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Lawmakers Ask to Hear from Comey and See His Memos; Trump's Advice: 'Don't Give In, Don't Back Down'. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired May 17, 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 right now. Breaking news. Comey memos request. Multiple congressional panels ask the former FBI director to testify, and they want copies of his memos as President Trump sits down with finalists to replace James Comey over at the FBI.
[17:00:] Follow the facts. House Speaker Paul Ryan says he has confidence in President Trump and says he just wants the facts before pre-judging anything, but other Republicans are starting to join the calls for a special prosecutor.
"Fight, fight, fight." President Trump says no politician has ever been treated more unfairly. His advice to graduates is to fight, don't back down and never, ever give up.
And Putin's transcripts. Russian President Vladimir Putin offers to share transcripts of President Trump's Oval Office meeting with Russian diplomats. Is Putin having the last laugh at a White House in crisis?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump is meeting with four finalists to replace fired FBI Director James Comey, including former Senator Joe Lieberman who tells us the president's call was unexpected.
This comes amid growing calls on Capitol Hill for a special prosecutor or independent investigator to look into the Comey firing after sources say Comey wrote in a memo that President Trump had asked him to end his investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Multiple congressional committees are asking Comey to testify and requesting copies of his memos.
President Trump was defiant today in a speech to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduates. Complaining about media coverage, he said -- and I'm quoting him now -- "No politician in history has been treated worse." He then added, "Don't give in. Don't back down."
After the president was given a ceremonial saber, the homeland security secretary, John Kelly, leaned over and said, quote, "Use that on the press." Republicans are now stepping up pressure on the White House, and two
GOP congressmen have even raised the specter of impeachment. Senator John McCain says the scandal is nearing, quote, "Watergate size and scale." House Speaker Paul Ryan says he still has confidence in President Trump but wants to get the facts.
All of this comes after the president shared classified information with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. Adding insult to injury, Russian President Vladimir Putin today is offering to give Congress a transcript of that conversation.
I'll talk to the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
The tipping point for many lawmakers is the president's alleged request to James Comey to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn. Multiple congressional panels have now asked to see Comey's memos of his talks with the president.
Let's begin tonight with our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown. What's the latest you're hearing, Pamela?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tonight we're learning that James Comey would discuss with his staff ways to respond to anticipated questions with President Trump out of concern given the ongoing Russia probe, a source saying he wanted to document every single conversation he had with the president in case it became useful someday. And there are more memos that vice haven't been revealed.
This, as fallout over the memos continues for the White House today.
BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, Washington in a state of shock after new revelations that President Trump allegedly urged former FBI Director James Comey to halt the bureau's investigation into Michael Flynn's ties to Russia, a day after he was dismissed from his post as national security adviser. The Senate Intelligence Committee today requesting Comey testify before the committee both in open and closed session.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), INTELLIGENCE VICE CHAIRMAN: I want to see the documents. I want to hear from Director Comey. I want the FBI to come forward with any other relevant materials, and then this committee will continue in its bipartisan way. As we said all along, we're going to follow the intel and follow the facts.
BROWN: Sources familiar with the matter have described Comey's memo of the meeting to CNN, stating the president allegedly said, "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."
Legal scholars say such a request from the president could amount to obstruction of justice. But some skeptics and Trump supporters questioning the timing of the memo's release, wondering why Comey didn't immediately alert Congress when this actually happened.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: We're going to go on to hear from Mr. Comey about why, if this happens as he allegedly describes, why didn't he take action at the time?
BROWN: A source close to the former FBI director says Comey was uncomfortable in one-on-one meetings with the president and would regularly prep for them. According to a source, Comey and his team would discuss scenarios and potential question the president might ask before those meetings and game plan how Comey should respond to avoid being too confrontational. That source saying Comey wanted to make sure he could maintain independence and maintain ethical boundaries.
[17:05:11] Comey regularly documented his conversations with the president, because he thought they were momentous. President Trump had at least three face-to-face meetings with Comey since taking office: January 22 during this photo-op, that January 27 dinner, where Trump you allegedly asked Comey to pledge his loyalty; and the February 14 meeting in the Oval Office with the vice president and attorney general before, sources say, the president asked to be alone with Comey to discuss the fate of Flynn, the conversation at the center of the storm.
At a Senate intelligence hearing just two weeks ago, Comey testified that he would not commit to tell Congress if the White House was not cooperating with the investigation.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Would you tell this committee if there is a lack of cooperation on the part of the White House?
JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I won't commit to that.
BROWN: And Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz has said he wants Comey to testify next week but says his office is having trouble finding him, and a source says Comey wants to tell his story either through an interview or a speech or in open testimony.
And just for context here, speaking to a source familiar, Wolf, I'm told that President Obama did not have one-on-one meetings with Comey after he became the FBI director because, according to the source, he was concerned about the optics of that.
BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Very important to hear the former FBI director's testimony. Hopefully, that will happen soon. Thanks very much. Pamela Brown reporting.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.
Jeff, I understand you have some new information on President Trump's search for a new FBI chief?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We do, indeed, Wolf. Even as the president right now at this moment is talking to finalists for the FBI position, we are learning that his top choice for this position declined earlier in this week, and that was Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. My sources here at the White House and Capitol Hill, Manu Raju, is hearing that the president called Senator Cornyn twice, both before he declined and after he withdrew from this, urging him to consider this position.
Now we are told that Senator Cornyn was initially intrigued by this and, indeed, interested in this, at the idea of becoming an FBI director. Of course, he was a former attorney general of Texas, but then he was persuaded by others that this should not be a moment for a politician to be in that role.
But Wolf, all of this is happening here as the president is trying to find an FBI director before he leaves the country on Friday.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Over the course of your life you will find that things are not always fair.
ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump offering a telling lesson today for graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. His remarks shining a light on his mindset for a White House consumed by crisis.
TRUMP: 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.
ZELENY: The commander in chief's words of encouragement and inspiration overshadowed by the airing of his personal grievances.
TRUMP: Never, ever, ever give up. Things will work out just fine. Look at the way I've 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.
ZELENY: Presented with a ceremonial saber, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told the president this.
JOHN KELLY, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Use it on the press.
ZELENY: Under deepening siege over the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the White House denying the president asked his FBI chief to close down the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, which Comey wrote in a memo at the time.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has been very clear that this is not an accurate representation of that meeting.
ZELENY: For all the finger pointing and endless talk of a West Wing shake-up, the root of the controversy sits in the Oval Office. One top Republican close to the White House telling CNN, "This is on him."
On Capitol Hill, more Republicans joining Democrats, sounding the alarm over what could be obstruction of justice; even early talk of impeachment proceedings.
MCCAIN: I think it's reaching the point where it's of Watergate size and scale and a couple of other scandals that you and I have seen.
ZELENY: Senator John McCain drawing parallels not only to Nixon's Watergate but Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal.
MCCAIN: It is a comparison to other of these kinds of crises that have arisen, whether it be Iran-Contra, whether it be this one, whether it be smaller ones. And they do affect the way we do business in Washington.
ZELENY: Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders walking a fine line, not embracing the president but trying to contain the runaway speculation.
[17:19:08] REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The last thing I'm going to do is pre-judge anything. I'm a person who wants to get the facts. That is our job: to be sober, to be dispassionate, and to get the facts and to do our jobs and follow the facts wherever they may lead.
ZELENY: But some Democrats are not inclined to wait.
REP. AL GREEN (D), TEXAS: I rise today, Mr. Speaker, to call for the impeachment of the president of the United States of America.
ZELENY: Tonight the bigger question is how deep the crack's become in the Republican wall. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska saying, "In order to gain the credibility, it may be that we need to look to an independent commission or special prosecutor."
While the president offered a ray of optimism in his commencement speech...
TRUMP: You can't let them get you down. You can't let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams.
ZELENY: ... he closed with these thoughts.
TRUMP: Thank you, everybody. Great honor. Good luck. Enjoy your life.
ZELENY: So Wolf, the president at this very moment in the Oval Office is talking to other candidates, other finalists for the FBI director's job, including former Senator Joe Lieberman.
Now, CNN talked with him earlier this afternoon. He said he was surprised by this. He got a call from the White House yesterday, but he did come here for the interview. A former governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, also on the 9/11 Commission and a popular elder statesman, Republican governor, he left the West Wing entrance just a few moments ago. He said it was, quote, "a good conversation. I love being in this town." And he smiled as he walked away. But, Wolf, back to the first choice here, again, Manu Raju and I are
learning from our sources that it was Senator John Cornyn of Texas. The president was intrigued by this idea. He was recommended, we're told, by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
The president talked with him over the weekend. Most folks here at the White House thought he would accept it, but come Monday, Wolf, he decided to turn that down. That's why the search is still ongoing tonight.
BLITZER: Very interesting indeed. And I know they hoped to get an announcement before the president leaves Friday on his overseas trip. We'll see if he can still do that. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.
Let's bring in a key player in the Trump Russia investigation, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff of California is joining us.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: So based on what you know right now, is this obstruction of justice?
SCHIFF: I don't think we know enough yet to be able to conclude one way or another. In fact, all we have, really, so far in addition to the president's own statements and admission of bringing up Comey's longevity in in the context of whether he's the subject of the investigation is this newspaper report, which may very well be accurate but still at this point still a newspaper report, that the president asked Comey to drop the Flynn case. That's very serious business.
If it was done with the intent of impeding or obstructing that investigation, then it's a real problem. And, of course, one of the things you look for is what was the president's intent? Was this part of a pattern of interference? Why, if this story is correct, did he ask other people, for example, to leave the room before he had this conversation? Is that a consciousness of guilt in the sense of knowing this was an improper act on his part? So there's a lot for us to find out.
Of course, the very best evidence, if it exists, would be any tape- recorded conversations, as the president threatened he had. The next best evidence would be any memoranda that Director Comey produced and, of course, his own testimony. So I'm hopeful that Congress will retain any evidence along those lines so that we can follow those facts where they lead.
BLITZER: Well, how quickly do you think it will take to get -- to get to read those memoranda?
SCHIFF: I think we should be able to get them in fairly short order. I can't imagine that the FBI is going to put up a fight in terms of providing those. I think it would be very perilous for the administration to try to obstruct the provision of those materials at this point by making some claim of privilege. So I would expect we'll get those materials, I hope, in short order.
BLITZER: Short order meaning within the next day or two or three?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, from my point of view, it can't happen fast enough, but I don't know the answer to that. It may depend on how many memoranda we're talking about, on what subject matter these discussions took place. I would certainly want to see anything not only Russia-related but if it sheds light on the president's motives, or it shows a pattern or practice of unethical conduct, that's something the Congress needs to see.
BLITZER: Have you spoken with the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, about this and asked him to get involved and send over those memoranda?
SCHIFF: I haven't had that opportunity yet. I expect to have that opportunity in the near future. We're certainly going to want to make sure that we get these materials.
[17:15:00] And, again, I can't imagine that they will make that difficult or oppose us in doing so, if they exist. And once again, we're relying simply on the newspaper report, although I think many of us found that report to be very credible.
BLITZER: Do you see a special prosecutor being named to investigate all of this? In other words, are there enough Republicans on board to support that move?
SCHIFF: I don't know if there are enough Republicans on board. At this point Rod Rosenstein could make that decision. It wouldn't require the passage of legislation. I did have a chance to try to help make the case to Mr. Rosenstein last week when I spoke with him. And a point I tried to emphasize is I'm sure there are very good -- I know there are very good, excellent attorneys at the Justice Department. It's not a question of whether they could do the work independently, career professionals.
It's not a question of whether they could do this work independently. The question ultimately is whether the public can have confidence in the result. And there have been enough questions raised about the Department of Justice under the leadership of an attorney general who has now had to recuse himself, as well as potential White House interference that I think, in the absence of a special prosecutor, the public won't have the confidence that these judgments about whether to prosecute someone or whether not to or the leadership of the investigation is taking place in the way that it should.
BLITZER: What did the the deputy attorney general, Rosenstein, say to you?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, he listened to the case. I don't want to characterize his response. I'll let him speak for himself. But I certainly appreciated the opportunity to discuss that. I hope to have another opportunity to follow up on that conversation.
I do think as you see more Republican members sound the alarm themselves and as these shoes continue to fall, that case becomes more and more powerful and, I hope, becomes inevitably irresistible in terms of the deputy attorney general's actions.
BLITZER: You've said that the former FBI director, James Comey, needs to come back to Congress to testify in open session, not behind closed doors. The Senate Intelligence Committee, as you know, has officially asked for this. The House Oversight Committee has asked for this. Has the House Intelligence Committee asked, as well? And how important would an open hearing be?
SCHIFF: I've always been in favor of open hearings and doing as much of the investigation in public as we possibly can. We'll be releasing a statement, and I don't want to preempt our own statement on it, but I hope that we get the documents as soon as possible. I hope that Director Comey comes before the Congress, whether it's our committee or one of the other committees that have asked.
The most important thing is that there be open testimony so that the public can understand, you know, just what the FBI's actions were, just what the president's actions were. If those actions by the president were unethical, we need to know that. If they were worse than unethical, obviously, it's even more important to know that.
If, on the other hand, these reports aren't accurate, we need to know that, and the best way to find out is to determine were there tapes? Were there memoranda and what does the director have to say?
BLITZER: Why didn't the former director go to Congress or the top leadership of the Justice Department or the inspector general at the Justice Department if he felt that President Trump was asking him to act unlawfully and stop this investigation of General Flynn?
SCHIFF: Well, I think that's a perfect -- perfectly appropriate question for us to ask the director. Again, there's no way to know the answer to that, because we're still trying to establish the predicate. That is this that this conversation took place.
But it's more than fair. In fact, it will be necessary to ask the director to answer that question. Depending on the time of the conversation, it may have been at a period when the attorney general had recused himself., and it was not yet a deputy attorney general. Nonetheless, there would have been someone in a position of responsibility at the department.
And certainly, the director could always share those concerns with the committees in Congress, the relevant committees, or at the Gang of Eight legal, if the director felt that it was of that kind of sensitivity.
So those are questions that we will properly ask the director.
BLITZER: Just before we went on the air, I spoke with Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee. As you know, he's invited Comey to appear before his committee on Wednesday. But he doesn't know if Comey is going to show up. In fact, he's had trouble getting in touch with him.
Have you been in touch with Comey directly? Because Chaffetz says he didn't have his new phone number, apparently.
SCHIFF: Well, I'm sure that we can make contact with Director Comey, and you know, we certainly have had, in the course of setting up our own hearings, we've had two with the director just within the last couple of months. So who would have imagined there would be a need to bring the director back to the Congress so soon.
So I'm sure that ultimately won't be an impediment. But no, it haven't spoke with the director since this story broke, which seems like a month ago but was indeed within the last 24 to 48 hours.
BLITZER: So let's just be precise. Have you been in direct contact with the former FBI director?
[17:20:03] SCHIFF: Well, the last direct contact I believe I had with the director was when he came to testify in closed session before the committee, which was shortly before he was fired. I haven't had contact with him since.
BLITZER: President Trump, as you know, tweeted about, quote, "tapes." Will your committee subpoena any recordings of White House meetings between the president and the then-FBI director, James Comey?
SCHIFF: I would certainly support any kind of a process that we need to obtain the best evidence of these conversations. If those tapes exist, we ought to ask for them, and if they are not provided voluntarily, we should subpoena them. But we definitely need to get to the bottom of this and also obtain the very best evidence, and that would be the very best evidence.
BLITZER: Will you see the transcripts of President Trump's discussions with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States?
SCHIFF: Honestly, Wolf, I think that's a farce. For one thing, the Russians are still denying that they hacked into the Democratic...
BLITZER: What about you -- if there are U.S. transcripts, if there was a U.S. tape recording -- a U.S. tape or recording of that session, forget about the Russians for a moment. If there's a U.S. transcript, will you get access to that?
SCHIFF: Well, I would certainly like to have access to that. I don't know whether the administration would provide that or make a claim of executive privilege over that, although if it's in the presence of the Russians, that may be a very difficult claim for them to make.
But certainly, if there were memoranda generated and if sections of that had to be excised because of the classification of the material, that's something that I think we need to know about because we would want to take whatever steps in mitigation that are necessary. I will say this. I find it interesting that you have Vladimir Putin
vouching for the credibility of the United States president about a meeting that took place in the Oval Office. This is astounding.
And it falls on the heels of something else equally astounding, and that is that the Russians would publish these photos showing this very light-hearted, cheerful conversation apparently between the president, Ambassador Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lavrov.
Those photos were probably the last thing that the White House wanted to see in print. So it's interesting the Russians would publish them at the same time you now see the Russians trying to come to the aid of the president, and it's -- it's fascinating to see just how the Russians continue to meddle in our political affairs.
BLITZER: It certainly is. Congressman Adam Schiff, thanks so much for joining us.
SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news. The president now apparently meeting with potential candidates to become the next director of the FBI. We'll have an update on that. A lot more right after this.
[17:27:06] BLITZER: Our breaking news, as President Trump meets with four finalists to replace the fired FBI director, James Comey, there are now mounting calls in Congress for an independent investigation into the entire Comey firing after sources say Comey was asked by the president to halt his probe into the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Multiple congressional panels want to hear from Comey. They also want to see his memos.
Joining us now Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. He's a key member of the Senate Judiciary Committeee.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: So you have publicly described President Trump's conversation with Comey on General Flynn as a, quote, "textbook case of an attempt to obstruct justice."
So what questions would you need answers before you go to the next step and raise the possibility of impeachment?
WHITEHOUSE: I think I said a textbook prima facie case of attempted obstruction.
BLITZER: All right, so explain what that means. WHITEHOUSE: It means that, if there's no other explanation, the
evidence would be sufficient to take the case forward. So I think what we need is an explanation. And at the moment the Trump White House is denying that that conversation even took place, so then the question becomes what were Comey's notes? They're contemporaneous notes, presumably, get him in and get an explanation of what's going on and then let the White House react.
It is absolutely essential that we understand whether or not this was an attempt to obstruct justice in the Flynn investigation. And that's one of the reasons that we want former Director Comey to come into either the -- our judiciary subcommittee, where we are ready to go, or the full Judiciary Committee if we can get the full committee to act. So that's one question we're looking at.
We're also very much hoping we can get Rod Rosenstein and Dana Boente, his predecessor as deputy attorney general in charge of the Russia investigation, into again either the subcommittee, which is ready to go, or the full committee if they will begin to move at the full committee level to talk about whether a special counsel is appropriate and what the safeguards should be.
BLITZER: As you know, moving forward with a formal charge of obstruction of justice, that would require a major, major shift on the part of Republicans.
Are you and the Republicans, at least your colleagues on your judiciary subcommittee, Lindsey Graham, who's the chairman, on the same page?
WHITEHOUSE: I think we're certainly on the same page as to wanting to get Comey before our subcommittee or the full committee, if the full committee will act. And to getting all of the documents. And that, at the full committee, both the ranking member, Dianne Feinstein and Chairman Grassley have signed off on. We sent the letter today asking for all of those notes and records.
And I think we're also both ready to go on the Rosenstein/Boente hearing to look at where the case is and whether a special counsel would be appropriate and what safeguards there should be in place for that.
[17:30:19] So we've kind of been the little subcommittee that could, and we're ready to go again; and these are important questions that belong in the Judiciary Committee.
BLITZER: Are you also seeking any tapes of conversations in the Oval Office, for example?
WHITEHOUSE: We have already asked to have supplied whatever that was, and that, again, I believe was also with the support of both the ranking member and the chairman.
BLITZER: Are there tapes?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, you know, Trump has this weird pattern of sending out tweets and putting the kind of key word in quotes so that he can back away from it. When he accused Obama of having wiretapped him, he put the word "wiretapping" in quotes. And in his tweet about the tapes, he put the word "tapes" in quotes, so it's not quite clear what he is talking about.
But whatever records there are of these key conversations and probably others, as well, we need to get a look at to try to find out what the truth is.
BLITZER: You're the -- you're a key member of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. You've asked the FBI to provide the Comey memos on his interaction with the president. Specifically, what -- what are you going to be looking for in those memos?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, first of all, we need to see what they are and what they say. So their contents are critical.
The other thing that we need to look at is when and how they were prepared. It is usually, from an evidentiary point of view, more compelling if notes were taken either contemporaneously or immediately afterwards. And to hear from Comey about what his intentions were in taking them and to hear him talk about it. I mean, he can be very convincing.
And I think that if the White House is going to say that Comey is lying and is further going to have to say that, while he was still director of the FBI, he was making up votes, falsifying records at the time, that gets to be a bit of a stretch. So the contents are important, but also the timing and sequence of what was written and when.
BLITZER: Do you have any idea when you'll be hearing from the FBI -- the former FBI director?
WHITEHOUSE: I do not. I hope -- the sooner is the better from our point of view. And I would think, from the White House's point of view, they'd want to put an end to this situation and get the answers so that they can close the door on it, assuming that what they're saying is true. If what they're saying is true, they should want to bring this to a conclusion. If they're not telling us the truth, well, then they'll want to spin it out for as long as they can, because the truth will not be helpful to them.
BLITZER: The president's been meeting with more candidates for the FBI director today. Who would you like to see in that role?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think that McCabe, who is there now as the acting, seems very qualified. I'm very concerned about any office holder switching from a Senate or congressional office. I'm delighted that John Cornyn withdrew, because this would be a terrible time, I think, to have yet another Republican elected official in place over there.
Sessions already has had to recuse himself, and we have serious questions about whether he's violated his recusal already. And to just add more of this politicization of the department would be a big mistake. So we're looking for somebody who can be convincingly apolitical, not just to us but to the American people.
BLITZER: Is it really a recusal if he's involved in selecting a new FBI director, who will be looking into all of these Russia allegations?
WHITEHOUSE: Yes, that's kind of the question, isn't it? You -- you say you're recused from an investigation, but you fire the guy who's in charge of it, and you want a role in selecting the person who's going to take it over. It doesn't sound much like a real recusal.
BLITZER: So what are you going to do about that?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, the opening question is at the Department of Justice, is the inspector general, or is the Office of Professional Responsibility looking into this? And if nobody is looking into this, then we need to drill down a lot harder.
If the I.G. or OPR are on the case, then we can wait for them to do their work. But if nobody is looking at policing the boundaries of A.G. Sessions' recusal, we've got a job to do.
BLITZER: Very quickly, the president is meeting with former senator Joe Lieberman. Would you support him as the next FBI director?
WHITEHOUSE: I'd want to -- I'd want to wait-and-see and hear from him. I think there are a lot of -- Joe brings a lot of good qualifications to the table, but a recent experience with federal law enforcement is not one of them.
BLITZER: All right. I'll take that as a "no," at least for now.
Senator Whitehouse, thanks very much for joining us.
WHITEHOUSE: My pleasure.
BLITZER: Coming up, a closer look at the question in the back of many minds here in Washington. What would it take to prove President Trump obstructed justice and using that possibility as possible grounds for impeachment?
BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including congressional investigators now asking the FBI for memos in which the fired FBI director, James Comey, described his encounters with President Trump. House and Senate committees also want public and private testimony from Comey himself.
Let's bring in our political and legal specialists. And Mark Preston, what's the reaction you're getting from Republicans to this bombshell report, which we've now confirmed, that the president sought to try to convince Comey to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn?
[17:40:09] MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. So we've seen the very public posture of many Republicans, where they're now taking a wait-and-see attitude; "We want to see an investigation." Some Republicans have gone so far, Wolf, to say, you know, "We need an
independent prosecutor come in to actually look into this."
Now behind the scenes what I'm being told is that this level of frustration is really starting to grow right now, because Republicans see Trump right now as the possibility of weighing them down.
And when I say that, going into 2018, if Republicans lose control of the House of Representatives and Democrats take it over, day one, Democrats can start issuing subpoenas for everything out of the White House, because they will have control at that point. That is very dangerous for the Republican Party, because it could put Trump in jeopardy of all the things he's been trying to hide.
BLITZER: They could subpoena his income tax returns, too, among a lot of other things. The majority has that subpoena power.
Jeffrey Toobin, I guess the impact on Republicans, a lot will depend on what is actually in those Comey memoranda.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, of course, and, you know, I still believe that facts matter, and, you know, this newspaper report and the excellent reporting by Pamela Brown and Jake Tapper, you know, that established that these memos exist. But the most important thing is what the memos actually say.
TOOBIN: It seems quite clear, though, that the momentum for Comey to testify and disclose the memos is unstoppable and actually moving very quickly. So we may see these memos as early as next week.
BLITZER: Well, David Axelrod, is it a guarantee that Comey will testify in open session? Is it a guarantee that those memos will be released to members of Congress?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, I think that whoever -- first of all, let me compliment Jeff Toobin on his quaint belief that facts still matter. I think that's a great -- great and important thing.
TOOBIN: Thank you.
AXELROD: I think whoever released that information, whoever leaked those -- the portions of those memos, Wolf, did so with the full knowledge that that was sending a big flare up over Washington. And it is almost inconceivable that the memos won't be in the hands of Congress, either voluntarily or by subpoena, very shortly and that the director or the former director will follow. I expect that both the memos and he will be there.
And let me say, you said earlier, I heard you say that Jason Chaffetz said they haven't gotten in touch with him because they don't have his new number. I saw news -- news crews were filming him doing garden work at his place. So I bet the intrepid investigators over at the Oversight Committee, given time, can find him, as well. BLITZER: Yes, they haven't talked to him yet. At least Chaffetz hasn't spoken to him yet. He's trying. He'd like him to appear next Wednesday morning before that Oversight Committee.
Rebecca Berg, how vulnerable, potentially, could Republicans be in the mid-term elections?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Mark hit the nail on the head, Wolf. They could be very vulnerable, and they are very vulnerable, because Republicans are at the mercy of the president and his approval rating; and right now his approval rating remains in the basement. It's around 40 percent. Some polls recently have shown it below 40 percent. That is lower than Obama really ever got in his terms -- two terms as president. This is tantamount to George Bush after Katrina approval ratings.
I mean, this -- his approval ratings are really, really bad right now. And there is a direct correlation between the performance of the party's politicians running for re-election and running for election and the president's approval ratings, and especially if you look at history. The first mid-term election after a new president takes office is always really hard on the president's party, even more so when you have this constant chaos coming out of White House, constant controversies.
Republicans are in really bad shape if the trajectory we're on continues.
BLITZER: What does it say to you, Mark Preston, that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, all of a sudden trying to back the president, President Trump, saying, "You know what? If Congress needs a transcript of that conversation the president had with the Russian foreign minister, the Russian ambassador of the United States, we'll share it with you."
PRESTON: You know, honestly, I would almost like to pump this to Jeffrey Toobin just for the level of exasperation we would see on his face, because of the frustration that he's had. Although I'm not punting to you yet, Jeff. Is that I would say this. I would say this. It's absurd, and it's absurd.
The fact of the matter is that we had the foreign minister and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office, especially when all of our intelligence agencies have told us that their country interfered with our elections. This is just another level of absurdity from the White House, including whether or not Donald Trump tapes his conversations.
PRESTON: Which we don't know.
TOOBIN: If I could...
BLITZER: Go ahead. Putin says -- Putin says...
TOOBIN: If I can just live up to my reputation as the prince of exasperation, the -- remember, this was a meeting that the American press was excluded from. So the only photographs we have of this meeting are from the Russian Foreign Ministry. And there, we see the photo credit right there. And we have the possibility of the only factual account of what went on from Vladimir Putin. So it's sort of all around a great experience.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: David Axelrod's exasperated as well. Go the ahead, David.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, no. I said earlier that I think this is tantamount to a convicted bank robber offering to testify as a character witness for the alleged wheelman, you know, in the caper. I mean, the whole thing is so ludicrous. But I think it was meant to embarrass the country and, to some degree, create a sense of chaos that has now enveloped the White House.
BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. Everybody, stand by. Coming up, a closer look at the potential case for obstruction of justice given the President's own words and actions towards the former FBI Director.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[17:51:02] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including lawmakers up on Capitol Hill calling for testimony from the former FBI Director James Comey and requesting the memos about his meetings with President Trump. Democrats, in particular, they are wondering a lot if the President obstructed justice.
Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's been looking into all of this, what it takes to prove obstruction. What are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're hearing tonight that for all the talk of possible obstruction charges in the wake of the revelation of the Comey memos, there is a long grinding process ahead if anyone is going to eventually impeach this President for obstruction.
TODD (voice-over): President Trump admitted he had something on his mind when he fired his FBI Director James Comey.
TRUMP: In fact, when I decided to do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. TODD (voice-over): Tonight, the troubling question following those
remarks to NBC News, coupled with the revelation according to sources that the President asked Comey to end the FBI's investigation into Michael Flynn, was it obstruction of justice?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, FORMER WATERGATE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: I think what Mr. Trump said was an admission, and we ought to credit that as being the motivating reason why he fired Mr. Comey.
TODD (voice-over): Legal analysts say that's close to what the law defines as obstruction of justice. But the bar for proving that in a criminal case is high, especially if it's a he said/he said dispute. You'd have to prove intent.
RICHARD PAINTER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS LAWYER: The mental state of mind is very important in a criminal case. What you'd have to establish in this case would be that the President not only expressed the desire that the Flynn investigation be put to rest, but thought to apply pressure to the FBI Director to end the Flynn investigation.
TODD (voice-over): Experts say based on the evidence made public so far, it's very unlikely Mr. Trump would be prosecuted while in office. He may be exempt from charges stemming from his acts as President while he's serving, and it's unlikely the Justice Department under one of his biggest supporters, Jeff Sessions --
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: Make America great again.
TODD (voice-over): -- would either bring charges or appoint a special prosecutor. But that's not the only way to try the President for obstruction. Congress could attempt to impeach him. The House would have to investigate, draw up charges, and vote on articles of impeachment. It would resemble a criminal trial.
STEPHEN VLADECK, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS SCHOOL OF LAW: The House of Representatives serves the function of the grand jury. It's their job to identify the charges, to present the charges, and to indict or, in this case, impeach the defendant, the President. And then it's Senate that does the job of the usual jury and judge, right? That it's their job to hold the trial, to call witnesses.
TODD (voice-over): Then two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote to impeach the President. Experts say all of this could take several months, if not years, to play out.
TODD: Now, a huge question tonight is whether Congress, with both houses led by Republicans, is going to have the political will to establish a commission to investigate the President or to push impeachment proceedings in the months ahead. Political analysts say that's going to depend heavily on what James Comey may say in testimony to Congress, what evidence he presents, and how he present it -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It may also depend heavily, Brian, on the political fortunes of Republicans in Congress, right?
TODD: That's right, Wolf. We're told there are roughly 18 Republicans in the House who are vulnerable to losing their reelection bids in the next midterms. If more bombshells hit with President Trump, if those vulnerable Republicans start to feel the heat, we could see them distance themselves from the President, throw their support toward possible investigations, impeachment proceedings, and the party may support them. The GOP is very concerned, we're told, that it's going to lose that House Majority.
BLITZER: These are really, really critical moments right now. We're going to watch this very, very carefully. Brian Todd, thanks very much for that report.
Coming up, more on the breaking news. As multiple congressional panels ask the fired FBI Director James Comey to testify, President Trump tells graduates to follow his example and never ever back down.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[17:55:04] TRUMP: Things will work out just fine. Look at way I've 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[18:00:02] BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We have major breaking news right now. The U.S. Justice Department has just named a special counsel in the Russia investigation. Let's go right to our Justice Correspondent Pamela Brown.