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Interview With Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro; White House: Russia Tricked Us; Trump Administration's Crisis of Credibility. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 11, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So, what is the real reason Trump dismissed him?

Breach of protocol? The president claims Comey told him three times that he's not under investigation, a move that would be a stunning break with FBI precedent. Now the White House says Comey's firing will help bring the Russia investigation to an end. Tonight, some critics are asking, does that suggest obstruction of justice?

And they tricked us. White House officials are outraged after Russia publishes pictures of the president's meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials, including one believed to be the country's top spy in the United States. There they are. The images were captured by a Russian photographer. Why were American news media barred from the meeting?

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: We're following the breaking news, the White House now struggling for a third straight day to explain the controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey, but, tonight, President Trump is contradicting his own top aides and the vice president, Mike Pence, who maintained the president acted on the recommendation of the Justice Department.

But now the president is saying he was going to fire Comey regardless of any recommendation, slamming him as -- quote -- "a grandstander and a showboat." The president is also claiming that Comey told him on three separate investigations that he's not under investigation, including once over dinner, when Mr. Trump says he asked Comey directly.

Both the question and Comey's alleged response would be a stunning breach of protocol. And amid all of this, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Comey's firing might bring the Russia investigation to an end sooner.

She said -- quote -- "We think that by removing Director Comey, we have taken steps to make that happen." We're covering all of that, much more this hour, with our guests, including Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondence and specialists, they are also standing by.

Let's begin with the president offering yet another explanation for the firing of the FBI director, James Comey.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny is joining us.

Jeff, the president's new account directly contradicts what the White House and the vice president have been saying.


And in three days, we have heard at least three separate stories about this. Now, first, if you will remember, this president said he was simply following the direction of his attorney general and the deputy attorney general. Now we're hearing from the president himself, saying he had long wanted to fire his FBI director and would've done so regardless.

One thing is clear tonight, the White House still trying to get on the same page and work out this self-created firestorm.


ZELENY (voice-over): Never mind what his White House and vice president have been saying for two straight days. President Trump said today firing FBI Director James Comey was his idea.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was going to fire Comey, my decision. It was not...

LESTER HOLT, NBC ANCHOR: You had made the decision before they came...


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


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.

ZELENY: In an interview with NBC News, the president rewriting his administration's explanation for firing Comey. The president also explained why he insists he's not at the center of the FBI probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. TRUMP: 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.

ZELENY: The president said he talked to Comey about it directly, a stunning assertion, considering the investigation is ongoing.

TRUMP: 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.

ZELENY: But it was the president saying he took the lead firing Comey that now puts him at odd with his advisers, who initially said he was following the recommendation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general.

On Capitol Hill yesterday, Vice President Pence offering that rationale again and again.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because of the actions that the deputy attorney general outlined to the president, to act on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.

ZELENY: The president's aides made the same case.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: But the president took the advice of the deputy attorney general, who oversees the director of the FBI.

ZELENY: The original White House timeline hasn't held up to scrutiny, particularly the suggestion Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sparked Comey's firing, not the president.

At the White House briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders struggled to reconcile the contradictions.


SANDERS: They are on the same page. Like, why are we arguing about the semantics of whether or not he accepted it? They agreed. I mean, I'm not sure how he didn't accept the deputy attorney general's recommendation when they agreed with one another.

ZELENY: Sanders bluntly saying today the White House hopes the firing of Comey helps end the controversy.

SANDERS: The point is, we want this to come to its conclusion. we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.

ZELENY: But removing the director has only added fuel to the fire, emboldening Democratic critics and alienating frustrated Republicans.

The president also delivering personal criticism of Comey and the state of the FBI.

TRUMP: 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.

ZELENY: Testifying on Capitol Hill today, the acting FBI director said it's simply not true.

ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI, and still does to this day.


ZELENY: And the acting director of the FBI there, Andrew McCabe, took that one step further. He said it's just simply not accurate to suggest there's a crisis of confidence at the FBI.

Under questioning, he also said something else that contradicted the president. He said that he would not expect the director of the FBI, James Comey, to ever tell the president or anyone else they were not the subject of an investigation.

So, credibility here also a question here in some of the president's interview. Now, we're also expecting the possibility of the president traveling to the FBI, possibly tomorrow, to show confidence for the organization. We're told that that is not likely to happen now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting. All right, thanks very much, our Jeff Zeleny over at the White House.

While the president was contradicting the White House and his vice president, the new acting FBI chief was contradicting one of the White House's justifications for firing James Comey.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, Comey's temporary replacement says it's not true, not true that the employees over at the FBI have lost confidence in Comey, as the president claimed.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This is yet one more forceful rejection of the White House explanation for the firing of the FBI director. They said that they had lost confidence, that he had lost confidence

in the building. In fact, the acting director, a longtime veteran of the FBI, says the opposite, that he had tremendous respect inside the building. That echoes what I have heard from people inside the bureau, my colleagues who cover the bureau as well.

The thing is, he is just the acting director. The White House has said it is already looking for another acting director, and that's before they even choose a permanent director. It is those choices, it is those people who will have tremendous influence on the investigation going forward.


ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: We don't curtail our activities.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, definitive words from the acting chief of the FBI: The investigation into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia will not stop.

MCCABE: There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date. Quite simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing.

SCIUTTO: Under tough questioning from lawmakers, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe pledged to notify the Senate of any interference, including from the president or the White House.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Do you commit to informing this committee of any effort to interfere with the FBI's ongoing investigation into links between Russia and the Trump campaign?

MCCABE: I absolutely do.

SCIUTTO: McCabe rejected the White House assertion that fired FBI Director James Comey had lost the confidence of FBI agents, contradicting one of the administration's many evolving and sometimes contradictory accounts of his dismissal.

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

MCCABE: I can confidently tell you that the majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.

SCIUTTO: Asked about the president's claim that Comey told him he was not under investigation, McCabe refused to answer repeated questions.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: Would it have been wrong for the director to inform him he was not under investigation, yes or no?

MCCABE: Sir, I'm not going to comment on any conversations that the director may have had.

(CROSSTALK) WYDEN: I didn't ask that. Would it have been wrong for the director to inform him he was not under investigation? That's not about conversations. That's a yes-or-no answer.

MCCABE: As you know, Senator, we typically do not answer that question. I will not comment on whether or not the director and the president of the United States had that conversation.

SCIUTTO: The Senate Intelligence Committee is pressing on with its own investigation. It has invited Comey to testify next week and subpoenaed fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for both documents and his testimony.


SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: In the absence of voluntary participation, we're willing to go to whatever basket of tools we feel is necessary.

SCIUTTO: Today, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to work out coordination on their Russia investigations.

Sources tell CNN that Rosenstein was unhappy with how the president fired Comey while he was traveling outside of Washington, even though the deputy attorney general wrote a memo justifying the dismissal, but he says he's not quitting.

BURR: Regardless of what happens by the Justice Department or by the FBI, that the investigation that's done by the Senate Intelligence Committee will continue on its current course.


SCIUTTO: Looking ahead, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, announced that the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has invited the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to address the entire Senate, all 100 senators. That would be next week. He has not answered that invitation yet, Wolf, we understand.

If it does happen, it's likely to be in closed session.

BLITZER: All right, too bad, because I think the American public -- I know we would be really interested in hearing what he has to say.

SCIUTTO: But with a hundred senators in the room, we might learn a thing or two after it.

BLITZER: Yes. You're probably right about that.

All right, thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, reporting for us.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas is joining us. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: The White House deputy press secretary said today they want the Russia investigation, in her words, to come to its conclusion with integrity and that they think removing Director Comey is a step toward making that happen.

Some have suggested, the critics, that could be seen as an obstruction of justice. What do you say?

CASTRO: Well, the idea that you would fire the FBI director to hasten the conclusion of the Russia investigation is just absurd. And I do think that it raises questions of obstruction.

BLITZER: Based on what is known, some of your colleagues up on Capitol Hill have used the I-word impeachment. Are you ready to go that far even speculating about this?

CASTRO: Well, we need more information before that can even be brought up.

And, specifically, I think, there needs to be an investigation probably by the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives, for example, regarding this firing and how it went down and why exactly the FBI director was fired.

I will say this. If it's found that the president intentionally fired Director Comey to affect the investigation into any of his associates' coordination with the Russians who interfered with the 2016 election, then, yes, that is an impeachable offense.

BLITZER: You told me a month ago, Congressman, you wouldn't be surprised if, in your words, some people end up in jail after all of after this investigation is concluded. What are your impressions now, given the dismissal of Comey?

CASTRO: Well, I did make those remarks. That was my impression.

And since then, all of us have been trying very hard to get the investigation back on track. We have got a new chairman in Mike Conaway from Texas. And we have agreed on an extensive witness list. Of course, we need to issue basically requests for information and documents for those witnesses and then, in almost what is a deposition-style process, bring them in and ask them questions.

That is a months-long thing, if not -- not a process that may take over a year. So it's not a short time frame. That was going well, and then this week we were hit with this news.

BLITZER: Do you know, Congressman, if the House Intelligence Committee, your committee, will call on James Comey to testify, and if he agrees, will you insist it be an open session, or will you simply allow it to be behind closed doors? CASTRO: As far as I know, we don't know for sure, but I believe that

as much as this investigation as possible should be held out in the open and as much information as possible should be declassified, so the American people can see the evidence for themselves.

BLITZER: Do you believe that the FBI director, the now fired FBI director, would tell the president of the United States whether or not he was under any criminal investigation? Is there any confirmation of this, because, as you know, the president said he heard three times from Comey that he was not under any investigation?

CASTRO: Well, of course, I'm not privy to that conversation. And none of us are, whether it happened or not.

But it sounds fairly suspect to me.


CASTRO: Just the idea that the FBI director would go in there and talk about this investigation with the president sounds suspect.

There may be no way for us to get to the bottom of that, at least in the immediate future, but it just sounds suspicious. The other reason I say that is because the president has flip-flopped on things that he said.


The White House constantly flip-flops on every controversial issue, especially on this one this week. First, they said that it was the deputy A.G.'s idea to fire Director Comey. Then the president says he wants to fire him all along. A lot of stuff that comes out of there simply doesn't make a lot of sense.

BLITZER: Will your committee try to get White House records to confirm these three meetings, to confirm that they had dinner, for example?

The president said he was the one at least in one of these conversations that directly asked Comey whether or not he was under investigation.

CASTRO: That's something that the chairman and the ranking member and the rest of the members of the committee will have to work on when we get back.

As you know, the Senate is in session this week and the House has been out. But I will say this. I would like to see information on that. I think all of us would like to see as much information as possible.

BLITZER: As you know, and we have been reporting, the vice president, Mike Pence, he said yesterday that Comey's dismissal was at the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.

But, today, President Trump said he was going to fire Comey regardless of any recommendations from the deputy attorney general, the attorney general or anyone else. There seems to be an evolving set of explanations. What's your reaction to that?

CASTRO: Wolf, that's par for the course on just about any controversial issue you ask about at the White House. You get three or four, five different answers on any issue like this, and this is no different.

BLITZER: Why didn't the attorney...

CASTRO: This is complete instability.

BLITZER: Why didn't the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recuse himself from offering any recommendation about Comey's dismissal? I thought on all issues involving the Russia investigation, he was supposed to be out of it, he was supposed to have recused himself.

CASTRO: I believe that's right. I don't know why he would've had any business taken part in the decision to fire Jim Comey.

I believe that was absolutely inappropriate by Jeff Sessions.

BLITZER: So what are you going to do about that?

CASTRO: Well, I think that, you know, the committee should take action. We ought to question him about it, and not just the Intelligence Committee, but probably Judiciary Committees also.

BLITZER: One of your colleagues, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California, she just told our Jake Tapper she thinks Sessions should resign. Do you agree?

CASTRO: Well, I said early on that he should never be the attorney general, so that was my position from the beginning.

BLITZER: But do you think he should resign now?

CASTRO: I would like to see a little bit more information before I make that statement, but it certainly sounds very suspect.

BLITZER: Congressman, I want you to stand by. We have more to discuss. We're following all the breaking news. We will be right back.



BLITZER: We're standing by to hear new comments from the president of the United States, President Trump.

But, in the meantime, we're back with Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence Committee. We want to talk to him about pictures of President Trump meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office that the White House didn't want the American public to see.

Our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is joining us with new information. Michelle, a source says the White House feels, what, it was tricked by the Russians?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: A picture is worth 1,000 words, and sometimes pictures convey a lot of words you don't want them to.

So now we have these big smiling photos of President Trump in the Oval Office with a Russian delegation a day after he got rid of the guy who was investigating Trump campaign contacts with Russia. So, many of these photos, apparently, the White House did not want you to see, but in terms of getting their message out there, the Russians won.


KOSINSKI (voice-over): The Russians come to Washington a day after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was heading up the investigation into Trump campaign contacts with Russia.

SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Was he fired? You are kidding. You are kidding.

KOSINSKI: Sarcasm and then smiles. Here's the president shaking the hand of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office, the man former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had been talking before the inauguration, then was fired for lying about it, the man Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn't tell the Senate he had also spoken to during the campaign, then had to recuse himself from investigations, the man some intelligence sources have called Russia's top spy in America and a spy recruiter.

STEVEN PIFER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UKRAINE: It would've made a much better image had he looked more serious and conveyed an image that there were, in fact, as there are, serious issues between the United States and Russia.

KOSINSKI: Today, the White House responded.

SANDERS: Proper protocol was followed in this procedure.

KOSINSKI: But a furious White House official told CNN the administration understood it looked bad, yes, bad optics. They had blocked the American press from covering the meeting. The White House released no photos of the chummy-looking greetings, until today, and nothing of Kislyak.

The Russian delegation had a photographer there, but the White House officials somehow didn't think those photos would get out, telling CNN, "They tricked us. That's the problem with the Russians. They lie."

Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy tweeted this out, as well as a link to others. The Russian state news agency released them to the world.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: There was no American press allowed. Was there any consultation with you with regard to that action in terms of the risk of some kind of cyber-penetration or communications in that incident?

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DIRECTOR: No. I will be honesty. I wasn't aware of where the images came from.

KOSINSKI: The visit with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the ambassador being present are all just part of normal protocol, but with Trump, the timing raised sensitivities. And White House officials tells CNN it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who requested to Trump in their last phone call that he sit down with Lavrov while he was in town.


PIFER: I think the Russians succeeded in getting their message out in a much better way than the White House press office did.

KOSINSKI: It was not the U.S. State Department holding a big press conference, taking tough questions from reporters. It was the Russians, again putting out their point of view in as many ways as they could.


KOSINSKI: And now it seems that Russia is furious. They just tweeted out this epic, angry response to that White House official saying that they were somehow tricked by Russia.

A spokesperson says that they provided the name of the photographer in advance to the White House, that nothing about the situation implied that any photos were to be kept secret, and that nobody asked them not to publish those photos -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Michelle Kosinski over at the State Department, thank you.

And let's bring back Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, react to this. President Putin asked for this meeting. What does, first of all, that tell you? And what about the message that these images are sending out to the world, the pictures that the Russians took in the Oval Office?

CASTRO: Well, the White House obviously got played by the Russians there.

And it's remarkable that these are representatives, in the foreign minister and the ambassador of Russia and the United States, who may know some of the individuals involved who hacked into our 2016 elections, responsible for interfering with our democracy, and President Trump is there welcoming them, rolling out the red carpet.

Those photos look like they're having a post-election victory party. And not to allow the American press in, so that the American people are having to get their information from the Russian press, is really remarkable and speaks to the character of this White House. BLITZER: Yes, as a former White House correspondent, we always want

an American pool to be allowed to go in and take pictures and report on what happens in these kinds of important meetings, especially in the Oval Office.


BLITZER: Go ahead.

CASTRO: Well, the other part of it is, they allowed the photographer in with all of that equipment and including a meeting with those two folks from the Russian government.

Even a member of Congress in the House of Representatives would be advised against allowing those folks and that kind of equipment into your office. I hope that the White House will come forward and say that they have essentially scanned the White House and the Oval Office for any potential problems or for any equipment that was left there.

BLITZER: Well, explain, because Senator Angus King was making similar kinds of insinuations. Explain to our viewers what you mean by that.

CASTRO: Well, just the possibility of any kind of listening devices or video recording devices. Perhaps there was nothing left, but, as a safety precaution, for national security purposes, the White House absolutely must do that, and they should be clear to the American people that it's been done.

BLITZER: Do you think there's a real chance of a special prosecutor being appointed? Are any Republicans going to back your calls for a special prosecutor?

CASTRO: Let me put this in context. And there have been a lot of comparisons this week to what happened with Watergate in the 1970s.

The way that this is fundamentally different from the 1970s is that, in the 1970s, you had divided government. You had President Nixon, who was of one party, and a Congress that was of the other party. The challenge that you have now in 2017 is that one party controls all levels of government.

So, yes, we should have a special prosecutor and an independent commission appointed. The question is, will people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and other Republicans do the right thing by the American people and make that happen, or are they going to continue to put party over country? Only they can answer that question.

BLITZER: Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, thanks so much for joining us.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're standing by to hear new comments from President Trump. We will share them with you once they come in.

Already today, the president lashed out at former FBI Director James Comey and contradicted his own White House staff with a new explanation for the controversial firing.


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



BLITZER: We're standing by to hear more comments from President Trump. The breaking news tonight, the president claiming that fired FBI director, James Comey, previously told him multiple times that he is not under investigation. Listen to part of what the president said today.


[18:34:15] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So he said it once at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: Did you call him?

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

HOLT: And did you ask him, "Am I under investigation?"

TRUMP: I asked him, yes. I said, "If it's possible, would you let me know am I under investigation?"

He said, "You are not under investigation."


BLITZER: All right. Let's get some more from our specialist and our analysts. Gloria Borger, if it happened the way the president described it, was there some sort of lapse of judgment?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, beyond that, I mean, you know, beyond that, it's completely inappropriate; and we have to know when this dinner and these questions occurred. We don't know the timing of this.

But for example, Wolf, if these questions occurred after March, when James Comey announced that there was a criminal investigation into the White House, and the president of the United States, who might have been considering whether or not to keep the guy in his job, asked this question, then you have to talk about was the president applying pressure? Was he trying to obstruct the investigation? Was he trying to intimidate Comey in any way, shape or form, if his job was at stake and the president knew there was a criminal investigation?

Now, if it occurred before any announcement of a criminal investigation, then that might be a different story. Then it would just be inappropriate.

BLITZER: We know Comey at that testimony announced the criminal investigation actually started in the July of last summer.

BORGER: Right, right. But you know -- but also beyond inappropriate, I mean, it's just extraordinary to think that Comey would have answered that question, to be quite honest. So I have a hard time believing that the FBI director would say, "Don't worry about it. You're fine."

BLITZER: Is it at all, Rebecca, comparable to Bill Clinton climbing aboard the then-attorney general Loretta Lynch's plane, right in the middle of the Justice Department investigation of the Hillary Clinton e-mails?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure, there are some similarities here, Wolf. But let's look at the whole Venn diagram, I guess.

In common, we have the fact that both look very appropriate from the outside looking in. There's a perception that there is a conflict of interest, that there is something shady, untoward going on.

But the difference -- and this is a key difference -- is we don't know what was said between Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch. Loretta Lynch said later that the discussion was completely innocuous, that they weren't discussing the ongoing investigation but that she still regretted the appearance of any potential conflict.

We know what the president said to James Comey, because the president told us. The president told us today that he asked James Comey for a status update on a potential investigation into him. And we know that the president is basically the FBI director's boss in that he holds control over the fate of his job. He can apply pressure. He can try to intimidate him. So we know what happened here, and we know that it was inappropriate.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly was. So far, Ron Brownstein, not a single Republican has called for a special prosecutor to take charge of this investigation, including in the aftermath of Comey's firing. Is there any reason to believe Republicans will change their mind?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right now, no. And I think that is, you know, one of the most striking aspects of this. I mean, whatever else was going on, whatever else was involved in the president's motivation, I think the bottom line of this episode is that he fired the senior law enforcement official leading an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians in the 2016 presidential campaign. That is the core issue here.

And in many ways there is a parallel to Richard Nixon's decision to fire Archibald Cox in October 1973 in what became known as the Saturday night massacre. And the contrast between the two responses, I think, is really striking.

At that point you had significant figures not only in the Democratic Party, but in the Republican Party, who objected very strenuously, not only Elliott Richardson and his deputy, Bill Ruckelshaus, who resigned rather than carry out the order, but even Barry Goldwater, who had been the Republican nominee immediately before Richard Nixon, raised complaints, as did outside groups, the AFL-CIO, which had remained conspicuously neutral in the '72 campaign, unanimously approved a resolution calling for impeachment.

We're not talking about anything of that magnitude here yet, but we are looking at a Republican Party that is behaving very differently, is circling the wagons, is essentially saying, "We are part of a common political project" and focusing more on their -- where their agenda overlaps than on defending the institutions of checks and balances that are at the underpinning of our Democracy.

BLITZER: So Bianna, why are the Republicans so reluctant to make that call for a special prosecutor?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Well, they're looking more and more uncomfortable as they sit there and continue to support the president of the United States, specifically with regards to how he fired Director Comey, calling him a showboater, saying that he's grandstanding. These are not descriptions that the Republicans feel comfortable hearing about a man who, for every intents and purpose, was described as very honorable.

And at the same time, remember, we expect to hear from Comey at some point, and he will be asked these questions. And we will hear his side of the story, as well. Republicans may also, those who may be skeptical and may be wondering if they can distance themselves from the president at all about this, may take some solace in some new polling out today that shows that the majority of Americans disagree with how the president handled Comey's firing. So we shall see.

BLITZER: Gloria, you wrote a column on today. Let me read a couple sentences: "Apparently, no one is able to tell the 70-year-old newbie how to behave, that firing the current FBI director in the middle of the Russian investigation, no matter how tarnished his reputation, is a bad idea. No one can tell him that, no matter how furious is about an investigation that is growing and requiring more resources, trying to kill it by striking at the FBI director is a very, very bad idea and that it might be interpreted as obstruction of justice."

[18:40:16] Here's the question. Is no one able to tell the president no?

BORGER: Obviously not. I don't -- I don't think so. I think people give their opinion. I think sometimes he listens. But what we've learned from all of our reporting this week is that the president was stewing over this and that what tipped him over the edge was Comey's testimony last week. And he didn't like it, and he thought he was grandstanding; and he thought he was a showboat; and he thought the investigation was growing and on and on.

And once he gets that in his head, I believe there is nobody there who can tell him, "You cannot do this" or "You should not do this." We know that he can do it, but I don't believe there is an equivalent of a Jim Baker or any strong sort of person who can say to him, "Honestly, Mr. President, that would be a very bad idea, and let me tell you why," and he will listen to that person.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. Hold on a second. Everybody stand by. We're going to take a quick break. We're about to get some more comments from the president of the United States on all of this. Much more right after this.


[18:46:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back.

Let's get another clip right now from the president's interview today with NBC News.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won and the reason they should have won it is the Electoral College is almost a Republican to win, very hard, because you start off at such an disadvantage. So, everybody was thinking they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Are you angry with Mr. Comey because of his Russian investigation?

TRUMP: I just want somebody that's competent. I am a big fan of the FBI. I love the FBI.

HOLT: But were you a fan of --


TRUMP: -- people of the FBI.

HOLT: -- him taking up that investigation?

TRUMP: I think that -- about the Hillary Clinton investigation?

HOLT: No, about -- about the Russian investigation and possible --

TRUMP: No, I don't care --

HOLT: -- links between --

TRUMP: Look -- look, let me tell you. As far as I'm concerned, I want that thing to be absolutely done properly.

When I did this now, I said, I probably maybe will confuse people. Maybe I'll expand that -- you know, I'll lengthen the time because it should be over with. It should -- in my opinion, should've been over with a long time ago because it -- all it is an excuse.

But I said to myself I might even lengthen out the investigation. But I have to do the right thing for the American people. He's the wrong man for that position.


BLITZER: Rebecca Berg, so, you know, once again the president saying this whole Russian investigation is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost the election.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's amazing, Wolf. I mean, it's one thing if you're the president in his position saying there was no collusion, my campaign did not work with Russia, I was not involved of anything like this, that's one thing and certainly he has the right to defend himself and his campaign.

But to say that Russia's influence in the election is a made-up story, to say that the hacking and their propaganda campaigns were an excuse by Democrats for losing the election, it suggests the president doesn't care about solving this problem for the future. This is something that intelligence analysts agree across the intelligence community, Russia will do this again, they will do it better if we don't take steps to protect ourselves and the president doesn't seem to care about that.

BLITZER: Bianna, what do you think?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: Well, he's right when he said it's going to confuse people. It was very confusing. Did you understand if you had just read a transcript of what the president had just said, he was just throwing words together?

And it does seem like this is a consequence of a president who was obsessed with watching television, and think about when this started and what we're hearing from reports that over the past couple of months, every time that he would hear Director Comey testify, again, testifying not giving interviews to reporters in various networks and news outlets, he was testifying and answering the questions specifically asked to him about the Russian investigation, it seemed each time that he delivered an answer, the president got more and more irked and worked up about what he heard and ultimately led him to this conclusion. But this story, guess what, is not going away regardless of who the FBI director is.

BLITZER: Let me -- all right. Everybody, stand by. I want to play another clip. This is another clip from the president's interview today with NBC News.


HOLT: Did you ask him to drop the investigation?

TRUMP: No, never.

HOLT: Did anyone from the White House --

TRUMP: No, in fact, I want the investigation speed up.

HOLT: Did anyone from the White House ask him to end the investigation?

TRUMP: No, why would we do that?

HOLT: Any surrogates on behalf of the White House?

TRUMP: Not that I know of.

Look, I want to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia or, by the way, anybody else, any other country. And I want that to be so strong and so good, and I want it to happen.

I also want to have a really competent, capable director. He's not. He's a show boater.

He's not my man or not my man. I didn't appoint him. He was appointed long before me.

But I want somebody who's going to do a great job and I will tell you we're looking at candidates right now who could be spectacular.

[18:50:08] And that's what I want for the FBI.

HOLT: What you said a moment ago about supporting the idea of investigation, a lot of people would find it hard to believe that the man who just said that tweeted very recently, it's a total hoax, it's a taxpayer charade.

TRUMP: Oh, I think that looking into me and the campaign, look, I have nothing to do -- this was set up by the Democrats. There's no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians.

The other thing is, the Russians did not affect the vote. Everybody seems to think that.

HOLT: There is an investigation under way, though, an FBI investigation. Is that a charade?

TRUMP: Well, I don't know if it's an FBI or there's so many investigations, I don't know if it's an FBI investigation or if it's Congress, if it's the Senate.

HOLT: Well, Jim Comey testified there was an FBI investigation.

TRUMP: Well, yes, but I think they were also helping the House and the Senate. So, you probably have the FBI but you have House, you have Senate. They have other investigations.

HOLT: But when you put out tweets, it's a total hoax, it's a taxpayer charade, and you're looking for a new FBI director. Are you not sending that person a message to lay off?

TRUMP: No, I'm not doing that. I think that we have to get back to work but I want to find out -- I want get to the bottom. If Russia hacked, if Russia did anything having to do with our election, I want to know about it. HOLT: Well, there's already intelligence for virtually every

intelligence agency that yes, that happened.

TRUMP: I'll tell you this. If Russia or anybody else is trying to interfere with our elections, I think it's a horrible thing, and I want to get to the bottom of it and I want to make sure it will never ever happen.


BLITZER: All right. Gloria, let me get your analysis -- he doesn't know -- apparently doesn't even know that there is an FBI investigation.


BLITZER: It was launched last July that the former FBI Director James Comey confirmed publicly is still continuing.

BORGER: Right. And at one point earlier, the earlier clip you ran, he's talking about how, you know, it's ridiculous, that the Russians had nothing to do with him winning, and on the other hand, he said, well, look, I want to get to the bottom of it.

And what I take away from this is when it's about Donald Trump and when it's about his personal victories and the size of his majority and everything else, and his Electoral College vote, Donald Trump wants everybody to know that the Russians had nothing to do with that. And that's what he cares about.

At the end of this, he says, well, if the Russians tried to hack into the election, I want to know the rest. But what is really important to the president here is that everybody in the country know that his victory was his victory no matter what else happened and that matters the most to him.

BLITZER: All right. Go ahead, Ron.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I was going to say, you know, what what's really -- it goes back to the core issue here, the core issue is he fired an FBI director who was in the midst of actively investigating whether his campaign colluded with the Russians and no matter who he picks to replace Director Comey, that person will come into office knowing that their predecessor was fired in the midst of this investigation.

There is no way that shadow can be removed. Whether he says he wants a full and fair investigation or not, he has sent that unequivocal signal. It's part of a bigger behavior, whether it's attacks on the news media or, quote, the so-called judges when they rule against him or firing Sally Yates, or firing the U.S. attorney in the southern district of New York, who was investigating the HHS secretary, he has repeatedly shown a willingness to go beyond the traditional boundaries of checks and balances to systemically delegitimize institutions that he thinks are -- can threaten him. And I think, you know, that is clear. Everybody knows that now and

really, the only issue is whether the political system erects any significant barriers to that behavior, because one thing we know is that unless President Trump gets pushback, he tends to go further in the direction that he has set regardless of how it accords with kind of traditions in American politics.

BLITZER: Bianna, I want to play one more clip. Listen to this one. The president discussing his meeting in the Oval Office yesterday with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States. Listen to this.


HOLT: Did you worry at all when you mad the decision to fire Comey when you did, the day before Lavrov was here in the White House and the Russian ambassador, did you think through the optics of the way this would look?

TRUMP: I never thought about it. It was set up a while ago and frankly, I could have waited, but what difference does it make?

I'm not looking for cosmetics. I'm looking to do a great job for the country. I'm looking to create jobs. I'm looking to create strength and security. I'm looking to have strong borders. I'm looking for things like that.

I think it's really a good thing that I meet with people. Now, this is a public meeting. Because when you covered this, the people watching, they say, oh, he met with Lavrov. Well, this was announced that I'm meeting with Lavrov.

[18:55:03] Just like a number of days ago, I spoke at a very good conversation, very public in the sense that everybody knew this was taking place, I meet -- I talk all the time, just spoke with the head of -- the new head of South Korea who just got elected. I speak with the head of India. I speak with the head of China. I have to speak with Putin, also. It's called Russia.

But when I spoke with Putin, he asked me whether or not I would see Lavrov. Now, should I say, no, I'm not going to see him? I said I will see him.

During that discussion with Lavrov, I think we had a great discussion having to do with Syria, having to do with the Ukraine, and maybe that discussion will lead to a lot less people getting killed and will lead ultimately to peace.

So, I'm OK with those discussions, Lester. I think it's a good thing, not a bad thing.


BLITZER: OK, Bianna, so you just heard the president confirm he had this meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, at the request of Putin. GOLODRYGA: At the request of Putin. Again, he did not have to have

that meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak yesterday. And then, if you're going to have a meeting with them, invite the American press, invite your own photographers, do not issue statements saying, oh, the Russians played us.

Do you know how this is playing out in Russia right now? Putin looks like a hero. Not only did he have Lavrov, his guy, come in to meet with the president of the United States the day after he publicly fired his FBI director for investigating his connection -- his campaign's connections to Russia, but now, you're seeing the photos come out and Americans and the White House reacting in embarrassment. And it doesn't seem like they talked about anything with regards to human rights violations, election interference -- nothing. They talked about Syria.

I mean, it's really easy to talk about getting rid of terrorists. The hard part, it doesn't sound like they really addressed.

BORGER: And, by the way, the president said, well, what could I say to Putin, that I wasn't going to meet with Lavrov? Yes. He could have said to Putin, I'll have my secretary of state meet with Lavrov. Secretary Kerry used to meet with Lavrov. OK. I'll have my secretary of state do that.

I'm not ready to meet with Lavrov. I don't think it's appropriate for me to meet with him right now. I mean, it would have been easy thing to do and it would have been the right thing to do.

BLITZER: Well, it's one thing, Rebecca, to meet with Lavrov. Another thing to meet with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States who's at the center of all these investigations because of his contacts with various Trump associates.

BERG: Including Michael Flynn, and we learn on the same day of this meeting that the Senate intelligence committee has issued subpoenas to Michael Flynn for documents relating to their investigation. I mean, it's amazing.

So, at the very least, if Trump was going to take this meeting, he could have mentioned tough topics like the interference by Russia in our election process. He didn't.

BLITZER: You know, and, Ron, what they could have done is if they were going to let the Russian news media into the Oval Office with cameras to cover this, why not let the American, the White House press corps in with a pool and let the American news media get access as well?

BROWNSTEIN: I think we know the answer to that, Wolf. It's precisely because they did not want the images that Russia ultimately released to be available to Americans. And, you know, as the other issue that had been raised about -- whether there's fully compromising of the Oval Office, you know, that you've heard from Angus King and Joaquin Castro on your show earlier, tht obviously, I think has to be dealt with. But I think the core issue was they understood this was unfortunate

enough, at least in terms of timing, that they did not want Americans to see those images, and it is a striking commentary on their view about the role of press that Russian photograph and ultimately Russian media in that sense was allowed into the meeting and the American press was not.

BLITZER: And the Russian foreign ministry, the Russian media, Bianna, they're saying, no one told us not to take pictures, no one told us we couldn't distribute those pictures around the world.

GOLODRYGA: Wolf, look at the power of the president of the United States in that interview with Lester Holt just gave Putin. He said Vladimir Putin asked me to meet with Lavrov.

BORGER: Right.

GOLODRYGA: What am I going to say? No? Yes, you're going to say no. End of story.

BLITZER: Gloria?

BORGER: No. Look, I totally agree. I think the president was wrong to meet with him. I think it was ridiculous not to let in American photographers. They're trying to hide something, which, of course, you're not going to hide and the timing, of course, could not have been worse.

And I just think that, you know, let's just say they've had a bad week, OK. Can we say that? What day is today? Thursday. We have one more day to go.

But this is a problem this White House has because they can't get out of their own way here.

BROWNSTEIN: But, Gloria --


BROWNSTEIN: Real quick, in terms of them having a bad week, they've had a bad week politically, but they have removed James Comey as head of the FBI.

BORGER: That's true.

BLITZER: All right.

BROWNSTEIN: At the point, at the point where the investigation into the relationship with Russia was heating up. So, again, you know, they often are willing to take that heat in order to advance their view of their agenda.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by. We don't have any more time, unfortunately. We're out of time.

Thanks very much for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.