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McCain on Comey Firing; McConnell and Schumer on Senate Floor; Trump Faces Aftershock; Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired May 10, 2017 - 09:30   ET

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


[09:30:00]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, thank you very much.

Let's get more from CNN Washington correspondent Ryan Nobles. He joins us from Capitol Hill.

The senator there was just talking about some of his Republican colleagues and we've just heard from a very prominent one.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Poppy. Our Manu Raju talking to Senator John McCain, who's, of course, a Republican. And you heard Senator Markey talk about their desire to have an independent prosecutor. But the fact that they're in the minority makes it very difficult for them to push for that, to try and obstruct the business of the Senate without some help from Republicans. And Senator McCain, just a few minutes ago, telling Manu on camera that he is in favor of an independent prosecutor. He thinks that this is necessary.

He's not alone. There have been a couple of Republican senators and even some in the House who have echoed those sentiments. But it really depends on which member of the Senate that you're talking to in terms of the direction that they see this going forward.

Listen to what both House Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and what Lindsey Graham had to say about this issue this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: Were these investigations getting too close to home for the president? If the administration had those same questions, the events occurred months ago and they should have fired Comey on the day they came into office.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think Director Comey is a fine man, but Democrats called for his removal about two or three, four weeks ago and now he's gone and we get a chance to pick a new director. Hopefully we all can agree on somebody that's above reproach and move on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOBLES: You can see Lindsey Graham on the opposite side of John McCain on this issue. That doesn't often happen.

And I just want to quickly read for you a statement by Richard Burr. He's a key player in this, the chair of the Senate Intel Committee. He said, quote, "I am troubled by the timing and the reasoning of Director Comey's termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by this committee. His dismissal, I believe, is a loss for the bureau and a loss for the nation."

So, John and Poppy, when you have someone like Richard Burr, who is someone who has been relatively friendly to the Trump administration, but has worked very hard to have a bipartisan investigation into the role that Russia played in the American election, it shows that Republicans are very uncomfortable with this firing of James Comey and that could give us some clue as to how this debate is going to move forward.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Ryan, stand by for one second. We're looking at the floor of the Senate right now where they are getting underway. We just saw the prayer. The pledge will be right now.

And we do have some breaking news while this is going on. We understand that the current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and the deputy A.G., Rod Rosenstein, they will interview potential interim FBI directors today. They're going to interview potential interim FBI directors. The candidates not just limited to the FBI, but they're going to bring people in to get some ideas to fill the post we are told at least temporarily. I'm not quite sure what that means because in the meantime the deputy director of the FBI -

HARLOW: Andrew McCabe.

BERMAN: Andrew McCabe, he will serve as the FBI director.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: But as we're waiting for the Senate floor here, they're going to gavel in and then we're expecting to hear from Mitch McConnell.

You know, Ryan, we may have to interrupt you, but give us a sense of what the confirmation hearings will be like for the next FBI director when that happens? Contentious to say the least.

NOBLES: John, there's no doubt about that because to a certain extent that's really the only ability that the Democrats have to make their voices heard. They don't have enough votes to stop the confirmation of this next FBI director. So you can -

BERMAN: All right, Ryan, hang on one second. Let's listen - let's listen to the majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joint resolution providing for congressional disapproval under chapter eight of Title V United States code and so forth.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I ask unanimous consent the Democratic leader and I be allowed to give our leader remarks at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without objection.

MCCONNELL: Mr. President, today it's my privilege to welcome a distinguished group of Kentuckians to our nation's capital. Because of the incredible work of the Honor Flight program, over 80 World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans from across my home state will travel to Washington. Here they will see the memorials built to honor their service.

The Blue Grass Chapter Honor Flight has brought hundreds of veterans, most of them Kentuckians, to Washington for this purpose. Despite the significant logical and financial planning that goes into these trips, Honor Flight works to make sure that veterans have the opportunity to travel at no cost to themselves. The program organizes travel and food for these veterans, many of whom would never be able to visit our nation's capital or see the memorials at all without honor flight. The national monument built on the mall pay tribute to those who sacrificed for the cause of freedom. I would like to add my voice to those who welcome these veterans and thank them for their service to our country.

Now, on another matter, I'm glad to see many of our Democratic friends here with us today. Yesterday, they sent me a letter indicating they want to participate as we work on legislation that can bring relief from Obamacare. In that letter, they acknowledged the need to improve and reform the health care system.

After eight years of defending this failing law and its higher cost, reduced choices and dropped coverage, I'm glad to hear that Senate Democrats are finally willing to concede that the status quo is simply unsustainable. I appreciate their willingness to acknowledge that Obamacare hasn't lived up to its promises. That's certainly a reality that Senate Republicans entirely agree with. It's why we're working to keep our commitment to the American people to move beyond the failures of Obamacare.

[09:35:46] If our friends on the other side of the aisle want to join us in replacing Obamacare with common sense reforms, I welcome their input. It's disappointing it has taken our Democrat colleagues this long to come around, but I look forward to hearing their ideas now and I look forward to joining in a robust debate on the Senate floor as we pursue smarter health care solutions.

As we continue working to address this critical issue, it's important to remember why we need to act in the first place. Across the country, more and more Americans are feeling the pain of Obamacare. Listen to these recent headlines. "Thousands of Obamacare customers left without options as insurers bolt." "More insurers abandon Obamacare. Who might be next?" "Obamacare choices could go from one to zero in some areas." "Obamacare is failing the American people and it keeps getting worse." "Families face skyrocketing premiums, fewer choices and the risk of losing the doctors or plans they like."

Just this week, we saw even more troubling news out of states like Maryland where one major insurer just proposed a premium increase of more than 50 percent, warning that Obamacare market is in the early stages of a death spiral. We saw similar stories out of Connecticut, too. There, insurers have also requested double digit increases which could top out at 52 percent amid worries that the last two insurers on the exchanges may leave.

These states aren't alone. I continue to hear from Kentuckians who are desperate for relief from Obamacare. Take this Campbellsville woman who purchased insurance on the Obamacare exchanges after researching the best policy to fit her needs. Only then did she find out how hard it would be for her to actually, actually get care. Here's what she had to say. "Today I'm making payments for a health care plan that does not cover my doctors, does not cover all my prescriptions. It's almost totally useless. I'm the only person, but I'm sure I speak for many - I'm only one person, but I'm sure I speak for many people who are finding themselves in this difficult situation."

Obamacare is a failed law that continues to hurt Americans every single day. It is taking a bigger bite out of their budgets while, as too many have discovered, covering fewer services they actually need. We've all received letters from our constituents like the ones I just shared. These families are the ones shouldering the burdens of Obamacare. They're the ones counting on us to act and move passed the failures of Obamacare.

If we don't, this situation will only get worse. That's why we continue to engage in productive conversations with each member of our conference on the way forward to providing relief from Obamacare. I look forward to continuing these talks and welcoming our Democratic colleagues to the conversation, if they're ready to join us. But it's certainly an important step for the entire Democratic caucus to acknowledge that the status quo is failing the American people and that Congress cannot sit by while Americans suffer the consequences of this failed law.

Now one final matter. What everyone thinks of the manner in which Director James Comey handled the investigation into Secretary Clinton's unauthorized use of a private server and her mishandling of classified information, it is clear what our Democratic colleagues thought of it, both at that time and consistently thereafter. Last year the current the Democratic leader said it appeared to be an appalling act. One that, he said, goes against their tradition of prosecutors at every level of government. And the prior Democratic leader, when asked if James Comey should resign given his conduct of the investigation, he replied, of course, yes.

It's also clear what our Democratic colleagues think of the man who evaluated Mr. Comey's professional conduct and concluded that the bureau needed a change in leadership. The Democratic leader, just a few weeks ago, praised Mr. Rosenstein for his independence and said he had developed a reputation for integrity.

(INAUDIBLE)

[09:40:19] This is what we have now, Mr. President, our Democratic colleagues complaining about the removal of an FBI director who they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized. That removal being done by a man, Rod Rosenstein, who they repeatedly and effusively praised. When Mr. Rosenstein recommended Mr. Comey's removal for many of the vary reasons that they consistently complained about.

Two investigations are currently ongoing. The Senate Intelligence Committee's review of Russian active measures and intelligence activities and the FBI investigation disclosed by Director Comey. Today we'll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done, also to let this body and the national security community develop counter measures and war fighting doctrine to see that it doesn't occur again.

Partisan calls should not delay the considerable work of Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Warner. Too much is at stake. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein was just confirmed on a bipartisan vote 94-6, 94-6, and that sort of fair consideration should continue when the Senate receives an FBI director nominee. As I said yesterday, once the Senate receives a nomination to fill this position, we'll look forward to a full, fair and timely confirmation process. This is a critical role that is particularly important as our country continues to face serious threats at home and abroad.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: Mr. President.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Democrat leader.

SCHUMER: Yesterday, the president fired the director of the FBI, Jim Comey, who was leading an active investigation into the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia. The president provided no reasoning for the firing other than he had the recommendation of his attorney general, who has already had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation for being too close to the president and his Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Mr. President, there is little reason to think that Mr. Rosenstein less letter is the true reason that President Trump fired Director Comey.

Why? Because if the administration truly had objections to the way Director Comey handled the Clinton investigation, they would have had them the minute the president got into office. But he didn't fire Director Comey then. The question is why did it happen last night?

We know Director Comey was leading an investigation in whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, a serious offense. Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president? The dismissal of Director Comey establishes a very troubling pattern. This administration has now removed several law enforcement officials in a position to conduct independent investigations of the president and his administration. From acting Attorney General Sally Yates, to Preet Bharara, and now Jim Comey.

What should happen now? What must happen now is that Mr. Rosenstein appoints a special prosecutor to oversee this investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein sat in the Judiciary Committee and promised to appoint a special prosecutor at the appropriate time. He said, quote, "I'm willing to appoint a special counsel whenever I determine that it's appropriate." So my colleague Senator Coons asked him, "would you agree that it's vital to the assurance of confidence in our democracy and law enforcement system that any investigation into these matters be fair, free, thoroughly and politically independent?" Mr. Rosenstein answered "yes, I do."

If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now. Mr. Rosenstein already expressed concern that Director Comey damaged the integrity of the FBI. The attorney general has already had to recuse himself from the investigation for being too close to the president. If Mr. Rosenstein is true to his word, that he believes this investigation must be, quote, "fair, free, thorough and politically independent," if he believes as I do that the American people must be able to have faith in the impartiality of this investigation, he must appoint a special prosecutor and get his investigation out of the hands of the FBI and far away from the heavy hand of this administration.

[09:45:54] Mr. Rosenstein has the authority to appoint a special prosecutor right now. He needs no congressional authorization. This would simply be a step that he could take, as outlined in the Department of Justice guidelines and in a law passed after Watergate to get an independently minded prosecutor who would be insulated from various pressures. A special prosecutor is not subject to day to day supervision by the attorney general or anyone else at the Justice Department. That means the special prosecutor would have much greater latitude in who he could subpoena, which questions they ask, how to conduct an investigation. The special prosecutor can only be removed for good cause, such as misconduct, not to quash the investigation.

Third, there is built-in congressional oversight. Congress is notified whenever a special council is appointed, removed or finished with the investigation. The appointment of a special prosecutor would be a welcome step in the right direction, but it is not the only action that should be taken. There are a great many outstanding questions about the circumstances of Director Comey's dismissal, the status of the executive branch investigation into the Trump campaign ties to Russia and what the future holds for these investigations. So I will be requesting that the majority leader call a closed and, if necessary, classified session, all senators briefing - sorry, I will be requesting that the majority leader call a closed and if necessary classified all senators briefing with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general separately, at which they can be asked questions.

Some of the questions: why was Attorney General Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russia investigations, able to influence the firing of the man conducting the Russia investigation? Did Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein act on his own or at the direction of his superiors or the White House? Are reports that the president has been searching for a rational to fire the FBI director for weeks true? Was Director Comey's investigation making significant progress in a direction that would cause political damage to the White House? Why didn't the president wait for the inspector general's investigation into Director Comey's handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation to conclude before making his decision to fire him? Was this really about something else? No doubt we'll have an opportunity to question Mr. Comey, now a

private citizen, about what happened. But we need to hear from this administration about what happened and why and what is going to happen next. And that is why, again, I am requesting that the majority leader call a closed and if necessary classified all sessions briefing with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general separately, at which they can be asked these questions. I hope the majority leader agrees with me, that we need to get to the bottom of this and get a handle on all the facts so that we can grapple with them. I remind him and my Republican friends that nothing less is at stake than the American people's faith in our criminal justice system and the integrity of the executive branch of our government.

I yield the floor.

[09:50:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question is on the motion to proceed.

HARLOW: There you have it, the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, following the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, over the FBI director's firing. Interestingly, Schumer calling for an all-senators briefing with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general where they can ask a number of questions and he listed some of those key questions.

BERMAN: Yes. Also interesting, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, made clear he thinks that any new investigation will only impede the work currently being done in Congress.

HARLOW: Being done.

BERMAN: The message there, no special committee -

HARLOW: Don't -

BERMAN: No special prosecutor -

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: Anytime soon as far as I'm concerned.

HARLOW: Someone calling for, interestingly, a special committee is Republican Senator John McCain.

Let's go to our Manu Raju who just caught up with him.

He isn't satisfied with the rationale here for the firing and he doesn't seem to think that a special prosecutor is necessarily the answer.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right. Unlike Mitch McConnell, Senator McCain is actually very concerned about this decision to fire James Comey. He said he's disappointed in it. He says he does not believe there has been any sort of explanation that is given that justifies this firing. Take a listen to what he said. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Sir, does it also worry you that this firing came right at the same time as the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign connections to Russia?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think they've been investigating the Trump campaign's connections with Russia for a long time. I just think that it, obviously, was not done in an efficient fashion. But when you fire probably, arguably, the most respected person in America, you'd better have a very good explanation, and so far I haven't seen that.

RAJU: You don't buy the Clinton e-mail explanation that he mishandled the Clinton e-mails that's why he was fired?

MCCAIN: I don't believe that that is sufficient rationale for removing the director of the FBI, and I regret that it's happened. We have a lot of issues and challenges and this just diverts a lot of that attention.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, I did also push McCain on the idea of a special prosecutor and whether one is necessary at this point. He did not go that far, saying instead that special committee, a congressional committee, that could investigate, dive deeply into this issue of Russia meddling is necessary right now. The question is whether other Republican senators will join the call by both John McCain and Lindsay Graham for that special committee they would need to overcome the opposition of the Senate majority leader to do just that, but clearly some concerns here about the reason behind the firing of James Comey coming from a very prominent member of the Senate and also we're probably going to hear some more of that later today from Republican senators as they grapple with this news and uncertain about why the White House took this action at this key moment of this Russian investigation months after the James Comey press conference from last year, guys.

HARLOW: Manu Raju on The Hill, thank you for that, for getting that sound from McCain and bringing it to us.

Joining us now, Jackie Kucinich, CNN political analyst and Washington bureau chief for "The Daily Beast," and David Drucker, CNN political analyst and senior congressional correspondent for "The Washington Examiner."

Good morning to you guys.

You know, the key question - one of the key questions this morning, there are many, is, how far are Republicans willing to go, right? OK, you have McCain saying I'm not satisfied here. You have Ben Sasse really concerned. You have Jeff Flake. You - I mean you have a number of them, right? But how far are they willing to go to actually do something about this, Jackie, do you believe?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's hard to say, but it is notable, someone like Richard Burr, who's a chairman of the Intelligence Committee -

HARLOW: Right.

KUCINICH: Bob Corker, for example, another Republican who doesn't usually get ahead of his skis on this sort of thing. The fact that they're speaking out and the fact that they felt their statements yesterday were so strong, these weren't just off-the-cuff comments. These were, you know, things they sat down and wrote. So I think that indicates that this isn't going to be over any time soon.

Now, what - how that manifests itself, I think still is an open question.

BERMAN: Yes, look, as of now, all it is, is strongly written letters, right?

HARLOW: That's all.

KUCINICH: That's true.

BERMAN: You know, it's harsh words until they do something. And, look, and there are so many Watergate comparisons. The key moments in Watergate were when Republican House members and Republican Senators flipped -

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: And all of a sudden, you know, put pressure on the Nixon administration. The question is how much pressure are they willing to put now.

David Drucker, one other point here that was brought up. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, he was before the Senate during his confirmation hearings and he was very specifically asked about what he might be willing to do in terms of a special prosecutor. Listen to what Rod Rosenstein said back then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Are you willing to appoint a special counsel to examine Russian interference in our elections and other criminal activity?

ROD ROSENSTEIN: I'm willing to appoint a special counsel, senator, whenever I determine that it's appropriate based upon the policies and procedures of the Justice Department.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So he didn't shut the door, David Drucker. And if there was ever a moment when he'd be feeling pressure to do this, that moment would be now.

[09:55:04] DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it could be. Look, I wouldn't be surprised - and I have actually talked to Republicans on The Hill who want a special prosecutor because they think that a special prosecutor can look into what they believe are improper leaks of classified information. And I wouldn't be surprised if President Trump theoretically would want a special prosecutor and hopes that it happens because he is so incensed about what he feels are leaks that came from Obama administration holdovers.

One of the things, though, I think that we should look for going forward is how much pressure Senate Republicans put on the administration to nominate a successor to James Comey that is unimpeachable that is about as apolitical as you can get for a position like this because they're the ones that are going to be on the hook for his confirmation. They're going to have to defend it in 2018. And that's why I think the people who are worried that the president is going to replace Comey with some sort of a stooge that Republicans in the Senate are going to rubber-stamp - remember, it just takes 51 votes to overcome a filibuster executive branch nominees - I think they're wrong in that regard. I don't think McConnell is going to allow his members to get into that kind of trouble. And there are plenty of Republicans, even ones that are not going to be critical of Trump, who are aware that this vote could stick with them a lot longer than the Trump administration, whether it's one term or two. They plan to be in the Senate for a lot longer than that. And so I think that the president is going to be under pressure here to do a better job of explaining this so that he gets Republican support and he's going to have to nominate somebody thought of similarly to how Comey was thought of originally back when he was first nominated to be the FBI director.

HARLOW: But - but regardless of whom the president nominates, Jackie, and as David importantly pointed out only needs 51 votes to get through, will that person have to recuse themselves from the Russian investigation because of the nature of their nomination being done by the president?

KUCINICH: I don't think so, but it all depends on who he decides to nominate at this point.

I also think it's interesting that Mitch McConnell decided to take the White House line on this in terms of -

DRUCKER: Yes.

KUCINICH: Democrats were criticizing Comey too, and, oh, look, now they're upset about this. The bottom line is what Comey was apparently fired for is something that the president praised him for on the campaign trail. So it was just - it was - given who Mitch McConnell is and how he operates, I thought it was interesting that he took that tact.

BERMAN: Look, it's a key moment. You know, the president has Mitch McConnell on his side on this. We haven't heard from Paul Ryan specifically, but we imagine he's on his side as well. That is what he needs today politically, at least.

Jackie Kucinich, David Drucker, thanks so much for being with us.

A lot of breaking news this morning. Again, the Senate majority leader just essentially saying uh-uh, to a special prosecutor or a special committee to investigate Russia even after the firing of James Comey. Much more coming up.

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