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Obstruction of Justice?; Trump Shared Confidential Info with Russians; NYT: Trump Told Comey Reporters Should Be Jailed. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired May 17, 2017 - 04:30   ET

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


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[04:31:41] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

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DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Watching the Clinton impeachment, thought I would never see another one. But I think we're in impeachment territory for the first time.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Really?

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CHRISTIN ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The White House reaching new levels of damage control this morning. Did this president obstruct justice by asking James Comey to forget the Michael Flynn investigation when Comey as head of the FBI?

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to EARLY START, everybody. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. Thirty-two minutes past the hour. We welcome all of our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

In the clearest sign yet, President Trump tried to pressure the Justice Department over the Russian investigation, sources familiar with the matter say the president asked James Comey to end the FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

BRIGGS: Sources say Comey was so appalled he documented the president's request a short time later and shared it with senior FBI officials. The blockbuster developments here triggering immediate alarm on Capitol Hill.

ROMANS: Even Republicans expressing extreme concern, Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz asking the FBI to hand over everything related to communications between Comey and the president by a week from today even threatening a subpoena. The White House all hands on deck fighting back despite its own compromised credibility.

Senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns begins our coverage this morning from Washington.

Good morning, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine.

Certainly, questions about whether the president may have obstructed justice here. We do know, according to our reporting, and also first reported by the "New York Times" that President Trump apparently asked former FBI Director James Comey to end his investigation into the Trump administration's first national security adviser Michael Flynn who was fired. If this allegation is true, it's a clear sign yet the president attempted to exert some influence over the FBI's investigation in inclusion between Trump campaign and Russia already being described as a grave turn in the drama.

Now, there you can see the quote that has been lifted out of the memo which we haven't seen and first reported by the "New York Times" but sources have told us that the president essentially said, I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.

So, that in a nutshell is the thing that's got Washington spinning right now. Republicans on Capitol Hill have been largely silent so far with a few notable exceptions, the Speaker of the House has said, he agrees with an assertion that was made by the chairman of the House Oversight Committee who said that he will subpoena, if necessary, to get this document written by Comey and other information, including perhaps recordings which the president has suggested have been made.

Other Republicans outside of Capitol Hill including the governor of Ohio, John Kasich, who once was a member of Congress and was a leading critic during the campaign of President Trump have said they need to get to the bottom of it.

[04:35:02] Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: Speaker Ryan said some things tonight about getting to the bottom line. Frankly, I think he should -- he should be more aggressive. I think he should speak out more. This is not a time for Republicans to hide. And I also don't think it's a time for Democrats to exploit.

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JOHNS: Also the White House has flatly denied the allegations of this conversation between the FBI director, the now former FBI director and the president. They say this just simply did not happen, the conversation did not happen.

White House certainly in a difficult position right now simply because of questions of credibility, not just in this case but in numerous other cases. So, tough for them as they get ready to go with the president on his first foreign trip at the end of the week. BRIGGS: Joe Johns live for us in D.C. -- thank you, sir.

Let's bring in our panel. CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer, historian and a professor at Princeton, CNN political analyst, David Drucker, senior congressional correspondent for "The Washington Examiner", and Michael Moore, former U.S. attorney for the middle district of Georgia.

Good morning to all of you. Thank you for being here.

David, let's start with you. Until this turns into a criminal issue, this is a political issue. And with the exception of John McCain saying this is the size and scale of Watergate to some supporters last night, to Joe Johns' point relative silence. You we're hearing other things. You write about this in the "Washington Examiner".

What are you hearing from Republicans on the Hill regarding the last 24 hours, regarding the last eight days?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They are very frustrated and they very concerned. Look, I talked to Republicans and as a regular practice, I talk to them about this particular topic often, Trump, what they're going to do about Trump, how they feel about Trump.

And, you know, what they have learned over the course of many months is Trump is often besieged by apparent scandal or apparent difficulty and he always seems to weather the storm. He keeps his loyal base. And so, Republican voters so far have not abandoned him. And so, they've in some ways become desensitized to these sorts of things.

This time they tell me they are worried, they don't know if he can weather this and this was before the story was reported about the Comey memo. The issue with the Russians and the leaking of information or sharing of information to Russians in that Oval Office meeting had a concern because it suggested a level of foreign policy and competence, and foreign policy and national security was one issue, one area where a lot of Republicans outside of Trump's loyal base and independent voters had been concerned about Trump's fitness to serve as commander-in-chief.

And so, they are worried about this thing getting out of control. And then you add this level of -- this sort of new level of political urgency with the Comey memo. We started to see Republicans from House districts that Hillary Clinton won begin to speak out. We saw the wording in Jason Chaffetz memo, threatening to subpoena memo if he didn't get it.

And so, I think what we're seeing from Republicans, not as vocal as some people might prefer, is a lot of concern and a lot of trying to figure out what to do, because it's not an easy answer. If you attack the president and you're a Republican, the blow back could be heavy if you don't have all your ducks in a row and you haven't figured out where your voters are on this. And so, it could be counterproductive.

On the other hand, if you do nothing, you start to look like an enabler. So, I think Republicans are throwing up their hands, and are trying to assess where things are here so they can figure out their next move. But trust me, they are not happy about this and very aware of what's going.

ROMANS: Julian, so interesting to David's point, Donald Trump almost was a hostile take over of the Republican Party, you know? I mean, he managed to really change, change the priorities and the agenda of this party and now people who have come along with him have to figure out how they will manage it.

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And you can imagine where the Republicans were about a week and a half ago. They had received almost no legislation after the 100 days. But finally, health care passed the House and they were hoping Senator McConnell could put something together. They are very eager for a big tax cut that was on the way.

And then boom, all of a sudden, the week's news changed. They are looking at 2018 and politically, they are saying, where are we going to be if we have nothing to show other than a president in the middle of a scandal or even worse impeached.

And some of them are not just political. I think they are genuinely worried about what they are seeing, especially with the release of the classified information. Can he govern? That's the question on the minds of many Republicans this morning.

BRIGGS: The question on the minds of legal scholars, Michael Moore, is this -- does this fit the definition of obstruction of justice? What do you say?

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, MIDDLE DIST. OF GEORGIA: Well, the obstruction statute is actually a little bit vague.

[04:40:00] What it talks about is that someone would have to have a corrupt intent to influence an investigation. And so, I think what they would look like in this case is whether or not the president's corrupt intent was evidence by his efforts to get Comey as Comey's superior to back down off of the investigation.

Remember, we talked about this. The president is unlikely to be indicted. The law is relatively clear on that as some scholars argue to the contrary. But by and large, I think most people agree that he's unlikely being indicted. But this could become something determined by the House of Representatives, if impeachment proceedings begin. So, those things could still get to be worked out.

Let me say one thing just real quick about a press you mentioned earlier.

ROMANS: Sure.

MOORE: I heard a saying and you probably heard it, too, but democracy dies in the dark. And so, I think that when we see a leader start to shut down our press and access to information, we do it at our own peril for not standing up. Judge Key (ph) said that in an opinion and Bob Woodward came out and Judge Key, judge in sixth circuit in the case pre-Watergate.

So, I appreciate what you do. I think the fact that we dot a president talking about closing down the press conferences, or putting the media in jail is a bad sign of things to come.

ZELIZER: We also need an investigation outside of the press. I think we need a thorough congressional investigation, independent investigation. The press is essential, but on its own, this is not how we're going to have satisfying democratic investigation into the gravest issue that we face as a democracy, do you go toward impeachment?

BRIGGS: Because 35 percent, 40 percent doesn't believe any of this. Doesn't believe any of these reports, that it's all fake.

To button this up to our viewers just joining us this half more, Michael Moore made clear James Comey did the right thing in not going to Congress immediately and documenting exactly what was said in that conversation.

So, we'll get back with all of you in just a moment.

ROMANS: Jim Comey has a long history of writing it down for the record so he can make sure in the moment that he has his facts.

All right. All of you sit tight. All of this a distraction, albeit not a welcome one, after the president shared classified intel with Russia. Turns out the intel was from Israel. So, how will that leak affect the president's trip there in a few days?

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[04:46:31] ROMANS: Before we learned, President Trump asked James Comey to drop the Michael Flynn investigation, the White House was already dealing with the president's sharing of classified information with the Russians, a remarkable 48 hours here, folks.

We've since learned Israel was the source of some of the ISIS bomb making information that the president revealed to the Russians in the Oval Office.

BRIGGS: Newspapers in Israel reported months ago, U.S. officials warn Israeli counterparts to be careful about what they tell this White House, fearing it could be leaked to the Kremlin and passed on to Iran.

ROMANS: Let's bring back our panel. Julian Zelizer, David Drucker, and Michael Moore.

And, David Drucker, I want to listen really quickly here to what H.R. McMaster said, the national security adviser, about just how wholly appropriate it was for the president yesterday to reveal that information.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: What the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation. He shares information in a way that's wholly appropriate. He made a decision in the context of the conversation which was wholly appropriate.

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ROMANS: I wonder what heads of state are going to be feeling when they meet with the president in the next few days on his trip abroad?

DRUCKER: Right. I think the problem for the administration potentially is that this administration over the past seven to ten days looks like it's out of control and rudderless and sort of a victim of its own making, but a victim of events of its own making. The mishandling of the Comey firing, now this issue with the Russians and Comey memo, I think it all goes together to show a White House in crisis that doesn't look like a White House that's in charge, in control of events and even in control of its own party on Capitol Hill, and I think that that is going to be something that the president will have to answer for overseas.

He might be able to do something about it. This might give him an opportunity to reset matters, but I think this presents challenges because this is his first foreign trip. He's not used to things like this. And we saw what happened in this Oval Office meeting with the Russian ambassador, something happened that was not supposed to happen that's causing him a lot of heart burn.

BRIGGS: To that notion of wholly appropriate, Michael. Was firing James Comey the president said, I can fire anyone I want any time I want. He's correct in that. He can reveal classified information whenever he deems it appropriate. That's the role of the president.

What's the cover with these latest allegations? How does the president in the words of the "Daily News" make all of this go away?

MOORE: You know, I don't know that he's got any cover in the latest allegations with Comey and the memo. The problem he's got is that Comey basically wrote a memo contemporaneously with the conversation that was had, and if the memo is correct and if the facts are proved out as it relayed in the memo, then basically that's the effort by the president to shut down investigation and that can cause them problems, whether we're talking about obstruction, or whether we're talking about impeachment proceedings, or whether or not it's just another log on the fire that continues to burn in this administration.

ROMANS: Julian, we're watching history being written here. Put it in context for me. I mean, this is a remarkable 48 hours but remarkable 118 days.

ZELIZER: Sure. Look, any impeachment is a historic mark in the evolution of our democracy. It moves in that direction, it certainly is historic.

But even the moment we're in where you see all this unfolding, this very dramatic and important investigation into Russia, this problem with handling information and paralyzed president, a politically paralyzed president unfolding before our eyes with him tweeting about it every where you see all this unfolding, this very dramatic and important investigation into Russia, this problem with handling information and a paralyzed president, a politically paralyzed president unfolding before our eyes, with him tweeting about it every morning I think will be something that marks in new era in American politics that we're witnessing.

[04:50:06] And we just don't know how this is going to play out and what the political aftermath will be. That's not where we need to wonder.

And we need to see if our institutions can step up. Congress, which has been gridlocked and dysfunctional can they step up and help us understand what happens next.

BRIGGS: You are our professor at Princeton. We can't help but wonder if these things that text books one day will be written about.

Julian Zelizer, Michael Moore, David Drucker, thank you all for being with us this morning.

ZELIZER: Thank you.

ROMANS: Is jailing journalists the way to stop leaks with clasped information? President Trump seems to think so. More of what he told James Comey when Bob Stelter drops by.

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BRIGGS: All right. Welcome back to EARLY START.

As we've been reporting, James Comey memo says the president asked Comey to end the Michael Flynn investigation.

[04:55:02] ROMANS: "New York Times" reports the president reported James Comey memo on the president's request to end the Michael Flynn investigation, another big item to digest here.

BRIGGS: OK. "The New York Times" reporting Mr. Trump also asked Mr. Comey to potentially jail journalists that publish leaks.

Brian Stelter, the host of "RELIABLE SOURCES" is with us this morning.

Brian, this is a shocking revelation that barely got traction in the midst of this dizzying day.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: There's been so much news, that's right. Among the details in this blockbuster "New York Times" story is that Trump said to Comey he should consider putting reporters in prison who report classified information. That would be a drastic change of events in this country.

There have been prosecutions by past administrations, especially the Obama administration of the leakers of classified information, but not of the journalists themselves. Some press freedom groups have been concerned we might reach this points, that President Trump might take us there. So far, it's hasn't happened. It's been all words not action.

So, in this story, once again, we have the president making threats. The White House has not pushed back or denied this account in "The New York Times" story. Frankly, they've got a lot on their plate right now that they have not addressed. This is one of those angles.

But I think it goes to speak to the president's mood, his mindset, just how frustrated, furious he is about these ongoing leaks. There's been leaks of classified information and then there's been leaks about all of infighting, all the drama inside the White House. Two different kinds of leaks.

BRIGGS: He blames the communication office for what's been going on.

STELTER: He seems to blame everyone but himself, yes.

ROMANS: You know, he's a consumer -- an avid consumer especially of the New York tabloids.

STELTER: It's one of his favorites.

ROMANS: He won't like what he sees in the paper. Headlines top of the fold in every major American newspaper about the Comey memo.

STELTER: This one in the "Daily News" can be taken two ways. Goes with make it go away which either can refer to either Flynn or it can refer to the president. "Daily News" has been a critic of the president, I think from left-leaning outlets, we've certainly even start to hear the "I" word impeachment.

That kind of conversation may be premature, but certainly among left- leaning outlets, it's getting some traction, getting some attention. And then, of course, from middle of the road, even right leaning editorial boards at the "Wall Street Journal", the headlines this morning is loose lips sink presidencies. Kind of taking all of these stories together.

ROMANS: It's remarkable that Mr. Trump needs to appreciate how close he is to losing Republicans to pass the agenda that will determine if he's successful. Millions of Americans recognize his flaws but decided he's a risk worth taking.

It would be interesting to see how Republicans and how conservative media over the next couple of days. They call it a silent night.

BRIGGS: What will determine the narrative in that conservative media?

STELTER: Right now, I think a lot of folks don't know what to make of it. A lot of right leaning commentators or conservative talk show hosts have been trying to downplay the importance of the news. But the president's own behavior is telling. We haven't seen a tweet storm. Maybe we will later today. The president is scheduled to speak at 11:00 a.m. I believe at a

commencement address. Other than, that no public events. No on- camera briefing. So, it will be the president himself that determines what happens next in this story.

BRIGGS: Just check Twitter to make sure there's not another 40 character response from the president. Not just yet.

Brian Stelter, host of "RELIABLE SOURCES" -- a busy day for you. Thank you for being here.

ROMANS: Thank you for joining us. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. "NEW DAY" starts right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is an early edition of NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, May 17th, 5:00 here in New York.

We begin with breaking news. Another bombshell out of the White House, President Trump asks FBI Director James Comey to drop the FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. This according to a memo written by Comey before he was fired.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The White House issuing a furious denial, but this is now going to be an issue of credibility. Whom will America believe, the president or former director of the FBI? This is the clearest evidence that President Trump tried to directly influence an investigation in the links between his campaign and Russia.

Democrats warning this could be obstruction of justice. This could be grounds for impeachment. So, it comes down to votes and the Republicans.

We have it all covered for you. Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Joe Johns, live in Washington -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESONDENT: Good morning, Chris.

Sources telling CNN President Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to end his investigation into the former national security adviser Michael Flynn. If proven true, it's certainly the clearest sign yet that the president attempted to influence the FBI's investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.