael Cohen is a loyal guy. I don't know -- it's a black box. We don't know what's in there. We'll find out.

BEGALA: The presumption from Mr. Trump's lawyer is that Cohen has something, that the president is guilty. That's our -- everybody's presumption is he's going to flip because he's got something about Trump's guilt and I think it's probably a good presumption.

COATES: Why would he flip if he's still exposing to state crimes? The President can only pardon for federal. There would be no incentive. We'll have to see.

TAPPER: That's it. Thank you all. I really, really appreciate it. That's all for THE LEAD today. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer, he's in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.