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Trump: I Have 'Absolute Right' to Share Info with Russia; Senate Intel Leaders Want Briefing on Trump's Russia Meeting. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Breaking news. Major breach. President Trump says he has the absolute right to share intelligence with Russia, but while the security breach is causing an extraordinary uproar in Washington, did the president put lives at risk? And what will the impact be on the source of that intelligence, Israel?

[17:00:17] "Wholly appropriate." The White House national security adviser says the information-sharing with Russia was completely appropriate, so why did another top security official feel compelled to notify U.S. intelligence about what the president had done?

The laptop threat. At the heart of the president's intelligence- sharing, growing concern over an ISIS plan to bring down airliners with explosives hidden in laptops. Is the ban on carry-on laptops about to be extended?

And out of the running. More people are pulling out -- their names out of consideration for replacing James Comey as the FBI director. Why are they running in the other direction?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: President Trump is brushing off the extraordinary concern over sharing of what sources say is highly classified intelligence during his Oval Office meeting with Russian diplomats.

The president tweeted today that he has an absolute right to share information. But lawmakers and former top intelligence officials are criticizing the president for revealing what sources say is information on how ISIS plans to use laptop computers as bombs aboard airliners.

We're now learning that Israel was the source of intelligence on that aviation threat, and if the United States is seen as unreliable by its close allies, the damage to -- to intelligence cooperation for the U.S. could be severe. National security adviser General H.R. McMaster insists the information-sharing was wholly appropriate, suggesting harm was avoided, because the president was never briefed on the source of the intelligence.

But another top security adviser raised the alarm about the president's Russia meeting, feeling the intelligence community needed to know what specifically was divulged to the Russians.

With an increasingly dysfunctional White House communications team unable to contain the damage, senior administration officials are now trying to calm lawmakers, and the CIA director's briefing the House Intelligence Committee this hour.

Republicans are now joining the chorus of outrage. One top GOP lawmaker says the Trump White House is in a, quote, "downward spiral."

I'll talk to Republican Senator James Risch of the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees. And our correspondents, specialists, and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

The president is dismissing the alarm and the anger over his sharing of intelligence with a U.S. adversary.

Let's begin with our White House correspondent, Sara Murray. Sara, what's the latest?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, for the White House it was another day plagued by controversy as senior administration officials faced questions about whether the White House and the president can be trusted with sensitive information.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump ignoring questions today about what exactly he told the Russians.

(on camera): Did you share classified intelligence information with the Russians? Mr. President, did you share classified intelligence with the Russians?

(voice-over): Pausing only to reveal that he believes his recent meeting with Russian officials went swimmingly.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia. Our fight is against ISIS, as General McMaster said. I thought he said, and I know he feels that we had, actually, a great meeting with the foreign minister. So we're going to have a lot of great success over the next coming years, and we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible.

MURRAY: After Monday night's terse denial...

LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The story that came out tonight as reported is false.

MURRAY: ... this morning the president defiantly fired off on Twitter saying he has the, quote, "absolute right" to share intelligence and arguing he did so to convince the Russians, quote, "to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism."

Those comments quickly putting senior administration officials back on cleanup duty, but even they refused to deny that Trump shared classified information.

MCMASTER: We don't say what's classified and what's not classified. What I will tell you again is that what the president shared was wholly appropriate.

MURRAY: Adding the president didn't know the source of the information he disclosed, some of which officials say came from U.S. ally Israel.

MCMASTER: The president wasn't even aware, you know, of where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information either.

MURRAY: As Trump's national security adviser insisted the president didn't compromise U.S. security...

MCMASTER: The premise of that article was false that, in any way, the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security.

[17:05:04] MURRAY: He found himself at a loss to explain why another national security official alerted the U.S. intelligence community after the meeting to mitigate any fallout.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If there was nothing that the president shared that he shouldn't have shared, why did his national -- his counterterrorism adviser contact the NSA and the CIA about what he had said?

MCMASTER: I would -- I would say maybe from an overabundance of caution, but I'm not sure. I mean, I've not -- I've not talked to -- to Mr. Bossert about that, about why he -- why he reached out.

MURRAY: Today administration officials also aimed to shift the blame from the president to those who leaked the information.

MCMASTER: I think national security is put at risk by this leak and by leaks like this, and as you know there are a number of instances where this has occurred, and -- and I think it's important to investigate these sort of things.

MURRAY: Tuesday's meeting with the Turkish president...

(on camera): Mr. President, no comment on whether you shared classified intelligence with the Russians?

MURRAY: The latest indication the intelligence uproar is sure to cast a shadow over the president's debut on the world stage as he departs Friday for a five-nation foreign trip.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now the White House found themselves in a tight spot over an entirely separate issue today just ahead of President Trump's visit to Israel. A number of senior administration officials were questioned about the Western Wall and whether this White House believes that it is in Israel.

H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, declined to say whether it was in Israel twice. As for Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, he said it is clearly in Jerusalem, declining to say whether it is in Israel.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed. All right. Thanks very much. Sara Murray reporting. More on that part of the story coming up.

There's also a chorus of concern up on Capitol Hill over the president's sharing of intelligence with Russia, and it's coming from both sides of the aisle. The CIA director, Mike Pompeo's, briefing the House Intelligence Committee right now. Let's go to our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju.

Manu, the Senate Intelligence Committee leaders, they're also, I understand, demanding answers.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. Just moments ago both Mark Warner and Richard Burr, who are the top Democrat and Republican respectively on the Senate Intelligence Committee, emerged from a classified briefing, saying they want answers, specifically meetings with White House officials who were in that private meeting with Donald Trump and top Russian officials where that discussion of classified information apparently took place.

I asked the two senators at this press conference whether or not the White House got permission from Israel, who is apparently the source of this information that went to the Russians, whether they got permission from Israel. They would not say, saying they want more answers.

Now Wolf, this comes as the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, at this hour is sitting down behind closed doors with the House Intelligence Committee trying to get more answers to these questions that are lingering on Capitol Hill. Even from some Republicans who are worried that they are distracting from the president's agenda.

I asked a question of this to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Has confidence been shaken in the president amongst Senate Republicans? This is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), VICE-CHAIR, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We want to know what took place in that meeting and my understanding is that maybe a -- recordings or transcripts. Obviously, we'd like to see that with the appropriate redactions.

RAJU: would that be part of the Intelligence Committee's investigation going forward, this discussion with the Russians? WARNER: I will sit with Chairman Burr, and we'll discuss that. But

again, this is just one more of these -- these dots that seem to be connected.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Apparently, it was the Israeli intelligence that's now been, quote, unmasked and that would obviously give them pause as to what additional information they might provide us with. That's not good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: So Wolf, you're hearing some concerns across the board from Democrats and Republicans alike, but I'm actually told that a closed- door lunch earlier today where Senate Republicans discussed their strategy, this issue about Russia and these discussions actually did not come up as the party tries to shift focus towards health care and their agenda, but they're continually frustrated that controversy after controversy continues to distract.

The question is how do they get ahead of this and whether or not the White House can help them in any way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that frustration continuing to grow. Manu Raju, thanks very much.

While the Trump administration downplays any damage from the president's security breach there is grave concern within the intelligence and diplomatic communities, and a close U.S. ally may be directly impacted.

Let's gets to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, what are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House making an unusual argument today that the president could not reveal the secret source of this intelligence, because he did not know the secret course of the intelligence.

But the fact is intelligence officials, former intelligence officials that we've spoken to expressed a concern that the details of that intelligence that he shared with the Russians could be enough for the Russians, with a very capable intelligence service, to determine where this intelligence originated.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[17:10:06] SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight CNN has learned that Israel, a key U.S. ally provided some of the classified information that president Donald Trump revealed during his meeting with high-level Russian officials last week.

Today the disclosure causing continuing concern among both Democrats and Republicans that the president unduly risked some of the nation's most guarded secrets. The White House maintained there is no issue.

MCMASTER: It was our impression of all of us that were in the meetings, I've mentioned already that what was shared was wholly appropriate, given the purpose of that conversation and the purpose of what the president was trying to achieve through that meeting.

SCIUTTO: However, after reading a summary of the meeting, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert was concerned enough to inform the CIA and NSA. Trump described sensitive details about an ISIS plot to disguise bombs in computer laptops in order to take down commercial jets. The fear expressed by some in the intelligence community is that, based on those details, Russia, a U.S. adversary, could figure out the sources and methods used to gather the intelligence.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: You don't just get intelligence out of thin air. You get intelligence because we deploy spies, because we deploy people who are willing to put their lives on the line and because we work with other intelligence agencies around the world that help provide that kind of information, but it's done on the basis of confidence and trust.

SCIUTTO: Now both Democratic and Republican lawmakers worry that Israel might withhold crucial information in the future.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: If the source is a sister intelligence agency of a friendly country, that country could decide it can't trust the United States with information or worse, that it can't trust the president of the United States with information. That obviously has very serious repercussions and particularly if we're talking about information about a threat to Americans posed by ISIS.

SCIUTTO: As part of its evolving defense, the president's national security adviser said today that the president did not even know the origin of the intelligence.

MCMASTER: The president wasn't even aware, you know, of where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information either.

SCIUTTO: Today, former CIA director Leon Panetta slammed Trump for the disclosure.

PANETTA: The president of the United States cannot just do or say or speak whatever the hell he wants. That's just irresponsible.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: I reached out to the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, earlier today, and he said the following. He said that Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead with President Trump.

Wolf, but the fact is, myself and my colleagues have spoken to foreign diplomats, allies of the U.S., who are concerned about how this intelligence, the most secret intelligence is talked about by the president. It's an ongoing worry we've heard about before, and those concerns deeper now -- Wolf. BLITZER: Indeed. All right. Thanks very much. Jim Sciutto

reporting.

Joining us now, a key member of both the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho. Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: Wolf, thank you very much. Spoil alert. I take a little different view on this than the interviews you've done so far. But...

BLITZER: All right. We're going to -- let's get to those different perspectives. Let me ask you a few questions, and you'll share the latest information that you have.

Legality aside, Senator, was it appropriate for the president to share highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister, the Russian ambassador to the United States, information apparently so sensitive that it wasn't even broadly shared within the U.S. government or with key U.S. allies?

RISCH: Wolf, you can't put legality aside. First of all, it was absolutely legal. The president of the United States has a legal authority to declassify and discuss classified information at any time for any reason to anyone.

BLITZER: It was definitely legal.

RISCH: Let me finish, let me finish the answer.

BLITZER: Hold on a second. Hold on. Let me just point out, it was definitely legal, but was it the right thing to do?

RISCH: Yes, and now if you'll let me finish the answer.

BLITZER: Go on.

RISCH: The president of the United States has the obligation to meet with heads of state of all kinds of countries, whether they're our adversaries or whether they are our allies, and to discuss with them threats to our country, to their country and how we can work together to deconflict those things.

This -- these news reports you've been putting out as -- acts as if this was a one-off, a unique thing. Presidents have done this regularly. Indeed, President Obama less than a year ago took in his pocket the thousands and thousands of classified facts he had, just like all of us have in the intelligence community, met with the Russians and disclosed classified information to the Russians.

And that was that "Russians, we know you are attempting to interfere with U.S. elections." That was a classified fact. He declassified it and talked to the Russians about it. And that was the declassification, the very fact that he talked to them about it. He disclosed it to them. And there's no criticism of that, and there shouldn't be. [17:15:10] BLITZER: Well, here's the difference. Here's the

difference.

RISCH: The president of the United States has the obligation to disclose...

BLITZER: Senator, there's one...

RISCH: ... those facts when it's in the best interest of the United States.

BLITZER: There's one difference in doing that. In a lengthy series of meetings with the top security officials, the top members of the intelligence community and going through what if the U.S. were to disclose this kind of information to the Russians?

It's another thing for the president, just off the top, to go ahead and decide to release this kind of information, not even knowing the source of the information and the potential complications, as we heard from his national security adviser today.

RISCH: Yes, Wolf, I can tell you, picking up the thousands of pieces of classified information that I do, the sources and methods are almost never disclosed unless they are particularly relevant to a danger in the future. So whether the president knew the sources and methods I don't know.

But also you've got to remember that it was not the president of the United States that caused this. It was some traitor who's in the chain of command below the president who actually disclosed this. The focus has all been on a legal act and an appropriate act that the president did, and for some reason, the national media is not in any way focusing on a very illegal...

BLITZER: All right. A couple questions.

RISCH: ... and compromising thing that somebody did that has put the national security of America at risk.

BLITZER: Who's the traitor?

RISCH: I don't know who it is.

BLITZER: Who is the traitor?

RISCH: I don't know who it is, but they -- when they find that person, they ought to be treated appropriately.

BLITZER: Do you know if the president or any of his aides notified the Israelis in advance, "We're going to share this information with the Russians, information that your sources gave you at great risk. We decided we're going to share this with the Russians." Was there any advance word to the Israelis?

RISCH: That's a great question, Wolf, and I can tell you this. I don't know whether they did or whether they didn't, but I can tell you the protocol is that we do not ordinarily notify whatever the source was that we're going to use it to our advantage in some particular situation.

The -- we share intelligence information with all but about two countries on the face of this planet. We get it. We give it to them. It is not protocol -- and the media stories have been coming out saying that, "Oh, they should have notified whoever it was that gave us this information," assuming it wasn't ours -- and I'm neither going to confirm or deny that -- but it is not protocol to go back to a country that has given us information and we say, "Oh, we're going to use it now, and this is how we're going to use it."

BLITZER: Here's the problem. Here's the problem. I've heard this, Senator, and I want your reaction, from Israelis. The Israelis get this information, very sensitive information, give it to the United States.

The United States then gives the information to the Russians. As you know, the Russians are working very closely in Syria with the Iranians, with Hezbollah, two enemies of Israel. The Israelis all of a sudden get very nervous that all of a sudden, the information they shared with the U.S., Iranians might get that information from the Russians, Hezbollah, the Lebanese group, might get that information from the Russians. Does that concern you?

RISCH: Two points. First of all, you heard what the Israeli ambassador has said. I believe it. This is not going to cause any issues between us and the Israelis.

The second thing is if, indeed, what was spoken about -- and I'm not going to confirm or deny that -- and that was airline safety, that is something that we, the Russians, the Israelis and every other civilized country in the world are concerned about. And it is frequent that information, particularly sensitive information, particularly classified information, is shared from country to country as to how to make an airline trip safe, because you don't fly just in one country. Frequently you fly from country to country, and it's important that every single intelligence agency in the world that's interested in airline safety be fully engaged, be fully informed on what's going on.

So I -- this thing is way blown out of proportion when it comes to who's going to be upset about this.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, there's much more to discuss.

RISCH: There is.

BLITZER: I want you to stay with us. We're going to take a quick break. Much more with Senator Risch right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our breaking news: a very defiant President Trump says he has the absolute right to share intelligence with Russia, and his top officials are downplaying any possible damage from his security breach. But we're also learning that a close U.S. ally, Israel, was the source of intelligence that the president gave away to a U.S. adversary, Russia.

There's growing alarm right now. There's outrage up on Capitol Hill, where the CIA director is briefing lawmakers this hour.

We're back with Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho. He's a member of both the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator, last July, you'll remember this, you signed onto a letter requesting the State Department immediately suspend the security clearance of Hillary Clinton. That letter said her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security and put lives at risk. Should President Trump be held to that same standard?

RISCH: Well, Wolf, we started this program like this. One of those two people has the legal right, in fact, a legal obligation to disclose and to declassify information to whoever they want.

The other person you're talking about, Hillary Clinton, had no legal right to do that and, indeed, it was inappropriate in the way that it was done. You're mixing apples and oranges here.

[17:25:05] This -- there is no question that the president has the legal right to do this, and I would argue the moral right to do it and the obligation to do it when he believes it will save American lives, that it is in the interest of the American people, that it's in the interest of national security that he discuss and disclose information that we have that will help our interests.

BLITZER: But his aides say he didn't do it knowingly. He wasn't aware of the sensitivity of this information he was passing along to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. That's a problem, isn't it?

Not at all. What difference does it make, whether he did it knowingly or unknowingly? It was a fact that he wanted to discuss with the Russians that would improve airline safety, if indeed that's what it was all about. He made the decision to do that. He has the legal right and the obligation to do that.

BLITZER: Here's the problem, though, and U.S. officials are making this point; and I'm sure they have made it to you.

When you disclose information that potentially could reveal how that information was obtained, sensitive information, lives are on the line; and that's why news organizations like CNN, like "The Washington Post" in this particular case have declined to report certain information after the intelligence community says, "You know what? If you report that, lives could be lost." That's a sensitive issue. You can't just willy-nilly go ahead and release that kind of information.

RISCH: Well, of course not, and if President Trump had stood up and revealed just to the public just what he did in a classified setting with those foreign leaders that he wanted to discuss those things with, we could have this argument about whether it was appropriate to disclose publicly. That's not what he did.

Look, again, I come back to here, there's a weasel here, and the weasel is not the president of the United States. It's the traitor who disclosed these facts to "The Washington Post." I wish you'd go out and interview "The Washington Post" and ask them to disclose who that is.

BLITZER: Well, those are confidential sources, as you well know.

RISCH: Yes.

BLITZER: Senator, let me get into it quickly, very quickly into another aspect. This entire controversy comes as the president is preparing for his first foreign trip. He leaves Friday for Saudi Arabia.

RISCH: Right.

BLITZER: Then he's going to Jerusalem. It will include a stop in Israel, as you know.

RISCH: Right.

BLITZER: So far -- this is very sensitive -- the White House has refused to say whether the Trump administration believes that the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, is part of Israel. Do you, Senator, do you believe the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem is part of Israel?

RISCH: Yes.

BLITZER: Do you think the White House should acknowledge that, should make that statement, that same point?

RISCH: I'm not going to tell the White House what to do. You heard where I am on it, Wolf, and I'm firm on that. The White House is going to have to take that obligation.

And by the way, this trip that's coming up is a huge deal. You heard McMaster review the details, and I don't know whether anyone was paying attention where they wanted to get to the end of his press conference, where they could ask him about the conversations with the Russians.

But look, he's going to meet with the heads of 50 Muslim states in Saudi Arabia, 50 Muslim countries. This is a big deal that's coming up, this trip, not only Saudi Arabia but then Israel, also to the Vatican and to the European nations. This is -- this is something that really, really deserves the attention of the national media.

BLITZER: Senator Risch, thanks as usual for joining us.

RISCH: Thank you very much, Wolf. I'm glad to -- glad to have been with you.

BLITZER: Yes, we always appreciate your being here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thank you.

Coming up, the latest information about the evolving threat to airline security posed by terrorists' ability to plant bombs in laptops.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[17:30:22] BLITZER: There's more breaking news. Indeed another blockbuster revelation, this time from the "New York Times," which has just published a report saying that President Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to end the investigation of Michael Flynn, the president's former national security adviser.

Let's bring in our political correspondents and our legal specialists, but I want to go to Jeff Zeleny first over at the White House.

Jeff, this is a bombshell right now. Jeff, tell us what the "New York Times" is reporting, because this is going to cause another uproar.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is indeed, Wolf. Michael Schmidt, who covers the Justice Department for the "New York Times," is reporting this, that he's really laying out a series of memorandums that the director of the FBI, former director of the FBI, I should say, James Comey, wrote about the meetings that he had with the president.

And one particular meeting in February, when the president asked him to essentially let go the Michael Flynn investigation, the investigation into whether the first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had any interaction or what interaction he had with Russian operatives.

The president, you know, said that Michael Flynn is a good guy. He asked him to let it go.

Now, this story is based off of a series of memorandums that the former director wrote at the time to sort of keep a record of what the president was asking him. "The New York Times" got ahold of these memorandums, obviously, from someone who's sympathetic to the former FBI director's point of view here.

But Wolf, it really paints a contemporaneous picture at the time as these conversations with the president were going on, you know, that he was asking him to go easy on Mike Flynn.

So again, this report was just posted just a few moments ago, Wolf. But, again, something that shows that this is why the president had been, you know, perhaps thinking about this for a while and was angry at the director for a while, because clearly, the director did not let this go. In fact, the investigation was widening. The scope of this investigation into Michael Flynn was widening right before he was fired, Wolf.

BLITZER: In a statement, the White House is denying this version of events. Let me read to you the statement that's in "The New York Times." "While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn." The statement adds, "The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."

Jeffrey Toobin, you're our senior legal analyst. The third sentence in this article of the "New York Times" says this: "The existence of Mr. Trump's request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and FBI investigation into links between Mr. Trump's associates and Russia."

Your reaction to this bombshell report and the White House denial.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Three words: obstruction of justice. Telling the FBI director to close down an investigation of your senior campaign adviser for his activities during your campaign for president, if that's true, that is obstruction of justice.

Why do you think Director Comey wrote a memo to the file about it? Because he was so appalled that a president of the United States would behave in this way. "Close it down" is an instruction to stop investigating President Trump's campaign.

Richard Nixon was impeached in 1974 for telling the FBI to stop an investigation of his campaign. That's what Watergate was. And, you know, if Comey was telling the truth in this memo -- and obviously there's a dispute about that from the FBI -- from the White House, but if he's telling the truth, I don't know how anyone can see this comment as anything but obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, let me get your reaction and let me read another sentence or two from this "New York Times" article. "Mr. Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior FBI officials and close associates. 'The New York Times' has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey's associates read parts of the memo to a 'Times' reporter." Quote, "'I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,' Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey, according to the memo." Quote, "'e is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.'"

David Axelrod, your reaction.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I echo what Jeffrey said in that this is the -- you know, I've been -- I've not been one to sort of race to the whole impeachment discussion. I think that has been overblown to this point, but this becomes a very serious issue.

If the president called the FBI director in and, essentially, asked him to drop this investigation, then you're getting into a territory where I think the Congress has to take this seriously. And it also gives more coloration to the president's decision to fire Comey, because Comey obviously did not accede to the president's wishes in dropping this investigation of Flynn, and he got fired, which -- if obstruction was part of his motivation, then the firing of Comey is another element of that story.

Now, it all comes down to a "he said" -- you know "he said-he said" kind of dispute and, you know, the White House clearly understands the gravity of this. And they issued that statement quickly to say this didn't happen because of the obstruction implications of it. So it may never be resolved if you have two men who are essentially taking a different account, but it adds -- this has just raised this controversy to a -- a whole other level.

TOOBIN: Wolf.

BLITZER: Here's another -- go ahead. Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: I just -- this underlines the need to determine whether there was any sort of taping facility in the White House, because here we now see a -- you know, completely different versions of a conversation that took place between James Comey and Donald Trump, whether -- whether the president asked Comey to close it down. That could easily be determined if there is a tape. And it can easily be determined whether there is a tape.

[17:40:14] But some -- somebody with some authority, whether it's the House committee, the Senate committee, the FBI itself, has to -- has to take action and send a letter or a subpoena to the White House and ask, "Was this or any other conversation taped?"

BLITZER: Here's another couple of sentences -- and Dana Bash, I want you to react -- from this "New York Times" story. "Mr. Comey had been in the Oval Office that day with other senior national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When the meeting ended, Mr. Trump told those president, including Mr. Pence, the vice president, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions to leave the room except for Mr. Comey. Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the meeting by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey's associate -- Mr. Comey's associates. Mr. Trump then turned the discussion to Mr. Flynn."

I'll read another paragraph. "After writing up a memo that outlined the meeting, Mr. Comey shared it with senior FBI officials. Mr. Comey and his aides perceived Mr. Trump's comments as an effort to influence the investigation, but they decided that they would try to keep the conversation secret, even from the FBI agents working on the Russia investigation, so the details of the conversation would not affect the investigation."

Dana, this is so, so explosive.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: So explosive. So incredibly serious.

And "The Times" report also says that James Comey created similar memos after the other meetings that he had with the president, so this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Maybe the most explosive. But it's very clear that -- that James Comey wanted to get out there that this happened, created this paper trail, real time, contemporaneously rather, in order to protect himself from exactly what happened last week, him being fired, him being blamed and -- and, you know, wanting to know that he has sort of the information at his disposal if, in fact, this happened.

And if you just take a step back, Wolf, just in the past 24 hours, right or wrong, what this president has done, in his first 100-plus days, even before he came into office, is pick fights with the intelligence community and now the law enforcement community, particularly the way, never mind that he fired James Comey but the way in which he did it, not giving him the respect of actually telling him in person or at least not having him find out from cable news.

And so we know that this is -- you know, they talk about the deep state. Well, these are communities that are -- that have a lot of loyalty within and know how to get back, even if you're the president of the United States.

And the fact is that, when the intelligence community found out about the conversation that the president had with the Russians, talking about classified information -- we don't know all the details. We are told that it wasn't as -- as bad as it might have seemed initially. That's what the White House sources are saying. But still the intelligence community leaked that out.

Now we know that the FBI director was keeping notes on some -- on many things. But the fact that this is the first one that he made clear and made public, and it's so incredibly explosive, as Jeff said, is the clearest, most dangerous sign yet of potential obstruction of justice, makes you think what else is going to happen. And it's very hard for Republicans, who have in the past 24 hours been more aggressively critical against the president, begging for a crisis-free day or a crisis-free hour, very hard for them not to take this incredibly seriously.

BLITZER: Very seriously, indeed. And Chris Cillizza, in the story in "The New York Times," you've seen the denial from the White House, you've seen the article in "The New York Times." The -- the main point, though, is that the president of the United States, what he was telling to Comey, Comey would draft memorandum, which are in the file right now -- so there's a contemporaneous record of what Comey says the president told him -- to end this investigation into the president's former national security adviser. "He's a good guy," according to this article. That's what the president said about Michael Flynn.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Three things. One, Comey was concerned enough, as you know, Wolf, to take these notes down; concerned enough about Trump; concerned enough about what he believed Trump was asking him to do.

Two, in order to believe that -- the White House's argument here, you have to believe that James Comey is lying or that the memos that were read to Michael Schmidt at "The New York Times" were misread in some way out of context.

Three, if James Comey was lying and had a sort of vendetta against Donald Trump, he would have released this stuff when it happened or shortly -- leaked it out shortly thereafter. He wouldn't wait in order to preserve the sanctity of the FBI investigation into Russia. So it doesn't strike me that James Comey had a vendetta against Donald Trump and would purposefully misinterpret this.

I think Jeff Toobin and David Axelrod hit it exactly on the head, which is the White House has zero choice but to directly dispute this he said versus he said account because anything other than that puts them in significant legal peril. This is the only option.

Whether it's true, false, or somewhere in between, they have no other choice because the other option, the alternative, is the President of the United States actively meddled in an ongoing investigation into Russia's hacking of the election and what role the guy who was his national security adviser played in that. And, you know, that's the kind of thing that gets a presidency in deep, deep trouble.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It certainly is, especially if there are all these written memoranda in the files there. Pamela Brown is our justice correspondent.

Pamela, you're getting more information. What are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE AND SUPREME COURT CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. I'm learning that former Director Comey was so appalled by this request by President Trump to essentially end the Michael Flynn investigation that he wanted to document it, that he wanted to have a paper trail of this request. And in it, he recapped the conversation he had with President Trump where the President allegedly, according to our sources, said, I hope that you will let this go.

And my source I spoke to today said that he was, quote, "appalled by the request," but I'm also told that it was common for James Comey to create a paper trail and put information and documents if he felt like there was a legal or a moral issue. And in this case he certainly wanted to document it, create that paper trail, and he shared it with his close associates as well as senior FBI officials.

But this is certainly, Wolf, really the clearest example of President Trump discussing the Russia probe with James Comey. We know that he has previously said that he asked James Comey if he was under investigation. But this is certainly a step further, actually asking him to end the investigation to his former national security advisor who had just resigned before that due to the revelations that he discussed sanctions with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Wolf.

BLITZER: "And I hope you can let this go," that's the quote from the President according to this memo obtained by "The New York Times."

Jim Sciutto is our chief national security correspondent. Give us some perspective on this latest bombshell.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it involves so many layers of potential misbehavior by the President of the United States. First of all, of course, it involves Russia. This, at the core of

this investigation, was his first choice, his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, having conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and speaking to them about U.S. sanctions on Russia, this during the transition period, in effect raising concerns that he had conversations about U.S. policy contradictory to the policy of the President preceding President Trump.

Then key to that, that General Flynn then lied to the members of the White House, to the Vice President, and others about the contents of those conversations. So that is material. Russia is material here. Lying about those conversations which, as you know, Wolf, and we've reported, is still the subject of an ongoing investigation of Michael Flynn.

Then the President taking what is truly an extraordinary step for the Commander-in-Chief, to go to the head of the FBI, the nation's top law enforcement official in effect, who is leading this investigation, and apply pressure. Apply pressure to him to end that investigation.

Remember, last week, when the President fired James Comey, it was a question as to whether the President had used undue influence on him, fired James Comey because he was unhappy with where with the Russia investigation was going, or because James Comey was not ending that investigation.

Now, in Pamela's reporting here, confirming "The New York Times" story, we have evidence that the President did use undue influence, based on the word of James Comey, and that James Comey was so struck by it that he took a moment after this meeting to write it down, record it on paper, and show it to others to create not just a paper trail but an account of this meeting, an account of a request coming from the President that, really, is hard -- I'm not a lawyer, but it's hard not to see how that does not get very close to obstruction of justice.

[17:50:02] BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny, you're our senior White House correspondent. You saw the statement from the White House. They're denying this "New York Times" report. But if there are contemporaneous memos from the now former FBI Director James Comey outlining the thrust of these conversations he had with the President in which, according to these memos, the President asked him to end the Michael Flynn investigation, that could be very, very disruptive.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It could indeed, Wolf. And, I mean, David Axelrod was talking earlier about it, it's a he said/he said story, and it absolutely is that. The White House is denying that this evening. They are saying that these conversations didn't happen.

However, James Comey, at some point, is almost certain to testify on Capitol Hill as this deepens. So imagine the spectacle and, you know, this playing out in a televised hearing of the former FBI Director reading from this journal, reading from this diary, if you will, of what was happening at the time. Even though it's his version of events, Wolf, he is a credible person.

Not necessarily liked by all Democrats, of course, but certainly liked actually by more Republicans on Capitol Hill. So that would be something that would be really quite extraordinary for the, you know, former FBI Director, really having his final word there or his say there.

But, Wolf, if you go back in the history of James Comey's time in public service, in 2007, when he was in a situation with the Justice Department, the "Times" mentioned this in its report, and then it refreshes our memory, he was also keeping a journal about the Bush wiretapping program at the time. And some officials were pushing back on him, but his journal turned out to be absolutely accurate as that played out here.

So if this ever becomes a moment of testimony on Capitol Hill, Wolf, James Comey will likely read this out loud. And then, of course, people can make up their own minds. But it certainly is, you know, one more element that we did not see dropping in this. But certainly, he is having the final say or at least the say today, if not the final say, in this extraordinary back and forth with the President, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's truly explosive. Jeffrey Toobin, another line in "The New York Times" article, I want to get your reaction, says this, "An FBI agent's contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversation." So if there is the President's denial, Comey's saying, we'll take a look at my contemporaneous notes, it goes to court or wherever, that could be a very big problem for the President.

TOOBIN: It could be. Virtually, every federal criminal trial involves what's called FBI 302s, which are the notes typed up of every interview, every act that an FBI agent participates in. But let me raise another point that I think is very important here. It's the issue of corroboration.

When you have two people with contradictory versions of a conversation, what you look at is you look at their demeanor. You look at their motives to lie. But you also look at corroboration. And there's a very important point in Michael Schmidt's story here that can be corroborated or not.

Michael Schmidt says in the "Times" story that this was a group meeting, including Vice President Pence and Attorney General Sessions, which ended and then President Trump asked Comey to meet him one on one. Will Pence and Sessions corroborate that there was this separate meeting between Trump and Comey?

If they will corroborate that there was a one on one meeting, that is a significant factor. It's not the only one, but it is a significant factor that would corroborate James Comey's version of events. I mean, this is how trials work, is that you don't just sort of throw up your hands and decide one person is telling the truth and one person is lying. You look at all the surrounding circumstances and try to find corroborating notes by either person, videos. And, of course, you know, the issue that hangs out here, even more

important, is are there White House tapes? President Trump was very coy about that. He suggested there were then he wouldn't answer questions about it. But the question of whether there are tapes and whether this conversation, if it took place, between Comey and Trump was tape recorded now becomes quite possibly the most important thing in determining whether Donald Trump completes his term in office.

BLITZER: Yes, that would be a huge moment if, in fact, there are tapes in the Oval Office of that private conversation between the President and the now former FBI Director.

[17:55:00] Everyone, stand by. We're going to stay on top of the breaking news. A source telling CNN the former FBI Director James Comey left a memo in which he wrote that President Trump asked him to end the investigation of his one-time national security advisor Michael Flynn. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Comey's bombshell memo. Tonight, CNN has learned that former FBI Director James Comey says President Trump asked him to end the investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

[18:00:05] The White House is pushing back against this truly stunning report, even as it struggles with the fallout from the President's sharing of intelligence with Russia.