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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump Threatens Comey in Tweet; Trump Sought Loyalty Pledgee; Trump Contradicts Aides. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 12, 2017 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate. Have a good weekend.

Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

First the president changed his story about why he fired James Comey. Now the president is threatening James Comey. In one of several angry tweets this morning, the president warns, quote, "James Comey had better hope there are no tape of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press." That remarkable threat, that's the president of the United States, comes as the initial White House account of how and why Comey was fired lies in shambles, reduced to a heap of falsehoods, not because of anything said by Comey or anything said by anonymous sources, but because of the new and revealing explanation offered by the president himself.

Let's go back 48 hours when Comey was fired. Top White House officials insisted it had nothing, zero, to do with the Russia election meddling investigation and they portrayed it as a sudden presidential decision forced by a damning memo from the deputy attorney general. But it turns out none of that was true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: You had made the decision before they came in the room?

TRUMP: I - I was going to fire Comey. I - there's no good time to do it, by the way. They - they were around -

HOLT: Because in your letter you said that I accepted - I accepted their recommendations.

TRUMP: Yes, well, they also -

HOLT: You had already made the decision?

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

HOLT: So (INAUDIBLE)? TRUMP: They - he made a recommendation. He's highly respected. A very good guy. A very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. He'd made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia this 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Remarkable. Remarkable.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, Carol Lee of "The Wall Street Journal," CNN's Manu Raju, John Yang of the "PBS NewsHour," and Amy Walter of "The Cook Political Report."

The president is described yet again today as mad, things aren't going his way, frustrated yet again we are told that in his view his staff can't properly manage things and he is, yet again, lashing out on Twitter. In addition to threatening the former FBI director, the president's morning tweet storm includes this. "Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future press briefings and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy." And he again on Twitter calls the Russia investigation a, quote, "witch hunt."

We should note, the man the president elevated to acting FBI director after he fired Comey has a very different term. He told Congress yesterday that investigation is, quote, "highly significant."

A lot to unpack in the hour ahead.

Let's start, first the president completely blows away the credibility of his vice president, leaders of Congress, his senior staff by changing his story. But I want to start with this morning. The president of the United States, on Twitter, essentially threatening the former FBI director and suggesting that there might be, there might be recordings of these conversations. Now, I don't say this to be flippant. I don't know what to believe out of this White House given the last 72 hours. But, a, it's a threat, and, b, tapes?

CAROL LEE, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": It's rather remarkable and, you know, we've - I've asked the White House what they mean by - what he meant by tapes, are there tapes, and have not gotten a response. This is going to be a huge question at Sean Spicer's briefing today.

But it is - yes, he's very clearly threatened the former FBI director, who he just fired, and he's saying - he's talking about tapes, which is, you knowing, in itself a remarkable thing for the president of the United States to say. But we just - we actually literally do not know what to believe, which is because, you know, what we've seen in the last few days, but also there's just a history of statements and pronouncements that turn out to not necessarily be accurate. And so we don't know what he means by that.

KING: Right, and the threat follows - I just want to get this on the record - the threat follows reporting - it's on the front page of "The New York Times" today, CNN's Jake Tapper has reported this as well, that the president had a dinner early on in the administration with Director Comey. There's a back and forth over who asked for the dinner. Set that aside for a minute. But that the president asked Director Comey for a pledge of loyalty and Director Comey said, I can't do that, sir, I run the FBI. I promise you honesty. I will be straight and honest with you all the time. And that the president apparently is reading these accounts, seeing these accounts today, and it's adding to his anger at Director Comey.

JOHN YANG, "PBS NEWSHOUR": And it's also sort of this dinner where he apparently also asked, am I under investigation? Here it is - he described this as a dinner because he said Comey wanted the stay on the job. Essentially a job interview. And he asking, so, are you investigating me? And also asks for loyalty, which is - we know what he likes among his aides, higher than anything else. And if you look at the aides he's fired, he's fired Sally Yates, he fired Mike Flynn, and he's now fired James Comey.

KING: Right.

YANG: The one he fired for lying he won't criticize.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: It's true.

KING: He waited 18 days.

RAJU: And, I mean, it's a huge risk to get into a fight with James Comey. He does, according to Andy McCabe, the acting FBI director, have deep support within the FBI. And this is a bureau that you probably don't want to pick a fight with.

[12:05:13] Moreover, we may hear from James Comey at some point, perhaps publicly. There's pressure from members of Congress for him to publicly testify. I wouldn't rule that out as a possibility. There's certainly - there's a possibility he could come at least in a closed session Tuesday before the Senate Intelligent Committee. We'll see what dribbles out about that.

But this question is on front of a lot of members of Congress minds, what happened in these private discussions. And that would be - it would be surprising to hear Comey confirm what Trump said.

KING: You mentioned that - I reached out this morning to a number of Republicans. I talked to one very senior Republican in town who's in touch with the congressional leadership all the time. I asked what was their take about the threat this morning after the flip-flop of a story yesterday and they said they all view this as crossing the line and that the president has crossed the line by threatening the FBI director and I'm told that has been made clear to the White House. That's from the Republicans. And it's private so far.

I want you to listen here to the number two Democrat in the Senate who was on another network this morning after the president issued that tweet threatening James Comey.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: President Trump is dangerous. Dangerous because he may be obstructing justice in terms of the investigation. Secondly, his credibility has been destroyed. You know, when you have - when you're the leader of the free world, you need to be credible not only in your own country to be an effective president, but around the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, Dick Durban's a partisan Democrat, but - but the president's credibility, the credibility of this White House, the credibility of whether we can believe the vice president, the press secretary the counselor, Kellyanne Conway, it's all a serious question.

AMY WALTER, "THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT": You know, just to step back for a moment to think about what this - we could be actually discussing right now about the Comey firing is the fact that I think for partisans they were going to obviously go into their camps. If the president just came out and said, I got rid of Comey, gave this explanation, we didn't have the back and forth, we didn't have to go through this entire panel like we did, explaining and unpacking all of it. For independent voters, though, they were sort of evenly divided and most of them, like a plurality said, I don't know what to think. In other words, this wasn't a very big deal for them.

KING: Washington process, not my life.

WALTER: Washington process. Comey being fired. Not really that big of a deal.

The problem, of course, is the way that the White House is handle this and then the tweeting about it is makes it the dominant story. So even if you didn't have an opinion about this before yesterday, by the time this weekend ends, you're probably going to have an opinion and it's going to be put into the most negative possible, you know, scenario.

KING: Right. And a lot of conservatives who defended the president yesterday, not people who are not always fans of Donald Trump, I'm going to mention one, Erik Erikson of "The Resurgent," not a fan of Trump during the campaign, has come around to more pro-Trump as he watches the administration plays out, spent yesterday on his website saying liberals are overreacting, the media is overreacting, it's all this - you know, you're all going manic, that you wanted Comey to be gone. Then the president does this interview -

YANG: Right.

KING: And he writes this morning, "in one short interview, the president made liars of every single person who mounted a credible defense of the decision - a decision that remains defensible." The headline of that was the president needs to shut up.

LEE: It's not just, you know, Democrats who - this is not - when you start getting - and this - we've seen this before with this president where Republicans are really frustrated with the way that the White House is handling something, the words that are coming out of the president's mouth that are being written on Twitter. You know, he's getting into dicey territory. This has put a complete stop on his legislative agenda. For Republicans he's not talking about anything that they want to talk about. He's not moving on policies. This is just a distraction. But it's also a distraction that he's continuing to throw fuel on and so it's not going away.

KING: Right.

WALTER: Right.

LEE: And there is where they get really frustrated.

RAJU: And the question too is what do Republicans do from here, because a lot of them, as Carol was mentioning, are concerned but we're not hearing support from Republicans for a special prosecutor at this point.

LEE: Right.

RAJU: We're hearing only a handful of Republicans even support a select committee beyond the existing congressional probes. And the leadership is pointing to the existing intelligence committee's investigation and I can only do so much and I'm told that those committees - I mean from talking to members of the committee that they're a long ways away from getting anywhere to reaching any sort of consensus on their findings. So it will loom over the administration. And - but a new investigation at this point just seems unlikely.

KING: And you just know that by tweeting what he tweeted this morning, Comey better be worried - or better make sure there's not tapes, that the - it's a gift to the Democrats. They're going to no go to everyone in the committees leading these investigations and say, we have to ask the White House, are there any tapes of these conversations? If you have tapes of these conversations, we need to see the tapes of these conversations. It just adds to it.

It's also - the question I have is the president's mindset here. Again, his staff says this was a sudden decision. The deputy attorney general writes a memo saying the FBI has - director has lost confidence - I've lost confidence in him, the (INAUDIBLE) has lost confidence in him. The attorney general forwards that on with a recommendation to fire and the White House says the president had no choice essentially. Now we find out in this interview with Lester Holt of NBC News, he's been thinking about this for a long time. I talked to a friend who spoke to the president over the weekend who said he was stewing about it then.

[12:10:16] Listen to the president describing his view of James Comey.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: When you talk to people who talk to the president about this, they say he sees Comey on television and he dissects that as Russia, Russia, Trump, Russia, and that Comey's committed to the investigation, not to finding out who's leaking things about the investigation and charge them.

LEE: He also really did not like when Director Comey said that he was - it made him nauseous to think that he may have had some sort of influence on the election. This is a president who just constantly feels under siege. He feels that he's not treated fairly. He feels that people are out to get him, and that is reflected nowhere more significantly than in this investigation. He has been criticized it from the beginning. And every time Comey was out there, he felt like he was under attack. And, you know, the "Time" magazine interview this week where he's going through the tapes of hearings and showing them and then commenting on it, I mean he's really obsessive about this.

KING: Obsessive about it, number one, but does he understand that he's the president of the United States. When you say such things about a former FBI director in the middle of an investigation, a lot of people who view that as - as beyond the pale, if not as an abuse of power, too much pressure.

YANG: But he's acting as he did before, as he did - as a candidate and as a real estate magnate in Manhattan. He hasn't quite made that shift. Stewing is the word you use and it's stewing is - from what I hear is exactly the right world. Carol in that "Time" magazine interview describes that. But he sits isolated in the White House, up in the residence at night. I think Keith Schiller (ph) is often with him, I'm - we learned, but he doesn't have his family with him. It's just - his anger and frustration feeds on itself. And I think - I suspect is fed with the other people he's talking to and it's just building and building. He went to Bedminster last weekend and just stewed more about these television appearances and then he - and does what he did on Monday.

KING: More on this in the hour ahead.

Up next, loyalty versus credibility. Team Trump stands by the boss and, well, it's just unbelievable.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:17:01] KING: Welcome back.

When the president changes his story overnight after ordering top aides to defend him, the domino effect is stunning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: 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 decision on the deputy attorney general.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) on his recommendation.

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You got that? That's the deputy White House press secretary. Quote, "I don't think there was ever an attempt to pin the decision on the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein." Well, tell that to Kellyanne Conway.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: This man is the president of the United States. He acted decisively today. He took the recommendation of his deputy attorney general, who oversees the FBI directory.

ANDERSON COOPER, ANCHOR, CNN'S "AC 360": That makes no sense. He said one thing as a candidate and now he's concerned as president?

CONWAY: It does make sense. Anderson, I know that's a new talking point. It makes - it makes complete sense because he has lost confidence in the FBI director and he took the recommendation of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Or, tell that to the vice president of the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general.

By accepting the recommendation of the deputy attorney general -

Because of the actions that the deputy attorney general outlined to the president.

The president's decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general.

The deputy attorney general, while the deputy attorney general -

To act on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general -

The new deputy attorney general - The recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to remove an FBI director who had lost the confidence of the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You cannot spin this. We talked in the last block about how the president demands loyalty. Does he have no loyalty to the people who work for him? Does their credibility not matter?

YANG: I mean this morning in his tweet he essentially said you can't believe - I do so much, it's impossible for my spokespeople and surrogates to keep up, so you really can't believe anything they say. Also, the way he did this, he gave his communications team an hour's notice that this was coming and I think they told the communications team essentially as Keith Schiller was on his way to Justice with the removal letter they had no opportunity to plan, no opportunity to develop a communications strategy. And then, you know, you heard all these aides talking - pinning it on Rosenstein. And then last night, or yesterday, to Lester Holt, he said, oh, no, I was going to fire him no matter what Rosenstein said.

WALTER: Yes, can you imagine, had he come out and had that Lester Holt interview and said right then, I have decided that Director Comey can no longer stay and then gone through all of the reasons with Lester Holt, we would still be discussing it today, but we wouldn't have spent the last ten minutes talking about how the people that he - around him you can't really trust to say what is going on.

(CROSS TALK)

[12:20:06] WALTER: But why not just have done that interview in the very first place?

KING: Right, and who -

WALTER: Why?

KING: It's a question of, who can you trust?

RAJU: Yes.

KING: I mean that - he's the president of the United States, but, I mean, you know, I don't do that to beat up Kellyanne Conway or the vice president of the United States. I do it to make a point that, you know, they are people at moments of crisis who have to speak to the American people. They are people who try to negotiate health care reform now that it goes to the Senate, or tax reform when that comes up later, have to give their word to people.

RAJU: Right.

KING: But can anyone trust what they say?

LEE: Well, here's the thing, is the president also - you know, he came up with that reasoning on Tuesday. It wasn't his aides. And his aides went out there and said it and then he changed it. But the thing about the cleanup that I find remarkable is, it's one thing for the press secretary to go out and say, look, it was wrong, it was this, but to act like we didn't hear and people didn't say what they said, I mean, you -

KING: Right.

LEE: Sarah Sanders said - there wasn't ever an attempt to pin this on the deputy director. Well, of course there was.

RAJU: And - the reason why it was is because he was confirmed by a 94- 6 vote in the Senate so they - the White House thought that this is a guy that is widely respected on both sides of the aisle. So Democrats could not complain about this because, one, they don't like James Comey, and they also supported Rod Rosenstein's confirmation just a couple of weeks ago. So of course it will be - it's - this is a recommendation that he should accept. So to suggest that they were not blaming it on him is not -

KING: Although - although the letter - the memo from Rosenstein actually makes no recommendation.

RAJU: Right. Exactly.

KING: It does say - it does says that, you know, that you can make a case that Comey's lost faith and that Comey had some missteps during the Clinton e-mail investigation.

RAJU: Right.

KING: It's a pretty damning memo about James Comey, but nowhere in it does it say, Mr. President, I recommend, Rod Rosenstein. He left that to the attorney general, who, I talked about this the other day so I won't go there again, is supposed to be recused from all things Russia, the campaign investigation, who recommended the firing the guy leading the Russia campaign investigation, but we'll leave that.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, also at the podium yesterday, and the day before, said she was being inundated with friends and contacts at the FBI, which seemed out of character for people at the FBI, but let's take her at her word, she's being inundated with all this stuff from FBI people saying, thank you for doing this. We didn't like Comey. This is great. Well, the man the president elevated to be the interim FBI director, the acting FBI director, who was Comey's number two, told Congress something very different.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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. We are a large organization. We are 36,500 people across this country, across this globe. We have a diversity of opinions about many things, but I can confidently tell you that the majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YANG: The White House had wanted to go and visit the - have the president go and visit the FBI today. The trip was canceled. The reports are that he was told - the White House was told he would not receive a positive reception.

RAJU: And Sarah Sanders' response yesterday was pretty stunning to suggest that her text messages and e-mails that she's gotten from countless and, quote, "large number of people" were - somehow contradict what the acting director of the FBI, a long-time veteran of the bureau, believes is the case that there's wide support for Director Comey. To suggest that she knows otherwise is rather remarkable.

LEE: Well, and it's one thing to be contradicted by Democrats, and you can say this was partisan, whatever, but when your own team is contradicting you is really problematic.

KING: Right. And, again, for Trump supporters out there, he beats up on the fake media. He says it's all fake. But, I mean, you pay these people. You pay these people. You should expect them, at least - they don't know the whole story, then just say I can't comment yet. I don't know. I haven't spoken to the president yet, as opposed to saying things that then turn out to be categorically not true or this one from Sarah Huckabee Sanders yesterday about the Russia investigation that I would say is a tad suspect.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Nobody wants this investigation to go forward in complete and end with integrity more than the president.

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The president contradicted her. She said - she went on to say she thought that this would speed up the investigation. The president said he knew if he fired Comey it might lengthen the investigation. But the idea that nobody wants this instigation to go forward in a complete and end with integrity more than the president, has she ever read the president's Twitter feed? He did it again today and this is what he did yesterday. "Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the United States tears itself apart over a Democratic excuse for losing the election."

RAJU: I mean these probes are serious.

KING: Right.

RAJU: I mean to suggest that they're not serious investigations or that removing Comey would quicken this investigation, that's not going to happen. These are very serious investigations that are happening, at least in the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, trying to pick up its investigation. But there's a grand jury that has been convened, is issuing subpoenas for Trump's ex- national security adviser and you heard McCabe saying there's a highly significant investigation for the bureau, the FBI.

[12:25:18] KING: And the president's actions yesterday, changing his story and saying straight up Russia - Russia was part of my thinking and then today attacking and threatening the FBI director only going to add intensity to those investigations one would suspect.

Up next, the president's approval rating slumps, and when Americans are asked for a one-word review, ouch.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of people give me very high marks for what I've done in terms of foreign policy. I mean I'm getting very, very high marks on foreign policy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The president there in his interview with Lester Holt of NBC News saying he's getting high marks from the American people on foreign policy. Perhaps. But if you look at the president's overall numbers at this moment, they're not good to say the least. A new Quinnipiac University poll taken before the James Comey's firing, we should make that clear, show the president's approval rating dropping, his performance in office dropping. Only 36 percent of the American people approve of the president, how he's handling his job. Fifty- eight percent disapprove. Noteworthy here, a slight drop among Trump base voters, especially non-college educated whites. We'll keep an eye on this one.

[12:30:12]