Return to Transcripts main page


Trump En Route To Saudi Arabia Amid Crisis At Home; Trip Will Be Significant Test Of Trump's Diplomacy; NYT: Trump Told Russians Firing Comey Eased Pressure; Report Appears 10 Minutes After Trump Takes Off to Saudi Arabia. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 15:00   ET





HALA GORANI, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Hala Gorani live at CNN London. Thanks for being with us this Friday. This is THE WORLD RIGHT NOW.

From a political crisis at home to a critical test on the world stage, Donald Trump is on the way to Saudi Arabia this hour. The first stop on

the first overseas trip as U.S. president, which is unusual. Usually the trips are either to Mexico or Canada.

This is the first U.S. president to go to an Arab country on his maiden voyage. He is eager obviously to shift focus after a brutal week, one

bombshell after another rocking the White House.

But he is carrying that baggage with him. It's sure to follow him every step of the way. And adding to the pressure, Mr. Trump will be covering a

lot of ground and a tackling some incredibly tough issues.

He begins in the Mideast then he visits the Vatican and NATO headquarters before ending his whirlwind trip at the G7 Summit in Sicily. The eyes of

the world will be on Mr. Trump when he delivers a major address on Islam in Riyadh Sunday.

He'll barely time to catch his breath before turning the attention to one of the world's most intractable problems, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We are joined now by Nic Robertson in Riyadh and Oren Liebermann in Jerusalem. Let me start with you, Nic. First of all, we understand there

is going to be some sort of big military deal announcement, a big arms deal, are we expecting the president to announce this during his visit?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It is on the cards. Look, 21 percent of Saudi Arabia's GDP this coming year is allocated to

spend on defense. It is the world's third largest defense and security spender, and a lot of that is being spent with the United States.

Potentially we are hearing over a number of years a hundred billion in value. What will be signed this time isn't clear, but what we did hear

from the Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who was here just a month ago, he said we need to reinforce Saudi Arabia's ability to resist the mischief

of Iran in the region.

And certainly that is something that we've heard from the foreign minister here echoing that saying that Iran needs to be made to behave like a normal

country and that it must adhere to international laws.

So there is a sort of the expectation here that certainly some armaments are going to be coming this way, significant amounts, and some of this will

end up being equipment that could potentially be used in a defensive posture against Iran.

GORANI: Now, we know in the past during the campaign, President Trump made some statements about Saudi Arabia, about Islam itself, talking about

radical Islamic extremism, and now he is giving a speech about Islam and radicalism within Islam, I mean, it is tricky. It could go very badly,

couldn't it, Nic?

ROBERTSON: It is a tight rope. I mean, look, this is the home of Islam's two holiest sites, (inaudible) the king here is a custodian of those two

holy sites. The king is on the front page of one of the popular newspapers here saying, history begins to be written here.

The royal family is rolling out the red carpet for President Trump. The king is clearly sticking his name right by President Trump. There is

pictures of them around the town. So the king has got a lot riding on this president. Trump's got a lot riding on it.

But I talked to some people around town today and I said what about what President Trump said on the campaign trail, one university professor said

to me, well, it is well known fact that what is said on the campaign trail is something different.

A young man who is here like quite a young man in this country trying to earn a living and trying to find a proper job, educated young man. He told

me look perhaps President Trump is coming here to apologize for everything that is said about Muslims in the past.

[15:05:03]He said because this is Islam's holiest country and he decided to come here to make that apology. So, yes, it is a tight rope, how do you

tell the leaders here that they need to preach a more moderate vision of Islam when they believed they do that already, but as the university

professor said to me, wherever there is extremism and terrorism, we need to put a stop to that -- Hala.

GORANI: And Oren Liebermann in Jerusalem, that will be the next stop for the president. What does the current Israeli government want from Donald


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the more Trump focuses on the conflict and a peace process and the Israelis and Palestinians getting

together, the bigger of a problem that becomes for Netanyahu, and a conservative right wing government that has many elements that don't want

to make peace with the Palestinians and don't want to say a two-state solution.

In fact, those words two-state solution or demand to a settlement freeze could cause a coalition problem crisis here said one politician who we

spoke with. The more this focuses on Iran and the alliance between the U.S. and Israel, the better that is for Netanyahu.

Now this should be in theory an easy trip for Trump, it's a Republican president, Senate and Congress visiting a conservative government, so it

should be easy, and yet, any slip slip-up here, and this is a president who tends to act quickly and think and move off the cuff a little bit.

Any slipup here could have some pretty serious and perhaps even disastrous consequences from the perspective of Netanyahu, and that is such an

interesting role reversal from the Palestinians who were actually quite relaxed going into this.

They believe they have played all of their cards right starting with President Mahmoud Abbas' trip to Washington where he met with Trump to

Saudi Arabia, where Abbas will have a chance to meet with Trump and the other Arab leaders and present a united approach to peace plan.

The hope from Israel's perspective is that Trump could use the Arab states to pressure the Palestinians to make concessions. The fear is the exact

opposite that the Arab states could use Trump to pressure the Israelis to make concessions and that could have some pretty serious consequences on

Netanyahu's government -- Hala.

GORANI: And Oren, Saudi Arabia and Israel have one thing in common, they both want the United States to be tougher on Iran, right? You briefly

mentioned Iran in the beginning, what would the Israelis like to see him say about Iran, which by the way, we'll be going to live to because they

are holding the presidential election, what would they like to a hear from the president on that?

LIEBERMANN: A hardline on Iran, talk of sanctions and steps taken against Iran not only in an alliance of Israel, but the other Sunni-Arab states,

that is exactly what Israel wants this meeting to be all about and if it stays right there, if it stays focused on Iran perhaps with a comment about

how much Trump likes and appreciates Israel's walls that's Israel's best scenario.

That is where Israel and he wants this to stay. The more it veers the other way towards Israelis and Palestinians and the conflict and a peace

process, the bigger of a problem that could become for Netanyahu, and the government here. So if it stays on Iran, the government here will be very


GORANI: Oren Liebermann in Jerusalem, Nic Robertson in Riyadh as well. We are all eager to hear the speech by the president in the Saudi capital.

Thanks to both for joining us.

All right, let's get to John Avlon. He is the editor-in-chief of the "Daily Beast" and talk more about the high stakes of Mr. Trump's first trip

abroad. Thanks for being with us, John.

First of all, I want to get your reaction on a "New York Times" report. The "New York Times" is reporting that Donald Trump told Russians in the

oval office that firing, quote, "nut job Comey" eased pressure from the investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and


This is, again, it seems like every single day we are getting new reports that are putting more and more pressure on the White House.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is a bombshell report and it occurs as President Trump is wheels up on his first major foreign trip and

the White House does not seem to be contesting it. It appears that the "New York Times" got a hold of a transcript from the meeting.

And as you say, President Trump describes the former FBI Director James Comey as crazy and quote, "a nut job," and then says that his removal

reduces a lot of pressure on him with regard to the Russia investigation.

Two things here, first of all, the fact that he says that his removal removes pressure for him on the Russian investigation, which he apparently

also said I am not a target of, further deepens the connection of the firing of James Comey to what could be credibly characterized as an attempt

to obstruct justice, obstruct the inquiry. That is very, very serious.

And the second thing is, of course, the president's remarkable powers of projection, you know, I think if you interviewed a hundred senators about

who more closely resembles the phrase nut job and crazy between the president and James Comey, it would not fall on James Comey's shoulders.

But this is stunning. We only know the top line of what they are reporting about this transcript, but the fact it is not being contested is another

very serious bombshell affecting the White House.

[15:10:08]GORANI: And John, I want to bring our viewers up to date on this, and again, it is the "New York Times" report quoting the president

according to a document they got a hold of, quote, "I just fired the head of the FBI, he was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because

of Russia, that is taken off."

And then he added, "I'm not under investigation." This again is according to the "New York Times," and of course, the big question would be, OK, even

if you think that, why share that if this is indeed verified in the oval office with Russian officials?

AVLON: That is among the many critical questions, and at a time when there are no American press present, but Russian photographer who was working for

both the state news agency, and the foreign minister.

It is certainly look as if he is trying to assure his Russian visitors that that investigation has been tamped down, more of an ease of communicating

with them about this ongoing investigation than the stonewalling we have seen from the president and the White House with regards to investigations

of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

It is very, very troubling, and you know, if the official transcript is what the official transcript is, this "New York Times'" report will add

much more fuel to the fire for the ongoing investigation now in the hands of a special counsel.

GORANI: And as you mentioned, John, the White House is not denying it. In fact, we have a statement from Sean Spicer, the White House press

secretary, I'm reading it for the first time here and sharing it with our viewers.

"The president has always emphasized the importance of making deals with Russia as it relates to the Syria, Ukraine, defeating ISIS and other key

issues for the benefit and safety of the American people. By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey

created pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia."

So he is explaining the bit about, you know, pressure being taken off, I guess according to the transcript, "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 that is the response from the White House not denying it, but I guess trying to provide some context.

AVLON: Or spin, that is the best spin they got, and frankly, it is sad. Yes. Certainly, I think that a lot of eyebrows have been raised over the

course of the campaign and the administration, at Donald Trump's insistence on seeing the rosiest possible relationship with Russia after they tried to

influence our elections.

And have not been exactly good actors on the world stage or involving its own people, that is the spin they've got, but the idea that James Comey's

statements and answering forthrightly questions about a very serious ongoing investigation or grandstanding that undercut our national security

I think demeans the concept of the rule of law, and the independence of the Justice Department. That is a very sad spin from the White House.

GORANI: It does not answer the question of why this would be discussed in the oval office with Russian officials, including the Russian ambassador to

the United States. Now, this is a transcript, and how does this get out? Fill us in on that or bring our viewers up to date on that, is this a leak,

a transcript, how does this get into the hands of the "New York Times?"

AVLON: Well, transcripts of high level conversations between foreign leaders and foreign ambassadors are kept by both countries as a matter of

internal record and how that comes public would be some form of leak whether it is from someone in the United States' government or possibly

within the Russian government.

After all, just a few days ago, President Putin offered to make these transcripts public. I don't believe necessarily that Putin is trying to

communicate to the American public through the "New York Times."

But these are the matters of recorded that usually don't come out for many years, and that gives an indication of why the White House press office had

no place left to go with denial. They can spin it, but they can't contest its accuracy.

GORANI: And what is this -- how does this change the story? I mean, this idea that Donald Trump fired Comey because he wanted to put a lid on this

investigation. He did not want this pressure on him, his campaign or his people?

AVLON: I mean, here we are hearing it from the horse's mouth so to speak, this simply deepens the credibility of the accusations against the

president, and the urgency of a special counsel investigation into claims of collusion.

You know, here we have and in the president's own words an official transcript, which certainly appears to be a cause-effect, two highest

levels of the Russian government saying not only disparaging the FBI director and his integrity and independence.

[15:15:11]But also saying that he removed him to reduce pressure on him, and to think to buy the official White House spin that it is purely about

defending the integrity of national security and building alliances with Russia is to ignore the obvious. This will add more fuel to the fire and

it should.

GORANI: Well, the deputy general, by the way, also saying that his recommendation that the memo he wrote was not intended to recommend the

firing of James Comey. That this was all Donald Trump. So that is another -- his decision that he decided it before, et cetera, et cetera. How does

that fit into the bigger picture?

AVLON: Right. Well, so, what Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein said to the Senate yesterday is that when he wrote that memo in which he has

apparently taken pains to say did not directly recommend the firing of James Comey, which is true if you parse it.

That he wrote it with the decided impression that the decision had already been made and remember the official White House line in the wake of the

firing of James Comey was that this was a happy coincidence directly related to advice from the deputy attorney general.

Now we know that the fix was in so to speak, and the deputy attorney general felt that this was already a foregone conclusion, so that means

that the official White House line which was parroted by the vice president was itself a lie in the days and hours after Comey's firing.

GORANI: And so, last question, what will -- will this lead to -- I mean, how is this going to change things for the White House? What about the

GOP, the high level Republican senators and Congress people in Washington, D.C.? Will they start thinking that this could hurt them politically?

The idea that somehow Donald Trump is now in a transcript admitting essentially that his firing of James Comey was related somehow to the

investigation into his campaign's ties with Russia?

AVLON: Look, I think there has been a degree of Stockholm syndrome where many Republicans have been afraid to criticize the president for fear of

offending their base or alienating the executive. But as the president's poll numbers continue to dip into unchartered territories, at least at this

time in the president's term.

I think a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill are quietly questioning whether it makes political sense for them or any of this resembling

principled sense to stand by a White House that apparently has a credibility not gap but cavern.

This will add to those doubts. It should. The right way to look at this is imagine if a president from a different party had these accusations

coming out, if you have a different response then just really admit that you are being a partisan hack, and at some point members of the Senate in

particular need to put country above party.

And the fact there is a special counsel investigation that will create some distance, but it cannot allow them to entirely wall off the seriousness of

this inquiry while Robert Mueller does his very important work. It will increase the urgency of it, but I think it should adjust the calculus on

Capitol Hill.

GORANI: John Avlon, thanks very much as always. The president himself is in the air. He is on his way to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is traveling

with his wife, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, his daughter, and his son-in- law, Jared Kushner.

In fact, Mike Pence, the vice president is in Washington, D.C., among the group of close advisers and spokespeople. Kellyanne Conway is in

Washington, D.C. Steve Bannon is traveling with the president according to the list we are seeing here.

We will bring you a lot more on this story, that "New York Times" report that according to a transcript of a conversation that took place in the

oval office, the president of the United States said that he fired that, quote, "nut job" James Comey, the director of the FBI.

And that relieved, quote, "great pressure" on him according to a document that summarized the meeting published by the "New York Times."

A lot more to come this evening, massive voters turn out in Iran, people lining up for hours. We are live in Tehran for this high stakes election.

And I won't forgive or forget, menacing words from Julian Assange as Sweden dropped its investigation into rape allegations. All that and more when we

come back. Stay with us.



GORANI: We were telling you before the break about that "New York Time's" report in which according to a transcript of a conversation in the oval

office, Donald Trump called James Comey a nut job as we was discussing the fate of the FBI director with Russian officials. Our sister network, CNN

USA, has more on that.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: -- fired FBI director a nut job and said pressure was off saying this to the Russians. We will be right back.


BALDWIN: If you are just joining us here, another massive piece of news here surrounding President Trump as he has taken off on the firs first

major overseas trip out to Saudi Arabia to begin with.

This is coming from the "New York Times" the fact that the morning after the president fired James Comey, the head of the FBI, he has in the

Russians to the White House, he has the Russian ambassador, and the Russian foreign minister.

This is the same warning when the news broke this week over him sharing classified information with the Russians and now this. Apparently, the

president told the Russians that his firing of James Comey is taking the pressure off, and let me quote the president according to "Times."

"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." Matthew Rosenberg on

the byline of this incredible news. Matthew Rosenberg, tell me how did you learn, this and what do you know?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I have got to give credit first of all to my colleague (inaudible), who was the guy who got the original

tip on this, and the original piece information, and that meeting just becomes more remarkable the more we hear about it.

You know, the way we understand this is that people in the meeting take notes and they circulated the notes around the government obviously and in

that meeting Donald Trump, the president, told the Russian foreign minister that he was under an immense amount of pressure, and fired James Comey and

called him crazy, a real nut job.

And that is the same meeting where Trump also shared the intelligence with the foreign minister that had come from Israel, and that Israel had asked

us not to share with any country, the allies, never mind Russia.

BALDWIN: And so, as we are all just responding to this, and another piece of your article includes that some other government official who is briefed

on the meeting said, no, no, this was just what, a negotiating tactic when he was talking to Lavrov and the pressure that he was under?

ROSENBERG: I mean, that is how they are choosing to portray it.


ROSENBERG: And this is certainly, you know -- it is really one way to look at it. It does seem like an awfully curious way the day after the firing

to portray what is by then already an immense controversy in the U.S., and something that Trump is later has acknowledged that he was thinking of

Russia when he fired Comey and this is going to kind of add to the narrative.

BALDWIN: Right. I was talking to some smart lawyers here on the talking about intent and what is in the mind of the president as everyone is

wondering, OK, why would you fire Comey and now we get this detail from your piece on that.

And also, you know, Matthew, when we were talking about a couple of days ago but it seems forever now, on the classified intel that the president

apparently shared that this is -- didn't Vladimir Putin offered up the transcript to help out the White House, am I right, on this very meeting?

ROSENBERG: I believe he did, yes, which, you know, I think everybody has turned down that offer at this point. I'm not a lawyer, so I want to be

careful here.

[15:30:00] But it does not, you know, the one thing that's important about this is that these are an official summary of the meeting, so these notes

are an official document. This isn't a one-person's view of a two-person conversation. There were multiple people in the room. This is what the

note taker heard and wrote down.

BALDWIN: I'm glad you made that point, that it is from this official, you know, memorialization of the meeting. And you're not a lawyer so I won't

put you in a bad spot, but I have a lawyer sitting to my right, Paul Callan.

Paul, listening to Matthew, learning about this piece, you know, it's all about intent, right? This is a glimpse into the mind of Mr. Trump and the

firing of James Comey.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, yes, and it's a very, very clear and strong look at intent. What was extraordinarily inappropriate about the

comments, remember, the FBI is doing a counter intelligence operation against the two Russians who were in the room, the Russian Ambassador and

the Foreign Minister.

To tell them that, in essence, the investigation has now been terminated because I have fired the FBI Director and because he's nuts and he's crazy,

words to that effect, just seems incredible. I mean, it's bad enough he's having the meeting with them in the first place, but now to tell them that

the pressure is off on the Russia probe is really, totally inappropriate.

BALDWIN: So this news broke, I want say, some 10 minutes after Air Force One took off from Joint Base Andrews. And as of now, the President is

heading off on his very, very important first overseas trip. First stop, to Saudi Arabia. And so, let's go to Nic Robertson who, actually, is near

where the President will be staying there, in Riyadh.

And, you know, we've been talking so much about, you know, the controversies thus far swirling, and maybe this opportunity the go overseas

could help the President. But this meeting with the Russians, Nic, it just continues to get more surreal.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It is going to come up, and it is going to dog him here. Obviously, he's going to be asked

questions about it. But, I guess, to that deeper issue of when President Trump is in a room with other officials, how does he behave? How does he

respond with them?

And there is a real danger that, while he is here in Saudi Arabia with the king who, by the way, is essentially rolling out the red carpet, has

plastered the road with flags of the United States and Saudi Arabia together, who has huge billboards by the highway that President Trump will

see, that has him, King Salman and President Trump side by the side, and is illuminating President Trump's hotel behind me with the stars and the

stripes and the image of President Trump, has put a lot on the line here.

But when they get behind closed doors, when they have their meetings -- and remember, there will be up to as many as 35 other regional Arab and Muslim

leaders here as well -- what is the level, if you will, of hubris that goes on behind those closed doors? What do his allies here say to him that

potentially will put him in an awkward situation like this if the meeting is reviewed under close scrutiny as his meeting was with Lavrov and


You know, from that perspective, behind the closed doors, he may be away from the prying questions of journalists saying, did you this, why did you

this, but he may be behind those doors exposing himself to further opportunity to stray from the norm, if you will, of the normal -- we use

that in inverted commas -- past presidential behavior, rather, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Nic in Saudi Arabia, thank you. Covering this incredibly significant trip for the President.

Michael Zeldin, let me go back to you. A former federal prosecutor, you worked with Bob Mueller. You know, he said this just hours after firing,

the President talking to the Russians and now seeing the backlash.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO FBI DIRECTOR ROBERT MUELLER: Well, the naivete of the President to think that by firing the director of

the FBI, he was going to somehow ease the pressure on him is startling to me.

What also strikes me interesting is, in the letter of termination of Comey, the President writes that, I am grateful, Mr. Comey, that you reassured me

three times that I am not the target of your investigation. And now, the next day, he is saying, essentially, I was the target of the investigation

and I fired him, and this eased the pressure on me. And so now, Russia, we can restart our relationship.

And I'm not talking at all geopolitically. Whether we restart our relationship with Russia or don't restart our relationship is not my

purview, but there is that old expression from the World Wars posters of, "Loose lips sink ships."

BALDWIN: Sink ships.

ZELDIN: And it strikes me that if you're going to do a deal with the President, in some respects, it undermines your confidence in his ability

to maintain the integrity of your conversations, the secret of your conversations. It's just startling to me.

[15:35:04] BALDWIN: It is. It is. Garret Graff, as I'm, you know, talking to Michael about these conversations, I'm also reminded, you know,

today, we've been covering this conversation from Jim Comey's close friend. He talked to PBS "NewsHour."

So the backdrop of all of these, and I'm hearing these words "nut job," you know, uttered from the President to the Russians, all the while, we're

talking about how, apparently, Jim Comey really felt like he was protecting the FBI form the White House. He didn't like it when the President, you

know, approached him and tried to give him a hug in the Blue Room that time. Didn't like it when the President called him up and apparently

wanted to talk to him in an urgent manner, and it turns out, he just wanted to chitchat.

Knowing now all of that in the backdrop from this friend of Comey's and hearing this news that he called him a nut job, what do you make of that?

GARRETT GRAFF, AUTHOR, "THE THREAT MATRIX: THE FBI AT WAR": Well, you know, there are a lot of opinions about Jim Comey's behavior over the last

year in various Washington political circles, but I don't think anyone in Washington would ever use the words "nut job" anywhere close to Jim Comey.

I mean, regardless of what you think of his actions, he is a serious and sober person who has worked very hard over the last year to try to balance

a very delicate political football. I mean, he might have strayed too far over a line here or there, but it's hard to say that he has been reckless

in any way. And it's certainly hard to think that this, in any way, helps Donald Trump with his argument that Jim Comey was just out of control.

I mean, this sort of sounds like a very bad situation for the President, and certainly sort of something that is going to be top of mind as Robert

Mueller begins his investigation. You know, these are two men who have worked very closely together for many, many years. And Bob Mueller

certainly doesn't think that Jim Comey is anything close to a nut job.

BALDWIN: Hang on to that thought. Dan Merica, I'm coming to you now. You know, you've covered the White House. We've gotten this response now to

this "New York Times" story. And in it, they talk a lot about, you know, the leak, but what they don't do is deny the story. They're not denying

that the President called Mr. Comey a nut job.

DAN MERICA, CNN POLITICS PRODUCER: It's remarkable given the way the White House denies so many stories, even ones that we've seen, in the future,

have turned out to be at least partially true. The timing of all of this is critical.

As you mentioned a little bit earlier, this happened, the story broke almost 10 minutes or just mere minutes after Donald Trump took off for his

first foreign trip. And there are already concerns in the White House that all of this, all of this news about James Comey and the special counsel,

would overshadow his trip.

And this story and the fact that Trump, according to "New York Times," bragged in the Oval Office to two Russian officials about firing James

Comey, I mean, it has the chance to totally overshadow what aides have already said is a crucial foreign trip for the President, the first that he

is making.

You know, most Presidents go to places like Canada or Mexico or places where it's a little bit easier to operate. It's not as difficult, not as

grueling, especially timing-wise. But this President, who likes the flare for the dramatic, is choosing to go on a five-country trip that brings him

to the cradle of, you know, three major religions. He is going to give a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia. That's not something you can just kind of


But the White House is effectively not refuting this story. Obviously, CNN has not confirmed "The New York Times" report, but what they are reporting

is that President Donald Trump, while meeting with these two Russian officials, basically bragged about the decision he had made the day prior,

firing James Comey.

And why that matters is that this is all happening at the same time, now, that the special counsel has been announced to look into all of this, to

look into the Russian meddling of the 2016 election, but also what happened after that and how the White House has treated all of this up until now.

BALDWIN: Just to put a button on that, you know, we were just talking to Matthew Rosenberg, who's on the byline of this piece of journalism. And he

said, listen, you know, in the Oval Office and in a meeting like this, you have people taking notes, and those notes then get circulated around the

government. These are, you know, documentation of a meeting of this magnitude, and therefore that's how, ultimately, you know, someone had a

great source and it got out.


BALDWIN: Michael Zeldin, just back over to you. You know, since the President has fired James Comey, I know it feels like an eternity, it's

been 10 days. When you, you know, tune in or read the headlines, I mean, President Trump has done nothing but take shots at James Comey. You think

back to that NBC interview he did, when he talked about how he was, you know, grandstanding. Just, too, the press conference yesterday at the

White House.

ZELDIN: Yes. It's unfortunate because Jim Comey is a very, very decent and honorable public servant and has been so for a long, long time. He and

I were cub prosecutors at the same time in the 1980s, he in New York and I in Washington, D.C. And anyone who has ever worked with him has the

highest regard for his integrity and his legal acumen, and so to do this is just really unfair. It's not nice, and it's unbecoming of the President.

[15:40:06] But beyond that, the thing that is amazing to me is that when you think that you're going to fire the FBI Director, which is going to

lead to a special counsel, and that special counsel turns out to be Bob Mueller, you have to be in an "oh my god" moment here because what you just

did to yourself is going to come back to you and haunt you for a very long time, I fear.

BALDWIN: On the "oh my god" moment, that's exactly what I'd ask Garrett. You know, you wrote the book on Mueller. And when it comes to, you know,

him being appointed as this special counsel, what the heck do you think he is thinking with this, you know, avalanche of developments?

GRAFF: Well, you know, Bob Mueller has been through the crucible before. He started at the FBI as director on September 4, 2001. He was actually

seated in his first briefing on al Qaeda on the morning of September 11th when the Twin Towers were struck, so he has been through incredibly

stressful moments before.

But even during that 12 years that he was FBI director, the longest serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover himself, I think it's unlikely that he

will have ever faced something as public and as historical as the work that he is embarking upon now. And to be fair, this is a moment where he is on

a very short list of people in Washington who are widely respected, bipartisan respect, and seen as resolutely nonpartisan and apolitical.

So to a certain extent, I think the good news for President Trump is that if there is no there there, Bob Mueller might be the only person in America

who can actually find Donald Trump innocent. That said, these allegations and these reports as they continue to spool out, as someone said earlier, I

mean, remember Sergey Kislyak is the center of a lot of these contacts.

BALDWIN: He is the center of the probe. Yes.


BALDWIN: Yes. And so we made, you know, so much to do just about the fact that the Russians were in the Oval Office, period, and especially the

Ambassador because of all of the history surrounding that. You make an excellent point. I'm looking --

GRAFF: And --

BALDWIN: Yes, go ahead. Go ahead.

GRAFF: And remember, we didn't even know that Sergey Kislyak was in that meeting. He was not on the list that the White House released.

BALDWIN: Right, closed to U.S. press.

GRAFF: And we only know that because of the photos that the Russian Foreign Ministry released of President Trump and Sergey Kislyak smiling

together in the Oval Office.

BALDWIN: Right, ends up the photographer isn't actually Lavrov's personal photographer but is actually, you know, state T.V. and in line with the

Kremlin. All of that coming up after the fact. It's like the twists and turns, it's mind numbing. But we do have to take a quick commercial break


The latest development just as the President's plane has taken off for his overseas trip, first beginning in Saudi Arabia. The news from "The New

York Times" that in the Oval Office, the President said he felt great pressure was off once he fired Jim Comey and called him a nut job. More on

this breaking news, next.


[15:47:20] BALDWIN: Breaking news on a Friday afternoon. If you're just joining me, I have two words for you. Nut job. That is the quote from

"The New York Times," which is what they say President Trump used with the Russians in the Oval Office the day after he fired James Comey about James

Comey, saying he feels the pressure is off, calling him a nut job.

Paul Callan, we know already, based upon everything else that's been going on, that the President's inner circle is urging him to hire outside

counsel, which might be a good idea. How do you defend the President in this?

CALLAN: Well, I think that outside counsel would say to the President that the position here should be that this has always been your policy position,

that we have to have friendly relations with the Russians, and it was perfectly appropriate for him to be sharing with them the fact that this

probe, which he always thought had no merit.

Remember, the President has been saying all along there's nothing to the Russia probe, and, in fact, it's an impediment to U.S. relations with the

Russians. So I think that's where he's going to with this. He's going to say, I've made it clear my foreign policy is a stronger relationship with

the Russians, that there's nothing to this claim of collusion, so what's inappropriate about me telling the Russians this?

Now, the thing, I think, that's especially troublesome is describing our FBI Director as crazy and a nut. But this is entirely consistent with the

name-calling that the President used during the campaign. I mean, we don't forget "Lying Ted" or "Crooked Hillary." He names everybody and he tends

to use this kind of graphic, insulting language to apply to his enemies. So it's Trump being Trump.

BALDWIN: Trump being Trump, so says Paul Callan.

Let me bring in two other voices, Kayleigh McEnany, a conservative columnist and a CNN contributor; and CNN Contributor Jason Kander, former

Democratic candidate for Senate.

Kayleigh, let me begin with you. How do you defend the President on this one?

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, none of us were in the room. These were notes that were taken and provided to the "New York

Times," read over the phone, and Sean Spicer had a very clear explanation.

You know, you have Jim Comey out there grandstanding on the Russia investigation. We know the FBI ordinarily does not announce

investigations. Nevertheless, Comey in fact did, creating this shroud of wrongdoing around the Trump administration based on just what --

BALDWIN: But, Kayleigh, Sean didn't deny it. Just let's be clear. In this entire White House statement --

MCENANY: Sure, he did not.

BALDWIN: -- he didn't deny that the President said this.

MCENANY: He did not deny it, that is absolutely correct. But, look, you know, you just had Senator Dianne Feinstein on this network yesterday

saying that she has seen no evidence of collusion. And yet, every day, this is what we're talking about.

And what we are seeing is an obstruction of this presidency from within. You have people committing felonies, not once, not twice, sometimes three

times a day, by giving classified information to reporters. It is a wrong. There's a reason for a century --

[15:50:07] BALDWIN: Kayleigh, this is the same meeting where the President reportedly gave classified information to the Russians, an adversary of the

United States.

MCENANY: And he's able to do that. He's the ultimate de-classifier. That is the job of the President. But you have people committing felonies.

There's a reason under the Espionage Act, for the last century, it has been a felony deserving of imprisonments for leaking. And you have people

committing felonies deserving of imprisonment, every day. It's a huge problem, and I'm very upset that Democrats don't seem to care about this

aspect of the story.

BALDWIN: Jason Kander, Democrat, do you care?

JASON KANDER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE OF MISSOURI: Yes. Well, look, first of all, saying that Jim Comey created a shroud of wrongdoing around

the President is like blaming a meteorologist when there's a tornado. It isn't Jim Comey's fault that there's a shroud of wrongdoing. It's the

President's fault, and it's the President's campaign and the people that he works with.

No matter what the White House says, President Trump keeps saying that he fired Jim Comey to end the Russia investigation, to make it stop. I think,

for once, we should believe him about this. He's told it to the Russians. He's told it to the press. He fired Jim Comey, the guy in charge of the

investigation, because he wanted the investigation into him to end. That is not OK.

MCENANY: That's just not true. If he wanted it to end, why would you fire Comey, let the Acting Director be Andrew McCabe, when we know --

KANDER: Ask the President.

MCENANY: -- who we know --

KANDER: That's why he did it, he said so.

MCENANY: -- whose wife has accepted money from Clinton allies? Why would you want McCabe in power over someone like Comey? That just doesn't make

sense. It's not logical.

CALLAN: In line with what Kayleigh --

KANDER: Maybe you should advise him because he's the one who has been saying that.

BALDWIN: Go ahead, Paul.

CALLAN: Yes. But, Kayleigh, the President himself said to the Russians that the pressure was off in the Russia investigation, so, obviously, the

President thought that firing Comey would take the pressure off the investigation. So the President has provided you the answer to your


MCENANY: I don't think so. I think what he was meaning by that is --

KANDER: The operative word is obvious.

MCENANY: What he was meaning by that --

BALDWIN: Go ahead, Kayleigh. Let Kayleigh answer.

MCENANY: What he was meaning by that is the pressure that is unduly put on him by announcing an investigation when FBI directors typically don't do

that. It's not that he doesn't want to be investigated and have this closed up in a clean way.

What he wants is not having an FBI director out there announcing investigations when he's privately confirming to Trump, three times, you're

not the subject of this investigation, but nevertheless announcing this and creating this shroud of wrongdoing.

BALDWIN: But if there was no there there --

CALLAN: Well --

BALDWIN: Hang on. If there was no there there, which he said -- he said just, you know, this time yesterday at the White House that there is

absolutely no collusion -- then why say that, OK, Russians, the pressure is off?

MCENANY: Look, Brooke, you have Senator Dianne Feinstein saying there's no evidence --

BALDWIN: No, just answer the question first.

MCENANY: -- of collusion.

BALDWIN: Don't put it on Dianne Feinstein. Why is he saying to the Russians the pressure is off?

MCENANY: Because you don't have an FBI director out there grandstanding anymore. You don't have someone out there wanting to make up for the fact

that he handled Clinton poorly by now handling Trump poorly. You don't have an FBI director out there trying to make a name for himself, who loves

being in front of the camera. That's the pressure that was off, not the investigation but the public grandstanding around it.

BALDWIN: Go ahead, Jason.

KANDER: Kayleigh, you think Jim Comey's purpose is to make a name of himself? I mean, literally, the President said of Jim Comey that he's more

famous than the President. I don't think that's what was going on.

I think what's going on is the President of the United States, who is under investigation for colluding with the Russians, brought a Russian, who he

knows to be in charge of Russian spies, in charge of recruiting Russian spies into his office, gave them classified information that he should not

have given them that has put people's lives at risk, and then said to the people that he is possibly under investigation for colluding with, the

pressure is off, I got rid of the guy who is investigating us.

BALDWIN: OK. Quick pause --

KANDER: That's what happened. You can't deny it.

BALDWIN: Quick pause. Got to take a break. Back in a moment.


[15:57:43] BALDWIN: Last couple of minutes here on the breaking news. We can tell you that President Trump is about an hour into now his 12, 13, 14-

hour journey to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia on his first major overseas trip as this news has broken from the "New York Times" that the morning after he

fired James Comey, he reportedly told the Russians in the Oval Office that he considers James Comey a nut job and that firing him made him feel like

the pressure was off.

We're talking to all kinds of people reacting to this news today. Michael Zeldin, final thought from you. You know, there had been questions already

because of other pieces of news, might this be the beginning of obstruction of justice. How do you see it now with this piece of information?

ZELDIN: Well, that's right. I think you ask the question earlier of how would you defend President Trump, and the smart answer on the collusion

issue was, this is just the way I operate. I'm trying to reset the relationship. This has got nothing to do with the investigation.

However, from a narrow technical obstruction of justice paradigm, the President has really put himself in a very difficult position with all the

statements that he has made himself about what is his intent here and following on, the "I've done this to relieve myself of the pressure."

So one of the guests said the leakers are obstructing the presidency, and I might say maybe and we should look at that. I don't have a problem with

looking at leakers. But I think the President is obstructing his own presidency and perhaps putting himself in obstruction of justice territory

with his behavior.

BALDWIN: You used the key word and that is intent, right, Garrett? This is intent. Getting inside the President's mind around the firing of James


GRAFF: Yes. And the other thing you have to be careful of, as you begin to think about the way that a special counsel investigation unfolds, is

that they often end up -- their targets end up being caught on perjury or obstruction of justice. And when you look at Valerie Plame or the Ken

Starr investigation, that's where you end up getting charges.

And for this administration and their relationship with the truth, that's going to be a real challenge for them over the coming months as they begin

to deal with special counsel Robert Mueller.

BALDWIN: Garrett Graff, Michael Zeldin, Paul Callan, gentlemen, thank you all so very much as this piece of news has dropped on this Friday


[15:59:58] I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me here today. Keep it right here on CNN. Special coverage with Jake Tapper continues

right now.