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Did President Trump Commit Obstruction of Justice?. Aired 3- 3:30p ET

Aired May 17, 2017 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:00]

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That is the key concern of this president. Is so-and-so a team player?

Well, what does that mean in terms of the FBI? Because he probably thinks Comey wasn't a team player, right, one of the reasons he fired him.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Why he fired him, exactly, exactly.

BORGER: Yes.

BALDWIN: Just important to remember through all of this -- in the thick of all of this, they need their -- they're still looking for this new FBI director.

Brian and Mark and Gloria, thank you so much.

BORGER: Sure.

BALDWIN: We got to move along. Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: All right, we continue on. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

"The president wants to get to the bottom of this," but reports of conversations between President Trump and James Comey are -- quote -- "not accurate."

That is the message from the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, moments ago from Air Force One. Reporters trying to get more information from him about this stunning new report, a memo from the former FBI director, James Comey, that claims the president asked him privately to stop investigating the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, reportedly saying -- quote -- "I hope you can let this go."

Congress now demanding any memo, along with Mr. Comey's testimony, and the House Oversight Committee has just scheduled a hearing on the FBI for next Wednesday, as lawmakers raise concerns that President Trump may have obstructed justice, may have. Amid all of this, as we were just discussing in some of the questions

posed to Sean Spicer on that plane, silence from the president for 22, 23 hours now, except for the comments he just made this afternoon during this spring commencement at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy just a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You will find that things happen to you that you do not deserve and that are not always warranted, but you have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight.

Never, ever, ever give up. Things will work out just fine. Look at the way I have been treated lately, especially by the media.

No politician in history -- and I say this with great surety -- has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can't let them get you down. You can't let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: So, with now, Jake Tapper, host of "THE LEAD, "STATE OF THE UNION."

I mean, when you hear the words of the president today in Connecticut, taking on an added significance in the cloud in which he finds himself, based upon all this breaking news, what did you think when you were listening to him?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, my first reaction is, he's speaking to graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. And these are men and women who will be on the front lines of protecting the homeland.

BALDWIN: This is their commander in chief.

TAPPER: Yes. And they will be literally in boats in the middle of the night fending off narco-traffickers, whomever.

It can be a very dangerous job. And I'm not exactly sure -- the president seemed to be complaining and expressing a degree of self- pity. And I'm not exactly sure what these people who are about to put their lives on the line are supposed to feel pity about.

So, that's my first reaction.

My second reaction is, four U.S. presidents have been actually literally assassinated and killed. So, I think that there are people who have been treated worse than President Trump has been.

But more broadly speaking, when it comes to a president who has been treated unfairly, that president led the charge claiming that the first African-American president was born in Africa...

BALDWIN: Right.

TAPPER: ... which is not only a charge that is false, but it is not a little bit racist.

So I don't really understand why -- that appeared to be scripted. That didn't appear to be an ad lib. Maybe I'm wrong. But, more broadly speaking, every single one of the president's wounds is self- inflicted, every single one of them.

So I don't really understand the propensity for self-pity at a time like this. It's a time for him to get it together, get back to work on behalf of the American people and the voters who are counting on him, the people who went to the polls in droves, because they want to be -- have their jobs restored, who want their borders protected, who want to be safe from terrorism, who want the swamp drained.

That's why he's there. And, honestly, if he's worried about a few harshly worded editorials, I don't really understand what the problem is.

That's just my -- you asked my reaction. That's my reaction.

BALDWIN: No, I appreciate it. That's what I wanted.

What about for certain members of Congress or people coming out and saying, well, then why didn't Jim Comey -- if he felt this way and he was taking these notes and it was the alarm bells on this meeting that he had had with the president, why didn't he go straight to Capitol Hill or to the DOJ and speak about this then?

[15:05:07]

TAPPER: I actually -- we -- Pamela Brown and I matched the "New York Times" reporting on this yesterday.

And, information, this source close to Comey told me there are more memos. There's not just one after this meeting on February 14 in the Oval Office.

BALDWIN: Yes.

TAPPER: There are other memos in which he specifically -- he wrote them when he had encounters with the president that made him uneasy.

But I asked him that question, because I think it is a fair question from some of the president's defenders. And the answer was because -- quote -- "It wasn't a very successful effort by the president and Comey thought he had pushed back on it."

He was very sensitive to how difficult this was going to be to work with this president. He also thought he could do it. And you and I have spoken about this before. James Comey, the former FBI director, the former deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, is somebody -- and I'm not saying this sneeringly. I'm not saying this pejoratively.

He is somebody who has a very high regard for his sense of ethics and integrity. And I'm sure that he thought, OK, I pushed back on that, and I remain the best person for this job. I will be able to push back on this and still make sure that there is a fair investigation and that justice is done.

That's the James Comey that I have been covering for years. So, whether or not you buy it, I'm sure that is his mind-set, as the source close to him described.

BALDWIN: If, according to your source, that he has multiple memos, at what point does the world hear about the additional details of conversations that made him uneasy with the president?

TAPPER: Well, again, as somebody who has covered James Comey for many years, I don't know when we are going to hear from him, but I'll tell you, we are going to hear from him, because, if there's one thing that James Comey has shown throughout his career, it is he keeps meticulous, contemporaneous notes, whether it's a memo or an e-mail, about what is going on, and especially when it's in the middle of controversial events, professional events in his life.

BALDWIN: No matter the political party affiliation.

TAPPER: When he was deputy attorney general, there were -- ultimately, these stories would come out with e-mails or memos from Comey in which he was on the righteous -- quote, unquote -- "side" of the torture memos in the Justice Department or the NSA wiretapping renewal program -- remember, when Ashcroft was on his sickbed -- and other controversies, and the firing of the U.S. attorneys.

And at every time, he's somebody, as they teach you to do in law school, especially when it comes to law enforcement, who kept meticulous, contemporaneous notes.

BALDWIN: Memorialize it.

TAPPER: And so, whatever you think of James Comey and whatever you think of President Trump, this is not a good guy to get into a fight with.

He says, by the way, the source close to him says, Comey hopes that there are tapes, the ones that the president threatened last week.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Just fine. Go ahead, play them out.

TAPPER: Release them.

BALDWIN: Yes.

TAPPER: He wants them released.

The only reason he wrote these memos is some -- in some form of corroboration. Tapes would be even better. So, you know, as they say, be careful what you wish for.

BALDWIN: Last question before I let you go. All these names are coming out, President Trump meeting with four FBI director candidates this afternoon, including Joe Lieberman. TAPPER: It would surprise me if he's picked.

Senator Lieberman is a great patriot and was a fine senator, and was a historical figure, first Jewish American on a major party vice presidential ticket, but I don't think that he will be...

BALDWIN: Selected?

TAPPER: Well, I don't think he's a bipartisan gift.

I don't particularly think that Democrats who are in the Senate in 2017, especially after Joe Lieberman was a supporter of John McCain in 2008, think of Joe Lieberman as, oh, this is Joe Lieberman reaching across the aisle. I don't know that they feel that way.

A lot of them didn't serve with him. And a lot of them probably look at him supporting John McCain over Barack Obama and think, is this really a gift to the Democrats? But who knows? I mean, he is an honorable man who has served his country nobly.

BALDWIN: OK, Jake Tapper, thanks for time.

TAPPER: Thanks.

BALDWIN: Thanks for spending time.

TAPPER: Appreciate it. Of course.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

OK, so the Comey fallout pushing Capitol Hill into action. Intel Committees in both houses , they want to see all of these Comey memos. The Senate has already asked him to testify in open and in closed sessions. And at least one Democrat has gone there with the I-word, but House Speaker Paul Ryan still standing by the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. AL GREEN (D), TEXAS: I rise today, Mr. Speaker, to call for the impeachment of the president of the United States of America for obstruction of justice.

I do not do this for political purposes, Mr. Speaker.

[15:10:02]

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: There are a lot of unanswered questions. What I told our members is, now is the time to gather all the pertinent information.

Our job is to be responsible, sober and focus only on gathering the facts. That is what Congress does in conducting oversight of the executive branch.

We can't deal with speculation and innuendo. And there's clearly a lot of politics being played. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: CNN congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty has more reaction from Capitol Hill.

Is support for the president at all starting to crack?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it slowly is, Brooke.

We certainly have many more Republicans outside today really breaking ranks with leadership and coming out and saying that they would potentially be in support of a special prosecutor or an independent commission. We heard that from Senator Susan Collins, Murkowski, and Congressman Kinzinger, saying they are essentially open to that idea.

But they are still by far the minority of Republicans up here on Capitol Hill. And we did see an attempt by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan earlier today really attempt to frame this as he sees it essentially for his caucus. You saw the word there sober being used, saying that we should not prejudge the facts.

He says their job is to get all of the facts and then come to a conclusion based on where those facts lead them. And that's certainly what many committees up here on Capitol Hill are indeed doing. And we are seeing many Republicans really add to the chorus up here, not only calling for James Comey to release those memos, but also come up here on Capitol Hill in person and testify publicly.

Earlier today, we heard from Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Mark Warner, who said today they have re-upped that invitation to James Comey. They haven't heard back yet. But he says he fully expects him to testify at some point.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: I think it's awful hard for any member of the Senate, Democrat or Republican, not to realize and recognize that this investigation is -- is the most serious thing that I think even the whole Congress is taking on at this point.

I'm as confident as anything I am -- and confident about this investigation that we are going to hear from James Comey. And I think we are going to hear from in a way that is going to be fully forthcoming.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: And Warner said he expects to hear from James Comey potentially early next week.

We also know, as you said before, that the House Oversight Committee, they have set a hearing for next Wednesday. Chairman Jason Carroll has also invited Comey to testify. He wants that to happen that morning.

Of course, it seems he's having trouble contacting Comey as well. He certainly is the man of the moment -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Sunlen, thank you very much.

Listening to you, I also have my eye -- there he is, president of the United States. Here we have Air Force One. It's landed now at Joint Base Andrews, as he is now heading home from his commencement speech he gave to the Midshipman up in Connecticut at the United States Coast Guard Academy, heading off the plane, and then will be walking over to Marine One, that helicopter, momentarily that will take him back to the White House.

As part of this breaking story here and questions swirling, including, according to this fired FBI Director James Comey's memo, did the president commit obstruction of justice? How can that be proven? We will talk to two legal experts to debate that. And how much does his intent really factor in?

Also in to CNN, one of Trump's closest friends weighing in on the memo. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says he's prosecuted these cases. He also has worked with James Comey for years and years -- what he's saying today.

You're watching CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:17:21]

BALDWIN: Back now with the legal debate over whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice.

According to a source who has a copy of Comey's memo, President Trump said -- quote -- "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

With me, Jeff Cramer, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and now helps lead an investigative consultancy. Also with me, CNN legal analyst Danny Cevallos.

So, guys, good to have both of you on.

And, Jeff, you just heard me quote James Comey's memo. Do those three lines at all, in your opinion, constitute the president obstructing justice?

JEFF CRAMER, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, it's kind of a soft sell, if you will. And there's really two ways -- two things to look at.

One, did the conversation happen? And I think, with the atmospherics of Jim Comey and the memo and showing the memo apparently to others within the FBI, kind of to lock in the time frame, I think we can be comfortable that the conversation happened and that the memo or memos exist, which bring us to the second thing. Does obstruction lie? The hard part, the reality is, you're not going

to indict the president of the United States for obstruction of justice. I think, if he was anyone other than the president, I think prosecutors would have to look very hard at this.

It's a tough one. It does go to what the intent was, but clearly the intent was to forestall or to impede the investigation. That's why the statement was made. So, again, if he was anyone other than the president of the United States, I think prosecutors would have to look long and hard at the intent of that statement.

BALDWIN: I was reading -- Danny, let me -- listening to Jeff.

But I also was reading a conservative opinion columnist in "The New York Times" and Trump critic Ross Douthat, who said, no, no, maybe we shouldn't quite go that far, but he also mentions the 25th Amendment.

25th Amendment allows a president's Cabinet to deem him -- quote -- "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

Where are you on obstruction of justice vs. 25th Amendment vs. something else?

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, there's two separate issues.

There's whether or not obstruction of justice lies. Under federal law -- and anyone who practices in federal court will tell you the DOJ has the benefit of very broadly drafted federal statutes, particularly in the area of crimes like obstruction of justice.

There are at least three different sections that this conduct could arguably fall into, but it's not a slam dunk. The second question is whether or not the president can be indicted while in office. And the general sort of weight of constitutional scholar authority is that he cannot. He would first have to be removed.

So, he doesn't have immunity in that sense, other than the belief that he cannot be prosecuted while in office. He must be impeached first, then prosecuted. He is the only official that that happens to. Anybody else can be simultaneously impeached and prosecuted.

[15:20:10]

BALDWIN: What about the 25th Amendment?

CEVALLOS: The 25th Amendment wouldn't protect him from being impeached.

The first step would be impeachment. You would first someone -- the House of Representatives would have to decide that he committed obstruction of justice. Then a Judiciary Committee would vote or recommend that it be -- that impeachment articles be filed.

And then that would go to the House. The 25th Amendment cannot prevent or insulate or do anything to stop either impeachment or, post-presidency, a prosecution. BALDWIN: OK, Danny, thank you.

Jeff Cramer, thank you.

We are going to move along.

Still ahead, we're going to talk about James Comey's next move with a reporter who has been following the former FBI director for more than a decade.

Also, how does this translate on Wall Street? The Dow down 300 points right now, how the chaos in Washington could affect your bottom line.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER TUCHMAN, FLOOR BROKER: I kind of think, though, we're at a point where it seems like the presidency is starting to crackle and become vulnerable. And I think Wall Street is feeling that for the first time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:26:45]

BALDWIN: Breaking news on Wall Street right now, will pop it up, and you can see the Dow reacting to the turmoil inside the White House. It's down. Look at all of that. It's down now 311 points with about half-an-hour to go until closing bell.

CNN money digital correspondent Paul La Monica following the market.

And you are saying to me in commercial break, don't look at your 401(k) right now.

PAUL LA MONICA, CNN DIGITAL CORRESPONDENT: Do not look at your 401(k).

Obviously, this is a bad day for the markets. But stocks are still up pretty sharply since the election and also for the year. But you know who really doesn't want to look at their 401(k) today? Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn. Goldman Sachs is the biggest drag on the Dow by far. It's shed more than $4.5 billion market value just in one day.

BALDWIN: And all this volatility, this is directly affected by all of this breaking news out of Washington?

LA MONICA: It's all about the political uncertainty that so far most people that I have talked to on Wall Street, they have brushed it off, they have laughed it off, it's amusing, it's a soap opera, whatever you want to call it.

Now it's starting to get real, because if we get a sense that you could have anything that really derails for good any chance of tax reform, deregulation of health care and financial services companies and big spending on infrastructure as stimulus, that's a problem, because the market had been built up on those hopes.

BALDWIN: Yes.

Paul La Monica, thank you, CNN Money.

LA MONICA: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Appreciate it.

The American people -- quote -- "The American people will get a chance to hear from Director Comey shortly."

That's what we're hearing from Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Mark Warner, who says the committee has asked the FBI for all of these Comey memos, and has also invited the fired FBI director to testify.

So let's go to his assistant managing editor of CNN's Investigative Unit Eric Lichtblau, who has been reporting on Comey for more than a decade. In his prior role, he's led "The New York Times"' reporting on the relationship between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.

So, Eric, welcome to CNN. You came to us at the perfect time, because I want to drill down on your knowledge of Mr. Comey. And now that we know he's been called to testify or asked to testify, do you -- what do you expect to hear from him?

ERIC LICHTBLAU, MANAGING EDITOR, CNN INVESTIGATIVE UNIT: Sure.

Well, fireworks.

BALDWIN: Yes.

LICHTBLAU: That will be quite an event, a hearing, a congressional hearing for the history books, really.

You think of the famous ones over the years, Howard Baker, what did the president know and when did he know it? Anita Hill is another famous one.

Comey himself has been involved in a couple of famous ones over the years, going back to where he described the famous hospital scene, rushing to John Ashcroft's bedside over Bush's secret eavesdropping program.

But I think this one will top even that, to have him basically testifying about the man who just fired him last week and, if our reporting is accurate, based on the memo that he wrote, suggesting that the president tried to obstruct his investigation. That -- those are some fireworks.

BALDWIN: You know, you mentioned the scene, the Ashcroft bedside in the hospital. I think that was '04 and his note-taking then.

LICHTBLAU: Right. BALDWIN: I mean, just in terms of Comey the man and his memorializing

all these key meetings in his world, whatever, whatever, whether it's dealing with Dems or Republicans, tell me more about why he's been doing this, and then also, how many more of these notes do you think we will get out?

LICHTBLAU: Well, I will take the second one first.

I think that there are, from our reporting, multiple memos about all of his interactions with the White House, because he saw them as potentially problematic.

I asked one source, did he just document the uncomfortable ones? And the source said, well, all of them were uncomfortable.

BALDWIN: Wow.

LICHTBLAU: And going back to his note-taking over the years, I think, as a good lawyer, you know, steeped in relying on what the FBI calls 302 forms, written documentation, he was an assistant U.S. attorney, then, of course, the prosecutor in Manhattan.

The written documents were key to his ability to serve as a prosecutor and ultimately the FBI director. And he was involved, not by chance, really, in some historic moments over the last 15 years.

The difference, I think, now is that you have got to remember his reputation has really taken a hit the last year, at least in the eyes of some Americans, over the Hillary e-mail investigation and his handling of that. So, I think --