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White House Repeatedly Changes Story on Comey Firing; Dems Demand Special Prosecutor. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 10, 2017 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. The fallout. Shock and outrage over President Trump's sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey just as the investigation into Russia's campaign meddling and its contacts with Trump associates was picking up speed. Will the next FBI chief have any independence?

The conflicting story. The White House says the president lost confidence in Comey over several months, but just last week it said it had confidence in the FBI chief, and the president has repeatedly praised Comey. Now the knives are out. What's the real story?

The investigation. What happens to the multi-pronged investigation into Russia's election interference and its contacts with the Trump camp? Democrats are demanding an independent special prosecutor. Will they shut down the Senate until they get one?

And the optics. Could it look any worse? Hours after firing Comey, the president was all smiles as he met with Russia's ambassador to the United States, a key figure in the investigation; and with Russia's foreign minister who earlier joked to reporters about the FBI director's firing.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump sends off shock waves with his sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey in the middle of an investigation into Russia's election meddling and the Trump camp's Russian contacts. The president says he acted because Comey, quote, "was not doing a good job," although the president had often praised Comey; and the White House just a week ago stressed the president had confidence in Comey. The White House now says the president lost that confidence over several months.

Administration officials have now launched an all-out assault on the ousted FBI chief, saying he went around the chain of command and committed, quote, "atrocities" in the Clinton e-mail investigation. There's no indication that the president today used the word "atrocities" in discussing Syria with Russia's foreign minister and Russia's ambassador, whose contacts with fired national security adviser Michael Flynn made him a key figure in the controversy. The president says the meeting was, quote, "very, very good." Heading into earlier talks with Secretary of State Tillerson, Russian

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seemingly joked about Comey's firing.

More than anything, the timing of Comey's firing has outraged congressional Democrats and more than a few Republicans. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have now invited Comey to testify next week, and Democrats are remanding a special prosecutor in the Russia investigation, someone far removed from the White House.

I'll talk to Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Mark Warner. And our correspondents and specialists, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's breaking news.

President Trump ignited a firestorm with his sudden dismissal of FBI chief James Comey, and so far, White House explanations are just not adding up.

Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, what are you learning?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are exactly 24 hours into this story. It was exactly at this point yesterday when the president started to advise senators and others that he had, indeed, fired the FBI director.

Last night we were led to believe that the president was following the recommendation of his acting deputy attorney general. Today we learned something different, that the president had been considering this since the day he was elected.

But Wolf, after talking to multiple people here at the White House, on Capitol Hill and at the Justice Department, I can say our reporting points to the fact that the president was leery of James Comey. He was worried about that Russian investigation. That's why he fired him.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And thank you very much for being here. Appreciate it.

ZELENY (voice-over): There's still one question tonight above all others for President Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why did you fire Director Comey?

TRUMP: Because he wasn't doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.

ZELENY: Those sparse words is all the president had to say about why he fired FBI Director James Comey.

For a second day, the bombshell rocked Washington

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER? The dismissal of Director Comey establishes a very troubling pattern. ZELENY: Vice President Pence praised the president's decision but

shed no more light on the abrupt dismissal of the man leading the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

MIKE PENCE (R), 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.

ZELENY: As protesters gathered outside the White House...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... Trump and solve the cover-up!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... Trump and solve the cover-up!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... Trump and solve the cover-up!

ZELENY: ... inside the West Wing the administration struggled to not only explain why Comey was fired but why now.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: The president had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected.

[17:05:00] ZELENY: Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today the president has long been leery of Comey, even though he said the opposite in an April interview with FOX Business.

TRUMP: You know, I have confidence in him. We'll see what happens.

ZELENY: And just last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer had this to say about Comey.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has confidence in the director.

ZELENY: The time line and its contradictions matter in determining whether it was the president or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who triggered Comey's firing. The White House initially explained Tuesday night the president reached his decision only after Rosenstein made his recommendation.

The vice president repeated that assertion today.

PENCE: Because of the actions that the deputy attorney general outlined to the president that were endorsed and agreed with by the attorney general, the president made the right decision at the right time.

ZELENY: The answer inside the White House briefing room was far less clear.

(on camera): Do you regret not doing it earlier, like on January 20 or January 21?

SANDERS: No, I believe the president wanted to give Director Comey a chance, but he feels that he made the right decisions. ZELENY (voice-over): The president's abrupt firing of Comey drew

quick parallels to the Nixon administration's Saturday Night Massacre and firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. The White House did little to do correct those historical comparisons.

Henry Kissinger, Nixon's secretary of state, on the front page then...

TRUMP: Everybody knows Dr. Kissinger, and we're right now talking about Russia.

ZELENY: ... and today invited to sit along the president in the Oval Office.

Whether tone deaf or intentionally ironic, Russia front and center today at the White House, the president's only appearance with Kissinger and the visiting Russian foreign minister, the president even smiling in the Oval Office today with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, considered a top spy and recruiter of spies by U.S. intelligence.

The White House insisted the Russia investigation Comey was leading had nothing to do with his dismissal, despite the president invoking that investigation in his letter to Comey. "While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice, that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau."

It was that letter that ended Comey's tenure at the FBI.

(on camera): Why did he have one of his longtime security advisers hand deliver a letter to the FBI when the FBI director was, in fact, in Los Angeles? Didn't he deserve a phone call or a face-to-face conversation?

SANDERS: He followed the proper protocol in that process, which is a handwritten notification. And at the same time, no matter how you fire someone, it's never an easy process; and he -- so he felt like following protocol was the best thing to do.


ZELENY: Now Wolf, we're learning that just a short time ago the president finished meeting with the acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe. He came here to the White House. We did not see him enter or leave, but he was here meeting face to face with the president.

Now, the White House is actively searching for a replacement. They are reviewing a variety of people. They're getting input from Capitol Hill and other places. But, Wolf, even when they bring someone in, it's unclear that this controversy will be -- died down. The reality here is this has stirred up something the Trump investigation did not want. That's more of a focus, more of a spotlight on its Russia investigation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Absolutely right. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much. So the timing of the FBI chief's firing has infuriated Democrats, and

more than a few Republicans are also voicing deep concern.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, there are now growing calls for an independent outside investigation.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You have a number of Democrats calling for the possibility of an independent counsel, which would have sweeping powers. A very small number of Republicans calling for a step below that, which would be an independent commission in the style of the 9/11 Commission, perhaps.

But privately many Democrats and Republicans expressing alarm at what appears to many of them to be an overstepping of the president's powers by firing the leader of the FBI, who was investigating the president and his associates.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, growing charges of White House interference in the FBI's ongoing investigation into whether Trump campaign associates colluded with the Russian government. The day after the president fired the FBI director, the White House downplaying the importance of the probe.

SANDERS: That's probably one of the smallest things that they've got going on their plate.

SCIUTTO: Some lawmakers, however, are now demanding that the Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor, independent of the administration and Capitol Hill, to lead the probe.

SCHUMER: Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president? If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now.

[17:10:03] SCIUTTO: Those circumstances, sources tell CNN that just days before being fired, FBI Director James Comey asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for more resources to devote to the bureau's Russia investigation, an account the Justice Department denies.

One indication the FBI's investigation was ramping up: federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, seeking business records. Another sign Senate Russian investigators have also sent a request to the Treasury Department for any financial information related to President Trump, his top officials and campaign aides.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: The decision to fire Comey raises questions about the appropriateness and timing of firing the person in charge of an investigation that could -- I won't say "would" -- but could implicate the administration. To have this happen and happen now is beyond surprising. SCIUTTO: At his confirmation hearing, Deputy Attorney General

Rosenstein that he was open to the possibility of appointing an independent prosecutor if warranted.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROSENSTEIN: I'm willing to appoint a special prosecutor whenever I determine it's appropriate, based upon the policies and procedures of the Justice Department.

SCIUTTO: Today Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said an independent prosecutor isn't necessary.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Today we'll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work.

SCIUTTO: And the White House agreed.

SANDERS: We don't think it's necessary. You've got a house committee, a Senate committee and the Department of Justice all working on this.


SCIUTTO: We also heard Sanders today, as the president has done before, say that there is no evidence of Trump campaign or associates' collusion with Russia during the campaign, that that part of the investigation is closed.

Fact is, I've spoken today and yesterday to both Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees who are now investigating that question. And they all tell me, Wolf, that they are still investigating. That is an open question whether there was collusion and cooperation between Trump associates during the campaign and Russian officials, other Russians known to U.S. intelligence, and that includes the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr.

BLITZER: Yes. That's the heart of this investigation, and it continues as we speak.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: In fact, this seems to be getting some steam. Thanks very much for that report, Jim Sciutto.

Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have now invited James Comey to testify next week. Joining us now, the vice chairman of the Senate Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Have you received a reply yet from Comey? Have you gotten any response to this invitation to appear before your committee next week?

WARNER: We have not received a response. I'm not -- frankly, not surprised. He's got to have a tumultuous last 24 hours, you know. I do expect that we'll hear from him shortly.

We have the administration laying out a case that, I think, is frankly, if it wasn't so serious would be laughable, that somehow he was being fired because he didn't handle the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal appropriately. That doesn't pass the smell test. So I think it would be appropriate for Director Comey to come in, in closed testimony, and give his side of the story.

BLITZER: Why does it is have to be in closed -- in a closed session, behind closes doors? Why not let the American public listen to what he has to say?

WARNER: Well, Wolf, again, he'll have an opportunity if he wants to make a public statement. I believe that he would want to comment, perhaps, on things. He'll still be bound by rules of confidentiality and his knowledge of classified information, but, again, within a closed setting, we can get into some of those details that, in an open hearing, we couldn't.

BLITZER: You and the chairman, Senator Burr of North Carolina, you met with -- he was then still the FBI Director James Comey on Monday. Tell us about that meeting. Was there any indication what was about to happen 24 hours later?

WARNER: Two comments, Wolf. First of all, yesterday when there was this announcement, I thought I'd come to the point where nothing this president or this administration could do would surprise me, but yesterday's announcement of the firing of Jim Comey shocked me, so I'll leave that part of that.

In terms of my private conversation, what you alluded to or, any private conversation with Jim Comey, that's going to stay between me and the other folks in the room.

BLITZER: As you know, we've been reporting that he had requested more resources from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, for this Russia investigation. The Justice Department is denying that, but we have it on very good sources that he was asking for more help, more money, more resources. What can you tell us about that?

WARNER: Again, I'm not going to get into any of the contents of my private conversation. I do think it's safe to say that, you know, until Mr. Rosenstein had been in place, that there was not someone that he could report to, because the previous individual, Dane Boente, had more a placeholder.

I have to tell you, as somebody who supported Mr. Rosenstein, he's really lost a lot of my confidence, the fact that he put his name attached to this smear memo against Jim Comey. And now he's being asked to basically continue the investigation after he just fired the guy leading the investigation. That's why I've joined with a lot of other Democrats and Republicans, saying we need a special independent prosecutor. That would not interfere at all with the Senate investigation. We would have different goals. Our goals are fact-finding. That goal of the special investigator, special prosecutor would be to potentially bring criminal charges. So they're not mutually exclusive, but I sure as heck believe that Mr. Rosenstein has got some explaining to do.

BLITZER: Are you going to call him to testify, as well?

WARNER: Again, stay tuned on all those issues.

BLITZER: So I take it at this point you've lost your confidence in the deputy attorney general?

WARNER: What I don't understand is why, within the first week of him being officially on the job, he would fire an FBI director that had a ten-year term and then to fire with a set of explanations that was so blatantly laughable, that somehow this president's concerns about how Mr. Comey handled the Clinton scandal e-mails eight or nine months ago didn't pass the smell test of anybody. Wolf, you know in this town, nobody believed that memo.

So if he wants me to regain my trust, he's going to have to say how he can make sure this investigation is independent, is not going to get squashed by the White House and follows the facts.

Because let's just step back for a second and look at what has happened just in the first 100 days. Anybody affiliated with Russia and Trump seems to not have a very long career. Sally Yates, the acting attorney general got fired. Preet Bharara and a lot of U.S. attorneys, who some were looking into this issue, got fired. Jim Comey got fired. Michael Flynn, who failed to relay some of his Russian contacts got fire. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has had to recuse himself. Anyone who seems to touch this topic doesn't last long in Trump land.

BLITZER: What kind of impact do you think the dismissal of Comey will have on your Senate Intelligence Committee investigation? And do you think the evidence that's been collected so far in this investigation is secure?

WARNER: I think the evidence is secure. I think we're going to have to redouble our efforts, because if we don't know if there's truly going to be an independent FBI continuing an investigation, because Director Comey had indicated that investigation was ongoing, it really is incumbent upon us to work in a bipartisan way to get this job done.

Now, I've been impatient with the pace. I think the pace will need to pick up, but we have to do this in a timely, meticulous manner. The American public deserves the truth. And we've got to do that the right way, not necessarily the fastest way.

BLITZER: Your chairman, Senator Burr, he's also said that calls for a new outside investigation by a special prosecutor, in his words, are not helpful. Respond to that. Do you see this happening? Do you think you could get support from any significant number of Republicans for this kind of outside independent investigation?

WARNER: That's a good question, Wolf. I think time will tell. I believe that they are -- that a special independent prosecutor, which would pursue the criminal investigation, possible criminal investigation. That would be a separate track. Our Senate investigation would still be on its track. They are not mutually exclusive.

We can go back to history and look at Watergate, where there was a special prosecutor and a Senate investigating committee. So I'd like to try to convince the chairman otherwise.

But I do know the chairman and I spent a great deal of time today with the staff. We're still hard at it, and we're coming now into the meat of the investigation, which is some of the figures that were affiliated with Mr. Trump.

BLITZER: In addition to meeting with the Russian foreign minister in the White House today, Sergey Lavrov, the president also met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. There you see a picture of them both smiling, shaking hands. As you know, Kislyak has been described by U.S. intelligence as a spy recruiter in addition to being the Russian ambassador to the United States. Looking at this picture and this meeting, what kind of message does this send to you?

WARNER: I know this meeting was -- was pre-planned, but -- and as somebody who's not a Trump supporter at all, you couldn't ask for worse -- worse optics than this meeting happening today. In a way, you feel a little sorry, perhaps, for the White House staff.

But the truth is anyone who seems to interact often with Ambassador Kislyak seems to get in trouble, as well. Those conversations between General Flynn and Ambassador Kislyak lend to the dismissal of General Flynn as national security adviser. Some of those unreported contacts between Jeff Sessions and Kislyak led to his recusal now as attorney general under the investigation.

I accept at face value some of the charges that Mr. Kislyak is a well- seasoned diplomat. He's also a seasoned spy.

BLITZER: I know you told us earlier, Senator, that if -- if Comey accepts your invitation to come and appear before your committee next week, it would be behind closed doors, but will you commit to, at least at some point, having a public hearing with Jim Comey? I ask the question, because I think, and I'm sure you agree, the American public deserves to hear all of this evidence.

[17:20:17] WARNER: Once he can get anything he wants to tell us in a classified setting, you know, relayed to us, I would use all the powers of persuasion I would have to try to convince him to hold and appear before a public setting, as well.

He's now a private citizen. He'll have to make those judgments on his hone, but I had -- you know, I was not one of the Democrats who called for Jim Comey's removal. I have a lot of respect for Jim Comey. I think he always seeks out the truth. I don't always agree with his tactics, but I don't think anybody would question his independence. And I think this is a loss for our nation, and I can tell you, it's a loss for this investigation, because he was willing to stand up to what appears to be pretty unbelievable White House pressure.

BLITZER: Senator, would you ever consider hiring Jim Comey to help in your investigation? I ask the question because your colleague, Senator Blumenthal -- Senator Blumenthal suggested it.

WARNER: Well, Angus King, who's on the committee, also suggested it. I would love to hire somebody of Jim Comey's merit and knowledge, particularly of complicated investigations. I'm not sure all the rest of the colleagues would agree, but if he's willing to take on that role, I'd work to try to convince my colleagues that we ought to use him.

BLITZER: Senator Warner, thanks so much for joining us.

WARNER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We've got more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll resume our special coverage right after this.


[17:26:08] BLITZER: Our breaking news: amid a tidal wave of criticism over the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, President Trump says he acted because Comey, in his words, "was not doing a good job." Although the president had often praised Comey, the White House now says he lost confidence in him over several months.

Democrats are calling for a special prosecutor, saying the president deliberately fired Comey in a key moment in the investigation into Russia's election meddling.

Joining us now, the Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, the minority whip, a key member of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Democrats, as you know, they're slowing down business right now to try to force a special prosecutor. You're the Democratic whip. You're one of the leaders. So have you heard anything? Is there any indication this protest will work in your favor?

DURBIN: Well, I hope it will, but there's no indication yet. We're hoping the American people feel as we do. Let's get to the bottom of this. Let's bring in a special prosecutor who is outside of government, has no political label, has professional credentials, can put together an investigation and determine what the facts are and follow those facts to the right conclusions.

Right now, it is a mess. To have this firing by the president of James Comey, the head -- director of the FBI, leaves in question the status of this investigation and whether there will be anything further done by the Department of Justice.

BLITZER: What specific measure, Senator, are you willing to take? As you know, your colleague, Senator Wyden, is calling for a hold on the Treasury Department nominee. Is that the right move?

DURBIN: Well, I hope it doesn't come to that. You know, that's a -- that's in the toolbox of the United States Senate. It's been used by senators of both political parties over the years to get some attention or to get a result. I hope we don't have to resort to that.

I would hope that we can have a bipartisan agreement that we're going to get to the bottom of this once and for all, find out what the Russians did to try to interfere with our election. Let's find out if there's any collusion by anybody at any level, and let's make those people accountable for what they've done.

But to think that we have to fight this out over nominees to different departments, I hope it doesn't come to that.

BLITZER: Will you and your Democratic colleagues oppose any FBI director nominee if a special prosecutor isn't appointed?

DURBIN: Here's our problem, Wolf. We just went through the appointment of a nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. We spent a day or more asking very pointed questions, and they danced around the questions, and the nominee refused to answer. We're going to run into the same thing with the new director of the FBI, whoever it happens to be.

That's why we think the appointment of this special prosecutor in advance is a certainty, then, that this case is going to be tried, at least it's going to be explored by a professional. And we don't have to worry about whether the new director of the FBI feels beholden to the president in a special way.

BLITZER: CNN, as you know, is reporting that earlier in the week, Comey actually requested more resources from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, for the entire Russia investigation. The Department of Justice denies this. What do you know about this request?

DURBIN: I've heard the same information that you've reported. I've heard it from credible sources. And I believe it happened based on that information.

And if it did, the fact that a decision was made by the White House within days to terminate Comey, rather than give him the resources he needs tells us two things. No. 1, he was in hot pursuit of some valuable information and just didn't have the -- the horses necessary to reach his goal. And secondly, if we're going to have an investigation by anyone else, the Senate Intelligence Committee or whatever it happens to be, they need the resources. They need the manpower to make sure it's a thorough investigation.

BLITZER: Well, let me just be precise, Senator. You're saying the request for more resources by the FBI director to pursue this investigation, that there is a direct connection between that and the president's decision a few days later to go ahead and fire him?

DURBIN: Absent other evidence, that is a credible conclusion. If you're in the Trump White House, and you know that they're looking for collusion by members of the Trump campaign, it's pretty clear they're in hot pursuit when they're asking for more resources for investigation. At that point they decided the best thing to do was terminate James Comey.

[17:30:18] BLITZER: Senator Dianne Feinstein, another of your colleagues, she called for the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and the FBI deputy director, now the acting director, Andrew McCabe, to appear before your Senate Judiciary Committee. Have you received a response on that request?

DURBIN: I don't believe we've received a response yes. I hope we do. There are questions. I voted for Mr. Rosenstein just a few days ago. There are questions I'd like to ask him.

No. 1, if this was about the professionalism in the Department of Justice by the director of the FBI, why did you not include in your statement an assertion, and one clear, that we were going to continue the investigation of the Russian collusion so there's no doubt that this was done for a professional reason rather than a political reason. I would have expected that from Mr. Rosenstein.

BLITZER: He was confirmed 94-6, as you point out, including your "yay" vote in favor of him. Do you still have confidence in the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein? He's been on the job now for, what, two weeks.

DURBIN: I'm shaken by his memorandum, the fact that he would sign off on a memorandum standing up for the good treatment of Hillary Clinton for events that happened ten months ago and decide this week, yesterday, to use that as a basis for terminating James Comey really stretches imagination. And the fact that he does not say in that that they are going to continue the FBI investigation is troublesome, as well.

BLITZER: Is that yes or no about confidence?

DURBIN: Well, let me say my confidence is shaken. That's why I hope he'll appear before the committee and we can ask questions directly.

BLITZER: Senator Durbin, thanks so much for joining us.

DURBIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll continue our breaking news coverage right after this.


[17:36:23] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. The White House changing its story today, in fact, multiple times about when and why President Trump decided to fire the now former FBI Director James Comey.

In his only on-camera appearance earlier in the day, the president told reporters that Comey, quote, "was not doing a good job."

Here's a photo, by the way, we just got. This is the former FBI director at his home in northern Virginia, obviously very casually dressed on this day after he was fired by the president.

Let's bring in our specialists. And Rebecca Berg, you know, Senator Wyden -- we mentioned this earlier -- he wants to put a hold on a Treasury Department nominee right now until the Trump administration produces documents on any Trump associates' financial dealings with Russia. How effective could that strategy be?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it gets public attention for this ouster of Comey by the president, and that's what Democrats are going to want, Wolf. Moving forward they're going to want to keep this in the news, keep this in the spotlight, keep the pressure on Republicans to either approve a select committee or an independent counsel for this and move this forward in some sort of tangible way.

Democrats sense an opportunity here, Wolf, a political opportunity and an opportunity to apply pressure on Republicans where maybe they didn't have one before. And the suggestion today, based on what Republicans have been saying in response to this, is that they are feeling that pressure. You're seeing Republicans acknowledging for the first time that this is something troubling, that they are troubled by the timing. Before this you haven't seen those sorts of questions about something Donald Trump has done from Republicans.

BLITZER: David Chalian, it's now almost exactly 24 hours almost to the minute when this story, when we first found out that Comey had been fired by the president. And there have been some revisions in the White House explanation. The story today at the White House press briefing, the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she -- she continued some of those revisions.

Here's the question. Why has this story evolved as much as it has over the past 24 hours?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I think it gets precisely what Rebecca just said about Republicans in town also having questions about why now. It's because the first version of the story as to why he was fired wasn't holding up, and so they needed to add to it and round it out.

Because the idea that this was all because of what Rod Rosenstein said about how Comey behaved in the Clinton investigation and hang it completely on that just wasn't holding water; it wasn't holding water, because there was no new fact pattern there.

So today we learned all of a sudden that actually, the president has been considering getting rid of Jim Comey since he first entered office on day one when he was inaugurated. That s year before in July of 2016, that he does think it's a problem that he went around the attorney general and went out of protocol in the Justice Department.

If these things were anathema, A, why was he praising him in the fall? And, B, why was action not taken earlier than now when Comey had already publicly declared when he was overseeing the organization that was overseeing this investigation into the Russian ties and that he went up to the Hill and testified about it a couple of times.

JEFF TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Can I just elaborate on this a little bit? The reason the White House story wasn't holding together is because it wasn't true, and it's still not true.

I mean, the idea that Hillary Clinton's -- the unfairness to Hillary Clinton had anything to do with the firing of Jim Comey is simply absurd. I think anyone who's followed this story can tell that. And the reason he was fired is because of the Russia investigation.

You know, they can say anything they want, but the idea that this had to do with Hillary Clinton, like -- that Jim Comey was too mean to Hillary Clinton, it is absurd.

[17:40:09] BLITZER: You heard Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the press briefing today, filling in for Sean Spicer, say that they -- they were pretty upset at his testimony last week, Comey's testimony last week, his explanation for the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and subsequently the correction this week. He had a release, explaining that he misspoke a bit on the e-mails that Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton's aide, had automatically submitted to her husband, Anthony Weiner's computer, and he had to correct the record. That was the reason the president lost confidence.

TOOBIN: The only more absurd explanation than "James Comey was too mean to Hillary Clinton" was that James Comey was too mean to Huma Abedin.

The idea that any of that had to do with this firing is absurd. And this was a result, and they are backing into various reasons, but the real reason has been clear from the moment 24 hours ago that it was announced. Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton had nothing do with it.

BLITZER: The deputy press secretary also said another reason why he was fired is because the rank and file, Phil, of the FBI had lost confidence in the director. You used to work at the FBI. What can you tell us about that?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Are you kidding me? It's like throw something against the wall, and let's figure out what sticks.

These guys -- that is the attorney general and the deputy attorney general -- have, by my estimate, counting the numbers, 14 or 15 weeks in the business. There's 50-plus FBI field officers across the United States in Alaska and Hawaii, 30,000-plus officers, most of them, 98 percent of them don't work on Russia. They work on terrorism, on white-collar crime, on gangs, on drugs, on things that they are passionate. Most of them don't know the FBI director. And these folks are telling us that they had enough of a pulse on the FBI to advise the White House that that was a reason, morale, for firing the FBI director?

I'm with Jeffrey. These answers get funnier and funnier. Tomorrow it's going to be he didn't pay parking tickets. They're trying to figure out what sticks, and they haven't found anything yet.

BLITZER: You know what also is really incredible? You can't make this kind of stuff up. On this day, David Chalian, after the FBI director was fired, I think everybody tends to agree, in connection with the Russian probe, the Russian investigation, the president meets in the Oval Office not only with the Russian foreign minister but the Russian ambassador to the United States. There's a picture, courtesy of the Russian foreign ministry. Sergey Kislyak meeting with the president. They're both smiling big-time. You can't make this kind of stuff up.

CHALIAN: You can't. And, you know, sometimes we get a little too wound up talking about optics, but not this time and not with this president, who is consumed by optics.

So on the day after he fired the FBI director who's overseeing the investigation into his campaign's Russia ties, the day after he did that, the only time we've seen him in public are with Russians and with a Nixon ally, Henry Kissinger.

TOOBIN: And -- and...

CHALIAN: That -- those were the optics that he wanted to put out the day after.

TOOBIN: And he banned the American press from taking photographs. That's why that photograph is from the Russian foreign ministry. So the land of James Madison's First Amendment, we can't go take pictures there, but Russia, where they kill journalists, they're the ones who are allowed in.

BLITZER: It's pretty absurd, when you think about it.

BERG: How astounding is it that the president showed more respect for these Russian visitors than for his FBI director when he fired him? He didn't give James Comey the respect to bring him into the Oval Office and say, "I'm letting you go. I'm firing you." He didn't even call him on the phone. A letter was delivered to FBI headquarters. James Comey found out when he was addressing his FBI agents and analysts in Los Angeles. I mean, it's astounding.

BLITZER: Yes, and he could have had the courtesy -- and you used to work at the FBI -- to bring him in, explain and then fire him. And he could have waited for the inspector general's report at the Department of Justice to come out on whether or not Comey did do anything wrong.

MUDD: This looks political from the outside. Let me tell you what it looks like as a practitioner.

This is emotional. The president acted in a cowardly fashion. He's a coward. You have that much service, decades of service in government for far less money than you could ever, ever get on the outside. People on both sides of the aisle might say that James Comey made mistakes. They would all say he's honorable. And the president can't pick up the phone to say, "Thank you for your service, good bye." But he can shake the hands of someone who was involved in subverting an election? You've got to be kidding me. This is outrageous. Unacceptable.

BERG: And the president still isn't really showing any sort of alarm that Russia did interfere in the election. There's broad consensus now that this happened. He doesn't seem committed to finding any sort of preventive measures or a solution for the next election, which this is going to be a concern moving forward. Everyone in the intelligence community agrees on this. As president, he should show some interest in actually solving this problem moving forward.

BLITZER: And Jeffrey, the attorney general recused himself from having any role in the Russian investigation, because he served in the campaign, was a big supporter, but he was directly involved in this decision to go ahead and fire Comey. How do you explain that?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I don't know. How do you explain it?

BLITZER: Well --

TOOBIN: I'll explain it by saying, the hell with the recusal. It's like they don't care. I mean, they --

BLITZER: And remember, Sessions was one of the Trump associates who had actually met with the Russian Ambassador Kislyak.

TOOBIN: Even their own rules don't apply to them. You know, by asserting that this firing had nothing to do with Russia, they get to have Sessions participate. I mean, it is completely absurd but, with the Republican Congress, no one is going to say anything about it.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Rod Rosenstein, that Mark Warner interview you did, now there's going to be much more pressure to hear from Rod Rosenstein to explain this letter that he wrote. You heard Mark Warner who voted for him to confirm say he lost confidence in him, and that he is amazed that he attached his name to this smear memo of Jim Comey. That was very interesting to me to hear that somebody who voted to confirm now really wants to hear more from him.

BLITZER: Yes. And earlier today, I spoke to Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland from Baltimore. That's where Rosenstein was the U.S. attorney. He voted for him as well. He's lost some confidence at the same time.

All right, guys. Stand by. Coming up, some of the most obvious reasons everyone believe President Trump had confidence in the former FBI Director James Comey. He said it himself, repeatedly and on camera.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had.



[17:51:21] BLITZER: We continue to follow the breaking news. President Trump just now meeting with the Acting Director of the FBI. One of the most astonishing things about the President's rationale for firing James Comey is that it directly contradicts his repeated and effusive praise of the former FBI Director. CNN's Brian Todd has been looking at the record for us.

Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've combed through many of President Trump's comments about James Comey over the past year. What we found are repeated reversals and contradictions, which, tonight, are casting serious doubt on the official line coming from the White House.


TODD (voice-over): President Trump, tonight, vigorously defending the firing of the FBI Director who he claims had lost his confidence.

TRUMP: Because he wasn't doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.

TODD (voice-over): Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pin the firing on what the administration now calls James Comey's mishandling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, quote, "The way the Director handled the conclusion of the e-mail investigation was wrong."

Then candidate Trump also was critical of Comey back in July after the FBI Director went public with his decision not to pursue charges against Clinton.

TRUMP: Our system is absolutely, totally rigged.

TODD (voice-over): He kept up criticism into the fall.

TRUMP: He let her off the hook.

TODD (voice-over): But after Comey reopened the investigation just days before the election, Trump repeatedly, diffusively praised Comey.

TRUMP: I respect the fact that Director Comey was able to come back after what he did.


TRUMP: I respect that very much.

And 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.

Good job by the FBI. TODD (voice-over): Here's Trump just three days before the election.

TRUMP: As you know, the FBI, and I give them a lot of credit because they are fighting forces that they're not supposed to be fighting.

TODD (voice-over): And his now Attorney General, just two days before Election Day with Fox News.

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: FBI Director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence.

TODD (voice-over): Five days after the election, Trump wavered when asked by "60 Minutes" if he'd ask for Comey's resignation.

TRUMP: I haven't made up my mind. I respect him a lot.

Oh, there's (inaudible). He's become more famous than me.


TODD (voice-over): Just after his inauguration, Trump singled out Comey for praise and a handshake at the White House. In April, Trump was pressed by Fox Business Network about asking Comey to step down.

TRUMP: I have confidence in him. We'll see what happens.

TODD (voice-over): Three weeks later, just six days before Comey's firing, Trump's Press Secretary repeated that.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The President has confidence in the Director.

TODD (voice-over): But now the White House says that Donald Trump has not had confidence in Comey for the last six months.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The President had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected. He wasn't sure that he shouldn't fire him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then why did Sean say he did?


TODD: So those contradictions now clear. The President publicly praised James Comey, expressed confidence in him during a period when the White House now says he had lost confidence in him. Those contradictions potentially casting doubt now on the claim from Comey's immediate boss, Rod Rosenstein, that this was all about the mishandling of the Clinton investigation last year. Wolf, shortly before the election, Trump was generously praising Comey.

BLITZER: Yes, he was. Brian Todd, thanks very much for that report.

Coming up, breaking news. Shock and fury over President Trump's sudden firing of the FBI Director James Comey in the middle of the investigation into Russia's election meddling and its context with the Trump camp.


[17:55:01] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back at end of October, this President was applauding the FBI Director when he reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail, so he seemed quite happy with him that point. What changed?

SANDERS: Well, I think the President's position --



BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Comey's ouster. Shockwaves from the sudden firing of the FBI Director rattle Washington. Amid the shock and confusion, new details are emerging tonight. Who will replace the ousted FBI chief?

[17:59:57] Evolving explanation. The White House struggles to justify the decision to fire James Comey citing everything from alleged atrocities in the Clinton e-mail probe to lost confidence. Why did the Press Secretary affirm the President's confidence in Comey just a week ago?

Russia probe.