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Battle Rages Between James Comey and Donald Trump Over New Book; Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 13, 2018 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:38] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, John Berman here.

This morning we are witnessing an unprecedented, unfettered, full contact brawl, all within the last two hours. A battle between the fired FBI director, James Comey, and the president where both sides are not just fighting, they are fighting dirty. I mean dirty.

Donald Trump didn't seem to care much about Russian election meddling but cared a lot about Russian prostitutes and that other thing. This is the stunning contention of James Comey who we are hearing from out loud for the very first time this morning. Stunning for what he says, but more so for how he chooses to say it.

Listen to how he answers questions about the unverified salacious intelligence he discussed with Donald Trump back in 2016 that the Russians allegedly had videotapes of Russian prostitutes with Donald Trump urinating on each other. This was on ABC a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I said to him, sir, when he started talking about I may order you to investigate that, I said, sir, that's up to you, but you want to be careful about that because it might create a narrative that we're investigating you personally. And second, it's very difficult to prove something didn't happen.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Did you believe his denial?

COMEY: Honestly I never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Think of all the other ways Mr. Comey might have answered that question. That is what the president might be thinking this morning as he unleashes with his response calling Comey a leaker and a liar, weak and then this, an untruthful slime ball.

Much more on that in just a moment. First, though, CNN's Evan Perez joins me right now.

We are hearing again from James Comey for the very first time and I think the bile with which he is presenting this is extraordinary, Evan.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: John, I never expected that we'd be going there, at least not like this. But yes. This book is called "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership." It's going to drop in about three or four days now. And -- but pieces of it have started leaking out in news accounts. And you get the portrait of the disdain really that the former FBI director holds the president of the United States.

And we set the scene, I guess, to early January 2017, President Trump is about to take office and his intelligence team comes to brief him on the threats, including the Russian threat, and what has just occurred, the interference in the 2016 election. And then James Comey pulls him aside to brief him on the now infamous Russian dossier. And here's how Comey describes that interaction. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COMEY: I started to tell him about the allegation was that he had been involved with prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow in 2013 during a visit for the Miss Universe Pageant and that the Russians had filmed the episode. And he interrupted very defensively and started talking about, you know, do I look like a guy who needs hookers? And he was asking that rhetorically, I didn't answer that. And I just moved on and explained, sir, I'm not saying that we credit this, I'm not saying we believe it, we just thought it very important that you know.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him you thought it wasn't true or you didn't know if it was true or not?

COMEY: I never said I don't believe it because I couldn't say one way or another.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How weird was that briefing?

COMEY: Really weird. It was almost an out-of-body experience for me. I was floating above myself looking down saying you're sitting here briefing the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in Moscow.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PEREZ: And John, that interaction changed everything for James Comey. They had a multiple additional interactions, many more than Comey says he ever really wanted with the president of the United States, one-on- one interactions, and obviously the relationship soured thereafter.

Look, we spent some time back in 2016 looking into these allegations. I was in Europe trying to follow up on whether or not these things had occurred, but we could never figure out -- we could never get there. And so these allegations sort of stayed under wraps until that day that Comey decided to brief the incoming president about the salacious parts of this dossier, along with other parts of it that alleged the Russians had compromising information on him.

[09:05:10] Look, there's also parts of this book as well as he talks about the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigations and acknowledges, according to people who have read the book and news accounts of the book, he acknowledges that perhaps there are things that he could have done differently, although he still sticks by that July news conference in 2016.

Look, I think this is open warfare now between the former FBI director and the president of the United States. And I think when this book finally rolls out on Tuesday, James Comey has a hot seller on his hands.

BERMAN: Evan Perez for us in Washington. Evan, thank you so much.

Now we had been told that the White House itself and the president were not going to respond directly to this. They were going to leave that to the RNC. That is not what has happened. The president is in this and in this big now.

Abby Philip at the White House for us -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, John. The White House was supposed to be leaving this to the RNC, but President Trump unearthing some of his anger and frustration at James Comey this morning in a series of tweets.

This is really personal, John. Here's what the president wrote. "James Comey is a proven leaker and liar. Virtually everyone in Washington thought he should be fired for the terrible job he did until he was in fact fired. He leaked classified information for which he should be prosecuted. He lied to Congress under oath. He is a weak and untruthful slime ball who was, as time has proven, a terrible director of the FBI. His handling of the crooked Hillary Clinton case and the events surrounding it will go down as one of the worst botch jobs of history. It was my great honor to fire James Comey."

Now President Trump is being attacked not just on the issue of whether he is a liar or telling the truth or whether or not he cared about Russian interference, but also in personal terms. Comey talks about his physical appearance and that's something that we talk to -- Kellyanne Conway, the president's counselor, this morning about. She criticized Comey for going personal both on the president's appearance and on his marriage. And she was asked whether or not the president viewed this book as a betrayal. Here's what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: We find that Mr. Comey has a revisionist view of history and seems like a disgruntled ex- employee. After all he was fired. It's not as if he came to the conclusions that are in his book while he was on the job as FBI director in the presence and company of the president and said, you know, I just must resign. I can't deal with this anymore, I must resign.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PHILLIP: Well, Kellyanne also added that she was -- she talked to the president about this interview and that he was amazed that people like Comey can get away with saying things like this in books.

Now this is not the first book that has really characterized the president in such harsh terms. This is a White House that is trying to deal with a lot of incoming here, but the president is not leaving it to his aides. He has taken Comey on. And this weekend is not nearly over. Comey still has a lengthy interview that's going to be aired. The book hasn't even been released yet.

And the president plans to be here in Washington all weekend, even though there's all this other stuff going on with Syria. He's taking the time out to really fire back at someone who has been a kind of thorn in his side and in some ways giving this book even more of a publicity push in the days leading up to its public release -- John.

BERMAN: Abby Philip for us at the White House. The level of vitriol from both sides extraordinary what we are seeing this morning.

Joining me now, CNN law enforcement analyst, former FBI supervisory special agent Josh Campbell, and CNN political analysts Alex Burns and Molly Ball.

First, Molly, just big picture here, what have we seen over the last two hours, is there any way to describe it other than basically just total war?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, I think it is not too surprising that the president couldn't resist stepping into the fray here. Despite all the people around him who have told him to rise above, that is not his MO and it never has been. Creating a new epithet. You know, the RNC had tried to make "Lyin' Comey" a thing and the president taking that a step further with weak and untruthful slime ball. Again he's a master of vivid language, you might say.

But the -- what he's trying to do here is clear. He's trying to create exactly the narrative that we are talking about, that this is a personal fight between two guys who hate each other because that takes attention away from the merits of Comey's argument and from the substantive claims that Comey is making about the things that he says the president doesn't understand about the legal system, about the things he says the president has done wrong.

If the president can turn this instead into a boxing match, that's what the focus is.

BERMAN: Let me play a little bit more sound from James Comey. Again this is the very first time we've heard from him out loud about what is in this new book. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COMEY: I'm about to meet with a person who doesn't know me, has just been elected president of the United States. [09:10:06] By all accounts and from my watching him during the

campaign could be volatile, and I'm about to talk to him about allegations that he was involved with prostitutes in Moscow and that the Russians taped it and have leverage over him.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Was there any choice there? Why, if this was salacious and this particular part of the dossier unverified, still unverified, by the way?

COMEY: Yes. So far -- when I got fired it was unverified.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him that the Steele dossier had been financed by his political opponents?

COMEY: No. I didn't -- I didn't think I used the term Steele dossier, I just talked about additional material.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But did he have a right to know that?

COMEY: That it had been financed by his political opponents? I don't know the answer to that. It wasn't necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How graphic did you get?

COMEY: I think as graphic as I needed to be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All right, Josh Campbell here with us also. Molly made a really interesting point. What the president is trying to do now is create a fight between two men instead of focusing on the substantive points that James Comey was making.

What are in your mind the substantive points that James Comey is making here? Why is he saying the things he's saying?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think it's twofold. I mean, the first is that you're seeing someone finally being able to respond, who himself was the victim of a character assassination for a long time. And if you think about it, I mean, you simply have two different views here, two different styles. There are a lot of differences between Jim Comey and the president, a lot. One of them is how they choose to present themself.

I think if you take all the tweets that we've seen, I mean, you can probably fill many books. I think Jim Comey took a different tactic, and said I'm going to sit down and write a thoughtful piece that will walk the American people through the decisions I made and he's bringing that insight.

And it's also his opportunity as we would all expect when someone is, you know, lobbing, you know, untruths at us, to be able to come and say, well, this is my side of the story and then leave it up to the American people to decide who they believe. BERMAN: So, Alex Burns, Josh says it's a thoughtful piece from James

Comey. Now look, one thing is clear, James Comey writes very nicely, in vivid florid detail at times. But to be thoughtful, does he need to bring up things like the fact the president was shorter than he thought he might be? The president had smaller hands than he thought. He had white circles under his eyes as if he were in a tanning bed here.

It seems as if the former FBI director, the former deputy attorney general of the United States is going out of his way to poke and prod.

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, he certainly doesn't need to do that anymore than he needs to sort of reiterate the allegations in the Steele dossier about what might have happened in a Moscow hotel room in response to a question that already laid out the details of what is alleged to have happened.

He does it for whatever reason he personally finds that to be useful or satisfying or, you know, as a writer I guess you want to potentially give the benefit of the doubt that if it's useful to telling a story, if he thinks that it sort of brings the reader into that moment in the Oval Office or wherever else he was meeting with the president and sort of, you know, conjures the strange sensations that he as a clearly buttoned-up man might have had meeting with this very unusual new president, unusual by conventional standards.

But, you know, having said all of that, clearly he is not shying away from poking the president. Clearly he is not shying away from injecting stuff very prominently into the mainstream political debate that a lot of folks have stayed away from up to this point.

BERMAN: Speaking of which.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Let me play a little bit more sound from this interview this morning. Again what's most stunning I think is the way that the former FBI director chooses to address the salacious, unverified allegations. Again, this is how he's talking to George Stephanopoulos. The FBI director suggesting the president was obsessed with those salacious details in the dossier. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COMEY: Says he may want me to investigate it to prove that it didn't happen and then he says something that distracted me because he said, you know, if there's even a 1 percent chance my wife thinks that's true, that's terrible. And I remember thinking, how could your wife think there's a 1 percent chance you were with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow? And I said to him, sir -- when he started talking about I may order you to investigate that, I said, sir, that's up to you. But you want to be careful about that because it might create a narrative that we're investigating you personally. And second, it's very difficult to prove something didn't happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: Again, just, Josh, you can respond to that, again, to bring up the 99 percent versus 1 percent there and bring in Melania to this, that's a choice that the FBI director made.

CAMPBELL: That's right. And two points. I think the first is that what Comey is doing is, you know, bringing us inside and showing us his point of view. You know, we've talked long since the beginning of this administration about, you know, the destructions of norms, these long-held norms on which, you know, our country operated, it was based on, and how they have been destroyed. And what we're doing is him actually telling us and showing us.

[09:15:00]

One of the key norms being this difference and this differentiation between the Justice Department and politics.

This is a key example of the White House maybe not understanding that and saying we're going to use the FBI, America's premiere law enforcement agency, as an investigative tool to find out personal information and to appease a spouse.

Which I think the public has a right to know because that's not what the FBI is there for. Secondly, let me just say to this idea about some of the salacious details, and I haven't read the book.

I mean, obviously we don't know what percentage of this is of the entire -- what he's going to talk about, but I do know this about Jim Comey, and I've talked about this before. He is someone who I saw up close as someone whose leadership principles were focused on treating people with kindness and dignity, always kindness.

But he'd always say to that, you know, although you treat people with kindness, sometimes you'll come across bullies that confuse kindness for weakness and you will have to crush him. I think he's taking on a bully here that he perceives and he's telling a story.

BERMAN: One more point it want to make here, Molly, we're going to come back and talk about Russia in a little bit here. ABC News in addition to have this Comey interview also has a poll out this morning where it asks who do you believe more in general, James Comey, who is more credible, James Comey or the president? It's interesting, by 48 percent to 32 percent, the American people say James Comey.

BALL: Well, and I think that that is why -- that's not a huge number, right, 48 percent. That is not a majority of the American people. But it is higher than the president's number and so that's an early indication, and this is before this book has come out, before the media tour started.

But also, before this has been I think fully politicized before, you know, the president and the Republicans have had a chance to really make their case against James Comey, which we have seen start in earnest focusing on impugning his motives more than anything.

Not really focusing on the specific information that he presents and disproving it but focusing on his motives and trying to present him as compromised and unethical.

BERMAN: All right, guys, as I said, stick around. There is a lot more to discuss, a lot more to hear from James Comey himself.

Still to come, he lays out his conversation about Russian election meddling with the president, and how he was surprised by what the incoming president's team did not ask.

Plus, President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, could be minutes away from appearing in a New York courtroom. This is breaking news this morning. What is this hearing about, and were there recordings recovered by investigators from his home and offices?

And the U.N. Security Council meeting this morning on Syria as a U.S. ally says, there is serious evidence that chemical weapons were used.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:21:49]

BERMAN: We are following breaking news this morning. Fired former FBI Director James Comey telling ABC News about how President Trump and aides reacted after being told about Russian election interference. This was days before he took office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: President-elect Trump's first question was to confirm that it had no impact on the election and then the conversation to my surprise moved into a PR conversation about how the Trump team would position this and what they could say about this.

They actually started talking about drafting a press release with us still sitting there. The reason that was so striking to me is that that's just not done. That the intelligence community does intelligence, the White House does PR and spin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You also said you were struck by what they didn't ask.

COMEY: Very much. None one to my recollection asked, so what -- what's coming next from the Russians? How might we stop it? What's the future look like? It was all what can we say about what they did and how it affects the election that we just. -- just had.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All right. My panel is back with me now. There's some substance in that. not suggesting it's not substance the other stuff. The other stuff was salacious and perhaps sensitive. This is pure substance, Alex, for us to hear James Comey say that the incoming White House didn't care about Russian election meddling except insofar as it related to them politically is interesting.

BURNS: It absolutely is. It largely confirms what we've seen publicly, the president is not terribly concerned about the prospect of future Russian election meddling. That the administration has not been terribly forward leaning on that as a policy matter.

John, it further illustrates a dynamic that we've seen from Trump and heard from Trump's close associates that he is consumed with the Russia issue as a proxy for his own legitimacy as president.

That it's not just a matter of, you know, spinning an inconvenient story about the last campaign, of which there are many, but this is sort of the foundational question where the president feels that if Russia can be said to have tipped the scales in the election, then people will simply see him as an unworthy or illegitimate president.

BERMAN: You know, Josh, you were not in the room when that happened, but near the room per se. You were certainly close to the FBI director in a contemporaneous fashion as he was getting that reaction from the incoming White House. Was this something that alarmed you, alarmed law enforcement at the time?

CAMPBELL: Not just law enforcement, but the intelligence community in general. That was the subject of great discussion, great debate after that meeting is do we think that this incoming administration is going to take this issue as seriously as we have.

If you put yourselves in the shoes of the intelligence community and go back to the period of the election just before election day, there was this ferocious debate about what to do with the election interference by Russia, with the DNC hacking, with the hacking of, you know, for example, John Podesta's e-mails and Wikileaks.

And so, there's this debate that was going on and the decision was finally made we are going to call it out. That was seen as a win by the intelligence community to tell that to the American people, you know, with DHS and with the DNI.

But to then fast forward after this ferocious debate and the seriousness with which we were taking the issue and seeing the people now going to be in charge coming in and essentially dismissing it and not really being engaged, it was very troubling.

I think it set the stage for what we're seeing now is that, you know, we're how many days since the election and many people feel that there hasn't been the type of response that there should be.

[09:25:11] BERMAN: There have been now sanctions that have been ramped up and now there may be potential action in Syria, which is a whole different matter. Shifting gears a bit here, Molly, but it might be connected for all we know.

The president we understand might soon pardon Scooter Libby, Louis Libby, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney during the Bush administration, who was convicted on several counts of perjury and obstructing justice.

This was part of the investigation over leaked identities, Valerie Plame, was a CIA. It's ancient history and hard to remember. The interesting part to this, number one, James Comey was the one who appointed the special counsel there and oversaw this investigation when he was deputy attorney general.

Maybe is there a motive there? And the second part of this, is it possible the president is sending a message to folks who might be connected in this Russia investigation now by pardoning someone who was convicted in a past special counsel investigation?

BALL: It's certainly possible. I don't think we know. I don't know based on my reporting. This sort of came out of nowhere. It was an unexpected thing to do. And so, it is certainly possible that this is sort of a flourish by the president saying look at me, I'm the president, I can pardon people.

There may be other things behind it. This isn't something that the president seemed engaged with before. He's said so many negative things about the Bush administration in particular that to be doing something nice for a Bush administration figure who was caught up in one of the signature scandals there is also a very interesting move to me.

BERMAN: One of the big supporters of the Iraq war, which the president purports to have been against, despite some evidence to the contrary early on here.

CAMPBELL: Hey, John, can I point out one quick thing. We in law enforcement, you know, we are big believers in coincidence. But I also want to point out that, you know, I know it's still early, but I think over in the White House press shop they better start drinking their coffee because it's lost on no one, here we are you have the chief executive talking about Jim Comey as a liar and leaker while at the same time talking about pardoning one who's a proven liar and proven leaker. It's very interesting.

BERMAN: Yes. Coincidences and contradictions are a big part of politics now or the lack thereof in this case. Alex Burns, if we can shift back to the Comey book because it is interesting. There's a discussion about how much news was made on substance versus style here.

There may have been some news when it comes to the Clinton campaign and James Comey's views on Hillary Clinton. He admits in this book that his belief that Hillary Clinton was going to win may have colored his decisions.

Let me put up on the screen one quote here so we can read that, "It's entirely possible that because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restart of an investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in the polls, but I don't know." He will make zero people happy with that statement right there, I believe.

BURNS: It's sort of an epic rhetorical dance there, right, where he sorts of steps out of his own mind, holds it up to the light and says, gosh, I don't really know exactly what was in there but it's entirely possible.

I think the honest answer for virtually everybody who interacted with the 2016 election is they were operating in an environment where Hillary Clinton was correctly seen as having a very, very strong chance of being the next president.

You talk to other people in the Obama administration about how they handled the Russia issue, generally it was in the context of not wanting to be seen as intervening in a domestic election using the national security and intelligence apparatus when Hillary Clinton was likely to win anyway.

I think that it's sort of a moment of partial honesty and partial self-reflection from James Comey. I think we'll hear more of that from people when they write their memoirs 10 from 15 years from now with a little more distance from that election.

BERMAN: All right, Molly Ball, Alex Burns, Josh Campbell, thank you so much. I should note, we're going to speak to Robby Mook, who is the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, coming up. I'm very interested to see how he feels about that statement from James Comey.

Happening just a short while, a federal court hearing about the FBI raid of President Trump's personal lawyers. We just learned about this this morning. Court staff just told our Shimon Prokupecz, they expect that Michael Cohen will appear. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)