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Interview With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; Interview With California Congressman Adam Schiff; Russian Ambassador Meets With Trump; Firing Firestorm; Senate Intel Committee Invites Comey to Testify. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 10, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:04]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Why did the White House press secretary affirm the president's confidence in Comey just a week ago?

Russia probe. CNN has learned that, days before he was fired, Comey asked the Justice Department for more resources to expand the probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election and ties to the Trump campaign. With Comey out, what happens to that investigation now?

And White House visitors. President Trump meets with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador to the United States over at the White House, images highlighting the controversy dogging his presidency. And minutes later, he welcomes a former Nixon administration official. What was Henry Kissinger doing in the Oval Office?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: New details are emerging about President Trump's stunning ousting of the FBI director, James Comey.

The White House is struggling to justify the sudden firing of the man leading the Russian investigation, as Democrats voice outrage and call for an independent counsel to be named. The president is accusing Democrats of hypocrisy and says flatly that Comey wasn't doing a good job, even though the White House said last week that Comey had the president's confidence.

Also, sources are now telling CNN that, just days ago, Comey asked the Justice Department for more resources for the investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and ties to the Trump campaign. The sources say Comey made the request to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who the White House says recommended firing Comey.

A Justice Department spokeswoman denies Comey asked Rosenstein for more resources. Amid all of this, President Trump welcomed two top officials to the White House today, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, whose meetings with Trump associates during the campaign has raised questions of possible collusion.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Bernie Sanders and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

Let's begin with our White House correspondent, Athena Jones.

Athena, officials where you are seem to be struggling right now to explain Comey's firing.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly are, Wolf.

As you mentioned, it was just last week that Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the president had confidence in Director Comey. And it was last month that the president himself said the same thing in an interview.

Now the White House is saying that the president had been losing confidence in Comey for sometime and that he even had been considering firing him since the day he was elected.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): In the wake of an enormous backlash over his sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, President Trump is defending himself before reporters.

QUESTION: Why did you fire Director Comey? Why did you fire Director Comey?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because he wasn't doing a good job, very simply. He wasn't doing a good job.

JONES: That appearance alongside with Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state during the Nixon administration, the only one in front of cameras. The president also met behind closed doors with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador, who U.S. intelligence officials consider to be a top spy and spy recruiter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Country over party!

JONES: But as protesters gathered outside the White House today, critics slammed the move, questioning the administration's rationale for dismissing the director.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pointing to Comey's mishandling of the Clinton e-mail investigation...

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Secretary Clinton's use of personal e-mail.

JONES: ... in this letter to the president, even though then candidate Trump applauded Comey's moves during the campaign.

TRUMP: I have to give the FBI credit.

JONES: And as recently as last month said he had confidence in the director.

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

JONES: But today at the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president's displeasure with Comey's job performance had been growing for some time and suggested his testimony before Congress last week was the last straw.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He had lost confidence in Director Comey and frankly he had been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected.

JONES: At one point, Sanders accused Comey of using his position to commit atrocities at the Justice Department, later adding:

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think also, having a letter like the one that he received, and having that conversation that outlined the basic just atrocities in circumventing the chain of command in the Department of Justice, any person of legal mind and authority knows what a big deal that is.

[18:05:08]

JONES: Now members of both parties on Capitol Hill are raising serious concerns about the timing of the dismissal.

And White House officials, many caught off-guard by the move and the blowback, are scrambling to explain it, insisting it had nothing to do with the fact that Comey was leading the investigation into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials during the presidential campaign.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: This had nothing to do with Russia, as much as somebody must be getting $50 every time the word is said.

JONES: Vice President Mike Pence on a trip to the Capitol also defending his boss.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The American people have to have confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The president made the right decision at the right time.

JONES: Those explanations not sitting well with some members.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Why did it happen last night? Were those investigations getting too close to home?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When you fire probably arguably the most respected person in America, you better have a very good explanation. And so far, I haven't seen it.

(END VIDEOTAPE) JONES: Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, were set to meet with four potential interim replacements for Director Comey today.

A formal announcement on a decision could come in short order, possibly as soon as later today or tomorrow. Meanwhile, the president met today with the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, to talk about low -- or to talk about morale at the FBI.

BLITZER: Important subject, indeed. Athena Jones, thanks very, very much.

Also breaking right now, new information about why President Trump decided to fire Director Comey, and it doesn't agree with the official Trump administration story.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

What are you hearing, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are getting some new information, talking to a variety of people both inside the White House and people who are close to this White House, the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill.

And we are finding that the president kept this decision extraordinarily closely held, close to the vest, unlike most of the decisions he sort of publicly discusses, like the Afghanistan decision, like the climate change agreement. This was something that was viewed differently.

But, Wolf, I'm told by multiple sources that the president has grown increasingly agitated by the FBI director since last Wednesday's hearing up on Capitol Hill. I'm told it was a distraction for the president. Even that short-term win on health care in the House last Thursday was not enough to distract the president, apparently.

Now, going into the weekend, he was again growing increasingly agitated by the FBI director. One source said the president viewed Comey as his own man. The president did not see him as loyal or trustworthy. Of course, the context here Wolf, very important. It is the Russia investigation.

And the FBI director had asked for additional resources to speed up this probe. That's according to sources telling CNN earlier this afternoon. The Justice Department has said, look, they were not asking for more money here. But there was a sense here at the White House that there was an expansion of this probe.

That led to the agitation, I'm told, and that's what led to the firing yesterday. But, Wolf, interestingly, the communications department here at the White House and others did not know about this at all until shortly before it happened -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes.

And then they scrambled a few hours later to get on television and make their case.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Comey's firing is raising deep concern among Democrats about the future of this entire Russia investigation.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is working this part of the story for us.

Pamela, Democrats, they are outraged.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

And, tonight, Wolf, there are growing calls among Democrats for a special prosecutor in the wake of the firing of FBI Director James Comey, this as we learn new details about how the Russia investigation has been ramping up just in the last couple of weeks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, the Senate Intelligence Committee officially inviting former FBI Director James Comey to testify before the committee next week.

On the heels of President Trump's bombshell move to fire him, Democrats have concerns of their own and are doubling down on their demands for a special prosecutor to take over the federal investigation into Russia's meddling in the election.

SCHUMER: We know Director Comey was leading an investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, a serious offense. Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?

BROWN: Now, more than ever, Democrats are questioning the independence of the Russia investigation, as Trump has now fired three key people related to it, including Comey, acting Attorney General Sally Yates, and U.S. attorney in New York Preet Bharara.

SCHUMER: The dismissal of Director Comey establishes a very troubling pattern.

BROWN: But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is ignoring calls for a special prosecutor, arguing it would only slow down the investigation being done by Senate Intelligence Committee.

[18:10:01]

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Partisan calls should not delay the considerable work of Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Warner. Too much is at stake.

BROWN: And the administration maintains there is no need for an independent investigation because it says the president is not under investigation, even though the FBI continues to look at possible coordination between Russia and Trump campaign officials.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The former director of national intelligence has said there is no evidence of collusion. The president and I remain confident that the committees in the House and Senate that are looking into every aspect of issues that arise out of last year's election will be able to do their work, and do it in an orderly way.

The president himself was informed several times by the former director of FBI that he himself is not under investigation.

BROWN: CNN has learned the two ranking members of Senate Intelligence Committee met with Comey on Monday, urging him to speed up the Russia investigation. And sources tell CNN that just days before his firing, Comey asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for more resources to help the FBI's investigation.

But the Justice Department is denying Comey made this request, calling those reports 100 percent false. Comey's firing came just hours after CNN learned that federal prosecutors in Virginia had issued grand jury subpoenas related to former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, seeking business records of associates who worked with Flynn on business contracts after he was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014.

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 implicate the administration. To have this happen, and happen now, is beyond surprising.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And several current and former FBI agents I have spoken with today are disputing the White House claim that there was bad morale at the FBI under James Comey.

One former head of the national security branch, Michael Steinbach, told me that that claim is -- quote -- inaccurate." He says that Comey was well-respected across the board among the rank and file, even though some agents who didn't necessarily agree with the decisions he made. Of course, the firing of James Comey really sent shockwaves throughout the FBI, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly did over these past 24 hours.

BROWN: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Pamela Brown.

Let's get some more on all of this. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff of California, is joining us.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: It's good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You called this an assault on democracy. How will your investigation in the House Intelligence Committee be impacted by this dismissal?

SCHIFF: Well, I think it's impacted in a couple ways.

It further underscores the importance for us to be all speed ahead, that we do a thorough job, because the FBI investigation is going to be severely impacted by this. I'm sure that the line agents that are working the investigation will continue that work, but any major decisions now will be held in abeyance, I'm sure, until there is a new FBI director.

But I also think we have an additional issue added to our plate. And that is looking into the circumstances surrounding this firing. Did Director Comey ask for more resources? Did he feel that the investigation didn't have the support it needed to fully chase down the leads it was pursuing?

If that's the case, we need to make sure that the bureau does get that resource and that whoever leads this investigation is truly independent and serious about that very important work.

BLITZER: Do you believe that there is a real chance that a special prosecutor could be appointed, or is protesting the only thing you and other Democrats, for example, who are concerned can do?

SCHIFF: No, I think there's a real chance that this could force the appointment of a special prosecutor.

You have to, I think, step into the shoes of Rod Rosenstein right now. He realizes, he must, how this looks to the country. No one finds the explanation for Comey's firing credible. And, yes, Democrats have a lot of concern about how Comey handled the Clinton investigation, but nobody believes that's why this president let him go.

And, in fact, of course, as you pointed out, this is a president who applauded Comey's injection of the Clinton investigation into the last days of the campaign. But none of us believe that's what is going on here.

When the president says that Comey wasn't doing a good job, he's talking about his view of the Russia investigation, something he is calling a fake. When he speaks about it in the present tense, he is obviously not talking about the director's handling of the Clinton investigation.

So, it doesn't pass the smell test. I think there will be enormous pressure on the deputy attorney general to do the right thing and bring in someone independent to oversee this investigation.

BLITZER: Do you think any Republicans will support that?

SCHIFF: You know, I hope so. We have been waiting now for over a hundred long days for the Republicans who respect the Constitution, understand the system of checks and balances to find their backbones and start to stand up, and not just occasionally speak out, but really take a principled position.

[18:15:12]

And the principled position here is to demand some independence. And I hope that's what they do.

BLITZER: What if they don't, Congressman? What if they don't come around?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, if they don't come around, then the only remedy the American people have is to change who is running the Congress which they will have the opportunity to do in the midterms.

But we don't control either House or Senate. We're not in a position to pass a bill establishing independent counsel without GOP help, or an independent commission, for that matter. So, right now, people can continue to speak out, and to protest, and call their representatives, show up at town halls.

And I'm confident, if the pressure is great enough, that, yes, even this administration may be forced to do the right thing.

BLITZER: As the ranking member of House Intelligence Committee, will you call on James Comey to testify before your committee? And, if you do, should that hearing be public?

SCHIFF: We just had the director in, I think, less than a week ago. I'm hoping that we can get him back in. Perhaps we can have him come in at the same time as the Senate Intelligence Committee, because we do need to ask the former director about the status again of the investigation, how he feels his firing will impact that, whether there was a call for additional resources.

We need to make sure that the FBI has everything they need. The reality is, Wolf, as important as these intelligence investigations are in the House and Senate, the FBI has a reach that we don't have with agents all around the world. And so they are doing some very important work.

And, obviously, to the degree that there emerges a proof of collusion, it would be the bureau to develop that evidence and provide it to the Department of Justice. So they are an indispensable partner here, and we need to make sure they are doing their job, as we are doing ours.

BLITZER: Congressman, have you spoken to any White House officials about the president's decision to fire Comey?

SCHIFF: I have not.

It certainly seems like a lot of the White House was kept in the dark about this. And I have to say I found it embarrassing to watch the vice president have to go out and defend this decision and to say that this was made because the president felt that the safety of the American people required it. Nobody is going to buy that, and nor should they. And for Sarah

Huckabee to go out there -- I guess it is telling when they've got to put Sarah Huckabee out there and Kellyanne Conway out there.

But for her to say that Comey was guilty of some atrocity, as if he is in the category of Bashar al-Assad, it is embarrassing. But it's a reflection, I think, of the shifting rationales of the administration and their desperate attempt after the fact to justify what appears increasingly unjustifiable.

BLITZER: When you heard the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, say it is time to move on from this entire Russia investigation, and she said it's gone on way too long, what's your reaction?

SCHIFF: Well, my reaction is, OK, now here we see the real rationale for Director Comey's firing.

And that is the president's view of the Russia investigation and the whole Russia story is that it is a fake. Now, of course, whenever the president uses that word, it ought to set off alarm bells for the American people. It ought to be a signal, hey, look here.

But, nonetheless, that's the president's position. And so, if you have a director who is pursuing this, let alone a director that is asking for more resources, and now you have Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying that this investigation has gone on too long, it really tells you what I think the hidden motivation here is, and it is not hidden very well.

BLITZER: You have also suggested, Congressman, that the White House, in your words, is brazenly interfering in a criminal matter.

Do you see this as an abuse of power?

SCHIFF: I do see it as an abuse of power.

You have a president with a clear conflict of interests here. His associates are investigated -- being under -- I'm sorry -- being investigated in terms of any possible collusion with the Russians. And the president in his letter can say as many times as he wants that he was assured by Director Comey that he is not the subject of an investigation.

The reality is, his team is the subject of an investigation. None of us know where that investigation is going to lead. And that's a very apparent conflict of interests for the president.

And what's more, it's a conflict of interests for the attorney general, who was supposed to have recused himself from making decisions on this, but ends up, far from recusing himself, in fact, advocating the firing of the person who is the top cop on the Russia investigation.

That, I think, is equally disturbing here. Apparently, the attorney general's recusal doesn't mean very much. BLITZER: Will you call for the deputy attorney general, Rod

Rosenstein, and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to testify?

[18:20:01]

SCHIFF: Well, I certainly think they need to come before Congress. I don't know that it's the intelligence community -- or committee necessarily.

But I think the Judiciary Committee ought to hear from them about the circumstances that went into the firing. And I also think, vis-a-vis the attorney general, that we need to pin him down on what he is recusing himself from, because he doesn't seem to be giving that recusal very much content or weight.

And that concerns me a great deal. You know, it is very possible that the FBI may have been or may be in the future recommending to the Justice Department something with respect to Michael Flynn, for example. And I want to have an ironclad guarantee that Jeff Sessions isn't making any decision about that.

I also continue to be concerned, greatly concerned, about Jeff Sessions' testimony before the Senate, where he did not fully disclose his meeting with the Russians. And I think his explanations for that are far less than credible as well.

BLITZER: Do you have confidence in the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein?

SCHIFF: Wolf, I don't really know the deputy attorney general. I only know him by reputation.

But I have to say, I'm not given a lot of confidence in that memo he wrote justifying this termination. It strains credulity that he wrote that in the morning, and then the attorney general wrote his letter in the afternoon, then the president fired him, that this all came from Rod Rosenstein.

It looks a lot more like the president decided he didn't like how Director Comey was handling an investigation into his associates. He wanted to get rid of him. And he was looking for a justification to do it. And Rod Rosenstein gave him that justification.

BLITZER: As you know, today, in addition to meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, at the White House, President Trump also met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.

There, you see a picture of the two of them shaking hands, smiling. Kislyak, as you know, has been described by U.S. intelligence as a spy recruiter.

What kind of message does this send?

SCHIFF: Well, first of all, you know, thanks to the Russian news service for providing those photographs, when, evidently, the White House wouldn't let the American press corps into the meeting.

And, you know, who can blame the White House? The irony here is so rich that, on the very day of this whole controversy, who is he meeting with, but the Russians? And who is he concealing it from in terms of not allowing the press in? He is concealing at least the images, or tried to, from the American people.

You can't make this stuff up. And yet it's coming at us day after day after day. It has the whole country wondering, what's next? And, unfortunately, he is running the country like he ran his TV show, like this is reality TV. He is also running the country apparently like he ran his business, where he feels that everybody serves him, he serves no one, including the American people, and he can let go anyone he wants, irrespective of the independence of other institutions.

It is all about him and his personal interests.

BLITZER: Congressman Adam Schiff, thanks very much for joining us.

SCHIFF: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues. We are going to get reaction from Senator Bernie Sanders. He is here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's got a lot on his mind.

Thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:27:50]

BLITZER: We're following breaking news, President Trump and the White House facing strong backlash tonight to the firing of the FBI director, James Comey, the president saying that about Comey, "He wasn't doing a very good job."

Those are the president's words, even though just last week the White House said the president did have confidence in Comey.

Let's get some more now. The independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is joining us.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Great to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: What's your reaction to the president's firing of Comey?

SANDERS: I think it is a situation where the president is impeding a significant investigation to determine whether, in fact, there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

As you know, Russian -- Russia has been interfering in elections big time in Germany, in the Ukraine, many countries around the world. Our intelligence agencies all agree that they interfered significantly in the American election. They were in France last week trying to elect Le Pen, a very right-wing individual.

So, this is an investigation that has to go forward in a nonpartisan way. And in the midst of this, after Comey says we are doing an investigation, after, according to "The New York Times," he says, I need more money from the Department of Justice to do the investigation, after we know he was supposed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow, suddenly, in the midst of all of this, after months and months and months, President Trump says, you're fired, you're not doing a good job.

I think that his reason for firing Comey, he was concerned about how he treated Hillary Clinton, I mean, kind of give me a break. That really does not pass the laugh test.

So, I think what we need to do now is go forward. And it is very important that this be done in a bipartisan way. We need a special counsel independently selected.

BLITZER: But how do you select that person? It's got to be approved by Congress. There's got to be legislation, I assume. The president could veto that legislation, and you would need a two-thirds override.

SANDERS: Well, then, if that happens, then you really are in the midst of a constitutional crisis.

But I would hope that, within the bureaucracy of the career folks in the Department of Justice...

BLITZER: But, so far, it doesn't look like any Republicans support what you support.

SANDERS: Well, that is a sad state of affairs, and I hope that changes. The bottom line here is that the American people have a right to know whether President Trump's campaign colluded with the Russians.

You know, it is amazing. I think a lot of people scratch their heads and trying to figure out why Trump has been so positive about an authoritarian type president like Vladimir Putin? What is going on? So is there collusion? Let's find out if there is.

BLITZER: And you speak about Comey. You're no great fan of Comey, because...

SANDERS: I'm no fan.

BLITZER: ... we checked. In January, January 15th of this year, you told ABC News it would not be a bad thing for the American people if the FBI director were to step down.

SANDERS: Absolutely. I think the role that he played during the campaign was disgraceful. It was unprecedented, and it was a factor -- one factor -- in helping Trump get elected.

But right now, we're in a different place. Right now, we are in the midst of an investigation. Right now, this guy was supposed to testify tomorrow before the Senate Intelligence Committee. And clearly, that investigation has got to go forward in as nonpartisan a way as it can. To fire the FBI director in the midst of that investigation is totally unacceptable.

BLITZER: So what can you do to get your Republican colleagues on board? And do you have confidence in the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Burr, to conduct a thorough and complete investigation?

SANDERS: I'm not a member of the Intelligence Committee. I know Richard, and I've known him for years. And I hope that he does the right thing.

Look, this is a very, very important moment. The American people do not have a whole lot of faith in the United States government; don't have a whole lot of faith in the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or the political process. And I think we have got to stand up now in a nonpartisan way. Democrats cannot politicize this issue.

It may turn out, you know what, that Trump's campaign was not colluding with the Russians. If that's the case, that's the case. Forget about it.

But I understand now that the White House is saying we've had enough discussion about the investigation. That's nonsense. The investigation is barely beginning.

BLITZER: That's what the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said today.

SANDERS: No relation.

BLITZER: No relation. I know she's no relation to you. Same last name, but she said, "It's gone on for so long. It's over. Let's move on."

SANDERS: I mean, that's just an incredible statement. It barely has begun. You have the FBI director saying he needs more funds in order to pursue the investigation, expedite the investigation.

BLITZER: Do you have any leverage with the Republicans to get an independent counsel?

SANDERS: Yes, I think you do. I mean, I think, you know, essentially, the United States Senate does not function very well unless there's unanimous consent, unless there is a certain level of cordiality.

And, you know, I hope and this point I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to my Republican colleagues, that they are prepared to do the right thing.

Let me mention one area. Not my ideas came from Senator Patty Murray, which I think would be a very, very good gesture. I think that, as we proceed and go forward with the appointment of a new FBI director -- right now, under the law, under the rules of the Senate, it would only require 50 votes -- 51 votes to get that person in.

I would think that it would be a really good gesture, given this moment, where there's so much acrimony and so much distress, that Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate, say, "You know what? We'll go back to 60 votes. We'll do this in a bipartisan way," so that the entire country feels confident that the new director is not simply a political operative for Trump but somebody who has the best interests of the Department of Justice and the FBI.

BLITZER: Because as you know, they passed the nuclear option limiting it -- going down from 60 to 51.

SANDERS: I understand that. You know, Democrats did their thing. But I'm saying that at this particular moment, as we look at a new FBI director, I don't think the country wants somebody who is simply going to be an activist or proponent for Trump's policy. They're going to want somebody who has at least bipartisan support.

BLITZER: One of your Democratic colleagues, Ron Wyden, the man you know, he suggested that maybe the Democrats should use parliamentary maneuvers to slow down confirmation of individuals -- nominees for various positions; take other steps in order to express their outrage.

SANDERS: I hope it doesn't come to that. But that's what I meant when I answered your question, what can you do? You know, the Senate needs to function with unanimous consent. Otherwise, it really gets slowed down. I don't want to see that happen. I don't want to see that happen.

BLITZER: Give us some historic perspective on what's going on right now. Step back a little bit and give us some comparisons to other moments in American history. I ask you that as someone who's lived through some tumultuous times.

SANDERS: Well, you know, obviously, the suggestion is it goes back to Watergate.

BLITZER: You see comparisons?

SANDERS: I see some comparisons. But what I think right now at this moment when there is so much distrust of the political process, when we have a president who, I hate to say this, lies a whole lot; when we have a president who has attacked media, you, as fake news; when we have a president who refers to judges who render verdict against him as "so-called judges"; when you see that attack, on a sense what the fabric of American society, people are nervous.

And now you're seeing a president firing an FBI investigator, FBI director in the midst of an investigation. So I would say this is a moment in which Congress has got to take a deep breath, slow it down. Let's do this thing right.

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

SANDERS: Great to be with you.

BLITZER: Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

We're being told the Senate Intelligence Committee has just issued subpoenas. We have details on this breaking news. That is coming up in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:36] BLITZER: We have more breaking news tonight. We're now learning the Senate Intelligence Committee has just subpoenaed the fired national security advisor, retired General Michael Flynn. Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is working these details for us.

Evan, what are you hearing from your sources?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that's exactly right. The Senate Intelligence Committee has now subpoenaed Michael Flynn. They had requested some documents from him looking into this -- the investigation of Russian interference in the election. They had asked for this information from him. His lawyer has now responded to the committee, saying that he is not going to cooperate with their request. So now they've issued that subpoena just this evening to -- for him to be compelled to produce that information. We'll see what the response is at the result of this.

Now you remember now that we, 24 hours ago, we reported that the Justice Department, the eastern district of Virginia in Alexandria, had issued subpoenas to associates of the former General Flynn to -- seeking information about his business contacts that, you know, he did after he left the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was fired from there in 2014. That's all part of the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What are are you learning? You're well-sourced inside the FBI. What are you learning about what's happening inside the FBI today, a day after Comey was fired?

PEREZ: Well, Wolf, there's still a lot of shock among the rank and file at the FBI. Look, I think there's a split in the reaction between some agents who think it might be, actually, a relief to get from under the drama and a lot of the controversy that surrounded Director Comey over the past year. But a lot of people were supportive of him.

Today Andrew McCabe, the acting director of the FBI, had a secure conference call with the leadership, the leaders of the 53 field offices across the country. And what he -- he was trying to do was reassure them that the FBI's mission was still focused on working the cases that they're doing. National security cases in particular a big focus for the FBI. He wanted to reassure them that the work should continue, no matter all the controversy swirling around the firing of the FBI director.

And we also know, Wolf, that today, the Justice Department began interviewing people who could be interim directors. So the signal there being that Andy McCabe, Andrew McCabe, is not going to be long for that job. Now, Wolf, back in 2001 I was down in Argentina when that country had

five presidents in just over a week. We're looking at the FBI, which is one of the most steady institutions in this country, looking at possibly having three directors in the space of about a week.

BLITZER: That's pretty amazing when you think about it.

All right. Evan Perez, thanks very much for that update.

Let's dig deeper into all of this with our specialists and our analysts. And Jeffrey Toobin, when the Republican chairman and the Democratic vice chairman, Richard Burr, Mark Warner, they announce they've now issued a subpoena to the former, the fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The subpoena requests documents relevant to the committee's investigation into Russian interference of the 2016 election. Walk us through what that means.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it means that they want these documents. But remember Michael Flynn has said through his attorney that will take the Fifth. That he is going to not answer questions so that -- and then there's...

BLITZER: Unless he is granted immunity.

TOOBIN: Unless he's granted immunity. So the committee is going to have to decide whether to grant him immunity. There's actually a complicated legal question never settled entirely about whether you can grant immunity just for the act of producing documents as opposed to just testimony.

All of which means this could be a slow process of resolving any possibility of testimony or documents from Michael Flynn. But it is a sign of life from this committee, which has mostly done, as far as I can tell, nothing.

BLITZER: And Susan Hennessey, you're one of our legal analysts; used to work at National Security Agency in the legal department over there.

And it's all connected to Flynn's meetings that he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, who actually was in the Oval Office. There is a picture with the president of the United States today. As we've been saying all day, you can't make this kind of stuff up.

The subpoena, explain from your perspective, a former government attorney, how this could be implemented.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right, so there's sort of two significant pieces to the fact that this subpoena has been issued. One is sort of a reminder of the substance of the investigation. We've been a little bit distracted with leaks and firing Comey and these various other stories. The real heart of the matter is what kind of collusion, what sort of communications occurred.

The other thing that's really significant here is the fact that the subpoena was issued. So, only the chairman that would require Richard Burr to agree to issue that subpoena is probably some indication we are seeing bipartisan cooperation in that investigation. And probably welcome sign considering the last of the events of the last 24 hours.

BLITZER: And, Dana, you've been reporting extensively that the White House seems to have been unprepared for the backlash that has developed over the past 24 hours.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, we talked about it, about 24 hours ago, that reporting that I had, and that was painfully obvious in the way that it unfolded, the fact that they, inside the White House, were sort of late to give explanations, even to this minute, let's be honest. They don't have explanations that are that plausible.

I think that's probably a very generous way to put it, in terms of why now. That's a big question now, why now. At the White House they try do it more.

But I do think that at the end of the day, what we are seeing is a White House trying to figure out exactly, to try to find the political footing. I know this is obviously about a lot more than politics. But try to find the political footing.

The fact that they genuinely didn't think that Democrats would go crazy, understandably go crazy because they too wanted Comey to go, without understanding that that was then and this is now and the now is, as you've been saying so often, that the FBI is investigating the current president. It just -- it's still very, very difficult to wrap our minds around it.

BLITZER: Yes. And David, it raises questions about confidence over there at the White House. You served in the Obama White House. What does it say to you?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, it is shocking to think, astonishing that they didn't realize what a firestorm this would create, unless the same people who thought it was a great idea to bring in the Russian spy master who's at the center of the Flynn case into the White House for a private session with the president and invite only Russian media to cover the event, then maybe it's not that astonishing.

But there is a more insidious explanation which is that somewhere in the White House, there are people who did understand that it was going to be the firestorm that it was and decided that it was worth taking the hit in order to stop Jim Comey from leading this investigation. And that's the darker explanation for all of this. But let's face it, neither is good.

BLITZER: Yes. Bianna, just to be precise, no American media were allowed in to cover the meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Russian ambassador with the president of the United States. The pictures we received were taken by Russian foreign ministry officials who posted them on social media.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Unbelievable.

BLITZER: That's how we got to see Kislyak and Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office with the president of the United States. What does that say to you?

BIANNA GOLDRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: Yes. The president did more today to help support Vladimir Putin's reelection campaign next year than any sort of propaganda Vladimir Putin could orchestrate on his own. There are reports today that Vladimir Putin actually asked the president to meet with Sergey Lavrov when they spoke most recently.

The president didn't have to meet with Sergey Lavrov at all today, especially given the timing of the firing of Jim Comey last night. And it's an insult to this country then that Sergey Lavrov big foot Rex Tillerson at the State Department here in Washington by joking about the firing of Jim Comey, then the president seems to reward him by a meeting.

What was discussed in this meeting? Not human rights abuses in Chechnya. Not interfering in our elections. Not Ukraine.

They only talked about how they could cooperate with Syria. It is a travesty for the president to act this way. It's an insult to the thousands of Russians who are risking their lives in protest for democracy. It's an insult to Americans and to his own U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, who had spoken out against Russia's actions.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by. Dana, I know you've got a lot to say. We're going to take a quick break.

Do Democrats have enough leverage right now to get a special prosecutor appointed to the Russia investigation?

Dana Bash and the rest of the panel right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:53:59] BLITZER: More now on the breaking news, the next steps in the Russia investigation following President Trump's firing of the FBI Director James Comey.

Dana, what are the chances that Congress could get a special prosecutor to take a look at all this?

BASH: Right now, slim to none. But I say, right now, on purpose, because who knows what is going to unfold in the next days and weekend with regards to the FBI investigation, with regard to the congressional investigation that could change that on a dime. It could.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: But remember, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, is tougher and smarter than all 48 Democrats combined.

BASH: Amen. TOOBIN: If he doesn't want a special prosecutor, which he doesn't,

there's not going to be a special prosecutor. That's the end of the story as far as --

BLITZER: If there isn't, Bianna, a special prosecutor, where does this investigation go?

GOLODRYGA: Well, remember what Mitch McConnell wants more is to repeal Obamacare. They want to have some sort of tax legislation. They want to have infrastructure. There's a huge agenda that the Republicans would rather be focused than Vladimir Putin.

So, at the end of the day, both sides seem to lose.

[18:55:01] And don't forget, we also have midterms coming up next year that a lot of Republicans are very vulnerable right now.

BLITZER: How do you see it, David?

AXELROD: Well, look, I think Mitch McConnell first and foremost and always makes political calculations. If the politics turns on him and there's a backlash and members feel that backlash and are willing to walk away from him on this, then he will move. But he's going to hang tough as long as he possibly can, and we know from experience that he can hang tough for a very long time.

BASH: Yes, he can.

BLITZER: Yes, that's very good point.

TOOBIN: Ask Merrick Garland.

BLITZER: Yes, it's an excellent point.

Susan, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, has been on the job now for just barely two weeks. He's got some serious problems right now. He wrote this memorandum to the president outlining all the blunders he claims that the former FBI director made in investigating Hillary Clinton.

HENNESSEY: Right. So, the White House is sort of trying to spin this as an ordinary personnel decision, right? The president didn't think Comey was doing a good job, so he fired him.

That's not what this is. The FBI director has a 10-year term. Comey hasn't completed this. We have a ten-year term in order to inflate against this kind of political whims.

Rosenstein who had a quite strong reputation prior to his has now offered a pretextual reason for that firing, which really represents a breach of very important norms of an independent Department of Justice. If he wants to preserve a basic legitimacy here, he doesn't have an option other than appointing a special prosecutor.

BLITZER: So, the president has got a major mission. He's got to presumably name an interim FBI director first and then somebody to -- maybe the interim director will be the nominee. But he's got to select someone with enormous credibility.

BASH: You would think. But you would also think, you know, 26 hours ago that he wouldn't fire an FBI director in the middle of an investigation. So who knows?

There are certainly names that are political in nature that are being floated around, whether it's Trey Gowdy who is a Republican congressman from South Carolina, or others of that ilk. You know, it would probably behoove him to pick somebody from within the bureau, somebody who is a career person, who -- whose credentials are impeccable vis-a-vis politics. But this is Donald Trump. I mean, we're just going to have to sit back.

TOOBIN: And even if he picks someone who doesn't have a political profile, that person won't have the stature that Jim Comey had. So, this person won't be able to fight back at all.

BLITZER: David, go ahead.

AXELROD: Well, look, Rod Rosenstein had a stellar reputation about 26 hours ago, OK, and that has gone out the window over the past 24 hours. The problem for whomever the president appoints is that the president will be appointing them. And this is a president under investigation who fired a director, who was investigating him. And that will put a cloud of suspicion under anybody he appoints.

GOLODRYGA: And credibility.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: And credibility, obviously, is the big issue for this president. How many people actually believe that he fired Comey on behalf of Hillary Clinton? I mean, it's like people who believe Vladimir Putin says that opponent just fall out of balcony windows. It's not plausible. And it's a real issue that this president's going to have to face, by the way, from both sides, Democrats and Republicans.

BLITZER: Bianna, you're an expert on Russia. Is Putin getting what he wants right now?

GOLODRYGA: Well, Putin played ice hockey today and scored six goals. So, he's getting a lot of what he wants today. Today was a very good day for Vladimir Putin.

BASH: Double hat trick.

TOOBIN: He had to play golf with Kim Jong-un who gets an 18 every sometime he plays.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: How talented.

GOLODRYGA: Very talented man.

BLITZER: Give me your final thought, Dana.

BASH: I just have the image of golf in North Korea and Vladimir Putin. I can't get that out of my mind, I'm sorry. That's where I'm leaving it.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, where is this headed?

TOOBIN: I think Trump wins. I think these investigations are going to fade away and he will get what he wants.

BLITZER: You agree, Susan? You used to work at the National Security Agency.

HENNESSEY: I think it's an unbelievably significant moment for the United States and that if Trump is able to get away with this, it's hard to imagine what he won't be able to get away with.

BASH: I will quickly say, on a serious note, I'm not so sure I agree with you that Trump wins and these investigations fall away. There might be people who are inside the FBI and elsewhere or people out there who see this and might come up and be kind of the modern day whistle-blower, hero, whatever it is. Maybe not, but it is possible that this could kind of smoke out people that otherwise would not have talked.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

AXELROD: I'll tell you what, it occurs to me that when the president said today that he fired Comey because he wasn't doing a good job, he may well have fired Comey because in this case, he was doing too good a job.

BLITZER: All right, guys. There's, obviously, a lot -- a lot that's about to happen.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATOIN ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Next, breaking news. New details at this hour about Trump's stunning decision to fire Jim Comey. Was it connected to an expanding investigation into Trump ties to Russia?

And more breaking news this hour, we are just learning moments ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee --