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CNN NEWSROOM

Today: Trump Begins First Presidential Trip Abroad; Comey Friend Describes FBI Director's Suspicions; Trump: Lieberman one of Top Picks to Lead FBI. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 10:00   ET

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


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[10:00:21]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. Right now on Capitol Hill, the entire House is about to get briefed by the man whose letter the president initially said is why he fired FBI director James Comey.

BERMAN: Yes, the Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, you can see right here. He arrived just moments ago up on Capitol Hill. He will discuss the investigation of Russia's meddling in the election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. CNN's Phil Mattingly watching the members' file into this room right now. Let us know what's going to happen here, Phil.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's going to actually have a similar format to what we saw yesterday in the Senate or we didn't it, but at least heard about it. Rod Rosenstein, who you guys showed last hour, just walking into this briefing. Once he starts, he will give an opening statement, the same opening statement he gave to the 100 senators that were gathered for his classified briefing yesterday. He'll give that same statement and then he will open it up to questions.

Now, guys, you can see lawmakers streaming in behind me right now. I'll just kind of lay out how this actually works. They walk into a room for this classified briefing. Before they do, they put their phones into a separate compartment. They can't bring any of those in. And then once they sit down, once the opening statement is read, they have an opportunity to ask those questions.

Now, guys, as we discussed last hour, I'm told by several Democrats to expect some very, very tough questions. What we also know is based on yesterday's briefing there likely won't be a lot of answers there. There's a lot of frustration from Democratic senators that deputy attorney general Rosenstein continued to defer to Bob Mueller, the new special counsel, on the majority of the questions that were asked, including questions about how Jim Comey was fired, why Jim Comey was fired and whether or not they knew in advance.

Now, one kind of brief historical fact that I think's important to note. In January, same format, same type of idea, classified briefing. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, confronted Jim Comey, then FBI director, about the FBI's lack of action about the hacking into the DNC. I'm told it was very contentious. It was a very raw moment. Those are the types of things that can happen in these kinds of briefings.

And as I noted, 193 House Democrats, many of whom have a lot of questions, a lot of concerns about what's happened not just over the last ten days, but over the last couple of months. Expect those questions to come. The answers? Not so sure about that, guys.

HARLOW: All right, Phil Mattingly keep an eye on it for us. Thank you so much.

BERMAN: We saw basically Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan almost photo- bombing Phil Mattingly during that live shot, walked right behind you, Phil. Also, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy walking in as well.

HARLOW: There you go. And you've got to think about Kevin McCarthy when you think about them dropping off those phones.

BERMAN: That's right.

HARLOW: No recording devices in this one. It is just a few hours until the president departs on Air Force One for his overseas trip, his first one of his administration. Nine days, five nations and likely zero chance of escaping the trouble festering at home.

BERMAN: Yes. Why? Well, because a friend of fired FBI director James Comey is opening up about the former director's distrust of the administration. He describes a squirm-inducing encounter between President Trump and Comey in the White House. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENJAMIN WITTES, FRIEND OF JAMES COMEY: If you watch the video, he extends his hand and Comey's arms are really long and he extends his hand kind of preemptively and Trump grabs the hand and kind of pulls him into a hug, but the hug is entirely one-sided. So, one guy in the hug is shaking hands. Comey was just completely disgusted by --

WILLIAM BRANGHAM, HOST PBS "NEWSHOUR": Disgusted?

WITTES: Disgusted by the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All right, CNN's Joe Johns at the White House. Joe, it's fascinating to hear these accounts, but again, it's one-sided. It's Comey's side of the matter. The White House, I imagine, has a very different view.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, it is pretty clear that we're getting Comey's version of the story and there's a lot more to be told and I suppose that's in part, at least, what a special counsel is for. But frankly, the focus right here at the White House is the president's nine-day trip. He's getting ready to get out of here in just a few hours, first stop Saudi Arabia, then he goes to Israel, then he goes to the Vatican, out of the White House, but not able to put the controversy behind him. The president telling reporters just yesterday that in his view, the hiring of a special counsel hurts the country, also suggested he was a victim in this entire situation of a witch hunt, he said.

Now, the president also talking just a bit about his interactions with the fired FBI director, James Comey and indicating that among other things, he thinks James Comey is -- let me start again. What the president did say about James Comey in his tweet, certainly, is that Comey was giving up certain information, in other words, that he might not or might -- should not have been giving.

[10:05:12]Now, let's talk just a little bit about this individual, this friend of James Comey who talked to "The New York Times." This is a guy named Ben Wittes. And Ben Wittes essentially said among other things that what Comey tried to do is stay far away from the President of the United States because the president was trying to get too friendly. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WITTES: This was somebody under intense pressure. And look, Jim is a trooper. He handles pressure very well. He's not a whiner. And -- but the color of the wallpaper was that these were not honorable people and that protecting the FBI from them was his day job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: OK. So, one of the things that Pam Brown has reported right here at CNN is that Jim Comey, in preparing for conversations with the President of the United States, actually practiced with his aides in order to sort of know how to talk to him. So, we're probably going to hear a little bit more about that. Back to you.

BERMAN: I bet. All right, Joe Johns at the White House for us. Thanks so much.

Joining us now Ron Brownstein, CNN's senior political analyst, Paris Dennard, a CNN political commentator, a former White House staffer under George W. Bush and Karen Finney, former senior adviser for the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Ron, first to you, you know, we just heard more of the Benjamin Wittes interview. We'll hear more in a bit. But I'm struck by the fact that I don't think this friend of James Comey would be talking without the approval of James Comey. The fact that we are hearing this right now from the Comey camp, as it were, what message does it send?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST AND SENIOR EDITOR "THE ATLANTIC": Well, it sends the message that they are not going to go away quietly, which has obviously been, you know, more loudly sent by the release of the memo originally. And I think that the behavior that former director Comey is kind of recoiling against does fit with a pattern, because one thing we have seen from President Trump is that he pushes against, if not ignores completely, both the legal and custom bounds on the arbitrary exercise of presidential power.

He really doesn't see an end to where his authority extends. When he talks about so-called judges, when he talks about the fake news media, when he asks Comey in effect to publicly exonerate him before the investigation has really unfolded, I mean, those are all examples of someone who does not have the traditional view of checks and balances, I think. And who is about trying to undermine or weaken any institution that he thinks can stand up to him.

And so, I think this is going to be -- it is a powerful and resonant note, but as some of your guests in the last hour have noted, it's not clear how much of it we're going to hear in public now that the special counsel is operating.

HARLOW: Yes. We will see people of all sorts of opinions on that, whether or not he will testify and if he'll do it in public.

Paris, to you, another part of this interview with Comey's close friend that was just so striking is about physically where he chose to put himself in the room, call it "curtain gate" or "drape water" or whatever you want, but just listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WITTES: He really wanted to kind of blend in and not be singled out. And he's 6'8", so when -

BRANGHAM: It's kind of tough to do that.

WITTES: When you're 6'8", it's really hard to blend in. He's wearing -- if you watch the video of it, he's wearing a blue blazer and he stands in the part of the room that is as far from Trump as it is physically possible to be and also against blue drapes that are the same color as his -

BRANGHAM: He chose that spot?

WITTES: He chose that spot because it was, you know, almost like a chameleon, camouflage against the wall.

BRANGHAM: Blend in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: All right, so, Paris, that may be one of the more juicy nuggets, not necessarily the most important nuggets. It gives you some color into the day. But here's what is important, you know, his friend saying that Comey thought his job was to protect the FBI daily against the White House. How uncomfortable he felt with the president that he would prepare his remarks to the president ahead of time. I mean, what is your reaction to all of that that we're just now learning?

PARIS DENNARD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER GEORGE W. BUSH WHITE HOUSE STAFFER: You know, I don't think it is breaking news. I think it is breaking gossip and breaking foolishness. I mean, look, the fact that -

HARLOW: Foolishness, why, Paris? I mean, this is someone very close to Comey who John rightly points out probably wouldn't say all this without Comey's blessing?

DENNARD: And I think it is foolishness and I'll tell you why, Poppy. It's because the fact that the sitting FBI director specifically chose, allegedly chose a blue jacket to stand across from the president knowing exactly where they were going to be, by a drape, so that -- and then complains about the president's handshake and complains about the president wanting to give him an embrace, which is classic President Trump.

[10:10:03] If you go back and look at any video of him shaking hands and greeting people when he's standing, that's how he does it. He extends his hand, he pulls him in and sometimes he gives them the hug. So, we're reading far too much into this. The president shook the FBI director's hand and gave him a hug, which is customary.

What's the problem? Comey, for that matter, is so uncomfortable with the President of the United States that he feels he has to defend or protect the FBI from the White House? This is just more evidence of the fact that the president has any confidence in the fact that Comey could lead this FBI and it's just unfortunate that these stories are being made light of and I think they're just really petty at best. --

BERMAN: Paris, just quickly, just quickly drapes aside. You know --

DENNARD: Handshakes aside.

BERMAN: Is there a legitimate reason why there should be a separation between the White House and the FBI?

DENNARD: Look, there is a separation between the White House and the FBI, but they are separations of power. But at the same time, should the president not meet with the Speaker of the House, should the president not meet with the head of the Judiciary Committee? Should the president not meet with the head of every other agency, that the CIA and things of that nature? No.

We should expect that these people that are held in office should have enough power and enough decency to conduct themselves accordingly and understand that when you meet somebody and you shake their hand, it doesn't mean anything more than I'm shaking your hand and I'm meeting you and I'm saying hello.

HARLOW: But it's not just that. I mean, it is three phone calls, you know, dinner together and there has been tradition since, you know, Hoover ran the FBI that you don't have that close relationship between a White House and the head of the FBI.

Karen, to you, you were in the Clinton White House when there was a special prosecutor and you dealt with the drip, drip, drip of information and how it can consume a White House staff. What is your advice for the Trump administration now?

KAREN FINNEY, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER HILLARY FOR AMERICA CAMPAIGN AND FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR DNC: Well, first responding to what Paris said. I mean, there is a level of appropriateness that this president just does not seem to understand. The FBI director, as you pointed out, traditionally has always been seen as someone who is meant to be, you know, independent. And so, not wanting to get a bear hug, which was what, really if you listened to the full interview, Comey was saying, at a time when people were praising him or suggesting that somehow, which we tend to believe on my campaign, his letter may have influenced the outcome of the election. That's just not who Jim Comey is.

I mean, he wanted to maintain his independence. And I think having some respect for that is very important. And I can tell you in the administration that I served in, the Clinton administration that was certainly -- you know, Janet Reno, was very much independent from Bill Clinton. And when we dealt with a special prosecutor, I can tell you, it is that drip, drip, drip of information that can be very damaging.

But here's the problem that the Trump administration has. It is one thing when everybody gets together and you're all on the same page and you've got a strategy, for the most part and you have a sense of what's going to be coming. But the problem that the Trump administration has is that the main perpetrator of the drip, drip, drip is President Trump himself. Time and again, one story is being told by his communications operation or, you know, other officials, then he starts to tweet something different. Then the story evolves a little bit differently. Then he's two days later saying something completely differently. And now he's saying it's a witch hunt and sort of whining and complaining.

So, I think the problem is going to be controlling Mr. Trump. Because as information may come out, these things always happen, certainly between the investigations on Capitol Hill and I think -- I mean, Mueller himself will be I think very careful about with regard to leaks. But some information may come out and the president himself has no self-control. That may end up being his undoing, quite frankly.

HARLOW: Karen Finney, Ron Brownstein, Paris Dennard, thank you all very much.

So, what is ahead for the president? He's headed overseas. Some are calling this a do-or-die trip for him. The stakes are high.

BERMAN: All right and have you seen this man? The Vice President of the United States. Where has he been the last week or so with so much going on? People close to him reporting that he has concerns about all this news.

Plus, no Joe-mentum, growing Democratic opposition for the president's front-runner to be the next FBI director, Senator Joe Lieberman -- former Senator Joe Lieberman, we're going to ask if a current-serving Democrat what he thinks about the possible nomination.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [10:18:24] BERMAN: All right, a crucial test after a controversial week. Later today, the president leaves for a first overseas trip. The White House is hoping to hit a little less turbulence while he is abroad.

HARLOW: This is an ambitious, nine-day tour. It includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican. On his agenda, these diplomatic meetings with world leaders, visits to religious holy sites and also a speech, his first speech will be in Saudi Arabia on Islam to leaders of Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia is preparing. Look at those balloons.

BERMAN: Wow.

HARLOW: For the president's visit. You see American flags, billboards, all of this. Apparently, they're having a concert, we hear, with Toby Keith, for the president, pulling out all the stops.

Let's bring in our Fareed Zakaria, host of "Fareed Zakaria GPS." So, on a much more serious note than that concert that they're having. Do you think that this could be a moment of reset for this president? And where is the bar for success? Is it just no major screw-ups?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": I think it's difficult for it to be a reset, because the controversies that are embroiling the White House have to do with, you know, the issues of the Comey firing, the investigation. That stuff has taken on a life of its own. No trip abroad will change that, as presidents from Bill Clinton to Richard Nixon know, you can try to do that. It's not those stories aren't going to go away. They have their own independent life.

But I think that the trip is important and should be judged on its own merits and the key test I think is going to be how he handles the first stop, Saudi Arabia, unusual choice.

[10:20:01] Most presidents really from FDR have gone to Canada, --

HARLOW: Or Mexico.

ZAKARIA: -- Britain or Mexico. Saudi Arabia is, you know, basically the originator, the inventor of radical Islamic terrorism. It is where Osama bin Laden came from. It is where al Qaeda, in a sense, was born. It is still one of the leading funders of radical Islam around the world, maybe not the country, but people within its foundations, within it. So, how he deals with that is going to be I think a very interesting test.

BERMAN: Well, he's given a speech there written by Stephen Miller, who is a person and aide who has come out against what he calls radical Islamic terror repeatedly. The president uses those words. So, how will a speech about Islam, which we understand the president will give inside Saudi Arabia, what are the risks-rewards there?

ZAKARIA: I think that it's good for him to do it. I hope it's confrontational in the sense that I think these -- you know, you need to speak truth to power in the sense that this is the place where it all began. This is the place that's still, as I say, is a huge vehicle and funder of a lot of this stuff. The danger, frankly, is that you get played. The Saudis have for 25 years now assuaged American presidents by saying, oh, of course, we don't like terrorism, we're going to set up, you know, a center to counter it, re-education programs, oh and by the way, we'll buy lots of American arms.

HARLOW: Yes.

ZAKARIA: Those are -- the Saudis always do that. And the question is, how do you make sure that this time it's for real, that you're not getting played?

HARLOW: You wrote about this and you talk about other world leaders you believe playing the U.S. president. You said Vladimir Putin is running circles around us. China's Xi Jinping is playing Trump. Other world leaders are playing at a high level of sophistication carrots and sticks. So, I mean, what mind-set do you believe President Trump needs to go into these meetings with? Not only is he going into Saudi Arabia, but as he goes into Israel?

ZAKARIA: I think probably the most important thing to do in these situations is really surround yourself with people who know these subjects, know these countries, know the history, so when, you know, you're having negotiations with el-Sisi of Egypt and he offers you one or two dissidents and says I'll release them, to recognize that this is part of a pattern, this is what dictators always do. They say, get off my back, don't pressure me, I'll give you a few crumbs, I'll give you a few things that you can show off, that that's part of a pattern, that you should recognize when you're dealing with particularly the Israeli/Palestinian issue what, you know, what the history is there. That's the part which I worry about a little bit.

Trump is actually, is obviously a good negotiator. He's somebody who's done this his whole life, but these are very new negotiations on very different subjects and there's history there. And it's important to get some background on that history before you enter the room.

BERMAN: He obviously travels with a whip of scandal, you know, following him there. Do other leaders in these foreign countries, do they know this? I mean, how do they handle what's happening here in the United States?

ZAKARIA: Oh, they know it. Look, the world is obsessed with Donald Trump. Let's not kid ourselves. That is number one subject almost everywhere I've traveled. They look at this, foreign leaders look at this as an opportunity. If they can provide a lifeline to Donald Trump, if they can make him look good, they know that that's a win for him. Maybe he'll -- you know, all of these countries have big business to do with the United States. We remain -- the United States remains the 800-pound gorilla in the world. And so, these foreign leaders think, boy, if I can make Donald Trump look good, maybe we can get a few things from the Americans that we've always been trying to get.

HARLOW: That's the welcome with the balloons and all from Saudi Arabia.

ZAKARIA: Oh, absolutely.

BERMAN: Balloons always work. That's my experience. -

HARLOW: They work, yes exactly.

BERMAN: Fareed Zakaria, great to have you with us, sadly no balloons for Fareed.

President Trump is getting closer to picking a new FBI director, his top choice, a former Democratic senator already facing a battle from Democratic senators. We will speak to one of them to find out his potential vote on a Lieberman nomination. Stay with us.

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[10:28:50] HARLOW: So, if Joe Lieberman is to become the next FBI director, he's not going to get there without hitting more than a few speed bumps, some of them thanks to his former Democratic peers in the Senate. A Senate leadership source tells CNN that quote, "The overwhelming majority of Democrats will be against him," him being the man to emerge as President Trump's front-runner for the job. It's quite a challenge for Lieberman who was the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee in 2000.

BERMAN: Here to discuss, Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Markey thanks so much for being with us.

SEN. ED MARKEY (D), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Thank you.

BERMAN: The president says Joe Lieberman a leading contender to be the FBI director. If he nominates Joe Lieberman, would you support that nomination?

MARKEY: Well, from my perspective, at this time, what the FBI needs is a professional prosecutor, someone who is not considered to be political, someone who is considered to be a professional who has had a deep career in law enforcement, basically bring the same kind of credibility that Robert Mueller is now bringing to the investigation that had been botched inside of the FBI.

And so, by his arrival, Mueller has given credibility to it. A career prosecutor viewed as non-political. And I think we need the same thing at the FBI -