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Comey's Opening Statement Released. Aired 10-11p ET
Aired June 7, 2017 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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[22:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.
DON LEMON, HOST, CNN: Our breaking news, James Comey's highly anticipated Senate appearance just hours away.
This is CNN tonight. I'm Don Lemon. As we look ahead to tomorrow, we have some of the FBI director's bomb shell testimony. Comey asked the Senate to make his opening statement public ahead of time. And it is packed with dramatic revelations of what happened in his private meetings with the president.
We're going to go through the whole thing for you tonight as he details each of their interactions, often tense, sometimes awkward, and recorded at a time -- a time in memo form by an uneasy Comey.
He begins his testimony by promising to describe his interactions with Trump on quote, "subjects that I understand are of interest to you." That is for sure. He goes on to say, "I have not included every detail from my conversations with the president, but to the best of my recollection, I have tried to include information that may be relevant to the committee."
So here with me tonight to discuss all of that is CNN's David Gergen, Nia-Malika Henderson, David Axelrod, Ana Navarro, and Michael Zeldin. Also Scott Jennings, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush.
So let's get into it. James Comey describing his first meeting with President Donald Trump on January 6th, at Trump Tower two weeks before the inauguration. He was breaking the news to president-elect, the president-elect of a classified dossier full of salacious allegations by Russian operatives.
And here is what Comey says. "I first met then President-elect Trump on Friday, January 6th, in a conference room in Trump Tower in New York. I was there with other intelligence community, I.C. leaders to brief him and his new national security team on the findings of an I.C. assessment concerning Russian efforts to interfere in the election."
"At the conclusion of that briefing, I remained alone with the president-elect to brief him on some personally sensitive aspects of the information assembled during the assessment. The I.C. leadership thought it important for a variety of reasons to alert the incoming president to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified."
"Among those reasons were, one, we knew the media was about to publicly report the material and we believed the I.C. should not keep knowledge of the material and it's imminent release from the president-elect and two, to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming president, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing."
"The director of national intelligence asked that I personally do this portion of the reading because I was staying in my position and because the material implicated the FBI's counterintelligence responsibilities."
"We also agreed I would do it alone to minimize potential embarrassment to the president-elect, although we agreed it made sense for me to do the briefing, the FBI, FBI's leadership, and I were concerned that the briefing might create a situation where a new president came into office, uncertain about whether the FBI was conducting a counterintelligence investigation of his personal conduct."
Let's talk about that portion now. Nia-Malika Henderson, this is a critical time that salacious and unproven dossier had been floating around Washington for months, and would become public just a few days later, exploding the Russia story and they had to tell the president about it, right?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, and you can imagine that moment. With James Comey who is known to the president from news clips and became obviously a topic of conversation during the campaign, but there he is, revealing salacious and embarrassing details to this president that supposedly Russia has on him.
So it must have been an incredibly awkward moment, and in many ways, it sort of sets the tone for their entire relationship. And you see him there saying that he knows it's embarrassing, and they're taking care in some ways, to educate the president-elect on why this is going on.
And very careful to let the president know that he's not under counterintelligence investigation at that point, which of course the president later makes a point of several times. And we'll see his lawyers do the same thing.
LEMON: Ana Navarro, the first meeting and Comey is briefing a president-elect in a dossier salacious allegations involving Donald Trump, what a way to start off a relationship.
ANA NAVARRO, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: You think? I mean -- what a way to break the ice, right? Look, everything about this, Don, is just so extraordinary. It's so surreal, it's so abnormal. The idea that an FBI director has got to break this news to the president-elect of the United States, the idea the President of the United States is at one point calling the FBI director and saying, I have nothing to do with Russian hookers. I mean, there's just nothing normal about this situation. So, for
those who to want go on, as a life in Washington, life in government is normal right now, good luck with that.
[22:05:00] Because the whole world, and certainly all of America is watching what is happening in Washington right now, and until all of it and the entire truth comes out, there will be no agenda going forward.
LEMON: David Gergen, did Comey set a bad precedent by having this conversation one on one, that it was OK to have one-on-one meetings?
DAVID GERGEN, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: I don't think so, Don. There are going to be people who claim that on the other side. Well, Comey met one on one with Trump, so why shouldn't Trump be allowed to shoo everybody else out of the room on a subject when meeting and talk to Comey directly?
I don't think -- I think they're apples and oranges. And if anything, you know, he decided -- Comey decided to go one on one because the whole group of intelligence officers who went in decided this was a better way to do it, it wouldn't embarrass the president.
I think what's interesting about this is of course he was -- Comey became quite suspicious right from the first conversation, right from this initial conversation. His testimony goes on and to point out.
But, Comey also came in -- came in, there's a context with this, and that is, he did watch Trump all the way through the election season. He saw our volatile he was, and he also had this information on this dossier, and so you must imagine that he was wondering, how do I handle this so I was good relationship with the president, but it's really important to tell him?
GERGEN: And it's also true, Trump may have been very grateful to Comey when he first walked in because remember, a lot of democrats were blaming Comey for Hillary's loss and Trump got the victory.
LEMON: Yes. David Axelrod, this testimony was released a day early at Comey's request, why do you think he wanted that?
DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Well, I think for two reasons. One is look, he's set the table for the day, all the coverage today and going into this hearing is his story exactly the way he wanted to tell it. Which is, I think, pretty smart on his part.
He also now -- he has given the committee time to study the testimony and he probably has a strong sense of where the questions are going to come from, including that question which is you say you didn't want to be alone with the president, but you set the pattern by meeting with him alone in the first instance.
Now I just want to add one other thing about that meeting between the two of them, remember it came at the end of a very fraught meeting between the president and the intelligence community. The president- elect had been resisting the notion that the Russians had interfered in the election and vigorously resisting the notion that they had interfered with the intent of influencing the outcome in his favor so he had just gotten a briefing on all of that. And that was before he got to the dossier. So, you know, this relationship has been fraught from the very beginning.
LEMON: Yes, he had his work cut out, meaning Comey. You had heard what James Comey assessed about how he revealed that salacious Russian dossier to the president-elect, but, what was it about Trump's reaction that compelled Comey to document their conversation?
So here's more. So, "In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI's leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-elect Trump we were not investigating him personally. That was true. We did not have an open counterintelligence case on him."
"We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one on one meeting at Trump Tower, based on the President-elect Trump's reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance. I felt compelled to document my first conversation with president-elect, the president-elect in a memo to ensure accuracy."
"I begin to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting, creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward."
"This had not been my practice in the past. I spoke alone with President Obama, twice in person, and never on the phone, once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues, and a second time, briefly, for him to say good-bye in late 2016. And neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions."
"I can recall nine one on one conversations with President Trump in four months, three in person, and six on the phone."
Van Jones, you're next, he joins us as well, so Van, what does it say about how president-elect Trump must have reacted to all of this in that moment for Comey to offer the assurance without the president directly asking the question?
VAN JONES, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Well, whatever happened, and we're still in the process of learning, it was alarming to -- it was disconcerting to Comey because he had one set of practices with the prior president, which was to be able to speak with him without feeling the need to memorialize and document, and for whatever reason, when he left that building, there was something that had changed in his mind about what he needed to do with a relationship to American president. And he wrote it down.
[22:10:06] He didn't even wait to get to the office, he didn't wait, you know, to say hello to the secretary, how you doing intern, let me... (CROSSTALK)
LEMON: In the car.
JONES: No, in the car. Writing this down. Even for people who have a process as I do of memorializing stuff, you don't always do it in the Uber. This guy does it in the Uber. He does it in the FBI car. Something happened there that was shocking even for a veteran law enforcement official.
LEMON: Yes, so Scott, how about Comey feeling compelled to document this conversation the second he walked out? Did he feel like there was something inappropriate in nature, do you think?
SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think we're speculating wildly to say that he was found something disconcerting or something that bothered him. It may be that he had a very awkward conversation as you stated at the top of the show about a weird dossier, and he thought, you know what, this relationship has gotten off to such an extreme start that maybe I ought to write some things down because it's one of the most abnormal kinds of conversations that I've ever had to start a relationship with someone.
But I've got to tell you, it may be a blessing in disguise for James Comey to have been fired as the head of the FBI, because he really ought to be managing a P.R. firm, since he got fired, the orchestrated leak campaign and the rollout of what he has to say has been one of the most well-oiled P.R. machines I have ever seen, culminating with today's testimony release.
This guy, if law enforcement doesn't work out for you, James Comey, go into the P.R. business. Manage Edelman or something internationally, because you clearly have a a talent for managing your own reputation. That's what this is all about and I suspect that's what he's going to keep tomorrow.
LEMON: Go ahead, David Gergen.
GERGEN: I disagree with that. James Comey had a wonderful reputation before the politics of 2016. It got shredded a lot during that time. What I do think is more likely is that he had intimations, this may lead to an explosive situation down the road.
LEMON: Because he never thought that need to take contemporaneous notes with President Obama and he only met with him once, twice versus nine, he met with him once or twice versus nine times, conversations with this current president.
GERGEN: Right. He had -- he brought to President Trump, or incoming President Trump an explosive document. That if it were true was clearly going to lead to legal problems down the road to hearings and one thing and another. I think he was trying to protect himself and protect the record by doing this on contemporaneous basis. LEMON: Michael, this is one of three occasions that Comey -- he
confirmed that the president was saying, what the president was saying about not being under investigation, but Comey makes a distinction that it specifically about a counterintelligence probe, how important is that distinction?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, LEGAL ANALYST, CNN: Well, we'll see how it plays out in his oral testimony. I think there's a lot of flesh that needs to be added to the bones of this testimony. I think that the written testimony that is -- I think that the Comey/Trump relationship, starting with this salacious allegation and the president saying, I had nothing to do with that, focused Comey on the notion that the president was going to be very interested in defending himself and his reputation and that Comey therefore in these -- any sort of one on one meeting would have to have a contemporaneous record of what was said should the president turn on Comey as we saw he did ultimately by firing him.
That's different when you go through the other parts of the memo, when you see Comey trying to document what he thinks is improper communications from the president to him about an ongoing criminal investigation which is prohibited by Department of Justice regulation.
So I think there are two types of communications going that are going on here to begin with, neither of which throughout the whole relationship makes Comey feel at all comfortable.
LEMON: And just for context, Ana Navarro, CNN reported on this, reporting on this on January 6th about this meeting, that was four days later. And here's how the President-elect Trump responded to the reporting at the time. He said, "Fake news, a total political witch- hunt."
And he later tweeted "Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to leak into the public, one last shot at me, are we living in Nazi, Germany." What's your reaction to that, Anna?
NAVARRO: Be careful what you tweet because it may come back to haunt you. You know, look, I think that this has been incredibly interesting. And, you know, these three instances that Jim Comey memorializes where he basically did tell the president-elect and the then-president that he wasn't criminal investigation himself.
You know, the folks that are Trump apologists and that defends him no matter what want to tell you that James Comey is doing this for political reasons, that he's doing this for personal reasons, that he's doing this to elevate his own profile.
But Jim Comey here is basically saying that that aspect that Trump had already us about, is true. So if anything, I think Jim Comey is establishing his credibility and is validating his entire argument. If what he wanted to do was go out and destroy Trump for political reasons and because he was a political hack, why would he bring up these three instances?
[22:15:05] And you know, on the first point that we were discussing as to why he memorialized the meetings with President Trump, the ones with President Obama, the one was about general policy. It's a completely different scenario...
NAVARRO: ... than discussing an investigation. And you've got to -- you've got to believe that somebody of the experience, a law enforcement professional of the level of Jim Comey had an instinct, if not an indication, if not a real hunch that this was not the end of it. This briefing was not going to be the end of it.
LEMON: And we have...
NAVARRO: This is not going -- you know, this was going to mushroom and grow. And more shoes were going to drop as in fact that happened.
LEMON: We're going through the entire Comey testimony this evening, so stay with me, everyone. When we come back, what happened behind closed doors in the green room. What James Comey says about his private dinner at the White House one week after the inauguration?
LEMON: Just hours away from James Comey's testimony to the Senate intelligence committee, at his request, the committee has released his opening statement. And tonight we are reading and analyzing every bit of it.
My panel is back with me. And the next portion, Jim Comey talks about a dinner he had with President Trump on January 27th, just one week after his inauguration.
[22:20:02] It was the day the president signed an executive order to temporarily ban refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. It was also the night before the president's long-awaited phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So he says, "The president and I had dinner on Friday, January 27th, at 6.30 p.m. in the green room at the White House. He had called me at lunchtime that day and invited me to dinner that night saying he was going to invite my whole family, but decided to have just me this time with the whole family coming the next time."
"It was unclear from the conversation who else would be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others. It turned out to be just the two of us. Seated at a small oval table in the center of a green room. Two navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks. "
"The president began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on his FBI director which I found strange because we have -- he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay and I ensured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away."
"My instincts told me that the one on one setting and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship."
"That concerns me greatly. Given the FBI's traditionally independent status in the executive branch, I replied that I love my work and I intended to stay and serve out my ten-year term as director, and then because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not reliable in the way politicians use that word."
"But he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody's side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense. A stance I said was in his best interest as the president."
"A few moments later the president said, I need loyalty, I expect loyalty. I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence."
"The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner."
Back with my panel. Nina -- Nia, you first. The president said to the FBI director, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty," what's your reaction to that?
HENDERSON: You know, the detail in this passage really extraordinary. Him setting the scenes there and also the juxtaposition. If you look the previous passage he's setting up the standard, right, of Obama who never really even talked to him, twice, never called him on the phone. And then sets up the scene where President Trump is calling him, essentially, at some point, seeming to be inviting him over for a social event, and then it becomes a professional event.
And they're alone there, it's one on one. And the fact that he uses, you know, sort of just short sentences, the accessibility of this document, it's not only meant to, obviously be read allowed in a public setting, it's meant also I think to educate the public, in terms of the norms of what the relationship between a president and the FBI director is as well.
And later on, he says that he explains to the president what that relationship is supposed to be like. So there are a lot of Trump folks who say this is just Trump, Trump being Trump, he's talking like a New Yorker, he doesn't necessarily know about the bright red line that's supposed to exist between the FBI and the president, but Comey is saying, in this passage, further along, that he did explain why it was important to keep those entities, the FBI and the White House and the president separate.
LEMON: So David Axelrod, can you imagine though, the two of them sitting there alone, with that awkward silence hanging between them, in the White House, which can be a cavernous place, it's a big place. The brand new president waiting for a pledge of personal of loyalty. It's a little chilling in a way that, the way Comey describes it, but can you imagine going to the -- why would he have dinner alone with the director of the FBI?
AXELROD: Well, listen, you know, I find the whole thing kind of unimaginable because I worked for a president who routinely would say to judges, for example, when he appointed them, this is the last time that you and I will have a conversation alone together. And I think he said the same thing to Jim Comey.
Obviously they had a couple that were routine as Comey reported them. But never phone conversations, and certainly not a meeting like this.
But I have another question, Don. Who in the White House is watching this stuff? I mean, what is unimaginable to me as someone who works in the White House, I think David Gergen can speak to this is, how does the chief of staff, for example, how does the White House council sign off on a private dinner between the president and the FBI director?
[22:24:57] Understanding how, how much of that violates fundamental norms and rules. Just, you know, it's mind boggling to me.
LEMON: David Gergen?
GERGEN: David Axelrod is absolutely right, Don, in less than -- over 40 years in Washington, I have never, ever seen a president sit down alone with the director of the FBI. Alone. Much less for dinner alone. The alarm bells clearly went off with Jim Comey at this dinner.
LEMON: Do you think it went off with anybody, do you think it went off with this...
GERGEN: I think David -- I think David Axelrod raises a second question, where the heck was the general council for the White House? He should have been in the meeting, ordinarily there he would be to protect the president as well as Comey.
LEMON: Van Jones, Comey says that the president called him around lunchtime to ask him to come to dinner that night. This is what the president told NBC about how the dinner was set up, here it is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on.
LESTER HOLT, HOST, NBC NEWS: He asked for the dinner?
TRUMP: That dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner, and he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, you know, consider it, we'll see what happens, but we had a very nice dinner, and at that time, he told me you're not under investigation -- which I knew anyway.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: OK. So what do you think about inconsistencies there? He's saying he thinks the dinner was arranged, he thinks he asked for the dinner, that's not what Comey is saying.
JONES: Well, I mean, that part you might forgive, what's so interesting is, you know, he acted...
LEMON: Even if it was arranged by someone at the White House considering the conversation that David Gergen and David Axelrod just had?
JONES: Well, I'm just saying, listen, everybody focuses on different things. What I focused on when I heard what he said was his this focus on -- if he's going there, Comey's going there to ask for his job, to beg for his job, it's up to Trump to decide. Do you stay or do you go.
This guy has a 10-year term, Mr. President, the point is that he doesn't have to come and gravel to you or to anyone else. It is not at your discretion. That's the point of him having a 10-year term. And so, you can see there's a mindset already there with Donald Trump. That he thinks even with a throwaway line, that he thinks that he's somehow is as his guy at his back and call and he does not. That is very troubling.
The other thing that's very troubling is again he rushes all the way immediately to this conversation about trying to exonerate himself and to exonerate himself.
Anybody who has a kid or who has ever taught kids, when you find one of them that is jumping up and down and trying to say they didn't do it, it's not their fault, that's the one you're worried about.
LEMON: All right.
JONES: And part of the behavior of Donald Trump through this whole thing, it's self -- it attempt at self-exoneration is often self- criminalizing.
LEMON: Stay with me, everyone. When we come right back, more from that private dinner at the White House. What did the president mean when he said, he wanted honest, loyalty from James Comey. I'm going to ask the leading senator what have he thinks of all of this.
[22:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[22:30:00] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: The clock is ticking down to James Comey's Senate testimony in the morning. Tonight we're reading and analyzing his entire opening statement.
My panel is back with me to discuss that. So here is more of Comey's description of the private dinner he had with President Trump on January 27th when the president continued to press him for an assurance loyalty.
"At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox. Throughout history, some presidents had decided that because problems come from justice they should hold the department closed. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problem worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work."
"Near the end of the dinner, the president returned to the subject of my job saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others."
"He said I need loyalty. I replied, you will always get honesty from me. He paused and then said, that's what I want. Honest, loyalty. I paused and then said, you will get that from me, as I wrote in the memo, I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase honest, loyalty differently, but I decided it wouldn't be productive to push it further."
"The term honest, loyalty it helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect."
"During the dinner, the president returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6. And as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them."
"He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn't happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren't, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative."
"He said he would think about it, and ask me to think about it. As was my practice for conversations with President Trump, I wrote a detailed memo about the dinner immediately afterwards, and shared it with the senior leadership team of the FBI."
So Scott, you first, what do you make of the fact that the president brought up the salacious material, Comey had briefed him on earlier that month and strongly denied them again?
SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I think anybody who gets put details in front of them like of the salacious nature that they are categorically denying want to make sure that no one ever gets the impression that they're guilty of something strange and weird like clearly was in this memo.
I think a point worth raising all about the Comey/Trump relationship here in light of this dinner is, think about Trump's view of Comey holistically, he doesn't know Jim Comey and he doesn't really know government. He's from outside government.
He watched James Comey not once, but twice interject himself into the presidential campaign, the first time he's reading him this crazy memo. Jim Comey is repeatedly interjecting himself into Donald Trump's like. It's a question worth asking, is it possible Donald Trump thought, maybe I'm supposed to be meeting with this guy, he keeps interjecting himself into my life over and over again.
LEMON: Michael, is that an excuse?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, LEGAL ANALYST, CNN: Not if he has a good White House council because there are clear Justice Department guidelines about the manner in which the White House, the president in particular is to communicate with the FBI director.
You don't have to be insider in government to know that that's the proper way to proceed.
I think the other thing though, Don, that's important about this memo and the relationship that Comey is setting out is that he's saying that the president wanted some sort of patronage relationship.
[22:35:01] And you remember, and it's not in the memo itself, that the Comey documentation says that he was very concerned when the president called him when he was about to board his helicopter, just to chitchat, made Comey very uncomfortable. Why would the president be calling me just to chitchat?
And then you have that famous first responders meeting in the White House, and he calls Comey over and gives him this hug and Comey is saying, you know, I don't feel comfortable with this, and this all fits into this pattern that I think Comey is feeling that this guy is wanting the relationship with me that is not acceptable, and not governable by me, and therefore I've got to start documenting what's going on here. Because I'm afraid of what the future may hold.
LEMON: Ana Navarro, Comey says he explained to the president why it's so important for the FBI and the DOJ to be independent from the White House, is it possible the president didn't know his behavior was inappropriate? Is that an excuse?
ANA NAVARRO, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Look, if the president didn't know it was inappropriate, certainly people around the president did know that it was inappropriate. And for a long time I've been saying that, you know -- there's been this team of enablers around President Trump, around candidate Trump, around President-elect Trump, and now around President Trump, they don't tell him no.
They nod their heads and say yes to everything, they enable everything he does, they justify everything he does, they defend everything he does, they rationalize everything he does because if they don't, they are afraid of being fired.
And that's why we are in a large part where we are right now. Because all of those people around Donald Trump have not clearly told him no, do not have a romantic dinner in the green room with James Comey. He is your FBI director, you don't have wine and dine him because you're trying to talk him in or out of something, and use the charm offensive, the Trump charm offensive on him.
So all those people around Trump today should be looking in the mirror and knowing that in addition to what Trump himself did, they themselves have, you know, a lot of explaining to do to themselves and to this country.
LEMON: David, I got to get this in, but go ahead quickly.
DAVID GERGEN, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: I would imagine he never told his staff. And that's why they didn't have a chance. Look, there's something very simple going on, when Comey walks in he knows the president has a right to fire me.
GERGEN: I am not vulnerable in that. Now the president has fired an FBI director, and what he's saying basically is, you're either loyal to me or I may fire you. You got a choice. That's what's going on here.
LEMON: All right. Stand by, I want to turn to now to Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut democrat who is a member of the judiciary committee. Good evening, Senator. Thank you so much for coming on. What's your reaction to former FBI Director Jim Comey's opening statement?
RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: It's a bomb shell. And it would be a bomb shell if it simply confirmed the reports that we've seen, unconfirmed before now about what Jim Comey heard from the President of the United States seeking a pledge of loyalty, not to the United States of America, but to him personally.
Seeking to demand that he drop an investigation into Michael Flynn and keep in mind, and it's a point that's been missing a little bit from the excellent analysis that you've heard so far.
This investigation concerned Russian interference in our elections and potential collusion and aiding and abetting by the Trump campaign, including Michael Flynn, in that election. So Michael Flynn's conversations, which were concealed as well as other conversations between Trump associates, were under investigation.
And the real question now is, what does Michael Flynn know about Donald Trump and was that the reason that Donald Trump wanted that investigation dropped?
LEMON: Senator Blumenthal, based on what Comey wrote, do you believe the president obstructed justice or tried to?
BLUMENTHAL: There is a lot more in factual evidence that needs to be pursued. That's why I called for a special prosecutor, and I refuse to vote for the deputy attorney general because he refused to commit to one. I was the only member of the judiciary committee who voted against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein because of his lack of commitment to a special prosecutor.
Now that we have one, there will be a criminal investigation of exactly that point, and what we're seeing is really a case of obstruction of justice unfolding in real-time right before our eyes. And it's a lesson in criminal justice for the American people and about how there should be a vindication of the rule of law. Nobody's above the law, including the President of the United States.
LEMON: We are told that James Comey's testimony was publicly released intentionally today by the Senate intelligence committee at Comey's request, Senator; this is what White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee-Sanders had to say about that, listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[22:40:04] SARAH HUCKABEE-SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I do find the timing of the release interesting, directly after the testimony from the other hearing earlier today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: She's talking about the testimony today by the NSA director and the director of national intelligence who both denied that they ever felt pressure by President Trump to act inappropriately. Does she have a point?
BLUMENTHAL: The timing of this testimony is important so the committee can be prepared with questions. And often testimony is made available to our staff, so they can help us as well as ourselves to prepare thoughtful and hopefully insightful questions which no doubt will be forthcoming to former Director Comey tomorrow.
But the main point is, what is the substance here? What was the motive and intent when Donald Trump pressured Comey far pledge of loyalty? When he demanded that an investigation be dropped, when he reminded Comey again about that thing as he said in return for the loyalty that he wanted, personal loyalty to him which crosses the boundary as James Comey says well in his testimony. It crosses those boundaries which are well known to anybody who is holding public office.
A law enforcement official owes loyalty to the law and to the rule of law, not to anyone who may occupy an office.
LEMON: Senator Richard Blumenthal, I appreciate your time, thank you, sir.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
LEMON: When we come back, what the president told James Comey about Michael Flynn the day after Flynn resigned.
[22:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
LEMON: Fired FBI Director James Comey will answer questions in what's sure to be a blockbuster appearance before the Senate tomorrow, but he's already released his opening statement, and it speaks volumes about President Trump and Michael Flynn.
Back now with my panel. So let's discuss more on February 14th, the day after Flynn was fired. James Comey found himself in an uncomfortable situation after a counterterrorism briefing in the Oval Office, ending up alone with the president.
He writes, "On February 14, I went to the Oval office for a scheduled counterterrorism briefing of the president. He sat behind the desk and a group of us sat in a semicircle of about six chairs facing him on the other side of the desk. The vice president, deputy director of the CIA, director of the national counterterrorism center, secretary homeland security, and the attorney general and I were in the semicircle of chairs."
"I was directly facing the president sitting between the deputy CIA director and the director of NCTC. There were quite a few others in the room sitting behind us on couches and chairs. The president signaled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone. I stayed in my chair."
"As a participant started to leave the Oval Office, the attorney general lingered by my chair, but the president thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me. The last person to leave was Jared Kushner, who also stood by my chair and exchanged pleasantries with me. The president then excused him, saying he wanted to speak with me."
When the door by the grandfather clock closed and we were alone, the president began by saying, I want to talk about Mike Flynn. Flynn had resigned the previous day, the president began by saying Flynn hadn't done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the vice president."
He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not specify, then specify. The president then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information. Concern I shared and still share."
"After he had spoken for a few minutes about leeks, Reince Priebus leaned in through the door by the grandfather clock and I could see a group of people waiting behind him. The president waved at him to close the door. Saying he would be done shortly. The door closed."
David Axelrod, this is a significant moment here. Why did the president need to have a private conversation with just James Comey and no other presidential aides present?
DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Look, I think there are a lot of things about this story that if you were a defender of the president you would say, well, look, Comey told him that he wasn't the subject of an investigation, he wanted to get it out, this was an obsession of his because he thought it was hanging over his presidency, the thing that is very hard to explain is Flynn.
We know President Obama told him that Flynn, that he ought to reconsider Flynn. We know that the acting attorney general came to the White House to report that Flynn had lied and that the vice president had repeated that lie.
And it took 18 days for the White House to act, or even apparently tell the vice president why, and now this meeting with Flynn where he clears out the room, and obviously it's highly improper to clear the room out of the attorney general and others, and have this conversation, what is it about Mike Flynn that causes Trump to behave in this fashion?
What is it that -- is it personal loyalty? It could be personal loyalty, but we've seen that he's not terribly loyal to the other people around him.
So I think this raises a lot of flashing lights. And ultimately, we know that he got -- he did pursue the investigation of Flynn. And he was fired. So you put all of these things together, and I think this is a very, very ripe thing for both the Congress and the investigators to look at.
LEMON: Nia, how, and I have to ask you this the same thing about the, you know, having the dinner alone as Ana, you know, said that it was -- she thought it was a romantic dinner, but how unusual is this between the president and an FBI director?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Very unusual. And I think, you know, this is happening, this meeting is happening on Valentine's Day, it is almost like the courtship of James Comey. And here I think one of the things most interesting about this passage.
[22:50:01] All of the people around who are clearly witnessing of the president clearing out the room. You have Kushner there, a lingering, and chatting with James Comey, Sessions is there, goes and stands by James Comey's chair, as if to signal that he's not quite comfortable with it maybe or he doesn't quite want to leave.
And the president has to reaffirm that no he wants to be here alone with James Comey, and then you have Reince Priebus who comes and peeks into the room as if to, you know, look in, what's going on, maybe try to wrap it up.
The president shoos him away. And then later on in those passages you have Comey once again showing that all of these people in the White House are aware of this meeting that's going on. And he walks out of the office and who does he sees. He sees Priebus and Vice President Pence.
So you wonder what those people are thinking, what they might later know about those conversations, if the president told those folks about those conversations. So, yes, you get to see this whole scene of the White House and all of these people who are enablers of the president conducting this very private kind of courtship of James Comey.
LEMON: That's not all what concerns this meeting. It got a lot more interesting. That, right after this break.
LEMON: James Comey's Senate testimony is just hours away. His opening statement released tonight. We're reading the whole thing, and it is packed with revelations. We're up to the Comey's Oval Office meeting with President Trump on
So back with me now my panel. Again, this is February 14th, James Comey finds himself alone again with the president this time in the Oval Office. The president continued to talk about Michael Flynn who had resigned the previous date.
And he writes, "The president returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying he's a good guy and has been through a lot. He repeated that Flynn hadn't done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the vice president. He then said, I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
"I replied only that he is a good guy. In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI."
[22:55:06] "I did not say I would let this go. The president returned briefly to the problem of leaks. I then got up and left out the door by the grandfather clock, making my way through the large group of people waiting there including Mr. Priebus and the vice president."
"I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. 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."
"I did not understand the president to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could by wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn's departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls."
"Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI's role as an independent investigative agency."
Let's discuss. Ana, Comey knew to immediately write up a memo of this conversation. Was he preparing himself for what he knew might be needed, what was to possibly come?
NAVARRO: Definitely by this point, and the level of detail that's included in this memo is astounding. It almost reads like a tele- novella script, where he's telling you about the placing of grandfather clock and Reince Priebus peeking in.
And you know, I mean, you've got to ask yourself the question if you're a thinking person; did Donald Trump clear the room of everybody but James Comey, because he wanted deniability? What he said up was a scenario where it's James Comey's word versus Donald Trump's word, with nobody there to corroborate what exactly happened in the room other than the two men who were there involved. You know, I don't buy this idea that Donald Trump didn't know. First
of all, ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it, but let's also remember that Donald Trump is not just a businessman. He is a businessman who has been a party to hundreds of lawsuits. This man has more legal experience than many lawyers practicing in America today.
LEMON: Michael, is this one of the most key moments in a possible obstruction of justice case?
ZELDIN: Absolutely. Let's go back and forward a minute on this. Firstly, I think that it has to be said that the attorney general did not serve the president well by agreeing to leave that room. He should have said, Mr. President, I'm not leaving the room, there are structures by which we communicate with the FBI, and someone from the Justice Department needs to be there.
Just as we saw in the testimony this morning, r Rosenstein talked on behalf of McCabe for most of the afternoon. That's the way it should be.
Secondly, in the obstruction of justice investigation you have essentially to prove through collateral evidence what the state of mind of the actor is. In this case, that's the president. You put these pieces together slowly because you can't read the president's mind to see what his intention was.
And so you look at it and say, how does it work on a continuum? First you have a request for loyalty, then you have these chitchat types of phone calls and the calculation by Mr. Comey that he wants some sort of patronage relationship. Then sort of like the shoe drops here, where he says flat-out, I need you to drop this investigation, I want you to drop this investigation. He's a good guy.
That becomes sort of the centerpiece of your mosaic. We will see in the next hour, when we get to the following parts of this memo, other pieces falling into place, including Priebus saying to the Comey people, drop this, that the president is saying it to Coats to drop this.
He's clearing the room with Coats, again as Ana says, this is an intentional act to make them in a one-on-one deniability situation. All of this doesn't look good from a prosecutor's standpoint, as you look at what is the intent of the actor here and was there a benevolent explanation for it.
LEMON: All right. Everyone, let's stand by. Since you mentioned why don't we get to the top of the hour right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.
LEMON: Here's our breaking news. James Comey's bombshell Senate testimony.
This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.
Comey will answer questions in the Senate tomorrow, but he made his opening statement public ahead of time. And we're going through the whole thing tonight.
Every one of his revelations of what happened in his meetings with the president. So far, Comey has reported briefing the president on that salacious Russian dossier, talked about an uncomfortable private dinner at the White House and explained what the president said about Michael Flynn.
So here with me tonight, CNN's David Gergen, Nia-Malika Henderson, David Axelrod, Ana Navarro, Michael Zeldin, and Van Jones.
[23:00:01] Also Scott Jennings, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush.
So we're walking through James Comey's critical February 14th Oval Office meeting with the president. Comey says President Trump ask him to let Flynn go.