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Backlash Grows Over Comey Firing; Interview With Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired May 10, 2017 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, top of the hour. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.
Moments ago, the White House added another dimension to the why piece here, why President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, an act only done one before in American history.
The president said it was because Comey -- quote -- "wasn't doing a good job."
The vice president said today says it was based solely on the recommendation of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
Now the deputy White House press secretary is revealing more of Rosenstein's reasoning beyond what he wrote in a memorandum that swayed President Trump to act. And it has to do with the Comey's unprecedented news conference last July, when he was announcing he would not be charging Hillary Clinton in an investigation of her e- mails.
listen now to White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He's questioned Director Comey's reason for needing to stay at the FBI. He's had countless conversations with members from within the FBI.
I think one of the big catalysts that we saw was last week on Wednesday. Director Comey made a pretty startling revelation that he had, essentially, taken a stick of dynamite and thrown it into the Department of Justice by going around the chain of command when he decided to take steps without talking to the attorney general or the deputy attorney general when holding a press conference and telling them that he would not let them know what he was going to say.
And that is simply not allowed. And somebody like the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who everybody across the board has unequivocally said this guy is a man of upstanding character and essentially the gold standard at the Department of Justice, when you take an action like that, when you go around the chain of command and the Department of Justice, then you have to make steps and take action to make a recommendation to the president. And that's what he did.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: So, as we were looking -- and Jeff Zeleny is joining me now from the White House.
But let me just relay this piece of information that we just got. This is from our White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, that it was Sarah Huckabee Sanders who was in for Sean Spicer, who is normally the familiar face. Apparently, he's still on Navy Reservist duty over at the Pentagon. So, she subbed in for him.
But here's the piece of information. A White House official says officials at the highest levels, including the president, are monitoring Sarah Huckabee Sanders' performance this weekend in place of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in the Briefing Room.
It goes on. Two White House officials were sharply critical of the White House press shop's handling of the Comey news last night. It was -- quote -- "an embarrassment." One official said a "disaster," said another, who added the president himself who thought it was handled poorly. So, that coming in from our own Jim Acosta.
Jeff Zeleny, forgive me. Let me get back to you.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Brooke.
BALDWIN: And let's talk. You were the one in -- oh, go ahead. Jump in.
ZELENY: Right, a little bit of some context to Jim Acosta's reporting there.
He's absolutely right. The president is watching Sarah Sanders like he watches every briefing. And without a doubt, people in this administration and in fact Republicans generally, when you talk to them, they believe that Sarah Sanders is a good communicator, she's a good spokeswoman.
So, keep your eye on that podium. She will be doing it for the rest of the week here. But there's also a good bit of blame to go directly to the Oval Office. You can blame a lot of things on Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, but last night's reaction to all this is probably not one of them.
And this is why. I am told that this was held to such a tight group of people. The president wanted to execute this so quickly. He did not give his communications advisers much of a heads-up at all. We are talking a number of minutes, not hours here, to sort of put this plan in place.
So, it's easy to sort of appoint blame and criticize, but that is just sort of one of the inner workers here going on. But more importantly at this briefing today, Brooke, so interesting, Sarah Sanders saying, you know, that the president didn't have the confidence of Director Comey for months. That's the first time we heard that. So I asked her directly, then
why didn't he fire him on January 20 or 21? And she said, look, he wanted to give him a chance.
But this is a discrepancy that we will be talking more about. The vice president and others here said the president only did this because of the deputy attorney general saying that the director of the FBI had lost confidence.
This is a sign that this has been on the president's mind for a very long time, surprising no one here. He made this decision, Brooke.
BALDWIN: We will come back to that very excellent point. Jeff Zeleny, thank you at the White House.
But let's pivot to Capitol Hill, because Senator Elizabeth Warren is one of a number of Democrats now calling for this special prosecutor in this investigation involving Trump associates, Trump campaign associates, and Russia.
So, Manu Raju is back on the Hill with the senator herself.
Manu, the floor is yours.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Brooke. Thank you so much.
And thank you, senator, for talking with us.
I'm sure you were surprised by Comey's firing, like virtually everybody else was. What were you doing at the time when it happened and what was your reaction?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: You know, I walking down the street and I got the first e-mail about what had happened.
And then, of course, it's just bang, bang, bang, bang, keeps happening. I think everybody was shocked, including Director Comey, who evidently just last week had gone into the Justice Department to ask for more resources, saying he wants to push this investigation forward, I think, believing that the Justice Department was going to support him and help make that happen, an investigation that would help get to the bottom of the issue about the connection between Donald Trump, the Trump campaign and the Russians.
RAJU: So, do you think this was a cover-up?
WARREN: I think that there's just no doubt, given the timing, that the reason that Comey was fired was because Donald Trump wants to cut off any investigation into any connections that he has with his campaign and connections to the Russians.
RAJU: The Justice Department denies that Rosenstein -- Rosenstein actually asked for more that -- that there was an ask for more funds for the Russian investigation.
What is your response to that?
WARREN: Well, if the Justice Department wants to deny that, then my view is, the Judiciary Committee should call him in and have him testify under oath to exactly what Comey asked for.
I think that should be clear to everyone. Let's get him up there. Let's get the Justice Department. I don't want any of these spokesperson and issuing press releases.
Let's get the deputy attorney general in here who wrote that letter and let's put him under oath, and let's let him explain directly to the members of the Judiciary Committee right here in the United States Senate exactly what it is that Director Comey asked for last week.
RAJU: Now, you were just one of six senators who voted against Rod Rosenstein's confirmation, nomination to be deputy attorney general. Why did you vote against him at that time? What was your objections based on?
WARREN: My objection was that he would not give a straight answer about appointing a special investigator, a special prosecutor into this -- the allegations about the relationship between Donald Trump, his campaign, and the Russians.
RAJU: Did you actually talk to him beforehand?
WARREN: No. I'm not on the committee, the Judiciary Committee, that does that.
But I read the testimony and I talked to other senators who were, particularly Senator Blumenthal, who had led much of the discussion about this, and decided I couldn't vote for him because he had not, in my view, made it clear enough that he supported having a special prosecutor.
Well, times have now changed. Now it is the case that the FBI director who had announced that he had an active and ongoing investigation and asked for help from the Justice Department for that has been fired.
Now it is clear. And I think that should be clear to everyone, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of where you are in the Justice Department, that it's now time for a special prosecutor.
RAJU: I mean, how far are you willing to go to push for this? Democrats today essentially brought the Senate to a halt, objecting for committees meeting. Is that appropriate to go that far, given all the important business that needs to happen in the Senate?
WARREN: Look, this a moment in history.
Donald Trump has tried to put himself above the law. And that's not how it works in America. The way it works in America is that investigations are independent, no matter how powerful you are, and that everyone has to follow the law.
That means every senator, every person out there across the country, and it includes the president of the United States.
RAJU: Is a risk, though, to go this far, and how far are you willing to go?
WARREN: You know, I want to be clear. I don't think this should be partisan. I don't think this should be about the Democrats are demanding.
I think this is the American people want to see this, and I believe that everyone in Congress should also want to get to the bottom of this.
RAJU: And you're willing to bog down the Senate further?
WARREN: Look, the key thing here, let's be clear what we're talking about.
It's a president who wants to put himself above the law and a serious national security issue. Our intelligence community has made clear that the Russians hacked into American systems to try to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
We know the Russians were brazen in what they did just last week in France, and that the alt-right here in America was trying to help move that forward, that the Russians had been hacking systems throughout Europe.
The Russians have developed a new weapon, and it threatens the very core of democracy. Here in the United States, we need to get to the bottom of the question of what influence the Russians have had and continue to have in our political system.
RAJU: Well, Senator, we are out of time. Thank you so much for chatting with us -- Brooke, back to you.
BALDWIN: All right, Manu Raju, thank you. Senator Warren, thank you.
I have got a panel.
Let me bring you all in, Carl Bernstein, CNN political analyst, and also germane as we discuss this because of your integral work with Watergate back in the day. CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin here is with us, and CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash.
And, so, Dana, just want to go to you just coming off of that interview with Senator Warren, where -- and, listen, I realize some of this is politics, and then some of this about the investigation, and some of this really is just about the White House.
But on the politics piece, I mean, hearing her say no doubt this is a cover-up, the firing of James Comey, what do you think about that? DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a big
statement, but when it comes from Elizabeth Warren, who is kind of the ultimate, frankly, now icon, along with Bernie Sanders, on the left when it comes to elected officials, it's going to be viewed through a political prism, understandably so.
Having said that, I know, from talking to Republicans -- this will probably surprise some Republicans out there -- but talking to some Republicans who are on the Judiciary Committee, who say that she actually is pretty down the middle vis-a-vis the way that she approaches the notion of Russia's involvement in U.S. elections behind the scenes.
So, that's an important thing to keep in mind, again, based on my reporting. But, at the end of the day, Democrats are in a bit of rhetorical pickle, in that they did, as the White House was sort of banking on, they did for months and months and months, even more, say James Comey has got to go, and now they're saying but, but, but.
Having said that, they have a reason to say but, but, but, because the shoe is on the other foot. And the president didn't take that into account.
BALDWIN: Carl, what about how -- coming off of her point, how the White House has handled this? You essentially have, in the simplest form, the president has fired the guy that was investigating him and Russia ties.
Not even 24 hours later, you have Russian leaders at the White House, including the Russian ambassador, and here's the picture, who was the center of the probe with regard to his now fired national security adviser.
And you have Henry Kissinger at the White House today, the former secretary of state of President Nixon. I don't know if even Hollywood could write this.
CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Let's get the basics. And that is that this is terribly dangerous moment in American history.
The president of the United States has repeatedly made clear he does not want a legitimate investigation into the possible collusion of his aides and campaign with a hostile power. This is unprecedented in our history, a president who himself has attempted to impede the legitimate investigation of essentially looking into whether or not people around him and perhaps himself have colluded in some way with the enemy.
And we need to be clear about what that means. There has been a cover-up, as you heard me say on your show and others for a while. There has been a cover-up from the White House. It doesn't mean that we know there's been an obstruction of justice, but I think there are a good number of people in the FBI who will tell you, yes, there has been a cover-up.
The White House has kept up from trying to learn what we need to learn. And this is the ultimate execution of that strategy. And unlike Watergate, where Republicans were the heroes, and Republicans said about Richard Nixon, regardless of party, we need to know the truth about what happened, a great senator from Tennessee, a Republican, said, what did the president know and when did he know it, we now have Republicans like Mitch McConnell who have shown no interest in the best obtainable version of the truth here.
And, as Dana says, there are Republicans who are very restive, who understand that the White House is trying to cover this up. And there is going to be a lot of dispute in the coming weeks about what the president of the United States has done within his own party.
BALDWIN: So, let me just add in one more piece.
And, Jeff Toobin, I'm going to ask you this question. Now we know that both the chairman and the ranking member of the Senate Intel Committee are saying that, if Mr. Comey were to testify -- and they're still trying to figure it out -- next Tuesday, it would be a classified hearing.
So, Jeff Toobin, can we talk about that and what kind of information would come out? I realize this is behind closed doors. Who determines that?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that would -- I mean, first of all, private citizen Comey has to agree to testify. He's under no obligation to testify. He doesn't work for the federal government anymore.
TOOBIN: And my guess is, knowing him, he will not want to testify next week. He doesn't want to speak for the FBI anymore. I suspect he will lay low.
It's up to the committee to hold a closed or open session, because they will decide whether they want the full answers, and thus classified information that would require a closed hearing, or the more limited information that would come out in an unclassified public briefing.
But one of the questions, I think, former Director Comey has to answer in one form or another relates to this bizarre second paragraph in the letter that he got from Donald Trump yesterday, where he said, on -- the president said, on three occasions, you, Director Comey, said I was not part of this investigation.
First of all, that would be entirely inappropriate for the FBI director to say something like that, if he did. And if he didn't, it would be an incredible false statement by the president of the United States.
So, I mean, that is something that Comey can answer, but since he's a private citizen now, I'm not sure we will get an answer anytime soon. BALDWIN: Part of the question -- yes, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders was
asked about that, and she didn't really have an answer for it.
BERNSTEIN: Look, can I interject one other thing here?
BALDWIN: Carl, let me just -- let me -- you can.
BALDWIN: But let me also say, Sarah Huckabee Sanders today made it clear when she was pressed on, well, why now, why fire him now, because we now that he heaped praised on -- candidate Trump did, in July.
And she was making this huge difference between, well, that was candidate Trump then and this is President Trump now.
Carl, did you hear that?
BERNSTEIN: I did. And that's what I was going to interject, that, in fact, there are very credible reports in "The New York Times" and elsewhere in the last few hours, "The Wall Street Journal" and "The Washington Post," that, indeed, Trump took this step when he became knowledgeable that Comey had asked the Justice Department for more funds for an investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
BERNSTEIN: And there are reports out of the White House from Trump people -- those are the sources of this information -- that the president became enraged and went through with this firing.
So, all of circumstances here add up to the appearance and apparent execution of a cover-up at the level of the president of the United States. I'm not saying, again, that he has obstructed justice. But he has made clear to members of his own party, to members of the opposition, to members of his staff, who will tell you this, he does not want a real investigation into what happened with the Russians and this election, including what happened between people around him and the Russians.
If there were an innocent explanation for all this, one would think that the president of the United States would say, let's have a special prosecutor. Let's have an independent inquiry. Let's not fire the director of the FBI. Let's get to the bottom of this.
We have seen the opposite from Donald Trump.
BASH: Meanwhile, back on planet Earth...
BALDWIN: Back on planet Earth, yes? Is that where we are?
BASH: No. I mean, Carl -- yes, Carl is talking about a sort of, you know, utopian democracy, compared to where we are right now in reality.
And that is, it's not going to happen. The only way that there will be a special prosecutor, which, by the way, does mean that Congress will have to change the law, because the law lapsed, is with the president kicking and screaming.
And the fact of the matter is...
BASH: Carl alluded to this before, that the Senate majority leader, the top Republican in the Senate, he has the power to say, OK, guys, it's time to do a Howard Baker. And he didn't.
And he said very clearly today on the Senate floor ain't going to happen. Now, the question, though, is whether or not the news cycle changes and we get more information and the pressure becomes too much for him to bear from, forget about the Democrats, from fellow Republicans who are saying, enough, this is untenable.
BERNSTEIN: That's exactly right.
BASH: And, at the end on the day, I'm already hearing from Republicans who are in charge of getting House members elected.
They saw what happened last night and they said, bye, bye, House. Obviously, they were in a state of shock, but that is a consideration that we cannot underplay.
BALDWIN: Well said.
Dana, thank you so much. Carl, Jeffrey Toobin, appreciate all of you. We will watch to see which way this thing twists and turns.
The other question is, who should replace him? Who should replace James Comey? The search has already started to find his replacement.
We will look into the list of who could be next in charge at the FBI.
BALDWIN: The now former FBI Director James Comey had six years left of his 10-year term. But now that he's out, Vice President Mike Pence says the search for his replacement is already under way.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Trump provided the kind of strong and decisive leadership the American people have come to be accustomed from him. And he took the action necessary to remove Director Comey. And now
already this morning, the president is in the process of evaluating individuals who will be able to fill that spot, lead the FBI, and restore the confidence of the American people. That's why this was the right decision at the right time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: Let's talk more with former CIA operative Mike Baker and former CIA officer Evan McMullin, who also ran against President Trump as an independent last year.
So, gentleman, good to have both of you on.
And, Mike, first to you.
You saw this -- once Comey sort of inserted himself in the public sector last summer, you saw this already as a lose-lose for him. Tell me why.
MIKE BAKER, FORMER CIA COVERT OPERATIONS OFFICER: Well, yes.
In a sense, it's the old adage, don't became the story. And he definitely had become the story. So, any discussion about any investigation, whether it was the one being done by the bureau or the House and Senate, he was sort of front and center in a way that is not what you would expect.
But, also, you know, frankly, his shelf life was limited, regardless of who was going to win the presidential election. And by that, I mean, does anyone think somehow that Hillary Clinton, after what Director Comey did, particularly in that appearance at the podium, was going to keep his job for any length of time if Hillary had won?
So, I think the window was closing on Jim Comey. It shouldn't really be a surprise.
BALDWIN: Do you think it was the right move?
BAKER: The problem, as always -- well, no, what I think is the problem is what it always is with the Trump administration, which is their messaging and the way that they make decisions and the optic of everything.
It continues to be bizarre. Do I think it was the right move? Well, I think Director Comey had lost credibility, for sure. I think he was personally well-liked within the bureau by the agents there. But I think also there was concern about his credibility and ability to lead the bureau.
And that was cited by, frankly, a lot of the people on the Democratic side who just in the past weeks and months have been calling for his firing and talking about the lack of credibility in his leadership. But, of course, it's Washington, D.C., so you can say anything as long as it's within your political interests.
BALDWIN: You talk about lack of credibility, and we heard the White House spokeswoman earlier today, Evan, saying that Comey had lost confidence, not only of the president, but of the FBI, of the rank and file of the FBI.
As a former member of the intel community, what you are hearing from your friends, and is that the case? Was he losing that?
EVAN MCMULLIN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, actually, that's not the case.
My FBI agents, agent friends tell me that they had a lot of respect for Director Comey. And, by the way, Director Comey had a lot of respect on Capitol Hill, too. I know, while I worked there with House leadership, that House leadership and other members of the House Republican Conference had a great deal of respect for him.
Some members, Representative Katko being one of them, there are others, they have actually worked with Comey in previous roles, and would speak frequently about their trust and confidence in him.
Look, this is -- I agree with Mike about the fact that Director Comey was in a difficult political situation. By necessity, he was investigating both major party candidates, which is an incredible thing and a sad state of affairs for our country.
But let's not forget that the reason -- and I think it's painfully obvious, especially this new reporting from "The New York Times" that shows that Comey was trying to expand the investigation -- this is an effort, a brazen effort, for Donald Trump to strike a blow against a very important investigation on a foreign adversary's effort to influence our election and Donald Trump's ties to Moscow and his campaign's ties to Moscow.
That is what this is about.
BALDWIN: Opinion, not fact yet. There's still -- we've got this investigation going. Who knows if they will get a special prosecutor or not.
But because of that respect within, you mentioned the Hill, but also rank and file of the FBI, Evan, just staying with you, do you think that the intel community will become more leaky as a result of this?
MCMULLIN: Well, you know, that's a tough issue.
Members of the intelligence community are required by law not to leak. And that was certainly something that I always honored. I'm sure Mike did, too. And it's an uncomfortable place to be. I hope that's not the case.
I would just like to see a straight-up investigation led by an independent director of the FBI. And I think we need a more serious investigation in Congress. I would like to see everything done by the book. And I think that's the best thing for the country. BALDWIN: Quickly, Mike Baker, of all the names floated, who do you
think is the best next guy or gal to head the FBI?
Well, I think Evan pointed to something here. It's got to be an independent. It's got someone that is not perceived as associated with Trump or the Trump campaign previously.
And that's going to be the problem. I think it's going to be another self-inflicted wound, would be my guess, from the Trump administration. And it could be well be somebody along the lines of a Christie or a Giuliani.
I think so far all the names that have been floated, the most -- the one that would fit the bill best for all of us who would like to see somebody in that position who can be perceived by both sides as independent would be Ray Kelly.
But I think Kelly is bringing his own problems. I think the Democrats would look at him as being too aggressive in policing perhaps. But if you're looking at just the names that have been floated to date, I would worry that it's going to be somebody that is associated with Trump.
And that is not what they need. I would love to see somebody from inside the bureau lifted up and given that position. I don't think that is likely either.
OK, gentleman, we have got to go. But I appreciate both of you.
Mike Baker, Evan McMullin, thank you.
MCMULLIN: Thank you.
BAKER: Thank you.
BALDWIN: And one of just the most incredible details of this story is that James Comey found out he was fired because he watched it --