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Senate Russia Investigators Seek Trump Financial Info; Trump May Boost U.S. Troop Strength in Afghanistan. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 9, 2017 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a Flynn fallout. The White House defends the 18-day delay in firing national security adviser Michael Flynn after acting attorney general Sally Yates warned he was compromised by the Russians. The White House describes Yates as a political opponent. Was it more concerned about the messenger than her shocking message?

Sending more troops? A decade and a half after U.S. forces first went into Afghanistan and years after a huge drawdown, President Trump is weighing a troop increase. But could a few thousand troops do now what 100,000 failed to do earlier?

Comey's confusion. FBI Director James Comey mistakenly told Congress that Hillary Clinton's former top aide forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails to her husband's laptop, but Comey got it wrong, and the FBI is now looking for a way to clean up his error.

And Putin's parade. Vladimir Putin puts on a huge parade to Mark the World War II victory over the Nazis. Is this show of military might just a tradition or a way to flex his muscles in a time of tension?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. First on CNN, Senate Russia investigators have asked the Treasury Department's criminal investigation division for any financial information related to President Trump, his top officials and his campaign aides. That word comes from the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner, saying the goal, is quote, "to follow the intel, no matter where it leads."

The White House is shrugging off the fact that it took the president 18 days to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn, downplaying testimony from former acting attorney general Sally Yates that she had repeatedly warned that Flynn was compromised by Russia and could be subject to blackmail.

Press secretary Sean Spicer suggests Yates' warnings were taken with a grain of salt, calling her a political opponent of the president. He says it was, quote, "widely rumored" that she was a supporter of Hillary Clinton and would be a part of a Clinton administration.

More than 15 years after U.S. forces went into Afghanistan, President Trump is now weighing a troop increase, which could boost the U.S. deployment by several thousand. The White House said the president has asked his national security team to rethink the strategy on how to win and how to eliminate the threat.

I'll talk to former defense secretary and former CIA director Leon Panetta. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists are all standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

The White House is insisting the process worked in the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn, even though it took 18 days after warnings by then acting attorney general Sally Yates that Flynn was at risk of Russian blackmail.

Let's begin with our justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

Pamela, first to our breaking news. Senate Russia investigators are now asking the Treasury Department for Trump team financial information. Update our viewers on what we know.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are learning tonight that Senate Russia investigators have sent a request to the Treasury Department's criminal investigation division for financial information related to President Trump, his top officials and his campaign aides.

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner, did not tell CNN what documents exactly that investigators are hoping to find or who exactly they asked about in their request, but it's a sign the Senate Russia investigation continues to move forward.

This as the White House once again defends the firing of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.


BROWN (voice-over): Tonight the White House taking aim at former acting attorney general and career prosecutor Sally Yates. On the heels of her Senate testimony that she urgently warned White House officials that then national security adviser Michael Flynn could be subjected to Russian blackmail.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What if we had just dismissed somebody because a political opponent of the president had made an utterance, you would argue that it was pretty irrational to act in that manner. We did what we were supposed to do. The president made, ultimately, the right decision.

BROWN: White House spokesman Sean Spicer, for the first time acknowledging White House counsel Don McGahn looked at classified materials about Flynn that prompted concern among DOJ officials seven days after the Yates' warning.

But Flynn continued to stay on in his role as national security adviser and was involved in key decisions for 11 more days, the White House saying Flynn deserved a full review.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did the White House put any security restrictions on Mike Flynn at all during that period of time? Was he limited in terms of his access to classified information, national secrets or decision making in any way?

SPICER: I'm not aware of any. It doesn't -- the decision that we made was the right one. The president made a decision. He stands by it.

[17:05:04] BROWN: White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and President Trump found out shortly after the warning on January 26, but on February 10, three days before Flynn's dismissal, Trump told reporters he wasn't aware.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know about it. I haven't seen it. What report is that?

BROWN: Eighteen days after Yates' warning, the White House continued to defend him.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the president.

BROWN: Flynn resigned a few hours later. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham tells CNN the 18-day gap could be explained by the president's loyalty.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think the White House really didn't know exactly what to do. Trump was very loyal to Flynn, and it took a while for everybody to convince the president that Flynn had been compromised.

BROWN: And Graham said Monday's testimony gave him reason to investigate Trump's business dealings with Russia.

GRAHAM: I want to know more about Trump's business dealings, you know? I asked Clapper. I said, "Did you ever find a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia gave you concern?"

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Senator Graham, I can't comment on that, because that impacts an investigation.

GRAHAM: I want to know everything about what happened in 2016 between the Russian government, the Trump campaign. And don't conflate the two. The Russians tried to undermine our election. That's different than colluding -- colluding with the Trump campaign.

BROWN: The White House responding with a letter, claiming the president has no business ties with Russia.

SPICER: He has no business in Russia. He has no connections to Russia, so he welcomes that. In fact, he has already charged a leading law firm in Washington, D.C., to send a certified letter to Senator Graham to that point, that he has no connections to Russia.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BROWN: And Senator Graham tonight walking back those plans to probe Trump business dealings saying now he's only interested in the business dealings if there's evidence of wrongdoing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Pamela, thanks very much. Pamela Brown reporting.

A decade and a half after U.S. forces went into Afghanistan, President Trump is now weighing a troop increase there.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Sara Murray. Sara, what's behind this possible move?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what the president is really pondering right now is whether a few thousand additional troops on the ground could help the White House further its goal of eliminating the terrorism threat from Afghanistan.

Now, we know that some of the president's top national security advisers are pushing for this troop increase, but today the White House wouldn't give any indication of which way the president is leaning.


MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump behind closed doors for a fifth day as he mulls whether to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

SPICER: One of the things that he has asked his national security team to do is to actually think the -- rethink the strategy. What are we doing to achieve the goals that you are asking about? How do we actually -- how do we win?

MURRAY: Trump's top national security advisers are expected to recommend sending 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, where 8,400 U.S. troops are currently serving. But the president hasn't signaled whether he will approve the recommendation.

SPICER: No decision has been made, so let's not get ahead of what -- what that ultimate policy will be.

MURRAY: By deploying more U.S. forces, Trump's advisers are hoping to accelerate training missions for Afghan forces and break the stalemate after more than 15 years of fighting against the Taliban and other terror groups, including ISIS.

But such a move could end up leaving the U.S. even further entangled in the long-running conflict. And signing off on a troop surge would be politically risky for a president who has publicly scorned nation- building and vowed to prioritize domestic interests.

TRUMP: I'm not, and I don't want to be the president of the world. I'm the president of the United States, and from now on, it's going to be America first.

MURRAY: Back in 2013, Trump tweeted, "We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives."

On the campaign trail, candidate Trump spoke relatively little about the Afghanistan conflict, though he did say he'd be willing to leave troops there begrudgingly.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Do you believe that American boots should stay on the ground in Afghanistan to stabilize the situation?

TRUMP: I won't totally disagree with it, except you know, at some point, are they going to be for the next 200 years? You know, at some point what's going on? It's going to be a long time.

MURRAY: Today the White House downplayed the notion that deploying more troops to Afghanistan could give Trump supporters pause.

SPICER: The goal is always going to defeat ISIS, which is something he's been very clear on with the American people from the get-go.

MURRAY: Aside from a morning meeting with his national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Trump has been keeping a quiet schedule as this major foreign policy decision looms.

The White House brushed aside his light schedule, saying Trump is simply preparing for his presidential debut abroad 11 days away.

SPICER: This is an opportunity for him to get ahead of this first really long foreign trip to make sure that he is, on a whole host of issues, to make sure that we -- we go in there, strengthen our relationships but also make sure that we put America's priorities first.


[17:10:11] MURRAY: Now it is rare for the president to be out of public view, especially this president, for the number of days that he has been, but today Sean Spicer insisted this was just prepping for the foreign trip, that he's in fact meeting with a number of his own advisers and experts in the different regions that he will soon be visiting -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara. Thank you. Sara Murray reporting from the White House.

Joining us now, Leon Panetta. He's a former defense secretary, former CIA director, former congressman. He's got a huge resume. Thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: Let's get to your reaction to the breaking news we just reported. Senate Russia investigators from the Senate Intelligence Committee have sent a request to the Treasury Department's criminal investigation division for any information related to President Trump, his top officials, his campaign aides. What do you think a question like that could uncover? PANETTA: Well, it's critical to determining just exactly what the

relationship was, whether it did involve any kind of -- of working together with the Russians between his campaign staff and -- and the Russian individuals that they were in touch with.

I'm assuming that the Intelligence Committees, particularly the Senate Intelligence Committee, has asked for the same information and that other committees are trying to get that information, because it is critical to the determination as to the relationship here to look at what financial ties were involved between Mr. Trump and the Russians.

BLITZER: And Mr. Trump's aides and campaign associates, that's what they want, as well. You're, among other things, a former White House chief of staff.

Here's a hypothetical question. If an acting attorney general of the United States came to the White House counsel and said they believed that the national security adviser was compromised and susceptible to blackmail from the Russians, what would you do?

PANETTA: Well, that's a pretty astounding revelation when your national security adviser, the top individual in the White House in control of national security and the National Security Council, is accused of the possibility of being blackmailed by the Russians.

Now, I understand that this was early on in the administration. People were still trying to figure out what their responsibilities were.

But once the general counsel found out that that was the case, there's no question that they could have verified that information immediately looking at the classified information that revealed exactly what the conversation was. And once they determined that, I think that, combined with the chief of staff, they should have recommended an immediate firing to the president of the United States. Eighteen days, frankly, was just too long.

BLITZER: And the -- Sally Yates did say they did -- did make available, she didn't know because she was fired subsequently. They didn't know if they picked it it up. But she said White House officials could come over to the Department of Justice and see the original intelligence that suggested that there was a possibility of compromise and blackmail.

So why do you think it took the White House 18 days to fire Michael Flynn? And during the course of those 18 days he had access to all the sensitive information, including in the White House situation room and everything else?

PANETTA: I think that, first and foremost, it was the need to gather the information and really prove that what -- what Sally Yates had told the White House was, in fact, the truth. And they had the ability to do that in pretty short order of time.

I think once it was probably brought to the president, I think Lindsey Graham is right. There were probably issues of loyalty that were involved here. There were issues concerning other members of the Trump campaign staff that had had relationships with the Russians, and where would this possibly end?

All of those considerations probably came into play, but very frankly, none of that, none of that, should have interfered with the president of the United States taking the right step here, which would be to immediately fire General Flynn. Because the possibility of having a national security advisers who might be blackmailed by the Russians and that blackmail wouldn't involve money; it would involve information from the national security adviser. That would be a serious national security threat to this country.

BLITZER: We know after 18 days he was fired but only after "The Washington Post" reported the information suggesting that there was this problem. I don't know if you know this, but a former Trump transition official, when asked how much vetting was done on Michael Flynn before he was named national security advisor to the president, described it to CNN in one word: "none." Retook to that. Is that acceptable to you?

PANETTA: Well, again, any kind of organization providing for a transition to a new administration would have required the beginning of clearances for those who are in responsible positions, and if that did not happen here, then that was a serious failing on the part of the transition.

BLITZER: Secretary Panetta, I want you to stand by. We're getting more breaking news. I want to take a quick break, resume our conversation right after this.


[17:20:23] BLITZER: Breaking news. The FBI Director James Comey appears to be trying to make good after mistakenly telling Congress that Hillary Clinton's former top aide, Huma Abedin, forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails to her husband's laptop.

Now the FBI has written a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, trying to clarify Comey's remarks but not formally apologizing for mischaracterizing what happened.

We're back with Leon Panetta. He's a former defense secretary, former CIA director, former congressman. Let me play the clip, Secretary Panetta. Listen to what the FBI director said a few days ago during his testimony.


JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: Look, this is terrible. It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election, but honestly, it wouldn't change the decision. Everybody who disagrees with me has to come at it.

Huma Abedin appears to have had a regular practice of forwarding e- mails to him for him, I think, to print out for her so she could then deliver them to the secretary of state. She forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails, some of which contained classified information.


BLITZER: All right. That's what he said during the -- during the hearing. This is what -- n this letter that we just got a copy of from the U.S. Department of Justice. The assistant director for the Office of Congressional Affairs writes, "Although we do not know the exact numbers, based on its investigation the FBI believes it is reasonable to conclude that most of the e-mails found on Mr. Weiner's" -- the husband's -- "laptop computer related to the Clinton investigation occurred as a result of backup of personal electronic devices with a small number a result of forwarding by Ms. Abedin to Mr. Weiner."

And we do know that there was a very small number, he says, of classified e-mails. He says there were 12, but subsequently, we've been told that of those 12 e-mails that had classified information there was no heading; there was no header that said classified information. Do you think that's enough, this kind of clarification from the FBI director?

PANETTA: Well, I think the FBI director obviously should apologize for the misleading statement that was made. He's got a lot of credibility on the line here. He's conducting a very serious investigation, and I think it -- it's important that what he says is the truth and doesn't involve any misstated facts. So I think he -- he ought to make clear that that was a misstatement, that he apologizes and then we can all move on.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, during earlier testimony he called Hillary Clinton extremely careless the way she handled her private e- mail server, her e-mail. What does it tell you that the FBI director is saying something inaccurate in a public hearing like this?

PANETTA: Well, you know, again, the FBI director is somebody who has the responsibility to conduct investigations in an objective and fair way, and I think what sometimes happens here is that the director says things openly that reflect either a lack of objectivity or fairness in what he says, and I think, frankly, for an FBI director, the less you say the better off you are.

BLITZER: Do you believe this FBI director still has credibility?

PANETTA: I think he still has credibility if he conducts this investigation in a fair and objective way, and really thoroughly investigates the issues that he's responsible to investigate.

But obviously, in the course of this investigation, he's going to be appearing a lot before Congress. He's going to be asked to testify. I just think he's got to be very careful about what he testifies to, because anything he says that is wrong has an impact on his credibility.

BLITZER: All right. We know it had an impact on -- what he said had an impact yesterday. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, referring to what Comey had said earlier, he said, in the course of questioning for General Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, he said, "What would you expect to happen if you made a referral of an individual who had forwarded hundreds or even thousands of classified information."

So there wasn't hundreds or thousands of classified e-mails that were forwarded, the FBI director said. There were 12 that now, we learned, contained ex post facto classified information but wasn't marked classified. So when you say something like that, you have to be very specific, right?

PANETTA: There's no question, you're -- you're an FBI director. You have the responsibility to conduct some very serious investigations into issues that impact on all Americans, and -- and the result of that responsibility. I think you've got to be very careful about what you say and try to protect your integrity and credibility in that investigation.

BLITZER: Secretary Panetta, thanks so much.

PANETTA: Nice to be -- nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

We'll have more on the breaking news right after this.


BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now. The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee tells CNN the Senate's Russia investigators have now asked the Treasury Department's criminal investigation division for any financial information related to President Trump, his top officials and his campaign aides.

[17:30:27] Let's get the insight of our political specialists. Gloria, first to you. What's the significance of this request from the Senate committee?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it means that the Senate committee is serious about doing its investigation, and I think following the money is always an important part of any investigation. And the agency that they're looking at is really the agency that investigates money laundering, money that's been laundered in the United States through real estate and other -- and other ventures.

And so, you know, I think -- I think it makes sense. I wouldn't jump to any conclusions as a result of it, but if you're going to try and do a serious investigation, you -- you ought to look at money.

BLITZER: Let me play a clip. This is Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, earlier today explaining why they were suspicious of the former acting attorney general Sally Yates when she informed the White House counsel of these problems involving national security adviser Michael Flynn. Listen to this.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: She had come here, given a heads up, told us there were materials and at the same time we did what we did do. Just because someone comes in and gives you a heads up about something and says, "I want to share some information" doesn't mean that you immediately jump the gun and go take an action.

I think if you flip the scenario and say what if we had just dismissed somebody because a political opponent of the president had made an utterance, you would argue that it was pretty irrational to act in that manner. We did what we were supposed to do. The president made ultimately the right decision, and I think he was proven that -- that...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How is she a political opponent? She was acting attorney general...

SPICER: Appointed by the President Obama and a strong opponent -- a strong supporter of Clinton.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You said that Sally Yates was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton. What is that based on?

SPICER: I think she's made some -- you know, I think she -- it was widely rumored to play a large role in the Justice Department if Hillary Clinton had win -- won.


BLITZER: All right. So Dana, widely rumored. That's the basis of their information, why she was a Hillary Clinton supporter. Your reaction?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, they sent out -- Sara Murray [SIC] sent out some talking point from the White House to try to back up that rumor. You know, didn't -- I didn't see a lot of "there" there with the notion that she -- she, Sally Yates -- was a political opponent and Hillary Clinton supporter overtly.

I think that the important thing to remember is that it is so easy for them to say, "Oh, we discounted it, because she was a political appointee of President Obama, especially in hindsight, given the fact that, after that warning, not heads up, warning, she defied the president on his travel ban, because she didn't agree with it. So it's easy to paint her that way given the fact, you know what we know now about where she went on the presidents -- another key and controversial policy.

But we have to remember that at the time she was the acting attorney general. She was somebody who wasn't just an appointee like Alberto Gonzales was, for example, under George W. Bush or so many, you know, appointees. She was a career Justice Department official who, as we said on this program yesterday and many times since, who had worked very, very hard prosecuting people who have no political affiliation and even and especially Democrats in her home state of Georgia, to the point where she really angered Democrats, where they tried to block her from getting an appointment as U.S. attorney.

BLITZER: Because she served under Democratic presidents and Republican presidents. What are you hearing?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, I would note Evan Perez's reporting on this, which we've just gotten, which is that there's -- there are people standing up for Sally Yates and saying, "Wait a minute." This is from -- I want to make sure I get the source right -- former senior Justice Department official, worked under Sally Yates, who makes a similar point to Dana, which is this is someone who's been with the Justice Department in one form or another since 1989.

U.S. attorney, yes, U.S. attorney appointed by President Obama; yes, deputy attorney general appointed by President Obama. But, again, if you -- if you believe what Sean Spicer was saying in the briefing, you have to believe that they have some sort of evidence that would suggest that simply being -- there are lots of people who were appointed by Barack Obama who are not necessarily political opponents, to use Sean's word, of Donald Trump. I did a lot of searching in addition to Sara Murray. I did a lot of searching just trying to find a clip of anything of Sally Yates even mentioning as a potential cabinet official, because there were some of those stories about, well, dream cabinet or who could be in the Clinton cabinet. I couldn't find anything.

BLITZER: But she did say -- she did say to the counsel at the White House, "We will make available to you. Come over to the Justice Department."

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: "You can see all the raw intelligence..."

BORGER: She did.

BLITZER: "... that backs up this claim.

BORGER: Right. And she got fired, and then he did go over multiple days later, I believe.

CILLIZZA: Right. That's right.

BORGER: It took some time for him to get there.

But if you take a step back here, if you believe in the so-called deep state, and if you believe that the bureaucracy is filled with people who would like to undo Donald Trump and want to see the end of Donald Trump and you look at Sally Yates as a career official, then as Sean Spicer said to me today -- I mean, said on the air today, he called her "Someone who you have to wonder why they are telling you something."

So the motive is always suspect in that case, if you believe that even career servants like Sally Yates is would go to the White House with her hair on fire, sending up a red flag saying, "Guys, I really think you need to be aware of a serious issue," and that she would only be doing it for political reasons? It's not even in her self-interest.

BASH: To be fair -- to be fair, we did hear the other side of this story today. Some of it, you know, attacking her on her credibility, calling her a political opponent, that's just -- you know, throw that away.

But what he -- what Sean Spicer did say that I thought, "Oh," is that she wasn't as clear as she thought she was when she came and she spoke to the White House counsel, Counsel Don McGahn, the first time and that she had to come back. That's another side of the story. We don't know what the truth is. It is different from what Sally Yates said, where she was crystal clear in her testimony yesterday, that she gave a very stark warning that the national security adviser to the president of the United States could be compromised by the Russians.

BLITZER: And that's -- and Sean Spicer keeps calling it a "heads up."

CILLIZZA: And -- right. First of all, that seems -- and Gloria makes the point. That seems more than a heads up. Again, this is the acting attorney general, and the information she's passing along is not, "Hey, Mike Flynn hasn't paid five parking tickets, No. 1."

No. 2, the time line, Dana mentioned this. The time line is so important. January 26 is when McGahn and Yates have the first meeting, 27th is when they have their second meeting. Sean in the briefing today used the retroactive fact that, on the 30th she, Sally Yates, refused to enforce the travel ban as evidence that she was a political opponent.

Don McGahn could not have known that on the 26th. Donald Trump didn't sign the executive order on the travel ban until the 27th, so there's just a little bit of an odd time line.

BORGER: And also, the question is did she come back because she hadn't fully explained things? Or did she come back, as she seemed to indicate in her testimony, that -- that Don McGahn went to everybody at the White House, and they said, "Here are these other questions. For example, is there a criminal investigation going on?"

CILLIZZA: To follow up.

BORGER: To follow up.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. Everybody hold on. There's a lot more coming up. We'll take a quick break and resume our coverage right after this.


[17:42:42] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now, including the FBI just now clarifying statements FBI Director James Comey made while testifying before Congress.

Comey told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Hillary Clinton's aide, Huma Abedin, forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails to her husband's laptop. It turns out that isn't accurate. Let's bring in our CNN correspondent, Jessica Schneider.

Jessica, what is the FBI saying now?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, no apology but instead a clarification. The FBI is now saying that, instead of those hundreds and thousands of e-mails that James Comey said Huma Abedin manually forwarded, instead it was actually just two e-mail chains.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): A shocking claim from the director of the FBI describing how those e-mails from Huma Abedin ended up on Anthony Weiner's computer.

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: She forwarded hundreds and thousands of e- mails, some of which contained classified information.

SCHNEIDER: The disclosure was made by James Comey last week at the Senate Judiciary Committee's oversight hearing, but officials say it wasn't true. Abedin did not personally forward the majority of e- mails found on her husband's laptop. Instead, the e-mails were automatically sent by a backup system on Abedin's phone, according to what U.S. officials told CNN last fall, but Comey seemed to confuse the issue when testifying last Wednesday.

COMEY: Huma Abedin appears to have had a regular practice of forwarding e-mails to him for him, I think, to print out for her, so she could then deliver them to the secretary of state.

SCHNEIDER: Analysts concluded Abedin may have forwarded some but not the hundreds and thousands Comey referenced, and the e-mails on Weiner's computer were not marked "classified" at the time they were sent, though the FBI later determined that classified information was contained in some of the e-mails on Weiner's laptop.

Comey said some turned up in the renewed investigation.

COMEY: During the following week, they reviewed 40,000 e-mails -- I understated how many they reviewed -- and found 3,000 of them were work-related and came from Blackberry backups and a bunch other things and that -- and that 12 of them were -- were classified, but we'd seen them all before.

SCHNEIDER: Late today, the FBI trying to clean up Comey's mistakes without issuing an apology. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the FBI said that, in fact, most of the forwarded e-mails were transferred by backup to Weiner's laptop and that only some of the e-mails were forwarded by Abedin. The letter also said only two e-mail chains that included classified information were manually forward by Abedin to her husband.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Director Clapper, what would you do at the DNI if you discovered that an employee of yours had forwarded hundreds or even thousands of e-mails to a non-government individual, their spouse, on a non-government computer? SCHNEIDER: Democrats blame Comey's October 28th letter to Congress

announcing the reopening of the FBI probe for throwing Hillary Clinton's e-mail server controversy back into the spotlight days before the election.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was on way to winning until the combination of Jim Comey's letter on October 28th and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of the people.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We have major breaking news. We're interrupting that report. Jeff Zeleny, our senior White House correspondent, is joining us on the future of the FBI Director. What are you learning?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The major development here this evening at the White House, the President of the United States has terminated the Director of the FBI, James Comey. I talked to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer a few moments ago. He has just released this statement, Wolf. Let me read it along with you here.

He says, "Today, President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office. President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions." Quote, "The FBI is one of our nation's most cherished and respected institutions. Today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement."

A search for a new Director is beginning as we speak here, Wolf. But interestingly, Wolf, this is coming on the day, the exact day, that James Comey had to clarify those comments. No one was expecting this at all. And a letter was given at the FBI, sent from here, the White House, over to the FBI just a short time ago, within the last probably 15 or 20 minutes or so, Wolf, so this is just coming in.

We do not have reaction yet from the FBI, but this is just happening now. Of course, this is coming on the heels of the FBI Director being, you know, so central, involved in this Russian scandal.

Excuse my breath here, Wolf. I just ran out here to bring you this news. So as we get more here, we'll bring it to you, but at this point, a bombshell at the White House. James Comey is out. Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. He was serving a 10-year appointment as the FBI Director, 10 years.

ZELENY: Right.

BLITZER: And now, the President of the United States has effectively fired him. Let me read once again the statement from the White House.

ZELENY: Right. BLITZER: "Today President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James

Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office. President Trump acted based on the clear recommendation of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions."

The White House statement adds, "The FBI is one of our nation's most cherished and respected institutions, and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement." That's a quote. That's a quote directly in this statement from the President, President Trump. "A search for a new permanent FBI Director will begin immediately."

Pamela Brown is our Justice Correspondent. This is obviously a major development and certainly comes, I think it's fair to say, as a surprise.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE AND SUPREME COURT CORRESPONDENT: It certainly does, Wolf. I can tell you, anyone who covers the justice beat or anyone who is in our business or even outside is really shocked by this announcement coming from the White House that James Comey, the Director of the FBI, has indeed been fired on the recommendation of the Attorney General and Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General.

And the question is, what exactly prompted this? Of course, this comes the same day that he is under fire for his testimony on Capitol Hill in the last several days, where he erroneously stated that Huma Abedin forwarded thousands of e-mails to her husband, which they had to clarify the record. But this comes as a complete shock.

James Comey has been really in the center of this political firestorm for months now, Wolf. And I've been asking people close to him whether he's ever thought of resigning, given all the controversy, first, with the Hillary Clinton investigation and then, of course, as we know, he came on and announced the investigation into Trump campaign associates and Russians.

And you'll recall, when President Trump announced or tweeted that he believed President Obama was wiretapping his phone, James Comey was the one that went to the Department of Justice and wanted to knock down that claim publicly.

And so I've asked people around him whether he was concerned he would be fired or whether he wanted to resign. And what I've always been told is that he knew this would be a possibility given the fact that he has really been in the center of this firestorm, but that he had no intention of leaving his job, that he loved his job at the FBI.

[17:50:05] He's only been at this post for a few years. Of course, he was appointed by President Obama. He's someone who loved his job. I've been told by his friends and close associates that, again, he knew it was a possibility. It didn't keep him up at night.

But this big question is, what prompted this today? I think, you know, it was hard to believe that it was just his testimony on Capitol Hill about the e-mails that he erroneously talked about. I mean, it does make me think that there is something more here that we just don't know. Of course, we reached out to the FBI and to the Justice Department to learn more about this, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, and it's an amazing development, I must say. I want to quickly go back to Jeff Zeleny over at the White House.

The FBI Director, now the former FBI Director James Comey, Jeff, he managed over these past several months to irritate Democrats and Republicans with various decisions he made. We know that the FBI confirmed, not that long ago, the FBI, since July, has been engaged in a criminal investigation into any alleged connections between Trump associates and Russia. That investigation, presumably, continuing.

But still despite the irritation of the President, despite the irritation of Hillary Clinton, he stayed on. And now all of a sudden, following these late-breaking developments, he has been fired. This is a major development.

ZELENY: It certainly is, Wolf. And again, as Pamela was reporting, no one saw this coming at all. And let's be precise. I said terminated earlier reading the language from the White House.

He was fired. Make no mistake about it. This FBI Director was fired. I mean, this is the height of all irony perhaps, Wolf. That's the only word that I can really grasp to think at this moment.

He was someone who, of course, played an outsized role in the general election here. And now he is someone who is also, you know, heading this investigation of any potential conflicts, you know, between the Trump campaign and any Russian operative.

So by firing the FBI Director, will that end the investigations? I cannot imagine the reaction from Capitol Hill on this, Wolf. This is going to be extraordinary in every sense of the word here.

But I'm still thinking back to those early days of this administration, when James Comey, who was a towering figure -- he's about six-eight or so, six-seven perhaps -- he even towers over the President who is quite tall. He was stood with the President in the Blue Room of the White House when the President said he still had confidence in him.

And the President was very pleased at James Comey at that point. Now, he doesn't necessarily believe that he helped him win the campaign last year. Certainly, Democrats believe that. But James Comey is someone who, of course, appointed by our last president, President Obama, but was a Republican. Of course, was a major figure in the Bush administration as well here.

So to have this Republican president, President Trump, firing the FBI Director in the middle of all this, Wolf, this certainly will not, you know, cause this to go away. This will certainly just fan more flames, create more opportunities for places to look here, as this investigation widens and deepens here, Wolf.

We are not getting any sense of exactly who will be the replacement, of who, you know, is going to be overseeing the things at the FBI, Wolf. But we are going get a copy within moments, I'm told, of a copy of a letter the President sent to him that we believe was hand delivered this afternoon to the FBI. We'll try and get that to you and get back to you shortly, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by for a moment. Evan Perez is with us as well. Evan, you cover the FBI for us. You cover the Justice Department. This is a shock.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, Wolf, because essentially the fact that he is leading this investigation into Trump- Russia connections, it was seen that he was, frankly, untouchable.

When he made that announcement in March at a hearing here in Capitol Hill where he announced that there was this ongoing investigation, not only looking at the broader Trump-Russia issue but also looking into whether or not there was coordination between people associated with the campaign and the Russian government, it really cemented the issue that this was something that made him untouchable, at least until this investigation was over.

Now, there is a lot of criticism into how he has handled some of the disclosures, not only during the Clinton e-mail investigation last year. Whether he should have revealed as much as he did, there's been a lot of criticism, but he seemed untouchable until now.

BLITZER: In the statement that we got from the White House, "The President acted based on the clear recommendation of both the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions." But Jeff Sessions had recused himself --

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: -- from any involvement in the Russia investigation. And Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, who was confirmed overwhelmingly, he is in charge.

PEREZ: Right, exactly. And we don't know exactly what occurred here. We know that Comey certainly was under a lot of criticism for the way he handled the testimony last week in which he misstated exactly what had happened with Huma Abedin's e-mails.

[17:55:13] Today, he issued a correction of that testimony with a letter to member of Congress. But certainly, we don't know. Rod Rosenstein just started overseeing this investigation just now, less than a week.

BROWN: Right.



PEREZ: For now for him to play a role in getting rid of James Comey, there's got to be a lot more behind that.

BLITZER: Hold on, one moment. Jeff Zeleny, I understand you have the letter?

ZELENY: Indeed, Wolf. We have the pretty brief letter from the President sent this afternoon over to the FBI. Let me read just a couple very interesting portions of this letter.

It says, "I have accepted the recommendations that you are here by terminated and removed from office effective immediately." He is talking about the recommendations from his own Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General.

But, Wolf, listen to this second paragraph of the letter. It says, "While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice, that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau. It is essential that we find new leadership of the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission."

Wolf, again, let me underscore the fact that the President of the United States, in a letter dismissing the FBI Director, he thanked him for saying, on three separate times, that "I am not personally under investigation" and then said that, you know, he has lost the trust and confidence here in the FBI Director.

Wolf, that's a very extraordinary circumstance comment to have in that letter there. But, look, and reality here is, you know, someone that Donald Trump, President Trump appointed, nominated, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he is recommending the firing of the FBI Director. So it is very much an inside job, if you will, here.

The FBI Director does serve at the pleasure of the President, of course, but the terms are staggered over multiple administrations for 10 years to avoid any direct type of politics here. As we see all this unfold, we will, of course, be dissecting this more. But key that President Trump mentioned in this letter that James Comey said that the President was not directly the target of this investigation.

BLITZER: And, Pamela Brown, the FBI Director did confirm, since July, there was a criminal investigation. The FBI was engaged in a criminal investigation of allegations that there were improper connections between Trump associates and Russia. And that investigation, as far as we know, continues right now. But there's going to be a new Director of the FBI.

BROWN: It absolutely continues. In fact, my colleague, Evan Perez, and I have reporting that they're starting to take steps in the investigation, issued subpoenas. And so it's remarkable that the head of the FBI has now been fired, the person really overseeing this investigation, who came out publicly and stated to Congress that this is ongoing. And we thought at the time that this would be job security for him, to come out and, you know, stating he is overseeing this. And now --

BASH: Can I just add that, as we've been talking, we got a statement from Lindsey Graham, who, of course, held the hearing yesterday. And he did so because his subcommittee on the Senate Judiciary Committee oversees the FBI. He obviously got a heads-up from the White House about this.

And he said, "I know it was a difficult decision for all concerned. I appreciate Director Comey's service." But he said, "Given the recent controversies surrounding the Director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well. I encourage President to select the most qualified professional available who will serve our nation's interest."

Very interesting that he, obviously, is on board with this. And he was given the reason, the real reason, I guess, that we might not know yet.

And one other thing I want to say is that our Noah Gray is over at the FBI, got a shot of Keith Schiller, who is and has been Donald Trump's security, body man, everything, former law enforcement official, over at the FBI. We don't know what that means in terms of the future, but it is certainly interesting that he was just there.

BORGER: Well, I think the question you also have to ask, was this a coup or a firing or both?

BROWN: Right.

BORGER: Because it seems to me that there was a lot of consultation here that, you know, the President and Jeff Sessions, as you say, has recused himself from all things Russia. But it seems to me that there was consultation with Rosenstein, with Sessions. And clearly some turmoil, I would think, inside the Bureau as well, which you guys know a lot about.

PEREZ: I think one of the key things here is that, certainly, we picked up on this in the last couple of weeks, Wolf, in the fact that Republicans on Capitol Hill and other supporters of the President feel have been very upset, that they believe Comey has not been upfront in saying publicly that Donald Trump is not the direct target of this investigation.