Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Notes From Trump-Russia Meeting Leaked; Trump Leaves on First Foreign Trip; Trump Told Russians in Oval Office Firing "Nut Job" Comey Eased "Great Pressure" from Probe; Comey Agrees to Testify in Public Before Senate Intel Committee. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, new details of what's happening behind the scenes.

"He was crazy." President Trump reportedly slamming James Comey to Russian officials, calling the FBI director that he fired a real nutjob. And the president reportedly went on to say that Comey's ouster would ease pressure on him from the Russia investigation.

Avoiding the president. Comey was so concerned about Mr. Trump's behavior, he reportedly went to great lengths to avoid him. Tonight, a Comey confidant is speaking out about it and defending the memo.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein briefs the entire House of Representatives on the Russia investigation and stands by his letter recommending Comey's firing, which he already knew was coming.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: After days of increasingly troublesome headlines, CNN has learned that White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment procedures.

Sources say the White House only considers impeachment a distant possibility at this point.

Also, "The New York Times" is reporting that President Trump bragged to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office about his firing of FBI Director James Comey, saying it removed great pressure from the Russia investigation.

The report also says Mr. Trump called Comey crazy and also -- and I'm quoting him now -- "a real nutjob."

Tonight, the White House is not denying "The Times" story, which is raising new questions about the president's intent in firing Comey.

At the same time, a Comey confidant is speaking out about how the then FBI director tried to keep his distance from the president because Comey was so disturbed by his behavior. At one point, the friend says Comey allegedly tried to blend in with White House curtains, hoping to avoid even being noticed by the president.

We are covering all that, more this hour with our guests, including former foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton Jake Sullivan. And our correspondents and specialists, they are also standing by.

But let's begin with our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, and the breaking news.

Evan, what are you hearing from your sources?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment procedures. This is simply an effort to prepare for what officials still believe is a distant and unlikely possibility that the president could have to fend off attempts to remove him from office.

Now, two people briefed on the discussions tell CNN that the research efforts are informal and are being done out of an abundance of caution. White House officials believe that the president has the backing of Republican allies in Congress and that impeachment at this point is not in the cards, according to the people who have been briefed on these legal discussions.

And we should note that even Democrats have tried to calm the impeachment talk this week out of concern that it is premature. But lawyers in the White House Counsel's Office have consulted experts in impeachment and have begun collecting information on how such proceedings might work.

We reached out to the White House for comment, and they did not comment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Does this mean that the White House, the president needs to hire outside lawyers?

PEREZ: Well, that's the discussion that's being had right now.

There's a broader internal effort to bolster the president's legal defense, which has become a lot more complicated with the Justice Department's appointment of a special counsel to pursue the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Earlier this week, close advisers to the president, Wolf, including two lawyers who had served as surrogates for the president, Michael Cohen and Jay Sekulow, visited the White House to discuss his need to hire personal lawyers.

BLITZER: An important development, indeed. All right, Evan, good reporting. Stand by.

I want to get some more.

Our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, is following all the breaking news as well. All this comes, Sara, as the president is now heading on his first

overseas trip.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

The president may have left the White House, but his troubles are certainly following him on what is going to be a high-stakes adventure through five different nations now. The president had hoped to use this as a turning point, a way to sort of reset the message.

But just based on the news this evening, it is clear that is going to be very difficult to do.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump leaving Washington behind today, as he aims to use a high-stakes foreign trip to escape the cloud of controversy marring his presidency.

But just as he took off, a fresh controversy broke out, "The New York Times" reporting that Trump told Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting that firing FBI Director James Comey relieved some of the pressure on him in the Russia investigation, Trump reportedly describing Comey, who was overseeing the Russia investigation at the time, as "a real nutjob" and saying, "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."

[18:05:04]

The White House did not deny the account. In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said: "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."

Trump allies say are hopeful the president will use his ambitious five-nation foreign trip as an opportunity to move beyond complaints about the Russia investigation.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The entire thing has been a witch-hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign.

MURRAY: And refocus on his presidential agenda.

TRUMP: We want to get back and keep on the track that we're on, because the track that we're on is record-setting. And that's what we want to do, is we want to do break very positive records.

MURRAY: It's a reset Trump's colleagues are openly wishing for as well.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: He clearly did have a bad two weeks. And clearly it is my hope that he does right the ship, that he improves, so that we can just get going.

MURRAY: But, in Washington, the discussion is still dominated by the chaos of the past few weeks, largely caused by the president's own actions, as questions continue swirling about the president's snap decision to fire Comey and where the Russia investigation now held by a special counsel will lead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, there will be at least two pressing items on the president's agenda upon his return.

One, of course, is whether to hire outside legal counsel now that there is special counsel overseeing that investigation into Russia. But the second is choosing who will be his next FBI director, who he wants to name to that slot, after firing James Comey -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Murray over at White House, thank you.

Let's get reaction from Capitol Hill right now, where Republicans were already exhausted by this week's chaos before all the late-breaking news broke.

Our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is joining us.

Phil, even with the president now traveling on his first stop in this overseas trip, the drama continues.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it.

And, look, what you pointed out, Wolf, is spot on. Republicans I have spoken to throughout the week, even those who have been very supportive of the president up to this point, the word I hear repeatedly is exhausted. They are tired.

And these latest stories, while they haven't specifically responded to them, certainly aren't going to help that process. Democrats, on the other hand, Wolf, they have wasted no time weighing in.

I just spoke to Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, who said he is dumbfounded by what was released in "The New York Times" story by -- about this meeting. Joe Crowley, the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said the president calling anybody a nutjob is -- quote -- "like the pot calling the kettle black."

He also said he has essentially at this point run out of words to describe how he is supposed to respond to this. But, Wolf, it's important to note, some Democrats have gone even further than just being befuddled, if you will.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a very senior senator in the Democratic Caucus and the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tweeted out that "This is what obstruction looks like."

Now, not every Democrat is taking that leap yet, but there is already action to get further information on this. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, Wolf, he has requested the chairman of that committee, Jason Carroll, ask for an official transcript or any transcript of this meeting between the president and threat Russian officials.

And if that transcript exists and is not handed over by the White House, he is asking the Republican chairman to subpoena that transcript. Now, we are still waiting to hear back to see from what Jason Carroll would have to say about that. But it's very clear Democrats think this is an issue that they can work on. And clearly they are seizing on it at the moment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Phil, thank you, Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill.

Let's get some more reaction.

Our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, is joining us.

Jeffrey, first of all, the breaking news that we're getting that White House lawyers have started researching impeachment procedures, even though these sources say the White House lawyers think it's a distant possibility?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's rational and smart for them to do.

And I remember, in 1998, when this moment happened, first, they started with the White House counsel staff, people like Lanny Davis and Lanny Breuer, later Greg Craig. But then they brought in outsiders, David Kendall, Nicole Seligman. And that became the impeachment team.

Another very big similarity was that the Clinton people said, look, we are not going to be forced from office unless Democrats turn against us, our party. The person they were concerned about was not Henry Hyde or Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich or any of the Republicans. They were concerned about Richard Gephardt, who was then the Democratic leader, because they knew that the only way they could really be forced from office, if it becomes bipartisan.

And keeping their party intact, just as the Republicans are trying to keep their party intact today, that's the key to staying in office.

BLITZER: So you think it will be smart for the president to start, as they say, lawyering up with private attorneys?

[18:10:05]

TOOBIN: Absolutely.

I mean, this is a serious investigation. And, you know, I think the public is sophisticated enough to know that if you hire a lawyer, that doesn't mean you're guilty of anything, and especially when you have, you know, document requests that are going to be coming in and demands for tapes, that all of this relates to official White House operations, so the White House Counsel's Office will handle some of it.

But some of it involves Donald Trump personally, and he needs a lawyer.

BLITZER: You remember, and I was covering it at the time, that Bill Clinton, as president of the United States, he was impeached in the House of Representatives, but not convicted in the U.S. Senate. It is a long process.

TOOBIN: It is a long process. And there is also a very big difference between the situation that Clinton faced in '98 and Trump faced today.

The Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. So they could convene impeachment proceedings with Henry Hyde as the chairman, and, you know, his political opponent were running the show. So, he really couldn't stop that.

Now you have the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, and they are going to be very reluctant to open any sort of impeachment proceeding. So, I think, in that respect, independent of the merits, Trump is in a lot stronger position than Clinton was in 1998.

BLITZER: I'm going to have you stand by, Jeffrey.

We have more questions for you.

But, right now, I want to bring in Jake Sullivan. He was Joe Biden's national security adviser when Biden was vice president. He's also a former foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton.

Jake, thanks for coming in.

JAKE SULLIVAN, FORMER ADVISER TO HILLARY CLINTON: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: What's your reaction, first of all, to this CNN report that White House lawyers now have started researching impeachment, even though they think it is a distant possibility?

SULLIVAN: I think given the events of the past two weeks and what has been revealed with respect to the way the president has interfered in this investigation, that is a prudent step for them to take.

And it's not surprising that they would be taking it. And I think Jeff Toobin is right when he says that Americans are smart enough to know that just because you hire a lawyer doesn't mean you're guilty at the end, but certainly what we have seen over these last two weeks suggests that it would be prudent for Trump and the Trump administration to be considering this possibility.

BLITZER: Another bombshell report that came out just a little while ago, "The New York Times" saying that President Trump told the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States in the Oval Office that the firing of the former FBI Director James Comey took great pressure off of him.

Let me read the quote from "The New York Times." This is the quote of the president. "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nutjob. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off. I'm not under investigation."

How do you react when you see that kind of comment reportedly made to these two Russian diplomats?

SULLIVAN: This is another in a long list of things that Donald Trump has done that is totally shocking, but not totally surprising.

We have seen him already admit on television that he fired James Comey because of the Russia investigation. And now, when he brings the Russians into the Oval Office, laughing with them, smiling with them, chuckling with them, he tells them that the FBI director is a nutjob and that the reason he fired him was because of the pressure he was under, and now that he's fired him -- and this is the key part -- he felt the pressure was going to be easing off.

This is utterly and completely unacceptable for him to do to anyone, let alone to the Russians. It is brazen. But at the end of the day, we have seen a pattern of behavior from Donald Trump which suggests we sort of should have expected this.

BLITZER: It may be brazen, but some are already suggesting it is moving closer to obstruction of justice.

SULLIVAN: I think it is certainly in the neighborhood of obstruction of justice. I'm not somebody who can reach that legal conclusion.

But what I will say is, we can now report definitively, without any contradiction from the White House, that Donald Trump has told the Russians that he fired Jim Comey to get the pressure off him because of the Russian investigation.

People ought to be able to draw their own conclusions as to whether that is obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: Will the transcript of that Oval Office meeting with the Russians be made available to investigators, whether the new special counsel, Bob Mueller, or investigators in Congress?

SULLIVAN: I think it is going to be hard to keep it from the FBI.

Whether or not they decide that the executive branch prerogatives allow them to keep it from Congress is another matter. But I think Bob Mueller is going to have the opportunity to talk to people about what went on in that meeting and what it says about Donald Trump's state of mind.

BLITZER: So, you worked for Joe Biden. You worked for the president as well, President Obama. You worked for Hillary Clinton.

Can you imagine them having a conversation with Russian officials, visiting the Oval Office, visiting Washington, about an FBI director who had just been fired?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely not.

Let's take a step back for a moment. Donald Trump's chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joe Dunford, has called Russia the number one national security threat facing the United States. Donald Trump's intelligence community has concluded with high confidence that Russian intelligence mounted a massive campaign to disrupt the American election and helped get Donald Trump elected.

[18:15:12]

We should be pushing back on Russia, not inviting them into the Oval Office and telling them, hey, by the way, guys, I fired Comey because the pressure from the Trump-Russia investigation was getting too great.

That is something that you would not see from any normal, rational person occupying the Oval Office.

BLITZER: Here is the official reaction from the White House, because Sean Spicer put out a statement, the press secretary, to "The New York Times" bombshell report.

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. The investigation would have always continued and, obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."

So, what he is suggesting is, this was part of a strategy that the president had in negotiating and dealing with the Russians.

SULLIVAN: I found that statement odd, but strangely candid.

Essentially, what Sean Spicer is saying is Trump is, wants to cut deals with the Russians, and he is finding it harder to cut deals with the Russians as long as this investigation is going on. So, let's bury the investigation so he can get about the business of cutting deals with the Russians.

That sounds more incriminating than exculpatory to me.

BLITZER: But it was interesting to me. And I'm sure it will be to you as well, because I followed all the other White House statements reacting to bombshell reports, and almost always there's a flat denial. The story is not true. There's no evidence of this. It's false.

In this particular statement, there's no denying it.

SULLIVAN: I think that they finally realized that they have gotten caught in so many lies and that "The New York Times" had them dead to rights here, that they have recognized they need to come up with some explanation for what they are doing.

But at the end of the day, the fact doesn't change that the real issue here is Trump fired Jim Comey, the FBI director, as a means of disrupting and undermining and, in his words, easing the pressure of the FBI investigation. That fact is something that, in all this circus, in all this madness, in the daily drumbeat, we cannot lose sight of, because it is a critical fact for his fitness for office.

BLITZER: You were a top adviser to Hillary Clinton over at the State Department, during the campaign as well. I'm just curious, have you had a chance to speak with her about all these reports?

SULLIVAN: I saw Secretary Clinton earlier this week.

And I was reminded when I saw her that she actually warned the country that Donald Trump was Putin's puppet. And he is acting like it. He is calling the Russians into the office, in his office, the Oval Office, to say, hey, guys, don't worry, don't worry. We're going to ease the pressure off this thing. I got rid of this guy.

It sounds like what Hillary Clinton was saying on the campaign trail is bearing out in real time and we are watching it unfold before our eyes. And the challenge is that this is ultimately a threat to America's a national security and this is certainly the opposite of putting America first.

BLITZER: I want to be precise. Did she remind you she called him Putin's puppet?

SULLIVAN: No, she didn't remind me of that. In the course of our conversation about this, I thought of the fact that this had happened during the campaign.

And it's amazing now to go back and look at the statements she was making and the statements others on the campaign were making, and how in fact all of those warnings are coming true just in the first 120, 125 days of this administration.

BLITZER: We have more to discuss.

I have got to take a quick break. Much more with Jake Sullivan right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:55]

BLITZER: We're the following breaking news, a "New York Times" report saying President Trump bragged in the Oval Office to top Russian officials that firing FBI Director James Comey eased pressure from the Russia investigation on him.

And he also reportedly called Comey -- and I'm quoting now,-- "crazy and a nutjob."

Tonight, the White House is not denying the story. We're back with Jake Sullivan, a former national security adviser for

Vice President Joe Biden and foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton.

In that same meeting, Jake, in the Oval Office with these two Russian officials, the president reportedly gave classified information to the Russians about various aspects. The president's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, said what the president did was wholly appropriate.

The president himself said he had the absolute right to share that kind of information with the Russians if he wanted to. Is this troubling to you?

SULLIVAN: I think the most troubling part of that report is him being quoted saying: I get the best intelligence. You want to know? You want to see how I get the best intelligence? -- is his reason for doing this is essentially to brag, to be the narcissist that he has proven time and time again that he is.

And I think he probably had no idea what he was doing. And the combination of narcissism and ignorance, plus his view that the Russians are our friend, so what does it matter, is what all added up to him doing this.

And, yes, I think that that is very troubling. I don't think that the president should be sharing that kind of information with a hostile foreign power like Russia, for the purpose of demonstrating what great intelligence he gets.

BLITZER: Because CNN has reported, other news organizations as well, that Israeli intelligence was the source of that confidential classified information.

Do you believe this could deter not only Israel, but other friendly countries, from sharing sensitive intelligence with the U.S.?

SULLIVAN: I think you have already seen plenty of reporting that many of our close partners, including in NATO and other countries, are now more nervous than they were before, because they recognize the threat that Russia poses to the United States.

They know that sharing highly sensitive classified intelligence with Russia is a bad thing, not a good thing, and that Donald Trump would be well-advised to learn that himself.

[18:25:02]

And, again, this goes back to this fundamental issue that he seems to have on point after point when it comes to the U.S.-Russia relations.

BLITZER: Because the -- you were a national security adviser in the White House during the Obama administration.

If this would have happened on your watch, what would you have done, if the president of the United States would have, in an Oval Office meeting with Russians, shared this kind of intelligence?

SULLIVAN: This is so far from possible to have happened with President Barack Obama that I never even thought about what we would have done.

He never would have even conceived of doing something like this. So, it is an impossible hypothetical to answer.

BLITZER: Do you think the Israelis have to worry that some of that sensitive information that the U.S. through the president shared with the Russians could wind up in the hands of the Iranians, because Russia and Iran are allies that try to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, for that matter, another archenemy of the Israelis?

SULLIVAN: The Israelis are reportedly fit to be tied about this having happened. They are reportedly yelling at U.S. counterparts about it.

And my guess for why they are so unhappy is exactly that, that they are worried that this information is going to get into the hands of the Iranians, who represent a threat to Israel, a threat to our allies in the region, a threat to the United States. And that is one more reason why this was so dangerous and one more reason why Russia can't be trusted, because of their relationship with Iran.

BLITZER: You were a top adviser to Hillary Clinton during the campaign. I just want to get your quick reaction, Joe Biden saying this -- and you worked for Joe Biden as a national security adviser as well -- he said this about Hillary Clinton: "I never thought she was a great candidate. I thought I was a great candidate."

Your response?

SULLIVAN: I love Joe Biden. I respect him deeply. He is almost never wrong. But I obviously don't agree with him on this point.

I think Hillary Clinton was a very strong candidate. She won three million more votes than Donald Trump did. She faced unbelievable headwinds, particularly in the closing days of the campaign, and she ran a historic race with a historic candidacy.

So, I think, on this one, I'm just going to have to part company with the president.

BLITZER: You think Joe Biden will run in 2020?

SULLIVAN: I have no idea. I think what he said today was that he's open to it, but he probably won't.

And I think this is a question he's going to have to grapple with and ultimately answer for himself.

BLITZER: One final question on the former FBI director, James Comey.

You must have some mixed feelings about his being fired, because Hillary Clinton, remember, on May 2, she blamed him and at least in part for losing the election. She said: "It wasn't a perfect campaign. But I was on the way to winning until a combination of Comey's letter and Russian WikiLeaks."

So, what is your reaction to the decision by the president to fire Comey?

SULLIVAN: You know what? This is a polarized age.

It's a time when it is very hard to hold complex thoughts. But this is one of those circumstances where I have to hold a complex thought, which is, on the one hand, I think what the Trump administration did in firing Comey to ease pressure off the Russia investigation, as the president himself admitted, was completely wrong and potentially even obstruction of justice, but that what Rod Rosenstein wrote in his note about what Comey did last year was a fair statement, that, in fact, Comey did abuse his office in the various steps that he took last year.

I believe both of those things are true and both of those things can be stated clearly. And that doesn't let the Trump administration off the hook. The fact that Jim Comey made mistakes last year is no justification for Trump to fire him because of Russia.

BLITZER: So, when I said you had mixed feelings, I was right?

SULLIVAN: You were.

BLITZER: OK.

Jake Sullivan, thanks very much for coming in.

SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more on the breaking news here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Do the president's newly revealed remarks about James Comey shed new light on his intent when he fired the FBI director?

Plus, we also have new information about North Korea's latest missile test. Is the country getting closer to a nuclear weapon that could strike the United States?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

(MUSIC PLAYING)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST (voice-over): The breaking news tonight: "The New York Times" reporting that President Trump bragged to the Russian foreign minister and the ambassador in the Oval Office about his dismissal of James Comey.

"The Times" says the document summarizing the meeting shows 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. I'm not under investigation," end quote.

Let's dig deeper with our specialist and analysts. And Matthew Rosenberg of "The New York Times" is with us, who helped break that story for "The New York Times."

How significant is this bombshell?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I think another piece of evidence that shows Donald Trump, when he fired Jim Comey, wanted to shut down the Russia investigation.

And on top of that, this isn't a one-on-one conversation that we have one side of. There was a third party in the room taking notes. That's how we know about this. This was circulated in dozens of people in the executive branch of the government -- obviously we found out about it.

And it really shows that also, beyond that, this incredible chumminess with the Russians. You know, I'm going to talk about the FBI director, call him crazy. O just fired the day before to somebody who is not the representative of a friendly country. Let's put it that way.

And, you know, I think for a lot of people in the FBI, in the intelligence community, they were furious about the Comey firing. This is not going to make them any -- feel any better about it.

BLITZER: So just to be precise, not necessarily --

[18:35:00]

BLITZER: -- an audio transcript of the conversation but some diplomat or another person taking notes and then summarizing those notes and distributing the substance of the conversation within the U.S. government, certain circles.

Yes. And that's kind of standard practice in all these meetings. We also have to remember, this is the meeting where Trump also shared Israeli intelligence, that the Israelis had given to the U.S. and said don't share with anyone.

He just kind of politely handed off to the Russians as well.

BLITZER: That's another matter --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: -- that -- they just keep on coming and coming.

Laura, you know, the whole notion of obstruction of justice has been raised as a possibility. And now we are reporting, CNN is reporting, that White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment even though they don't think it's imminent or likely. But they are researching it. What are you hearing?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. So my colleague, Evan Perez, broke the story tonight. But I think it's important to recognize this is just good lawyering, right, given the news of the day. They are trying to make sure they are not caught flat-footed and they're trying to make sure they can fend off anything that comes their way, not necessarily thinking that this is inevitablebility but making sure that they are well prepared in this situation.

BLITZER: Let me ask Jeffrey Toobin this.

Is the White House legal team right, Jeffrey, to be concerned?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: They sure are.

First of all, I'd like to say, Matt and his colleagues at "The New York Times" are doing such an amazing job and doing such a public service in doing this kind of reporting.

But let's just think about one thing. June 23rd, 1972, Richyard nixon and H.R. halderman, six days after the Watergate break-in on the White House tape, they agree, let's pretend that the CIA insists, for national security reasons, that we need to shut down the investigation of the watergrate break-in by the FBI.

Think how closely parall this situation is, where Comey is saying -- where President Trump is saying, you know, I fired Comey to get rid of the pressure. And he is saying it to a foreign power.

In my mind, ot really looks a lot like obstruction of justice. You know, I'm not here to convict anybody of anything. But I mean, this is certainly very prime territory for dirichter muler to investigate and he has free reign to do it.

BLITZER: And so you agree, it's a good idea for the White House legal team to start at least doing some research on impeachment?

TOOBIN: Oh, they might even want to stay late tonight.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Mark Preston, let me give you the official statement that the White House put out following "The New York Times" report.

Sean Spicer issued this statement, "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. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."

The White House, in that statement, though, is not denying the report. MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: And, clearly, they can't deny it because as weve learned from "The New York Times" that this has been distributed widely within, we would assume, the intelligence community. We won't go that far of how they got it.

But the fact of the matter is, is that clearly this conversation happened. That statement, though, really is a misdirector or a poor attempt at a misdirect when it says "the real story here" is the leaking of classified information.

No, no, the real story is that Donald Trump had the Russians into the Oval Office and had this conversation with them. And, to the point, they're not our friends. I mean, they're our enemies. And the fact that Donald Trump feels like he could work with them is, in itself, puzzling, I think, in the very least.

BLITZER: Basically the story broke literally minutes after Air Force One took off from Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, Rebecca Burke, this is the president's first foreign trip, a very important trip.

How aee all the commotion, all the crises, the matters that are unfolding here in Washington going to impact this trip?

REBECCA BURKE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I was speaking earlier this week, Wolf, with a Republican strategist who works closely with the administration. This strategist told me that they were hoping before the stories of the past couple of days that this trip would be a reset for the administration, that this would afford the president an opportunity to move on from all of these daily controversies, these scandals, suggestion of scandals to come and reset the direction of his administration.

But now this is going to be -- presumably the subtext for the entire trip. Certainly you would expect that in some of these meetings with foreign leaders there might be questions for Donald Trump about how he is handling all of these suggestions of scandal and all this chaos surrounding his administration.

And no doubt all the stories that come out of his trip, we'll also be discussing that as well.

BLITZER: Yes.

Phil Mudd, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said -- let me read it once -- one more time once again.

"The real story is that our national security has been --

[18:40:00]

BLITZER: -- "undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."

Did this leak, of your perspective -- you worked for a long time in the CIA -- undermine U.S. national security in any way? PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, he called the FBI director "a nut job."

How is that classified?

He said the same thing in public forums to the American people and on TV.

If it's classified, how did he speak us to openly?

The press secretary is playing a game here. The transcript of that conversation is certainly classified. I'm sure they talked about Syria, for example. That is and should remain classified. If you reveal it, you tell something to our adversary. That is ISIS.

One of the simple definitions of classification is what advantage do you give the adversary?

But what Sean Spicer is suggesting is that if there is something else in that conversation that's public knowledge, the president's comments about the FBI director, just because it is in a top secret document, it should be classified as well.

So does that mean if the president talked about the weather, that should be classified, too?

He is playing a game, Sean Spicer. I'm not playing with him. We can talk about this issue because simply his conversations about the FBI director are not classified.

BLITZER: In that same meeting in the Oval Office, they also discussed highly classified intelligence that the Israelis supplied to the U.S. about Syria that really was classified.

That, by the way, is a picture of the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, smiling broadly with the president, that picture released by the Russian foreign ministry. No U.S. media were allowed in to take pictures at the start of that meeting in the Oval Office.

Phil, "The New York Times" also spoke to one official, who defended the president by saying, "This conversation was a negotiating tactic with the Russians."

Do you buy that?

MUDD: I don't buy that.

How can you consider that a negotiating tactic?

This is pretty simple. When I was 7 years old, Wolf, I called my sister "stupid." My mother took me in the garage, took out a bar of Ivory soap and washed my mouth out.

When you're dealing -- forget about politics; forget about the Oval Office, forget about President Trump. When you are dealing with a public servant who has the service record of Jim Comey, whether you like him or not, it is inappropriate to use the language the president is using.

Let's reset the conversation. It is not about negotiating with the Russians. It is not about Jim Comey. It is whether the president should be using that language about a public servant and the answer is quite simply, as my mother would tell me, don't do it, that's wrong.

BLITZER: The president called Comey, "crazy, a real nut job," according to "The New York Times." We're going to continue all of this. There is more breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:47:14] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: More breaking news. The Senate intelligence Committee has just announced that the former FBI director, James Comey, has agreed to testify in public. We're hearing that this hearing will be scheduled some time after Memorial Day. A press release just issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee quotes Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the committee, Senator Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the committee, saying that Comey committed to testify in open session before the committee. The press release saying the committee will schedule the open hearing after Memorial Day.

A statement from Senator Burr: the committee looks forward to receiving testimony from the former director on his role in the development of the intelligence community assessment on Russian interference on the 2016 U.S. elections, and I am hopeful that he will clarify for the American people recent events that have been broadly reported in the media.

That statement from Burr.

Senator Warner added this: I hope that former Director Comey's testimony will hope answer some of the questions that have arisen since Director Comey was so suddenly dismissed by the president. I also respect that Director Comey will be able to shed light on issues critical to this committee's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Our congressional reporter, Manu Raju, is up on Capitol Hill.

Yet another major development unfolding right now, Manu. This is going to be a hearing a lot of us feared it could be behind closed doors but it will be an open session.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right, remember, Wolf, actually, the Senate intelligence committee initially wanted to talk to Comey in a classified session after his firing and he said, no, he wanted to do it in an open session. And there were a lot of questions about whether or not Comey would be able to come in an open session in a public hearing after the naming of the special counsel. Because of concerns that perhaps something that James Comey could say could undermine that investigation. But, clearly here, Comey has made the decision after negotiations that were occurring behind the scenes with Richard Burr and Mark Warner that he is ready to go public.

The question is, how much would he be able to say? Will he be able to reveal conversations that occurred with President Trump where he allegedly said that he should drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. Comey memo suggesting that President Trump wanted him to end that investigation. Will he go into any of the details from the three conversations that President Trump said that Comey said that he was not under investigation himself?

All those things will be on the table here, but the question, Wolf, will he be able to remark about these matters publicly or will he try to shy way from saying these things because they almost certainly be part of Bob Mueller's investigation?

[18:50:08]But clearly, Wolf, a huge development here that this is going to be public and keep the issue front and center and could be problematic also for the White House, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, shortly after the president returns from his overseas trip as well.

You know, it's interesting, Manu, I'm looking at the continuation of the statement from Senator Warner, the vice chairman of the committee. Let me read one line: Director Comey served this country with honor for many years and he deserves an opportunity to tell his story. Moreover, the American people deserve to hear it.

It follows this announcement, a dramatic announcement from the Senate Intelligence Committee only a few hours after "The New York Times" quoted the president of the United States as telling Russian officials in that Oval Office meeting that the fired FBI director is crazy, a real nut job. That's going to escalate the critically important nature of this open hearing.

RAJU: No kidding. No question about that, Wolf. Also, that other key point in that article, whether or not Comey was fired in order to ease pressure from the Russia probe as the president apparently said to Russian officials in that meeting. Does James Comey believe that his dismissal was in relation to the Russia probe? Does he think the reason he was fired was an effort to kill that probe into the Trump campaign, the collusion that may have occurred with Russian officials.

We have not heard that from James Comey. That will be a question front and center for the Democrats and the Republicans in the committee and it shows, Wolf, also where the investigations, both on Capitol Hill and what Bob Mueller almost certainly are going to go looking at that issue of the possibility that the president may have done things that tried to interfere with the investigations that were happening both by the FBI and perhaps also on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: It looks, Manu, like the Republican chairman and the Democratic vice chairman of this critically important committee, they seem to be working closely together in this investigation. Correct me if I'm wrong.

RAJU: Yes, that's certainly the way it's going. It's going a lot better than the House Intelligence Committee investigation was going before Chairman Devin Nunes on the House side was forced to temporarily step aside from that probe.

But they, Warner and Burr, are taking pains to show that they're working very closely together. They're having joint news conferences. They're putting out joint statements when they subpoenaed Michael Flynn for records that come from both Warner and Burr, even though one side could presumably do the subpoena without the support of the other. Right now, they're moving together.

But the question, Wolf, is when the committee tries to reach a conclusion over some of the key issues, including whether there was any improper collusion between Trump officials and Russian officials, whether or not the two sides can get together on those two central questions. And I'm told this, Wolf, this investigation is a long ways away from coming to a conclusion. So, they're a ways away from making some of those key decisions that could actually force these two sides to split potentially along party lines.

BLITZER: Manu, stand by.

Jeffrey Toobin is still with us.

Jeffrey, the legal impact potentially of this testimony from Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee could be enormous.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, and you can be sure that James Comey before he agreed to testify went to his long and dear friend Robert Mueller and said, look, do you want me to hold off because you're just starting your investigation? And presumably, Mueller gave him the green light and said, look, your testimony is what your testimony is going to be, the documents are what they are. They're not going to change. And you can go ahead and testify.

So, this is obviously going to be a very key moment both in the investigation and in the Trump presidency. I think a lot of people are going to want to watch.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure we will have live coverage. I can guarantee.

TOOBIN: Yes, you didn't have to check with the brass to know whether we would --

BLITZER: No, I could predict that.

TOOBIN: Whether we'll have live coverage. I think we can agree on that.

BLITZER: I've been working here at CNN for 27 years. I predict we will have live coverage of that hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. It also, this announcement also follows the report that we had right at the top of the hour, Jeffrey, that White House lawyers are now beginning some research about impeachment, although they think that's a distant possibility.

But you think it's smart lawyering?

TOOBIN: It is. I mean, lawyers are paid to be nervous and lawyers are paid to, you know, confront worst case scenarios. I do think we need to be rational here and recognize that impeachment is a remote possibility. But, you know, 120 days into Donald Trump's presidency, is it something that he would like that it's even a remote possibility, that we're even discussing it?

I think that's an indication optical how things are going, but whether he will actually be impeached or there will be impeachment proceedings, I do think it is still a very remote possibility.

[18:55:07] BLITZER: Laura Jarrett, this announcement that the former FBI director is going to testify in open session before the Senate Intelligence Committee, who knows what he's going to say? But it will be so significant.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Absolutely. And we have to remember, this is before we even have a new FBI director slated. We were seeming probably to get the announcement this week but it didn't happen before the president went on his trip and it's also coming just on the heels of the special counsel announcement of Bob Mueller. And, certainly, everything that he's going to be investigating is directly tied to what James Comey is going to be discussing.

And as Toobin, Jeff Toobin, suggested, obviously, the two men are very close and worked in the FBI together and certainly, I can't imagine that James Comey would want to get out ahead of Mueller's investigation.

BLITZER: Do you think he cleared this before making this announcement that he'd be willing to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, right before Memorial Day with Mueller, his longtime friend, his mentor, the new special counsel? Do you think he checked with him first?

JARRETT: You know, it's hard to say. Jim Comey, if anything, wanting to stay in the lines, and so, it might be the case where he doesn't even want to touch that. He doesn't want to make one single call that could be interpreted in any sort of way. He may decide, look, what I'm going to say isn't going to impede the investigation and it's just talking about things within my personal knowledge.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And as former FBI director, James Comey would know what would or what would not potentially interfere with a federal investigation, an ongoing investigation. But it's worth remembering, Wolf, that James Comey has a history of a very explosive blockbuster hearing in 2007 when he testified on Capitol Hill about the bedside, the rush to John Ashcroft's bedside to stop the Bush administration from signing a new NSA program into law, or proving the new NSA program, and James Comey's testimony was the bombshell in that story that blew that wide open.

And so, you can expect, I think, some fireworks on Capitol Hill when James Comey testifies.

BLITZER: This is a major development. Go ahead. Give me your thoughts.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYS: Right. It is a major development. And as I have been known to say the last 120 days or so, let's take a step back and look at who we are right now. We have a president right now who is so under the gun. And mind you, it's not Democrats that are going after him.

He should have full control of the government right now. He has control of the House. He has control of the Senate. His agenda should be getting through. It is absolutely sidetracked.

Every decision he has made has really been -- has been a poor decision both personally, quite frankly, and policy-wise right now. I don't think we've ever seen an administration, Wolf, this early in a term under so much scrutiny and in so much chaos.

BLITZER: How worried, Phil Mudd, should the president and his advisors be about Comey's testimony?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, I have a different take on this, Wolf. We're only talking about how the story. The two pieces are what the Americans did, potentially parts of the Trump campaign and what the Russians did. I think the most critical aspect of what Jim Comey talks about is not what he discussed with the president of the United States. It's understanding what he knows about Russian involvement in the last elections.

What do you think the Russians took out in the Oval Office when they met the president this week, in the wake of allegations that they interfered in the last elections? I think I know what they took away. Next election's 2020, let's do the same thing.

I hope Comey talks less about Americans and the president of the United States and more about what he knew as an intelligence and law enforcement professional and watching the Russians act and in discussing how we prevent that next time around.

BLITZER: But how open, Phil, can he be given that the there's a new special counsel investigating, there are other investigations, how open can he be in talking about all that?

MUDD: I think he can talk a lot about that. Some of that has already been declassified by the U.S. government. He only not has to talk about potentially stuff that's sensitive but there's a whole separate piece, Wolf, and that is, do you -- if I were a senator, I'd be saying, do you have any thoughts on what we should be doing going forward.

For example, should we providing federal cyber security to U.S. presidential candidates the same way the Secret Service protects candidates physically? We never talked about that. That's really important in a couple of years.

BLITZER: Are you surprised Jeffrey that he agreed to testify in open session as opposed to behind closed doors?

TOOBIN: I am a little, actually, especially since the Mueller investigation is just getting started. But, you know, I think he -- they asked him. He's a private citizen. He has said he wants to testify. He wants to tell the story. Guess he just wants to tell his story.

BLITZER: And, Laura, it's sort of consistent with his background, isn't it?

JARRETT: Absolutely. He doesn't want any sort of taint. He doesn't want any sort of misunderstanding about exactly what he says in that room. Just look what happened this week with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, going on there. Two days of meetings on Capitol Hill, and all of the different stories we're hearing about what happened these two days.

Our special coverage is going to continue right now with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT."