Return to Transcripts main page


Deputy Attorney General Briefs House On Comey Firing; Democratic Lawmaker: Deputy AG "Frustratingly Cautious"; Lawmakers Speak Out After Briefing On Comey Firing; Friend: Comey Tried To Blend Into Curtains In Trump Visit; Senate Democrats Reject Lieberman For FBI Chief. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 11:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, John. Thank you, Poppy. Hello, everyone. I am Kate Bolduan.

We begin with breaking news again, both at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Right now all of the members of the House of Representatives have just been briefed by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, the man who shocked Washington by appointing a special counsel to investigate any ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The man that, yes, also the White House also said recommended the firing of FBI Director James Comey. His closed-door briefing was intended to shed some light on that firing, but of course, the questions went far beyond that. We'll discuss.

Also at the White House, the president is getting set to leave shortly on his first overseas trip as president of the United States. He and the first lady will be visiting five countries in eight days, a high- stakes tour that the White House hopes will help reset a presidency that's been bogged down in crisis.

So, let's get to it. First to the capitol and that crucial meeting that just wrapped up. CNN Congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly is there. So, Phil, what are you hearing from members as they're leaving this meeting?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, as you know, Kate, lawmakers starting to stream out of this briefing, and that means they're actually getting access to their electronic devices, too, and I just received a text message from a Democratic lawmaker who was in the room and said, quote -- Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was, quote, "frustratingly cautious.

Said he believed every tough question that was lobbed his way was deferred to Bob Mueller, the new special counsel. Now this is similar to what we heard from senators yesterday, that most of the difficult questions, including things on the timeline of the firing of Jim Comey as well as issues related specifically to the Russian meddling in the 2016 elections were deferred to Bob Mueller.

Now, this Democrat believed that he was just trying to get out of a tough spot, but I've also been told by a number of members over the course of the last couple days that they believed that this is the reality now.

A special counsel is now in place. People, including Justice Department officials, will be very cautious to try and make sure they don't run crosswise with what Bob Mueller is trying to do, what he's going to do, documents he's going to need, witnesses he's going to need to talk to.

So I think kind of the bottom line here is once again in the second briefing in as many days, Democrats didn't get all the answers they wanted. But I will note one thing, Darrell Issa, a Republican member from California, did come out, spoke to the microphones here for a little bit, and said his impression, his understanding from the deputy attorney general was that Bob Mueller, the special counsel, his purview will not just be on Russian meddling, it will also include any allegations of interference from the White House and the specific timeline of how Jim Comey was fired.

So, while Rod Rosenstein was not ready to answer those questions specifically today, according to members in the room, Bob Mueller will have the mandate to do just that -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: The special counsel's job has already been expanded on just day two, I guess, or day three. Great to see you, Phil. Thank you so much.

So, as Phil's laying out, the members are just leaving that meeting. Let's talk to one of the people in the room where it happened, Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California, member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congresswoman, thank you so much for the time.


BOLDUAN: So what was the most important thing that you heard in that room from Rod Rosenstein today?

SPEIER: First let me set the stage. Normally when we have these classified briefings, members kind of get bored after about 20 minutes or so and start streaming out, there was intense interest in this presentation. Most members stayed for the full extent of it.

There was, I think, recognition that our roles as members of Congress is independent from that of the presidency. So, for the first time, I felt that there was coordination really by the Democrats and the Republicans that the need for an independent investigation was paramount.

BOLDUAN: When you say the role of Congress, that does raise a couple questions that I do want to ask you, but first this, did Rosenstein, as we heard from Democrats coming out of their briefing yesterday in the Senate, did Rosenstein confirm to you that he knew that President Trump was going to fire Comey before he had even written that memo? SPEIER: He was unwilling to tell us about the timeline, and he also made it clear that Mr. Mueller had the opportunity to explore virtually anything he wanted to regarding his memo, regarding the timeline, and you know, I think we'll move forward from that point.

At this point, really, I think the president has made it pretty clear that he directed the memo be written, whether he said it directly to Mr. Rosenstein or not is not obvious, but it's pretty obvious I think to the American people that that's where it came from.

BOLDUAN: But that does remain a question. I mean, was he asked directly why he wrote the memo?

SPEIER: Yes, he was, a number of times.

BOLDUAN: And he pushed that to Bob Mueller?

SPEIER: Yes. He declined to answer. Now, he could also be arguing, you know, executive privilege and attorney-client privilege, and you know, a number of ways he could have played that, certainly.

BOLDUAN: Certainly. One Democrat texted our Phil Mattingly and said that Rod Rosenstein was frustratingly cautious. Is that how you would describe it?

[11:05:02]SPEIER: Well, he's a deputy attorney general, you know. He's not going to show his hand. He was very clear about the fact that Mr. Mueller will have all the resources he needs to do his job and that the interest in moving forward is for him to carry on with this investigation, independent of the AG.

BOLDUAN: Did he tell you about why and when he decided it was time to appoint a special counsel?

SPEIER: He did not.

BOLDUAN: Does Rosenstein consider -- did he talk about in the room, does he consider Mueller's inquiry now a criminal investigation?

SPEIER: Well, the attorney general is charged with the responsibility of evaluating cases as to whether or not there is criminality, so that's certainly an element of that review by Mr. Mueller.

BOLDUAN: Getting back to kind of the role of Congress here, Congresswoman, there's been -- there seems to be a big question as to what this special counsel means for your committees investigating. I know that you have said that your committee can absolutely continue its work on the Russia investigation, but Senator Lindsey Graham doesn't seem to agree. Listen here to what he said.


SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I think the shock to the body is, it's now considered a criminal investigation, and Congress' ability to conduct investigations of all things Russia has been severely limited, probably in an appropriate fashion. So, I think a lot of members want the special counsel to be appointed, but don't understand that you're pretty well knocked out of the game. And that's probably the way it should be.


BOLDUAN: He says you guys are knocked out of the game now, Congresswoman.

SPEIER: Well, I think that's wishful thinking on Senator Graham's part. I think the investigations by both the House and the Senate are very --

BOLDUAN: But he's got his own investigation. You could imagine he would want to continue that, too, right?

SPEIER: Does he serve on the committee? I don't believe he serves on the committee.

BOLDUAN: He has oversight over the FBI in the Judiciary Committee and he is investigating.

SPEIER: Right, OK. So, I would say that the criminal investigation to the extent that it is beyond counterintelligence and a criminal investigation, will continue under the special counsel's auspices.

The House and the Senate each have a responsibility to investigate the relationship of Russia, their intervention into our election, and whether or not Trump campaign operatives were involved in coordinating the actual intervention.

So, this goes to the heart of our democracy, and we have an absolute responsibility to investigate and to make sure moving forward that Russia's intervening in our elections does not happen again, and that means looking very closely into our system of election operations.

The actual tallying of machines and the voter registration records, all of which I think were vulnerable in this last election.

BOLDUAN: Let me ask you specifically about the House investigation, Congresswoman. CNN has learned from a House Intelligence Committee source that Chairman Nunes is still reviewing intelligence related to Russia, despite the fact that, of course, he recused himself from all things Russia after that controversial episode involving the White House. Do you know this to be true yourself?

SPEIER: I believe it's a huge mistake if Chairman Nunes is doing that. He has been identified as an agent of the president, was clearly an agent of the president in that caper that went on some weeks ago where he went to the special source, came back, held a press conference, then went to the White House, when, in fact, it was from the White House to begin with.

So, the fact that he may, in fact, be reviewing these classified documents about Russia is very concerning to me, and I think really violates his commitment to recuse himself. BOLDUAN: We'll continue to follow that, I'm sure. A lot is ahead for you and your committee. Congresswoman, thank you so much for your time. Always appreciate it.

SPEIER: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Let's stay on Capitol Hill and listen in to Elijah Cummings, a Democratic member of Congress from Maryland, speaking to reporters right now.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: -- who sits in the oval office and determines our policies and our destiny should upset every single one of us as Americans. Now, I know Mr. Rosenstein. He was the U.S. attorney in Maryland for over ten years. I've always known him to be a very honorable person.

And I'm very -- I was very pleased, certainly with the selection of Mr. Mueller. You will not push him around. He's a straight shooter, and he will, I think, bring some normalcy to this process. That's my final point.

We've got to let this process play out. It needs to play out. Normally what happens when you have investigation, those who investigate it are quiet, and the attorney speaks for him as you know, I'm an attorney.

[11:10:04]And basically says we're going to cooperate, period, that's it. And I think that's what we all need to do, let this process play out. But I think we should never forget what started all of this, that is, 17 intelligence entities of the United States of America unanimously concluding that the Russians tried, and to some degree, interfered with our elections.

When we are dancing with the angels, the question will be, what did we do at this moment? What did we do about that? What difference did we make? Did we sit back and just say, you know, I'm not going to be bothered, just let it go or did we do everything in our power to make sure that it doesn't happen again?

Finally, keep in mind, the Russians are looking forward to interfering in more elections. They just did it, apparently, in France. So, we've got work to do. Again, we have been fortunate.

I think if you were to ask the members of Congress how they feel about Special Counsel Mueller, I guarantee you, just my little informal survey, I guarantee you 90 percent of them would applaud that.

And so, hopefully now we can move forward. The American people wants us to do things for them. They have spent the last few months turning on their televisions almost every hour, not every day, every hour, and learning things that worry them, that hurt them, that concern them, and it's their turn.

It's their turn to have us do some things for them. And so, I'm not going to answer any questions, but --


CUMMINGS: Definitely. I just said that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No conflict with Mr. Mueller's investigation?

CUMMINGS: I have absolutely no doubt. Mueller's a pro. Come on, now. I believe that there will be no problem with -- there may be some disagreement, but no problem with us sitting down, working with Mueller and his assistants and coming up with a plan so that we don't interfere with his investigation and we are allowed to do what we have to do.

But I cannot emphasize it enough, again, when we're dancing with the angels, the question is, will we look back, will people look back and say what did you do to make sure that our elections were fair, transparent, and the way the founding fathers meant for them to be? That's a great threat and I don't want us to lose sight of that, all right?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Cummings, quickly, how much was Mr. Rosenstein pressed to explain why he wrote that memo about Comey and who asked him to?

CUMMINGS: I can't even answer -- I can't answer that. I could answer it, but I can't answer it because --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- was just here talking all about it.

CUMMINGS: He did? Well, well -- well, whatever he said. What'd he say?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Inaudible) Joe Lieberman in the FBI?

CUMMINGS: I like Joe Lieberman. I think he's a wonderful man. I've known him for a long time. I think we have to be very, very careful with this selection. As you know, Chairman Chaffetz and I have worked very hard with regard to Secret Service and its leadership.

I really think you need a career kind of police person. I really do, but that's above my pay grade. I didn't run for the Senate, so I'm not able to cast a vote, but I think that's the type I would prefer.

Just, it's something I think they would prefer that, too, you know, it's a police-type agency and the last thing we need -- come on. This morning I said on CNN, I said, this thing has turned into a mess.

I mean, we've got to straighten this out and I think we need to pour politics out of this as much as possible. And by the way, for those same reasons is why I like Mueller, OK? The same reasons. Thank you all. I really appreciate you all.


CUMMINGS: By the way, if there is any moment that the press in our country's history has a major role, it is this moment. This is your moment. [11:15:11]You have got to put it out there so people can understand what is going on. I have said it before and I'll say it again, this is about the fight for the soul of our democracy. We cannot afford to lose this one. Thank you very much.


BOLDUAN: Well, one more thing -- I'm just kidding. That was Congressman Elijah Cummings, Democratic congressman of Maryland. Importantly for this conversation, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.

With me to discuss everything that we've learned coming out of this important briefing with House members is CNN senior political analyst, Mark Preston, and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Akerman. He was part of the team that prosecuted the Watergate case.

All right, so, Nick, first to you, because Cummings was asked about it and Jackie Speier is talking about it as well, which is can Congress continue with their investigations while, now that there is a special counsel investigating all of this? Democrats say yes. Lindsey Graham said he doesn't think so. He thinks this has knocked him out of the game.

NICK AKERMAN, FORMER ASSISTANT SPECIAL WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: Lindsey Graham is dead wrong. You just have to look at the history and what happened during the Watergate case. There was not only the special prosecutor who was investigating the same allegations, but there was also the Senate Select Committee. Later on there was the House Impeachment Committee.

Each of these entities have their own responsibilities here, and there is no reason why any of these congressional committees should drop the ball. The only part of friction that comes in on any of these is whether or not you grant immunity to any particular witness.


AKERMAN: And normally what happens --

BOLDUAN: And if you look at history that has popped up as a problem in the past.

AKERMAN: Well, it popped up with Watergate. The first thing I did when I joined Cox in May of '73 was to gather all of the evidence on John Dean so that we could still prosecute him, knowing that he was going to testify before the Senate Watergate Committee.

Now, with Oliver North, that problem got worse because he was prosecuted, and the Supreme Court, rightfully, held that anything he said could, you know, could be used against him, directly or indirectly, including the press reports.

BOLDUAN: So, let me ask you a different angle of this. There is also a little bit debate over is this a criminal investigation or is this still a counterintelligence investigation? I've heard a little bit of both, depending often on what political party folks are landing on.

Rod Rosenstein gave the impression to some yesterday, when they came out, that this was now a criminal investigation. Republicans might be hesitant to say that. What do you think?

AKERMAN: It's definitely a criminal investigation. There's no question about it. You have a special counsel. He's been put in place of people in the criminal division, lawyers in the criminal division who would normally be investigating this.

There would be no point to him investigating this unless he was looking for violations of federal criminal law. It's up to the Congress to look for how they can change legislation, how they can make the law respond to this whole issue about Russia interfering with our presidential election.

They don't prosecute anybody. They don't bring out charges. That is the job of the special counsel. That is his only job. He's not out there to just try and find information just because it's interesting. He's out there to find information that he can use to bring criminal charges.

BOLDUAN: so, now we've heard -- it almost seems like there's a bit of a change in what maybe Rod Rosenstein -- how far Rod Rosenstein went in a briefing yesterday and what he was able to say today, because we heard Phil Mattingly's source, a Democratic member, saying he's frustratingly cautious and Jackie Speier saying he was asked multiple times on multiple topics and often deferred everything to Bob Mueller. Is that kind of -- that's a little bit of why he wanted to appoint Bob Mueller.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Correct, and he's also part of the chain right now, right?

AKERMAN: Even worse. He's possible witness to obstruction of justice.

PRESTON: Correct. So I'm not surprised that he went into this hearing today with the House members and certainly was able to draw back a little bit. And I think Democrats have got to be a little careful because they demanded that a special prosecutor be appointed.

They found probably the best person you could in the United States to do so, and then he wants to take a step back and allow Bob Mueller to do his job.

I think it's a little disingenuous for Democrats to be so upset right now walking out of that meeting saying, well, he didn't give us enough information. Well, the job is for the information to come out from the special prosecutor.

BOLDUAN: You hear that a little bit from Elijah Cummings, you have to give it a little bit of time, right, like it is just starting. That is an interesting point. So, we're hearing from -- Rod Rosenstein is talking to House members a little bit, or at least as they were asking questions about James Comey and about the firing and everything around it.

We're also now learning a little bit, maybe, about the mindset of James Comey, this coming through a friend of his speaking out. And CNN has fascinating reporting about this.

[11:20:04]That Comey was so uncomfortable with the meetings that Trump had requested with him that he had practiced his lines that he would give to the president if he could -- so he was prepared for questions he deemed inappropriate for that relationship.

Listen to then what a friend of James Comey's has now said. He's speaking out here to PBS. Listen.


BENJAMIN WITTES, JAMES COMEY'S FRIEND: If you watch the video, he extends his hand and Comey's arms are really long, and he extends his hand kind of preemptively, and Trump grabs the hand and kind of pulls him into a hug, but the hug is entirely one-sided. So, one guy in the hug is shaking hands. Comey was just completely disgusted by --


WITTES: -- disgusted by the episode. He thought it was an intentional attempt to compromise him in public.


BOLDUAN: So, the friend talking about that kind of infamous moment, what we talked about when it happened. Thinking about it, but sitting with me here when we were talking about it, you've got to guess that Comey's friend would not be out speaking so candidly if Comey wasn't OK with it. So, what is Comey doing, if that's the case?

PRESTON: Right, right. So, two things. One is what we do know of James Comey as a person is that you would expect him to rehearse his lines, to prepare for something like this, given the fact that he's so detailed on this.

But however, you would have not seen this gentleman go out, had he not had the implicit OK from James Comey or James Comey's family or whatever it is.

At this point, James Comey is fighting a war now against the Trump administration, who has gone out and, quite frankly, Donald Trump himself has done his best to try to discredit somebody who really has had a very illustrious career in the FBI.

AKERMAN: Not only threaten him --

BOLDUAN: And if you're James Comey's attorney right now, Nick, are you advising him to testify? Are you advising him to allow his friend to speak out like this?

AKERMAN: I would have no problem with the friend speaking out, but if I were going to have him speak out, I would want him to do it before a congressional committee, under oath where everything is out in the open. That would be the way I would go.

PRESTON: Kate, James Comey has not come out and said that my friend spoke, did speak on my behalf. We haven't seen that happen.

BOLDUAN: Yes, he hasn't said he spoke out of turn, that's not what I mean.

PRESTON: Correct.

BOLDUAN: That's one phone call or e-mail away to anybody. Give him my e-mail, he can e-mail if he wants to. Great to see you, guys. Thank so much.

All right, so, how about this? Joe Lieberman was Al Gore's running mate, longtime Democratic senator turned independent. So why are some Democrats furious that he's now the apparent frontrunner to lead the FBI?

Plus, the president may be lawyering up. Why he needs more fire more power and who's going to bring it in light of this special investigation.

And one White House official calls it do or die, President Trump leaving very soon for his first overseas trip in a time of obvious turmoil. What are they hoping for with this trip and where are the potential land mines? We'll discuss.



BOLDUAN: Former Senator Joe Lieberman appears to be the frontrunner to be President Trump's next pick to lead the FBI. As many of you, of course, will well know, Lieberman was a longtime senator from Connecticut, first a Democrat, then an independent. He was Al Gore's running mate.

But then in 2008, he endorsed his friend, Republican Senator John McCain, for president, and the White House may have hoped that his Democratic credentials would have won him bipartisan support, but with that, they may need to start thinking again.


SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: The FBI has to have someone that every member of that agency respects, because they know they're law enforcement. They know they're not going to cave to political whims.

SENATOR ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: I like Joe Lieberman. I don't like the pick. I don't think it should be a politician. Never have a politician head of the FBI. I don't care if it's Hamilton, Jefferson or Lincoln or Lieberman.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BOLDUAN: But to be amongst that group says something. With me now, Chris Cilizza, CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large. So, Chris, Democrats, and as we see there, Angus King, an independent, there are quite a few people that are not happy with this pick, if it is the pick. Let's give that a very large caveat, of course.


BOLDUAN: So, what is the bigger strike against Lieberman amongst these folks? Is it that he has a political background and no federal law enforcement background, or is it the fact that he dropped the "d" for an "I" and endorsed John McCain in 2008?

CILIZZA: And spoke at the Republican convention in 2008, Kate. I would say 30 percent they don't want a politician and 70 percent they don't want Joe Lieberman. Look, Joe Lieberman in the wake of the September 11th attacks and then the decision to go to war in Iraq was by far the most hawkish Democrat.

It led to him being -- facing a primary challenge, eventually leaving the Democratic Party to run as an independent and then endorsing John McCain, his running buddy in the Senate, for 2008. So, there is not a lot of love lost for Joe Lieberman within the current Senate Democratic caucus.

I think a fair amount of the opposition is borne of that. What people forget, this is like a company of 100 people that you work for, so if there's a person you don't necessarily like, it gets back around, right?

Joe Lieberman was very popular when he was picked by Al Gore in 2000, but from 2000 to 2008, a lot changed in that small business, which is the Senate in terms of how it viewed Joe Lieberman.

BOLDUAN: But again, I guess a reality check, Democrats have to face this at every turn -- does it really matter what Democrats think here about the FBI pick?

CILIZZA: Yes, yes.

BOLDUAN: As long as they don't lose any Republicans?

CILIZZA: No, frankly. If Joe Lieberman is the pick, all Republicans have to do is get all 52 of them to vote for it. Why is that? Because in 2013, Harry Reid changed the rules on cabinet nominations and other nominations like the FBI.

Now, Mitch McConnell changed the rule when it related to the Supreme Court in terms of ending debate and allowing votes to happen. But no, they could lose two votes, 50, have Mike Pence break the tie.

My guess is if they nominate Lieberman, he is almost certain to get all of the Republicans, maybe peels off a Democrat or two, and would make it.