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Donald Trump's Rough Week; White House Hopes for a Reset; Comey to Testify in Public; Trump in Saudi Arabia; Iranian Presidential Election; Pippa Middleton's Big Day. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired May 20, 2017 - 00:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Friday's bombshells: more damaging reports for the Trump administration after what can only be described as a brutal week for the White House.

And hoping for a reset: Donald Trump is hours away from landing inside Saudi Arabia with perhaps a chance to change the narrative.

Also, on the edge of royalty, Pippa Middleton gets ready for her wedding with rather a distinguished guest list.

Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier, live from the CNN NEWSROOM in Atlanta.


VANIER: It's been a busy news day. We're learning a lot on the Trump White House. And that is all happening as the president is about to arrive in Saudi Arabia for his first trip abroad.

First, sources tell CNN that Russian officials were so confident of their close relationship with Trump adviser Michael Flynn during the U.S. presidential campaign that they bragged about it amongst themselves.

They believed that if Mr. Trump won the election, they could use Flynn to influence the White House. That's number one.

Number two, the former FBI director James Comey, who Trump fired last week, looks like he is ready to tell his side of the story. He'll be testifying before Congress in a public hearing. That'll be before the Senate Intelligence Committee sometime after May 29th. An exact date hasn't been set yet.

We're also learning this. President Trump reportedly insulted Comey before Russian officials in the Oval Office, the day after he fired him. According to "The New York Times," he called James Comey "a nut job."

And finally, CNN has learned that lawyers within the Trump White House have started researching impeachment. The White House also considering hiring an outside legal team.

We're going to break down all of this. But first, let's dig into sources telling CNN that Russian officials bragged about how close they were to Michael Flynn. Here is Pamela Brown.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Multiple sources tell CNN that Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated such a strong relationship with former Trump adviser Michael Flynn that they believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team.

Now those conversations deeply concern U.S. intelligence officials and it even impacted what intelligence the incoming administration was privy to because some Obama intelligence officials acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn.

A former official tells our Gloria Borger that the way the Russians were talking about Flynn was regarded as a, quote, "five-alarm fire from early on," according to our sources.

And the Russians' conversations indicated they regarded Flynn as their ally. Officials cautioned, though, that the Russians might have exaggerated their sway with Trump's team during those conversations.

Now Flynn's relationship with Russia developed throughout 2016, months before he was caught on an intercepted call in December, speaking with Russia's Sergey Kislyak. That ultimately led to Flynn's firing as Trump's first national security adviser.

CNN has reached out to both Flynn's lawyer, who declined to comment, and the White House, who said, "We are confident that when these inquiries are complete, there will be no evidence to support any collusion between the campaign and Russia."

Top former Obama intelligence officials and members of Congress briefed on the matter have all said the same thing -- Pamela Brown, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: This is probably the most tumultuous week yet in Trump's presidency and that's saying something. It's all happening as Trump embarks on his first foreign trip and it's an ambitious one. As CNN's Sara Murray tells us, the White House is hoping the trip might be an opportunity to reset, a break from the controversies at home.


SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Donald Trump leaving Washington behind as he aims to use a high-stakes foreign trip to escape the cloud of controversy marring his presidency. But just as he took off, a fresh controversy broke out.

"The New York Times" reporting that Trump told Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting that firing FBI director James Comey relieved some of the pressure on him in the Russia investigation, Trump reportedly describing Comey, who was overseeing the Russia investigation at the time, as "a real nut job" and saying, "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."

The White House did not deny the account.

In a statement, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, "By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia.

"The investigation would have always continued and, obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it."

Trump's allies are hopeful the president will use his ambitious five- nation foreign trip as an opportunity to move beyond complaints about the Russia investigation.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The entire thing has been a witch-hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign.


MURRAY: And refocus on his presidential agenda.


TRUMP: We want to get back and keep on the track that we're on because --


TRUMP: -- the track that we're on is record-setting. And that's what we want to do is we want to break very positive records.


MURRAY: It's a reset Trump's colleagues are openly wishing for as well.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: He clearly did have a bad two weeks. Clearly it's my hope that he does right the ship, that he improves so that we can just get going.


MURRAY: But in Washington, the discussion is still dominated by the chaos of the past few weeks, largely caused by the president's own actions. As questions continue swirling about the president's snap decision to fire Comey and where the Russia investigation, now helmed by a special counsel, will lead.

And the president will have a number of pressing issues to deal with as soon as he returns from his foreign trip. Among them, whether to hire an outside legal counsel now that a special counsel has taken over this Russia investigation.

And of course, who he will pick to be his next FBI director after firing James Comey -- Sara Murray, CNN, the White House.


VANIER: Two different sources are telling CNN that White House lawyers are doing research on impeachment procedures and they're consulting experts on this. Now the White House denies this, saying it's not true.

And it is still very uncertain that President Trump would indeed face a real effort to remove him from office.

According to sources briefed on a legal discussion, the president still has the backing of Republicans in Congress and Democrats for their part have actually silenced talk of impeachment because they're concerned that it's premature and they don't want to overreach.


VANIER: And CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer joins us now, he's a political historian at Princeton university. He joins us from New York.

Julian, CNN has learned the White House lawyers are doing research on impeachments. That's a striking headline.

But shouldn't we be really surprised, given the last few weeks that the word "impeachment" is flying around, that the lawyers are actually looking into this?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, we shouldn't be surprised in any organized White House facing these kinds of circumstances, especially as the news changes so rapidly toward these kinds of conversations. You'd expect the White House counsel to be looking into this.

But nonetheless, if you see this on the front pages or on the television screens, it's still shocking, given how rapidly these events have been moving and how quickly this term "impeachment" has entered into the public lexicon.

VANIER: But just to be clear, it would be a lawyer's job in a situation like this to actually look into it and brief whoever needs to be briefed at the White House, right?

ZELIZER: And we shouldn't read anything into it. This is actually what you would expect the counsel to do. It could be not necessarily pro forma. But this is what lawyers would be looking into, just understanding what a process could be. It doesn't mean that process will happen, though.

VANIER: So tell me about James Comey. The fired FBI director, he is going to testify publicly, we learned a short while ago. It sounds like he is eager to tell his side of the story and to tell it himself.

ZELIZER: Well, it's now become clear, from everything we've learned, that he was very uncomfortable with how the president treated him and the president's attitude toward the agency and toward the investigation.

And I think he wants to clear his name. I think he wants to separate himself from this White House that was -- he was a part of.

And remember, this is the FBI director who said he was mildly nauseated at the idea that his announcement on Hillary Clinton might have swayed the election. We don't know how much he is going to say, though, remember.

VANIER: Right.

ZELIZER: Now there is a special counselor who is looking into this and might be hesitant to have Comey say too much in public while this other investigation is taking place.

VANIER: I was going to say, my guess is he can't reveal, really, the detailed content of the investigation or even the general content of the investigation.

So given that and given that we found out a lot already about how he felt with respect to Donald Trump, what is the worst that could come out of this hearing for the White House?

ZELIZER: Well, the worst that could come out is he will speak more than we think. And he'll actually express some of the sentiment that we've now heard about through his memos and through this story about how reluctant he was to take this embrace from the president early in the administration.

But my guess it is might be less dramatic than we think. I think he might reserve most of his most impactful material for the special investigation that's now taking place through the administration.

VANIER: Donald Trump told the Russian foreign minister last week that there was a lot of pressure on him because of Russia and, now that he's fired Comey, the pressure is off. Those were his words to Sergey Lavrov.

Doesn't that sound more and more like obstruction of justice?

ZELIZER: Sure looks like it. And it sure sounds like it.

If you just look at the sequence of events from the memos we have now read from former director Comey to his firing to this conversation with the Russians, it's hard --

[00:10:00] ZELIZER: -- to reach a different conclusion. That doesn't mean this is the right conclusion. We need to learn more. And we need to know what he meant and what his tone was.

But it's certainly hard not to think that. And that's why an investigation is now essential. There is no more question that we need a very serious investigation into whether the president tried to stop this investigation into his administration and its relations with Russia during the campaign.

VANIER: All right, Julian Zelizer, thank you very much for coming on the show.

ZELIZER: Thank you.


VANIER: And President Trump is in the air right now. When he lands, he will officially start his first foreign tour with a stop in the Saudi Arabian capital. We'll tell you what he's got planned, after the break.

Plus, voting wraps up in the first round of Iran's presidential race. And as the ballots are counted, we look at what is at stake in this contest. Stay with us.




VANIER: U.S. President Donald Trump will touch down in Saudi Arabia in the next few hours and his first diplomatic trip abroad comes at a chaotic time for the White House, which has faced a seemingly never- ending stream of controversies.

So a long trip outside Washington could be just what they needed or it could make things even worse. President Trump spends Saturday and Sunday in Saudi Arabia. First on the agenda, bilateral talks with Saudi King Salman, with the crown prince and with the deputy crown prince.

Mr. Trump will also meet with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and he'll be addressing the need for a peaceful vision of Islam at the Arab Islamic American Summit.

Saudi Arabia has made a point of giving President Trump a lavish welcome. So CNN's Nic Robertson has been talking to people in Riyadh to get their thoughts on Mr. Trump's visit.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: The Saudi royals are rolling out the red carpet for President Trump.

But what does the rest of the country think?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe he make apologize for all Muslim, what he say about Islam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like Trump. He is good.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because he is going to different everything.

ROBERTSON: He is making everything different?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything different.

ROBERTSON: What do you want from it?

Why is it so important?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we would like to confront Iran. Iran has expansionist policy in the region. It has Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has Houthis in Yemen. And we would like to confront this expansionist policy.

ROBERTSON: So is President Trump a good man?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language)




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE). He try fix the mistake they make with Obama. He make big mistake.

ROBERTSON: This is the same President Trump who had a very negative message about Muslims in his campaign trail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. But it's always sad that campaign rhetoric --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- tends to change after the election.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And he come into Saudi Arabia because he like Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia like USA.

ROBERTSON: One of the things he is going to do while he is here is deliver a speech to all the leaders here about Islam and, to ask the leaders to preach a peaceful version of Islam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it's a goal to confront radicalism but not primarily Islam, I mean. But radicalism is evil and should be confronted here and elsewhere. ROBERTSON: Expectations on both sides are high. There is a lot at stake and this just the beginning of President Trump's multi-day, multi-country trip -- Nic Robertson, CNN, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


VANIER: Let's get more on the Saudi perception on this. Salman Al- Ansari is in Riyadh. He is the founder of the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee.

Salman, we heard in that report from Nic Robertson, Saudis seem very positive about Donald Trump.



To be honest, if we look at the strategic and geopolitical challenges, we would realize that there is a huge need to basically have this partnership with the United States, to basically have the United States to be back to the game.

And I think that the Trump's administration's visit to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has an unprecedented strategic importance, not only to the region in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East but also to the global security. So it's very needed.

And that's why the king of Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries and also the Arab Muslim world are very excited to have President Trump. And all that we want from this administration is basically to talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to confronting the challenges that we have in the region, specifically confronting --


VANIER: All right, but, Salman, tell me what specifically?

Because we know the Saudis were weary of Barack Obama. They felt that, under Obama, Washington did not have their back.

What is it specifically that they like about Mr. Trump, what are they hoping from him?

AL-ANSARI: Yes, I think when it comes to Obama's administration, we had definitely ups and downs. It's like a zigzag. It's not like completely negative. It's not completely positive.

But we think that the Trump's administration has more of a clear understanding of the roots of the issues here in the Middle East. And the roots of the issues is basically the sectarian practices of the radical Iranian regime.

So all that we need is to basically see the United States to be back to the game in such a way that would ensure all the U.S. partners in the Middle East and the world to be a more -- in such a position where they confront the challenges with unified policies.

So all that we need from the Trump's administration is basically to be having a unified policy to confront the Iranian regime. Right now we are speaking of more than 75 militias that are supported by the Iranian regime, just in Iraq. So imagine what is going on in Syria. Imagine the IRGC practices. Imagine the Hezbollah practices.


VANIER: All right. So you want to hear from Mr. Trump how he is going to confront Iran in the way Iran projects power across the region. I understand that.

Let me ask you a question that Nic Robertson asked Saudis in his report.

The travel ban that Mr. Trump tried to put in place in the U.S. was decried by some in this country as anti-Muslim, does that not factor in for Saudis?

AL-ANSARI: I don't think Saudis see this to be an anti-Muslim decision. It's up to the Americans to basically do all that it needs to secure their borders, to secure their nation. And it's something that did not actually get projected to the Saudis as something to be anti-Saudi.

And we have heard the crown prince himself, basically saying that Trump is actually a true friend to Islam, a true friend to Muslims. And the biggest proof of all that is that President Trump chose Saudi Arabia to be the first visit. That in itself is very historic, very strategic.

And it has a clear picture of what the Trump administration is trying to do not only in the Middle East but in the whole world when it comes to combating the challenges and all the basically difficulties that the region is facing.

So we believe that Trump's administration is pragmatic enough to basically address the issues very decisively because what we need right now is a decisive action approach.

We do not need talks and talks without having real actions.


AL-ANSARI: And we can tell that the Trump administration is an administration that takes actions so seriously and they have a clear picture of what is going on in the Middle East and that's what we need.

So we will have a lot when it comes to security cooperation. We will have a lot when it comes to intelligence cooperation. We will have a lot on economic collaborations. So we'll have a breaking through level of mutual understanding --

(CROSSTALK) VANIER: All right, Salman.

AL-ANSARI: And the United States.

VANIER: All right. Listen, thank you very much for your time. Thanks for coming on the show, Salman, telling us the Saudi versus warm on Trump's decisive action that they're expecting from him. Certainly have been warming to him in particular since Washington targeted Syria and that Syrian airfield a few weeks ago.

All right. Thank you very much.

And Salman was telling us about Iran and the way it projects power in the region. Well, in that country, votes are being counted after polling in the country's crucial election was extended well into the night.

High voter turnout led to long lines at some polling stations. President Hassan Rouhani is seeking a second term in office. He is considered a moderate. He was a driving force in the nuclear deal made with the U.S. and other partners in 2015.

While his main rival is a conservative, a cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who has cast doubt on that nuclear deal. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held and that will be in a week's time.

Julian Assange says his fight is far from over, despite Sweden's decision to end a rape investigation against him. The WikiLeaks founder, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, still faces a British arrest warrant.

His lawyer is calling on the U.K. to provide safe passage for him to Ecuador. And Assange says, despite the decision by Sweden, he has already paid a high price.


JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER, WIKILEAKS: It by no means erases seven years of detention without charge, in prison, under house arrest and almost five years here in this embassy without sunlight.

Seven years without charge while my children grew up without me, that is not something that I can forgive. It is not something that I can forget.


VANIER: A lawyer for one of the Swedish women who accused Assange of sexual assault says the decision to drop the investigation is a scandal.

All right. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, she practically stole the show at her sister's wedding. And now Pippa Middleton is getting ready to say I do. We'll give you all the details. (MUSIC PLAYING)



VANIER: Welcome back.

We're hours away from the biggest wedding of the year in the U.K. It's not quite a royal event but Pippa Middleton is about to walk down the aisle. That means most of the royal family, including her sister, the Duchess of Cambridge, will be attending the ceremony. Our Erin McLaughlin has more.



ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's not quite a royal wedding but on the scale of hotly anticipated nuptials, it's pretty close. With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attending, 3- year-old Prince George and 2-year-old Princess Charlotte taking starring roles as pageboy --


MCLAUGHLIN (voice-over): -- and flower girl. And Prince Harry on the guest list, Pippa Middleton's wedding to financier James Matthews is said to be Britain's wedding of the year.

Though the details are being kept under tight wraps, the bride and groom-to-be have been spotted in the English countryside, attending to the final preparations of the 12th century church, where the wedding ceremony will take place, just a few miles from her parents' estate and the marquee reception.

Pippa Middleton first grabbed the world's attention at the wedding of her sister, Kate, to Prince William in 2011. As maid of honor, her dress and, more precisely, her figure made headlines. Suddenly the overshadowed younger sister shot to fame.

PIPPA MIDDLETON, SISTER TO THE DUCHESS OF CAMBRIDGE: It's been a crazy couple of years since my sister's wedding. But it's had its upside and downside. And I feel really fortunate to be able to build a career as a writer.

MCLAUGHLIN (voice-over): With the celebrity status came opportunity. Pippa authored a book. She even became a contributor for "Vanity Fair."

After dating a string of high society men, 41-year-old Matthews popped the question last summer after almost two years of dating. Despite all the interest in the couple themselves, the biggest question is whether Prince Harry's girlfriend, Meghan Markle will be his date.

Speculation abounds but it's unknown if the American actress will accompany Prince Harry to either the church or the reception. If Markle attends, it will be the couple's highest profile outing to date and may spark rumors of another royal wedding in the wings -- Erin McLaughlin, CNN, Buckleberry.


VANIER: Thailand has possibly one of the greatest cuisines in the world. And that's great, provided you're human. If you're a rotund primate, not so much, especially not this primate, who ate and ate and ate and ate. His name: Uncle Fat, the star attraction at a Bangkok market for all the wrong reasons.

The chunky monkey has been snacking on so much food left by tourists that he is now three times bigger than he should be. He even had other monkeys bring snacks to him.

Don't worry, though, Uncle Fat is now on a strict diet of lean protein, fruit and vegetables. He is being looked after before he can be released back into the wild with a more natural looking shape.

All right. That's it from us. Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. Stay with us. I will be back with the headlines in just a moment.