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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin; Trump Fires FBI Director; Interview with Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired May 9, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: They believe Comey has not been up front in saying publicly that Donald Trump is not the direct target of this investigation.
Now, I have said this on air here, based on my own reporting. We certainly have mentioned this on air here at CNN, that the FBI hasn't publicly said that. Comey went so far as saying that they were looking into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russia, but he did not say what he has told members of Congress behind the scenes in classified briefings.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, everybody, stand by.
We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We are following breaking news.
President Trump has just fired the embattled FBI Director James Comey.
In a statement, the White House said the president acted on the advice of both the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, and the deputy attorney general of the United States, Rod Rosenstein.
I want to go and bring in Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst.
Jeffrey, this is an extraordinary moment in American history.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You bet it is, Wolf.
And it's a grotesque abuse of power by the president of the United States. This is the kind of thing that goes on in non-democracies, that when there is an investigation that reaches near the president of the United States or the leader of a non-democracy, they fire the people who are in charge of the investigation.
I have not seen anything like this since October 20, 1973, when President Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. This is something that is not within the American political tradition.
That firing led indirectly, but certainly to the resignation of President Nixon. And this is very much in this tradition. This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is something that is completely outside how American law is supposed to work.
BLITZER: But the president does have the authority to fire an FBI director, right?
TOOBIN: He certainly does. He absolutely does.
Bill Clinton fired William Sessions early in President Clinton's term. There is no question that the president has the legal authority to do what he has done. But that is not by any means the end of the inquiry.
This is a political act when the president is under investigation, when his White House counsel was described yesterday as being told that his national security adviser was subject to blackmail by the Russians. And they fired the attorney general a few days later. Now they fired the FBI director. I mean, what kind of country is this?
BLITZER: Strong words from Jeffrey Toobin. I'm going to get back to you.
But I want to go to Jim Sciutto right now.
Actually, let's go to Jeff Zeleny first, our senior White House correspondent.
He's getting more reaction from inside the White House. Then we will check in with Jim Sciutto.
Go ahead, Jeff Zeleny.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf.
I have had time to reach some of the documents here, the letters from the attorney general and the deputy attorney general sort of laying out their recommendation to indeed fire the FBI director.
And, Wolf, so interesting here, this is not about anything that happened in the last couple of weeks. They are going back to something that happened last summer. Particularly, let me ride to you this.
"The director," meaning the FBI director, James Comey, "was wrong to usurp the usurp the attorney general's authority back on July 25, 2016."
That was the day that James Comey had the press conference about Hillary Clinton. And, of course, at the time, Donald Trump as a candidate for office was very happy about that decision, talking about the e-mails and other things.
But this is one of the rationales for the firing here. This is coming from the deputy attorney general, saying that James Comey was wrong to do that. And it goes on to say that he compounded the error. "The director ignored another longstanding principle. We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information." But, Wolf, you get the sense that this is a decision being searched for a reason. By that means this White House, this president has not been pleased with James Comey, particularly because of this ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign and any connections with Russian operatives.
That is not mentioned here in the rationale for firing. Instead, it goes back to the Clinton campaign. So you have the sense reading through these and talking to people in these very early hours that the president, his team were looking for a reason to get rid of this FBI director here, Wolf.
But, again, extraordinarily, when you read the letter from the president alerting James Comey of this: "While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you're not able to lead the bureau."
The question here, Wolf, is, who asked Jeff Sessions and the deputy attorney general to write these memorandums? Was it someone here at the White House?
Most likely, the answer to that, once we do reporting and find all this out, Wolf, the answer is likely to be affirmative that, of course, they work for the pleasure of the president here. So, this is being orchestrated right here in the White House, the West Wing, and it's certainly going to be unfolding for some time to come.
BLITZER: Any indication, Jeff, that the president or anyone else over at White House where you are is about to go out and make a public statement on this? This is American history unfolding.
ZELENY: It really is, Wolf. And as of now, there is no indication that the president plans to address the American people and explain this at all.
In fact, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced this originally huddled in a hallway, if you will, a doorway of the lower press office here at the White House, behind where he holds his daily briefings, to a small group of reporters, and then they send out this letter to everyone.
So it was unusual that the president had nothing on his schedule at all today, with the exception of the meeting with his national security adviser. But, Wolf, now we know that he and they in fact his advisers have been very busy here working on this.
We do not know, we do not believe the president is going to address this, this evening. But, of course, this is a surprise. Other surprises certainly will be coming, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, we will certainly be standing by for that.
Jeff, stand by. Pamela Brown, if you take a look at this letter, this extraordinary
letter that the president of the United States wrote to Director Comey, now former Director Comey, the second paragraph, "While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I'm not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau."
Here is the question. How is the firing of James Comey now going to affect the criminal investigation into these allegations that there may have been improper coordination, collusion between Trump associates during the campaign and Russia?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, and I think my colleague Evan Perez would agree with me it's going to continue to move forward, because you have career prosecutors working on it. You have FBI agents who aren't political, aren't supposed to be political, who are working on this case.
And it is going to move forward, as though -- as it should, essentially.
And I have been talking to people in the bureau who are just flat-out shocked by this development, saying that they did not see this coming, that they -- one person I have been speaking with says they are disappointed, that James Comey deserved better than this.
I think that they -- that the people we're speaking to are certainly blindsided by this. And what is interesting is, by what Jeff Zeleny said, in terms of the reasoning behind this decision was going all the way back to 2016, the July 16 press conference, when he went around the attorney, when he went around the attorney general.
What stood out to me is that there is an inspector general investigation from DOJ that is going on right now looking at that. And one might think that they would wait for the conclusion of that inspector general investigation to make any sort of decision and take any action.
Also, what's interesting today at the White House press briefing, Sean Spicer was asked if the president has confidence in James Comey. And he sort of dodged the question. He said, I can't answer that question. And he was pressed by the reporter, saying, well, you said he had full confidence in March after he came out and talked about the investigation.
He said, well, I haven't talked to the president since this new controversy over James Comey testimony where he erroneously said Huma Abedin forwarded thousands of e-mails.
And I believe we have some new reporting from my colleague Shimon Prokupecz, who said senior Justice and FBI officials were unaware of this announcement and that they are simply shocked by the development, which is in line with what I just have been hearing from people I have been speaking with
PEREZ: Wolf, one of the interesting things here, just in the time that we have been sitting here on this set, I have been getting text messages from people inside the FBI, saying, is this true? They have not even been told exactly what is happening.
And that's the suddenness of this announcement. We know that today James Comey, the former FBI director, was working on trying to fix this screw-up behind -- in his testimony to members of Congress last year. He was focused on that and trying to repair whatever damage was done there.
Clearly, there is some effort already under way at Justice Department, at the White House to come up with the story as to why he needed to go.
BLITZER: All right, everybody, stand by.
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is joining us. He's a member of the Intelligence Committee.
I assume, Senator, you are as shocked as all of us that the president of the United States has fired FBI the director, James Comey. Give me your reaction.
SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Wolf, I just heard about it walking to the interview with you.
And at first blush, I will just tell you, it is not going to impede our investigation in finding out where the Intel Committee basically is going to get its information. We still look forward to Mr. Comey coming before us, the same as we do Sally Yates coming before us.
So, that will not change our investigation. And basically we have always said this. We will follow the intel. The intel will take us with the facts and that will lead us to the truth.
BLITZER: But do you think there is any justification for the president's decision to fire him?
MANCHIN: I have just seen basically what you have been talking about and the letters that have gone back from Attorney General Sessions to the president.
And until they come out further with more details, or if they intend to do that, it would be very helpful to find out that there's more to this and the transparency shed on this would be very helpful.
BLITZER: Because the concern among the critics, as you know, Senator, is that Comey announced that there's been a criminal investigation into these allegations of alleged collusion between Trump associates during the campaign and Russia going back to July, and that investigation continues. What can you tell us about that investigation right now, based on the
information that you have? And you don't have to reveal clearly any sensitive classified information.
Well, the Intelligence Committee, Wolf, as you know, operates a little differently than every other committee. We have -- in a secure place, and we have basically at a higher level we are able to get to. Those are things we can't share.
But I can share this with you. We have a professional staff. That professional staff is diligently going about its business talking to anybody that has been associated with any of the people, high-profile people you have spoken about.
With that being said, we will be gathering all of that information and as we bring the high-profile people, we would already have investigated and talked and got basically the statements from the people that basically would know that was involved in the mix. That's what we are looking at.
So, yes, with everybody you mentioned, we are talking. Our staff is basically looking at all the transcripts from CIA to FBI to NSA and everybody else. And we are able to put this puzzle together.
That's where the intel will take us. So whether Mr. Comey is in his position or not in his position does not interfere or impede with what we're doing.
BLITZER: You're continuing the investigation. I want to just point out he was confirmed by the United States Senate back in 2013 by a vote 93-1, 93-1, at the time.
BLITZER: The deputy attorney's general letter, Rob Rosenstein, recommending Comey's removal, his firing, is explicit -- explicit about the handling, says the improper handling by Comey of the Clinton, Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, not necessarily about his testimony on Russia.
What do you think -- what do you think about that, that that's why they are -- among other things, they're suggesting he should be fired, because he mishandled the Hillary Clinton investigation?
MANCHIN: Well, there's critics on both sides that wanted Mr. Comey to be gone.
And if they are saying that it was impeding basically the ability of him to have credible, basically nonpartisan, nonpartial, maybe that would that would -- that has already been breached. There's many reasons.
But I have seen and heard from people on both sides. I have always known him to be honorable. He's come before the committee, been very forthright, but every time he came before any type of a briefing, I can tell you that emotions were highly charged.
So if that would prevent him from basically doing his job, I don't know. They are going to have to give their reasoning. But I'm saying that there is probably those on both sides of the aisle that might be satisfied with this move and there's those who will be very upset about it.
BLITZER: There are plenty of people who are already expressing their deep, deep concern.
Here is a blunt question, Senator. Is this a Saturday Night Massacre?
MANCHIN: I don't think.
I mean, I have been around long enough to see what has happened in the political fray, if you will. It goes back many, many years, as you know, on some of these types of things that have happened. To call it a massacre, I don't think you can do that.
To say it was unexpected, absolutely. To say it's shocking, you betcha, and basically him just testifying, saying that we are looking forward for him coming in very shortly to the Senate Intelligence Committee, we are sure looking forward to that, maybe with more anticipation than before.
By we will just have to see where it goes. I'm not going to cast stones here. The president seemed like he was acting on the recommendation of his attorney general. They will have to explain the reasoning for that. And it gets people all speculating.
So, as soon as you can stop the speculation, get back to the facts, come to conclusions based on the facts, better off we are as a country, better off the president will be and his administration.
BLITZER: The president will now have to nominate a new FBI director, who will have to go through extensive background checks, confirmation process, a vote by you and your colleagues in the United States. That could take a while.
MANCHIN: Well, the thing about that is, is this.
With the nuclear option that we have now, that has changed the dynamics here in the Senate. I have always been opposed to the nuclear option. When Harry Reid did the nuclear option as Democrats, I was one of the few Democrats that said, this is wrong. I voted against it.
When Mitch McConnell did it with Judge Gorsuch, I said it was wrong and voted against it. This is a situation that could come down -- and it's a shame. It should not come down to political lines. It shouldn't come down to partisan politics.
The most qualified person, nonpartisan, nonpolitical, qualified person should be that person recommended for this position. BLITZER: Joe Manchin, that nuclear option, I should tell our viewers,
reduces the number of votes you need in Senate for confirmation from 60 down to 51 in the 100-member body.
BLITZER: Senator Manchin, thanks very much for joining us.
MANCHIN: Sure thing. You got your hands full tonight, Wolf.
BLITZER: We certainly do.
I want to go to Jim Sciutto, our chief security national correspondent.
You're getting new information as well, Jim.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, keep this in mind.
We don't know that this firing is about the Russia investigation. But just as a matter of background, keep in mind that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had to recuse himself from the Russian investigation. And he has now made this decision to fire the leader of the investigation. That is the FBI director.
Also, I would also remind our viewers of this. CNN, you may remember, reported in January that when the -- when president -- then president- elect Trump was alerted to the existence of this dossier, which alleged the possibility of Russia having compromising information on Donald Trump, it was the FBI director who passed on and summarized to then president-elect Trump the information contained in that dossier, so a very direct communication between the man leading the investigation and then president-elect about what was very difficult information to hear as part of that, that there was at least a dossier out there that was being investigated that contained information, alleged information about compromising information on the president.
The other point I would make is this. We noted in the letter that President Trump sent to Comey, he said -- made a point of referencing that you have told me many times I'm not under investigation here. You will remember yesterday, when Director Clapper was asked in the Senate hearing if he was aware of any evidence of collusion with Trump associates and Russia, he said that he was not aware.
Of course, the former acting Attorney General Sally Yates said she couldn't comment. That would get into an existing investigation.
Since then, we have talked to lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, on the Senate and the House Intelligence Committees, about whether they believe that question is closed, the possibly of collusion between Trump associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligences.
And Republicans and Democrats alike said that is still an open question. So, whatever happens in the FBI, on the Hill, senators of both parties, congressmen of both parties consider that question about alleged collusion between Trump associates and Russia, as still, Wolf, an open question.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, I want you to stand by.
Gloria Borger, you're looking at all the documents that we are receiving, all the background right now, from the president's perspective, justifying this extraordinary decision to fire Comey.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
Well, the memorandum from the deputy attorney general, who was just confirmed, Rod Rosenstein, is remarkable. I think remarkable is the only way to put it.
And he lays out chapter and verse about why Comey is fired. And the subject line in this is restoring public confidence in the FBI. Now, I think the world has sort of turned upside-down, because what he is saying is that Comey should never have had that press conference on July 5.
Now, remember, Donald Trump campaigned...
BLITZER: That was the press conference on Hillary Clinton.
BORGER: On Hillary Clinton. And Donald Trump campaigned constantly about what Comey said in that press conference, when he said that Hillary Clinton had been careless or reckless, whatever it was.
And he says here that you have no right to do that, first of all, that he shouldn't have made the decision without contacting Loretta Lynch, number one. And, number two, he said that you should -- at most, director should have said the FBI completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.
And he said, on July 5, however, the director announced his own conclusions about the nation's most sensitive criminal investigation without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders.
And then he says, talking about what Comey said, he called it gratuitous. He said, we do not, he said -- derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. And he said, it is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.
BLITZER: And we often heard those kinds of accusations from Democrats who were very angry at Comey.
BLITZER: Everybody, hold on for a moment.
Jeffrey Toobin, I know you have gone through these documents now as well, and we're all anxious to get your analysis.
TOOBIN: Can we point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes?
This memo from Rod Rosenstein says that James Comey was a fired for being too mean to Hillary Clinton? Does anyone believe that? Could anyone believe that? It is just absurd that suddenly, here it is in May of 2017, that he is being fired for a press conference that he held in July of 2016?
I mean, this is just the most preposterous pretext. This is an investigator who is investigating the White House. And he was just fired by the White House.
This doesn't happen in the United States, except on October 20, 1973, when Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox. And if anyone thinks that a new FBI director is going to come in and the agency will just take over and continue their investigation as if this had never happened, that's not how it works.
They will put in a stooge who will shut down this investigation. They are in charge. The political people are in charge of the FBI, not the street agents. The street agents do what they're told. And now Donald Trump will put in maybe Chris Christie, someone who will do his bidding.
BORGER: Well, let me ask you this also, Jeffrey, because this letter from Rosenstein also talks about the October 28, his letter that, of course, threw the election into a tizzy on October 28, and it criticizes his recent testimony in which Comey said he had a choice between conceal and speak. Right?
Remember that testimony? And he says here in this letter, conceal is a loaded term that misstates the issue. And he says that you should refrain from publicizing nonpublic information.
In other words, they are now saying that Comey should never have released that letter to Congress that Democrats charge handed the election to Hillary Clinton.
BLITZER: Hold on a second. Hold on. It was not just Democrats. It was Hillary Clinton who made that charge the other day.
I want to bring in Brian Fallon. He was a spokesman for the Hillary Clinton campaign, a former spokesman himself for the Department of Justice.
Brian is joining us on the phone.
I don't know if you have read this memorandum from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. It makes all these points why they fired, why the president fired Comey, but it refers to the way he treated your former boss, Hillary Clinton.
BRIAN FALLON, FORMER CLINTON CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN: Hi, Wolf. I agree with everything that Jeffrey Toobin just said. I think that,
all these months later, it still stands out that Director Comey's handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation was a travesty. He broke very overtly and explicitly from all kinds of Justice Department protocols and guidelines.
But the timing and the nature of this firing that the Trump administration is announcing now belies any possible explanation that this has anything to do with the Clinton investigation.
It is clearly an act by a president who is feeling the heat from the FBI's ongoing Russia investigation. And I know of the deputy attorney general and reputation. He was formerly the U.S. attorney from the Baltimore area during the Obama administration.
I believe that he truly feels everything that he is expressing in terms of what he writes in that memo explaining why he thinks that Comey's actions with respect to Hillary Clinton were unwarranted, because that was almost universally the view among many career officials throughout the Justice Department.
So, I think what is happening here is Donald Trump is trading on the deputy attorney general's strong independent reputation and trying to pretend that that is the reason why he is imposing this firing on Jim Comey, when really he is doing it to get out from under the Russia investigation.
The only thing that I think could have further deteriorated confidence and eroded faith in the institution of the FBI than Jim Comey remaining there was firing Jim Comey. And now Donald Trump has gone and done that.
The only thing that can happen now, we need a special counsel inside the Justice Department, because you have -- as Jeffrey just noted, you have political appointees now guiding this investigation into the president who appointed them and to whom they owe their jobs.
That is untenable. You need a special counsel inside the Justice Department who does not owe their jobs to Donald Trump to investigate Donald Trump.
And, separately, outside, you need an independent, select commission. Congress needs to submit to an independent commission with subpoena power so that we can finally get to the bottom of this. Otherwise, I'm afraid that this firing of Jim Comey will mean that we will never get to the bottom of the Russian...
BLITZER: Well, let me ask you this, Brian.
Don't you think now the acting FBI director, the deputy director of the FBI can continue this criminal investigation that was launched back in July into allegations of collusion between Trump associates and Russia? Can't that investigation continue now?
FALLON: It might be able to nominally, but not with any credibility.
There's two telltale signs here, Wolf, that tell you this is not on the up and up. Number one, if they wanted to show that this was a step that was being taken totally separate from the ongoing Russia investigation and that it was entirely having to do with their judgment about Jim Comey's misconduct, why not await findings of the independent inspector general investigation that is already under way, that is already taking an independent look at the propriety of Jim Comey's actions?
This administration is now deciding to not await the findings of that independent report. They could have awaited that report and then cited its findings to justify any action that they wanted to take with Jim Comey.
The fact that they are rushing to take this action ahead of that proves that it is political in nature. Secondly, if they truly wanted to put to rest any concerns that this had nothing to do with the Russian investigation, why announce -- do this as a two-step, announce a special counsel coming into administer this investigation?
And then the dismissal of James Comey would have a lot less impact, because the public and the Congress could trust that this administration was in good, qualified hands.
Instead, they're just rushing forward to this firing of Jim Comey. And I think the combination of those two factors shows you this is not on the up and up.
BLITZER: All right, Brian Fallon, I'm going to get back to you.
I want to go quickly over to Jeff Zeleny over at the White House.
Jeff, you are getting new information. What else are you learning?
ZELENY: We are indeed, Wolf.
Throughout the day, this was kept from many senior administration officials here at the White House. I am informed just a short time ago this was only discussed in the very top offices here at the White House.
And then the letter from the president sent to the FBI director was hand-delivered this afternoon. And our White House producer, Noah Gray, was at the FBI, outside the FBI, and has an image. This image you will see right there, this man is Keith Schiller. He is director of Oval Office -- Oval Office operations.
He has worked for the president for a very long time in Trump Tower. He is a former detective in the New York Police Department. So, this video you are seeing right there that we shot exclusively by our White House producer, Noah Gray, and his crew, show that this was happening at the very same time the president was in the Oval Office making telephone calls to some top key lawmakers. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator of California, was one. She
said that she received a call from the president about 5:30 p.m. Eastern time, just shortly before this all was breaking and happening here, Wolf.
So, this is all happening very fast here at the White House. But I'm told the administration is now preparing some information to walk us through exactly how the president reached this decision. I'm told again by a top official here we are not expected to hear from the president this evening. We're not expected to hear him explain his rationale to the American people, but, Wolf, so many questions for this president tonight -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, normally, a huge, a huge moment like this, you would expect to hear from the president of the United States directly in an Oval Office address or an address someplace else in the White House to explain to the American public, indeed people all over the world, why the FBI director has been fired.
We will see if that decision changes in the next hour or two.
Dana Bash, you're getting more information. And the reaction is pouring in.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the initial statement that we got from members of Congress, the senators who are kind of in charge of oversight, Lindsey Graham on the Republican side, Dianne Feinstein on the Democratic side, weren't critical.
Boy, has that changed since we have all been talking, Democrat after Democrat releasing statements in the Senate saying that this is absolutely inappropriate, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania calling it Nixonian, others basically saying it is akin to, as you asked Senator Manchin, the Saturday Night Massacre, of course, back in the Nixon administration, when he did fire key officials at the Justice Department because of their investigation.
So, that has changed dramatically in terms of how the reaction is coming in, people calling for an independent commission -- an independent counsel, a special prosecutor, some version of that.
Now, that is not new. That has been the rallying cry for Democrats for some time. The question is whether or not Republicans get on board at this point to keep the Russia investigation going.
There is no sign that is going to happen yet. But this is so dramatic, it very well might change.
BROWN: And, remember, during the recent Senate confirmation of Rod Rosenstein, just recently, confirmed about a week or two ago, he said -- he was asked the question by Senator Chuck Schumer, will you appoint special counsel if there is a need? And he said, "Absolutely, I will." And I imagine that, in the wake of Director Comey's firing, that there will be growing pressure. BASH: And can I say one other thing as we're sitting here, digesting
these letters, the backed-up material, the Rod Rosenstein letter, in particular. You guys know this better than -- better than most. He is a career guy, who is now effectively -- he is a political appointee at this point.
So he gives this whole explanation for why James Comey was fired. And the meat of it is all the things they did, vis-a-vis the Hillary Clinton investigation that were proper, which we have talked about umpteen times here. The question is, if he thinks this, if the president thinks this, why wasn't he gone on January 20 when he was inaugurated? Why now? Well, perhaps, you know, because...
BORGER: The president.
BASH: Well, the president is being investigated.
BROWN: And the president had said he had full confidence in him after January 20.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. Everybody stand by. I want to go back to Jeffrey Toobin. And Jeffrey, in this memorandum that the deputy attorney general has put out May 9, 2017, Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, subject, "Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI."
He was confirmed as the deputy attorney general, I think it was 94-6, not that long ago. He came into this administration, as you know, former U.S. attorney in Baltimore. Highly respected. It's his memo that they're putting out now as justification for this extraordinary decision.
TOOBIN: You know, Rod Rosenstein is a distinguished prosecutor. I interviewed him when he was in Baltimore. He had a very good reputation here. And how he could affix his name to that disgraceful memo, this total lie, this pretext, this absurd memorandum that suggests that Hillary -- that -- that the basis for firing Jim Comey is the Hillary Clinton investigation, is one of the many mysteries that abound here today.
But keep in mind, I mean, this is what we just have to keep in mind here, because everything that Donald Trump does, well, it sort of becomes normal. And, you know, he says mean things or Twitter, and then, oh, we get, "That's just Donald Trump being Donald Trump." This is not normal. We do not fire FBI directors when they are closing in on the White House.
This is not something that has happened before in American history, with the possible exception of October 20, 1973, when Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox.
BLITZER: So what do you think? Why do you think he was fired? TOOBIN: Because he's running an investigation -- because the FBI is
running an investigation of the -- Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, and apparently, it's getting too close for comfort. That's the only rational conclusion that you can draw from this firing.
I mean, Donald -- I mean, the idea -- I mean, keep in mind that what -- what Rod Rosenstein says in this memo is that what Comey said in his press conference was outrageous last July. It was terrible. Donald Trump quoted from that press conference repeatedly during the campaign. He was delighted by that press conference. How can that be grounds for firing him now? It makes no sense. It's irrational.
You know, we can try to dress it up, but it's just not credible that Donald Trump fired Bill -- Jim Comey for being too mean to Hillary Clinton. It's just not possible.
BLITZER: Gloria, go ahead.
BORGER: You know, in response to Jeffrey, look, it seems to me that this is the White House that wanted to fire Comey and was looking for a reason.
Now as I think you pointed out, Evan or Jeffrey, there are lots of people, legal scholars, who believe that what Comey did was wrong in his press conference, right? There are lots of people who say he misbehaved; he should have have done that. Donald Trump was not one of them, ever. Donald Trump campaigned on this, right?
And so it seems to me that all the legal rationale he goes through, a lot of people will agree with, except you know that that is not what the president really thought during this campaign particularly on October 28.
BLITZER: You're getting new reporting on -- the FBI director was fired immediately, so I assume he's cleaning out his desk and he's moving on.
PEREZ: Well, not so much, Wolf. I mean, he is actually on the road. He's in California for an event in Los Angeles. And so this firing happened with him out of town, so whatever letter was sent over to the FBI to deliver to him, he wasn't there. He had obviously have staff inform him of this decision. That's how much of a surprise this was.
[18:35:23] And look, what Gloria is talking about and what this letter from Rod Rosenstein details is true. This is -- this is a concern that was felt throughout the Justice Department, concerns about whether Comey has overstepped his bounds, whether much -- whether he was perhaps a little too attracted to the limelight, a little bit too much into drama, so to speak.
And so this is a concern. We even heard from Chuck Schumer, the -- Senator Chuck Schumer, who said that he had lost confidence in Jim Comey. He said this several months ago. So we expect, I think, in the next 15 minutes or so we're going to hear from Chuck Schumer, the majority -- the minority leader in the Senate.
BLITZER: Who's running the FBI right now?
PEREZ: Right now, it's Andrew McCabe, who's the deputy director of FBI. But Wolf, that's another issue. The Republicans have a huge problem with Andrew McCabe, because his wife ran as Democrat in Virginia. He didn't properly -- criticism is that he didn't properly recuse himself in the investigation of the Hillary Clinton e-mails. There's also been pressure for him to recuse himself from the ongoing Trump/Russia matter.
So there's probably a lot more House cleaning to come from this Trump administration at the FBI before this is all said and done.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto.
SCIUTTO: Let's just say, I know the memo references this press conference, which is now some ten months ago regarding Hillary Clinton e-mails. What has happened more recently? Let me just talk about another encounter.
Director Comey delivering to then president-elect a summary of a dossier, alleging that Russia has compromising information on him. In that meeting that CNN was the first to report, it's our understanding that Comey was the one who had that difficult job of saying, "Here is a summary of information that we've gained. We haven't corroborated it."
But again that's, of course, not mentioned in this letter. Much more recent, goes right to the investigation that's under way. The other -- the other point I would note, I know that it appears that Senator Graham got a heads up about this.
BASH: Barely, ten minutes ahead of time.
SCIUTTO: Feinstein got this call at 5:30. But I've been reaching out to a number of members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees which, in addition to the FBI investigation, they have an ongoing investigation of Russia ties, Trump ties to Russia, et cetera. You know, very much involved in this. And to them, they're scrambling right now to see how to react. They had no warning that this was coming.
BLITZER: Let me read from that Donald Trump letter, the president's letter to Comey firing him. This one sentence: "While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am 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." That's the sentence you're referring to.
SCIUTTO: Yes. So he's glomming onto -- President Trump, as we noted yesterday, when Director Clapper gave that answer in the hearing, where he was asked, "Have you seen evidence of collusion between Trump associates and Russia," Donald Trump, as you remember, made that the background of his Twitter feed, saying that this is closed.
I spent today speaking to Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. Do they consider the question of collusion -- possible collusion, certainly not established, but do they consider that question closed? And Democrats and Republicans alike have said no, they don't consider it closed. In fact, one of them said to me, "That's exactly what we are investigating."
So the president yesterday in his Twitter feed, today in this letter to Comey, saying, "By the way, there's no 'there' there," when in fact, there are concurrent investigations going non, on the Hill, and they're not ready to establish that.
BLITZER: Listen to the president. He was then still a candidate, October 31, 2016. Only a few days, Dana, before the election on November 8 at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, praising Jim Comey.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have to give the FBI credit. That was so bad what happened originally, and 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. You know that. It took a lot of guts.
I really disagreed with him. I was not his fan. But I'll tell you what: what he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back. He's got to hang tough, because there's a lot of -- lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. What he did was the right thing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He was referring, Jeffrey Toobin, to Comey's announcement that he was reopening, at the very end of -- what, only 11 days before the election, the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation based on those e-mails from Huma Abedin to her husband, Anthony Weiner.
TOOBIN: Keep in mind, that what -- what then-candidate Trump was describing in that speech is now a firing offense, in President Trump's mind. I mean, can anyone believe that? I mean, it's just ridiculous. I mean, it is not even barely credible that the candidate Trump could be praising him, Director Comey, for something that he is now firing him for.
[18:40:24] You know, we can come up with tortured justifications, but you know, sometimes the truth is just staring you in the face; and Director Comey was not fired for talking about Hillary Clinton eight months ago.
BLITZER: Let me read to you, Jeffrey, the -- one of the -- one line from the deputy attorney general's memorandum explaining this decision, and we'll put it up on the screen. "I cannot defend the director's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's e-mails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes. It is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives." Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general of the United States.
Go ahead, Jeffrey.
TOOBIN: Well, I mean, it is true, that there was a lot of criticism for Comey's decision to explain his decision not to or suggest a prosecution of Hillary Clinton. I was critical of that. Lots of people were critical of that. But that's months ago. It's months ago. And candidate Trump was not one of the people who was critical. He was supportive. So how could he now turn around and fire him for the behavior that he praised him for during the campaign? It just doesn't make any sense.
And you know, the problem is, as we get, you know, into analyzing these things, everything just sort of becomes normal; and it becomes a political football; and the Democrats say one thing, and the Republicans say the other. This is different. This is different. This is an FBI director being fired in the middle of an investigation of the people who fired him. That does not happen in the United States. At least it doesn't usually.
BLITZER: All right. Well, it's just happened today, as we now all know.
Shimon Prokupecz is our justice produce -- Justice Department producer. You're getting new information, Shimon. And tell our viewers what you have just learned.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN JUSTICE DEPARTMENT PRODUCER: Well, we've just been told that the senior leadership at the FBI was notified in an e- mail of the firing, that Comey is no longer the director, and that there is a meeting planned for tonight. This person would not say when the meeting was planned for, but that there would be a meeting tonight to discuss sort of how the agency will function going forward.
As you can imagine, this sort of has shocked people at the bureau. They had first learned of this, really, through news accounts. Most of them were shocked. No one saw this coming.
I spoke to several people at the FBI, you know, late this afternoon dealing with another story, and no one seemed to know this was coming' and even afterwards we can barely get anyone right now to return our phone calls. Because I just think, you know, the question is, who is running the agency right now, and who is going to answer the many questions that we have?
Additionally, I spoke to some former people who really say they are not surprised by this. There had been some tension for a long time internally within the bureau of how Comey handled the Clinton investigation, even that press conference that he held. The way the investigation was handled and, really, who handled it. There were a lot of stories written after the Clinton administration from senior -- talking about how senior FBI officials were upset at how Comey handled the investigation.
So, you know, up and down the line at the FBI, I don't think people are surprised that Trump went ahead and did this. I just think that they're shocked that, you know, this actually happened. There's also been some tension on the senior staff. You know, as Evan
talked about earlier, the deputy director, Andrew McCabe, sort of seen as the kind of day-to-day operations guy, making many of the decisions in the bureau. And Comey, in many ways, was seen as the political figure. Kind of the guy who didn't really want to make the decisions; kind of didn't want to get his hands dirty. Which kind of led to some tension within the bureau. The senior-level staff was not happy, generally, with how McCabe was running the bureau, how things were going.
And they really felt that Comey was just sort of more concerned about his political image and how he was being perceived in the press and stories. And just overall, his always concern always was "How am I being perceived?" And whereas the deputy director was really running the day-to-day office.
And so many of the senior officials seem to think that McCabe will probably not last very long, Wolf.
BLITZER: Stand by, Shimon. I want to bring in Mike Rogers, our national security analyst, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Very anxious, Mike, to get your reaction to this bombshell, this word that the president has fired the FBI director.
MIKE ROGERS (R), FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN: Well, it certainly came to a shock. I called a few of my former FBI associates and nobody knew this was coming. So, I think this was a very quick ordered plan. And my understanding is it may have come out, some bit of the testimony was maybe that final straw that led to his dismissal.
And you do have to understand, there were lots of concerns both inside the FBI and outside with legal scholars about the entire handling. Even back to announcing the investigation and closing the investigation and then the investigation reopened just 11 days out and then closing it before that. Lots and lots of concerns about the image of the FBI. It is an important institution in America and Americans need to see this institution as an absolutely nonpartisan enterprise that works pretty hard and difficult case answers counter intelligence cases around the country.
So, this -- I worry about this and I worry about what's going to happen next. You want a smooth transition. I hope it's quick. I hope they find that person that doesn't get into a big fight through his or her confirmation, so that they can get the FBI working important cases.
And, by the way, it doesn't mean the information is going to go away automatically on whatever case they were doing. That will continue on. That case will be presented to the attorney general and attorney general will make a decision.
So, I don't think it's going to impact that investigation one bit. I think at the senior level, you're going to see some changes at the bureau and like I said, I hope they get beyond this. It is too important that the FBI not get tarnished in this process.
BLITZER: And Mike Rogers speaks not only as former members of Congress, a former FBI agent himself. Stand by.
General Michael Hayden is joining us right now, former CIA director, another of our CNN global affairs analyst.
Your reaction, General Hayden?
GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET), CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST (via telephone): Well, Wolf, I was stunned as anyone. And, you know, Director Comey and I have history. We haven't always been on the same side of things in the Bush administration. But he has been principled and, frankly, he's been his own man. Some of his critics would say his own man almost to a fault.
So, I thought he was the right guy for the Clinton investigation and for the Russian investigations. I'll join Jeffrey there that it's surprising that he is being fired for things he did in summer of 2016. Now, those are tough decisions. I've second-guessed them as much as anyone but I recognized that Jim was off the mat there and unprecedented territory and circumstances. And as Jeffrey pointed out, the candidate didn't like what Director Comey did last summer.
So I think the time to fire him for what he did last summer, Wolf, would have been in January when we were changing out a lot of people in government. I suspect he may be fired now for what he did last year, not because of last year, but perhaps because the administration thinks he might do it again this year with the current investigation.
BLITZER: That's a -- General Hayden, that's a pretty extraordinary statement. Do you want to elaborate?
HAYDEN: Sure. I mean, he slipped the leash from the attorney general. He had his press conference last July without the knowledge of the attorney general, in effect making decision to prosecute or not prosecute without taking it to the attorney general. And then he did in a press conference. Very controversial. Very unprecedented.
But again, if that was the sin, the time to get rid of him was in January. There has to be a plan for more. And here I say, it might be in the current investigation. It has to be feared he would not the same thing. And whatever he found would not be brought up to the attorney general for final resolution before it was made public if it was made public at all.
BLITZER: General Hayden, I'm going to have you stand by as well. We are, by the way, expecting to hear directly from the top Democrat of the Senate, Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader. He is getting ready to hold a conference and make a statement.
In the meantime, I want to bring in Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a Democrat from Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Senator Blumenthal, just last week, you asked the FBI director, now the former FBI Director James Comey about -- if he would rule out investigating President Trump and he wouldn't rule it out. I want to play that clip for you. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Have you ruled out anyone in the campaign that you can disclose?
[18:50:07] JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: I don't feel comfortable answering that, Senator, because I think it puts me on a slope to talk about who we are investigating.
BLUMENTHAL: Have you ruled out the president of the United States?
COMEY: I don't -- I don't want people to over-interpret this answer. I'm not going to comment on anyone in particular because that puts me down a slope of -- because if I say no to that, I have to answer succeeding questions. So, what we've done is briefed the chair in ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we've opened investigations on and that's as far as we're going to go at this point.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, you think that response he gave you potentially could have played a role in his dismissal?
BLUMENTHAL: It could well have played a role, Wolf. That is really a key question and we may never know the full answer to it, but the point is that he is a potential target in this investigation.
The president of the United States just fired the chief investigator who has him as a target of the investigation. If there was ever any doubt about the need for a special independent prosecutor, which I've been advocating for months, there is no question now. And let's remember that we face a looming the constitutional crisis, very much like happened in 1973, the midnight massacre.
This episode has very much the feel of that chapter in our history, one that we should not repeat and that is why I will actually be introducing legislation that calls for congressional involvement of the special prosecutor because only a special prosecutor can hold accountable anyone who colluded with the Russians in that attack and interference in our election system and the president himself has to be deemed a potential target. If not right at this moment, a potential target in the future, because his associates in that campaign are targets right now.
BLITZER: Your colleague, Senator Leahy, he's a member of the Judiciary Committee as well. He says and I'm quoting him, this is nothing less than Nixonian. Those are his words.
So, I just want to be precise. Do you believe this is another Saturday night massacre?
BLUMENTHAL: It has that feel very definitely. History never repeats but it rhymes, I think is the adage. It certainly is Nixonian in its air and quality and tone to fire someone of this stature, even though I've had disagreements with him as General Hayden did, in the midst of an investigation is absolutely unfathomable for the commander-in-chief of the United States to do in the midst of an investigation.
And so, I really believe a special prosecutor unquestionably is warranted here.
BLITZER: Is this an abuse of power?
BLUMENTHAL: It is an abuse of power if the FBI was, in fact, investigating the president of the United States for the president to fire someone who has him under active investigation without better cause is in my view an abuse of power.
BLITZER: Because in the letter that the president wrote to Comey he says in the second sentence, he 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.
So, the president says Comey told him the three separate times he himself was not under investigation, although we know based on Comey's testimony included that there is a criminal investigation since July on are Trump associates and Russia and allegations of collusion. But you see in this letter, the president saying Comey told him he was not under investigation.
BLUMENTHAL: Frankly, Wolf, I think that that claim by the president is entitled to very little credibility at this point. And the reason I say it is he's characterized the investigation itself as a taxpayer- funded charade -- his words. The potential for Trump ties to the Russians, he has said is a hoax.
So, the president's characterization of whatever former Director Comey said to him, I think is entitled to a very large grain of skepticism.
BLITZER: Well, just to be precise, Senator, do you have evidence to conclude that the FBI was directly investigating the president of the United States?
BLUMENTHAL: I have no evidence beyond the logic of a former federal prosecutor who would conclude that an investigation into Trump associates and the Trump campaign and Trump transition officials at high-ranking positions in the organization might eventually lead to the president of the United States.
[18:55:23] If that evidence is followed and there's culpability at the lower level, there might well be at the top. The point is, we can't prejudge the investigation. What I know as evidence is irrelevant here. It's the investigation and its integrity and credibility that are important.
And here's the other point, Wolf, the deputy attorney general of the United States who is responsible for this investigation, because the attorney general has recused himself, has severely compromised his credibility and integrity by joining in calling for Director Comey's resignation and firing him. So, there is nothing less than full-scale tumult and turmoil. BLITZER: All right. Senator Blumenthal, thank you very much.
And once again, we're standing by to hear from Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the United States Senate. He's going to be holding a news conference, making a statement momentarily we're told as well.
Jeffrey Toobin, I want to get your reaction. You just heard Senator Blumenthal suggests that maybe the president wasn't telling the truth in this letter when he said that Comey on three separate occasions told him he himself, the president, was not under investigation.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I don't know what Director Comey told President Trump. I do know that this is not normal. This is not how presidents behave. It has happened once in American history, October 20th, 1973, that a president has fired a law enforcement leader who was investigating him. That's the only parallel and it's a dark parallel and it's a dark moment in American history today.
BLITZER: Dana, your final thought?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That this is just the beginning of a complete change in everything that's going on. I mean, it is seismic. You cannot understate what this means for what is going on in Washington, what is going on in the Trump administration, and in the short term, the fallout on Capitol Hill, which matters. The Republican-led Congress initially, people like Lindsey Graham who again has oversight, he got about a 10-minute heads up from the president himself, a very quick phone call. His initial statement was, I support you.
We'll see if that changes and other Republicans have a different point of view and Democrats, of course, as you've been talking to on air and, of course, we've been talking about the statements to a person called Nixonian and say that this is an absolute abuse of power and that there needs to be an investigation separate from them.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: We are, Wolf, getting reaction in from senior law enforcement and intelligence officials. I just have this on the record from the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, telling CNN, I have immense respect and admiration for James Comey. This is a tremendous loss for the FBI and for the nation.
Keep in mind, Director Clapper and Comey worked together closely on a number of issues. Clapper was in the service until he retired for some 40 years, and they were both in that room when they briefed President Obama and President Trump on the Russian interference in the election, including, of course, the now famous dossier.
I also have this reaction from Senator Mark Warner. He, of course, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, very strong words from him and the Senate Intelligence Committee leading its own investigation now. The president's actions today are shocking. It is deeply troubling that the president has fired the FBI director during an active counterintelligence investigation into improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Very strong words. Troubling, shocking from Senator Mark Warner.
BLITZER: And it's important to note that the FBI, Evan, together with the CIA, the NSA, the director of national intelligence, all concluded that Russia was involved in interfering, hacking into the presidential elections, something that the president has repeatedly suggested was a hoax. It could have been China. It could have been somebody else.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. And this is one of the most important things that the FBI has been working, which is to prove once and for all that there was -- there is -- there was Russian interference in the U.S. election. That is what the FBI has been working on and now the president has tried, at least from what we can tell here, is short-circuiting what the FBI has been doing here. Perhaps we don't know intentionally, but we certainly see what the effect will be after this action by the president.
BLITZER: This is an enormous moment in American history that we're watching right now, a significant moment and we can only speculate, we can only wonder what the fallout is going to be.
We've had extensive live coverage. I'm Wolf Blitzer here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Our breaking news continues right now with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT".