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White House Says Russians Tricked Them; Trump Administration's Crisis of Credibility. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:02]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Once again, administration officials had to readjust their accounts of what exactly led President Trump to fire the director of the FBI, James Comey.

The initial reason was that it was based upon recommendations from the deputy attorney general, which then was totally tossed out, based upon this NBC interview that the president just sat down for a little while ago.

Minutes before the briefing, he revealed that he was planning to fire Jim Comey no matter what he was advised. Here he was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, he's a showboat. He's a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.

You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn't recovered from that.

LESTER HOLT, NBC ANCHOR: Monday, you met with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

TRUMP: Right.

HOLT: Did you ask for a recommendation?

TRUMP: What I did is, I was going to fire Comey, my decision. It was not...

HOLT: You had made the decision before they came...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There's no good time to do it, by the way. They...

(CROSSTALK)

HOLT: Because, in your letter, you said, "I accepted their recommendation."

TRUMP: Yes, well, they...

HOLT: So, you had already made the decision?

TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: He made a recommendation. He's highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. He made a recommendation. But, regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.

HOLT: Let me as you about your termination letter to Mr. Comey. You write, "I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation."

Why did you put that in there?

TRUMP: Because he told me that. I mean, he told me that.

HOLT: He told you, you weren't under investigation with regard to the Russia investigation?

TRUMP: Yes, and I have heard -- I've heard that from others. I think...

HOLT: Was it in a phone call? Did you meet face-to-face?

TRUMP: I had a dinner with him. He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on.

HOLT: He asked for the dinner?

TRUMP: Dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner.

And he wanted to stay on as FBI head. And I said, I will consider. We'll see what happens.

But we had a very nice dinner, and at that time, he told me, "You are not under investigation," which I knew anyway.

HOLT: That was one meeting. What were the other two?

TRUMP: First of all, when you're under investigation, you're given all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn't under.

And I heard it was stated at the committee, at some committee level that I wasn't.

HOLT: So, that didn't come directly from him?

TRUMP: Then, during a phone call, he said it, and then during another phone call, he said it. So, he said it once at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

HOLT: Did you call him?

TRUMP: In one case, I called him. In one case, he called me.

HOLT: And did you ask, am I under investigation?

TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it's possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, you are not under investigation.

HOLT: But he has given sworn testimony that there is an ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign and possible collusion with the Russian government. You were the centerpiece of the Trump campaign. So, was he being truthful when he says you're not under investigation?

TRUMP: Yes, all I can tell you is, well, I know one thing. I knew that I'm not under investigation, me, personally. I'm not talking about campaigns. I'm not talking about anything else. I'm not under investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Let's begin there with Sara Murray. She was in that briefing. She had a couple of great questions for the spokesperson today.

Sara Murray, I mean, talk to me about how Sarah Sanders tried to explain the shifting stories coming out of the White House on why Comey was fired.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, we are getting a very different explanation today from the president himself, saying he made this decision even before he got recommendations from his attorney general, from his deputy attorney general.

That's not what we were hearing from basically every other White House official from the last two days. Now, Sarah Huckabee Sanders sort of dismissed this and said the president ultimately makes the decision.

But we know through the excellent reporting of my colleagues Evan Perez and Pam Brown that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, was not particularly pleased to have Jim Comey's firing pinned on him.

I asked Sarah Sanders today if that was a mistake. This is what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MURRAY: Was it a mistake for the White House to try to pin the decision to fire James Comey on Rod Rosenstein?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't think there was ever an attempt to pin the firing on the deputy attorney general.

(CROSSTALK) SANDERS: Well, look, I think his recommendation, again, it was extremely clear.

The president, though, makes the decision. The buck stops with him. Nobody's ever tried to say that this wasn't the president's decision, that he wasn't the one that carried it out. And to try, I think, to conflate those things, it's just not what took place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MURRAY: Now, again, this is just the latest instance, and we have seen it again and again over the last couple of days, of the White House struggling to get their story together on this bombshell decision.

We know it's something the president made of his own accord. He made that clear in the NBC interview. And we know he made it very quickly and left his staff scrambling to explain it.

And we have obviously seen the ramifications of that in the last couple of days, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Yes. Sara, thank you at the White House for me.

[15:05:00]

And as we're learning these different details about exactly led to this to fire James Comey, the White House continues to sort of switch their versions.

Now we have the president telling NBC News he was going to fire Comey regardless of anyone's recommendations.

So, Tom Foreman, I want you to join me, because you have this entire timeline. Listen, I need this. I need to look at dates on a calendar and understand exactly what they said and when.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I hate to tell you, Brooke, I think looking at the dates don't make it clearer. They maybe make it a little more confusing.

(LAUGHTER)

FOREMAN: Look at this.

This is like in the heat of the election last year, July 5. That's when James Comey came out and said Hillary Clinton did a lot of bad things with her e-mail, didn't break any laws, he wasn't going to charge her. He went and explained that to Congress. Then he came out right before the election and said there are new e-mails we have to look at.

Democrats went out of their minds over this so close to the election -- then said, nothing has changed. The election happens. All through this process, Democrats were furious at James Comey, and Donald Trump was saying positive things about him, saying, good for the FBI, good for James Comey standing up and doing what's right.

Then we get down here into this year. And even after the inauguration, here's Trump meeting with Mr. Comey. They're at the White House. They're shaking hands. He's saying, I think you're more famous than I am. Everything looks like it's going just fine.

So, all this time, if you look at the timeline, all this was very positive for Donald Trump in terms of what James Comey did. It produced a positive effect.

Here comes a big change. All of a sudden in March, Comey confirms, when he's speaking to Congress, that, yes, the FBI is investigating possible Russian collusion in this election, and that includes looking at the Trump team and what they might have been doing.

Now we move on to this most recent testimony where he talked about the Clinton e-mails with Huma Abedin and everything, and there seems to be this overstatement, these false statements being made there, which the White House can now say, these were mistakes of his. And there's this question of him asking for more money or resources for the investigation, which the Department of Justice says did not happen.

But it all leads up to Comey being fired here. If you listen to what the White House is saying and what the president is saying, effectively, what he's saying is, this plainspoken candidate, the guy who always said what he thought, that, all this time, he actually had problems with James Comey, that he was never really in James Comey's corner, and he was always thinking about getting rid of him, and finally decided to finish it off.

But if you listen to critics of this administration, they're saying, no, this is where it all happened. Once you got past the inauguration, once it became clear that Russia was a big item on the investigative plate of James Comey, that's when the president started seeing big problems with what he does.

How we're going to find the truth in this, I don't know, Brooke. But this is not so much a timeline right now as a time tangle.

BALDWIN: I appreciate that, various groups investigating, getting to the truth. Tom Foreman, thank you very much.

Let me bring in CNN's senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson. She is with me, Carol Lee, the White House reporter for "The Wall Street Journal," and CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

So, coming off of Tom's timeline of sorts, Carol, to you first. I'm listening to Sarah Sanders in that briefing, and she was almost forced to admit, because of what the president said to NBC today, forced to admit, she has come out in the last couple of days with not all the information.

CAROL LEE, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Yes, and not just her, but also White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who initially started this.

He was the one who answered the first questions about the timing of this and the motivation and how it all went down. And then we heard from Sarah yesterday. And then we heard from the president. And then we hear from Sarah again today.

Look, this has been just a very bumpy messaging operation for them on this. It's obviously...

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Isn't it more than bumpy, though, Carol?

LEE: Yes.

BALDWIN: To quote David Chalian, it's a crisis of credibility here from the White House.

LEE: Right.

Well, if you're going to do something this substantial as fire the director of the FBI, you would think you would have a process in place for explaining how that all happened. And they have increasingly lost credibility in the last three days, based on, you know, the initial reason that they said that the president had fired Director Comey, then to say that, you know, he's been thinking about this for some time, and then to blame other things.

And we have learned a number of things about how the president was feeling about Director Comey in the weeks leading up to this. And so it is and it is a crisis of confidence in what the White House says and whether or not we can take what they say as what actually happened.

And they're going to have to find a way to try to try to get -- rein this in and clean it up.

BALDWIN: Pamela Brown, your job is covering the Justice beat. Right? So when you hear this sound from the president talking about how he had three conversations with Comey saying that he said you're not under investigation, one of which apparently was prompted by the president himself in a phone call, you hear Sarah Sanders today saying she's talked to countless members of the intel community, questions of conflicts of interest of interest arise, how is that OK?

[15:10:11]

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly violates policy that was put in place by past attorney generals, Brooke, that prohibits...

BALDWIN: It does?

BROWN: ... direct communication between the FBI and the White House involving sensitive investigations such as this, of course, the Russia probe and possible collusion with associates of the Trump campaign.

There is strict protocol. And that protocol is in place to protect the independence of the FBI and the Department of Justice, because, without that independence, there could be, of course, massive ramifications.

So, I have to tell you, when I hear Sarah Sanders say that in the briefing that she's talking to these FBI agents, particularly at a time when there's an ongoing Russia probe, that really makes you wonder, raises a lot of questions.

But also the idea that the president spoke with James Comey on three different occasions, and James Comey, according to the president, told him he's not under investigation, raises a lot of questions about what's going on here.

I was speaking to some legal analysts before coming on your show, Brooke, and they said, well, where was White House counsel in all of this, Don McGahn? Because White House counsel is to supposed to advise the president to not ask these kind of questions to the FBI when there's an ongoing investigation like this.

And one legal analyst I spoke to believes that it was inappropriate. So I think this is going to be sort of an ongoing discussion here, Brooke, about why is this is happening.

BALDWIN: And, you know, when you're with the president calling Comey and asking if he's under investigation, I was talking to a legal -- a former federal prosecutor last hour, asking, could this even be -- file this under the category of obstruction of justice, which opens an entirely different can of worms.

Nia, to you on that and also what about the legal leadership in this country, the DAG, Rod Rosenstein, and also, you know, the A.G., Jeff Sessions? When will they speak up?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's unclear.

I mean, we have had some of our reporting obviously showing that the deputy A.G. there was unhappy with the way his name was put into this, essentially saying that he was the one that recommended to the president that he remove Comey.

And if you look at that initial letter, he actually doesn't use that phrase, that he recommends the firing of the FBI director. Sessions does use that very phrase, recommended that -- Comey's removal.

So, yes, this is supposed to be sort of the law and order president, right? But, in some ways, he seems to think that law enforcement officials, the FBI is sort of the arm of the White House, as sort of his security arm, and that James Comey should somehow be loyal to him, rather than law and order.

So that seems to have really ruffled him, this idea that maybe Comey was more famous than him, that he was showboating a bit too much. I mean, pot meet kettle in terms of that.

(LAUGHTER)

HENDERSON: But he seems to kind of, you know, for -- if you're Trump, that certainly rubs you the wrong way, because, if you're Trump, you kind of -- you want the spotlight. What you say is supposed to go.

BALDWIN: Yes.

HENDERSON: And to see Comey there, I think, disagreeing with him and not backing him up on some of his key claims, particularly around the president, the former president supposedly wiretapping his phones, that didn't sit well with him.

Also, out of this briefing today, there's something that incredible happened today, this idea that the president is setting up a commission to investigate voter fraud, right, to investigate this idea, this sort of myth that he has come up with that there were millions of people who voted illegally on Election Day.

BALDWIN: Total myth. Total myth.

HENDERSON: It's a total myth.

And this idea that he is using sort of government resources and government time to investigate this, I mean, this is a problem, that they're using the apparatus of a government, of our government, to sort of back up his myth and his lie.

I mean, that is -- that was, I think, a disturbing thing that came out of today as well.

BALDWIN: I'm glad you brought that up, Nia. Thank you so much.

Ladies, thanks to all of you.

I have got to continue on and talk more about the breaking news, including the question, was the firing, just at the end of the day, really personal? What sources close to the president are telling CNN about the personal relationship between these two men.

Also ahead, this revealing profile takes us behind the scenes of a dinner at the White House, what President Trump considers one of the greatest inventions of all time and why he gets two scoops of ice cream when everyone else gets one. We have got it all for you. You're watching CNN, I'm Brooke Baldwin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:18:54]

BALDWIN: Welcome back. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Revealing new testimony today from the FBI's new interim director contradicting the White House on the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. The White House had suggested that Comey lost confidence with rank and file among the men and women with the FBI, but not so, according to acting FBI Director Andy McCabe today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH (D), NEW MEXICO: Is it accurate that the rank and file no longer supported Director Comey?

ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: No, sir, that is not accurate.

I can tell you that I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard. I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity. And it has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: So, this comes as President Trump today sat down for an interview with NBC News and said he planned to fire Director Comey, no matter what, despite any sort of recommendation, and he went on to call Comey both a showboat and a grandstander.

So, let's go to Capitol Hill and talk to our congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty.

[15:20:01]

We heard from acting Director McCabe. How is the White House reacting to his words today?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're, in essence, Brooke, continuing to say that's basically not what we have heard coming out of the FBI.

And the reason, again, why we're talking about this and why this differing opinion is so significant is, this was primarily one of the central and core arguments coming from the White House for the reason that President Trump decided to fire James Comey, saying that he had lost confidence within the FBI.

So, McCabe coming out today and saying, that's not the feeling that he got, a 20-year veteran within the FBI, that Comey still has confidence, he has described it as broad confidence, the rank and file still believes in him, those are pretty strong words.

But the White House today really holding firm to this talking point. We heard Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying that she heard from what she described as a large amount of people within the FBI over text messages, over phone calls, saying the opposite.

Here's what she said earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: Well, I can speak to my own personal experience. I have heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president's decision.

And I think that, you know, we may have to agree to disagree. I'm sure that there are some people that are disappointed, but I have certainly heard from a large number of individuals. And that's just myself. And I don't even know that many people in the FBI.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: Now, beyond that contradiction coming from the hearing today earlier with Andy McCabe, there are numerous others, most importantly the extent of how he described the Russia investigation.

He, today, when pushed by Democrats, he called it a highly significant investigation, that, again, in contradiction to how the White House, of course, wants to paint this, only 24 hours ago, the White House saying that it was probably one of the smallest things on the FBI's plate, so some contradiction there, of course.

That said, Andrew McCabe wanted -- he -- almost like he took pains today to express this that investigation continues on, that it hasn't been affected by the firing of that, and that the focus does remain -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Sunlen, thank you so much in D.C.

Coming up next: A photographer from Russian state TV made his way into the Oval Office, and a White House official says they had no idea who this guy really was.

How the heck did that happen and what kind of security threat does it pose? We will talk to a former Secret Service agent to discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:27:02]

BALDWIN: The White House press secretary today firing back at reporters after continued questions over how the president came to his ultimate decision to fire James Comey, the FBI director, and what exactly transpired in the nearly 48 hours since then. It's just been 48 hours, folks.

Here is Sarah Huckabee Sanders in an attempt to clarify again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: I'm going to read it to you all again just to make sure we're all on the same page, because I want the sequence of events to be perfectly clear to everyone.

The president over the last several months lost confidence in Director Comey. After watching Director Comey's testimony last Wednesday, the president was strongly inclined to remove him.

On Monday, the president met with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, and they discussed reasons for removing the director. The next day, Tuesday, May 9, the deputy attorney general sent his written recommendation to the attorney general, and the attorney general sent his written recommendation to the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Let's start there. I have got Ana Navarro here, CNN political commentator, and Ken

Cuccinelli, former Virginia attorney general who serves as president of the Senate Conservatives Fund and supports the firing of James Comey.

So good to have both of you on, two different voices here.

Ken, let me just begin with you.

You heard Sarah Sanders at the briefing. She was forced to clarify because of the president's interview today on NBC News. There have been all kinds of holes in the White House's version of events that have now been, I guess, clarified further because of the president today.

KENNETH CUCCINELLI (R), FORMER VIRGINIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Right.

BALDWIN: How do you explain that?

CUCCINELLI: Well, first of all, if you look at Rod Rosenstein's letter, it's pretty -- just in length, it's short.

I mean, he was very substantiative in it, but it was short. And you certainly come to the conclusion, well, this is perfectly legitimate, but surely, there's more thinking and so on. And I think we're just seeing that being reflected now.

I think their putting it in the form of a timeline was useful, but really, this was the right decision, not necessarily done the right way.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Well, it sounds like the Rod Rosenstein letter was just impertinent, based upon what the president told Lester Holt, that he made this call irrespective of anyone's recommendations, which is in total contradiction to the original story from the White House.

CUCCINELLI: Maybe so, right, but that -- and he says things like that.

But, look, Rosenstein was the first career professional in the hierarchy. You know, Jeff Sessions came from the Senate, of course. And then you had a career person, as is traditional for the deputy attorney general, and less than two weeks in, they had this discussion and he made his recommendation.

And had the career professionals said the opposite, I kind of wonder whether this would have happened at all. So, the president, you know, speaks strongly, uses strong words, sometimes hyperbole, but I think he made the right decision here.

BALDWIN: Sometimes?

CUCCINELLI: And, again, they could have gone about this a better way.

BALDWIN: Ana Navarro, how do you see it?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I see it as somebody's lying at some point.

Look, I think that this White House, starting with President Trump, are like a cat --