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Notes From Trump-Russia Meeting Leaked; Trump Leaves on First Foreign Trip; NYT: Trump Told Russians Comey was a "Nut Job". Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump is on his way to Saudi Arabia. This will be the first stop on his very first international trip since taking office.

And shortly after Air Force One left the tarmac this afternoon, new explosive headlines about the Russia investigation continued to break, as they have for the last week or so, "The New York Times" now reporting that, according to a White House document, President Trump in the Oval Office told Russian officials 10 days ago that James Comey, the FBI director, was a -- quote -- "nut job."

The paper, quoting the document, based on notes taken during the meeting in the Oval Office with President Trump, had the president saying -- quote -- "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."

As the president heads overseas, sources tell CNN some officials in the National Security Council are hoping upon hope that President Trump will not cause any international or diplomatic incidents. The responsibility for that lies with this man, national security adviser general H.R. McMaster.

A source knowledgeable about McMaster's day-to-day challenges telling CNN -- quote -- "It can be difficult to advise the president effectively, given his seemingly short attention span and propensity to be easily distracted" -- unquote.

The source adding that McMaster's task is further complicated by fears on the NSC that President Trump can be reckless with sensitive information -- quote -- "You can't say what not to say to President Trump, because that will then be one of the first things he will say" -- unquote.

A high-stakes trip with an unpredictable president.

Let's start here in Washington with CNN's Sara Murray, who joins me now live from the White House. And, Sara, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement, and between the lines, he's not denying that President Trump said those things about James Comey and the pressure of Russia.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It's a very interesting statement for exactly that reason, Jake.

I'm going to read a portion of it. It says: "By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. The investigation would have always continued and, obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it."

So you see no denial about "The New York Times"' story, no pushback about the quote that they highlighted, saying that this move would take pressure off the president in terms of the Russia investigation. Of course, now we know that's not the case.

We saw the deputy attorney general name a special counsel to oversee that investigation. These are all the things that are going to be hanging over the president and splitting his focus as he is on this foreign trip.

Now, he, a number of his aides, a number of his allies outside the White House had hoped to sort of use this trip to turn the page, to turn away from the Russia investigation and instead to focus on his presidential agenda, to focus on deals he hopes to do and tout while he's abroad in this five-nation tour.

But it's pretty clear that these challenges are going to follow him right there on this trip, which is going to span nine days. We know that he was a little bit angry, a little bit frustrated heading into it already. I can't imagine that headlines like this breaking here at home are going to make that situation any better for the president or his top aides, who are huddled together right now on that very long- haul flight to Riyadh -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Let's go to Maggie Haberman from "The New York Times." She's one of the reporters who broke this story. She is joining us by the phone.

And, Maggie, this is a remarkable comment from the president, not only the inflammatory terms he uses to describe the FBI director, but the fact that he would tell Russian officials that there was great pressure from the Russia investigation, but now that's taken off.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right, Jake, and thanks for having me.

You know, you see further down in our story that a government official defended the president, describing this essentially as a negotiating tactic.

I think that there's two ways to read this. One is the -- you know, through a nefarious lens, which is that a president who is under investigation fired his FBI director, then talked about it with the adversarial nation whose representatives were in the Oval Office the next day, describing everything you just laid out, and that that was sort of a form of explaining to them what he had done that would alleviate a situation.

The other is that this is a president who has a discursive speaking style and who believes that he can negotiate his way through anything, and still does not seem to fully understand the import of his words and particularly the import of his words in different situations as a president.

And, you know, I don't know what was in his head, but this is obviously going to be an explosive remark, because it is an unusual thing, to say the least, for a president to do.


TAPPER: And, Maggie, the president -- the White House is not disputing the document that an American official read to you, in which these quotes were contained, based on contemporaneous notes taken in the Oval Office during the meeting?


Look, you saw the statement that Sean Spicer released, which is very similar to what he gave us. The White House did not dispute the quotes that we asked about. People can read into that what they want, but the Spicer statement does not contradict our reporting.

And, frankly, Jake, I mean, the thing that's sort of remarkable, that this president, which I think you know and others know who have spoken to him, is that what he says in private is often not particularly different than what he says in public. You know, the only thing that we know is, you know, that Glenn Thrush, my colleague and I, had reported when Comey was fired that the president had told people, you know, that he felt there was something wrong with this guy.

He had gotten very upset watching Comey testify before the Senate. So it's not surprising, and yet it's quite jarring.

TAPPER: And explain to me the spin about this being a negotiating tactic, because I don't fully understand it. How is the president saying he had great pressure because of Russia, that pressure is off now, now that he fired this nut job FBI director, how is that a negotiating tactic, according to this official?


The explanation that -- the explanation that I got was that, you know, essentially, he was hoping to prompt some guilt, for lack of a better way of putting it, with Lavrov, the Russian minister who was visiting him, by saying, you know, look, you guys hacked into this -- into these Democratic e-mails.

And it's interesting that the president did appear to say that there, as opposed to what he has said publicly, which is conflicting things about whether he accepts that Russia did it, but you guys did this. It's created this perception about me and the election. It's put me in a bad political position.

It's almost as if he was trying to impart some human guilt. That should not have diplomatic -- diplomatic negotiations are not made about personal individuals that way. They can be, but given that Putin's objective, by all accounts, is to get one over on this president, I'm not sure how that would work.

TAPPER: All right, Maggie Haberman, great reporting. Thanks so much. We appreciate this.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

TAPPER: CNN's Jim Acosta just arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, ahead of President Trump's arrival.

And, Jim, the president will be faced with yet another headline to respond to. I guess he has Wi-Fi up there. So, it could happen any moment, but he is going to be asked by reporters as soon as he lands.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake, and I can tell you that just talking to a senior administration official on the way over here, they have not made any plans for a press conference during this trip.

We might still have a press conference, but as of this point they have nod scheduled a news conference during this president's eight- or nine-day trip. And so this just sets the stage for what we see at the White House on occasion, which is a reporter shouting questions during pool sprays, when the president is sitting down with a foreign leader or a diplomat, and that might be what you see happening here over the next several days.

Now, I can tell you right now, Jake, there are some armed uniform officials on the roof of my hotel. They are asking me to stop the live shot, so I will probably have to stop here in just a few moments.

But, obviously, there's a lot at stake for the president on this trip. He's going to be hitting the centers of three major world religions. And when you talk to White House officials, what they will tell you is that the president is hoping to marshal some goodwill on the part of people who are integral in all three of those faiths to try to accomplish some of the president's policy goals, one of them being,of course, Middle East peace and taking the fight to ISIS.

And, of course, the big speech that the president has coming up this weekend to the Muslim word is going to be a huge part of that. He's going say during the speech that the Muslim world needs to do a lot more to counter what the president refers to as radical Islamic terrorism, a phrase that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wouldn't even use when he was in the White House.

So a lot at stake for this president, and, of course, as we have been hearing all last week and this week, this is a very chaotic time for this president. He's heading into a very chaotic region of the world. There is a diplomatic land mine just about everywhere he's stepping over the next week or so, Jake.

TAPPER: Jim, just one last question. And that is, is the president focused enough on this trip? I know that there have been aides who are concerned that he's not devoted enough attention towards this five-stop, very challenging trip, Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, the Vatican, the G7 in Sicily, the NATO summit in Belgium. Is he ready for it?


ACOSTA: Well, they say he's ready for it.

It was interesting. When the president left the White House earlier today, from what we understand, there were 50 or so staffers bidding him farewell on the South Lawn of the White House. That's something you don't see every day.

Obviously, they know there's a lot riding on this trip. And when you talk to officials, they insist he's prepared for it. But no question about it, just going by what we're hearing and seeing in this new "New York Times" story, it appears that the president has just been downright obsessed with Russia and the former FBI director, James Comey, over the last couple of weeks.

So one has to think that has to intrude on his preparation time for this visit. Now, when you talk to the leading officials and the people who work for those leading officials who are preparing for this trip, like the secretary of state, the national security adviser, they have meticulously laid out a very, very busy schedule for this president.

And, you know, it's not something that we have seen from Donald Trump in the past when he was a candidate. You know, pretty much, the most he did during that campaign, Jake, was travel out to his golf courses in Scotland. And so this is going to be a huge challenge for this president.

There's a lot riding on this trip, and we will see on the other end how all of it pans out, but no question about it what is happening right now, what is breaking right now in Washington is going to be following this president every step of the way.

TAPPER: Indeed. Jim Acosta in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, thank you so much.

Much more on this breaking story. The former national security adviser to President George W. Bush will be here to weigh in on the breaking news next.

Stay with us.


[16:15:33] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with the breaking news in our politics lead. President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office last week,

quote: I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That is taken off.

That's according to a new report in "The New York Times."

Joining me now is Stephen Hadley. He is the former national security adviser to President George W. Bush.

Stephen, thanks so much for being here. What's your reaction to the comments, President Trump saying this not nice thing about the FBI director and then saying I was under great pressure because of Russia and now that's taken off?

STEPHEN HADLEY, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, look, it's hard to know. I mean, we're -- we have, you know, supposedly records of the Comey has of the conversations he had with the president, the president signaled maybe he has some records of those conversations. We now have a record of a meeting in the Oval Office read to a "New York Times" reporter.

I mean, this is why we need a systematic by the book investigation to pull the facts together and be able to explain the American people what happened and if there was some criminal activity then to get to the bottom of it. We've got to find a way though to get this -- President Trump needs to find a way to get this behind him because it is impairing his ability and the country's ability to focus on the real problems we've got. There is a real cost to this distraction, as serious as it is. It is still distracting the president and the Congress from doing the business of the country.

TAPPER: Is it fair to say, do you think, that President Trump is his own worst enemy when it comes to getting this out of the headlines?

I mean, he is the one who fired Comey. He's the one who allegedly made this comment to Comey. He's the one who wasn't honest or his White House wasn't honest about the reason behind the firing. First, they pointed to that Rod Rosenstein firing and the president said he had Russia on his mind when he made the decision. You could go on and on with the list.

I mean, all of a sudden, you have a special counsel. That wouldn't have happened two weeks ago if not for President Trump's actions I think it's fair to say.

HADLEY: I think that is fair to say. Look, we are where we are on this and the president is who he is, and we've seen this. This behavior is not really a surprise. I think the real question is that he needs to sit down with people in whom he has confidence and decide what he's going to do now that there is the Mueller investigation, and there's really two models.

There is, you know, treat it as a criminal investigation, get the best defense attorney you can and try to see if you can get your way through it. That has been tried in the past with mixed results.

TAPPER: That's like the Bill Clinton model.

HADLEY: This is -- this is in some sense the Nixon/Clinton model and there they did it because they had something to hide. An alternative is one I'm somewhat familiar with was Ronald Reagan with the Iran- Contra where he appointed the Tower Commission and said get to the bottom of it and really cooperated with that investigation, and the findings were pretty hard on the president, that he had engaged in arms for hostages, but the president was then able to admit that. His decline in the poll stopped and he was able to rebuild the last two years of his presidency.

So, there's a basic strategic question I think the president has to decide about, is he going to continue to fight this thing, or is he going to basically say, look, I'm going to let the system work and I'm going to cooperate and I'm going to shut down on this subject and we're just going to let the investigations go forward. He's going to have to decide that question.

TAPPER: It sounds like you're suggesting he should take the Reagan model, stop talking about it, respect the process and then let the chips fall where they may.

HADLEY: He will have to decide. My sense is, having viewed -- you know, contrasted how Clinton and Nixon went down and how Reagan went down, I would think the latter offers the best prospect of him being able to put this behind him on get on with his presidency.

TAPPER: In terms of the actual comments that "New York Times" is reporting based on this White House document, Sean Spicer, the press secretary at the White House said, quote: By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.

First of all, that does seem to be something of a confirmation of the quotes.

HADLEY: It does.

TAPPER: He's not disputing them.

And second of all, what do you make of the leaking? Because I have been on the end of some of them. I have reported some of them. I think that some of the leaks are coming from people that are concerned about this president and his temperament and his fitness.

[16:20:07] HADLEY: I think that may be. I think -- I've never really seen the volume of the leaking that is going on, but it is not helpful and it's not constructive. Look, you know, the American people elected Donald Trump to be president of the United States, and all of those particularly people who are brought into his administration, but those people who serve in the military and our diplomatic corps, in the civil service have an obligation to try and serve this president and by doing so serve the country. So, this leaking is not helpful. It is not constructive in my view, and it is not how the system works. We've now got Mueller appointed. He is -- probably the best possible person we could have in that role.

Let's let regular order proceed. Let's let the investigation proceed. There's an ongoing FBI investigation which he'll now lead.

Let's let that proceed and let's get the facts out. See where the facts take us and then decide where we need to go from here.

We've got to -- we've got to put this -- we've got to the stop the leaking and get it into a regular order and a process that the deputy attorney general has now established

TAPPER: You -- when you served with George W. Bush especially had a front row seat and also participated in an attempt to have a new relationship with Russia. I've spoken with former President George W. Bush about his regrets about how Putin didn't end up being who he hoped -- who President Bush hoped he would be.

How concerned are you by what you know and what you've read about Russian interference, not only in the American election in 2016, but in the French election, what's going to come up in Germany and the U.K., how worried are you about democracy?

HADLEY: I'm very worried about that. Look, I think there was a time in probably the first Bush administration when you talked to Russian officials they would say, look, President Putin knows that his legacy is to bring Russia closer to the West, and they would talk about a democratic future. They don't talk that way, and if you listen to what Putin says, he's really just trying to discredit democracy at home and abroad.

And this intervention in the elections I think is less to achieve particular results than the more it is to basically undermine the process and undermine Western citizens' confidence in their own processes and to basically say to the world the Western system, the U.S. system isn't any better than ours and making the case in some sense for an authoritarian kind of state capitalism system. So, we're back strangely in what we thought we'd ended at the end of the Cold War. We're back at an ideological struggle between two different visions about how societies ought to organize itself. We have to recognize it and we need to get in in the debate and start making the argument.

TAPPER: Yes, and they are using our freedoms against us in a way that we cannot do against them.

HADLEY: Our freedoms against us, our technology against us, and we've got to start pushing back.

TAPPER: Stephen Hadley, always a pleasure to see you. Thanks so much.

HADLEY: Nice to be here. TAPPER: Join us tonight please at 10:00 p.m. Eastern for a CNN

special report "White House in Crisis." We're going to be live with our team of correspondents and analysts. They have been reporting on the Russian investigation for months, breaking news on links to the Trump team and the unfolding crisis in the White House. Watch that this evening.

We have lots to discuss in our breaking news. "The New York Times" reporting President Trump told Russian officials that James Comey is, quote, a nut job and firing him would ease pressure from the Russia investigation. Will this dog the president on his first foreign trip?

Stick around.


[16:27:55] TAPPER: Welcome back.

We're covering this breaking news out of the White House. The president's problems will probably follow him on his overseas trip. Let's dive right in with my panel.

So, guys, as you know, the "New York Times" is reporting that President Trump according to this White House document told Russian officials in the Oval Office about ten days ago that FBI Director James Comey is a nut job and that firing him eased pressure over the Russia probe. And Sean Spicer in his statement clearly did not deny it. In fact, kind of tried to explain where the pressure came from.

It seems like this will probably not go away even though the president is hoping that this trip will provide a reset of some sort.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm troubled by the fact that Donald Trump seems to be giving the Russians a straight story about the firing of James Comey before he gave anyone else. That's really disturbing and I know the White House is going to come out and say their stock line to every question about this investigation is that there's no evidence of collusion. If you listen to talk radio, that's all they say. There's no evidence of collusion.

Well, I don't know what the legal standard for collusion is but Donald Trump having a secret meeting in the Oval Office to trash the leader of the FBI to the Russians sounds an awful lot like it, and as a candidate, Donald Trump could get away with lying to the public, lying to everyone without consequence, but when you lie about the firing of the FBI director, that's something that is going to mark his presidency without question.

TAPPER: It does seem, Olivier, that moment, the firing of the FBI director changed the equation for a lot of people, including Republicans, in Washington. That it was like, OK, he's working within the system, he is what he is, he's outrageous and he's a disrupter, but he's operating within system. But firing the head of the FBI seems to have changed the calculus for something --

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: Firing the head of the FBI certainly has for a lot of people and that meeting in general has. If you --

TAPPER: Kislyak and Lavrov.

KNOX: That's right. Someone described it as, you know, the opening of the ark at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where everything is coming out. But you have the Israelis furious with the administration for the disclosure of intelligence that the president made to the Russians. You have all this stuff about the Comey firing where we can just dispense with the official explanation now.