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Trump: Special Counsel Probe a 'Witch Hunt'; Deputy Attorney General Briefs Full Senate on Probe. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 18, 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. "It hurts our country." President Trump lashes out at what is now a special counsel investigation into Russia's election meddling and its contacts with his campaign. He calls it a witch hunt, and he tells network anchors that the investigation, quote, "hurts our country."

[17:00:27] Explaining his decision. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein briefs the full Senate, and lawmakers say he told them he knew the FBI director, James Comey, would be fired writing a memo recommending the firing.

Naming a director. The president says he's very close to deciding on a replacement for James Comey and says one of his top picks is former senator Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee turned independent.

And Flynn's troubling ties. New details on the fired national security adviser Michael Flynn's foreign connections. Did he scuttle a U.S. military mission against ISIS because of his ties to Turkey?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump publicly slams the special counsel investigation into Russia's election interference and its contacts with his associates. He calls it a witch hunt that divides the country and insists there is no collusion with Russia. Earlier, speaking to me and to other television network anchors, the president called the probe -- and I'm quoting him now -- "a very, very negative thing" and said, "It hurts our country terribly." He called the investigation an excuse for Democrats losing the election.

The president flatly denies that he asked the fired FBI director, James Comey, to end the investigation into Michael Flynn and says he's very close to choosing a new FBI director, saying former senator Joe Lieberman is one of the front-runners. Lieberman was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000. He later became an independent.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who last night appointed special counsel Robert Mueller, today briefed the full U.S. Senate. Senators say Rosenstein revealed that he knew James Comey would be fired before Rosenstein wrote his memo recommending the dismissal. Senators indicate the investigation is a criminal probe and note that congressional investigators may take a back seat to the special counsel.

I'll talk to Senator Dianne Feinstein. She's the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. And Democratic Congresswoman Catherine Rice of the Homeland Security Committee. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's stop stories.

More stunning comments today from the president. Let's go straight to our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, the president opens up to reporters. Tell our viewers what he said.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We did, Wolf. And a decision that has been widely approved and welcomed by many Republicans in Washington, the president is seething over this decision to name a special counsel to look into any allegations of Russia meddling in the 2016 election.

Now, he talked about this for the first time in a -- you know, this this type of setting, in a press conference in the East Room of the White House. He said it was simply political, and it called it, again, a witch hunt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP )

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself, and the Russians, zero.

I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.

So I can tell you that we want to bring this great country of ours together. Believe me, there's no collusion. Russia is fine. But whether it's Russia or anybody else, my total priority, believe me, is the United States of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: Wolf, that's a pretty extraordinary statement there. The president had the opportunity to talk about Russia's role in the 2016 election, which is undisputed by any leader of the intelligence community. It's widely agreed to by virtually everyone but him, and he did not take that opportunity to say anything negative about Russia at all.

And also, Wolf, he made another distinction, saying that he was not involved in any type of activity or coordination with Russian officials. He said he could not speak for anyone else on his campaign. That was very interesting.

Wolf, he was also asked directly at this press conference about the report earlier this week that he asked the FBI director, James Comey, earlier this year to close down the investigation into the first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. This is what he was asked.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you at any time urge former FBI director James Comey in any way, shape or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn. And also as you look back...

[17:05:08] TRUMP: No. No. Next question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next question. As you look back over the past six months or year, have you had any recollection where you've wondered if anything you have done has been something that might be worthy of criminal charges in these investigations or impeachment, as some on the left are implying?

TRUMP: I think it's totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so. And again, we have to get back to working our country properly to take care of the problems that we have. We have plenty of problems. We've done a fantastic job. We have a tremendous group of people, millions and millions of people out there that are looking at what you have just said and said, what are they doing.

Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision -- and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. But when I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision. Because you look at all of the people on the Democratic side, not only the Republican side, that were saying such terrible things about Director Comey.

Then he had the very poor performance on Wednesday. That was a poor, poor performance. So poor, in fact, that I believe -- and you'd have to ask him, because I don't like to speak for other people -- but I believe that's why the deputy attorney general went out and wrote his very, very strong letter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: Wolf, that answer there is a bit divorced from the reality that's happening on the other side of Washington, on Capitol Hill, with the deputy attorney general talking to senators.

And the reality here is the miscalculation that this White House made about the firing of James Comey is something that will haunt them for a very long time. It, of course, led to this special counsel there.

But the president saying in no certain terms he thought it would be a bipartisan decision. Again, this was a decision made last week, so closely held, not widely discussed in this White House. There wasn't much room for input. It turns out that decision, Wolf, again is something that he misread and his advisers misread, as well.

BLITZER: And I know, Jeff, we're hearing the president is very close to naming his choice for the new FBI director. What are you hearing?

ZELENY: He is indeed, Wolf. He said earlier this afternoon he is almost on the verge of doing it. He said that Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic senator, former Democratic vice-presidential nominee, is one of his top picks. Our sources are saying the same, that they do, as of now, expect it to be former Senator Lieberman. Things could always change and evolve. He could perhaps not accept it, if offered. We do not believe he's been formally offered it yet.

But Wolf, this is moving very fast. It was only yesterday at this very hour that Senator Lieberman flew to Washington and had his first and only meeting with the president on this.

So it is getting mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, very close to Senator Lieberman, saying it's a good idea. Patrick Leahy, a veteran senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee from Vermont, Wolf, he said this. I was struck by this. He said, "Nothing against Joe, but I think we should have somebody who has not been involved in partisan politics."

So if the president goes this direction, that is some of the criticism he'll be facing here. Why name someone in politics? Why not someone from the law enforcement community -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny reporting for us at the White House. Jeff, thank you.

The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who named the special counsel last night, was up on Capitol Hill today briefing the full U.S. Senate.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty. Sunlen, what are you learning?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Rod Rosenstein, Wolf, spending about two hours up here on Capitol Hill, meeting behind closed doors with the full U.S. Senate. This was something that was scheduled last week in the wake of James Comey's firing, but certainly taking on new importance tonight, not only with the daily drip of information about this investigation, the appointment of a special counsel, but also new questions swirling tonight about former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): Tonight Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Capitol Hill facing lawmakers, briefing the full Senate behind closed doors after appointing the former director of the FBI, Bob Mueller, as special counsel for the Russia investigation.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX), MAJORITY WHIP: He'll get to the bottom of this, and I think that's really important.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: A respected public servant of the highest integrity. Everyone respects him.

SERFATY: A choice met with widespread bipartisan support.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I believe that the professionals at the Justice Department need to do their jobs independently, objectively and thoroughly, and I believe the special counsel, which is Robert Mueller now, helps them do that.

SERFATY: But lawmakers from both the House and Senate making it clear they're not letting up and will continue on with their own congressional investigation.

[17:10:08] SEN. MARK WARNER (R-VA), VICE-CHAIR INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: It means the -- our investigation is more important than ever. The chairman and I have talked about literally doubling down.

SERFATY: Some new concerns are emerging.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We had a really good hearing with Yates and Clapper where the public could hear what happened with Ms. Yates and Mr. Clapper. I think that opportunity has been lost, maybe for the greater good.

SERFATY: Now that a special counsel has been chosen, some are concerned it could overshadow or even hamper the congressional investigations. In effect, whether former FBI director James Comey will testify before Congress, which has been called for by numerous congressional committees.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN: We happen to think that an open hearing in front TV Intelligence Committee is the right way for him to do it.

SERFATY: The latest revelations are bringing President Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, back into focus. "The New York Times" reporting Flynn told the Trump transition team two weeks before inauguration, before he was chosen for the job, that he was under federal investigation for working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, an issue because Flynn had not registered then as a fortunate agent and was working on behalf of another country while a senior transition official.

A senior White House official tells CNN "The New York Times" report is not true, and Mike Pence, who is head of the transition team, said in March that he hadn't known.

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me say hearing that story today was the first I heard of it. And I fully support the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn's resignation.

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: You're disappointed by the story?

PENCE: The first I heard of it.

SERFATY: A Pence aide tells CNN the vice president stands by his comments in March upon first hearing the news regarding General Flynn's ties to Turkey.

This as new details emerge that during the transition Flynn, whose firm was paid more than $500,000 by a Turkish-owned company, rejected an Obama administration offer to arm Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS. Turkey opposed such a move, and the Trump team said it wanted to review its ISIS strategy. Since Flynn's departure, the Trump administration has changed course on this decision.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: And back here in the Senate, leaving that briefing with Rod Rosenstein tonight, numerous Democratic senators saying that Rosenstein acknowledged during that briefing today that he knew James Comey was going to be fired one day before he sent out that memo that was released by the White House.

Of course, that memo really held up by White House officials as original justification for why James Comey was going to be dismissed. And tomorrow, Wolf, the full House will hold a similar secure briefing with Rod Rosenstein, as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. She's the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee; also a key member of the Intelligence Committee. Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: You're welcome.

BLITZER: So the president told me and some other TV anchors earlier that he believes the appointment of a special counsel, in this case Robert Mueller, quote, "hurts our country terribly," will simply help Democrats. I want you to react to that coming from the president.

FEINSTEIN: Well, I respect it, but I disagree with it 100 percent. I think it is a terrific appointment. I think it says to both sides this is going to be a strong, independent investigation. It's going to carry out the concepts for which it was legislated and do so in an important way.

Bob Mueller, you have to know -- and I think you do know this, Wolf -- is known to many of us. I knew him when I was mayor of San Francisco and he was U.S. attorney. And, of course, during my time here when he was head of the FBI, and he's no nonsense. He's direct. He's trustworthy. He's truthful. He's a very special man. And I think he's going to be an excellent special counsel.

BLITZER: Is there a concern, though, that your Senate investigations or House investigations could get in the way of the federal efforts or be diminished in any way? I asked the question because that's what Senator Lindsey Graham suggested.

FEINSTEIN: Yes, I don't really believe so. I believe they have all the authority they need to move in virtually any direction they need to go, and I know Bob Mueller is independent. He knows how to conduct an investigation, and I think he will do it in a way with which -- and we will all be proud of it.

BLITZER: Senator Graham also just said that he believes this Russia investigation that the federal government is now engaged in is now considered a criminal investigation. Back in March the FBI director, James Comey, said he was looking into this. He described it as a counterintelligence investigation. This will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

[17:15:00] Explain the difference between a counterintelligence investigation and what Senator Graham now is calling a criminal investigation.

FEINSTEIN: Well, that's exactly what it is. It is to look into what counterintelligence came our way and to see if anyone was culpable to the extent of being held criminally liable. So it is both a counterintelligence investigation as well as a criminal investigation. And I think Senator Graham is absolutely correct.

BLITZER: The last time we spoke, Senator, I asked you if you had actually seen evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and you said to me -- and I'm quoting you know -- you said, "Not at this time." Has anything changed since we spoke last?

FEINSTEIN: Well, not -- no, it hasn't. So I would depend on this investigation that we're talking about, that would bring forward any criminal activity and, of course, has the right and the ability to charge people, select targets, look at them, bring about an indictment.

And so it's a very big investigation, and I think somebody that's as sophisticated as Bob Mueller is really the one to carry it out and see that it does not go awry, it does not overreach, but it's what it should be.

BLITZER: But I just want to be precise, Senator. In all of the -- you've had access from the Intelligence Committee, from the Judiciary Committee, all the access you've had to very sensitive information, so far you've not seen any evidence of collusion. Is that right?

FEINSTEIN: Well, evidence that would establish that there's collusion. There are all kinds of rumors around. There are newspaper stories, but that's not necessarily evidence.

And so you've got the Intelligence Committee looking at it, and you will have the Mueller investigation going on. And it's the Mueller investigation that would bring forward solid evidence on which you could base a criminal case and indict someone.

BLITZER: And you have totally confidence in Robert Mueller, the new FBI director -- excuse me, the new special counsel.

FEINSTEIN: Yes.

BLITZER: The new special counsel. You were just briefed by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. Senator Claire McCaskill, your colleague, says Rosenstein told senators that Rosenstein knew the FBI director, James Comey, would be fired before he sent that memo to the president. Did he explain why he actually sat down and wrote that letter? FEINSTEIN: No, and -- he did not. He refused to answer those

questions around that memo. So we're left to our own deductions, but that didn't happen in the committee. A number of questions were asked. I asked one. Others asked one about it, and he was very circumspect and very reluctant, which surprised me, to directly answer the question.

BLITZER: Did he...

FEINSTEIN: I mean, we can make a deduction, but he did not make an affirmative or a negative response one way or another.

BLITZER: So he didn't explain his reluctance to give you an answer to that very significant question?

FEINSTEIN: No. I've read the memo, as I think I've said several times, and as you know, what he does is he quotes several people, largely from news publications, interviews, op-eds. He mentions the October surprise, which was Mr. Comey's coming forward 11 days before the election with another investigation on e-mails relating to secretary Clinton, and points out that that was not the appropriate or proper thing to do.

And it concludes with saying that he does not believe that Mr. Comey could take appropriate corrective actions. That's not a direct quote, but I think it's an accurate quote.

So one has to deduce he clearly did not in this memoranda say, "I believe this man should be fired or I believe he should be replaced." So whether it was a memo that was made at the suggestion of someone to back up what the president was doing, I can't answer that. I don't know. I know what the president told me.

BLITZER: Because you don't think there's suspicion -- the suspicion is he was forced to write that memo, you've heard that?

FEINSTEIN: I've heard that.

BLITZER: Pardon?

FEINSTEIN: I have heard that.

BLITZER: And you believe he was?

FEINSTEIN: But not in this -- not in this -- in this briefing. He was very circumspect. I was rather surprised. He was very circumspect. It was a long briefing. It was well over an hour, perhaps an hour and a half that we sat there.

[17:20:26] I happened to find a seat in the front row, so I was able to see him very well and watch him very well as he answered the questions. And what surprised me about it is that when we had him before us on the Judiciary Committee, he answered questions very directly, very precisely, and today he did not.

So one has to infer, which is always dangerous and not a good thing to do. But I think it was a worthwhile briefing, and it was closed and parts were classified. So we all have to be very careful of what we say.

BLITZER: Do you feel, Senator, that Rosenstein believes he was used as a scapegoat by the Trump administration?

FEINSTEIN: I can't answer that. I don't know.

BLITZER: Did Rosenstein in the meeting you had today with him support the firing of the former FBI director James Comey?

FEINSTEIN: Well, all I -- in the meeting he did not -- or in the briefing he did not. In his memo, my reading of the memo is that -- and I'm going to use this word because it's the only one I can come up with. It was kind of vaguely supportive, supportive in the sense that the final paragraph of the memo says that he doesn't believe that Mr. Comey either could or would take the corrective actions that would be necessary to set this straight. And the big -- in the memo, as you know, the big criticism was Comey's coming forward, announcing an investigation when the FBI does not usually announce investigations.

And I think I was somewhat critical of that myself, because he could have gotten a search warrant and looked into Weiner's computer to find if there were any e-mails that were relevant to an investigation. He didn't do that. And, of course, there were no e-mails that were relevant to a new investigation, so there was no new investigation. But the general public didn't know that 11 days before the election.

BLITZER: Yes. And Hillary Clinton, as we know, blames the release of that information in part for her defeat. Do you have confidence in the deputy attorney general, Senator, Rod Rosenstein?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I have based on -- I don't usually decide confidence or no confidence based on one thing. You have to assess the performance of an individual over a substantial period of time. I've not had -- this is not a cop-out, but I've not had a chance to do that, and I don't think it was fair. I think it's fair to say I was a little puzzled that he wasn't more forthright in answers to many of the senators who had questions, and I'd just like to leave it at.

BLITZER: All right. Your Judiciary Committee has invited the former FBI director, James Comey, to testify. Have you received a response?

FEINSTEIN: No, the letter went out last night, and it went to a P.O. Box. So I was just looking at it and saying, "I hope Mr. Comey got it and will respond."

He has said in the past that he would be pleased to come before a committee. We are the committee of jurisdiction. We have the oversight, legal authority over the Justice Department and the FBI, and so I really feel -- and I serve on both committees. I really feel that the committee of sort of first jurisdiction is the Judiciary Committee.

BLITZER: Will you get access, Senator, to the Comey memos? And if you will, when? FEINSTEIN: I can't answer that. We've asked for them. Senator -- my

chairman has -- and I have sent a letter asking for all memos, records, letters, et cetera that would be connected. So we'll see.

BLITZER: Do you believe the president's fired national security adviser Michael Flynn will cooperate with your Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenas?

FEINSTEIN: Well, that's actually a very good question, and the real answer is I don't know. I do suspect he has a lawyer, and it may well be that the lawyer has said not to do it, at which point he would likely come before us and say, "I've been advised by counsel not to say anything that's incriminating and in violation of my Fifth Amendment rights." In other words, take the fifth before the committee. That's always a possibility.

[17:25:12] BLITZER: And then the possibility would be if you would grant him immunity. I know that's something down the road.

One final question, and I know you've to run, Senator. The president said today that former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, a man you know well, is one of his top picks to become the next FBI director. He was the Connecticut attorney general before he became a senator. No experience specifically at the FBI, but you served a lot of time with him...

FEINSTEIN: Yes.

BLITZER: ... in the U.S. Senate. Would you have confidence in him and would you vote to confirm him?

FEINSTEIN: Well, here's the thing. I think we -- that the appointment must be what's right for the FBI at this time. The FBI is a law enforcement organization. It's 35,000 people, a third of whom are agents. It is, in fact, separate from the political operation of our government, and I think -- and I feel this very strongly -- that the best appointee would be somebody that comes up in the FBI, actually a career appointment, someone who has been good, strong, is intelligent, understands this huge agency well. And there is one, and that's Andrew McCabe. And he is the man in charge at the moment -- well, not quite, because we've now got a different situation. But that's -- that would be my recommendation.

I don't think the president will take it, and I regret that, because I don't think somebody should be a "D" or an "R," a Democrat or a Republican. They should know all of the laws and regulations that govern this agency and be able to give it the kind of management direction which is strong and true and dedicated to the agency's independence and not to Capitol Hill. It's the Constitution and the law that matters with respect to the agency.

BLITZER: Does it make any difference that Lieberman is now an "I," an independent?

FEINSTEIN: Well, it is a political party so to speak. I love Joe. Joe was part -- it was in the Senate with me. I came to respect him. He's been a candidate, as you know, for president.

And I think that the political part of this is not the best part for the FBI. I think the FBI has to have someone that every member of that agency respects, because they know they're law enforcement. They know they're not going to cave to political whims, and they know that they're talented in doing the law enforcement job.

BLITZER: We've been hearing a similar line from many of your colleagues, senator. Thanks so much for joining us.

FEINSTEIN: You're very welcome. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to continue to get more reaction to the breaking news. Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen Rice of New York is standing by. She's a member of the Homeland Security Committee. She's also a former federal prosecutor.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:32:45] WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM ANCHOR: Breaking news. President Trump attacking the appointment of a special counsel, denying any collusion between his campaign and the investigation of Michael Flynn, as well as the overall Russia investigation. Let's get some more with Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen Rice of New York. She's a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, she's a former federal prosecutor. Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

REP. KATHLEEN RICE (D-NY), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE MEMBER: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: All right. So, watch and listen to what President Trump just had to say about the appointment of this new special counsel, Robert Mueller.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero. I think it divides the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. What do you make of that?

RICE: Well, it's not surprising that that would be his position. I am surprised he had anything good to say about Robert Mueller, but I think that Mr. Rosenstein did the -- not only the right thing but the only thing that he could do under the circumstance, with every -- all of the stories that were coming out. I mean, it was -- it was really the only thing that he could do, is to appoint a special prosecutor. Robert Mueller, you can't find one person to say anything about his character, his integrity. They're both unimpeachable. And hopefully, now, we're going to get to the bottom of whether or not there was any collusion. BLITZER: The Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, told senators

today that he knew the former FBI director James Comey would be removed before he wrote his recommendation. Here's the question, do you still have trust in Rosenstein?

RICE: Do I -- yes. I mean, I think that -- Wolf, let me put it this way. He's talking to a bunch of senators and he said what we know is true because it was confirmed even by the President. Everyone believes and the President himself confirmed that the original reason for giving -- for firing Comey was not true, that he had known all along that he wanted to fire him, it was not based on Rosenstein's letter. Rosenstein got upset when he heard the President saying that it was based on that and then he walked that back. So, I don't think it's surprising that Rosenstein said that to senators. We're going to be hearing from him in the House tomorrow. And I assume he's going to be saying the same thing to us.

BLITZER: You're a former federal prosecutor. Are you worried, Congresswoman, that the investigations being led in Congress right now, the House and Senate, may actually wind up slowing down because this special counsel has been named?

[17:35:09] RICE: No, I'm not worried about that at all. I think they are on two parallel tracks and there's no question that the investigation being led by Mueller is going to take a front seat. It is a criminal investigation, he has subpoena power, he has the ability to indict and prosecute, if it comes to that. And I think every other subpoena request or testimony request is going to take a back seat to the actions of Mueller at this point.

BLITZER: Senator Lindsey Graham said today that this development means that the role of Congress in his opinion will be diminished and that public access will diminish as well. What do you say to that?

RICE: Well, I'm going the say what I've always said, which is I still think that we need an independent commission. I think it's important that we have a criminal investigation going on given the information that has come out, but there's nothing to prevent both committees in the House and the Senate to continue their investigation because I -- both their investigations, but also for an independent commission to do a parallel investigation, and they would really be acting on behalf of the American people. Mueller might develop some information that he cannot share with the public in the immediate because of the nature of his investigation. So, I think an independent commission should do a report and an investigation into exactly what level of interference Russia had in our elections so that we can prevent it from happening in the future bus that's exactly what we want to do, but we also want to make it very clear to the American people exactly what happened. And Mueller might be a little hindered given the criminal nature of his investigation. So I'm hoping that republicans at this point will agree that an independent commission is the appropriate way to go.

BLITZER: The Vice President, Mike Pence, is standing by his comment that he only learned of General Flynn's undisclosed lobbying work for Turkey from news reports back in March. Do you believe the Vice President? RICE: I think that Mike Flynn has actually refuted that himself by saying that he made the transition team aware that he was under federal investigation, and the head of the transition team at the time was Mike Pence. So I don't -- I don't exactly know. I think that this is another issue that is going to be looked into my Mueller, as well it should. But, what this says, Wolf, is that it's not -- you know, you could -- you look at how Donald Trump ran his campaign, is he pushed for extreme vetting, and we need extreme vetting of refugees and everything was about extreme vetting. And yet, he ended up appointing someone to be in one of the most sensitive positions in his administration, as NSA chief. And it was someone that he knew was under criminal investigation, someone he knew had worked for the Turkish government, someone he knew had traveled to Russia and gotten paid for it. And now, as if that is not bad enough, there may have been other people in his now-administration that we're aware of that, too, which is very, very troubling.

BLITZER: Before Flynn was fired as the National Security Adviser, he reportedly rejected a Pentagon plan to arm Syrian Kurds in the battle to retake Raqqah in Syria, a move that aligns with Turkey's interest. What concerns does that potentially raise for you?

RICE: Well, this is exactly why it is required that people divulge any contact or payment they are receiving in any form from any foreign government when they are in the United States government, and Flynn didn't do that. And so then, it raises the question, for whom was he acting, for whom's benefit. And that question has yet to be answered. It could go either way. He could -- it could have been that he thought that we should wait on that military action, but it could also be that he was acting in part on behalf of a government that had paid him in the past to advocate for them. And this is the problem with this issue and why I'm so happy that Rosenstein took the step that he did -- happy, I'm gratified, as a - not just as someone here, a Congress person, but as an American, as a vote, too, that we have someone who sees the need for an independent special prosecutor who has the experience to do this investigation, and will hopefully once and for all, get to the bottom of this.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Kathleen Rice of New York, thanks for joining us.

RICE: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let's get some insight from our political and legal specialists. David Chalian, a few of us T.V. anchors, we had lunch with the President. He said this appointment of the special counsel - he said, I believe it hurts our country terribly because it shows we're divided - we're a divided, mixed up, not unified country, and we have very important things to do right now. That's getting a lot of play out there right now, his angry reaction.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: And I mean, you were there. Did he seem angry to you (INAUDIBLE)

BLITZER: Seemed very upset. [17:39:56] CHALIAN: Yes. So to me, he is now trying to create a

playbook here for a defense, a public defense I should say, and that is to make this a partisan back and forth. 1That's how -- that's how he thinks he's going to be able to get through this. The problem is, unlike when Bill Clinton tried that very thing in 1998, Bill Clinton's party was on board with the strategy with him, they were willing to make it a partisan warfare against Newt Gingrich and the republicans. That is not the case right now. That's not what we're hearing from republicans on Capitol Hill. They're saying, we're really glad to hear that there's a special counsel is put in place. Lindsay Graham was up there saying now you've got to go ask the questions of the special counsel. That has to be fully investigated. That's not the President's party coming to his side and joining him in this battle that he's saying that this is just about the election results last year.

BLITZER: Earlier in the day, Jeffrey Toobin -- in the morning, actually, the President tweeted this reaction to the naming of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, quote, "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history." I see you smiling already as I'm reading that tweet. But tell us why?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST AND FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: But how do you - how do you really feel, Mr. President?

BLITZER: Yes.

CHALIAN: Right.

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, I think, you know, this is how Donald Trump operates and this is how he got elected President of the United States. So, who are we to say that this is not going to work again? His problem here is that his party and everyone else -- and democrats and republicans have nothing but good things to say about Director Mueller. And another difference, I mean, David was pointing out a difference with the - with the way Clinton responded to the Kenneth Starr investigation. Kenneth Starr was very much associated with the Republican Party and with republican policies, so the effort to demonize him by Clinton allies had a lot more traction. Mueller is a very tough target. If he starts picking on Mueller and saying Mueller is not doing a good job and Mueller is a partisan and Mueller is out to get him, that's going to be a much tougher sell given Mueller's very long record of non-partisan, highly-qualified, highly-honorable service. So, you know, this is going to be a long process, but attacking Mueller is unlikely to generate much traction beyond Trump's core supporters.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar is with us as well. This is how the President defended his decision today to fire the FBI director James Comey. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I respect the move but the entire thing has been a witch hunt, and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero. I think it divides the country.

Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision, and I also got a very, very strong recommendation as you know from the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, but when I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision because you look at all of the people on the democratic side, not only the republican side, that were saying such terrible things about Director Comey. Then he had the very poor performance on Wednesday. That was a poor, poor performance. So poor, in fact, that I believe -- and you'd have to ask him because I don't like to speak for other people -- but I believe that's why the Deputy Attorney General went out and wrote his very, very strong letter. And then, on top of that, after the Wednesday performance by Director Comey, you had a person come and have to readjust the record, which many people have never seen before, because there were misstatements made. And I thought that was something that was terrible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As you know, Brianna, the -- Rosenstein said -- apparently told members of the senate today he wrote that memo already knowing that the President was going to fire Comey.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, who else told us that? Donald Trump himself in that interview with Lester Holt. So the problem here is that both of these things cannot be true. What Donald Trump said today, hanging this all on Rod Rosenstein and what he said to Lester Holt last week, they're mutually exclusive. So, that means either he was lying last week or he was lying today. Now, talking to democrats and republicans, everyone that I've spoken to thinks that he was going to fire Rosenstein all along.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Comey.

KEILAR: -- that he was going to fire Comey all along, it didn't have to do with this Rosenstein letter, and that what Rosenstein said today on the Hill was true. I think what's stunning, though, is four months into his presidency, there's this huge lack of credibility. He had not much capital going into this and he's squandered a lot already. Where does that leave his presidency at this point?

[17:45:00] BLITZER: And republicans are reacting to that, Nia. You're listening to what they're saying.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, I mean -- and you heard them today on the Hill. Lindsay Graham talking about this is a criminal investigation at this point, privately really complaining about this White House, complaining about credibility problems. I mean, if you look at this White House over the last four months or so, so many people have been caught up in situations where they've come off as not telling the truth. People like Vice President Pence, who on a number of occasions -- high profile of occasions -- have gone out and put his good name on the line for this president, and then it turned out not to be true. So a lot of concerns -- I do think the Mueller, you know, sort of that appointment has calmed some people down a bit, but where this presidency goes in terms of the credibility, in terms of really being able to get an agenda done, still a lot of worries with republicans.

BLITZER: You know, David, with Bob Mueller now in charge of this investigation, how worried should the President be?

CHALIAN: I think pretty worried. I mean, I don't think -- the sigh of relief that Nia is talking about is about republicans on Capitol Hill. I think at the White House, I don't think it's as much of a sigh of relief. They may believe that they have at least gotten out of these dark clouds that hang over them every day right now, and can go on this foreign trip. But there's -- this is going to be a real thorough investigation, and listen to what the President said, I thought so interesting in the bite you played, he said, "I can only speak for myself."

Henderson: Right.

CHALIAN: I can't speak for my campaign. He did the same thing in the interview with NBC and Lester Holt. He said, and of course, "I'm speaking for myself." This is somebody who is clearly carving out a legal scenario where he is going to only be responsible for himself and not for his campaign's contacts with Russia.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Jeffrey, is it time for the President and some of his associates, as they say, to start lawyering up?

TOOBIN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean, you know, they would be totally irresponsible. And it's also -- there's precedent for that. I mean, you know, Bill Clinton had Bob Bennett who represented him in the Paula Jones case, and David Kendall who represented him in the Starr investigation. There's nothing -- there's nothing -- you're not admitting anything by hiring a lawyer. You are exercising common sense and that's what not only the president is going to do but lots of people in that White House who are all going to wind up being interviewed or testifying before a grand jury.

BITZER: Everybody, stand by. We're going to take a quick break. Much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories including President Trump at a news conference, just a short time ago, calling the investigation into Russia's meddling in the presidential election, quote, "a witch hunt". Our Brian Todd is over at the Justice Department. Brian, you've been getting new reaction to the appointment of the former FBI Director Robert Mueller as the special counsel in the Russia probe. What are you hearing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you reported, just a short time ago, President Trump said this new special counsel investigation, quote, "hurts the country," saying that it shows the country is divided. But there is a lot of sentiment in Washington tonight that this new investigation and the man leading it are going to turn out to be a positive development. Robert Mueller's reputation for integrity and perseverance, many say, are going to define this investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: He's become more famous than me.

TODD: If President Trump thought firing James Comey might ratchet down the Russia investigation and rid him of some headaches, the move might have just boomeranged on him.

PAUL ROSENZWEIG, FORMER ASSOCIATE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: The President has lost control of the investigation. The way it's been set up now, Mueller is completely independent of Department of Justice control.

TODD: When Comey led the Russia investigation as FBI Director, experts say he didn't have many of the powers that new special counsel Robert Mueller is about to wield.

ROSENZWEIG: Authority to convene a grand jury, authority to issue grand jury subpoenas, authority to bring charges and prosecute cases, and seek to put people in jail. All of those are things that a Department of Justice prosecutor can do that an FBI investigative agent cannot do.

TODD: Tonight, the President is also dealing with an investigator who many believe is nonpolitical and above reproach.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER SPECIAL COUNSEL UNDER ROBERT MUELLER: I think he's a person of absolute integrity. He's a marine.

TODD: Robert Mueller, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was appointed FBI Director just days before 911. He served in the job for 12 years, longer than anyone except J. Edgar Hoover. FBI directors typically serve 10-year terms. Mueller was so respected that when President Obama asked him to stay on past that, the senate voted 100-0 to extend his term, and Mueller and Comey have a history with each other. In March 2004, when the Bush White House wanted to reauthorize a controversial surveillance program, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and Comey, his deputy, refused, saying it was illegal. When Ashcroft was hospitalized shortly thereafter, Bush's chief of staff, Andy Card, and White House counsel, Alberto Gonzalez, went to the hospital to try to persuade Ashcroft to sign the order. Comey raced to the hospital to intercept them and stood by Ashcroft's bed.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.

TODD: Ashcroft deferred to Comey, his acting attorney general. Another player who had Comey's back, Robert Mueller.

ZELDIN: Bob Mueller, FBI Director, backs Comey all the way through the process, taking his own notes on the conversations as he learned them and when the matter came to fruition and the conversations of what occurred and who did what to whom transpired, Comey and Mueller were completely aligned with what actually occurred and prevailed.

TODD: The Bush White House team backed down. (END VIDEOTAPE)

[17:55:03] TODD: Analysts say Robert Mueller's long-standing reputation for integrity, for (INAUDIBLE) for attention to detail could also help President Trump. They say that if Mueller digs and finds no collusion with the Russians among Trump's team, then Mueller's gravitas will vindicate the President. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thank you. Coming up, more on the breaking news, President Trump calling the Russia meddling investigation a witch hunt and insisting it divides the country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Cries of witch hunt. President Trump slams the appointment of the special counsel and flatly denies he tried to influence the FBI's Russia investigation.