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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With California Congressman Eric Swalwell; Interview With Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; James Comey Releases Opening Statement of Senate Testimony; Intel Chiefs Won't Say If Trump Asked Them to Sway Russia Probe; ISIS Claims Rare Terror Attacks in Iran. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired June 7, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: stunning testimony.
James Comey reveals the contents of his secret memos filled with potentially damaging details about President Trump and their private conversations about the Russia investigation. The fired FBI director going public even before he faces senators and the nation.
"Let this go." Comey says the reports are true that Mr. Trump asked him to drop his investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. This hour, new reaction and new questions raised for tomorrow's must-see hearing.
Anger and frustration. Two top intelligence officials accused of stonewalling, refusing to see whether the president asked them to influence the Russia investigation. Senators trying and failing to get answers.
And no confidence? The president withholding any words of support for his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as their tensions apparently continue to simmer. With the Russia probe exploding, could Sessions now be on his way out?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, James Comey declaring on the record that President Trump asked him to let go of his investigation of Michael Flynn.
The fired FBI director's opening statement to senators released today at Comey's request in advance of his testimony tomorrow morning. The seven-page statement includes very specific details of Comey's nine one-on-one conversations with the president in person and on the phone. Comey, citing his famous memos of his various talks with the president, saying the commander in chief flatly told him he expects loyalty. Comey also noted that the president asked about a way to -- quote --
"lift the cloud" of the Russia investigation. Comey's candor in stark contrast to Senate testimony by two of the nation's top intelligence officials. The director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and the National Security Agency director, Admiral Mike Rogers, refusing to answer questions about whether Mr. Trump asked them to influence or downplay the FBI investigation.
Both say they never felt pressured by the president or his administration. But they would not confirm or deny reports that Mr. Trump personally asked them to intervene. President Trump publicly ignoring the breaking news that was unfolding as he traveled to and from Ohio.
But, tonight, his personal lawyer now says the president feels vindicated because he says Comey publicly confirmed that the president was not under investigation in any Russia probe.
We're going to get new reaction this hour from our guests, including key members of Congress. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
First, let's go to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.
Phil, some very dramatic and very detailed testimony today from James Comey.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf, vivid in its detail, unsettling in disclosures.
It's the seven pages that Washington has been poring over, seven pages that set the stage for tomorrow's main event.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Nine one-on-one interactions with President Trump, three in person and six on the phone, detailing former FBI Director James Comey's testimony.
Comey describing one meeting with the president and other counterterrorism officials in the Oval Office where all but Comey were asked to leave the room. "I want to talk about Mike 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 Sessions would soon be recused.
While those details were kept closely held, 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."
Comey also seems to corroborate what Trump wrote in his letter firing the FBI director, that he had 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 ate at Trump and dominated much of their interactions after Trump assumed office.
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 says Trump stressed the cloud of the Russia probe was interfering with his ability to make deals for the country, Trump telling Comey at one point -- quote -- "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," and reiterating the point in their final phone call, Trump adding this time, "Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know."
Comey says one of the primary reasons he wouldn't say publicly Trump wasn't under investigation -- quote -- "because it would create a duty to correct should that change."
Comey also recounts the private dinner, when the president allegedly told him -- quote -- "I need loyalty. I expect loyalty." Comey describes his reaction as this: "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."
MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, just to give you a sense of what senators are doing in preparation, Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was going into a two-hour prep session earlier this afternoon.
Many other Democrats I have been talking to say they are trying to do the same thing. They want to make sure that despite this testimony actually being out there that they can get more information out of former FBI director.
It is also worth noting a source close to Comey says that there is a reason this testimony was released early. It was released at Jim Comey's request. He wants senators to be able to digest it, get their heads around it. There's a belief that this is a complex issue. He wants everybody to know everything that is on the table before he takes the witness stand tomorrow, Wolf.
BLITZER: Phil Mattingly reporting for us, thanks very much.
Let's bring in our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto.
Jim, you have been reporting extensively on the Russia investigation. How significant are these late-breaking details?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, on one thing, Comey corroborates the president's previous statements, on the issue of whether Comey told him that he was not under investigation. It appears it is true, in three conversations, at least under counterintelligence investigation.
On another issue -- and this is key -- he directly contradicts the president and this is on what appears to be interference regarding the Flynn investigation. I'm going to read directly from Comey's testimony.
He says: "He then said, "referring to the president, "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."
Very clearly there, according to Comey, that appears to be a request from the president to move away in some way from the Flynn investigation.
I want to play for you, though, what the president said when asked about this very question some two-and-a-half weeks ago in a press conference. He was asked if he had ever asked Comey anything about the investigation into Flynn. Here is what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn? And, also, as you look back...
TRUMP: No. No. Next question.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: The president couldn't be clearer there, Wolf. He is denying and the way the question was asked, did you at any time urge Director Comey in any way, shape or form to close or back down the investigation?
Comey's testimony tomorrow is going to directly contradict the president.
BLITZER: So, basically, it's going to be Comey suggesting the president was lying when he made that statement at that news conference.
SCIUTTO: Absolutely. No other way to describe it.
BLITZER: There is going to potentially be a lot of other explosive moments tomorrow.
This is the opening statement, but then they are going to go for several hours, questions from the senators, Democrats and Republicans, of Comey.
SCIUTTO: That's exactly right.
And there's a lot to -- and you understand, because I have been told the same thing, that one reason Comey wanted to get this out there was to give senators a chance to digest so that their questions can probe and answer some of the remaining questions.
Certainly, I think we can expected questions on those phone calls and meetings where the president -- where Comey says he told the president he is not under investigation. How broad was that statement? That will be a fair follow question.
Then on this loyalty pledge, and even Comey's reaction, as he is described it himself, he said that he looks and there's an awkward pause, he didn't say a word, he didn't change his facial expression, fighting, it seemed, to give no indication as to whether he was loyal or not, because he clearly felt that that was an improper question to ask.
And that will be -- I'm sure that senators will be asking him about that encounter as well.
BLITZER: All right, stand by for a moment.
I want to go to our White House correspondent, Athena Jones.
You're getting some breaking news, Athena, the first, what, official statement we are getting from the president's personal lawyer.
ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. That's right. This is from Marc Kasowitz, the president's attorney.
And he said: "The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the president was not under investigation in any Russian probe. The president feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda."
So, that is the statement we're getting from the president's personal lawyer, but some would say that this idea the president is completely and totally vindicated by Comey's opening remarks is a little more nuanced than that.
And so they are eager to hear more of what Comey has to say tomorrow and more explicitly about the level of the investigation of the president. But I should mention that, earlier in the day, the president's deputy spokesperson, deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when asked if the president himself has any reaction of these seven pages of opening remarks we have seen from the former director, whether he had a chance to review it and whether the White House plans to dispute anything in that testimony, and she said she wasn't aware of whether the president had had a chance to review that testimony, and therefore couldn't say what they might dispute.
But it is interesting to see them highlighting some of what they believe is accurate in this testimony. It might make it harder to then say that some other parts of it are not accurate -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, the statement from Marc Kasowitz, the president's personal attorney, very short, two, three sentences. Let me read it again.
"The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the president was not under investigation in any Russian probe. The president feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda."
What is missing from that statement, Athena, is any rebuttal of a lot of the other material, a lot of the other stuff that Comey, the allegations he is making against the president.
JONES: Exactly. Exactly.
And that's what is so interesting here. I should mention that the Republican National Committee, which has taken up the mantle of rapid response in dealing with the Comey testimony, they also put out a statement hours ago, just soon after these opening remarks were posted, also highlighting the three sections in the testimony where Comey talks about telling the president that he wasn't personally under investigation.
So that is clearly what they want to highlight. The big question is, are they going to try to refute any other part of those seven pages and how will that go over if they are saying, OK, this line is right, this line is wrong, this line is right, this line is wrong? We will have to wait and see what they do tomorrow.
BLITZER: Athena Jones over at the White House, thanks very much.
Joining us now, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Good to be with you.
BLITZER: All right, so I want to you act to the former FBI Director Comey's testimony, the written statement.
Comey will say this. Once again, I will say about his interactions with the president on Michael Flynn. 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.' And I did not say I would 'let this go.'"
Some have suggested this potentially could amount to obstruction of justice. What do you believe?
WHITEHOUSE: I think it's prima facie obstruction of justice.
But you would need to have some context around that to know whether that kind of prima facie case moved in to something where a jury would convict. There's a case that could be made that this was a perfectly innocent comment, that Trump himself had no interest in how this came out, and he was just trying to be decent about a guy who served his country in uniform and was a veteran and all that kind of stuff.
I think in the context, that's not a very convincing argument. I would rather be on the other side arguing that in front of a jury. But you would want more context as a prosecutor before you charge just off that language alone, I believe.
BLITZER: So, but you're saying prima facie, on its face, your initial impression is potentially there could be an obstruction of justice charge. Is that what I'm hearing?
WHITEHOUSE: You would need to know more, but there is nothing in that statement that would rule that out. To the contrary, it would be, I think, a pretty strong predicate for going forward with further investigation to nail down the context and make sure you had a convincing jury case.
BLITZER: What more would you need to know?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, things we might find out tomorrow from Director Comey, whether there were any sort of telling details that would speak to the president's intent or even, in the case of Comey, who I think is a very experienced guy, his own personal assessment of what he thought the president was trying to accomplish.
Was this a guy who was asking him to do something nice for a veteran? Or was this a guy who was leaning on him to shut down or interfere with an investigation? I think telling details and his own sense will provide a little bit more light on that in the hearing tomorrow and allow Americans to make their own conclusions a little bit more clearly.
BLITZER: Yes, I was going to say, there is another charge that Comey leveled in his written testimony. He said the president told him he needed loyalty.
Let me read that excerpt.
"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."
What should happen, given that part of the testimony? What could this tell you about other conversations he -- that the president has had with other officials?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, if you stack all these conversations up, while any one of them might have an innocent explanation, each one of them from its own place points in the same direction, which is to a desire on the part of the president to interfere with or impede this ongoing investigation of General Flynn.
And the more that that adds up, the more convincing it becomes. And each piece helps provide that illumination, that context that I talked about, about that most compelling statement, which is, can you make this go away? Can you let this go?
BLITZER: He also said the president asked him if he could lift the cloud, talking about those unconfirmed, salacious allegations in that dossier that was presented, that was put together by a former British intelligence operative.
Let me read from that exchange. This is Comey in his testimony.
"He," referring to the president, "he said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to lift the cloud. I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could and that there would be great benefit, if we didn't find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him."
Sounds like that dossier, which was once again unsubstantiated, very salacious, it certainly was on the president's mind.
And a lot of the dossier actually was substantiated, but that particularly salacious detail was not.
BLITZER: The salacious detail about the hookers?
BLITZER: Yes, and, clearly, president was worried about that allegation in that dossier.
It does appear, Senator, that Comey discussed whether or not the president was under investigation. And you have heard in a statement he said this, and I will read it to you. "I discussed with the FBI's leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure president-elect Trump that 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 president-elect Trump's reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance." Do you view that assurance, those assurances to the president, the president-elect, later the president, do you view that as appropriate?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, I would feel better about that conversation if it had happened more publicly.
But I think that, given the responsibilities that a president bears, to be able to say accurately that he is not then under investigation is not anything that sets off being the alarm bells with me.
What does set alarm bells with me is people taking that fact and now saying that shows that the president is totally and completely vindicated.
You don't, at the initial stages of a prosecution or an investigation, when you're still looking into the full matter and somebody is not yet a subject or target, you can't draw conclusions about who's vindicated from the beginning of investigations. You have got to wait until the end of the investigation before anybody can say they are vindicated.
So, I would push back on the comment that was made that this vindicates the president. It doesn't vindicate him at all, because the investigation is still ongoing.
And, Wolf, the one last thing I would say about all this is that I was a little bit surprised by Director Comey saying that he felt he had a duty to correct in all of this.
From my experience, as a prosecutor and in law enforcement, I don't think there is such a duty to correct. I think you have a duty to tell the truth. And I think this duty to correct talk kind of floats back to the Weiner laptop and his release of that information because he felt he had a duty to correct his testimony in Congress.
I don't think there is that duty to correct. I think you have a duty to give truthful testimony at the time that you say it. You don't have an obligation to go back and update Congress on things, not when it's a criminal investigation.
BLITZER: So, bottom line, Senator, you disagree with Marc Kasowitz, the private attorney brought in to help the president on this Russia investigation, when he says the president feels completely and totally vindicated because Comey said he told him on three occasions he was not under investigation?
WHITEHOUSE: Complete and total vindication only happens at the end of an investigation.
BLITZER: I guess you disagree with Marc Kasowitz.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
WHITEHOUSE: My politics pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
BLITZER: Let's get some more reaction to all the breaking news.
Joining us now, Congressman Eric Swalwell. Hew's a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also serves on the Judiciary Committee.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: Good evening, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, so let me first get your quick reaction to the testimony, the written statement we all read once, twice, maybe three times, from Comey.
SWALWELL: We want to hear from him tomorrow.
But when you read that statement, Wolf, it is wrong that the president demanded loyalty for James Comey to keep his job. It was wrong that he asked him to drop the case against his friend Michael Flynn. And it was wrong that he hounded obsessively James Comey to, as he called it, lift the cloud around the Russia investigation.
BLITZER: I take it you also disagree with the president's personal attorney, who says the president now -- the president feels completely and totally vindicated. You disagree with that, I assume, as well?
SWALWELL: I do. And vindicated from what, Wolf?
Every investigation that has taken place, the president has interjected, interfered and tried to disrupt. And all we want on the House and Senate side are honest investigations and for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to be able to conduct his without interference from the White House. So, it's very early and certainly too early to say anyone has been vindicated.
BLITZER: Well, he says the president feels vindicated because Comey said on three different occasions and he publicly said it in his testimony that that president was not under investigation in the Russia probe.
Let me get that reaction though to that other disturbing element, that former the FBI director said the president asked him to let go of the Michael Flynn investigation.
Some have suggested, including our own Jeffrey Toobin, our legal analyst, that potentially could lead to obstruction of justice charges.
What do you think?
SWALWELL: Well, Wolf, I miss being a prosecutor in the courtroom, so I will leave it to them to decide.
But it is obstructive and it looks like an abuse of power for the president to ask the FBI director to let his friend, campaign adviser and national campaign adviser to be let off the hook. But that's a criminal probe that hopefully is under way. Our job on the Intelligence Committee is to understand what the Russians did, who if anyone in the United States they worked with, and to make sure that this never, ever happens again, because this mess has prevented us in Washington from doing the work we were sent here to do. And we want to move forward and past it.
BLITZER: How high would the bar be to go forward with a charge of obstruction of justice?
SWALWELL: Well, again, that's decision for prosecutors. And they will have to look at whether there is other corroborating evidence as well.
But to the regular person at home, when the president asked the FBI director to let the case go against his friend go, that just looks obstructive. It looks like he is abusing his power.
BLITZER: Comey will also say tomorrow that the president told him he needed loyalty, that he expected loyalty. The former FBI director said he promised honesty, but what does this loyalty pledge that the president requested tell you?
SWALWELL: It tells me that the president is running the White House in a way that people work for him have to give their loyalty. Otherwise, their job is at stake.
And, Wolf, it's OK to expect people who work for you to be loyal. But when you put that in the context of your friends being under investigation or your campaign being investigation and dangling the person's job over their head, that's where you cross the line.
BLITZER: The president -- Comey said, the president also asked him to "lift the cloud" talking about those unconfirmed salacious allegations in that dossier.
The former FBI director said the president emphasized the problems it was causing him. It does sound like that dossier, at least early on, was very much on the president's mind.
SWALWELL: Well, it is something that we are seeking to either rule in or rule out. We want to see if we can corroborate what was in it or repudiate it.
And, again, all we want, Wolf, is to be able to pursue the facts wherever they go. And every time our investigation or the FBI investigation starts to make progress, the president seems to rear himself into the investigation.
And we're just asking him to get out of the way and let us conduct it and tell the American people what happened.
BLITZER: You also saw in that testimony Comey saying he asked the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to prevent future communications between Comey and the president, calling the president's request for the attorney general to leave the room, in Comey's word, inappropriate.
What does that tell you about Comey, that Comey didn't want to be left alone with the president of the United States?
SWALWELL: It also tells me that he may have seen intent from the president by asking other witnesses to leave the room. That way, he could have a one-on-one, private conversations with the FBI director, which Director Comey felt was improper, especially considering that the president's campaign was under investigation and the president was talking about that investigation.
And also, Wolf, Comey mentioned that under President Obama he never felt the need to memorialize or write down conversations with the president, and here he felt like he had to. I think that shows just how serious he thought the president's behavior was.
BLITZER: Yes, he said he only two conversations with President Obama. He didn't write contemporaneous notes or a memorandum following either of those. But he did write a lot of memorandum following his nine different phone and in-person conversations with Mr. Trump.
He also mentioned, Comey, in his testimony that there are unclassified, he used the word unclassified memos, about those conversations, also conversations about those meetings he had with the president, with other officials. He said there were other White House officials who were present during some of those meetings.
Does that give you and your committees, both Judiciary and Intelligence, more items to investigate?
We would like to hear from those individuals, because it would also show us what Director Comey's state of mind was. If he truly was writing these memos down and then expressing his concerns to other individuals, that would corroborate, I think, that he truly was concerned about the president's conduct.
BLITZER: Do you know if there are any tapes of those phone or in- person conversations? The president himself in that famous tweet a few weeks ago, he raised the possibility of "tapes."
SWALWELL: The Judiciary Committee, where I sit, Wolf, we are seeking any and all tapes, any and all documents relating to this.
So, we hope to find out. Either it was the president conducting a secret taping system in the White House or using that threat -- or using the threat of a taping system to try and chill Director Comey. Either way, I don't think it turns out well.
BLITZER: Senator Burr, the Intelligence Committee chairman in the Senate, he said that Comey had told him this would be his only public testimony. Does that hinder your House investigation, if Comey refuses to testify before any other panels?
SWALWELL: We certainly want to hear from the former director, whether it's in public -- that would be ideal -- or in a private setting. I also do not want to do anything that would disrupt the investigation
that is taking place. And so if special counsel Mueller, if it was his preference that we do not have Director Comey come forward, I think that is something we should consider as well.
BLITZER: Where does your investigation stand in the House of Representatives? Do you expect anyone else to testify soon?
SWALWELL: We better. The American people are expecting us too.
We have subpoenaed witnesses. That was released last week, including Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen. We have asked for documents. I would like to get people going this summer. And I am encouraged. You saw last night Chairman Conaway and Ranking Member Schiff issued a statement that progress is being made. And hopefully we will report back soon.
BLITZER: You call him Chairman Conaway.
Mike Conaway, he's the Republican who is helping lead this investigation. He's not -- the chairman of the committee still is Devin Nunes, right?
SWALWELL: He is. Michael Conaway is the chair, for all intents and purposes, of the Russia investigation. And we hope it stays that way.
BLITZER: Yes, Nunes has recused himself, although some are suggesting maybe not completely.
You want to respond to that?
SWALWELL: Well, we believe that it was right for Devin Nunes to step aside. I don't believe he should be signing any subpoenas, as he has been doing, or reviewing any documents, and really leave it to an honest, independent investigation that can make progress.
And so I think we have seen that under Chair Conaway and Ranking Member Schiff, and we just -- we don't want to go back to where we were about a month-and-a-half ago.
BLITZER: As you know, there was a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today and both the director of national intelligence, the director of NSA, they both said they couldn't answer questions posed by the senators, saying they need to work through the legal counsel at the White House, even suggesting in a closed-door session.
What does that tell you that both of these intelligence officials are saying?
SWALWELL: Well, I believe, if they could have denied what was being alleged in "The Washington Post" this morning, they probably would have done it.
But if they did hear something, they should say something to the American people. The stakes here are very high. We are talking about interference in our elections, allegations involving the White House and the president's campaign.
And so if the president was asking them to be involved in the Russia investigation, we have a right to know.
BLITZER: Because some are already talking -- using the word cover-up. You're not ready to go that far?
SWALWELL: Oh, no, certainly not.
I hope that in a closed session, we hear just what the president said, why he said it, and what these individuals did once they were told this, but it is too early to go there, Wolf.
BLITZER: Congressman Eric Swalwell, thanks so much for joining us.
SWALWELL: My pleasure.
BLITZER: We have a lot more coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Much more on the breaking news right after this.
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight. The former FBI director, James Comey, confirming that President Trump asked him to drop the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn. Less than three months before Comey himself was fired by the president. That's just one of the striking revelations in the opening statement Comey will give tomorrow before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A transcript was released today in advance of the testimony. At Comey's request, that advanced statement was released.
Let's dig deeper with our specialists and our analysts. And Ryan Lizza, I want you to react to one of the more sensational moments in that testimony, in this opening statement. I'll read it to you. We've read it a few times. Referring to the president, conversations with Comey -- according to Comey -- and Michael Flynn.
"He, then" -- the president -- he, the president -- "then said, 'I hope can you 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. I did not say I would let this go."
What does this tell you about the president and the interaction he had with Comey?
RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I think this is the most important piece of information in the testimony. Because this is evidence of the president of the United States telling his FBI director to stop an investigation into one of his advisors, I guess former adviser, at that point.
So in the -- from the point of view of obstruction of justice, this is the closest thing to a smoking gun we have. And now Comey coming out publicly and saying it is quite important. So I think going forward, the question is, what do Republicans do with
all of this information? We know Democrats think this is a big deal. We know a lot of Democrats are using the term "obstruction of justice." But from -- in terms of Trump's own liability here, everything depends on how Republicans in Congress view this behavior.
If they defend it and if they just say, "Well, this is just the president being naive or not knowing the rules," or if they actually come out and say, "You know what? This was -- this -- he went too far here and there needs to be some consequences."
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: But there's another angle here from a government perspective. It's not just a legal angle. As someone who worked in government, and he is the chief executive of the U.S. government. Not just the president. The chief executive. The lack of knowledge about how government works and the border-line stupidity here, remarkable.
Let me talk about what's going to happen if the FBI director -- he wouldn't do this -- if he ever said yes. The employees at the FBI will know. Inspector general at FBI are going to know. The inspector general at the FBI is going to know. The Department of Justice attorneys are going to know. The oversight committees are going to realize, suddenly, at the Hill, all of a sudden, an investigation closed. The intel guys at the CIA, the National Security Agency, are going to know.
We're seeing these Russians talk about interaction with people from the Trump campaign. All of a sudden the investigation stops.
What does the president exactly think that the FBI director is going to do if he agrees to go back and shut it down? The president doesn't understand how government works.
BLITZER: Susan Hennessey, you're our legal analyst. You're -- you used to work in the NSA. What do you think? Is there an obstruction of justice case here?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, actually, under the technical statute, it's probably a tough case to make. I mean, it's sort of an open question and a complex one. Certainly, this violates the spirit of the obstruction statutes, right? But the president clearly corruptly endeavored to influence this investigation in some way.
But ultimately, the question really isn't one of sort of criminal charges. It's going to be one of impeachment. And for impeachment purposes, obstruction of justice is whatever Congress decides it is.
BLITZER: It follows that request that the president made, according to Comey, of a loyalty pledge to the president of the United States. And you know, he said it would be truthful. He didn't -- he wasn't ready to give a loyalty pledge.
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And nor should he. That's not the FBI director's job, to be loyal to the president. He's loyal to the law. And he should be a separate entitie.
But what does -- does this also really makes it difficult for Comey's replacement. Because the first question that Christopher Wray is going to get, is "Did you pledge loyalty to the president?" during his confirmation hearing.
BLITZER: He's the nominee to become the next FBI director.
KUCINICH: He's the nominee to become the next -- that president tweeted this morning. That's going to be the first question that he gets in his hearing, I promise you, Democrat or Republican.
BLITZER: Well, let me ask you, Phil Mudd, because you served presidents at the FBI and the CIA. I'll read the exchange that Comey describes he had with President Trump. "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."
If a president were to say to you, Phil, when you were serving in the government, "I need loyalty. I need to you pledge loyalty," what would you say?
MUDD: That's not what he's asking. He's asking, "Will you do what I want you to do?" Remember the context. We also have, in what Comey revealed today, a conversation where the president says, basically, "You're going to stay in your job."
You've got to understand, the FBI director is unique in Washington, D.C. That's a ten-year job. As soon as the president says, "Are you going to stay on your job?" that's another loyalty question. Why would he ask that? "Of course I am. It's a tenured job." One of the best jobs in the law-enforcement community. As soon as he says, "Are you loyal?" what it means is, "Are you going to do what I want to you do?" And I bet you at that moment, Jim Comey knew this game is at least half over, because the answer is, "Of course I'm loyal, but I'm going to follow the case where it goes."
LIZZA: Yes. It sounds like that's not necessarily a question that would be inappropriate for a White House staffer or for other people in the administration. The president of the United States, you run the executive branch. Demanding a certain amount of loyalty from staffers, there's nothing wrong with that. It's that Trump doesn't understand that at the -- the leadership of the Justice Department, and particularly the FBI, are in unique positions.
[18:40:08] And obviously, overlaid on the fact -- overlaid is the fact that he was in the middle of an investigation that involved Trump's associates.
So it was -- what I thought was a stunning phrase from Comey is he interpreted one of the conversations as Trump wanting a patronage relationship from him, right? A traditional political relationship, "You do something for me. I'll do something for you." In other words...
BLITZER: That's the way, when he was a business real estate guy...
BLITZER: ... that's how you operate. Go ahead.
MUDD: Sort of. But I served four and a half years down the hall from now the special counsel, Robert Mueller. If Mueller had ever called me in the office -- he never did -- if he ever called me in the office and said, "Hey, Phil, are you loyal?" I'm going to sit there and say, "What's on your mind, Director? What's wrong? Why are you even asking the question in the first place?" That's an odd question.
HENNESSEY: I mean, look, what we're really talking about here is not Trump being a real-estate CEO. We're talking about the norm of a politically independent law enforcement. And that's something that's really, really essential to the way the United States functions. And so it's important that we recognize how serious this is.
LIZZA: What I see from Republicans here is this argument, just to play devil's advocate, is, "Well, he just didn't know." Right?
BLITZER: He was new.
LIZZA: He's new.
BLITZER: He never served in government before. He's a business guy. He comes in, he's got Flynn, he's in trouble. He says, you know, "Help him out."
LIZZA: "Help my buddy out." And even Comey said, "Yes, Mr. President, he is a good guy," because I remembered working with him at DIA.
I think that is going to be the big political question. If this ever moves into the realm of, is this an impeachable offense? Because let's be honest: there's no criminal liability here. You can't indict a president, we -- all legal scholars believe. Right? The only remedy, if Congress thinks was behavior that's beyond the pale, is impeachment. And impeachment's only going to happen, or the process is only going to start if Republicans believe that this is beyond repair.
BLITZER: And you've got to prove intent.
KUCINICH: Absolutely. But what I was going to say, you can only pledge ignorance so long. If he didn't know that this was a problem or this was a -- maybe not a great thing to do, why did he isolate Comey? Why was he just speaking to Comey?
LIZZA: I'm not saying it's a great argument. I'm just saying it's the argument.
KUCINICH: But it's -- it's a question that I think deserves an answer. BLITZER: Because he kicked everybody else out of the room.
KUCINICH: He kicked everybody else out of the room.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's a lot more unfolding right now. The legal and political implications of what James Comey is saying in his opening statement. Additional details he may reveal tomorrow. Our analysts, specialists, they're all standing by.
[18:46:59] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We are following a lot of breaking news in the Russia investigation, including the early release of James Comey Senate testimony. The fired FBI director confirming his account that President Trump asked him to end the investigation of Michael Flynn. He was fired as president's national security adviser.
Comey opening up even as current Trump administration officials refused to say if the president asked them to influence the Russia probe.
Let's go to our senior Washington correspondent Brianna Keilar.
Brianna, two of the nation's top intelligence chiefs facing some rather tough questions from senators today.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: They sure did, Wolf. And it was made tougher by the fact that they wouldn't answer the key question, did President Trump ask them to down play the investigation of possible solution between the Trump campaign and Russian officials? The non-answers frustrated both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: My questions deserve answers.
KEILAR (voice-over): In a contentious intelligence hearing today --
WARNER: And we've gotten no answers from any of you.
KEILAR: -- senators from both sides of aisle expressed frustration and at times anger at the president's intelligence chiefs.
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: I do mean it in a contentious way.
KEILAR: Repeatedly asking the men to confirm or shoot down news reports that president asked them to help end the Russia investigation.
WARNER: If any of this is true, it would be an appalling and improper use of our intelligence professionals -- an act if true that could erode the public's trust in our intelligence institutions. KEILAR: Yet instead of confirming or denying any specific
conversations, the director of National Security Agency and Director of National Intelligence would only answer broadly, saying they never felt pressured by the president.
ADM. MIKE ROGERS, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DIRECTOR: In the three- plus years that I have been the director of National Security Agency, 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 OR NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: In my time of service which is interacting with the president of the United States or anybody of his administration, I have never been pressured. I have never felt pressure to intervene or interfere in any way.
KEILAR: But the two intel leaders would not go further, repeatedly stonewalling the committee on questions of whether the reported conversations with the president happened or what was said.
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.
HEINRICH: Well, I think your unwillingness to answer a very basic question speaks volumes.
[18:50:01] KEILAR: Over and over again.
SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: You went back on a pledge -
KEILAR: Angry senators pushed back.
SEN. KAMELA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: Can you give me a yes or no answer, please?
KEILAR: Asking the men who at times shifted uncomfortably in their seats to give detailed answers.
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: Coats and Rogers told the senators they had discussed their testimony with White House counsel. But they also said they had not been given direction from the White House to refuse to answer or to invoke the president's executive privilege, telling the committee only that it would be inappropriate to discuss their conversations with the president publicly, eventually infuriating independent Senator Angus King.
KING: I ask both of you the same question. Why are you not answering these questions? Is there an invocation by the president of the United States of executive privilege? Is there or not?
ROGERS: Not that I'm aware of.
KING: Then why are you not answering our 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 are 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: And in a rare moment of bipartisan exasperation, even the Republican chair of the committee chastised the directors, closing the hearing by saying Congress had a right to the truth.
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: The intel leaders promised that they would further answer questions in a closed classified meeting later in a day with the committee. We have just learned that both Coats and Rogers did not attend. They were still -- I should say they were still waiting to hear from the White House if it was invoking executive privilege. Coats and Rogers had discussed their testimony with White House counsel. They hadn't gotten an answer on executive privilege -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Brianna Keilar, reporting for us, thanks very much. Ryan Lizza, the fact that they could not get a definitive answer from
the White House counsel, the NSA Director Rogers said he couldn't get an answer from the White House about executive privilege, what does that say?
RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, it says that there's some dysfunction on. If you're sending heads of intelligence up to the Hill to testify on sensitive conversations with the president, you either exert executive privilege or you have to answer Congress's questions.
I mean, you can see there was bipartisan exasperation with this testimony. I've never seen senior officials go up to the Hill and just say, well, I can't tell you why I'm not telling you. I'm just not going to tell you. They had no reason.
BLITZER: Susan, if the White House counsel doesn't give you an answer about executive privilege, does that privilege simply go away?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Well, look, they're not necessarily compelled to answer every single question that they're asked and they're part of the executive branch. You're actually supposed to consider them part of the president. If Donald Trump wants them to answer these questions, he can say, you should answer these questions. He can direct them to do so. Somehow they have received this message from the White House, from their superiors that they are better not answering this particular line of inquiry.
Now, the real question is whether or not there's any form of documentation. Most of the time, there are memos written up memorializing conversations with the president. Now, if that's the case, then Congress can directly subpoena those memos and that might be how they ultimately get this information.
BLITZER: Yes, very interesting.
And, Phil, I want to get to another sensitive moment in this statement that was released by Comey today, talking about the president wanting to, quote, "lift the cloud" as a result of that unsubstantiated, salacious dossier put together by a former British intelligence operative.
This is what Comey writes: He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to lift the cloud. I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could and that there would be great benefit if we didn't find anything to our having done the work well. He agreed but then reemphasized the problems this was causing him.
I just got a statement from Michael Cohen, the personal attorney to President Trump who said this, this in a statement he just texted this: Comey's statement released today needs to be carefully scrutinized as his testimony claims the president was concerned about the dossier. It must be noted that the dossier has been debunked by even the author himself, Christopher Steele. I wonder if you want to react.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, first of all, what the heck does the lawyer have to say about the more important parts of the document? Why is he only talking about the dossier? I find that odd that interesting because of the reference of the hookers part of it of the commentary.
[18:55:02] But something to compare to the Flynn revelations is secondary. On the cloud, in this comment from the president, that he wants to get out from under the cloud, the FBI director did exactly the right thing for one reason. As soon as he gets out and speaks about information on one part, he's got to speak about the other part.
BLITZER: I just want to be precise, though, that dossier, according to Christopher Steele, not all of it has been debunked. Some of it apparently has got some elements of truth there.
LIZZA: It's a long complicated document with a lot of raw information.
BLITZER: Steele himself never debunked it.
LIZZA: He never debunked it. It's long, complicated document with lots of information that is uncorroborated, some that journalists have been able to corroborate, and some that apparently, according to some reporting, the FBI has been able to corroborate.
But I think one thing that the testimony shows is that Trump was obsessed with himself. Is he under investigation and why wouldn't Comey got out and say that he wasn't? That seems to be a major factor leading up to the firing, if you read the testimony --
BLITZER: He was really concerned.
BLITZER: CNN, by the way, has corroborated some elements of that dossier.
HENNESSEY: Right. It's also critical to contextualize Mr. Cohen's statement by noting that he himself is named in that dossier. And so, whenever he comes forward with sort of witness statement, it's not clear if it's only --
BLITZER: Yes, I just want to precise, CNN has reported, Jackie, that the FBI has corroborated some elements of that dossier.
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLTICAL ANALYST: But to your point, whether -- like President Trump, Michael Cohen would be thinking more of himself here than the president at this point. BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by, because there's other important news we're following right now. And to our viewers, I want you to stay with CNN for much more on the breaking news on the fired FBI Director James Comey's upcoming testimony.
But there's other news that just coming in the latest terror assault. ISIS claims it's behind today's rare terror attacks inside Iran.
Let's get the latest details from CNN's Brian Todd.
Brian, what happened?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, Iranian citizens are deeply shaken because this kind of attack simply has not happened so close to home. We have jarring new details on this coordinated assault, some of the most violent moments captured on video.
TODD (voice-over): Gunfire and smoke from the bursts erupt from high windows at the parliament building in Tehran.
Security forces rush to the scene as they position themselves with guns pointed upwards, terrorists have stormed the building. A battle is under way inside.
At the same time, 15 miles away, more carnage. A suicide bomber detonates a vest at the Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum. The Iranian intelligence says it thwarted a third possible assault, but this was still one of the worst terror attacks in Iran since the 1979 revolution. At least a dozen people killed in both locations.
Iran officials say their security forces killed four attackers who may have been dressed as women.
ISIS is claiming responsibility and has released video which we're not showing from inside the parliament building. This frame grab appears to show one of the victims.
CNN cannot independently verify ISIS's claim, but the ISIS M.O. has been increasingly been coordinated urban attacks with small arms and suicide bombs.
And the U.S. intelligence official tells CNN Iran has been at the top of ISIS's enemy list. Iran and ISIS are on opposite sides in the Syrian war. Iran is Shia while ISIS is Sunni.
MICHAEL WEISS, AUTHOR, "ISIS: INSIDE THE ARMY OF TERROR": In a way, it's sort of a miracle that Iran hasn't been attacked until now. Make no mistake, ISIS has always been committed to a genocidal project against all Shia Muslims.
TODD: Iran's Revolutionary Guard implying its rival Saudi Arabia is linked to the attacks.
WEISS: They have no evidence. They always blame the Saudis or the Americans.
TODD: So far, no reply from the Saudis. A key question tonight, how will Iran respond to this carnage in the heart of its capital?
KARIM SADJADPOUR, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: It's likely that Iran will use this attack as a pretext to continue its support for the Assad regime in Syria, for Shia militias in Iraq and Houthis in Yemen. But the reality is, enlisting the support of Shiite radicals like Hezbollah to kill Sunni radicals like ISIS tends to exacerbate the problem of extremism. It doesn't decrease it.
TODD: Iran is, of course, the victim of today's attacks, but is considered itself to be one of the worst state sponsors of terrorism by the United States. In fact, the worst still. Nevertheless, the State Department today expressed condolences to the victims in Iran and condemned the attack.
Still, analysts say if you're looking for Iran and the U.S. to unite against ISIS, don't hold your breath. President Trump just a short time ago issued a statement sympathizing with the victims, but also saying, quote, States that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Statement from the president of the United States.
Brian Todd with that report -- thank you very much.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.