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James Comey Releases Opening Statement of Senate Testimony; White House on Comey Testimony: Timing of Release "Interesting"; Senators Question Intel Chiefs on Russia Probe. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 7, 2017 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with bombshell breaking news in the politics lead.

"I need loyalty." One day before Director Comey of the FBI will tell his story in front the Senate, James Comey, the man Trump fired as FBI director, has released a statement detailing his conversations with the president in which Comey says President Trump put him in situations that concerned him greatly, saying at a private dinner in January, for example: "I need loyalty. I expect loyalty."

Comey confirms that the president asked him, the man in charge of the criminal investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn -- quote -- "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope can you let this go" -- unquote.

Again, this is an accusation that the president asked the FBI director to drop a criminal investigation of one of his former top aides. As Comey writes -- quote -- "I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. It was very concerning, given the FBI's role as an independent investigative agency. The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the president's request, which we did not intend to abide" -- unquote.

As President Trump has previously claimed, the former FBI director notes three different times that Comey told President Trump that the FBI was not investigating him personally, once on January 6, when Comey first presented the summary of the salacious and unverified Steele dossier of alleged compromising materials the Russians claimed to have about President Trump, a second time during their January 27 dinner, where Comey says the president asked for loyalty, and then a third time in a March 30 phone call.

Comey writes Trump wanted that out -- quote -- "'We need to get that fact out.'" Comey writes: "I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change. The president went on to say," according to Comey, that if there were some 'satellite' associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn't done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out

that we weren't investigating him" -- unquote.

In their last conversation, on April 11, according to Comey, the president says -- quote -- "I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing, you know.'"

Comey writes: "I did not reply or ask him what he meant by 'that thing.'"

Comey was fired on May 9. His testimony was released today by the committee at Comey's request. I asked a source close to Comey why that is.

He said -- quote -- "Because it's a complex narrative that he thought required some careful reading before hearing it from him directly. Also, he thought it the would ensure the commit he time to formulate probing and useful questions" -- unquote.

CNN's Phil Mattingly has been looking at the full statement from Director Comey.

And, Phil, these are not the types of conversations one would expect any president to be having with his FBI director.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, unorthodox would be an understatement here. Unsettled is probably a great way to characterize how Jim Comey comes across throughout these pages of testimony, seven pages that have dominated just about everything in Washington over the last couple of hours.

Here's a deeper look.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): From are the first of Jim Comey's nine one- on-one interactions with President Trump to the last, less than a month before his firing, testimony that lays out a story of loyalty pledges, potentially damning requests and a president infuriated by the FBI director's refusal to say publicly he wasn't under investigation.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: During the phone call, he said it and then during another phone call, he said it, so he said it once at dinner and then he said it twice during phone calls.

LESTER HOLT, NBC: Did you call him?

TRUMP: In one case, I called him. In one case, he called me.

HOLT: And did you ask, am I under investigation?

TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it's possible, would you let me know am I under investigation, and he said you are not under investigation.

MATTINGLY: Comey describing an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump and other counterterrorism officials where all but Comey were dismissed.

"I want to talk about Michael Flynn," Comey quotes the president as saying, referring to his recently fired national security adviser. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Comey says Trump told him. "He's a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

Comey goes on to say he prepared an unclassified memo of that conversation, understanding that the president was requesting he drop any probe into Flynn. He shared that assessment with his FBI leadership team, but declined to share it with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on the assumption that Sessions would soon be recused.

While those details were kept close hold, Comey says the next time he spoke to Sessions -- quote -- "I took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the president and me," but Comey also confirming, just as President Trump wrote in his letter firing the FBI director, he had in fact first informed the president-elect on January 6 he wasn't the target of a counterintelligence investigation.


It was a point that, based on Comey's recounting, aided Trump and dominated much of their interactions after Trump assumed office, Trump stressing the cloud of the Russia probe was -- quote -- "interfering with his ability to make deals for the country," Comey recounted.

Trump telling Comey at one point, "We need to get that fact out," at another, saying explicitly "He hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn't being investigated."

Comey in his testimony making clear one of the primary reasons he would not say Trump wasn't being investigated publicly -- quote -- "Most importantly because it is would create a duty to correct should that change."


MATTINGLY: And, Jake, I asked the Senate -- an aide to a Senate Intelligence Committee member what they were thinking about this testimony, and they said, look, we're just as engrossed as you are. He's pointing to the loyalty pledge as James Comey laid out in vivid detail, as you talked about at the top of the show.

Now, where are the Republicans on this? Well, the Republican National Committee, Jake, is more or less running the opposition research or the deflection research, if you will, on this hearing, and they put out a statement from the chairwoman saying: "President Trump was right. Director Comey's statement reconfirmed what the president has been saying all along. He was never under investigation."

Essentially, their tone right now is nothing to see here. Move on. I think there's probably a lot to see here, and we're going to see a lot more of it tomorrow during this hearing -- Jake.

TAPPER: That seems like an odd strategy, given that if they are relying on Comey's testimony as potentially clearing President Trump personally, then you kind of have to say that you rely on Comey's testimony and everything he says is accurate, Phil.

MATTINGLY: Yes. No, that's what they are going with up to this point. We will see if that changes tomorrow, but as of now that's the statement that they have put out.

TAPPER: All right, Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill for us, thank you so much.

Let's talk this over with my panel.

We have with us CNN's Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez and senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, let's go to the nuts and bolts of this. Is there any crime in this? If everything that Jim Comey says is accurate, is that a crime?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: There may well be, obstruction of justice, absolutely, yes.

TAPPER: Really? You think there's an obstruction charge in here?


The February 14 meeting where he says to -- where the president says to everyone else in the room, leave, I want to talk alone to Comey, would certainly suggests that he may know he is doing something inappropriate, and then he goes to the director of the FBI and says, can you drop this investigation of my former top aide?

That, combined with the fact that days later or a couple months, three months later, when Comey does not drop the investigation, he fires Comey, I think, lays out a plausible case of obstruction of justice.

TAPPER: What about the hurdle? I keep being told by people, including people close to Comey, intent is a big hurdle.

TOOBIN: The law is -- the says corruptly. And what that means is with bad purpose.

You don't -- you are not as president of the United States allowed to dictate to the FBI or try to dictate to the FBI who gets investigated and who doesn't because they are your friend and because you think he's a good guy. That is potentially corrupt intent.

TAPPER: Jim, let's let's go back to January, where the three of us, plus Carl Bernstein, broke a story about this dossier full of salacious and unverified accusations against President Trump put together by a former MI6 operative stating that the Russians claimed to have damaging information on him, because that's how the Comey narrative begins and that seems to be the place where President Trump and Jim Comey first start to go in opposite directions.


It was -- and we knew, because we had reported this, that it had to be an uncomfortable conversation already, because this is the first time you have a private sort of pull-aside at this broader briefing of president-elect, then president-elect Trump, where the FBI director has to say to him, by the way, we have this dossier that alleges the Russians believe they have compromising personal and financial information, some of which we know is salacious, uncomfortable, as it is.

And we know now, based on Comey's testimony, that that's one of the first conversations where the president asked for assurance that he's not under investigation, and that Comey tells him that he's not under investigation

But what's interesting is that, later, he will then ask Comey -- so, having asked Comey to kill an investigation on Flynn, he actually asked Comey or brings up the idea of starting another investigation to clear him of anything in the dossier, say, listen, how can -- can we knock this down? Can we investigate this?


And Comey makes the point and say, listen, if do you that, that is actually to create the impression that you're under investigation, which you're not.

But, again, to Jeffrey's point, here you have a president going to the to -- one of the senior most law enforcement officials telling him to kill one investigation that relates to one of his most senior aides, his national security adviser, and pressuring him to some degree to start another one to clear his name because he's uncomfortable and somewhat fixated, you might say, on this dossier.

TAPPER: It's fascinating.

Evan, Comey the president urged him urged him to let go of the Flynn conversation. Comey said he was troubled by the conversation, but it's being cast out there by some in the media that he felt pressured. They're using the word pressured. I looked in this. He does not use the word pressured.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: He does not use the word pressured.

TAPPER: He doesn't talk about his feelings at all necessarily.

PEREZ: Right.

And I think one of the things, and even talking about what Jeffrey was just mentioning, I think the thing that we keep coming back to with the behavior of the president is that he's a political neophyte. He's new to the ways of Washington. He doesn't know how this stuff works, and so people keep making excuses, that, you know, maybe sometimes when he mentions these things, he's not really saying you ought to drop the investigation. He just doesn't know how things work.

Well, I think we get the impression certainly when he tells everybody to leave the room and insists that they close the door when Reince Priebus pops his head in and says, no, I'm not done yet, we get the sense that he feels he's back in New York and he's trying to get a certificate of occupancy for one of his buildings, and the building inspector is there and he's not really finishing up the job, and, you know, he's trying to cajole and get that certificate.

And it's sort of that's the sort of what he's trying to do here in Washington. It's this version of what he's trying to do. And, look, that's a problem, because in the last couple of days, we saw reporting from "The Washington Post" about another such meeting with Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence.

And the impression you get is that he's doing the same thing again.

TAPPER: Yes. It's interesting, and then we haven't even gotten into, Jeffrey, this meeting, this dinner meeting that they have on January 27, just the two of them, to Comey's surprise, where he says: "I expect loyalty, I demand loyalty," or words to that effect.

TOOBIN: Which is not unlawful, but it does set a tone to the relationship that puts the rest of the material in context, that, you know, he doesn't say I want loyalty to the rule of law. He doesn't say I demand loyalty to the FBI.

TAPPER: Or the Constitution.

TOOBIN: Or to the Constitution.

He says, I demand loyalty to me. And Comey in a theme that comes throughout all of this tries to sort of put him off, doesn't expressly disagree, but says, well, I will be honest with you, and then he sort of turns it into, well, I will give you honest loyalty, which -- whatever that means.

TAPPER: Which means nothing.

And he says that. He says that in the document he's basically -- he says that it probably meant one thing to President Trump and a different thing to me.

TOOBIN: And there are several places in the document...

TAPPER: Which is bizarre.

TOOBIN: Is totally bizarre, but there are times in the document where Trump asks him to do something, and instead of answering him, he says, well, I will refer that to the acting attorney general.

Instead, he tries not to confront Trump, but he tries not to agree with him either, at least -- and, again, it's important to say this is Comey's version. TAPPER: Right.

TOOBIN: And there may be alternative -- and Donald Trump may have alternative memories of this.

PEREZ: May have tapes.

TOOBIN: And they may have tapes.

TAPPER: Right.

TOOBIN: We can only hope.

TAPPER: We're going to take -- stay right there. Hold that thought. We're going to take a very quick break. We're going to come back with our panel.

The White House is now reacting to what former FBI Director Comey has to say in this prepared statement. That's coming up next. Stay with us.


[16:18:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back.

We're back with more in the politics lead as Washington dives into fired FBI Director James Comey's prepared remarks released this afternoon. President Trump has been trying to turn the focus away from the Russia investigation. Earlier, he announced his pick to replace Comey and touted health care and his infrastructure plan in Ohio.

Let's go to CNN's Sara Murray in Cincinnati where the president spoke just this afternoon.

And, Sara, how is the White House reacting to the release of these prepared remarks?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're certainly not getting a lot of reaction for them. You know, this came out basically as President Trump was leaving his event here in Cincinnati, heading back to Washington, D.C.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she's, of course, the spokeswoman for the White House, spoke to reporters on the plane and essentially said that they were looking it over as she was talking to reporters. There were questions, of course, about whether the White House is going to push back or dispute the accuracy of anything that Comey puts in his testimony, and, Sarah basically said they were reviewing that right now and would keep us posted.

But this is sort of fitting what we've seen from this White House -- very little comment, officially, in terms of reacting to developments regarding the Russia investigation, regarding Comey. So far, they have mostly been kicking things over to President Trump's personal lawyer but we're still waiting to see whether we'll get more reaction from them on this today -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, of course, we know that President Trump has been mad at the Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation which ultimately led to the appointment of the general counsel to investigate. We're told that Sessions told the president he would be willing to leave if the president no longer wanting him there -- wanted him there.

Does the White House -- does the president have confidence in Jeff Sessions?

MURRAY: That's a great question, Jake, and one you would not think would be a difficult thing for the president to answer. But so far, this White House has not cleared that up.

We know the president has been stewing basically ever since Jeff Sessions decided to recuse himself as we get further and further into the Russia investigation, as there was a new development day after day. The president gets angrier and angrier.

[16:20:02] And we know in one of his heated conversations with Sessions, Sessions actually offered to resign.

So, Sarah Huckabee was asked about this today, a full day after Sean Spicer was asked about it and she said, I haven't had a chance to have an extensive conversation with him, speaking of the president today, but I certainly planned to ask him that. So, still, no answer about whether President Trump has confidence in his own attorney general, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thank you so much.

Before the Comey testimony shook up Washington today, the nation's four top intelligence officials testified about the president and the Russia probe and they got scolded by both Democrats and Republicans. The questions they would answer, coming up next.

And also, now that we've seen the preview of James Comey's explosive testimony, what are the chances President Trump will take to Twitter?

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Sticking with the politics lead. Various media reports, including one this morning in "The Washington Post", detailed two top intelligence officials being asked by President Trump to help undermine then-FBI Director James Comey and the FBI investigation into possible collusion between members of the Trump team and the Russian government.

[16:25:15] Now, both Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and National Security Agency director, Admiral Mike Rogers, were approached by the president and asked to publicly deny any evidence of coordination which both refused to do, according to these reports. But when asked in open congressional hearings today about these

conversations, Coats and Rogers declined to directly answer the questions. They said they never felt pressured to do anything inappropriate, but both men refused to go into any sort of detail about what President Trump may have asked them to do.

Why? Why would they not answer such basic questions?

CNN's Brianna Keilar is here for that story.

And, Brianna, did either make a legal claim about why they weren't going to answer these questions? For instance, did they invoke executive privilege?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: No, they did not. In fact, one senator actually asked the director of national intelligence what his legal basis was for refusing to testify about whether President Trump asked him to downplay the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, and DNI Coats said that he wasn't sure that he did have a legal basis. It was an answer that frustrated both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.


KEILAR (voice-over): U.S. senators struggled to get any answers from President Trump's intelligence chiefs as dramatic reports swirl about Trump asking those very officials to publicly dismiss Russia allegations related to his campaign.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: If any of this is true, it would be an appalling and improper use of our intelligence professionals, an act if true could erode the public's trust in our intelligence institutions.

KEILAR: Seemingly straightforward denials from two key players today on Capitol Hill.

ADM MIKE ROGERS, NSA DIRECTOR: To the best of my recollection, I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate. And to the best of my recollection during that same period of service, I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so.

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: In my time of service, which is interacting with the president of the United States or anybody in his administration, I have never been pressured. I have never felt pressure to intervene or interfere in any way.

KEILAR: But those answers proceeded to unravel, question after question through parsing, dodging or just outright refusal to respond.

SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: You realize how simple it would simply be to say, no, that never happened?

COATS: I think conversations between the president and myself are for the most part --

HEINRICH: You seem to apply that standard selectively.

COATS: No, I'm not applying it selectively. I'm just saying I don't think it's appropriate --

HEINRICH: You clear an awful lot up by simply saying it never happened.

COATS: I don't share -- I do not share with the general public, conversations that I have with the president or many of my colleagues within the administration that I believe are -- should not be shared.

HEINRICH: Well, I think your unwillingness to answer a very basic question speaks volumes.

KEILAR: The officials making one thing clear, there would be no clear denial of the alleged conversations with the president. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers declining to elaborate on their initial, carefully worded statements.

ROGERS: Never been directed to do anything in the course of my three- plus years as director of the National Security Agency --

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Not directed, asked.

ROGERS: -- that I felt to be inappropriate, nor have I felt pressured to do so.

RUBIO: Have you ever been asked to say something that isn't true?

ROGERS: I stand by my previous statement, sir.

KEILAR: The intelligence officials giving limited or at times no rational as to why.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Then why are you not answering the questions?

ROGERS: Because I feel it's inappropriate, Senator.

KING: What you feel isn't relevant, Admiral. What you feel isn't the answer.

You swore that oath to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and today, you're refusing to do so much. What is the legal basis for you refusal to testify to this committee?

COATS: I'm not sure I have a legal basis.

KEILAR: Even the Republican chairman was frustrated and admonished them for not answering questions.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer. It may be in a different format, but the requirements of our oversight duties and your agencies demand it.


KEILAR: Now, after this frustrating hearing, as you can see, these witnesses participated in a closed door classified briefing with the committee. And DNI Coats, he could have answered the question there, did Trump ask him to downplay the investigation? His answer would not necessarily have been classified.

No word yet on if he did answer that question, but there was a comment from Senator John McCain where he said, it just shows what kind of Orwellian existence we live in. He was referring to the fact that they weren't answering these questions.