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Comey Memos Reveal Trump's Attempts to Influence Russia Probe. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired April 20, 2018 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:59:08] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is your NEW DAY. It's Friday, April 20, 6 a.m. here in New York. Alisyn is off. Erica Hill joins me. And I will need your help this morning. The news is --

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: A lot going on.

CUOMO: -- falling on top of us. Literally, just as we're going to air, our starting line has changed.

We now know what is in the memos that fired FBI Director Comey wrote about his interactions with President Trump. CNN obtaining 15 pages of partially redacted notes revealing new details about how the president has tried to influence the expanding Russia investigation.

Comey says the president had, quote, "serious reservations" about the judgment of his now-fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and salacious claims that Vladimir Putin bragged to the president about Russian hookers. The Kremlin just put out a statement denying that Putin ever said anything like that to Trump.

Now, what's another headline? Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is back in the game, joining President Trump's expanding legal team. Giuliani tells CNN his focus will be on interfacing with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, with the goal of bringing the Russia investigation to an end.

HILL: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein assuring President Trump in a meeting last week he is not a target of the FBI's Michael Cohen criminal investigation. Sources tell CNN, however, the president is consumed by the Cohen probe.

And "The Washington Post" out with a bombshell report on President Trump. A former "Forbes" reporter says Donald Trump lied to him about his wealth to get onto the Forbes 400 list. We hear Mr. Trump posing as his spokesman, John Barron in never-before-heard audio tapes. We'll speak with the reporter who broke that story, live in just minutes.

It is a very busy Friday morning, as Chris said. Let's begin with CNN's Abby Phillip, who's live in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Abby, good morning.


President Trump is claiming he's vindicated after the Comey memos have been finally released. But while the memos paint a picture of a president who is consumed with this Russia investigation, President Trump tweeted late last night that there's no collusion and no obstruction of justice.


PHILLIP (voice-over): Personal memos from fired FBI director James Comey, obtained by CNN, detail conversations Comey had with President Trump.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I think what folks will see, if they get to see the memos, is I've been consistent since the very beginning right after my encounters with President Trump.

PHILLIP: Comey revealing in his memos, the president said he had serious reservations about former national security adviser Michael Flynn during that infamous dinner with Mr. Trump at the White House where Comey says the president asked for a loyalty pledge.

Comey writing, "The president pointed his fingers at his head and said, 'The guy has serious judgment issues.'"

Comey also describing another meeting he had with the president a couple of weeks later in which he says the president kicked everyone out of the Oval Office, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions: "He then returned to the topic of Michael Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy and has been through a lot. He said, 'I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He's a good guy. I hope you can let this go.' I replied by saying, 'I agree he's a good guy' but said no more."

And just days before Flynn was fired by the president for misleading the vice president about his contacts with Russia's ambassador, "He then asked me if this was a private conversation. I replied that it was. He then said he wanted to ask me a question, and I could decide whether it was appropriate to answer. He then asked, 'Do you have a FISA order on Michael Flynn?'"

That same day Comey says he met with Mr. Trump, who suggested he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "The president said, 'The hookers thing' is nonsense but that Putin had told him 'We have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world'."

Comey addressing the salacious claim last night.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: He told you that he'd had a personal conversation with President Putin about hookers?


MADDOW: Did you believe him, or did you think he was speaking hyperbolically?

COMEY: Didn't seem to be speaking hyperbolically?

MADDOW: Do we otherwise know that the president had had personal conversations with President Putin at that point?

COMEY: I can't recall. I think there was public reporting that he had spoken to Vladimir Putin as sort of a welcome, congratulations on taking office thing at that point. I'm not suggesting they talked about how beautiful the hookers were in Russia. But -- but I do know there was at least one publicly-reported conversation.

PHILLIP: President Trump has repeatedly denied having a relationship with Putin before taking office. But comments over the years raised questions about their ties.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I spoke indirectly and directly with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.

I have nothing to do with Putin. I've never spoken to him.

PHILLIP: Just hours before Comey's bombshell memo surfaced, Rudy Giuliani confirming that he's joining Mr. Trump's personal legal team. The former New York mayor tells CNN he hopes to bring Russia' Mueller investigation to a conclusion, saying, "It needs a little push."


PHILLIP: Well, all of this is happening as a White House source tells CNN that the president is actually consumed by a different investigation, the one into his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. According to the source it's causing, quote, "significant turmoil" in this White House.

And now we also have learned that the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, told President Trump in a recent meeting that he was not the target of the Cohen probe, Erica and Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Abby. Appreciate it.

There's a lot to discuss. Let's bring in CNN law enforcement analyst and former special assistant to James Comey. Josh Campbell and CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Laura Coates. Good to have you both.

Counselor Coates, let's start with you. The significance of the Comey memos.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, it's because of the importance of these contemporaneous memos. A lot of people have been wondering all along what was the basis of the -- of the book? Whether he had any information. Did he actually keep these memos, and what were they going to reveal?

And what it tells me here is that not only did he keep these contemporaneous memos, that he had a lot of his guard up with respect to the president of the United States. And that he was trying to somehow document this for maybe posterity or maybe to, in some way, ensure that his investigation, if there ever was one, was going to be comprehensive and complete. But ultimately, it does corroborate what we already know Comey has said and probably, it buttresses his credibility.

HILL: Do you find it bolsters his credibility. Obviously, different reactions from each side of the aisle that we were seeing last night, as well.

Josh, as you look at what we're learning, though, in these memos, one of the things that sticks out is also what we see consistently from the president in terms on of a clear focus on what is happening not only with the investigation, a focus on Andrew McCabe. And also a misunderstanding, I would say, of how government works in certain respects. This was early on for the president, obviously in 2017. But we're seeing consistently questions from him and even from his staff in terms of Reince Priebus that are perhaps not always appropriate and show that, perhaps, lack of understanding, Josh.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: You're spot-on. And you know, as you look at the memos, you see there are things there that we've heard about the past. I think it's important at the outset to step back and just look at what we have.

I mean, these are contemporaneous observations of one party to the conversation. And it's fair to point out that, you know, this isn't some new source of information. A lot of this is -- you know, this is coming from the same person, Jim Comey.

So we want to caution against what we call -- the FBI calling the intelligence community circular reporting, where you have something new and you think, "Well, OK, this corroborates what we knew before."

But that said, there is a lot there. And again, it will be up to the American people to determine who they believe. Right? This is the opening said/he said. Do you believe the president? Do you believe the credibility of Jim Comey?

With that said, as you look to your question at these memos, the thing that struck me the most out of everything -- and, you know, obviously there's the issue of I hope you can see this -- your way to letting the Flynn investigation go, which is, you know, highly inappropriate. But as you mentioned, with Reince Priebus asking the FBI director whether there was a FISA surveillance warrant on the national security adviser is beyond inappropriate.

CUOMO: Right.

CAMPBELL: And the issue there is that a lot of people have said, "Well, here you have a new administration coming to town. They don't really know government. They came from the business world." That's not Reince Priebus. He is the ultimate insider. This is highly inappropriate.

CUOMO: All right. So we have a little bit -- this is a little bit of style versus substance. The main thing that the president believes the Comey memos show, Laura, is no collusion, no collusion, no collusion. Comey never saw any proof of collusion. And when asked by Jake Tapper, this is the nice thing about having a second bite at the apple. OK? With George Stephanopoulos, it was do you think that the Russians have something on him? Possible.

His possible is weak, with all due respect to Comey. And we now know that from the memos and from the interview with Jake, where he has never seen any proof that the Russians have anything on the president. How powerful is that for the president's position?

COATES: It is very powerful to actually help his narrative that the idea of collusion is too nebulous a term to even have a definition. It's one in which he is trying to have shelter under that.

However, it's really misleading to say that there is absolutely zero evidence of it. At the time that Comey was in a position to actually be the FBI director. Because for a lot of it, it was in its infancy. And if it was in its infancy, it's not surprising. There would not be all of the telltale signs of collusion or anything else that came under it.

Remember, since Comey has left as director of the FBI, you've got 19 Russians who have been indicted. You've got Rick Gates, Paul Manafort, both who were key to the campaign. You have others who testified and pled guilty, including Michael Flynn.

So the idea that at the time that Comey was aware of the information at the time that he was in a unique position, he didn't see evidence of it. It does not speak to what has come out in the comprehensive investigations that have unfolded since then.

And so I think that in a way, the president is focusing on one moment in time at a static point that no longer is relevant. It's what has come out of it since his departure. And for a lot of it, Comey's actual end of his tenure is where the case truly began to pick up speed.

CAMPBELL: Yes, and can I just add to that that, you know, it's somewhat of an assault on logic. Because you know, on one instance, you have the White House saying, "Well, Comey is a liar." And then in another saying, "Well, what he said we believe, because it proves our case that we're not guilty and, you know, did nothing wrong." Both of those things can't be true.

HILL: Fair point. The other thing that comes up, too, that we're seeing over and over again is this preoccupation with the dossier. And what's interesting here is James Comey talking about the fact that the reason he says, "I explained that analysts from all three agencies agreed that it was relevant and that portions of the material were corroborated by other intelligence, as to make the case for, again, this is why I'm telling you, Mr. -- Mr. President, why we're talking about this."

CUOMO: Very important point. Because defenders of the president and the president himself keeps saying "the entirely phony dossier." That is a gross mischaracterization. Some of the stuff in there they couldn't prove, they couldn't show. Maybe it is phony. But some of it, they did. That was an important thing to come out of this.

[06:10:17] HILL: And as we look at that moving forward, how does that play out more?

COATES: Well, it's important to think about the fact that, when you are looking into this investigation to collusion, when Mueller has his probe, when legislature is trying to have their parallel investigation, they're all trying to figure out where were there points of susceptibility. Where were their points of potential blackmail? Where were there points of manipulation to exert undue influence in the 2016 election?

And so the dossier, salacious though it may be, was one of the starting points to say that this may have been the Russian entree into their interference here. You have it supported by the intelligence community.

What you see, though, is a fixation on the president who's saying essentially, this makes me look bad, this focus on the sexual aspect of it, as opposed to the overarching theme, which is did somebody believe that they had power to have you under their thumb.

And did it exert influence that hurt our elections. And you hear the president in the memos and time and again has not fixated on the overall theme and what is the problem, as opposed to the self- interest, which is ironic here, Chris and Erica, because of courses, they're always accusing James Comey of acting in a self-interested way, as opposed to the larger issue of what it says to the integrity of one of our systems.

Isn't what's happening with the president right now, as well?

CAMPBELL: Right. And you know, I would add Laura is spot-on. It's important to remember this dossier, as we go back to the distance of time in the dossier. This was not what we in the intelligence community would call a finished intelligence product. This is not something that, you know, both sides have looked at and have corroborated. This was raw intelligence.

But at the time, whenever the intelligence community leaders and then Director Comey met at Trump Tower to provide this defensive briefing to the president-elect, it was simply to let them know that this was out there in the ether. This was swirling. And to give him, essentially, a heads-up so that they weren't caught off-guard. So you know, to look at that and say, it's either all true or it's all not, I think it's a little bit of both.

CUOMO: And something else we learned from the memos, is that Laura's point about what the president cared about had an obvious intention, which was he didn't like the golden shower, all the prurient stuff about what might have happened with prostitutes and him in Russia.

He talked about it to Comey all the time, even when it wasn't brought up, trying to say it wasn't true. He said them that Putin even told him that they had the most beautiful prostitutes in the world or something like this. And now the Kremlin comes out with a statement about the nature of that conversation. What do they say?

HILL: And so the Kremlin is saying this morning, "President Putin could not say such things and did not say to President Trump, taking into account that they had never communicated before Trump became president." Which also calls into question was there a conversation between the president and Vladimir Putin? Was there not? Did he perhaps not remember correctly what happened?

What we were able to find was some reporting in Bloomberg of Vladimir Putin talking to reporters at one point and saying this had never happened, they hadn't talked. "But oh, by the way, we have the most beautiful hookers, to paraphrase there." It is fascinating that this is a fascination.

CAMPBELL: Well, if you look at, you know, any statement coming out of the Russian embassy or, you know, the Russian foreign ministry, we often see this kind of word salad, right? I mean, this -- as Laura knows, a prosecutor, either you did something or you didn't do it. And when you adding extraneous words, it causes eyebrows to be raised.

CUOMO: We have had so much salad these days, Laura, that one of us should have a fiber issue. I mean, everybody's talking that way right now.

But it's also a reminder politically, Vladimir Putin is not Donald Trump's friend. There may be a softness here in terms of trying to manage the relationship to make it better. Every opportunity that Vladimir Putin has to expose the president of the United States and embarrass him, he takes. Even on something as tawdry as this, Laura.

COATES: Certainly, And he capitalizes on it, of course. And that's one of the reasons that people have been questioning, including FBI Director -- former FBI director James Comey, in his interviews, to why is it that this president of the United States continues to be supportive or at least not antagonistic towards Vladimir Putin?

He raises issues that have not been brought up. He basically tells the FBI director and people, "Don't picture a pink elephant." And that's all they ever see. And so you have a consistent theme here where Vladimir Putin is exploiting and capitalizing and reciprocity is not returned to you. It's odd for an investigator to see this.

HILL: All right. Laura, Josh, thank you both.

CUOMO: All right. Another big development. It is true that the president has been trying to widen his legal team. It is true he's been reaching out to get help. And his call has been heeded.

Rudy Giuliani is back in the game, joining President Trump's legal team. You don't know the connections that Rudy has, the relevancy he could have. Even Rudy is saying, "I am brought in to end this investigation." The impact, what we'll see going forward. Insight next.


[06:19:07] HILL: A high-profile addition to President Trump's personal legal team. Rudy Giuliani one of three new lawyers joining the expanding team. Giuliani telling CNN he plans to push for an end to the special counsel's Russia probe.

Let's discuss with Laura Coates and CNN political analyst John Avlon.

This could be a short-time assignment for him. He believes his acquaintance with Robert Mueller could help move things forward and get this ball to the end.

Laura, realistically, is that possible? Is he going to influence Robert Mueller to wrap this up?

COATES: No. He's presumptuous and arrogant to think that the reason this has not been concluded yet is because they haven't had the right lawyer to come and grease the wheels.

The idea here that you would have this quick end to this investigation is really a fantasy of both Donald Trump, of Rudy Giuliani and everybody

else who believes that it should be quicker. And we're not even a year from when James Comey was fired, Erica.

We have an investigation that's ongoing. It must be comprehensive. What Giuliani can help with, as opposed to the end of the investigation, is perhaps the terms of that voluntary conversation with Mueller and the investigative team.

[06:20:14] Remember when John Dowd left, he was the one attorney of the entire camp who had been in constant communication, trying to decide whether they're going to have it be in person, whether it's going to be recorded, whether it's going to be limited on the questioning. That's what he can actually try to influence. But it always depends on whether or not Mueller will ultimately decide to subpoena him. Because if he does, it doesn't matter what attorney Trump has. They can't be in the room when the grand jury listens.

CUOMO: Right. But that road can get off short, too, if he says he's going to take the Fifth, and then Mueller would have to give him immunity.

But let's come at it from 180 degrees. Fair argument, first points of disclosure. I've known Rudy Giuliani a very long time. I have a close relationship with him. John, you worked with Rudy Giuliani for many years --

AVLON: Many years, yes.

CUOMO: -- as a speech writer. We know him better than many people who are going to be in this conversation.

Laura is making good points. However, there is a counter perspective here. Rudy Giuliani knows Bob Mueller, is respected by Bob Mueller.

AVLON: That's true.

CUOMO: And knows this system of investigation better than everyone else that the president has involved to this point.

AVLON: And I think that's the key point here. Rudy Giuliani has the advantage of having -- being an institutionalist when it comes to the Justice Department. You know, he was in the Justice Department, in the Reagan administration before he became U.S. attorney for the southern district.

He has a decades-long relationship with Mueller and many of the people in this process. He is uniquely positioned as somebody who has the confidence of the president and Bob Mueller, two opposite ends of, obviously, this major fight, someone who can bridge that, perhaps. And you know, how much he can accelerate it, obviously, that's ultimately Mueller's, you know, determination, the timeline of this.

But Rudy is an institutionalist. He can actually calm, I think, some of the passions and hopefully, you know, make this whole conversation less frayed and more focused on resolution.

HILL: And also, the president listens to him.

CUOMO: John said that. But you're right. That should be emphasized. Because there are very few people. Again, you know, everybody is meeting Donald Trump for the first time here now, unless they watched him on TV.

AVLON: Right.

CUOMO: If you have known him and if you've seen hum work over the years, let alone for decades, the idea that when somebody tells him, "You need to slow down. You need are rethink this," that's a very, very small group of people. Rudy Giuliani is one of the people --

AVLON: That's right.

CUOMO: -- who are in that group. It has worked against them, and politically, they've had some odds during the campaign. Rudy didn't like some of the things he was doing. It wound up getting him moved to the outside a little bit. But now he needs his expertise.

AVLON: He does respect him. And I think that's --

CUOMO: Absolutely. Absolutely. Laura, go ahead.

COATES: But you see, the fact that he is respected perhaps and is able to advise the president of the United States speaks nothing to whether he can advise Robert Mueller, who I'm sure is more than capable of compartmentalizing his personal interactions with people and his role now as special counsel in this probe.

I'm not making light of the fact that perhaps Rudy Giuliani is perhaps influential and that his reputation will proceed him in this. But the point of the issue is whether or not that reputation and his advisory position will be able to accelerate an investigation when we do not know where the targets are. We only recently heard, what, two weeks ago the president was not a target, was perhaps a subject in some respects.

And so I think that it's a fantasy still. Even with reputation, even with his counsel, a chance that he would accelerate the end of the investigation. It is very far reaching. And of course, includes people that Giuliani does not have power of counsel over, including Manafort, including Michael Flynn and others.

CUOMO: True, true, true.

All right. So what about the political implications of all this? The memos came out. They were theoretically leaked to bolster the president's position, having some Republicans in position of power, saying the public needed to see these memos. How do you think they played?

AVLON: I think they tracked pretty closely with Comey's, you know, recounting in the interviews and his book. There's a lot more detail. You actually also see Comey's eye for detail in these contemporaneous memos. That was fascinating for me. He really is an observer, as well as a listener.

So they're fascinating documents. I don't think -- they largely back up his story. And I don't think, if this is an effort to discredit Comey, I'm not sure that that was achieved. You get the perception of a president who is charming, but erratic, impulsive and often contradictory. And those aren't good things for building a credibility case.

HILL: Do they hurt the president in any way, Laura?

COATES: You know, I think it only hurts the president to the respect that it still casts him in that same negative light. But again, I think it's kind of baked in at this point in time. Everything that was revealed in the memorandums are largely public information. The salacious details of the dossier in particular were things that we already had contemplated with the president. And that probably is not even an effective approval rating.

What it does, however, show is, again, this fixation. And what -- if he had attended the detail that John's talking about, we never saw a detail where the president of the United States wanted to say, "How do we fix this problem?"

CUOMO: Right.

COATES: "How do we make this less about myself and more about what this means? Even though I am denying vehemently what's happened, I cannot deny what the intelligence community has to say about the interference." We don't see that.

[06:25:05] CUOMO: Laura Coates, very well-argued. Thank you for richening up the perspective this morning.

John, see you soon. HILL: No "thank you" to John Avlon there. How about that?

AVLON: I don't deserve thanks?

HILL: He'll be back later.

CUOMO: He doesn't do it for the thanks.

HILL: The "Washington Post" out with a stunning report on President Trump. A former "Forbes" reporter says Donald Trump lied about his wealth to get onto the Forbes 400 list. That reporter joins us, and you'll hear the audio ahead.


CUOMO: All right. Two Florida sheriff's deputies were killed in an apparent ambush in Gilchrist County. Police say the gunman walked up to the window of a restaurant where the officers were eating Thursday afternoon and opened fire on 30-year-old Noel Ramirez and 29-year-old Taylor Lindsey. Authorities say the alleged shooter, identified as John Hubert Highnote, was found dead from a gunshot wound near the scene. President Trump expressing his condolences to the families of the slain officers.