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FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe Gives Confidential Memo Regarding President's Decision to Fire James Comey to Special Counsel; North Korean Diplomat Meets with Secretary of State Pompeo in New York; Interview with Senator Mike Lee. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 31, 2018 - 8:00   ET

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


[08:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: This comes as Giuliani calls Mueller's team a lynching mob in a new interview.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Meantime, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe has turned a confidential memo over to the special counsel. McCabe's memo reportedly detailed a conversation he had with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in the days after James Comey was fired. "The New York Times" says McCabe was concerned that Rosenstein was providing a cover story for why Trump fired Comey. You'll remember Rosenstein wrote the memo about how Comey handled the Clinton investigation. McCabe says Rosenstein told him the president wanted that memo to be about Russia.

Joining us now, senior political analyst and senior editor at "The Atlantic" Ron Brownstein and Renato Mariotti, former federal prosecutor. Renato, let me start with you. Let's start with Rudy Giuliani, among other things, calling this investigation, the special investigation, a lynching mob. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: We'll challenge Mueller to write whatever you got, take your best punch, with all your 13 Democrats there, you couldn't find a Republican? So you've got a group there that's a lynching mob. So let them do their job, and, boy, we're ready to knock the heck out of you with our report which will be authoritative, it'll be backed up. It'll be backed up with law and facts. And we'll let the American people decide this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: A lynching mob, let that lynching mob do its part, finish its job, and then Rudy went on to say they better finish by September 1st or they'll be meddling in the 2018 elections.

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: I've got to tell you, I am just angry at the idea that FBI agents and DOJ, federal prosecutors are being called a lynching mob. A lynching mob is a group of people who are going to commit a heinous crime, and these are people doing their jobs to protect us to try to prevent crime, to try to investigate crime. It is hard being a federal prosecutor. It's hard being an FBI agent. Those are difficult jobs. They're not being paid what they could be paid in the private sector. They're giving up a lot of time working late hours. Frankly to be called a lynching mob is disgusting and really Rudy Giuliani should be ashamed of himself.

But I will say, one of the interesting nuggets in that statement is that they claim they're going to have their own report. I hadn't really heard that before, but apparently the president's team thinks they're going to come up with their own dueling report with Mueller to try to convince Congress not to impeach.

CAMEROTA: Ron, we've heard other people this morning on the show talk about how disappointed they are at Rudy Giuliani's language and that it is tainting some of his legacy. You just heard James Clapper say I prefer to remember him as America's mayor and the voice of command after 9/11, the voice of comfort after 9/11. And something has shifted, obviously. Rudy Giuliani sort of told us himself when he said that they're going to try this in the court of public opinion and that's where they think that they're going to win.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. First of all, I think this is part of a broader pattern. President Trump barrels through, shatters so many norms, so many customs, ranging from limits on the arbitrary exercise of presidential power to attacking federal law enforcement to the use of racially inflammatory language that those who choose to go along for the ride and defend what has previously been considered indefensible, none of them come out of this looking the same way that they went in. Rudy Giuliani is not alone in that.

But I think the broader point is that all of this -- the past few weeks have been a clear indication that Rudy Giuliani was not brought in, quote, as the lawyer for the president because of his legal expertise but because of his willingness to play this role. And like many things the administration has done from the rhetoric to the policy to the way they've interacted with the Mueller investigation, this is not about persuading the broad public. This is about consolidating and mobilizing his base and making it more difficult for Republican elected officials to support an independent inquiry much less any action if Mueller ultimately concludes that's necessary.

BERMAN: So Renato, really interesting development overnight. "The New York Times" is reporting that Andrew McCabe, who was then deputy director of the FBI, wrote a memo saying that he had spoken to Rod Rosenstein at the time that James Comey was fired, and Rosenstein told him that the president wanted Rosenstein to use Russia as the justification in the letter he was writing criticizing James Comey. Legal significant there, Renato?

MARIOTTI: It's interesting. It is obviously very highly problematic for the president of the United States to fire the FBI director based upon an investigation into him and his friends, him and his associates. That's very problematic.

[08:05:00] And the fact that Rosenstein was told by the president to include that, something about that in the letter, and then decided to leave that off and instead write a letter about how the firing of James Comey should be due to the Clinton investigation, how he handled the Clinton investigation, is problematic. So I think that's certainly going to be evidence that's used by

Mueller. I think we're far passed the stage where I think we can feel pretty confident at this stage that Mueller is going to be -- I think Mueller will conclude that the president obstructed justice. Ultimately that will be a question that is presented to Congress and that will be a political issue in terms of impeachment. But I think this is another piece of evidence that, frankly, raises questions for Rod Rosenstein, and I wonder if somebody in the Trump camp leaked this to try to get Rosenstein to recuse himself.

CAMEROTA: That leads us to Attorney General Jeff Sessions who did recuse himself and who the president has never forgiven, it sounds like, for that moment. And he keeps publicly demeaning attorney general Sessions by saying things like I wish I never picked him, he's beleaguered, just the list goes on and on. We just had formal attorney general Alberto Gonzalez on. He had an interesting take on this, Ron. He said that he thinks that all of this public denigration of his own attorney general makes the president look weak because why does he have somebody in his cabinet that he doesn't respect. Why isn't he fixing this? Why is he publicly insulting his own cabinet member?

BROWNSTEIN: And he's certainly done this before, right? Not to this extent. There's just this extraordinary dynamic in the administration where I think he feels as though keeping everyone off balance heightens his own power.

I would just say, this seems to me like we are headed for a really rocky road here, because one thing I've learned is that the special counsel certainly has shown repeatedly that he knows things that we don't and constantly has the ability to surprise us, but it may be on the question of whether the president obstructed justice, if there is a crime, it's a crime that's hiding in plain sight. In other words, we know the key facts already that prevail here, and the issue is going to be the interpretation of them by political leadership in the House. And it is entirely possible that Mueller may come back and say, look, there is evidence here of obstruction of justice based on what we already know publicly, and a House Republican majority says we don't agree or we don't care or we view this inquiry as illegitimate. And at that point you are faced with, I think, an even greater of partisan and social polarization and division than we face now because it is -- it raises the question of whether the tribal loyalty is outpulling any commitment to any transcendent defense of the rule of law.

BERMAN: And Renato, if I could go back to Rod Rosenstein for a second, because when I read the article, I had not the exact same thought as you, but I did think cui bono, who benefits from this leak right now? Who benefits from the notion that Andrew McCabe wrote a memo saying that Rod Rosenstein might be conflicted here? Explain exactly what that conflict is, because if the McCabe memo is accurate, then Rosenstein knew that Russia was on the mind of the president when he fired James Comey. Why wouldn't Rosenstein have to testify about that? What does it say about Rosenstein when he appointed the special counsel to look into matters of Russia? MARIOTTI: Sure. So obviously we know that Mueller is taking a look

at obstruction. The president's justification regarding why he fired Comey is obviously going to be important. And the fact that Rosenstein changed the -- hid what the president's true motive was, at least that's the allegation in the McCabe memo, suggests that he knew that the president had a potentially improper motive and ultimately decided to hide it, and I think that would be something that would make him a witness. And it's obviously problematic when you're overseeing an investigation in which you are a witness.

CAMEROTA: Ron, your thoughts?

BROWNSTEIN: I have to say, it just shows, to your point, how complex the lines are in all of this. You have Democrats worrying about Jeff Sessions being pushed out because of its implications for the Russia investigation, and yet Sessions is pursuing the most -- as conservative agenda as you could possibly imagine in trying to undo previous law on everything from civil rights to criminal justice across the board. And the same with Rosenstein. There's this enormous fear that if he is pushed out of his position that whatever follows would more do the bidding of the White House and the president in trying to restrict Mueller, and yet the questions of Rosenstein's entrapment in these webs, the way he's entangled in all of the webs of this story as well are profound.

Again, it goes back to this question, is it possible -- we are seeing a stress test of the system when you have a president who is unwilling to respect the normal limits on the arbitrary exercise of presidential power, can the system function both legally and politically to uphold the idea of a rule of law that applies to everyone?

[08:10:10] The answer to me is far from clear at this point and in many ways it's trending in the wrong direction.

CAMEROTA: On that note, Ron Brownstein, Renato Mariotti, thank you both very much for your expertise.

BERMAN: Deeply concerned, Ron Brownstein. It's scary. Scary Ron Brownstein.

CAMEROTA: That was ominous. But we left it there because there's always tomorrow for other news.

And in less than an hour, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet with North Korea's former spy chief as both sides try to iron out this potentially historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. The two men shared what Pompeo called a good working dinner in New York last night. This is the highest level North Korean official to visit the U.S. in nearly two decades. CNN's Michelle Kosinski joins us now with more. Their dinner did sound delicious when I read the menu.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I guess. I sounded pretty simple.

CAMEROTA: The way Pompeo described it, he was like meat, cheese and bread. But when you dive into it was like pea sprouts with a pesto vinaigrette. It sounded really good.

BERMAN: I hope this doesn't derail the summit. I hope this isn't the issue that derails it, just saying.

KOSINSKI: A good meal, the way to a person's heart is through their stomach, right. So the dinner date did happen. It was looking really positive. This is Kim Yong-chol. He's Kim Jong-un's right hand guy. This is the first time he's ever been in the United States. And the pictures that the State Department released showed them smiling, eating their American beef, and Mike Pompeo showing Kim the New York City skyline. No pressure or anything for Pompeo.

This meeting, which will continue today, will determine whether there can even be a Trump/Kim summit. And when you think about it, it can determine whether North Korea ultimately denuclearizes. So first of all, they want to see, is there enough here to even have a Trump/Kim summit? The U.S. wants to convince North Korea that it's going to be more secure without having nuclear weapons.

Also the State Department confirmed our reporting that the U.S. wants to see some big gesture from the North Koreans at a Trump/Kim summit if it happens. They say we want to see something historic. We want to see something that has never been done before. So they want North Korea to show that they are willing to denuclearize, and they need to do something they haven't done before. That could mean giving up part of their nuclear arsenal. But the problem is North Korea has given no indication that they would be willing to do anything even close to that.

And today the Russians are meeting with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, and they're saying things like, well, this should be a phased in denuclearization, there should be some sanctions relief. That's the opposite of what the U.S. wants. So it's not clear if the Russians are accurately showing what Kim Jong-un wants, and is he going to be willing to move it all from that.

CAMEROTA: This is complicated stuff.

KOSINSKI: It's a lot.

CAMEROTA: It really is. This is more than three-dimensional chess. Thank you very much for all of that reporting.

BERMAN: Congressman Trey Gowdy walking a fine line by defending the Mueller probe and debunking the president's conspiracy theory. Will his fellow Republicans back him up? We'll speak to a key Republican senator next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:16:48] BERMAN: All right. We do have breaking news. Just now, President Trump made a claim on Twitter which conflicts with things he said in the past. He now says he did not fire FBI James Comey because of Russia. This is what the president just wrote.

He say, "Not that it matters, but I never fired James Comey because of Russia. The corrupt mainstream media loves to keep pushing that narrative but they know it's not true."

Joining us now is Republican senator from Utah, Mike Lee. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee and the author of "Written Out of History: The Forgot Founders who Fought Big Government," which sounds like a wonderful book.

Senator Lee, thanks so much for being with us. The president now says he did not fire James Comey because of Russia, but that's not true, is it?

REP. MIKE LEE (R), UTAH: Look, my understanding at the time he did it was that he was concerned about the way that Mr. Comey had handled the Hillary Clinton investigation. There are a lot of people including myself who thought that there were things about how he made announcements during that investigation that were unusual. Though it wasn't entirely surprising that he fired him. As to what else might have gone through his mind --

BERMAN: But, but, but -- well, let me just say. So, again, the Clinton investigation was what Rod Rosenstein wrote in that memo to President Trump, but President Trump told Lester Holt he was thinking about Russia. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: "Regardless of the Rosenstein recommendation I was going to fire Comey. This Russia thing was made-up." President Trump told us it was about Russia.

LEE: Yes. Well, it was also about the Hillary investigation and that was the recommendation. It was made to him, was that based on the Hillary investigation he be fired. So the fact that he might have had a lot of things on his mind including the fact that he believed that the Russia thing was made-up still doesn't negate the fact that he had adequate reason to fire him and that he had adequate authority to fire him.

BERMAN: You're a terrific lawyer, would you say that the pattern of evidence here, though, is that Russia was at least a contributing factor to the firing of James Comey, the evidence being, A, the president told us so, B, this report that comes out overnight from the "New York Times that Rod Rosenstein was asked by the president to include Russia as one of the justifications and C, then there was the original drafts of various things the president was going to say from Stephen Miller, this has been reported on more than a year ago, that in the original draft Russia was also included.

LEE: Yes, look, I don't know what he had in mind when he said it. In fact as I have yet to see any piece of evidence, any shred of evidence, any scintilla evidence suggesting that there was, in fact, collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. So I -- I'm not quite sure why this has taken more than a year to get to the bottom of that but I do look forward to seeing whatever report the Mueller investigation comes up with.

BERMAN: Again, the issue of collusion is part of what the investigation is about. Apparently obstruction is now an issue as well and again, just to be clear, just because ultimately it may not be proven that there was collusion, doesn't mean that the president didn't tell us this investigation was at least in part about Russia, correct?

LEE: Yes. But that also doesn't mean that he didn't have adequate authority and adequate reason to fire Jim Comey. He did.

[08:20:04] BERMAN: We're not questioning the authority. He can fire James Comey for any reason or no reason at all. Again that's not the issue. The issue is again the president claiming it wasn't because of Russia despite the fact that he has told us in the past that at least it was in part because of Russia.

You know, I do understand what you're saying about collusion. If we can go back to that point just to cover ground. This has been gone over for many, many months at this. You say you see no evidence that the Russian government I guess helped the Trump campaign with the language you used. The Trump Tower meeting --

LEE: No, no, that's not what I said. What I said is I've seen no evidence that there was collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. That is after all what started this whole thing, that is what this whole thing is about.

BERMAN: OK.

LEE: And I've seen no evidence of that.

BERMAN: You have seen evidence, though, that there were outreaches from people associated with the Russian government to the Trump campaign?

LEE: Look, there's no question that the Russian government was involved in efforts to try to influence the outcome of the election, but you know, what the Russians may have done here, what their intent might have been done is not what's under investigation. That's not what we're talking about here.

BERMAN: OK.

LEE: What we're talking about here is whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. There's no evidence of that.

BERMAN: Donald Trump Jr. when he responded to an overture by that would be great especially later in the summer, does that show intent or at least an openness to these outreaches?

LEE: I don't think so. I haven't seen anything that connects those things or that would cause that to be evidence.

BERMAN: But worthy of investigations. But worthy of investigation, will you go that far?

LEE: I'm sorry, what's that?

BERMAN: But worthy of investigation? Worthy of having been investigated over the last year?

LEE: Well, look, it's been an investigation that's been going on for over a year. I hope and expect they can wrap that up. I would like to believe that they're not investigating for absolutely no reason, but still I'd like to see them wrap it up and I'd love to see what their findings are.

BERMAN: You say you'd like to believe they're investigating or not investigating for no reason. Do you question the intent or what's in the head of Robert Mueller, the special counsel?

LEE: No, I'm not in a position to do that until such time as I've got an opportunity to review whatever he produces. What I'm saying is it's been over a year. We're going on 13 months now and we'd love to see whatever they've got.

BERMAN: Sure. Even the Benghazi investigations went on well longer than that. You know, Whitewater went on -- I'm bad at math, but like four times, five times longer than that. Investigations do go on for some time, you are aware that?

LEE: Of course. Of course they do. I'm aware of no reason why this one needs to stretch out much long but he'll do what he's got to do.

BERMAN: And do what he's got to do, and you were saying you have no reason to question the fairness of the investigation. Those close to the president are. Rudy Giuliani who is the president's I guess personal lawyer in this matter called the Mueller investigation overnight a lynching mob.

LEE: Yes, those are not words that I would've used and, look, to be clear, I didn't say that I'm fully convinced that everything about it was fair. And I don't think I'll have the ability to evaluate that until such time I can review his report.

BERMAN: I hear you --

LEE: So I look forward to hearing his report.

BERMAN: I absolutely know those are words you would not use. You would never have used words like that. What's your judgment about people who do use words like that for someone like Robert Mueller and his team?

LEE: I don't know. I'm not in a position to defend him. I'm not going to defend him because those aren't words that I would use. That's pretty strong language. Perhaps Mr. Giuliani has got some information that I don't have access to. I don't know. I'm not going to speak for him, but I'm just saying based on what I know now, those are not words that I would use to describe this. This is an investigation. I would like to see it wrapped up, I would love to see the report, their findings. We look forward to the moment that happens.

BERMAN: One thing I know you will like to speak about is your new book, written out of history, which sounds like exactly the kind of book that would fascinate me. You write about Elbert H. Gary, of course, from the great state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but also Aaron Burr in a sense an effort to rehabilitate Aaron Burr a tiny a little bit. You know, he's not the hero of "Hamilton," let's just stipulate that. You know, if you'll stand for nothing, what will you fall for, Senator Lee?

LEE: It's a great line as is the line where they refer to Aaron Burr as the damn fool who shot him, the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton. That's what a lot of us think of when we think about Aaron Burr.

The point in my book and the chapter of the book that discusses Aaron Burr is that he was more complicated than that. He was a much more nuanced character than that. He served as vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson's first administration, and he was a defender of the rights of the accused. He put principal over party in many circumstances and part for that reason he won the enmity of Thomas Jefferson.

And during Jefferson's second term of office when Burr was no longer his vice president, Jefferson went after Burr and had him prosecuted aggressively for treason. He could have lost his freedom and also his life given that this was a capital offense.

This stands as a lasting reminder to us of the fact that even a beloved figure in American history, the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, when he became president, he had access to levers of power that at times he abused.

[08:25:05] It's one of the reasons why we need to respect the three branches of government and the ability of each branch to exercise its own power.

BERMAN: I look forward to reading it.

Author and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, thanks so much for being with us.

LEE: Thank you.

BERMAN: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, John. As you know, President Trump not backing down on his debunked claims of a spy being planted in his campaign.

John Sununu, the former chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, will join us live with his thoughts on this and more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CAMEROTA: The White House says President Trump still has concerns even after a key Republican debunked the president's fact-free claim that the FBI planted a spy in his campaign.

Here's the president on the campaign trail this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: So how do you like the fact they had people infiltrating our campaign? Can you imagine? Can you imagine?

(CROWD BOOS)

TRUMP: Can you imagine people infiltrating our campaign? Is there anybody in this big, beautiful arena right now that's infiltrating our campaign? Would you please raise your hand? That would take courage.