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Trump Denies Pressuring Comey; Trump Calls Investigation a Witch Hunt; Trump Says Special Counsel Hurts America; Trump Leaves for Trip Aboard; Trump Advisers Seek Legal Team; Comey's Friends Talks About Trump; Graham on Russia Probe; Rosenstein Defends Memo; Lieberman up for FBI Chief; Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

President Trump departs next hour for a nine day overseas trip, a big test on the world stage complicated by his damaged political standing here at home.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm going to Saudi Arabia. I'm going to Israel. I'm going to Rome. And we have the G-7. We have a lot of great things going on. So I hate to see anything that divides.


KING: He calls the investigation a witch hunt and insists there was no collusion between Russia and his campaign. But, asked if he pressured the former FBI director, the president taking his lawyer's advice and keeping it brief. "No. No. Next question."

And then this question. No one doubts the vice president's loyalty to the boss, but at what price? (INAUDIBLE) Pence takes a beating.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Trump made the right decision and at the right time and to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, Abby Phillip of "The Washington Post," Laura Meckler of "The Wall Street Journal," CNN's Phil Mattingly and Karoun Demirjian of "The Washington Post."

President Trump is hardly the first president to board Air Force One for a big overseas trip and carry a little baggage, extra baggage, from the battles here at home. But this is still a remarkable, early crossroads, just 120 days into the Trump presidency. Already historically unpopular and now with no choice but to hire a legal team to help guide him through a high stakes and unpredictable Russia meddling investigation led by a new special counsel.


DONALD TRUMP, 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.

KING: The trip highlights and its complications in a moment.

But, first, the president's tone and his strategy now that the investigation moves to this new level. We know the president prefers combat when challenged. So this answer right here was telling.


QUESTION: 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 -



KING: Interesting in that earlier in the day the president had been much more combative on Twitter. That was after a meeting with the president of Colombia. But before he sat down with the president of Colombia, the president had his political team, his personal lawyer and some others at the White House and I'm told it was a more serious discussion about, sir, please understand the new world you live in. And when it comes to the big stuff, like what happened in those conversations with Director Comey, you best be careful.

ABBY PHILLIP, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right, I think there's a growing realization in the building. It started at the staff level earlier this week hearing a lot of people starting to worry about the fact that the Comey alleged Oval Office meeting in which Trump may have asked him, according to Comey, to drop the investigation is a whole other ball game. It falls into some legal territory that is really scary for these folks. And I think that there was a more sober conversation yesterday. It's time to have some people outside of this administration take a look at this. The precedent here is, you know, during Bill Clinton's time when he was under investigation, they had a set of outside lawyers dealing with this. It helps take the pressure off of White House staff and allows them to think about other things. But it also gives them some potential legal fallback so that someone else is looking at what the risks are here, which could be very, very serious.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And I think more broadly, there's a recognition, at least that I've heard from people that are close to the White House, saying, you know, this isn't great. This is going to be severely problematic. But at least you can now point, anytime you get asked about this to the special counsel, please just do that, don't riff, don't talk about your thoughts, don't give your perspectives, either vocally or on social media or any other platform you choose to use because anything you say can and will likely be held against you at one point another. And I think there's a hope that the deference toward, there's an investigation going on, I'm going to let that investigation continue unabated, is the way things are taken from here on out because there's real concern that if he continues to speak on these issues, if he continues to tweet about these issues, that could come back to bite them at some point.

KING: But does someone have the magic potion or the magic message in the sense that during the campaign when candidate Trump got off the reservation, he did recalibrate, he did discipline himself, but it never lasted more than a period of time. Sometimes it was a week. Sometimes it was 48 hours. But the fear is that it's - if there's some headline about the investigation or some headline out of the hearings on Capitol Hill that the president doesn't like, that he will launch again, either on Twitter or elsewhere.

LAURA MECKLER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, I think that it's most likely that he will. I mean at some point. I don't know when. I don't know what will set him off. But the idea that, you know, somehow now we're moving into a new, you know, ultra disciplined Trump forever is, I think, not likely at all.

That said, he has this upcoming foreign trip and he may very well may be able to stick to the script on those things. I think that in terms of the investigation, one thing that is probably just sort of dawning on him now, or it certainly should be, is that this is an investigation that will look at not just what happened during the campaign, not just about the connections between campaign officials and Russian officials, but also what has happened since then. So if he - if the president did, in fact, pressure Director Comey to end the investigation or do something that could be seen as obstruction of justice, then that in and of itself, as they say, you know, the cover- up is sometimes worse than the crime. That can also get him into trouble. I'm not saying that's what happened, but it - but that's part of it. What's happening now, this investigation doesn't have the four walls and it looks at what happened from this date to that date, it continues on, as Bill Clinton found out.

[12:05:42] KING: As Bill Clinton found out when we went from Whitewater to Paula Jones, ultimately to Monica Lewinsky. And Bob Mueller is known as a straight shooter. Most people believe he will not wander as far from the reservation as some thought Ken Starr did.


KING: But, still, you make a key point, if you read the authorizing letter, he gets pretty broad discretion. Anything he can connect back to the investigation, and firing the FBI director, putting pressure on the FBI, would certainly fit into that.

MECKLER: Absolutely.

KING: You were about to talk about that. KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I was just going to say that, you know, you have to wonder if Trump has learned from the news cycles of last week as well because there's been quite a lot of blowback, just based on him changing his story and undercutting his subordinates. But certainly the broad mandate that Mueller has right now that no one is even sure quite how broad that is when they get into specifics, it kind of makes this a more controlled situation for Trump if he chooses not to - to react as much as he has because there's going to be potentially less to react to. Congress is going to have to winnow its investigations because they may bump heads now with what's going on that Mueller's leading and so that's another story, another source of frustration. But if everything does say under Mueller's umbrella, then potentially you're going to have more controlled flow of information. And if the president also restrains himself, then there's fewer provocations, I suppose, for his (INAUDIBLE).

KING: And to your point - to your point about trying to change the media conversation, that was one of the things I'm told that was impressed upon the president, that that has to become a secondary priority. It is his first reflex when he sees things in the media he doesn't like and he tries to shape them. But what he was told was, that as you do that, there are trained investigators who are taking down every word, who are watching everything you do. And what you're doing in the media environment could easily end up in the legal environment, which is why I was struck in the longer answer we played at the beginning where he says there was no collusion and then he edits himself and he says, I can only speak for myself. Because, remember, candidate Trump said consistently there were no contact. He said there were no contacts. And then he found out - and we take - I will take him at his word until proven otherwise - that he did not know that Michael Flynn met several times with the Russian ambassador and then kept those things from the public. In fact, I'm a little bit more skeptical, but take the president at his word, he didn't know Jared Kushner met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. But the president has several times said things did not happen in absolute terms, to turnout later they did happen. Something happened.

PHILLIP: Right. I think that the provocations in the media are going to continue. This has been a case that has been tried publicly in many ways. Maybe because of the sort of war that Trump has been waging with his own intelligence community, with the law enforcement community within the government. So I don't expect these stories to let up. And it might actually get worse.

So the challenge for Trump is going to be so much more intense over the next few months as he tries to rein this in. You know, no good lawyer would tell their client, even if there was no risk to him, you are never supposed to speak about something that could affect you or your societies. And Trump has not learned that lesson. He is not a lawyer, not a politician. This is not his world. And some people with some guts in the White House and elsewhere have to be able to deliver that message in a real way.

DEMIRJIAN: Or simply take the Twitter application off his phone.


MECKLER: And that's not happening.

KING: It has - it has been tried. I once - I once jokingly said they need to set up an electronic field around the White House where he thinks it's going out and he sees - he sees feedback but it's actually not.

But now we're into - as we, you know, we make some jokes about this because parts of it do get theatrical, this incredibly serious legal jeopardy for the president and for his staff as this investigation goes on. And at the moment, and it's largely a he said/he said, and the president did not answer in any detail, which is smart and on the advice of his lawyers, but James Comey, a trained FBI investigator, a trained prosecutor before that, if you believe his accounts of this, took copious notes of several conversations with the president that he said made him uncomfortable. That he said the president - it was - now, he's trained. There's a way to do that in the FBI how you take your notes. The president has had a more casual relationship with the truth at times. And if you're in an investigative environment, the - a trained, disciplined prosecutor turned FBI chief James Comey's notes are going to be taken more seriously than things said by the president. That's just a fact.

MECKLER: I mean - and I think that that - this goes back to what we've been seeing literally since day one of this presidency when he said he had the largest inauguration crowds. And it was sort of the - well, obviously, that wasn't true. And they were sort of like, what's the big deal? Like, what's the big deal. You know, we say it. It may be true. It may not. It has a general end. There was this kind of this - this idea that those of us who insist on things being 100 percent accurate are sort of being just like overly stickler about this. But yet this is when it matters.

[12:10:02] KING: Right.

MECKLER: Because he - because it's credibility.

KING: Crowd size, maybe not. But about what you told the FBI director, it's dead serious.

MECKLER: Right. But the point is that if you have a reputation for not being truthful and not - at least not - let's not call him a liar, but let's just say not saying the facts as they are. And that happens over and over again. And then you get to somebody who is looking at this from a dispassionate point of view like former Director Mueller, now special counsel, he - you know, what's he going to think?

KING: And as - as this plays out, part of it is, you know, we're waiting to see when Comey will testify on Capitol Hill. We'll get to the Congress part in just a moment. But we do know, as the investigation goes forward, some of Comey's friends are stepping up to support him, including a gentlemen by the name of Ben Wittes, who supports Comey and says he talked to him during this. He said the director told him how uncomfortable he was being summoned to a dinner with the president, being summoned to a law enforcement event at the White House where the word was Director Comey wore a blue suit and tried to hide in the back of the room, essentially trying to blend in, trying to blend in with the drapes, hoping the president didn't call him up because he thought it was inappropriate to be in a room with the president, as the FBI director, as the person leading this investigation. Listen to this account from Comey's friend, Ben Wittes.


BENJAMIN WITTES, FRIEND OF JAMES COMEY: If you watch the video, he extends his hand and Comey's arms are really long. 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 -


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


KING: Now, I don't think this one episode is going to become central to the big issues down the road, but it does tell you that Comey has a - now has a network of friend who are speaking out for him and offering their descriptions. I'm sure somebody else in the White House would come out and say, oh, come on, he leaned in quite willingly. That was a friendly handshake. They had their (INAUDIBLE). But this is the world we now live in.

MECKLER: But what matters is less what happened in that handshake/hug and more about the fact that Comey, at the time it was happening, talked to other people about how he was feeling.

KING: Right.

MECKLER: So the fact that he was feeling pressured is, he has backup for that. I mean that's what matters in terms of going to his credibility. And, you know, I think that that's - that's a big problem for the president.

PHILLIP: And let's not forget, at the time, that was a huge moment.

KING: Right.

PHILLIP: Everybody noticed it. It wasn't like it was a thing that happened and no one thought it was odd.


PHILLIP: Everyone thought it was -

KING: Right. The president remarked, he's more famous than me. There's Jim. He's more famous than me.

PHILLIP: Everyone thought it was odd. Everyone asked the question, what is going on here? And so now we know Comey's side of it. What is the president's side of it? What was he trying to say? This is the same person who, after the election, was thanking Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner for the circumstances under which Comey wrote that October letter. I mean there are a lot of things happening here that the president is going to want to answer for, otherwise we'll just have a one sided story from James Comey.

KING: I just lost my bet we could get through the hour without the words "Anthony Weiner." (INAUDIBLE)

PHILLIP: My apologies.

KING: All right, everybody, sit tight.

Up next, will Congress regret being so happy there's a new special counsel and will the former FBI Director Comey testify anytime soon?


[12:17:30] KING: Welcome back.

Most members of Congress are relieved former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named special counsel to lead the Russia election meddling investigation. Republicans especially think it gives them some political cover. But there is a be careful what you wish for dynamic as outlined here by Senator Lindsey Graham.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It's now considered a criminal investigation and Congress's ability to conduct investigations of all things Russia has been severely limited, probably in an appropriate fashion.


KING: You touched on this a bit in the last block. Is he certain or is that just the big question, that there's the House Intelligence Committee, there's the Senate Intelligence Committee, there's Lindsey Graham's judiciary subcommittee they've been looking into. I mean have they been told point blank, dial it back, or do they just think that's going to happen when they ask for document x or testimony y that Bob Mueller says, give me time?

DEMIRJIAN: It's the latter. They haven't been told stand down, we don't need you anymore, get out of our way, but effectively they can't get in the way of the active FBI investigation. They know they don't have the resources to match. They don't that they don't have the mandate that can match it because, again, that's why there's so many separate committees that are looking at pieces of this, and requesting documents. And you had oversight and government reform jump into the mix. That's Chaffetz's committee. H e's going to be out the door really soon. So there's a lot of chaos in the congressional side of -

KING: In the Congress?

DEMIRJIAN: Shocking, right, I know. But there's a lot of chaos in this investigation and how well it's organized. And there's concern that even where there's not chaos, there's going to be this de-confliction that has to happen, which is basically, we won't step in your way so that we don't but heads, so that we don't impede the criminal investigation to the extent it's going. And if Mueller pursues a very broad mandate, that's going to happen a lot. And as Graham continued to say yesterday, I mean, how do you tell somebody that you're saying, we're subpoenaed you for documents and testimony. They'll take the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating themselves for a criminal investigation where there's actual consequences versus just a public report that's put out in the end in Congress. So -

KING: And he came out, Phil, after - Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, was up on Capitol Hill. He was on the Senate side yesterday. On the House side today. A lot of grumpy people in that room because the White House initially pined the firing of James Comey on Rod Rosenstein because he wrote a memo essentially saying, in his view, the director had lost public trust, in his view the director had done some things wrong in his testimony to Congress and how he handled the Clinton e-mail investigation. Rod Rosenstein will not talk publicly about what he said and it's a private meeting where we've learned a little bit from the lawmakers after, but he did release some of the statements he gave at the beginning of the meeting in which he defended himself, but he also said - he defended himself but he also made clear what the White House initially told you is not true. He said, quote, "my memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for cause termination. My memorandum is not a survey of FBI moral or performance. My memorandum is not a press release. It is a candid internal memorandum about the FBI director's public statements concerning a high profile criminal investigation." He went on to say, "I wrote it, I believe it, I stand by it."

[12:20:17] The White House used that as its initial - this is essentially the entire justification. Then, of course, the president said no. And Rosenstein, correct me if I'm wrong, told those lawmakers he knew, as he was drafting that memo, the president had already decided, no matter what he wrote, Comey was toast.

MATTINGLY: He explicitly told the lawmakers that he found out on May 8th that Jim Comey was going to be fired. He sat down to write the memo on May 9th, which is when it was dated. He also noted that he agreed with it, he had no problem with it, but the memo was not a recommendation and clearly the decision had already been made, which as you point out, flies completely in the face of not just what White House officials said in the immediate aftermath, but also what the vice president said repeatedly over and over and over again until they were all undercut by the president. And then the president went back to the Rosenstein memo as the rational yesterday.

So, yes. And, look, we'd heard that there was some frustration in the deputy attorney general's side. That he - everything had been pinned on him. But while lawmakers were frustrated, both in the Senate and House in the last two days, on the briefing itself, what they got from it, they said he was largely differential to Bob Mueller, didn't want to really answer anything, including the specifics of how the Comey firing actually went down. This was the key takeaway that just about everybody coming out pointed to, that he clearly was told that Jim Comey was going to be fired and then he sat down and wrote the memo, which again flies directly in the face of what White House officials have been saying.

DEMIRJIAN: There's a missing piece of this though, which is that, was he told to write the memo is a question that he won't answer.

MATTINGLY: He won't answer, right.

DEMIRJIAN: And House lawmakers who heard from him today were basically trying to push him to actually close that gap. Did somebody tell you to write that memo or did you do it yourself and he keeps saying that's Bob Mueller's territory.

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: Which is the question of -

KING: But what he means -

DEMIRJIAN: Is that going to be part of the investigation?

MECKLER: Well, if it means - yes.


KING: Which means he is - he is - he is confirming that Bob Mueller, or at least he believes Bob Mueller is going to make central to his investigation how and why James Comey was fired and was it a connection to the president being unhappy with the state of play in the investigation.



KING: As you jump in, one of the debates last week was there was a story leaked that Comey was fired after asking for more resources for the investigation. There was push back from the Justice Department. Kevin McCarthy, the number two in the House, a Republican, came out after this meeting and said that Rosenstein said one of the questions were for public. He said he's already said it, that he has no evidence that Comey asked for further resources. That all the resources were there. Is that the final word on that or is it -

MATTINGLY: I think it is. And, look, I was told explicitly the lawmaker who asked that question, after he received that answer, said, can I say that outside of this briefing room? It was a classified briefing. There were obviously heavy limits on what they can speak about. And the deputy attorney general said, yes, you can talk about this. They clearly want to make this public. Obviously the Justice Department went on the record disputing this as well. Now the deputy attorney general is giving members of Congress the freedom to come out and dispute this as well. They want this out there, that that never happened, at least in the way that it was initially reported, or at least in the way Jim Comey apparently thinks it happened. MECKLER: But it doesn't mean that that - there still is evidence that

the Russia investigation was heating up. That subpoenas were going out. That there was - it was taking it to a high level. Now, whether there was actually a specific request for resources, you know, may not be the case. But there still, as we're talking about, an escalating investigation that might have made the White House uncomfortable.

KING: Right. And one of the big issues on the table now is who replaces Comey. And that person might be breathing a bit of a sigh of relief in that Bob Mueller's there to take the investigation.

But you're still the FBI director. Bob Mueller will still come through you when he needs more resources from the bureau, more investigators and the like.

The president conceded yesterday that former Senator Joseph Lieberman, who was a Democrat, very friendly with Republicans, became an independent at one point in his life to protect his job, that he's a leading candidate. You see up there, Joe Lieberman who was Al Gore's running mate back in the campaign in 2000. Briefly ran for president himself heading into the 2004 cycle. Why are the Democrats so opposed - and I want you to - this is Angus King, who's an independent, but he generally sides with the Democrats, why are they so opposed. Is it for this reason Angus King is about to give you or on the other side I'll ask other question.


SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: I just don't think it ought to be a politician. Never had a politician head of the FBI. I don't care whether it's Hamilton, Jefferson or Lincoln or Lieberman, I just don't think that's the right pick at this moment given all of the events that are swirling around the FBI.


KING: Probably the first time Joe Lieberman's been in the Hamilton, Jefferson, Lincoln or Lieberman sentence. No offense - no offense to Senator Lieberman. But is this that they think you need a career prosecutor, a nuts and bolts guy on the beat, or is this because Democrats have some grievances against Joe Lieberman, who backed John McCain, who was a thorn in the - who lost a primary and then ran as an independent? Is it the old bad Democratic blood or is it the career prosecutor part or is it both?

MECKLER: I think it's probably both.


MECKLER: I mean, frankly, I mean let's keep in mind, I mean Joe Lieberman has been persona nongrata in the Democratic Party for a long time. And it wasn't just those things you mentioned. It was also his strong support for the Iraq War, which is what - part of what bonded him to Lindsey Graham and John McCain. And when he endorsed John McCain at the convention -

KING: Right.

MECKLER: I mean, they were very close.

KING: He also backed Michael Flynn for national security adviser.

MECKLER: He also did that. And he also - he trashed Barack Obama when he did that. A lot of people felt like, OK, if he's going to speak at that 2008 convention, you know, say good things about McCain, who everybody respected. You don't have to go out of your way to trash the Democratic nominee, but he did. He said - you know, he had seen nothing from substance from him in the Senate. So I think that there's been a lot of dislike of Joe Lieberman for a while now between you - when you add all of this up.

KING: Right. And it was -

DEMIRJIAN: And that's -

[12:25:14] KING: Quickly with - if he did it, would there be enough Republican cover or would he lose Republicans?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, I mean, he only needs 50, right, then Pence can come in and take the tiebreaking vote. And if they want to rally around him because they feel like they have a good argument to make of like what's your problem with this guy, I mean there was the same discussion around the Merrick Garland -

KING: But Republicans had John Cornyn (INAUDIBLE) out.

DEMIRJIAN: Well, yes, but then he was the politician also, so that's one. But, I mean, you saw Merrick Garland's name be floated, which kind of was a similar like, this is your guy. I mean, you know -

KING: (INAUDIBLE) very quickly said, thank you, no.


KING: I didn't get the - I didn't get the - I didn't get the robe I wanted, but I've got a pretty good robe right now and I'm going to keep it.

Everybody sit tight.

Up next, NATO allies are nervous. The headlines in Israel are scorching. Air Force One is fueled up and the world is watching.


[12:29:49] KING: Welcome back.

As we noted, President Trump's about to leave for his first international trip. Stop one, Saudi Arabia. There's a big arms deal in the works and promises of tough rhetoric about Iran. So the royal family is willing to set aside that the president said not all that along ago that the kingdom is weak and would collapse without the United States military support. Oh, and, there's this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It wasn't the Iraqis that knocked down the World Trade Center. We went after Iraq.