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President's First Overseas Trip; Weiner to Plead Guilty; Deputy AG Briefs House; U.S. Strike in Syria. Aired 9:30-10:00a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:31:57] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump, today, facing a crucial test. He is headed out overseas on his first international trip. And this follows quite a week. The president and his team hope they're going to have a little bit less turbulence when he is abroad.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: That's right. The ambitious nine day tour includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican. On the agenda, diplomatic meetings with world leaders, visits to religious homelands and a speech on Islam to leaders of Muslim countries.

I want to bring in Kimberly Dozier, CNN global affairs analyst and senior national security correspondent for "The Daily Beast," and Aaron David Miller, CNN global affairs analyst. He's also vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Kimberly, in "The Washington Post" there was a quote from a European minister who says this. Let me read it to you. "I'm getting increasingly worried that this internal chaos in the United States is growing to an unimaginable scale and that may grow into security and defense policy. If you're only fighting about tweets, you don't have time to follow what's happening in the world, that's really disturbing." You know, from your sources, is there a concern from overseas about this trip because of what's happening here in the United States?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Absolutely. I actually just got back from Estonia last weekend, which is a Baltic nation, a member of NATO, and lot of the diplomats there said they'd heard frequently from Trump administration officials, but that the message was, don't worry about what you're hearing out of the White House. We've got your back. We're backing NATO. Just trust us. And they were talking about national security officials like the defense team led by General Mattis as people they were trusting in, not what they were hearing out of the White House.

HARLOW: Aaron, to you. Our Daniel Burk from CNN, our religion writer, is calling this is risky religious pilgrimage for the president. And that's - you know, his team is framing this around visiting a holy land site. I mean you've got H.R. McMaster - General H.R. McMaster saying no president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all in one trip. His first stop is Saudi Arabia. The first speech he's going to give is about Islam. Considering his rhetoric about Islam on the campaign trail, how does he walk this tight rope?

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I think that's probably going to be the most controversial and most fraught public message that the president is going to deliver, because he's balancing all kinds of things that are unbalanceable. First of all, people - I don't care want religion you are, don't want you to tell them what their religion is all about. Second, you have the constituency problem. He's used phrases like radical Islamic terrorism and I suspect he's going to feel compelled to make sure that his constituency, who wants a tough message delivered in Saudi Arab, which exports some of the worst jihadi (INAUDIBLE) ideology, he's going to have to balance that against the reality that his own behavior and his policies have undermined the notion that somehow he is opened to Muslims.

However, I think the reality is that the Saudis are so determined to make this a successful trip that what you're going to see both in Saudi Arabia and - and Israel, I think, are two countries that are going to do everything they possibly can to make this trip a success. And, you know, the Middle East is usually where American hopes and dreams come to die. It's not a lot of diplomatic opportunities.

[09:35:20] HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: You bring up a good point, which is that all of the countries that the president is visiting, they have an interest in making this trip a success.

HARLOW: It's true.

BERMAN: And, in some cases, making him look good, even if they have concerns.

Kimberly Dozier, you know, there have been all these articles the president doesn't want to go. He wishes it was shorter. He's not focused. But does he benefit from low expectations here? You know, what will be considered a success for this trip?

DOZIER: Absolutely. I asked some of the diplomats who's countries he's going to be visiting, are you going to be upset if he says things like "radical Islamic terrorism"? And they said, look, what we're trying to do here is reset the relationship with the United States. We like what we're hearing about their attitudes toward Iran, to be tougher on Iran. Things like their use of phrases that upset the people in our streets, we're going to try to do a charm offensive, educate him over time and convince him to stop using those terms. But they don't want a direct confrontation on this trip. They want this to work.

HARLOW: Yes. Not to mention the Saudis, you know, just inking that big arms deal with the United States, that's also in the mix here. So, as Aaron said, they are sort of rolling out the red carpet.

Aaron, to you. You wrote about this and you write that the president should be, quote, "very careful about claiming quick tactical victories." What do you mean?

MILLER: Well, what he's trying to do, I think, and I think it's a relatively coherent approach, frankly, and maybe counter intuitive, is to put together what - what we've called a kind of axis of good. And that axis of good is functional. It's composed of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and the Israelis. And the question is, can he convert this axis of good into serious security and diplomatic accomplishment.

HARLOW: Of course, because they all have a common interest when it comes to Iran and security.

Thank you, guys, very much. Have a good weekend.

Coming up for us, will James Comey testify in public? That is the $64,000 question. Soon it's the House's turn for a briefing on the former FBI director's firing. And, next, we're going to talk to a congressman who will be in the room for that. Stay with us.

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[09:41:37] BERMAN: All right, we have some breaking news. Former Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose political career ended in scandal, is expected to plead guilty to transferring obscene material to a minor.

HARLOW: Of course, Weiner, who is the estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, is expected to be in court today at 11:00 a.m.

Let's get straight to our Jean Casarez, who is following it all.

With your legal hat on, what are these charges? What do they carry? What do they entail?

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I just looked up the law and it talks about that the issue here is intent, that you intentionally disseminated obscene, nude photos to a minor, that the intent is the basic element here. And we just confirmed with the law office of Anthony Weiner, transferring obscene material to a minor. He will plead guilty on 11:00 today in federal court here in New York City. Afterwards, his attorney will give a comment.

But you may remember this all stemmed from an investigation that began late last year. We first heard that the southern district of New York, federal court, was issuing a subpoena for his cell phone records, other records, all in regard to allegedly sexting, if you will, a young woman, 15 years old, back and forth, sending her a photo of him in a pool, sending her a photo of at least one bare chested. The investigation assumed (ph) from there. He had never been charged. So you have a court proceeding right now of someone that we don't know has ever been charged. But something obviously is happening and we have confirmed that he will plead guilty to this charge.

BERMAN: And we'll find out much more about that what entails because it does seem like a serious charge on the face.

CASAREZ: It's a felony.

HARLOW: Well, he could face jail time, right?

CASAREZ: It's a felony. You could have prison time, no question about it. You've got first degree. You've got other degrees. We don't know what degree he'll be pleading to. But this is in federal. It's very serious.

BERMAN: And let me just add one more thing. Obviously this has implications for Anthony Weiner and his family in that but this obviously played a role in this election.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: It was because of this investigation that turned up e-mails on Anthony Weiner's computer from Huma Abedin that were connected to the Hillary Clinton investigation that caused James Comey to write the letter that he did. We're talking about James Comey a lot today also.

HARLOW: All connected.

BERMAN: But what a tangled web connecting all in one place.

Jean Casarez, thank you very, very much.

HARLOW: Thank you.

JAB: All right, in just a few minutes, the deputy attorney general of the United States, Rod Rosenstein, will brief members of the House on the firing of the afore mentioned James Comey.

HARLOW: And we are joined by one of the congressmen who's going to be in that briefing, Republican Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah. He's a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Nice to have you here. And let me just jump off with this.

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: Good morning.

HARLOW: Good morning to you.

Your fellow Republican, Congressman William Hurd, told CNN - told our Erin Burnett last night that your committee does think that it will hear from former Director Comey as soon as next week. What can you tell us about that?

STEWART: Yes, you know, I don't know the schedule for certain. I know that we do want to hear back from him. We've talked to him, gosh, I can't even - I can't even tell you the number of times. But there are a few unanswered questions and we look forward to talking to him once again.

BERMAN: And do you think it will happen? And, if so, sir, do you think it's appropriate now given that there is a special counsel appointed to investigate the same types of things that the director would be talking about? STEWART: Yes, you know, that's a great question and, again, I don't

mean to defer or be vague, but I just don't think we know the answers to those questions yet.

BERMAN: OK.

STEWART: I don't think we've quite set up the rules of engagement between House - where the House Intelligence Committee will proceed. Looking at primarily counterintelligence and national security issues and how the special counsel will proceed. I think there's going to be conversations. Clearly those are taking place now and I think we'll have a better idea in the next few days.

[09:45:17] HARLOW: So we are hearing this morning the fascinating interview with a - with a close friend of James Comey, Benjamin Wittes, speaking with PBS all about these details of how uncomfortable Comey apparently felt regarding his interactions with the president. Wittes talked about Comey seeing his role as FBI director as, quote, "protecting the FBI from the White House." What do you make of that? Is that a legitimate pursuit for the FBI director?

STEWART: You know, the thing I worry about is too often we've relied on either anonymous sources or secondhand sources and I think we should concentrate on the original source. In this case, let's hear what Director Comey has to say.

Yo know, I've got to say that I like the director. He and I have much in common. I have defended him to many of my Republican colleagues and, frankly, over the last six months to many of my Democratic colleagues. Some of which, and in fact many of which, after the Hillary Clinton affair with the e-mails and the way the director handled that, many of them were calling for the director to either resign or to be fired. And I think this is a great indication of how this issue has become so partisan in the fact that many of those now are defending him. And it's one of the reasons that I am actually relieved and I think it was the right thing to do to call a special counsel that takes it out of, I think, a - out of a very partisan political environment into a more professional environment. And we want to answer these questions for the American people and I think we should do that as quickly as we can and, again, in as a non-partisan way as we can.

BERMAN: You know, though, aside from Director Comey and Donald Trump and what happened there, do you think there should be a separation that is respected between the FBI and the White House?

STEWART: Oh, absolutely. No question about that. And it's one of the things that the American people expect. So - and anything that we can do to encourage that, I think we should do.

HARLOW: The president is headed overseas, as you know, this afternoon. This is his first international trip. It's a big one. I mean four major stops. He's starting in Saudi Arabia, giving this speech on Islam. And you suggested, quote, "the president has to be careful." And this president has a hard time being careful. As he is over there talking to really key, strategic allies, are you confident that the president is going to be selective and careful in his language, sir?

STEWART: Well, I don't know if I'm confident because many times he surprises us, right? But, you know, I think I'd say two things about that. Well, maybe three, in fact. One of them is, I support the president. I support his policies. I support the goals that he's trying to achieve, because I really think he's trying to help Americans. The second thing is, he does speak extemporaneously. He does sometimes speak in the heat of the emotion and I think it makes it more difficult for him to accomplish those goals. And then the third element to this that just really is an interplay that I don't think we can exaggerate the outcome, and that is, we have a press which I think greatly exaggerates the importance of some of these things that he says. I think we have a press that - that, you know, if you've talked about impeachment or if you've suggested that we should impeach the president for some of these things, I just think that's nuts to draw that conclusion at this point. If you put those -

HARLOW: Well, actually - but -

STEWART: Well, wait, if you put those two elements together, then it leads to this very chaotic political environment we find ourselves in. I would hope everyone would maybe take a step back and say, we can do this a little better. We can do it in a way that isn't quite as dramatic as we've seen over the last three or four months.

HARLOW: Well -

BERMAN: Congressman, we should note that, first of all, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein just arrived on Capitol Hill.

HARLOW: Yes. He just walked in.

BERMAN: You may need to go to this closed door briefing.

HARLOW: For your briefing.

STEWART: All right.

BERMAN: We will let you go. But we do want to add also, you know, it wasn't the media bringing up impeachment. It was largely Democrats and then some Republicans when asked -

HARLOW: And legal scholars.

BERMAN: And legal scholars, but we're saying it too.

STEWART: (INAUDIBLE).

BERMAN: Obstruction of justice, if that's what happened, and we don't know whether that's happened, that is something that has been impeachable in the past.

STEWART: No, I understand that. I understand that. There are - primarily Democrats are doing that. But I think many of them are looking at it saying, you know, this - this is inappropriate and this probably will back - will be some backlash for them if they do. BERMAN: All right, go to your briefing. We don't want to make you

late.

STEWART: Thank you. All right.

BERMAN: Congressman Chris Stewart, thanks so much for being with us. Really appreciate it.

STEWART: You bet.

BERMAN: All right, Russia and Syria are slamming a U.S. air strike against pro-Assad forces. Russia says it is, quote, "totally unacceptable." More from the Pentagon, next.

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[09:53:58] HARLOW: This morning, Syria and Russia slamming the United States over coalition air strikes that struck pro-Assad military forces in Syria.

BERMAN: CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us now with more details.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to both of you.

This was a very critical air strike. What we now know is these Iranian Shia militias that were moving through this area in southern Syria, approaching an area where U.S. forces operate, they had a tank, they had earth-moving equipment. The assessment is they were about to try and set up a fire base within range of U.S. special forces. So what happened, of course, is the U.S. tried to warn them, fired warning shots, tried to push them away from the area. They did not respond. The Russians tried, but the Russians are now objecting to the whole thing, and these people didn't move, so the U.S. dropped some weapons on them. They could not permit them to set up a fire base within range of U.S. special forces in southern Syria. The Syrian regime objecting. The Russians objecting. But, let's be clear, the Pentagon says that the Russians did try and push these militias back to no avail.

[09:55:06] A lot of concern about this because it may be one of the first indicators that some of the Shia militias, generally backed by Iran, are now operating essentially as free agents in Syria, not particularly under the control of the Assad regime or the Russians, something the U.S. is getting increasingly concerned about.

John. Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes, no question.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you for that this morning.

All right, we have a lot ahead. At any moment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will brief the entire House. This is another behind closed doors briefing, but you can bet some of what he says is going to leak out. Can he answer the big question, though, will we hear from former FBI Director James Comey, and will it happen soon? We'll take you live to Capitol Hill, next.

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