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Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Probe. Aired 12-1a ET
Aired May 17, 2017 - 00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[00:00:00] KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: And I also think it continues to present them a challenge given that their most ardent allies up on Capitol Hill have also expressed the fact that they are -- that they are troubled by a development like this. And they want more -- they want more information about it.
So we can be assured that there will be more news coming on this in the coming days and weeks.
DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Stand by, everyone. I just need to reset. It's the top of the hour. And you're watching breaking news.
Again, our breaking news that's first reported by the "New York Times" and then CNN also corroborating the reporting that James Comey, the fired FBI director, wrote a memo saying that Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation after they had a meeting right after Flynn was fired.
I'm with my panel now: Kevin Madden, Ana Navarro and Jason Miller. Ana -- I want to get your response now. Jason says it's preposterous. Kevin said, you know, it's not out of the realm of possibility especially when you have someone who is a career person like James Comey who would take notes on matters such as these.
ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think this is, frankly, at this point, very, very serious. It's sobering. It's scary. I just came out of the annual dinner of the institute of -- the IRI, International Republican Institute where John McCain was being honored. And he talked about this now being at a point where it is at the scale and size of Watergate.
It is the first time that I hear an elected Republican official use those words. There were four or five other senators in the audience. There were Congress people in the audience. I spoke to some of them and without an exception, each one of them told me just how tiring, how exhausting, how taxing, how distracting this has become.
I think it's reached the point where even Republicans who wanted to give Trump a chance, who wanted to give him the time to find his sea legs, to get his bearings are coming to the conclusion that this goes beyond finding your bearings. This goes to having no moral compass and they cannot be complicit in this.
So I think what you're seeing is you're reaching a point where more and more Republicans are coming to the table and saying we cannot continue to pretend to be deaf, blind and dumb.
LEMON: Jason, you know, Ana is asking part of my question because a senior White House GOP aide is telling CNN the time has finally come for Republicans to distance themselves politically from Trump. But, you know, on the question of impeachment, right, which some people have bandied about, this aide said quote, "gross incompetence is not an impeachable offense". Is this President competent to lead?
JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Of course President Trump is ready to lead, and I think he's done a good job when he's focused primarily on the issues that he ran on. When you talk about taxes, talk about trade, talk about immigration, talk about knocking the hell out of ISIS. I mean those are the core principles that he ran on during the campaign.
And if he wants to get Capitol Hill Republicans back on board, and quite frankly even Capitol Hill Democrats, he's got to get back to those issues. I think --
LEMON: So are you admitting that some people -- that he is losing support among some of his core groups and some of his core supporters?
MILLER: I think some of the supporters on Capitol Hill are frustrated, definitely. And I think one of the things that the administration is starting to realize is that this group of administrative state bureaucrats, these holdovers who plan on being here long after President Trump is in office really are the ones who are leaking illegally a lot of this information.
The administration can't spend as much time worrying about what they are saying. They have to get out there and drive their message.
LEMON: Kevin, it seems you're agreeing. But House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell have basically stayed away from these multiple controversies that's plaguing this White House, basically putting out these sort of vague statements about -- well, we have to get to the bottom of the truth. We have to see.
Do you think that they're going to stick by this president?
MADDEN: Well look, I think there's a lot of truth in what Jason said. The President ran on a very different issue set and he's getting, you know, pulled into this.
But let's remember, this was a self-inflicted controversy. He went and fired the FBI director and started a lot of this. But as far as Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan, look they have an important duty not only to the party but to the institutions that they lead. So I think they are going to work with their members, the members of the House and the members of the Senate to fulfill the duties that they have with getting more information about this.
But, clearly, they also want to get back on the agenda that's more focused, like Jason said, on taxes, on health care, on things related to the economy that their voters care most strongly about. LEMON: Ana -- I'll give you the last word because you said you were
in a Republican event tonight. You seriously believe this is a turning point for Republicans?
NAVARRO: I do.
LEMON: And for this presidency?
NAVARRO: I do. Because listen, is there anybody out there who thinks this is the end of it? As John McCain keeps saying, this is a centipede and more shoes will continue to drop. This is a ball of yarn which continues to unravel.
[00:05:03] We have not heard the end of what went on with Michael Flynn. We have not heard the end of what happened with James Comey. He is going to have to testify probably in public.
Lindsey Graham -- Senator Lindsey Graham told me he was going to invite him to testify in front of the Judiciary Committee in public and he's going to have to answer the question that Jason brought up -- why didn't he do something at the moment that this happened? But he's also going to have to tell the truth about this.
Look, I don't know if it's going to be a special prosecutor, a select committee, an independent commission. I don't know if it's going to be the intelligence committees that are doing it right now, but at the end of the day, it is very hard in a country like America where there is a free press, where there is -- there are law enforcement officials who are loyal to the constitution and to the country to keep things hidden.
So this is going to come out one way or the other. And my advice to Republicans is get it out. Let's get it all out now for the good of the country, the good of the party, the good of the agenda and even the good of this president.
LEMON: Yes. Thank you all. I have to say, when I'm watching this White House sometimes, especially the briefings, I often wonder if this administration has forgotten that they are public servants. That they actually work for the American people, and not the other way around.
Thank you all. Appreciate it.
Want to get everybody up to speed now on the latest breaking news here tonight on CNN. This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon.
Mark Preston is here, Pamela Brown is here, Maeve Reston and also Brian Stelter. I'm going to begin with Pam -- with Pamela because she has been working her sources. She broke some of this news. What are you learning about this Comey memo -- Pamela? Do you know any more that we are learning tonight?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning that when Director Comey, former Director Comey I should say, met with President Trump in February in the Oval Office he was appalled, according to my source, by this request from President Trump, this alleged request, for him to end the probe into Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.
At the time during this meeting the President allegedly said to Director Comey at the time, why don't you let it go -- something to that effect. And so what Comey wanted to do is memorialize that. He felt like it was momentous and he wanted to write it down quickly before his memory faded.
And this was not the only time. I'm told through my source I've been speak with that he would often memorialize the conversations -- the one-on-one conversations he would have with President Trump.
And I want to read this quote from a source familiar with this matter in terms of why he felt it was important to write these memos. A source says there's no need to document the conversations with people who are truthful or situations that are routine. It's when you have situations that are not routine and people who are not truthful you would write a memo to file.
So in this case and other cases he felt it was important to file. And I want to note it wasn't just specific instances. He would try to grasp everything that happened in the conversations and put it in the memo to share with friends in his close circle and perhaps down the road the expectation, Don, is that Congress will subpoena these memos.
LEMON: Document, document, document.
Maeve Reston -- I have to ask you. The chairman of the House Oversight Committee Jason Chaffetz released this letter to the FBI requesting that Comey, the Comey documents. So how do you see this playing out?
MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: well, I mean this is -- this is an extraordinary letter, an extraordinary step. I think that, you know, what happened today is that we started to see, and even yesterday a bit after it was disclosed that Trump had disclosed this classified information in the meeting with Russian officials. There's a different tone in Washington, particularly among Republicans.
There is so much frustration and fatigue on the part of Republicans at this point. And I think that you're really starting to see people back off and wait. I mean it was kind of like crickets tonight, you know, calling Republicans in Washington a lot of people not wanting to answer their phone and when they did answer their phone saying, you know, I just don't know what to say right now. We don't know enough.
There's a feeling that this is a much heavier, weightier issue and that they now, you know, potentially are facing -- certainly will be facing calls for impeachment by the Democrats and potentially another circus that distracts from their agenda and lessens their chances of holding on to the House in the future.
LEMON: Brian Stelter -- let me ask you. Is this going to be -- remember we were here discussing the night you broke the Access Hollywood tapes?
BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Right.
LEMON: I remember saying to you -- you heard Maeve say this feels much weightier, much more substantive. Is this going to be like that, where it's a big uproar and then --
STELTER: This has been a one-two punch, hasn't it? The "Washington Post" story, then the "New York Times" story, 24 hours. Now we're seven hours into this latest story and I think people are probably just now catching up to it, realizing the gravity of it.
And as Maeve was just saying it's silent night at the White House. No tweets from the President. No on-camera interviews from his aides. No statements from aides. We just have that one vague denial that Jason Miller was referencing a few minutes ago.
[00:10:04] But how much credibility really does this White House have left? How much is that denial really worth at this point?
I think our viewers ultimately decide that more than any of us do. The night of the Access Hollywood tape here on this set at midnight, that's when Donald Trump released a statement on camera.
I wonder if we're going to hear from him tomorrow in some sort of setting or something like that. But right now there's nothing on his Twitter feed. He seems -- it's almost too quiet. I don't know about you guys. It almost feels too quiet right now. And this crisis of credibility does deepen by the day.
LEMON: I have to ask you -- you have to be careful who you fire -- I should say careful who you mess with -- Mark Preston. Did he mess with the wrong person -- the President?
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Did he mess with the wrong people?
STELTER: Comey's revenge?
PRESTON: I mean listen, when you go after the intelligence community during the campaign and then in your first couple of weeks in office and then you go after the law enforcement community, specifically someone like James Comey who, look, had his problems and certainly has his issues and has his critics specifically from -- on the Democratic side of the aisle, but is by and large considered a boy scout, that becomes a problem.
And I've got to tell you Don, certainly here in Washington, we are -- what is true is that we do all live amongst each other, whether you are a civil servant or a politician or a strategist or in the media. We kind of all live in the same neighborhoods.
But when you start talking to people that are in some of these communities that are connected through the White House there is a level of dissatisfaction and frustration with how he is handling things right now. But I do think one thing that was said was really, really important tonight, Don, and we saw it just about an hour ago, a little over an hour ago on our air when we had the Ohio Governor John Kasich come on the air. And as a Republican and certainly as a conservative Republican, came on and he said it's not time for Republicans to hide and it's not time for Democrats to exploit.
And I think that's extremely important to highlight because at this time in our nation's history it's not about being a Democrat or Republican or an Independent. It's about being American. I think that we need a little bit more of that from our lawmakers here in D.C.
LEMON: So Pamela, I've heard from the investigators, the seasoned investigators and legal people that I had on that James Comey did the right thing by memorializing as you say or documenting this incident and not coming forward. So the question that people are asking, why didn't James Comey tell anybody beyond a couple of associates if he felt the President was trying to interfere in the investigation. But even someone who came on and supported the President tonight said that's exactly what he was supposed to do.
BROWN: So that's a good question and we've been asking our sources, my colleague Jake Tapper also was talking to his source about this. And we've been given a couple of answers.
First off, as one person said, what was his obligation to do so? And the source told Jake Tapper that essentially he felt like he was making inroads with the White House and in improving communication and essentially he didn't want to stir the pot and he felt like he'd push back enough in the media to make clear that he believed it was inappropriate to ask that. And so felt like he didn't need to take any other steps.
Now the big question though is, Don, for me if he believed that this could be obstruction of justice as we keep hearing legal analysts say that this could be, did he take any steps internally within the Justice Department to flag it? That is still unclear.
LEMON: Interesting. And maybe he thought at this point it would sort of hinder the investigation. I don't know -- I'm just speculating. Hinder the investigation if he added this part to it, too and maybe there's much more or something else, as you say.
But Maeve I have to -- let's talk about the politics of this, right? How much of this is about the investigation and how much of this is about Republicans gauging whether they're going to take a beating in 2018 in the midterms?
RESTON: Well, I think that what we're learning today is troubling on an entirely different level for a lot of Republicans. But certainly that has been the concerns about 2018 and 2020.
LEMON: You think they are sitting at home watching the news, Maeve -- pardon the interruption -- do you think they are sitting at home saying, how much longer can I put up with this? How much more do I have to sort hold my nose and deal with what's happening? Do you think that's a big thing that they're weighing right now? This is that big for them?
RESTON: I think that that has been the discussion now for weeks -- you know, many weeks and months. You know, Donald Trump has survived every controversy that he's created.
LEMON: But part of the reason he's survived any controversy is because they are behind him.
RESTON: They stand with him, right.
LEMON: Right. Right.
RESTON: But I think that, you know, there's a feeling that this week in particular we're talking about something different. We are talking about revelation of classified information that potentially puts lives at risk. We are talking about potentially obstruction of justice.
That is a different conversation than, you know, controversial tweets or even the Access Hollywood tape. You know, I just think that it's a different level now.
[00:15:07] STELTER: And what is there that we haven't heard yet? What else is in these memos we haven't seen?
LEMON: That's what Pamela --
STELTER: What else could have been said in the Oval Office that we haven't heard? I suspect there's so much we don't know that reporters are trying to dig up that we might hear about in the days to come. And whether you call it leaks, whether you call it whistle blowing -- there's a lot of people right now seemingly wanting to share.
LEMON: Let Pamela respond to this and then I have another question for you -- Brian. Go ahead.
BROWN: Right. I was going to say there certainly are more memos because as we were told tonight he did document every one on one conversation he had with President Trump. And I'm told there are more memos, more interesting things that were in the memos that have not become public yet. So we'll have to wait and see what happens.
LEMON: Ok. Brian -- this is the "New York Times" who first reported this story included something that really stood out to me. And I'm going to put it up on the screen. It said, "Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began a discussion by condemning leaks to the news media saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information -- that's according to one of Mr. Comey's associates.
STELTER: Putting reporters in prison. Yes, I understand. I'm feeling speechless about it. If he were to go forward on this --
LEMON: That (inaudible) to you as well, right.
STELTER: This is just one source saying this. The White House has not commented. Our colleague Jim Acosta was just pointing out, the White House pointedly not denying this part of the story; not confirming or denying it. But if this source is correct that the President was at least talking about wanting to lock up reporters for reporting classified information, that would be a dark new chapter in these anti-media attacks.
Normally past administrations have prosecuted leakers but not the reporters who have been given the information. I think this shows the President's anger and his paranoia. He's unable to stop these whistleblowers or these leakers from speaking out.
LEMON: We see this with autocracies and with dictators, Mark Preston, wanting to lock up reporters for doing what --
PRESTON: Well, if they locked us up, we wouldn't be working the amount of hours that we're working now -- Don.
LEMON: No. But here's the interesting part. I would like you to respond to this -- Mark because as I watch this administration sometimes come out to respond and as I watch these press briefings, I often wonder -- I'd wonder, I said do these people and especially the President, do they realize that they are public servants. That they work for the American people and not the other way around? It is a privilege that they have been allowed to be in those positions from the American people.
PRESTON: All right. So a couple of things. One is -- and this is from a very high-ranking Republican that has been around this town for a very long time talking to that point.
This person says to me literally just a few hours ago, the President does not understand the gravity and the seriousness of his job. What he has done is that he has forced many of his aides, and I would say most of his aides quite frankly, has put them into very bad positions to have to go out and try to defend him.
In many ways, when you get the back story on this, they feel like they have to be there because they feel like they have to try to keep the train from entirely going off the tracks. And they, in fact, go out and then become the pinata for the press, as they should be, because they put themselves in that position.
But to Donald Trump, to the point of, is he a public servant? Does he think that he is? I can't get inside his mind but I would go out on a limb and say I don't think so. And the reason why I say that is that he keeps on pointing to the electoral victories that he has made. He almost acts like he's a king, like that he was bethroned (ph) this to go on and --
LEMON: That's to my point.
PRESTON: -- become president of the United States.
PRESTON: That in itself is very dangerous. LEMON: He's not a monarch and he's not a CEO of a company that the American people work for him. He is the public servant. And again, to your point, the fish rots from the head and that's what's happening in Washington.
When we come right back now, more on our breaking news.
Was this obstruction of justice, and what happens next?
[00:18:47] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
LEMON: (inaudible) now from tonight's breaking news -- reports the President asked FBI Director James Comey -- the former FBI director, James Comey -- to close the Michael Flynn investigation.
Let's discuss now with former Democratic Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman who was a member of the Judiciary Committee during Watergate; also Stuart Kaplan is here, a former FBI agent; and Michael Moore, former U.S. attorney for the middle district of Georgia.
Thank you all for coming on.
I have to start with you Miss Holtzman because getting this information, CNN confirming now the FBI director James Comey wrote this memo saying that the President basically told him, you know, back off in, I guess, no uncertain terms. Is this a clear sign, you say of obstruction? Do you believe that?
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN, FORMER DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSWOMAN: Well, I was never a federal prosecutor, so I'm not as familiar with the federal statute as possibly I should be. But he is -- there's no question he was trying to stop the investigation. In fact, one of the things that he said to Comey according to the memo is, "I know that Flynn did nothing wrong".
LEMON: Yes. He's a good guy.
HOLTZMAN: Not just that he's a good guy but he did nothing wrong. How is he going to know that?
HOLTZMAN: And so he's vouching for him. He tried to stop the investigation. And that's what we saw in Watergate. That was one of the very first things that we saw in terms of the cover-up was Richard Nixon trying to get the FBI investigation stopped but he didn't directly talk to the CIA. He had his chief of staff tell the CIA to get the FBI to stop the investigation. And then he fired the special prosecutor for going ahead.
So we have too many resonances of Watergate. Too many echoes.
LEMON: Here's what he said. He said, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Mr. Trump told Comey according to the memo.
LEMON: "He's a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
LEMON: Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey that Mr. Flynn had done nothing wrong, according to the memo. And Mr. Comey did not say anything, he said -- replying saying, "I agree, he's a good guy."
So you're said, he said I believe that he didn't do anything wrong. So if this is -- you say it's an impeachable offense and --
[00:24:59] HOLTZMAN: It could be. It certainly falls within what we found to be an impeachable offense with Richard Nixon trying to stop an FBI -- trying to stop an FBI investigation and abusing his power by firing the special prosecutor.
LEMON: So what should Washington be doing right now if you were --
HOLTZMAN: Well, what worked in Watergate in terms of -- which ultimately, by bringing the processes of justice to work, brought the country together. First you have to have a special prosecutor. This investigation, there are elements now of possible criminality by the President. We need to have a special prosecutor -- independent investigation by an unquestionably honest and impartial person. That has to happen. That's the first thing. And a new director of the FBI, who is also impartial.
LEMON: Michael. Michael -- I want to bring you in now because many people are wondering why Jim Comey didn't report this to Congress at the time. Do you think the fact that he kept this memo private until now diminishes his credibility?
MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: You know, I really don't -- Don. I think probably it just goes to show that he intended to protect the investigation. He felt like that he could document what happened at the time. That would not be uncommon for a law enforcement officer to do that in an investigation.
And, really, I think you'd have to look at the memo and give it a great deal of credibility. If it says what everybody says it says, you know, a lot of times there's sort of a premise in the law that a writing made contemporaneously with an event is given great weight because it would be more likely that your recollection was accusation -- closer to "The Times" (inaudible) this conversation with Trump.
So I don't find it unusual that he wouldn't have reported. I think that he documented it so that it would be there in the record. He'll have a complete FBI file. I think he's careful that way -- apparently it's not the only memo that's out there.
And it's -- it may, in fact, ultimately be sort of the straw that breaks the camel's back. I think that's the way it looks like it's moving at least at this point.
LEMON: But who would he talk to about this because Sessions recused himself or anything to do with this Russia investigation. Who would he -- and why would he bring it up before Congress? I mean if Congress said did you have any memos or any meetings with the President maybe he would have disclosed it then but would he bring this up on his own? To whom?
MOORE: You know, I don't know that he would have necessarily brought it up to anybody in a congressional hearing unless it was subpoenaed or he was asked about it directly under oath.
But the way these federal investigators work is they paper a file ad nauseam. They document every conversation. They document every action they took. They document every piece of evidence they've touched. And that file goes to create an investigative base that they then operate off of. And ultimately that's presented to a prosecutor.
And so I do agree with the former congresswoman that -- and I've said this about a half dozen times on your show -- and that is that we need a special prosecutor. We need an independent investigation in the case.
And ultimately that person, whoever it is, would get access to that investigative file if they want to have it. And they would see in there a memo of the President of the United States who is the employer of Comey leaning on him saying, hey, you know, I want you to back off my man Flynn.
And there's just sort of a general rule, too, that we think that people in positions of power have the ability -- or positions of authority have the ability to exert more influence on the people that they supervise or are in charge of. That's what you have in cases where you have prison guards. They may have a deal cut with the prisoner but we don't let prison guards have relations with prisoners because they're an authority over them. We say they don't have the ability to consent in there.
We do the same thing with teachers and students, and other relations like that. Well, this is an employer, the CEO, over an employee of his, who, according to Trump at least, wanted to stay on in that role.
LEMON: Yes. And then Comey saying that he felt that in that conversation, in that meeting that he was trying to get him to back off the investigation when it comes to Flynn or when it came to Flynn.
So Stuart, this is President Trump's word against Comey's word. And if there are, in fact, memos and if there are tapes, I mean they have now been requested by the House Oversight Committee led by Congressman Jason Chaffetz. In his letter he said it requires them to be turned over by May 24th, which is next Wednesday. So what happens then?
STUART KAPLAN, FORMER FBI AGENT: Well, Don -- you know, first of all, let me just suggest, not in theory, in the real world, the FBI operates memos and files all the time as your guest was just referring to. We either document indirect contact or communications that are not necessarily evidentiary.
Evidentiary contact, collecting of evidence or interviewing potential witnesses -- those go into what's called an FD-302. If there is an open investigation, an active investigation, I will submit that I think the FBI is going to claim a privilege and not be in a position to turn over any of those documents at this point for the obvious reason that it clearly will interfere with the ongoing efforts to, in fact, establish whether or not a crime has been committed and whether or not it is chargeable.
[00:30:07] I think there's also something --
LEMON: So you don't think that the oversight committee will get any of these memos?
KAPLAN: Not at this point. If there's an ongoing investigation, it clearly if it is made public and keep in mind a charge, if, in fact, it is a chargeable offense, will have to be presented to a grand jury. And, obviously, it would taint any potential prosecution at this point to disclose those documents.
MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA: There's a question -- there would be a question, I think, whether or not the president could actually be indicted during his term in office. So the question then of an impeachable offense is something else and ultimately, I think, that's a decision that Congress would make. And it may be necessary for them to review some of the documents there. I don't know that he could be indicted as a sitting president at this point.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN, WATERGATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE MEMBER: Well, that's something that I'm not sure I agree with because I think we have really only one prosecutor saying that that was the case. That was Leon Jaworski. And he's the only one who ever made that decision. I'm not sure that if we really research that, that it would hold up.
LEMON: What do you want to say, Stuart?
KAPLAN: Don, let me also comment because I have been speaking to some of my former colleagues. And one of the rumblings that has been the fallout today is keep in mind that the director in connection with these type of investigations hand select those agents to conduct this type of measured investigation just because of the high-profile nature and just because of the potential issues that, obviously, we are discussing. I mean, just with the ramifications.
What the fallout today is, people are very concerned within the FBI because these are hand selected agents who would have had access to this memo, if in fact, the memo was sent to the file which is normally the course of what happens when you prepare a memo. It's sent to the file, but it's on a need-to-know basis.
So the only individuals that would have access to that file would be these hand-selected agents. And absent Comey himself leaking this memo, one of the concerns that is being discussed within the FBI is who may have gotten access to this memo and who may have released it to "The New York Times."
And that is of great concern because that is eroding the confidence within the FBI as to who can be trusted and who cannot be trusted.
LEMON: There's also been said that confidence was eroded within the FBI because of the administration they thought that they were going beyond the scope and that's why things were actually being leaked out. That they were doing it on purpose because they didn't agree with the administration's way of doing things as well.
KAPLAN: Well, that -- and that's a fair comment. I will just tell you from the men and women that I've spoken to, one of the things you have to keep in mind is the FBI can collect all the evidence in the world and have a great case to present to a prosecutor. But at the end of the day, the attorney general, you know, who is in charge of the Department of Justice, if they decide they don't want to move forward on it, the FBI, unfortunately, their hands are tied. And so that's one of the concerns that I believe that the FBI has had with this administration.
LEMON: Thank you all. It will be interesting to see if we will see James Comey testify. He said he would do it, but he wanted to do it publicly. So we shall see. Thank you all. I appreciate it.
When we come back, more on our breaking news. Is it a smoking gun?
[00:37:40] LEMON: Our breaking news tonight.
A source saying the former FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo that President Trump asked him to end the Michael Flynn investigation. The source says Comey was appalled by the request that he wanted to document it. He was so appalled by it that he wanted to document it.
Let's discuss now.
CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali, CNN global affairs analyst David Rohde and CNN president historian Douglas Brinkley.
They all joined me.
Good evening to you.
David, I'm going to start with you. So last Tuesday night, you were on this show when the president fired Jim Comey. You said that it would prove to be a big mistake, one of the biggest mistakes of Trump's presidency. Do you stand by that now?
DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I do. I mean, look at how this is unfolding. It's, you know, every conspiracy theory is being fulfilled. You have Republicans very slowly moving away from the president and the basic thing is that, you know, this did not eliminate the problem or eliminate the suspicions of President Trump. This has just intensified it.
So I think again, he could have let this investigation play out, and there would not have been this issue of obstruction of justice. But now that he's fired Comey, that there is, you know, these conversations, these requests, more and more problems.
LEMON: So you were right?
ROHDE: Well, no, I do think it was an enormous --
LEMON: Jonathan Shade has a piece in "The New York Times," NewYorkTimes.com that's said Comey's memo is a smoking gun -- "New York Magazine" excuse me. NewYorkMagazine.com, and it says Comey's memo is a smoking gun of Donald Trump's Watergate.
Do you agree with that?
TIMOTHY NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Not yet, but -- we haven't seen the memos, but I'll tell you one thing. Donald Trump completely misjudged James Comey. He invites a Boy Scout into the White House and offers -- gives him the chance to have sex with his wife. I mean, in the sense that he tried to compromise him. He tried to -- he wanted to compromise Comey -- and my theory is that Comey wanted to have a really good Russian investigation. And he wanted to complete it. And he was committed to doing that. And he felt it was important for the bureau and probably important for his own reputation, too.
The president was asking him to do things that he knew was wrong and so he kept a record of it to protect the bureau and himself. And it's not the first time this has happened.
In 1972, when the Richard -- the Nixon White House put pressure on the CIA, the CIA started to keep records because they felt that the president was asking for things that were not in the interest of the CIA or the American people. The FBI has done the same. So smoking gun, not yet.
[00:40:12] But President Trump has managed through his misuse and mishandling of James Comey to have turned a scandal into a presidential crisis. And to put himself at the center of it.
Up to this point, he could say, well, Carter Page, these people, it's all fake news. We don't even know. There's no evidence of this. Now we know that he talked to the head of the FBI about this investigation and tried to put limits on it.
LEMON: You're talking -- you're talking about Vernon Walters who is the deputy director of the CIA in 1972. Also wrote memos after meetings with the White House just like James Comey. And then at the time, it proved --
NAFTALI: Well, they leaked. They got to the Senate. Now the thing about -- the difference here, it's really important.
Richard Nixon was smart enough not to make these demands himself so that what you had was evidence that the White House had engaged in obstruction of justice. Donald Trump apparently, if the memos prove correct, and if Comey's memory is correct, and I see no reason why it wouldn't be, Donald Trump made these requests himself, thus implicating himself. So the Walters memos make it very clear that the Nixon White House has engaged in obstruction of justice. It's only the tapes that prove that Nixon himself was involved.
LEMON: I think, Douglas, I think what Tim is saying here is that he -- Comey completely sort of -- Donald Trump misjudged his target. And he's trying to use his negotiation skills that he's used as a business owner and running a business, but he completely misread his target at this point.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: He completely did, Don, as you suggested. In New York real estate world, you kind of meet and you wheel and deal, you make a trade, you nod and wink and go in a difference direction. Comey is a different breed of American. He is a true law enforcement officer, and Trump didn't know the difference.
And it's a frightening misread. And you can see Donald Trump thinking that he would be able to co-opt Comey early on by keeping him out of his job, trying to get him on his side. And that would have been in Trump's view the simplest way to put this behind him.
But the very fact that General Flynn was the national security adviser for Donald Trump, and he gets fired by Trump and now Trump is in this memo saying, you know, he's a good guy. The guy just had to dump. It shows just how out of touch with reality the president of the United States is. And we are in a true crisis of confidence in our country right now and words like impeachment are being floated about. I agree with Tim. I don't think this is a smoking gun, Don, but, boy, it's getting really hot out there right now.
LEMON: Here's the thing. So we've been talking about -- where was that, when did the tapes come out? I can't even keep it. Was that last week?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was last week's crisis.
LEMON: So we've been talking about these tapes and now we have the memos. What if there are tapes? And because the -- I'm just saying, this is just me, what if there are tapes and because the White House has been awfully quiet tonight and they listen to those tapes tonight and said, oh, boy.
ROHDE: Well, the question is, what do they do with them?
LEMON: What happens with that?
ROHDE: What's extraordinary is that Jason Chaffetz has already requested to see the memo. So that shows Republicans could ask to see the tapes. You know, would the White House be foolish enough to destroy tapes?
LEMON: And any recordings. So if there are recordings and tapes -- I mean, legally, I guess, can they get rid of them? ROHDE: No. And will the aides who -- did he do this alone? Did he ask people to do this? Either people will break away from the president.
LEMON: It's late and we're getting a little speculative, but I mean, because he did say, you know, possibly there were tapes, and -- right? And so if there are, it's just interesting to me that the White House is being so quiet.
ROHDE: It's very speculative. This is the beginning of a long, long political fight.
LEMON: OK. So but listen, according to "The Washington Post," Comey's notes were shared with a very small circle of people at the FBI and the Justice Department, David.
What does it mean if Jeff Sessions and the deputy attorney General Rod Rosenstein knew about them when they signed off on his firing?
ROHDE: It's a problem for Sessions. It's Russia, Russia, Russia. Why is he involved in any way in this when he failed to disclose his own meetings with the Russian ambassador? So that's the drip, drip, drip that continues here.
And, again, I do think this is going to drag out. We're talking about it earlier. It would take 25 Republicans to actually bring impeachment proceedings against the president. They would have to turn against him. We're nowhere near that.
And then for him to actually be removed is a two-third vote of the Senate. So I think you're -- and this is a stubborn president. He was very unlikely to resign so this could drag on for a very long time and there will be paralysis. I mean, there's no movement on policy. But it could be very long.
LEMON: Yes. It's a fascinating conversation, but I have to go. Thank you all. I appreciate it.
When we come back, much more on the breaking news. This is just the latest crisis to hit the White House just this week. It's Tuesday. Is this president in over his head?
[00:49:15] LEMON: The White House battling to contain the fallout in the wake of a political bombshell after -- one after another.
Here to discuss now, CNN investigative reporter for international affairs Michael Weiss. Also with me now is CNN national security analyst Steve Hall. Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College in Harvard Extension School and CNN military analyst Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.
Good to have you all on. Steve, I'm going to start with you. Just yesterday, we were talking about the president giving classified intelligence to Russians. The president admitted that he did share information with them. But he doesn't believe he did anything wrong.
And here we are just the next day. The former FBI director wrote in a memo that President Trump asked him to end the investigation of Michael Flynn. What's going on here? How damaging is this?
[00:50:00] STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It seems to me it would be extremely damaging. You know, it's amazing how busy things are -- this administration is keeping this.
You're right. Yesterday the story was all about sharing classified information, sharing information that was obtained from another foreign intelligence service without clearing it from that, getting permission from that service.
But I like to think -- how are the Russians seeing all of this? Because that's my area of expertise. And the Russians must be simply flabbergasted, in a positive way.
I mean, if you think back, they were the ones who were trying to tip the scales in Donald Trump's favor during the campaign. So that worked out well for them. Slight setback when the question of collusion came up with regard to the Trump campaign. But now, we have this sort of slow motion train wreck of American democracy that plays right into the Russian strategic goals which is to show the rest of the world, hey, this isn't really a democracy. This isn't a shining city on a hill. This is simply, you know, as corrupt as anybody else in the world.
So when Americans come to you saying how great their system is and how wonderful their intelligence services, by the way, because they are very -- they don't share anything, they don't tell anybody about anything, it makes a mockery of all of that, which you saw in pictures with the sort of backslapping that was happening in the Oval Office.
LEMON: In the Oval Office, yes.
HALL: Yes. And if you compare that with the Merkel pictures, I mean, it's amazing. And Sergey Lavrov's, you know, sort of mockery of, what? The American FBI director was fired, you're joking. It's just -- they are just feeling, feeling their oats and I think extremely pleased with what's happening down the United States.
MICHAEL WEISS, CNN INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER FOR INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: Yes, I'm glad that Steve asked, what are the Russians thinking, because I spoke today to a former Russian diplomat who I said exactly this. How are the Russians responding? What is Moscow's reaction to all this?
Let me quote to you what he said to me. "It's treated here as just another attack on our dear friend Trump. A true partner in fighting terrorism by the liberal mainstream media and U.S. intelligence services. They defend Trump's courage to do this on Russian TV, but it's messaging to the domestic audience. Trump is a true friend and Putin was right in backing. Trump does not watch Russian evening news, of course, but overall there is a sense of relief in watching the U.S. government tear itself apart.
So not only was this a material boon to the Russian intelligence services by disclosing information by which the Cheka, the security services might be able to glean sources and methods leading to the possible capture or the jeopardizing of life of an Israeli undercover spy in ISIS-held territory, but it is also a symbolic boost to the Russians because now the United States looks like Venezuela. We're at war with each other.
LEMON: So the question -- how could anyone -- how do you then -- how do you make an excuse for that.
WEISS: Very, very difficultly. But I have to say, you know, I'm seeing all the Trumpkin Republicans, many of whom I used to respect by the way. I thought they stood on principle about going after Obama, on the Middle East and policy. Now they are saying, well, the real problem here is not that Trump might have blown an Israeli spy, meaning blew his cover, that is, it's "The Washington Post's" fault. It's the media. That awful media which is reporting on leaks coming from the U.S. security services which are -- I mean, chewing the carpet in frustration and destruction because they think the president doesn't know what he's doing. That's the best defense that the Washington has got -- that the White House has got.
Don't blame him. He's a special needs kid. He doesn't know what he's doing. He's kind of slow. You know, this is a learning curve. He's incompetent.
When that's your fallback for the president of the United States, where does that leave the country?
LEMON: Yes. I have to bring Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.
What do you make of this conversation that we're having? I have to bring you in on this?
LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, well, I am very concerned about the release of classified information, whether it's to the Russians or whether it's to "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times."
There are culprits here. Maybe Donald Trump spoke out of turn when he talked to the Russians about the sources and methods. You know, I've been involved in these kind of things for a long time. And it's not unusual that we talk to other services about what we know. But we never talk about how we know. And it's the how we know that's the important part, that's the sensitive part, that's the sources and methods. So I'm very concerned that that might have been released to the Russians. But the Russians have a vested interest in not having an Israeli spy and ISIS be killed because they're also fighting ISIS. So I think our relationship with the Israelis will be healed in time. We have a very, very close relationship with Israelis. We always have. We always will. And they get much more out of this than we do so we'll be able to smooth that over.
But I want to go back to the -- I want to go back to the leaking here. You know, the leaking of this into the press does us no good. This all could have been handled between us, the intelligence services of the United States and the intelligence service of Israel if in fact it was the Israelis.
LEMON: OK. So you don't think it does any good that the American people know about this, know what their president is doing, that their president inadvertently leaked classified information to --
[00:50:00] FRANCONA: And that's all that -- well, in some instances the enemy, but they can also be an ally. I mean, remember, we work with a lot of people that are distasteful. We provided intelligence to a lot of people that we would not have normally had diplomatic relations with. My personal experience, you know, with the Iraqis in the 1980s, you know. So there's history here that we can't ignore.
LEMON: But don't we usually think these out before we just sort of blurt it out?
FRANCONA: Well, that's what I'm going to say. You know, if the president misspoke, we need to know that. But we don't need to know the exact details. We don't need to say, oh, he put the -- an Israeli source at risk. I don't think it was actually a person. But he put a person, or he put a source and a method at risk. That's all we need to know. We don't need to know who it was.
LEMON: All right.
Tom, you have spoken before about the president's use of Twitter. Did you want to say something, Tom?
Was that you?
HALL: I want to go back --
LEMON: Oh, that was you. OK, sorry, that was Steve. But I've got to bring Tom in. You've spoken before about the president's use of Twitter and the insight it gives our enemies.
What do you think about his Twitter usage just in the last days pertaining to Russia?
TOM NICHOLS, PROFESSOR AT NAVAL WAR COLLEGE & HAVARD EXTENSION SCHOOL: Well, and I wanted to bring the Russians back into this because they're not just sitting back and laughing. I mean, they are having a good laugh at our expense. And they are enjoying seeing our system being corroded by this ongoing trauma. But they're also actively involved.
They're actively egging this on by flooding the zone with bad information. It's amazing how many Americans have somehow come around to thinking that the media or the intelligence services or the government itself, which I don't represent in my comments here, are the enemy rather than Russian disinformation and propaganda.
And they've been really successful at this, particularly among -- and going back to Michael's point, it's really staggering, among Republicans, who were once the party that was reliably, you know, fought the Kremlin during the cold war and after and who now is a party of people who basically shrug at the idea of a Russian threat. Even though the Russians are directly attacking our political institutions and brazenly bragging about it.
LEMON: Steve, you wanted to get in?
HALL: Don, let me go back for just a second. There may be some confusion here in my mind at least with regard to priorities. So when we're talking about what the president actually said to the Russians, the sources and methods part is indeed important because the Russians are very good at putting this type of thing together and reverse engineering it to find out who the sources are, if they are Israeli sources, who these sources are and that puts people into danger, and that's a bad thing.
But the really bad thing here is the corrosive effect that doing that, sharing information with the Russians or with anybody without private -- previous approval or agreement from the service that you got the information from, what's going to happen worldwide and we're already, I think, beginning to see it happen is foreign intelligence services who cooperate very closely with us, our allies, are saying, you know, it's a little crazy right now in Washington. It's a little crazy in the White House. So let's dial it back. We have to be careful with what we share with the Americans. And that makes us fundamentally less secure.
When you have less information coming to you from your foreign allies, especially on counterterrorism stuff, which is where we get a lot of our counterterrorism intelligence, it really erodes not just the belief in the American system and all that good stuff but also our actual security, vis-a-vis terrorists. That's what I think the real threat is.
LEMON: Good ahead, Michael?
WEISS: Well, it's not just sharing it with the Russians, too. Moscow has strategically wedded to Tehran and Damascus and Lebanese Hezbollah. So, look, this is my question. There's a lot that we still don't know about what this information was and the nature of it and what exactly the specifics were that Donald Trump shared.
But can anyone in the U.S. intelligence community confirm to me or assure me or any American people that this information is not now in the hands of Qasem Soleiman, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corp of Iran's Quds force or in the hands of Hassan Nasrallah, the general secretary of Hezbollah or in the hands of Bashar al-Assad.
And I mean that's where the Israelis, I think, are really right to be innervated by this.
LEMON: Tom, I have to ask you, considering all of this, are you concerned with this president's ability to determine what's appropriate behavior and what is not?
NICHOLS: Well, that's one of the reasons I wrote about the Twitter feed because it's such a direct pipeline into the president's thinking. And a lot of if was really valuable in that sense about the president simply letting off all these unguarded thoughts.
I mean, when you're president of the United States, you really can't have unguarded thoughts because all of that is raw material for people who want to influence us, including foreign governments. And I think that's -- I have a real concern about that because we're not the only ones. I think one of the things that happen is we've all become obsessed with domestic politics and we forget that we're not the only ones reading the president's Twitter feed. We're not the only ones arguing over who leaked what. The whole world is watching this.
LEMON: I got to go. We're at the end of this broadcast. Thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate it. That's it for us tonight. Thank you so much for watching. I'll see you right back here tomorrow.