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Comey Fallout, Staff Woes Roil Trump Administration; Trump: FBI Pick Could Come Before International Trip Friday. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 15, 2017 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: On the verge of tapping a new FBI director, will it be a career crime fighter or a Republican politician? And how far will Democrats go to block this pick?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And North Korea, overnight, test firing a new missile that delivers a new nuclear threat to the United States. The United Nations Security Council calls an emergency meeting.

And a crippling worldwide cyber attack, 150 countries hit, with banks, hospitals, universities, all brought to a standstill. This morning, a second wave of attacks that could be shaping up. Quite a weekend it has been. Hope yours was good.

Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. It is Monday morning. Do you know where your FBI director is? The President could be moving closer to picking a replacement for James Comey, the man he fired last week. The challenge, not only to find someone who could do the job but find someone who wants the job and someone who, given the political firestorm of the last six days, can actually get confirmed for the job.

HARLOW: Indeed. You're looking at the eight people that we know met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the weekend, possible picks for the next FBI director. But Sessions even being in that role of helping pick Comey's replacement, just one of the flare-ups in this growing firestorm.

Let's begin this hour with Joe Johns at the White House who has the latest. Good morning, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. The Attorney General's role in the firing of James Comey has certainly been called into question. That, of course, is very much due to the fact that the Attorney General had said he was recusing himself from the Russia investigation due to his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Of course, the President of the United States has compounded the matter by saying on television in an interview that Russia factored into his firing of James Comey. Democrats on Capitol Hill have certainly questioned the ethics of all of this, and a watchdog group has called on the Attorney General to get out of the hiring process for a replacement for FBI director. Meanwhile, the former Director of National Intelligence on T.V. over

the weekend indicating his view that the President of the United States is undermining the American system of checks and balances. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think, in many ways, our institutions are under assault, both externally -- and that's the big news here, is the Russian interference in our election system. And I think, as well, our institutions are under assault internally.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Internally from the President?

CLAPPER: Exactly.

TAPPER: Because he's firing the checks and balances?

CLAPPER: Well, I think, you know, the founding fathers, in their genius, created a system of three coequal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances. And I feel as though that's under assault and is eroding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has said the Senate ought not to confirm a replacement for FBI Director until a special counsel is named to investigate Russia's role in the last American election. Of course, the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, so far, has said he's not in favor of a special counsel. John and Poppy, back to you.

BERMAN: All right. Joe Johns for us at the White House. Thanks so much, Joe.

As the President is weighing potential picks to be the next FBI director, some are urging him to select someone from within the ranks, someone without any political ties.

I want to bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider to give us a sense of who's on the list. Jessica?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, that push for a nonpartisan pick, it's coming from both sides of the aisle. Eight candidates paraded into the Department of Justice this weekend, all to be interviewed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Now, at least two of those possible picks, they're quite political. Senator John Cornyn is Senate Majority Whip, the second highest- ranking Republican. He's from Texas. And former Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, also a Republican. He was the former Chair of the House Intelligence Committee and former FBI special agent.

So other candidates that were interviewed Saturday, current Acting Director Andrew McCabe, former Assistant Attorney General, under George W. Bush, Alice fisher, New York Judge Michael Garcia, FBI Special Agent in Charge Adam Lee, and two judges -- Virginia Federal Judge Henry Hudson. Also there, Judge Michael Garcia. And then there's Frances Townsend. She was the Homeland Security adviser to George W. Bush, also worked in the DOJ under Bill Clinton.

Now, President Trump does say it is possible he could make that pick. He could pick someone before he departs for his overseas trip on Friday. But Senator Lindsey Graham is telling the President, look, keep politics out of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think it's now time to pick somebody that comes from within the ranks or such a reputation that has no political background at all that can go into the job on day one.

[09:05:03] You know, who does the FBI director work for? To me, it's like appointing a judge. The President actually appoints a judge but the judge is loyal to the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: And that same theme being echoed by Republicans and Democrats alike. Now, we know that the President will be reading the reports and the recommendations from all of these interviews that are happening, and then he'll meet with a few of the leading candidates himself before making a selection. John and Poppy?

HARLOW: All right. Jessica Schneider, thank you so much for the reporting. We're obviously keeping an eye on those eight people, especially right now.

Joining us now is FBI Special Agent Thomas O'Connor. He is the president of the FBI Agents Association.

Your association, sir, we should let our viewers know, has endorsed Mike Rogers, a CNN national security analyst and former FBI special agent, to be Comey's replacement. Thank you for joining us.

THOMAS O'CONNOR, PRESIDENT, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: Thank you for having me. Good morning.

HARLOW: So the way that former DNI Clapper described it from the dinner he had with an FBI employee is that they were quite upset about Comey being fired and the way in which it was all carried out, and that that feeling of being upset was widespread across the agency. How would you assess morale at the FBI right now?

O'CONNOR: Well, morale and being upset are two different things. We had strong support for Director Comey throughout the FBI during his tenure. He was someone who understood the agents, understood our mission, understood that agents go out every day, put their lives on the line, and that is exactly what we're looking for in our next director. BERMAN: So just to be clear, when the White House suggested that

former Director Comey had lost the support of people within the FBI, that was wrong?

O'CONNOR: I'm not saying, again, any comment about the White House or any comments that came out of the White House. I can tell you as the President of the FBI Agents Association, we represent almost 14,000 active and retired agents. Almost 12,000, a little over 11,000 active duty agents. And the vast majority of those people that I have had contact with and people I work with every day were very supportive of Director Comey and his leadership and the way he was running the FBI overall.

HARLOW: OK. So without commenting on the White House, that does run counter to what the White House said. Moving on, do you agree with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham? Does he have a point when he says, look, the next pick to replace Comey should have, quote, "no political background at all"?

O'CONNOR: I think the next director of the FBI and all directors of the FBI have to remain apolitical. They have to not have a political side.

The FBI has for, over a hundred years, investigated major crimes. No small crimes come to the FBI to be investigated, and that can't be done with a leaning towards either side. And I think we've had that with our directors. And we know that the future directors will do that same thing.

And Mike Rogers, although he has a political past, he was an FBI agent and has shown us, through many efforts that we've worked with him, that he is someone apolitical. He has support from Elijah Cummings, who is on the other side of the aisle. And if you look at his past, he's someone who crossed that divide many times to get the job done. We feel very strongly that he would be someone who works for the FBI, the American people, and supports the constitution and the rule of law.

BERMAN: Even though he was an elected Republican politician. You said that about Mike Rogers. Do you feel the same way about Senator John Cornyn who has got no experience working in federal law enforcement or within the FBI?

O'CONNOR: So on Saturday, our national executive board gathered for about seven hours. We sat down and looked at names, and we really believed that the person who is involved in this process, the person we're going to stand behind, is someone who should have former agent experience. And Mike Rogers is the one who has that experience.

Plus, as the head of the House Intelligence Committee, he worked with counter terrorism, counter espionage issues. And that, with his FBI experience on the criminal side, gives him all of our aspects that we work.

HARLOW: But, I mean, you can't deny the fact that Mike Rogers was a Republican elected representative. John brought up Senator John Cornyn. He is someone who has said that the idea that Comey was fired to put a stop to the Russia investigation is, quote, "a fake narrative." Does that disqualify him from consideration in your mind?

O'CONNOR: Well, we went with Mike Rogers because of his background as an FBI agent. He is someone --

HARLOW: Right, but I'm asking about someone like Cornyn. I'm asking you about someone who has commented on an ongoing investigation --

O'CONNER: And I'm not going to comment about any ongoing investigations.

HARLOW: OK.

BERMAN: Let me ask you something separately from this. There were the reports at the end of last week that the President had dinner with the FBI Director. And in some of those reports, including CNN, that the President asked for the FBI Director's loyalty.

[09:10:07] Now, I don't want to you comment on that because I doubt you would comment on that specific conversation, but let me ask you this. As an FBI agent and someone who represents thousands of FBI agents, should FBI officials be asked to swear loyalty to anything other than the constitution?

O'CONNOR: We do swear loyalty to the constitution when we're sworn in at Quantico. The FBI has held that oath extremely diligently for over a hundred years. We had investigations before this event took place, we had investigations going that took place on that day, and we will continue to have investigations of the highest level going forward.

BERMAN: But --

O'CONNOR: And we go by the rule of law and the constitution, and that is it. That's what we swear to.

BERMAN: Swear to the constitution, period. Swearing to anything besides sides that would be improper to ask.

O'CONNOR: I don't know if that would be improper to ask. That's not my place. I just know that, as FBI agents, we swear to uphold the constitution from enemies, foreign and domestic, and we will continue to do that. We have done that. And Director Comey was very good at that.

HARLOW: Final question. Do you agree with former CIA Director James Woolsey who said, on this network yesterday to Fareed Zakaria, that it is going hard to be very hard at this point in time to find someone to fill Comey's shoes who is willing to operate under the current circumstances?

O'CONNOR: Well, I'll tell you, it's not the norm for the FBI Agents Association to come out publicly in the press as much as we're doing, and we feel very strongly that this is a very important decision that needs to be made. And that's why we're putting a voice to this. We want people to know that the FBI agents and the FBI Agents

Association Executive Board took a vote, and it was unanimous by that board that we would back Mike Rogers for this position. He's someone that, as I said, has agent experience, and we believe he can be completely apolitical and swear allegiance to that constitution to support it.

BERMAN: All right. Thomas O'Connor, thank you so much for being with us. Thank you for your service. And I think it's very interesting. We can read between the lines of what you are willing to say and not willing to say.

HARLOW: And not answer, exactly.

BERMAN: Exactly. Appreciate your time, sir.

HARLOW: Thank you.

O'CONNOR: Thank you very much. Have a great day.

BERMAN: All right. All kinds of reports this weekend that a big White House shakeup could be on the way. What are Republicans demanding now from the Oval Office?

HARLOW: Plus North Korea fires off a missile and a warning. The U.S. better not provoke it because it claims those missiles can reach the U.S. mainland.

Also this morning, and only here, you will hear from the parents of the Penn State fraternity pledge who died after a night of hazing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES PIAZZA, FATHER OF TIMOTHY PIAZZA: They fed him lethal doses of alcohol and they killed him, and then they treated him like road kill, like a rag doll. They slapped him around. They threw water on him. One kid punched his area that it was clearly visible.

EVELYN PIAZZA, MOTHER OF TIMOTHY PIAZZA: They said the spleen was shattered.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:16:47]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump will make his first big trip abroad at the end of this week. It is domestic issues though here at home and the fallout over his firing of James Comey and reports of turmoil inside of the White House walls that have threatened to overshadow that trip.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Here to discuss, Rebecca Berg, CNN political analyst, national political reporter for "Real Clear Politics," David Swerdlick, CNN political commentator and assistant editor for the "Washington Post," and Paul Callan, CNN legal analyst.

Rebecca, to you, you think there's pressure from both Democrats and Republicans for the White House to find sort of the Neil Gorsuch of FBI directors. You think that some Republican senators are starting to feel queasy here. What do you mean?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely, John. Well, the FBI nominee whoever Donald Trump picks to succeed James Comey will really only need support from Republicans in the Senate to get approved because you only need a simple majority, 51 Republicans, so that's doable if the conference sticks together.

But Republicans are facing a lot of political pressure now, after the president fired James Comey, the circumstances of that ouster, looking some Republicans have admitted that this looks very suspicious, the timing of this, it's worrisome.

And some have expressed concerns about that, and so you're seeing Republicans suggesting that the president pick someone who would be completely unimpeachable, whose independence would not be questioned.

That's why you are seeing people like Mike Lee suggesting someone like Judge Merrick Garland, who was, of course, President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court, didn't go anywhere.

Merrick Garland not said to be on the president's short list for this, but Republicans are suggesting someone who wouldn't be seen as having any sort of political connection to the president, having any sort of loyalty necessarily to the president, someone who will be able to come in and have the confidence that the American people and also Democrats and Republicans alike to be able to continue the FBI's investigation and act as an independent person.

HARLOW: To what does that mean then if the president were to go ahead and pick a Trey Gowdy or John Cornyn? You've got Lindsey Graham saying it should be no one with any political ties whatsoever, and a Republican senator saying that. Does the president have a shot if he picks Cornyn or Trey Gowdy?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think he has a shot because I agree with Rebecca. Republicans in the Senate only need a simple majority to get whoever the president nominates through and I am not sure that they would balk at necessarily confirming their colleague, Senator Cornyn or their House colleague --

HARLOW: You think Congressman Graham saying that is all talk and they would end up lining up behind him if that was the pick?

SWERDLICK: I don't think it's all politics. What I think it is, is that Republicans, although as Rebecca said they're facing pressure to show that they can go above party on this issue, I don't think that -- and in private, they are expressing reservations about everything that happened last week with the president and Director Comey.

That being said, I don't think they're ready to challenge him publicly on this, just on the basis of the fact that his nominee might be someone who is considered a partisan Republican. By the way, I'll just add, Poppy, though, that I am baffled at why someone like Senator Cornyn would want this job.

He's a rising leader in this, in Senate leadership, he's the Whip. He could one day be majority leader. Why he would want to leave his Senate seat and take on the mess that is the FBI investigation of potential Russian meddling in the American election is beyond me. I don't know why.

[09:20:13]BERMAN: It's a ten-year posting, it used to be, traditionally a ten-year posting. Could be a cap soon to a career. Paul Callan if I can to go down a path where we have been, but you are an esteemed lawyer, I need to know this, these tapes, the president threatened James Comey.

You better hope I wasn't taping you in these conversations. We don't know for sure if the tapes exist, but if they do exist of their conversation, how important are they and how easy would it be for a committee, for the FBI, for someone to get them as part of these investigations?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, they're of critical importance. Looking back to Nixon, that was the thing that did Nixon in. There were denials and denials and then there was a tape system which confirmed exactly what had been said. That being said, though, I don't know that the Senate or the House committee have a right to get the tape, even if it exists.

HARLOW: Why?

CALLAN: Because the tape has to be relevant to some kind of an investigation, say, of a crime. It's not a crime to fire the head of the FBI and it's not even a crime to say to him will you be loyal to me if I reappoint you or allow to you stay on the job.

HARLOW: But if you're asking him as the president admitted he did at the dinner about the Russia investigation and am I under investigation, then it is relevant, no?

CALLAN: Relevant to what? It's not even a crime to ask if you're under investigation. It's incredibly stupid, ham-handed, bumbling for a president to do that, but it's not a crime to say are you investigating me? Now, the FBI guy should have the sense as Comey did not to answer the question, but it's not a crime to ask.

BERMAN: You know, it's interesting, guys, when you look at where we are right now what the country thinks of this entire situation, "Wall Street Journal" and NBC News did a poll, 29 percent approve of the president firing James Comey, 38 percent disapprove, 32 percent say they don't know enough to say, 32 percent.

Rebecca, where is this 32 percent been? It's not like this hasn't been covered or under covered over the last six days. What does it say that there's still a third of the country that says, eh?

BERG: Well, it's possible, John, that they, you know, concede that this is a situation where there's a lot of classified info, James Comey hasn't yet publicly told his side of the story. We expect at some point he will.

But I think it's significant that most Americans right now do feel that this was not handled properly, that this didn't really pass the smell test, and so when we're talking about the political pressure that Republicans are facing right now, when we're talking about the political pressure they're facing to pick or approve an FBI director to succeed James Comey, who is going to be an independent actor, this is a big part of it.

Republicans do have to think about their political future here, the midterms are only a year and a half away. It's not very long in political time, and so when you look at the public approval of this, I think that says a lot.

HARLOW: David, all sorts of reporting over the weekend from a number of outlets about a possible shakeup in the White House potentially within the west wing. We don't know, and the White House hasn't put out anything on that. If that's the case, I mean who would you look at to fill the holes right now?

SWERDLICK: Well, if you're talking about White House communications or the press secretary job, again, we don't know if or how far along the jeopardy is for someone like Press Secretary Sean Spicer. There's been a lot of reports of course that the president has not been happy with his performance, in certain situations.

But in terms of who might replace him, let's say, I think we saw clearly that Sarah Huckabee Sanders got a tryout last week for two days even though the stated reason from the White House was that Press Secretary Spicer was doing his naval reserve duty.

And by a lot of accounts, she at least was a more steady presence in the briefing room that Spicer has been on some occasions. I think that going back to the transition, when the White House wanted our CNN colleague, Jason Miller, to be communications director, I think his presence is probably missed, because he was someone who demonstrated that he was pretty capable at running that com shop on the campaign.

I don't know who else they would look to. Part of the reason is because if you're a communications professional now, Poppy, you kind of know what you're getting into. It's really a tumultuous situation and you have to want that job and know how you're going to attack it differently than Spicer.

HARLOW: I think they knew what they were getting into from the campaign. It's largely been similar but I take your point. I hear your point. David Swerdlick, thank you. Rebecca Berg, and Paul Callan, happy birthday to my friend.

BERMAN: Even lawyers have birthdays.

HARLOW: Even lawyers have birthdays.

Tonight on CNN must watch TV, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sitting down one on one with our Chris Cuomo for a town hall discussion. That is 9 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

BERMAN: Two will enter, one will leave.

[09:25:04]Tensions grow with North Korea just days before the president is scheduled for a big overseas trip, a new missile test and a new warning from North Korea, that's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: This morning, experts are fearing a new wave, a second wave of attacks after hackers pulled off what could be the largest global cyberattack ever. We are talking about 200,000 computers hostage so far.

You can see the map there, the areas in orange are infected by what is ransoming software, called "Wannacry," it's a virus that demands people pay hundreds of dollars to regain control of their files.

HARLOW: Right now companies around the world hoping their employees do not see this screen when they login in this morning. Why? It's a sign they've been hacked.

David Kennedy is with us, a cybersecurity consultant and former NSA official. Thank you so much for being here. I can't think of a better voice on this this morning. This is the second wave and I know, you know, they were able to --