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Trump Fires Director Comey; Schumer Calls Trump Firing Director Big Mistake. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired May 9, 2017 - 19:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. OutFront tonight, breaking news. President Trump firing FBI Director James Comey. The bombshell announcement, something that was completely unexpected to anyone came just moments ago. Trump in the letter hand delivered by a bodyguard he's had for decades. Wrote to Comey that he is has terminated and removed from office effective immediately.

And the letter goes on to say, quote, this is Trump, while I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation. I nevertheless concur with the Department of Justice, you are not able to effectively lead the bureau. This is a stunning development. It is lost on no one that the president just fired the man who is leading an investigation into the Trump campaign and whether it colluded with Russians in rigging the U.S. Presidential election. Jeff Zeleny is OutFront at the White House beginning our breaking coverage of the stunning development. And Jeff, nobody seemed to have any idea that this was coming.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Erin. This was a very closely kept secret here at the White House. I am told only a handful of top advisers knew this was coming. But I am told just moments ago that the president himself has been considering this, been thinking about this for at least a week. Did not necessarily have the rational when they first started talking about this but then asked the attorney general and the deputy attorney general to look for that rational and that explanation. And that is what we got this afternoon.

But the timing of this, of course, so interesting, Erin because the, you know, the Russian investigation front and center, it is one of the things that aggravates this president more than anything at all. And as you were just reading in that short letter right there, I have a copy of it right here. It's just about five paragraphs longs, by the president saying that he was essentially vindicated by, you know, this Russian investigation saying he was not a target of this investigation, he is trying to sort of, you know, essentially set the record straight or close the books on this here, Erin, but that is something that will definitely not happen.

The books on this will remain wide open, regardless of who has the FBI. This is going to keep this story alive, if nothing else, you know, for some time to come. Interestingly, this news was delivered over to the FBI by, you know, an old-fashioned way. The director of Oval Office operations, a top aide to this president went over to the FBI this afternoon to hand deliver this. One problem with that, the FBI Director himself is in -- on the West Coast this week on California. So he found out about that some point afterward. But no one in the justice department was expecting this.

The phone calls went out around 5:30 this evening, Eastern Time and the news broke shortly after that. Erin, I am told the president does not expect to address this anymore this evening. The White House is not answering anything else this evening. He may talk about it tomorrow but so unusual such a major moment not addressing the nation on an issue like this.

BURNETT: Not address the nation on something so important with such a crucial investigation. Let me just ask you, Jeff, you know, Sean Spicer, the press secretary was asked today directly does the president still at confidence " full confidence in FBI Director James Comey. He responds I have not asked the president since the last time we spoke. I have no reason to believe. So, he " did he not know? Was he just being coyed? Do we know?

ZELENY: It's unclear. I do not know if he knew but as I was saying earlier, it was very closely held by a very small group of individuals.


ZELENY: I'm not sure if Sean Spicer knew about this. That's often the way it goes. The press secretary is not informed about these things, so they don't have to sort of lie or, you know, not answer honestly, I guess, if you will here. But Sean is " Spicer has been asked a similar question in recent weeks. He answers it basically the same but today certainly his answer reign differently because a few hours after that briefing, James Comey was out and it was announced not in a statement.

Sean Spicer came out to the press room and essentially the doorway of the press room and read it. He just simply announced it. It was a very odd way to make such a bombshell announcement.

BURNETT: Right. And it was a bombshell. There was nothing in there about accepting the resignation so everyone knows, right? Those aren't the words at all.

ZELENY: He was fired.

BURNETT: He is terminate and removed from office. Not, I have accepted the resignation of the FBI Director. I mean, this is a loud, loud statement and a shocking statement. Thank you so much, Jeff Zeleny. He's going to stay with us through the hour, of course as the news continues to break here on what exactly happened in the shocking move. I want to go to Pamela Brown, our justice correspondent. And Pamela, as we point out, it was Keith Schiller, a long-time, you know, personal bodyguard, head of operations now at the White House that walked over personally to deliver this to the FBI, the FBI Director was not there. Obviously, this was shocking. What is the reaction in the FBI at this moment? PEMALA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It is a shocking turn of

events that really has taken even the most senior people at the FBI by a total surprise, Erin. I've spoken to several FBI agents about this tonight, I'm told by -- one says, it feels like we've lost a family member. Another agent I spoke to said, it's shocking and upsetting for a lot of the rank and file. And even a lot of people on the FBI don't even know yet. This came as a surprise. Senior staff at the FBI was notified just a short time ago and they're having an emergency meeting tonight.

And what's interesting here is , you know, you talk to some people and they say they're shocked but at the same time they're not surprised in a way, because of the fact that James Comey has really been at the center of controversy over his handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation as well as the Trump campaign associates and Russia investigation. And there was consternation within the FBI, internal conflict. But what people are asking tonight, Erin, is why now. They're surprised that this is happening now because there really, you know, some of the main controversies have happened in the past.

That's what Rob Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who was the one that apparently recommended Comey's firing. What he cites is Comey is handling the Clinton investigation in the press conference back in 2016. So a lot of unanswered questions tonight in the FBI and just a lot of shock all around, Erin.

BURNETT: And Pamela, let me just ask you. In the letter to Director Comey from the president of the United States. He says, I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation. Do we know that to be true?

BROWN: We don't know that to be true. We've been calling of course the FBI press office and others trying to figure out what exactly the president meant by that because of course, the FBI and the White House is not supposed to be talking about an investigation that would happen to do with the president's associates. So we don't have the answer to that yet.

BURNETT: All right. Pamela, thank you very much. And the top democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner joins me now. And Senator, I appreciate your time. Were you shocked? How did you find out?

MARK WARNER, (D) RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Shocked would be a gross understatement. I mean, this is -- didn't see this coming. It's obviously outrageous. We now have got a president who's fired the acting attorney general, virtually all the U.S. attorneys, the FBI Director. He's had his U.S. attorney had to recuse himself from the Russian investigations. We have the NSA Director have to resign because of contact with Russians. This administration says there's no there-there, in terms of our investigation, but boy, oh, boy, it -- there is so much smoke here and we'll still have to determine how big the fire is.

BURNETT: So, Senator Leahy just came out and said this is nothing less than Nixonian. Of course, referring to Nixon's firing of those investigating him on a Saturday night. Do you think that that's' what this is? That the president is firing Jim Comey because he is the one leading the investigation into Russia ties with the Trump administration?

WARNER: We met with Director Comey, the intel committee leadership did as recently as yesterday. We were going to have the FBI Director in a closed hearing on Thursday. I had a lot of faith -- have a lot of faith in Jim Comey. I still want him to come and testify even as former FBI Director. But it sure seems awfully curious that this president would choose now, the day after Miss Yates testified with us starting to pick up a pace a bit on our investigation to fire the FBI Director.

BURNETT: Would you say it's Nixonian? Would you use that word?

WARNER: I would say " I would say that what happened during the Nixon period, there were people of principle who stood up against some of then President Nixon's actions. I'm hoping in the coming days that we'll see either out of the administration and frankly from a lot of my colleagues' willingness to rise above partisanship because this is so much more important than just this president. It's really about the whole rule of law in our country.

BURNETT: The president said in his letter to the FBI Director, I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation. Do you know that to be true that the president of the United States is not under personal investigation right now?

WARNER: I can't confirm or deny that. I can tell you that the FBI Director Comey indicated there were ongoing investigations into folks affiliated with the Trump campaign or organization and the Russians. I know that we have got a lot of interviews that are scheduled and to be scheduled that will try to answer these questions.

BURNETT: So no change in your investigation? It's on track. You're not changing --


BURNETT: -- for a special prosecutor.

WARNER: Erin, I believe that we need a special counsel or special prosecutor at this point.


WARNER: I have zero faith in the deputy attorney general and more than ever, this investigation, we've got to get done.

BURNETT: All right. Senator, I don't know if you can stay with me. I hope you can. I just want to listen to Senator Schumer, minority leader, speaking right now from the senate.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D) MINORITY LEADER: -- right now. If the administration had objections to the way Director Comey handled the Clinton investigation, they had those objections, the minute the president got into office but they didn't fire him then. Why did it happen today? We know the house is investigating Russian interference in our elections that benefitted the Trump campaign. We know the senate is investigating.

We know the FBI has been looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. A very serious offense. Were these investigations getting too close to home for the president? It is troubling that Attorney General Sessions who had recused himself from the Russian investigation played a role in firing the man leading it. So what happens now? Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein sat in the judiciary committee and promised to appoint a special prosecutor at the appropriate time.

That time is right now. The American people's trust in our criminal justice system is in Rosenstein's hands. Mr. Rosenstein, America depends on you to restore faith in our criminal justice system, which is going to be badly shattered after the administration's actions today. This is part of a deeply troubling pattern from the Trump administration. They fired Sally Yates. They fired Preet Bharara and now they've fired Director Comey, the very man leading the investigation.

This does not seem to be a coincidence. This investigation must be run as far away as possible from this White House and as far away as possible from anyone that President Trump has appointed. Given the way the president fired Director Comey, any person who he appoints to lead the Russia investigation will be concerned that he or she will meet the same fate as Director Comey if they run afoul of the administration.

The American people need to have faith that an investigation as serious as this one is being conducted impartially without a shred of bias. The only way the American people can have faith in this investigation is for it to be led by a fearless independent special prosecutor. If Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein does not appoint an independent special prosecutor, every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover up. I'll take one or two questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you suggesting that this was parts of add cover-up and (INAUDIBLE) to be appointed, what was his reaction?

SCHUMER: I simply said to him, Mr. President, in all due respect, you're making a very big mistake and he didn't really answer. And I have said from the get-go that I think a special prosecutor is the way to go. But now with what's happened, it is the only way to go. Only way to go to restore the American people's faith. Are people going to suspect cover-up? Absolutely. If an independent special prosecutor is appointed, there's still can be some faith that we can get to the bottom of this. If not, everyone will suspect cover-up. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Schumer, you told me last year before the election that you lost confidence in Jim Comey because of how he handled the e-mail scandal. Do you think that the president's explanation that this is the reason why he's firing him now has credibility with you? Do you believe that?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Or do you think he's firing him for another reason?

SCHUMER: I never -- I never called on the president to fire Director Comey. I had a lot of questions about how he handled himself but the overwhelming question is this. If the administration had those same questions, the events occurred months ago and they should have fired Comey on the day they came into office. All of them occurred before he came into office, so that does not seem to me to be a logical or persuasive explanation. Thank you, everybody.

BURNETT: And that was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking as you heard calling for a special prosecutor saying the nation needs proof that there was not a cover-up and saying that he spoke to the president and told him he was making a big mistake when President Trump called him today to tell him about this decision. Our special panel is with me right now for this breaking news. Former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes joins me, former senior communications adviser for the Trump campaign, Jason Miller joins me -- I'm sorry.

Former senior adviser, communications director for President Trump, Dan Pfeiffer, Gloria Borger, Mark Preston and senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Jeff, let me start with you. Sorry. I obviously have something in my throat but are now hearing a uniform answer from democrats but it is just not democrats, you have Lindsey Graham, you have John McCain, you have republicans all coming out questioning what the president did today to say the least.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: This is not something that presidents have done historically. There is only one president for firing a federal investigator who is investigating the president of the United States as Jim Comey was, and that was October 20th, 1973 when Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox. This act by Donald Trump is so far outside the normal range of presidential activities, it is so outrageous, it is so grotesque, it is so wrong that it is shocking that anyone in political life has even the shred of an ability to defend it.


JASON MILLER, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, I was a little bit surprised to hear Senator Schumer's comments considering on November 2nd he publicly stated that he had lost confidence in Director Comey. But look, this is something that should have been done last year. I mean, the avalanche of democrats who came out and criticized Director Comey and said that he should be fired whether it be whether it be Valerie Jarrett, or Jerry Nadler, or liberal columnists like Kurt Eichenwald. Even the strong criticism we saw from Senator Schumer.

Heck, even Harry Reid said that he thought Director Comey probably violated the Hatch Act last year. So, now we move into President Trump taking over and deputy A.G. Rod Rosenstein led the investigation that went through and he did an analysis, trying to get to the bottom of really where the FBI was and it was clear to the deputy director that Director Comey had lost the following of FBI agents and they determined the decision needed to be made and they approached the White House and took it from there.

So, I guess the only point where I would really disagree or say I would have done things differently, first of all, I think President Trump maybe should have gotten rid of him on day one right when he was inaugurated. But clearly, this is something that should have happened last year under President Obama.


BURNETT: And now they are so outraged that this is happening.

TOOBIN: That's right. Because it's May of 2017. Donald Trump spent the entire campaign praising Jim Comey for what he said about Hillary Clinton.

MILLER: And he criticized " and he criticized Comey plenty.

TOOBIN: And now, let me finish. And now he's firing him for that exact behavior. Non-sense. It's not true. This is a pretext. Donald Trump did not fire Jim Comey because he was too nice to Hillary " because he was too mean to Hillary Clinton. That's the stated rationale --


MILLER: He lost the confidence of FBI agents and law enforcement and we need to restore --


BURNETT: Let me just go here. To the letter from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, right? The first thing he mentioned in terms of a reason for doing this. Let me just put this to you, Gloria. As you and I have discussed, however, I cannot defend the director's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's email and I do not understand this refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. I mean, when you read that, your jaw does have to drop. The first reason that they're putting out is Hillary Clinton's e-mails and the universal judgment when he was mistaken.


BURNETT: I mean, the president of the United States when he was a candidate praised Comey for making that decision.

BORGER: Right. Comey -- look, it's no doubt that he has soured on Comey since he's been office and the reason he has soured on Comey is clearly because of the Russia investigation which he calls a hoax, right? He could have fired him on January 20th if he had wanted to. There was no reason he -- I mean, if he " if he felt this way. And I also have no doubt that Rod Rosenstein believes what he wrote, because there are lots of attorneys inside and outside of government, he quotes a bunch of them, who agree with him that Comey handled this badly, that he gave a terrible press conference he shouldn't have given on July 5th.


BORGER: That he sent a letter on October 28th he shouldn't have sent. However, you know, and I'm hearing from people in the " in the " in the-- who are echoing what Jason is saying that trying to make it sound as if the president himself is an innocent bystander in this firing, that actually he just accepted what Sessions and Rosenstein recommended when in fact this would not happened if the president did not want it to happen. So it is a decision I believe that was in search of a rationale.

BURNETT: So, Tom, let me " yes.

BORGER: And the rationale is given by Rosenstein.

BURNETT: So, Tom, let me ask you. When you see the letter from the president of the United States to Director Comey, you are hereby terminated and removed from office effective immediately, is there -- this is not an innocent bystander, I mean, this is not the way these things are usually done. Usually they say, I, you know, I accept, you know, your resignation or something like that. I mean, this is clearly coming from the president himself.

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: No. Clearly, Erin, and I think it is shocking and I agree with Jeffrey and I agree with what Gloria just said. The manner of doing this at this time with this level of urgency is what makes it so questionable. What did Comey do today to justify he's got to be terminated today and immediately, you know, be gone. So I think that, you know, the idea that Gloria mentioned, that it was a decision in search of a rationale, it certainly appears that way, the way this has come down.

Now, going back to the criticism of his press conference in July, the handling of the Clinton case back in -- through the summer and his frequent testimony through last summer and fall before the election. You know, many of the rank and file agents that I talked to and former agents felt that he had crossed the line in terms of politicizing the FBI and no matter what the outcome was, there was going to be an outcry from one party or the other, and in this case managed to get it from both.


MILLER: Erin, what it seems everyone have said about here is the timing of it and not the fact that Director Comey needed to be replace. And I think that's something that's really important to point out here because again, there were republicans who called for Director Comey to be removed, there were democrats, it didn't matter regardless of party. Last year there were an avalanche like I said of calls of people saying that he need to be removed. And so finally it happened today. I personally think like I said earlier, it should happened last year or even earlier in this administration. But finally, the right decision was made.

BURNETT: But the big question of course as to whether this is a cover-up as Senator Schumer is saying perhaps it may be, and now you have these calls and louder than ever for a special prosecutor. The big question, Mark Preston is why now? Why today? Why suddenly this afternoon? Does the president's bodyguard go over and personally hand this letter that says, you are fired. Why?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And, you know, that's an answer that we don't have right now, Erin. And we're all desperately trying to get through because it really does come down to timing. Timing in life is everything, timing in politics is everything. Plus " and to see President Trump write that letter to include in the letter that Director Comey had told him on three separate occasions that he was not tied at all to this Russia investigation was bizarre at the very least.

But there is with one big winner in all of this right now, Erin. And I think we need to take a step back and look at it right now. And the winner is Vladimir Putin. Because you know that they're laughing right now --

MILLER: Oh, come on, Mark.

PRESTON: -- over in Russia, they are looking at us right now and they're saying, look it, what we did by affecting the election, by toying with their election continues to have dominoes drop. And that is true, Jason. There's no question about that.

MILLER: Mark "


PRESTON: So, regardless of what happens " regardless of what happens and why he was -- why Director Comey was dismissed. We do know that Vladimir Putin right now is pretty happy about what's going on.

MILLER: So, Mark, do you think the handling of the Clinton investigation last year warranted keeping Director Comey in his position?

BORGER: Camera's way too high --

PRESTON: I think " I think that " listen, I think at this point right now it doesn't matter what happens then, it matters what happens now because the timing is right now. He was the one doing the investigation right now into any alleged ties. And I'll use the word alleged between associates of Donald Trump and Russian officials. And we do know that the house investigation at least for a time was compromised and we are all trying to hedge our bets and hoping that the United States senate would do their job in addition to the Department of Justice. And at this point right now we don't have the FBI director right now leading that investigation. TOOBIN: There was not one republican in the entire country as far as I'm aware who was upset about James Comey's decision, you know, to make nasty comments about Hillary Clinton last July. No republicans called for his removal. Zero. Now all of a sudden it's so outrageous that he has to be fired nine months later. It's completely unbelievable. The only explanation for why James Comey was fired is because he was investigating the man who fired him.

MILLER: No, that is " that is " that is absolutely ridiculous. It was " it was a pattern of over and over of investigations being bungled. The entire weight of the Clinton

fiasco last year happened, the way the interaction with Loretta Lynch. I mean, you look at it, I mean, fundamentally, the director was no longer able to lead his people. I mean, when you've lost Lindsey Graham.

BORGER: OK. Jason.

MILLER: And Even Lindsay graham was saying it's time for a fresh start.

BORGER: Jason.

BURNETT: All right. So " yes. But let me just -- for one second, take us back to the one voice that matters the most which is that of the president. Right after Comey said, right? He's looking into more e-mails for Hillary Clinton, OK? The day after, two days after and then again in January, here's the president of the United States.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I respect the fact that Director Comey was able to come back after what he did. It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they're trying to protect her from criminal prosecution. He's become more famous than me.


BURNETT: Jason, that's what he had to say, right?? He was thrilled when Comey was on his side and now all of a sudden he's firing the guy.

MILLER: But the fact of the matter is that Director Comey was all over the map. It's almost as though that these investigations were being run like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. That indecisive nature in which they were going back and forth, it was just plain and ridiculous and we've seen it even continue going forward. So look, he had lost the confidence of the men that he -- and men and women he was supposed to be leading.

TOOBIN: Who said? That's just made-up fact. That's not true.


BURNETT: OK. Hold on. Let's go to Tom on that. Tom, is that -- you just " you just referenced that was, is that, Tom, to some degree true?

FUNETES: I said at the time that many of the rank and file disagreed with that July 5th press conference and many others felt that what he outlined as far as Hillary Clinton's actions warned at a prosecution, so they were surprised that --

BURNETT: Right. But at this time, Tom, has he --


BURNETT: As the director in a different position and he lost the confidence of anybody, the rank and file that work for him or no? You're talking about last summer, I'm talking about now.

FUENTES: Well, I think -- I think it's been recovered up until again. Recently there's more attention being given and more political novice news in the last couple of days that he may not have accurately testified last week about the number of e-mails that went from Huma Abedin to Anthony Weiner's laptop. So that's a new controversy going on, surrounding the director. But getting back to what the point you had just made a moment ago about the praise from President Trump about Comey.


FUENTES: I worked organized crime much of my career. When the boss gives you a kiss on the cheek, it's a bad sign. Doesn't mean he loves him.


BORGER: So -- go ahead, Dan.

DAN PFEIFFER, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: This is not a question of timing. That is a " that is a way to distract from what this is. All that matters -- Jeffrey Toobin is exactly right, is that Donald Trump fired the man who is investigating his campaign for colluding with the " about allegation that he may have colluded with the Russians to tip the election in Donald Trump's favor. You -- the FBI Director is the one unfireable position in Washington. That's why they serve 10-year terms. And so this is -- I thought Donald Trump could never shock me. This is " this is shocking. It's going to be a real tests whether republicans are going to put country over party here and push for the independent investigation we need to get the bottom of it..

BURNETT: All right. And I just want to pause for a moment here. I'm sorry, Gloria. Please all stay with me. But when you said what republicans are want to do. I want to go to our senior congressional reporter Manu Raju with this. Manu, you have some reporting on exactly what republicans are saying. To Dan's point, what are they telling you?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes. That's right. I spoke to a number of them as they were leaving the senate today. They are expressing shock, Erin. The members really were not aware this was coming. Some members of the leadership did get a heads-up shortly before this announcement came. But others did not, including Senator John Cornyn who's the number two republican on the senate judiciary committee, member of the Senate Intelligence Committee (INAUDIBLE) the senior member of the judiciary committee, a number two republican in the entire senate and he did not have any sort of awareness of this before it happened.

He said he was very surprised by the decision. And even some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee like Marco Rubio said he just learned about it through breaking news alerts on his phone.


RAJU: This came as a surprise from virtually everyone up here. But you're not hearing a lot of criticism from republicans yet because they said they want to learn about the details, they want -- they understand that Comey has been at the center of some controversy. They're having a couple of republican senators who have criticized this decision or raised questions. One, John McCain said he was disappointed by the decision and renewing calls for a special committee to investigate this matter on Russia.

As well as Bob Corker, the republican from Tennessee who was once on the shortlist to be President Trump's secretary of state, said that this will raise questions about exactly what happened here and said there needs to be a fulsome and complete and thorough investigation without political interference. SO you're seeing some concerns from republicans but overall even a muted response or people wanting to hear some details or some support it, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a frequent critic of this administration "


RAJU: -- saying that he was supportive of this decision, to again a fresh leadership at the FBI. So, Republicans are still grappling with this news, as well as Democrats here on Capitol Hill, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. And, of course, you know, thank you, Manu. And putting politics aside here. Look the bottom line still remains this -- the president of the United States has fired the man who's in charge of the investigation into actions by the Trump campaign, right? That is the bottom line.

And the president needs to do more explaining as to exactly why he is doing this at this time. We understand he's not going to give more information to the country tonight.

Chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is learning some more details here on this huge question as to why now the shocking development -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me tell you, the shock extending from the Hill, also into the intelligence community. The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who we saw on the Hill just yesterday, this comment to CNN: I have deep respect for James Comey. This is a loss to the FBI and the nation.

Those are strong words there saying this firing is a loss to the nation. Of course, Director Clapper and Director Comey worked very closely on the investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election. They were the ones who together delivered their report to then-President Obama and then-President-elect Donald Trump in early January. And I will add, Erin, that it was Director Comey who, it is CNN reporting, delivered knowledge, a summary of the now-famous dossier to Donald Trump --


SCIUTTO: -- alleging that Russia had compromising information. It was Comey who had that, you might say, difficulty conversation with Donald Trump about the contents of that dossier, which CNN was first to report.

The other point I would make is this. I've been speaking to members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees who have their own concurrent investigation of Russian Interference in the U.S. election today. Like Manu's hearing, none of them had a heads up to this. Certainly, a difference in the way they react. Democrats, like Senator Warner, shocked Republicans more muted tunes.


SCIUTTO: This is a key concern because those investigations there had been concern from members, Democrat and Republican, that they were becoming more partisan, split along party lines. We saw that. You saw that, Erin, in the public hearings. The questions from the Democrats about Russian interference, possible Trump ties. The questions from Republicans about leaks unmasking, et cetera.

This is a test for the bipartisanship of these hearings. Do they come together on, for instance, the issue of a special prosecutor, special investigative committee? Or do they continue to come apart? It's an open question. It'll be a real test going forward.

BURNETT: And, frankly, a crucial one for this country right now.

Senator Warner, of course, the ranking Democrat on the Senate investigation, just coming on this program saying the FBI Director James Comey was scheduled to testify on Thursday and he is still asking that the FBI director, former FBI director come and do so. We don't yet know if there's any response of that. But he very much wants him to do it.

Jeff Zeleny is live from the White House now, with some more reporting.

Some new details here, Jeff, on the crucial question, which is the time line. Why now?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Erin, the timeline is important with this. And a top White House official explained to me just a short time ago. And they're pointing exactly to April 26th. That is when the deputy attorney general, who had been talking about all evening here, he was a former prosecutor in the Obama administration, was appointed as a deputy attorney general in the Trump administration confirmed widely by a vote I believe of 94-6.

When he took office some 14 days ago, the White House says, he saw there was a lack of confidence in the FBI. The FBI director reports to the deputy attorney general. So, at that point, the deputy attorney general started looking into this and reported findings back to the White House just today. That's what the White House is trying to frame this, that's how they're trying to frame this.

Erin, the reality check on this here is something a little different. The reality check here is that the Oval Office, the White House, the president himself, you know, was certainly in favor of this idea, knew about this idea, and has been trying to find a way to possibly get this done.


ZELENY: And the appointment, the confirmation of the deputy attorney who had worked in the Democratic administration allowed them to cover and ability to try to get it done here. So, the narrative that they're spinning here -- the White House sees that it's losing the narrative a little bit. That's one of the reasons I'm surprised the president is not out speaking this evening. The administration is not out talking about this. But indeed, they're not, Erin.

BURNETT: All right.

ZELENY: But the reality check is slightly different than that --


BURNETT: Jeffrey Toobin, let me bring in here.


BURNETT: In terms of the story that they're giving.

TOOBIN: Right.

BURNETT: Do you buy it?

TOOBIN: And Jeff Zeleny I think exactly characterizes the White House position on this. And that position is a lie. It is not possibly true. Rod Rosenstein did not decide to fire Jim Comey on his own.

[19:35:02] BURNETT: That is the deputy attorney general.

TOOBIN: The deputy.

He did not come into office and discover that Jim Comey had lost the confidence of the FBI. By the way, there is an inspector general investigation of Jim Comey's behavior during 2016 underway now. It's not over. So, why didn't they wait until the end of the inspector general's

investigation? They didn't wait because they wanted to fire him now, when he's investigating the White House. Sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct one.

BURNETT: Let me ask a question here, Dan, to you. They're saying, obviously, this whole Rod Rosenstein was an Obama appointee. They're trying to use that. You heard Jeff's view, he thinks that's totally bogus.

Sara Murray, our White House reporter, is now reporting this has been under consideration for days. But one of the final straws was the revelation that Comey's recent testimony to Congress was riddled with errors.

Among those errors, he said that there were thousands of emails forwarded by Clinton deputy Huma Abedin to her husband. That's not true, right? There were only a handful. It was wrong. There were serious errors in that testimony.

Do you buy that at all as a reason? Does that make you question whether the FBI director is doing his job?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I find it very hard to believe that the reason Donald Trump fired Jim Comey is because he was too unfair to Huma Abedin. It's -- the whole thing is ridiculous, right? And there's nothing that holds up that supports the very poor, insipid talking points that Trump surrogates have been giving here.

It's just -- it is not credible and it is -- Jim Comey has made many mistakes. Very critical of him the way he handled the Clinton email investigation. He made mistakes in his testimony. But you still cannot fire the guy who was investigating your campaign for colluding with Russia. That is not something that's acceptable and normal in American politics. We have to recognize we have crossed the line here we have not seen since Watergate.

BURNETT: What do you say to that, Jason Miller? Because sure, Democrats were upset. You're right. You point out that out accurately. But now --


JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, not just upset. They wanted him fired.

BURNETT: OK, that's true. But to the point Mark Preston was making. Donald Trump is now president of the United States. He didn't fire Director Comey right when he came in. Director Comey is in charge of the investigation into the Trump campaign.

How can the president fire him right now? How can he fire the guy investigating him?

MILLER: Well, absolutely. I mean, first of all, like I said earlier, Director Comey should have been fired last year by President Obama. But whoever replaces Director Comey or the deputy director will step in and continue those investigations until they reach their natural conclusion. Which I would point out again that there hasn't been one shred of evidence put forward saying there was some sort of coordination between the campaign and some foreign entities. So, of course, I think it's a wild goose chase.

But investigations will continue. I think what we're going to have is ultimately a steadier hand who's behind the wheel of the FBI. And again, Erin, a very important thing to point out here, there's one person who's been on, who stood up and advocated and said Director Comey was doing a good job and he need to stay in place. People -- they might take issue with the timing of it, but no one is saying that Director Comey need to say where he was.

BURNETT: But, Jason, let me just say. I mean, I've talked to Senator Cory Booker, OK, just a few days ago and he slammed Director Comey, OK? He did. He slammed him.

But I asked, not once but twice, would you support him being fired? He would not do that, right? So there is criticism but it stopped short of saying he should be part and that's significant distinction.

MILLER: Well, of course, now, with President Trump being at the White House, they're going to go right up to the line, but I mean, the crocodile tears a little bit insincere here. Democrats wanted Director Comey fired last year. They're mad that didn't happen. The only reason why they're not excited that it's happening now is purely for political reasons.

BURNETT: So, Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York joins me now, serves on the Judiciary Crocodile.

Crocodile tears from you? What do you say?

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Context is everything, not timing here. Last July, I asked -- I said he should have been fired right after he gave his opinion of Hillary's concededly legal actions at that time. If that -- had he been fired then, you would have had a new FBI director. You wouldn't be firing the president who's directing the investigation, and the president -- having the president appoint his own investigator.

This smacks of an obstruction of justice. It's clearly part of a cover-up and it's quite of a pattern. He fired Yates, Sally Yates. He fired Preet Bharara, who had jurisdiction over Trump Tower.

BURNETT: The other U.S. attorney.

NADLER: Now, he fired Comey.

The president, President Trump is obviously trying to avoid an investigation. And Mr. Miller said a moment ago there's not a shred of evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, we don't know that. We don't know what evidence the FBI has unearthed.

[19:40:01] BURNETT: So, you're basically saying you would have wanted him to be fired, but once Trump became president --


BURNETT: -- investigating, you did not want him fired, right?

NADLER: He shouldn't be -- he can't -- he's the only possibility or that he was the only possibility that we saw of an honest investigation. Certain investigations have not staffed up. They're proceeding at a mile a year, because there's no staff. Benghazi investigation had huge staff.

But the leadership, the Republican leadership of the House and Senate don't want a serious investigation because they're putting -- as shown by the fact that there's no additional staff to staff it. So, the only hope to get to the bottom of what was the most egregious interference in American election -- to subvert an American election by foreign power was the FBI investigation, which as far as we can tell was going forward well. And now we cannot believe the honesty of any investigation.

BURNETT: Jason, let me give a chance to respond.

MILLER: Yes. So, Congressman, are you saying right now that you're flip-flopping and that you think Comey should have remained in his position?

NADLER: Absolutely.

MILLER: So, you wanted him -- so you're absolutely flip-flopping for political reasons.

NADLER: No, I'm not flip-flopping because of political reasons. And I'm not flip-flopping now. I changed quite a while ago because the president cannot appoint and fire and appoint his own investigator. That's the key here.

This is the same as when Nixon fired Archibald Cox. You can't control your own investigator. And anybody who believes that the reason that Comey was fired by President Trump now is because Comey was too helpful to the Trump campaign in criticizing Hillary last summer is absurd. Anyone who believes that, I have a nice bridge to sell them between Brooklyn and Manhattan. I don't believe anybody intelligent can honestly believe that.

MILLER: Well, Congressman --

NADLER: It is clear that the motive of his firing was to stop and investigation that the president feared. I don't know why he feared it because we don't know what was going on there. But he wanted to stop the investigation and the only way -- the only way that anyone will have confidence that there's an honest investigation going on of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians will be if there's an independent prosecutor appointed. And if there's not --

MILLER: Congressman, Director Comey is the only person --


NADLER: This is the equivalent or worse than the Saturday night massacre by President Nixon.

BURNETT: What do you say, Jason? I mean, why not -- if the president really has nothing to hide and he isn't involved in any kind of a cover-up. At this point, why not wait until the investigation's over?

MILLER: Well, why continue to have someone in place who lost the confidence of the men and women that they're supposed to -

NADLER: We have no evidence he lost the evidence of the people in the FBI --

MILLER: Folks have been even saying on here.

NADLER: -- other than the pretextual statements today. It is clear that the reasons given for firing Comey about what happened last summer are pretexts. They're excuses. They're not true. They're further lies from this administration.

And the real reason is to stop what might have been what appeared to be an honest investigation. And the only way to get around that is to have an investigation not under the jurisdiction of the president. That means a special prosecutor.

MILLER: So, do you think -- again, are you -- do you think that Director Comey is the only person who can carry out and investigation with FBI?

NADLER: I think Director Comey was the only person other than a special prosecutor appointed outside the chain of command to the president who could have done that, yes.

MILLER: But you were -- you thought so little of his judgment last year, you wanted him fired.

NADLER: I thought he exercised bad judgment last year and should have been fired last year. But once he got into a situation with the person that will fire him is the president he's investigating, it changes the entire situation and it makes that firing quite of a cover-up.

BURNETT: And here's what's stunning, Mark Preston. Dana Bash is reporting that the White House tonight -- oh, we have Dana?

OK. So, Dana , let me go to you, because what the news that you have and, Mark, we'll get reaction is pretty stunning. They did not think there would be a political explosion. They are shocked tonight that this is happening.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. My understanding is that when this was initially going down and made public, that some senior people in the White House did not think this was going to be the political explosion that it obviously is. And, you know, it's sort of hard for us to believe this is true but this is what I'm told.

And the reason is because of, you know, kind of the talking points we're hearing from Republicans, because they argue, well, wait a minute, this is what Democrats have been calling for. The argument that Rod Rosenstein made in his long letter is that they fired Jim Comey for everything he did --

BURNETT: For Hillary Clinton.

BASH: -- the Clinton investigation, without one important fact at their disposal, which is why now? And so, that is why there's a little bit of a shock, I'm told, inside the White House that this is as monumental as it would have been and the reaction is the way, you know, I think anybody would have understood it to be.

[19:45:10] BURNETT: But, Mark, sort of shocking here that they would be so unaware of the bombshell this would drop.


BURNETT: That they would miss. I mean, they clearly tried to make that argument, right? The first paragraph was all about Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Unfortunately, the record of the tape with the president of the United States shows that to not be his actual point of view.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's got to be somewhere.

PRESTON: Yes, you know what's crazy? Let's just remove motive right now from it. Let's assume that there is no nefarious motive behind it. If that's the case, right? And we'll give him the benefit of the doubt if that is the case, that means strategically they had no idea what they were doing.

There was no idea this would be a political bombshell. They had no idea that there's going to be a lot of questions directed towards them. They had no idea they had just now handed the Democratic Party, you know, a whole handful of talking points to criticize President Trump and to try to link him to an investigation that we don't know what the outcome is. And that in itself is pretty scary, because the fact is if they don't know that, what else don't they know?

I will say one more thing. What is also concerning on many fronts. This seems like President Trump was acting like he did when he was a private citizen. When you're the CEO of a company, you can do things like this. When you're the president of the United States, there are consequences and questions. That's what we're seeing right now.

BURNETT: Dan, do you really believe truly at your core that this is part of a cover-up? That this is a Nixon moment? Or is it just a miscalculation in terms of the timing?

PFEIFFER: I do believe it's part of a cover-up and a Nixon moment. If he had nothing to hide, he would have let Comey stay, let the investigation finish, be exonerated, and move on. Now, he will never be exonerated because the person who will conduct the investigation going forward will be the person he handpicked, right?

The Wizards would not have let the Celtics pick the referees for the game. It will be in question forever. You only do that when you have something to hide.

BURENETT: So, Jerry --

PFEIFFER: So, this is a very big moment.

BURNETT: So, Congressman, let me ask you, to Jason Miller's point though. Is there no one that could do a fair investigation that would exonerate the president and his associates at this point? I mean, could they fix this with a special prosecutor who could do that at this point?

NADLER: They could fix it with a special prosecutor who is an independent and with a commission such as many people have been asking for, like an 9/11 Independent Commission to look into the whole thing. But they cannot fix it by simply appointing a new director of the FBI. That would be part of the cover-up.

Let me say one other thing. Only a president -- because I was intrigued by this comment that they were shocked -- only a president so ignorant of American history as to think Andrew Jackson was alive during the Civil War and obviously ignorant of what happened when President Nixon fired Archibald Cox in Saturday night massacre could think this couldn't be a political explosion because people would perceive this as a cover-up.

TOOBIN: I don't think an independent investigation could help at this point.

BURNETT: You don't?

TOOBIN: No, because --

BURNETT: Even with a prosecutor with a sterling reputation?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. Because a special prosecutor is a lawyer. A lawyer only has to rely on FBI agents. A lawyer may operate independently, but the FBI is going to answer to the new director. And the new director is going to be some stooge that Donald Trump puts in there. It's probably going to be --

MILLER: That's ridiculous.

TOOBIN: It's probably going to be Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee who ran around the country telling everyone to throw Hillary Clinton in jail just like Michael Flynn did. And it will be -- or it will be Rudolph Giuliani, or it will be the governor of New Jersey. I mean, it will be someone who campaigned for Donald Trump who will become the new head of the FBI.

MILLER: Jeff, it will be someone who follows the rule of law and isn't driven by an indecisive conscience.

TOOBIN: Like -- like --

NADLER: But Jeff is right. Someone who is dependent on FBI agents, reporting to a Trump-appointed FBI director. On second thought, Jeff is a right.

BURNETT: On this point though of the FBI director, a little bit of color here, Tom Fuentes. We are finding out that he was at the L.A. field office today with FBI agents meeting when the news broke. One cannot even imagine exactly what that moment was like.

He finds out he's been fired. They find out, they're in this meeting together. On this important point, because I think everybody is sort of throwing things around without direct knowledge like you may have. Right now, from your understanding, does the or did the FBI Director Jim Comey have the confidence of his rank and file?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Erin, that's hard to answer. You know, some of the people I've talked to obviously are senior officials at FBI headquarters. They even had a mixed set of feelings about whether he had caused the FBI to become too much in the spotlight politically starting with the July 5th press conference.

[19:50:05] The series of hearings that he testified in where he was extremely critical all summer and fall of Hillary Clinton. And the idea that that was being politicized even back then even before the letter. Most people thought the letter was justified if they were going to reopen and get search warrants that they had to notify as he promised.

But I think that I can't really say, you know, for the 14,000 agents around the world of what all of their feelings were. I knew there was great disappointment that the FBI had been thrown into such a political arena in the last year. However, you know, part of that blame really goes to the fact that the Hillary Clinton investigation had been stalled for so long that it was coming to fruition during the height of the campaign.

That a lot of people thought was Hillary's fault as any had she cooperated a year or two earlier and had it concluded by the end of 2015, instead of during the middle of the campaign.

So, there's a lot of blame to go around, but yes, many people were disappointed that the FBI has been put in such a political situation as it is right now.

BURNETT: All right. So, in terms of the FBI and who is actually being investigated, I think this is crucial.

And I want to go to Jeff Zeleny on this, because in the letter from the president of the United States to Director Comey, Donald Trump writes: While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nonetheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.

Jeff Zeleny, I asked the Democratic ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, could he confirm that the president of the United States was not under investigation. He demurred answering that directly.

Let me ask you -- I know you have a chance to ask the White House. What is the president talking about here?

ZELENY: Erin, that is a great question. I don't have an answer for that this evening. I talked to a couple White House officials asking them, in fact, to elaborate on that paragraph. It is the second paragraph of this letter here that we've been talking about all night.

And a senior administration official said there would be no more comment this evening and they will not elaborate any more on what the president was talking about here.

But, Erin, let's think back to how the president has been communicating about the investigation. He called it -- you know, a taxpayer financed charade. He said it's a fake investigation, fake news.

So, he is not exactly been the arbiter of reality when it comes to what is going on with this investigation here. Perhaps this was a private conversation he had with the FBI director. That would seem to be highly unusual, but the White House is not saying tonight what three separate times he was talking about.

TOOBIN: This is just another example --

BURNETT: I mean, does anybody know what the president -- by the way, knowing him over many years of covering him, he wrote this himself.

TOOBIN: It certainly seems that way.

BURNETT: He put that in there of the three separate occasions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, guys, I'm going to unplug --

TOOBIN: This is not normal. This is not how presidents behave. They don't exonerate themselves in letters in which they fire the person who is investigating them.

I mean, it's just not how American history has unfolded. I mean, this is not how American law works. That a president gets to write a letter where he says, you say that I am in the clear and by the way, you're fired.

BURNETT: And how unusual, OK, to Jeff Zeleny's point that these conversations would have occurred. Would the FBI director or someone who should be the FBI director --

TOOBIN: Yes, who used to be the FBI director.

BURENTT: OK, have ever had a conversation like that with the president of the United States and assured him he was not under investigation directly? TOOBIN: You know, there are guidelines in place about how law

enforcement investigations are supposed to be handled in terms of relations with the executive -- the rest of the executive branch. Those rules certainly do not allow the FBI director to go to the president and say you're in the clear.

So, I mean, I don't know what the president was basing that paragraph in his letter on. But if Director Comey said it, he would have been violating all sorts of norms and procedures in terms of how the executive branch and the FBI is supposed to function.

BURNETT: And would you go so far to say, then, well, he should be fired he actually said those things? I mean --

TOOBIN: Let's take it one step at a time.


TOOBIN: I think Comey deserves the right to have his own explanation of what that paragraph refers to if it refers to anything at all.

BURNETT: Well, I think it's crucial that he does. By the way, he could answer whether he said that without saying the president is or isn't. I mean, there are ways you could word this to answer the factual, that they talk about this three specific times.

All right. There's been a lot of conversation here about Republicans being more muted in their response, Democrats being outraged.

[19:55:03] Senior congressional reporter joins me now from Capitol Hill. I spoke to the Democratic, obviously, ranking member, Manu, earlier this hour on the Senate Intel Committee, Mark Warner, said special prosecutor, but said they're moving ahead.

You're now speaking to the chairman of that committee, Richard Burr. Are they on the same page or not?

RAJU: Well, Richard Burr just put out a strongly worded statement, Erin, criticizing this decision by the president, saying that I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey's termination. He said he found that Comey's been a public servant of the highest order. He said, this is very significant, Erin, he said that his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

He said that Comey has been more forthcoming than other FBI directors in the past. And he is raising some significant concerns that this is going to be a problem for the Senate Intelligence Committee's own sweeping investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign. Very strong words, saying that he's troubled by the timing and the reasoning behind this firing.

So, probably, some of the strongest words we've heard tonight and from a powerful member who's been concerned about some of President Trump's statements as well. BURNETT: Well, it's huge and it's important. And it's a good thing

to hear that the Democrat and Republican on that committee are on the same page. It's important in such of moment of bipartisanship.

Democratic senator from Washington, Maria Cantwell, joins me now.

Senator, what's your reaction to all this?

SEN. MARIA CANTWELL (D), WASHINGTON: Well, I think a lot of people are sitting at home, knowing that the Russians have interfered with our elections, and now, they see that this is the third person that's been fired by this administration. So, I think people want to know, was this because someone was closing in on information about that investigation, that might have incriminated people within the administration? If that's not the case, then Mr. Rosenstein should appoint a special prosecutor as soon as possible.

BURNETT: So, you see the president obviously saying that he's been assured by the FBI director, the former FBI director on three separate occasions that he's not under investigation. Rod Rosenstein's letter in which he lays out the justification for today's move, leads with and greatly elaborates upon, Senator, Hillary Clinton and how that was handled. Do you buy that or do you believe that that is cover?

CANTWELL: I know that my constituents want answers about who knew about the Russian interference. And as I said, Mr. Comey being now the third person that is fired, wonder if every time somebody get close to this, that somehow, even my colleague from the House who now recused himself from the investigation.

So, I think what we really need is to have in prosecutor, a special independent prosecutor, look into the details of this. Our colleagues on the intelligence committee, as you just heard, both Democrats and Republicans, are not going to step away from investigating this. We are going to get the answers for the American people.

BURNETT: And do you believe that this investigation can continue at this point?

CANTWELL: Well, my colleagues in the Senate are going to investigate. And the judiciary committee is going to continue to investigate. What we had hoped was that the FBI was going to continue to do their job in this investigation.

And we -- this is very surprising decision, this moment to stay we're making this termination because the facts stated in the letter are things that have been known for months and months and months. So, why all of a sudden, do you make that decision?

BURNETT: All right. Senator Cantwell, I appreciate your time very much tonight.

CANTWELL: Thank you.

BURNETT: And, Mark Preston, let me just give you a chance to react here. I think the significance of Senators Burr and Warner actually being on the same page. I think it's very clear they knew the importance of doing that this evening.

PRESTON: Yes, very heartening. Certainly, given what we've learned in the last hour or so, and without explanation about why James Comey was dismissed or without an explanation that really seemed to be robust.

But to your point, we've always been waiting to see what the Senate would do in this investigation and it's good to see that these two men who were leading this investigation appear to be on the same page to see if there's anything about the alleged ties between the associates and Russian officials.

BURNETT: All right. Mark Preston, thank you very much.

And thank you so all our panel with the stunning development, frankly, in American history with the president of the United States firing the director of the FBI.

Thank you for joining us.

"AC360" begins right now.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening from Washington where, of course, covering the unfolding reaction to the firing of FBI Director James Comey. What happened to him, just to be clear, from the outset, was the president firing the head of the agency that is investigating whether his presidential campaign colluded with Russia and whether any improper conduct with Russia continued.

It comes a day after what's embarrassing testimony on Russia from the Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who the president fired back in January.