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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Firing Firestorm. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 10, 2017 - 16:30   ET




SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We've heard it for the last 11 months. There is no there there.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: There is no there there.

CNN's chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, joins me now.

Jim, you have spoken to a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are part of the investigations in the House and Senate side. Is Sarah Huckabee Sanders correct? Is there no there there?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No, they contradict her, Republicans and Democrats who are involved in the investigation today.

Contrary to assertions from both Huckabee Sanders, but President Trump himself, that this matter is closed, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN that possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians remain a subject of investigations by both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

The committee -- quote -- "is drawing no conclusions at this time and will continue to follow the facts where they lead." This is from the GOP Senator Richard Burr. He's the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he told CNN.

Such possible collusion is -- quote -- "the whole underlying premise of the investigation," a House Democratic source who is also involved in the investigation told CNN.

Another member of the Senate Intelligence Committee telling me that possible collusion is in fact what we are investigating.

Now, you will remember that, before he was fried, the FBI director, Comey, confirmed in his March testimony before the House Intelligence Committee that the bureau was investigating the possibility of such collusion. There are now four Hill committees, in addition to the FBI, who are investigating this question.

TAPPER: So, she's wrong. She says there is no there there, and the truth is, they don't know right now.

SCIUTTO: Ask -- don't ask me or you or our panel. Ask the Democrats and Republicans who are currently investigating this.


TAPPER: Looking into it.

SCIUTTO: And that's their answer.

TAPPER: And there was some concern that the committees were splitting along party lines. Are they still?

SCIUTTO: There are still concerns. I think we saw that evident in just the questions in the public hearings, where you have Republicans skewing to leaks, questions of unmasking, et cetera, Democrats skewing more to possible collusion, et cetera.

But these statements today, at least on the substance, the targeted investigation, give hope. And when I speak to members, they have that hope that they can pursue this in a bipartisan way.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

I'm joined now by my political roundtable. We got lots to talk about. Let's get right to it.

Let's start with Carl Bernstein.

A lot of people, Carl, have been comparing the firing of James Comey to President Nixon having independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox fired. I would say it's fair to call you something of a Watergate expert. Do you agree with that comparison?

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, there are some apt comparisons, in that, in both instances, the president of the United States did not want it known what had occurred in -- under his presidency or in his campaign, did not want a legitimate investigation into his own actions or those of his associates.

This is a very dangerous moment in the history of American democracy. A president of the United States for four months, since his inauguration, Donald Trump, has tried to undermine, obstruct, impede and demean an investigation into whether he or his aides colluded with a hostile foreign power.

We need to know whether or not that happened. If, as he says, it did not happen, let him open up his records and those of his associates, rather than the fire the man who is conducting the investigation and, from all accounts, is conducting a proper investigation, whatever his history, is the appropriate man to be conducting it.

Instead, once again, he has tried to cover up what is occurring here. And it's remains for Republicans particularly to say, we cannot stand for this. This democracy needs to know what happened. TAPPER: A.B., Attorney General Sessions, after it came out that he wasn't forthcoming about the conversations he had had with the Russian ambassador, said he recused from anything pertaining to any investigation of any of the campaigns, including the Russia investigation.

But he was involved in the firing of Comey and he is involved in selecting the man to replace Comey. Is that a contradiction of this claim of recusal?


But, as you heard from Sarah Huckabee Sanders today, they're going to put the spotlight on Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and his stellar, impeccable credentials and reputation, and really talk about his belief that Comey failed, both protocol and failed in his job, and couldn't execute that position or the investigations effectively.

She also made the argument today that the FBI does tons of other things. This Russia thing is a small piece of their mandate, and that that requires the attorney general to be involved in the selection of the next FBI director.

It is clear from the reaction on the Hill that they need to find one that is suitable to all Republicans and some Democrats, and not just be a buddy of Donald Trump's.

TAPPER: And, Bill, how credible do you take this claim from the White House that this happened because President Trump got the Rosenstein memo detailing how unfair Comey was to Hillary Clinton and was appalled and thus decided to pull the trigger and fire him?


BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I guess he's been thinking of firing him since he became president-elect, though, according to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

And, no, it's not really credible. Look, if he wanted to remove James Comey, there are ways to do it, privately call him, and say this isn't going to work, Attorney General Sessions do so, let him resign a month from now or whatever, have someone in place.

I think President Clinton fired the FBI director he inherited, Director Sessions, in 1993. There was a scandal, an I.G. investigation. And that was made public. President Clinton explained what he had done. He nominated Louis Freeh maybe the next day, I think.

And Republicans -- I remember this at the time -- were in a bit of a -- for like two hours, it was, gee, what is Clinton up to? And then it was, OK, this looks legit.

There's an I.G. investigation going on. There are ways to do this in an orderly way. The Republicans I have spoken with today are most spooked really by that, that just kind of impulsiveness and reckless and just lying that Donald Trump is happy to do and have people do on his behalf, as if none of it is ever going to catch up to them.

And I do think you think about, we're four months into this administration. Four years of this, is it tenable? I have really heard from senior Republicans for the first time say this to me today. What do we do about this?

TAPPER: It's exhausting. That's...


TAPPER: Don't go anywhere, everyone. Stay where you are. We got lots to talk about, including why the White House is closely monitoring Sarah Huckabee Sanders' performance from the podium this week. Stick around.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, continuing with politics now.

If you have watched the White House briefing in the last week, you may have noticed a somewhat new face at the podium. She's Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She's filing in for Sean Spicer, who is on Naval Reserve duty this week. It's a critical week for President Trump.

CNN's Sara Murray joins me now.

And, Sara, how closely is the White House and more specifically President Trump monitoring her performance?


My colleague Jim Acosta has done some reporting in today that notes that some of the high-ranking White House officials are paying close attention to how Sarah Huckabee Sanders does in this job. And we know this is the prime position to be in if you want to get the president's attention.

He watches Sean Spicer's briefings every day. You can bet he is watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders too. And there's no doubt that he's going to end up comparing them against each other.

TAPPER: And the White House not getting high marks for how they dealt with the communications disaster last night of the firing. They didn't think that it was going to be so much pushback.

Is it possible that Sean might be replaced?

MURRAY: Jake, when your press secretary is briefing reporters in between bushes in the middle of like a dark White House driveway, this is not a sign that you have had a successful day from a communications perspective.

(LAUGHTER) MURRAY: I don't think there is anyone from the White House today who is saying, oh, that rollout went really well. This is the best way we could have dealt with this.

The reality is that President Trump kept this very closely held. He pulled the trigger on it. And he left a number of his communications aides essentially scrambling to figure out how they were going to explain it. It did not go well.

Of course, there is speculation within the White House that this could be an indication, the fact that Spicer is gone now in these pivotal days, not speaking from the podium, that he is being benched. Other White House officials have pushed back on that.

But it's telling. Whenever you talk to anyone in the White House, nobody ever feels like they are on entirely firm ground in their position there. They always say, I serve at the pleasure of the president. And there is a reason for that. And, of course, James Comey learned that yesterday.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.

My political roundtable is back with me.

A.B., let me start with you. Are we seeing an audition in real time, you think?

STODDARD: Well, I do think she -- they sent her out on Sunday shows a while ago. She did well. She's very articulate and she's unflappable. So, those are two qualities that Trump wants to see.

But I really always feel sorry for -- whenever there's replacement talk, I feel sorry for the staff of the West Wing, because the chaos and the mayhem starts at the top. There's no one that can stop what happened yesterday. Trump absolutely believed there wouldn't be any pushback and the Democrats would like his firing of James Comey.

He completely misread it. No one was on TV -- this was the line out of the White House -- for three hours defending his decision. And then he watched cable news and became very incensed that they failed to respond in the proper way. Then he sends three people out on TV to message it.

This is not something that the White House press staff can really control. This free flow of falsehoods and all of this inconsistency starts with the top and flows downward. And so in a way, it will happen to Sarah Huckabee Sanders just like it's happened to Sean Spicer if she ends up with that job. She will be at the podium and she will be dealing with the same kind of chaos that everyone else has been dealing with.

KRISTOL: A.B. is so much nicer than I am. She feels sorry for the White House staff.

I don't really feel sorry for them. They are defending the indefensible and doing so in ways that are damaging their own reputations. And they should know about it and they should be held accountable.

There are some things you defend, policy choices you don't agree with and you go out and you try to make the best case for it. That's very different from what they are now defending.

And also they are showing themselves incapable of talking sense into their boss, which I think is worrisome. If you had told me three months ago -- God knows I wasn't a Trump supporter, but Mike Pence, and Reince Priebus, maybe Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump, others might be able to tell him, Mr. President, at least give us 48 hours here to lay the groundwork this for this, let's make sure we've done this in a proper way, let's call him privately and see if he wants to resign, just the obvious things you do if you're a staff to try to protect your boss, he seems to be utterly ignoring them or they won't speak up to him.

I don't know what it is. But that's dangerous. You have a president who is himself reckless, irresponsible, not very prepared for the job, I would say. And now the staff, some of whom you would have thought would know better, seem incapable of doing anything and unwilling to really do much to stop him.

TAPPER: Carl Bernstein, one of the strange optics of this firing of Comey during this Russia investigation was that President Trump earlier today met with both the Russian ambassador, Kislyak, who has been a key player in all this talk of espionage and the like, as well as the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

Lavrov, in fact, was asked by reporters about the firing of Comey. Take a listen to his reaction.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does the Comey firing would cast a shadow over the talks here

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Was he fired? You're kidding, you're kidding.


TAPPER: That's Sergey Lavrov making a little joke there, you're kidding, you're kidding alongside Secretary of State Tillerson. Here's Vladimir Putin ringside at a hockey game, asked about the effects on U.S.-Russia relations. Take a listen.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): There will be no effect. Your question looks very funny for me. Don't be angry with me. We have nothing to do that. President Trump is acting in accordance with his competence in accordance with his law and Constitution.


TAPPER: Carl, the Russians seem to find this all terribly amusing.

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the terrible thing that's happened here is that the entire United States Intelligence Community is convinced that the Russians have destabilized American democracy are trying to do the same thing in Western Europe have undermined our own democratic processes and with a President of the United States who has made it very clear he does not give a damn, and so as Bill Kristol is saying, there's reason to question the stability of this Presidency and the way it is being conducted and also the fact that its hallmark, its most basic emblematic act is that of lying, obfuscation, and rejection of transparency and orderly process. We have never been in a Presidency like this, and that's what the Comey firing is about. It is about something that should deeply concern republicans, the heroes of Watergate, where republicans who did not want to see a President of United States abuse constitutional process, here we now have instead of a republican senator saying what did the President said -- know and when did he know it as Senator Howard Baker said in the Watergate investigation, we now have Mitch McConnell the Senate Leader essentially saying we'll pretty much go along with anything here as long has it keeps bottled up. That's the meaning of his actions and the words are not so important. So we have a situation here that really is a great danger to this country.

TAPPER: And Bill, very quickly, if you could. You talk to republicans on the Hill. Are they worried?

BILL KRISTOL, THE WEEKLY STANDARD EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes, and I think today for the first a couple said to me, you know, we put out some of these are the ones more skeptical of President Trump. They put out statements saying I'm concerned, I'm unhappy, but what do they do? And there are some things you can imagine them doing in a bipartisan way. Some democrats are saying, we just not going to go ahead with confirming your nominees, Mr. President, until you appoint an FBI Director that has bipartisan support. Unless -- until you agree to come clean on certain things and cooperate with the investigations. I think they're moving a little bit beyond, some of them -- some of them being worried and concerned to thinking, we are elected officials here of the United States Senators, Constitutional Officers, what do we do about this?

TAPPER: Indeed, Carl, Bill, A.B., thanks one and all. Appreciate it. Our next guest is with the FBI for years and worked directly with James Comey. His take on the firing next.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're going to continue with politics and the abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump. Apparently, the bureau is still processing the news. It still has Comey's term as present on its leadership page. Same thing on history page where the FBI lists its Directors, then and now. Let's bring in Ernie Babcock, he was an FBI Deputy General Counsel who worked closely with Comey for three years, he retired in December. Good to see you. A source close to Comey tells me that Comey was fired because Comey refused to pledge any sort of personal allegiance to Trump and also because the Russia investigation was accelerating. Why do you think Comey was fired?

ERNIE BABCOCK, FBI FORMER DEPUTY GENERAL COUNSEL: Unfortunately, I think he was fired because he was standing up for the things that he believed in which, unfortunately, were not the same things that our current President believes in.

TAPPER: Such as what?

BABCOCK: Well, the FBI, as what you know, stands for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It also stands for Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity. And Mr. Comey epitomized each of those things and by taking the stance he did with respect to the Clinton e-mails, he held up that integrity even on an unpopular situation when he was forced to make that decision because of the actions of the Attorney General and President Clinton.

TAPPER: Do you think President Trump fired Comey because of his actions during the Clinton investigation, or do you think that that's just an excuse for firing him because he is going forward and accelerating the Russia investigation?

BABCOCK: I would go with the latter. It seems to me if what Director Comey had done with regard to those e-mails was egregious, that President Obama would have stepped up and fired him. Clearly, he did not do that.

TAPPER: In his memo Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein wrote, quote, "Over the past year, however, the FBI's reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage and has affected the entire department of justice." You worked at the FBI for three years. Do you agree?

BABCOCK: I do note agree with that at all. I think during the period of time that Director Comey has been there, he has built on the fine work done by prior Director Muller. He has created an atmosphere of integrity and transparency, and, unfortunately, being transparent is now becoming a political football and one side or the other will not be happy if you actually do your job.

TAPPER: How was morale at the FBI under Comey when you were there?

BABCOCK: It was outstanding. Jim Comey is an inclusive leader. He would not make and did not make critical decisions on his own as some other leaders do. He brought the senior staff together on a regular basis and included them in making any of the difficult decisions.

TAPPER: What would you say to the public that might be concerned that with Comey fired and with a new director coming in maybe the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump team and Russia might be hampered or maybe the investigation might even be ended by the new director?

BABCOCK: Well, unfortunately, we don't know who the nominee might be, but I can assure you, Jake, and the American public that the FBI is currently in good hands. Acting Director Andy McCabe is a consummate professional with a great reputation, and he is backed up by Dave Bowdich. These are both career agents who have the same integrity and bravery as Director Comey.

TAPPER: And President Trump's firing letter to Comey, he said that Comey informed him on three separate occasions that he wasn't under investigation. That seems like an odd thing for an FBI Director to tell anybody given that you wouldn't know where the investigation would lead. Are you skeptical of that?

BABCOCK: I was not privy to any of those conversations, and I must say that would seem out of character for the director to have done that.

TAPPER: Do you agree, it sounds like you I don't, but I just want to make sure I understand this. Do you agree with Rosenstein's desertion that Comey made grievous mistakes in the Clinton investigation?

BABCOCK: I absolutely disagree. That was a complete and thorough investigation and it was handled professionally and it was handled objectively. There was absolutely no political influence with regard to the investigation and, unfortunately, because of the decision made by the Attorney General and President Clinton to have a private meeting, Mr. Comey had absolutely no choice in fulfilling his role to the American public other than announcing the result of that investigation.

TAPPER: And we now know that there were subpoenas issued in this investigation, apparently having to do with business records and Michael Flynn. For those of us who wonder what that means, what does it mean, anything necessarily?

BABCOCK: It is actually business as usual. That is the type of thorough investigation that is conducted by the FBI, and, again, usually that is not done in the public forum, but we have some certain circumstances here that have changed that.

TAPPER: Ernie Babcock, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

BABCOCK: Thank you. A pleasure to be on TV

TAPPER: Also, in politics today, a West Virginia reporter says he was arrested for asking members of the Trump administration questions. Dan Heyman of the Public News Service as he repeatedly asking Health and Human Services Tom Price whether domestic violence is considered a pre-existing condition under the new health care bill. The incident took place in a hallway as Price and Senior White House Advisers Kellyanne Conway arrived at the West Virginia State Capitol building. Here is Heyman's account.


DAN HEYMAN, PUBLIC NEWS SERVICE: I was recording audio on my phone, and I reached it out to him, past his staffers and the other people who were with him and I asked him the question repeatedly and he did not answer. At some point, I think they decided I was just too persistent in asking this question and trying to do my job and so they arrested me. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: According to Heyman, the Secret Service signaled the Capitol Police to remove him. Heyman also says he was wearing his press pass at the time when he told police he was a Journalist. The police report alleges that Heyman was quote"aggressively breaching Secret Service Agents and that he was causing a disturbance. Heyman was charged with will full disruption of governmental processes and posted a $5,000 bond.

Now, to the cold reception for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos today at Bethune-Cookman University.




TAPPER: DeVos gave the commencement address at the historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida. As soon as she started speaking, some student stood up and turned their backs on her. Others booed and tried to drown her out. The rowdy crowd settled enough for DeVos to speak eventually for 20 minutes after warnings from the University President. Many attendees were protesting her statement in February when she said Historically Black Colleges and University founders were the real pioneers of school choice or alternative to public schools in reality of course. Many HBCU were founded in the wake of Jim Crow Laws when black students could not attend predominantly white institutions. Devos later tried to walk back her comments but the backlash obviously continues. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. I'll see you again at 11:00 p.m. tonight for CNN special report on the fallout from James Comey's firing. Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer, thanks for watching.