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President Trump Claims of "Spygate"; Michael Cohen Denies Being Partner with Taxi King Gene Freidman; Mike Pompeo Testifies on Capitol Hill About North Korea and Iran; Interview with Representative Hakeem Jeffries; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 23, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:23] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow. The breaking news just crossing. Fired FBI director James Comey responds to the president's claims that a spy was planted in his campaign.

BERMAN: Yes. This is what the former director writes. "Facts matter. The FBI's use of confidential human sources," parenthetically actual term, "is tightly regulated and is central to protecting the country. Attacks on the FBI and lying about its work will do lasting damage to our country. How will Republicans explain this to their grandchildren?"

Our Kaitlan Collins live at the White House and, Kaitlan, this follows this stream of attacks from the president this morning including, you know, alleging some grand, criminal government conspiracy against him, then-candidate Donald Trump.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. The president once again repeating these unverified claims that the FBI spied on his presidential campaign tweeting about it several times this morning saying that things have turned around on the criminal deep state, that is the president of the United States referring to the Department of Justice, and saying they go after phony collusion with Russia, a made-up scam and end up getting caught in a major spy scandal.

Then he says spygate, which he has dubbed this, could be one of the biggest political scandals in history. So what we have seen that is different this morning, John and Poppy, from what the president has been saying over the past few days is he's moving on from saying is a possibility that his campaign was spied on by the FBI to stating it as a fact, something that multiple officials have told CNN is not true. That the campaign wasn't spied on by the FBI and even the deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, was just doing an interview on television and he wouldn't go as far as the president did to say that it is a fact that the campaign was spied on.

Instead he used a lot of language like if this happened, if this is true, potential spying, he wouldn't go as far as the president did to state that this actually happened. Now what's at the center of all of this is the intelligence source who was helping the FBI in their investigation into Russian interference in the election got underway. Someone who spoke with several campaign advisers and someone who has been at the center of a controversy between the Department of Justice and congressional leaders -- conservative congressional leaders who want to know more information, who want to see this classified information.

And now we do know that the White House chief of staff, John Kelly has set up this meeting between top law enforcement officials and two conservative lawmakers, Trey Gowdy and Devin Nunes, tomorrow. They're going to get a chance to be briefed on this classified information related to the Russia investigation, but that is also the subject of a lot of criticism because no Democrats were invited to that meeting as well. Now the White House is defending that decision by saying that no Democrats expressed interest in coming even though, just on Monday, Chuck Schumer said he did believe if a meeting like this took place he believed it should be bipartisan.

HARLOW: Yes. Something tells me Adam Schiff would like to go to that meeting. He's been up in arms about this, saying it can't just be Republicans.

Kaitlan Collins, thank you.

Also this morning, the "New York Times" is reporting what could be a very bad -- what could be very bad news for the president's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen. His longtime business partner is cooperating with prosecutors as part of a plea deal.

BERMAN: All right. Brynn Gingras has this part of the story.

Brynn, what have you learned?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. There's differing views on what business partner means and I'll explain more. But he calls Michael Cohen a dear friend and his client. Evegny or Gene, as he goes by, Freidman pleaded guilty to tax fraud yesterday. The Russian immigrant dubbed the "taxi king" was facing a lot of jail time here for failing to pay $5 million in MTA surcharges to New York state for the taxi empire he runs.

Now in exchange for his guilty plea, he will be placed on probation, has to pay the money back and according to the "New York Times" will help state and federal authorities with their cases. Freidman managed roughly 800 medallions in New York City. Those are what give taxis value here. And he managed a fleet for Michael Cohen. The two have known each other a long time. They're business partners and it would appear investigators hope Freidman has insights into Cohen's business practices which of course is the basis of the DOJ's current investigation.

And Freidman's guilty plea also comes just days after news broke that Jeffrey Yohai, the son-in-law of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort had reached an agreement himself. So we're seeing a bit of a domino effect here of help with investigators. Of course, now the big question has been, still is if Cohen is charged by New York's Southern District, will he provide useful information on the president to the special counsel's investigation?

Now Michael Cohen just within the last hour seems to be distancing himself from Freidman, from this news of a plea deal. This morning he tweeted this.

[10:05:01] "I am one of thousands of medallion owners who entrust management companies to operate medallion according to the rules of the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission. Gene Freidman and I are not partners and have never been partners in this business or any other."

Again, so clearly these two men see that relationship very differently, and we'll see how that relationship or non-relationship goes forward.


BERMAN: We'll see how investigators view the relationship which might be the crucial question.

Brynn Gingras, thanks so much.

HARLOW: Thank you.

BERMAN: Joining us now, former deputy assistant attorney general and former U.S. attorney Harry Litman, and CNN senior political analyst Mark Preston.

You know, and Harry, I want to start with the news of the day which is the president of the United States again alleging this grand criminal conspiracy. He's not just giving it a funny nickname, spygate, which Patriots fan Mark Preston will recognize from the past. He's suggesting that there were criminals in the government trying to undermine his campaign and we've become numbed to things but that's an extraordinary charge, Harry.

HARRY LITMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Stunning, and it's not just some. I mean, he's basically called the FBI and DOJ a criminal enterprise.

On this spy claim, it fails for two really fundamental reasons. The first is that Professor Helper is not an FBI agent who has somehow been embedded. He's a confidential informant that they've gone to over the years, no different, no different, John, from if there's a bank robbery and a cop goes to the people on the street who he's used to working with, and asked, what do you know? What's going on?

And then second, of course, there was no evidence whatsoever -- there is no evidence whatsoever of any kind of political motivation here. On the contrary the Federal Bureau of Investigation had evidence of a federal crime that had come to us from Australia and proved to be correct and that makes -- facts matter as Director Comey said, but so do reasons.

If you were undertaking it to harass for political reasons, fine, but here all the evidence shows they were doing it to -- as part of their routine task of investigating crimes. HARLOW: Mark, the thing is the president knows that he can do this

while Bob Mueller cannot say anything and is silently operating this and leading this investigation, and while at least Senate Democrats, you know, on the Senate side because they're not wrapped up with this intel community investigation, also can't say anything so they can go on television like Mark Warner, for example, and they can say but, but, but, but they can't put any evidence out there.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And they're walking a very, very fine line right there. Look, what's been one of the most interesting things about this investigation is the lack of the on the record comment from the Mueller investigation or pushing back against the president each time that he comes out and says something negatory or criticizes it, or what have you, which leads me to believe that Robert Mueller feels pretty good about where he is at this investigation, and knowing full well that if he were to get fired as the president has threatened or has at least talked about in the past, that in the end Congress would have to step in. We would have a constitutional crisis.

We've just seen the president just in the last few minutes now tweet again, just using two words, calling it a witch hunt, basically using this whole idea of the psychological strategy, just to try to say things enough times and people are going to believe it.

BERMAN: And let's just remind people what this is all about. And we don't need to do it. We can take the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who is appearing in a congressional hearing right now. He was the CIA director until a few weeks ago and he has seen evidence of what's been going on in terms of election meddling, and this is what he had to say about the upcoming election. Listen to the secretary of State.

All right. We don't have the sound bite. I thought we did. Secretary Mike Pompeo says he fully expects, he fully expects Russia to meddle in the 2018 election, you know, which should be chilling to everyone involved in this.

Harry, while we have you and your lawyerly expertise here, Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, you know, apparently now trying to negotiate down the terms of the president may be speaking to Robert Mueller. Just questions having to do from the time before he was president which would mean no questions about possible obstruction.

Is that a deal you think Mueller would be likely to take?

LITMAN: No way. Yes, just those questions, maybe two hours, maybe the president can get three lifelines. Mueller -- for Mueller, the absolute essential will have to be some testimony under oath about the matters that he is actually investigating, probably that's exactly what Trump wants to avoid and that all points in the direction of a court battle where I think the advantage lies with Mueller, but it's very tricky on both legal and political grounds. It probably takes the investigation into the midterm elections and that makes for complicated calculations by both parties.


PRESTON: Listen, we're in crazy times right now. I mean, the bottom line is we don't know what President Trump is going to do right now let alone two hours from now.

[10:10:05] The one stabilizing factor, though, and I really do think we should focus in on this, has been the Robert Mueller investigation and how he has kept that very much on line and we should look to the United States Senate, too, as much as we are criticizing Congress for their efforts, certainly Devin Nunes and House Republicans, Congress does have a responsibility to have congressional oversight. But it's all about intent. Are they doing congressional oversight for the good of their country or they're doing congressional oversight for the good of trying to end an investigation? That is the big question on the table and on the Senate side at least we've seen working between Republicans and Democrats.

HARLOW: Yes. We have. Mark Preston and Harry Litman, thank you both. We appreciate it.

Meantime, we've been monitoring all morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the Hill right now giving his congressional testimony as the president is saying it is less and less likely that he will meet with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un. What is Pompeo saying about that? Ahead.

BERMAN: Plus historic results from the primaries overnight. The first African-American woman ever nominated by a major party to be a gubernatorial nominee. We will discuss.



[10:15:29] MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have a generational opportunity to resolve a major national security challenge. Our eyes are wide open to the lessons of history, but we're optimistic that we can achieve an outcome that would be great for the world. Our posture will not change until we see credible steps taken towards the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.


HARLOW: A day after President Trump warned of a very substantial chance in his words that his summit with North Korean Kim Jong-un will not take place on June 12th, at least, that's the secretary of State telling Congress that preparations are still under way and that U.S. demands are clear.

BERMAN: Yes. Mike Pompeo is appearing as we speak before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, discussing all of this.

Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott watching this for us in Washington -- Elise. ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right.

He is facing obviously a lot of questions about North Korea, Iran, and I will also say, guys, don't forget, Secretary Pompeo as a congressman was one of the toughest critics of Hillary Clinton after the Benghazi affair. He was on the select committee and he's right now facing a lot of tough questions about embassy security.

But certainly North Korea, the most topic of most interest to lawmakers and the secretary had some very interesting things to say about his meeting with Kim Jong-un. Take a listen.


POMPEO: Our demands have been unambiguous. When I spoke with him, I could not have been clearer about the scope of the verification work that would be required, all of the elements that would be necessary in order for America to understand that there had been real denuclearization.


LABOTT: And he said that Kim Jong-un understood that, but that in return he was looking for a lot of economic help not just from the United States, but other countries, foreign investment, knowledge really to kind of improve the North Korean flailing economy, but a lot those he was looking for security assurances and a peace treaty, and this, I think was what President Trump was trying to nod at yesterday when he said that he would guarantee Kim Jong-un's safety. He was talking about those security assurances that Kim Jong-un was looking for.

BERMAN: All right, Elise Labott for us. Elise, thank you very much.

Joining us now, CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd.

Let's talk about the now as we're watching Mike Pompeo facing these questions, you know, bipartisan tough questions right now because legitimately both parties want to know what's going on with North Korea right now and the secretary of State saying hey, you know, we're moving forward, we continue to be negotiating here.

Give us a sense of what might be happening behind the scenes here.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, I think Pompeo actually told us some of those details. He talked about the kinds of things that he spoke about with Kim Jong-un and that sounds like a negotiation to me. We laid out our opening salvo, if you, complete and verifiable denuclearization. Kim laid out his (INAUDIBLE) list of demands of peace treaty, security guarantees, economic concessions.

That's what negotiation is, a back and forth. The problem is that we have the somewhat arbitrary June 12th deadline coming up and so the clock is ticking and so my hope would have been that we would have given ourselves the space to let negotiators like Mike Pompeo and others do the work. HARLOW: Here's the problem, is the president making Mike Pompeo's job

as chief negotiator on this very difficult? Because just yesterday, less than 24 hours ago the president said essentially that it would be maybe OK if complete denuclearization wasn't agreed to at the jump, right? And then Mike Pompeo just says in this testimony the U.S. has made, quote, "zero concessions to North Korea to date and we don't intend to do so."

VINOGRAD: Consistency is our friend here. It would have been highly more preferable for Mike Pompeo and the president, John Bolton and others to be reading from the same sheet of music on what our preconditions are. That's definitely hindering I think our ability to convince Kim exactly what he has to do to get to June 12th and to get the concessions that he's asking for.

BERMAN: Yes. Complete, instant, pre-conditioned denuclearization was never going to work. I mean, Kim would never promise that, at least not promise it and mean it going in. So setting that as a bar way back that may have been the real problem, not the new comments from the president, correct?

VINOGRAD: That was a mistake because the truth is we are in a better position at least in the short term today than we were back on March 8th or whatever it was when we agreed to this meeting. We have, we think, a freeze. Missiles are not flying, nuclear tests aren't happening, so that's a good thing.

The problem is that the president backed himself into a corner when he said publicly -- he could have said it privately, this is what we need to get to a meeting, and that's the difficulty.

[10:20:06] HARLOW: So going forward and looking at this, you have this Punggye-ri nuclear test site, that our Will Ripley is en route to right now, being destroyed in front of a bunch of Western journalists by the Kim regime. A U.S. official tells us that's a PR stunt. It is really insignificant. Do you agree?

VINOGRAD: I do. It's not a concession. And you know, we talked about things that Kim could do. He released the hostages, that was a step.


VINOGRAD: This nuclear site is being dismantled supposedly in front of journalists, not in front of weapons inspectors who could verify what it is and what it isn't. So this isn't Kim really giving us anything. I think one thing that he could do at this June 12th meeting if it goes forward is agree to allow weapons inspectors to come in and at the least inventory what North Korea has, what sites they have, and what the state of their program actually is.

BERMAN: I haven't been able to tell from Mike Pompeo, has he compressed it all on what the president meant by he will keep Kim Jong-un safe? Will the administration have to provide an answer to that? VINOGRAD: He punted on that, as has Sarah Sanders in the press

briefing yesterday, but I think it's -- we're all hoping that there's not some sort of carte blanche to Kim Jong-un if he agrees to denuclearize to do whatever he wants whenever he wants with chemical weapons, biological weapons or anything else.

BERMAN: Samantha Vinograd, great to have you with us.

HARLOW: Thank you.

BERMAN: Thanks so much.

HARLOW: All right. Republican House Intel members set to meet with the heads of the DOJ, the FBI, intelligence officials tomorrow in this closed-door briefing. They want to see those documents about a confidential source who got information in the Russia probe on the Trump campaign. Guess who is not going to be in that meeting? Any Democrats. They want to know why, next.


[10:26:08] BERMAN: So this morning top Democratic lawmakers are looking for answers. They want to know why only Republicans have been invited to meet tomorrow with Justice Department officials about intelligence source documents.

HARLOW: Joining us is Democratic congressman of New York, Hakeem Jeffries. He is on the Judiciary Committee.

It's nice to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: Good morning. Thanks for having.

HARLOW: Good morning. So the White House response when pressed on this, why no Dems in the room, if you're just going to have Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy there from the Republican side, Sarah Sanders says my understanding is they have been the ones requesting this information, but you've got Democrats up in arms. Adam Schiff says this cannot happen, this cannot happen. What say you?

JEFFRIES: Well, Representative Schiff is exactly correct. You know, at the end of the day this is about the fundamental integrity of our democracy, the rule of law and making sure that the White House does not unreasonably intervene in the affairs of an ongoing investigation which is trying to determine whether there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia's interference in our election which we all know took place in 2016.

And so it is absolutely and entirely inappropriate for this to proceed without any Democratic presence, and all it will do is continue to enhance the cloud of illegitimacy that right now is hanging over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

BERMAN: You say this is all about integrity. Do you think Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy who will be in that room are acting without integrity when they walk in to look at that stuff? JEFFRIES: Well, Trey Gowdy is a good man and he's a man of integrity.

I mean, Devin Nunes continues to embarrass himself as the so-called chairman of the Intelligence Committee, but regardless of the personalities of the two individuals, the fact that they are both Republicans, partisan individuals as opposed to an inclusive process where you have Democrats is problematic.

But again, this is all just another big type of distraction connected to the Trump show. We've got to make sure that we uphold the rule of law, but Democrats here on Capitol Hill are going to continue to focus on, you know, better jobs, better wages and better future working on good things and strong economic growth for the American people, as well.

HARLOW: And look, that worked for some Democrats overnight in the primaries, let's talk about the state of Georgia. You've got the Democrat Stacey Abrams there, gubernatorial candidate, making history being the first African-American woman, gubernatorial nominee from a major party in any state.

The "New York Times" had an interesting take on how she ran and won by such a huge 50-point margin. Did she signal she's unlikely to spend much time pleading with rural whites to return to a Democratic Party that they have largely abandoned.

She was able, Congressman, to energize a young, much more diverse group of voters and bring them into the party, bring them to the voter booth. Is it a smart strategy nationally for your party?

JEFFRIES: Well, nationally, you know, in terms of the House Democratic effort to take back the majority here in the House of Representatives, we have to individual districts that we have to run in a very different.

HARLOW: Right.

JEFFRIES: Racially, geographically, regionally, and in terms of the socioeconomic makeup of those districts, what does unify people in terms of the House effort is the focus on good-paying jobs and strong economic growth. I think you'll see that continue.

I think that Stacey is a tremendous candidate, brilliant person, ran a wonderful campaign and actually did well not just in traditionally African-American parts of Georgia, but also ran competitively in the exurbs of Atlanta, one in certain areas and did pretty well in many of the rural parts of the state as well when she wasn't expected to be as competitive.

BERMAN: Congressman, if I can ask you about an issue -- you said issues that can bring us all together. One issue that has brought you all together, and I mean, you on Capitol Hill, seemingly over the last several days is prison reform. You co-sponsored the first step act which passed overwhelmingly the House yesterday. Explain to me --