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White House in Turmoil; Fired FBI Director James Comey Reportedly Wrote a Memo Stating that President Trump Asked him to End the Michael Flynn Investigation. Aired 10:59p-12mn ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 22:59   ET

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


(FOLLOWS KASICH/SANDERS TOWN HALL DEBATE)

[22:58:05] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Jake and Dana, thank you very much.

Let's get to the news tonight, our breaking news, and it is a story, here we are again, another one that's rocking the White House, the Trump White House, already in turmoil.

This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon. Thanks for joining us.

Fired FBI Director James Comey, reportedly wrote a secret memo stating that President Trump at a meeting in the Oval Office asked him to end the investigation into disgrace National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Sources familiar with the matter confirm this story, which was first reported in the New York Times. And there's more, another source telling CNN that Comey wrote down, quote, "everything he could, everything he could remember after his conversations with the president."

The source saying, quote, "It's when you have situations that are not routine, and people are not truthful, you would write a memo to file." That memo is the clearest sign yet of potential interference by the president with the Russian investigation.

[23:00:02] Raising some serious questions of obstruction of justice, and throwing the White House and the Capitol into chaos tonight.

We got it all covered for you. I want to bring in now CNN's Mark Preston and Jim Acosta, also Pamela Brown. They have been covering the story intensively throughout the day.

Pamela, I'm going to start with you. You helped confirm this information as it first reported by the "New York Times," President Trump asking the former FBI director, James Comey, to end the Flynn investigation. What are you learning now about this Comey memo?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are learning through our sources that he was appalled by this request, this alleged request from President Trump and his oval office meeting back in February where the President essentially asked him to stay behind. There was meeting with other people including the attorney general Sessions, who said they should go. He has asked Comey to stay behind according to the source. And at that point, he was asking about the investigation into Michael Flynn. And according to what former FBI director Comey documented in this memo, he basically said, you know, I hope you can let this go. And the way that director Comey took it, was that he was essentially asking him to end the probe into Michael Flynn.

And this is one of several memos that have said direct -- former director Comey apparently wrote after his conversations with President Trump because he felt it was important to memorialize some of these conversations and the contents of them. Of course, we know about the dinner that happened in January. This oval office meeting where Comey apparently believed that the President was trying to get him to end the Flynn probe, and he felt like it was important to document it, and so that is really what was behind this because he felt like there could be an ethical or legal issue for that matter - Don.

LEMON: So, again, he -- in his role, he -- it would be normal for him to take notes, but you said, he said he wanted to do this. He is taking all these notes because he wanted to memorialize these specific events to this case?

BROWN: Right. So Comey is someone who has -- he likes to keep a paper trail. That is sort of historically what he' has done. But sources I have been speaking with says it was not typical for him to document every single conversation he had with a high level official like he did with one-on-one conversations with Donald Trump because he felt it was important, it was monumental enough to memorialize that and keep track of it in case something happened down the road, and, you know, he also shared with a close circle of friends, one source spoke with said he used close friends as a sounding board after these conversations he would have with the President, he would called them up and really used them as a sounding board to relay what he had written in that memo. He would do it right after the conversations to make sure that included the good, the bad, I mean, he talks about, you know, that the crowd sizes in the inauguration, that was one of the aspects and he also documented in the memo and its conversations with President Trump. So it wasn't just, you know, ending the Flynn probe, but everything he could captured in the memo.

LEMON: All tight. Jim Acosta, to you now. Jim, you have been at the White House every day when you are not traveling with this administration. The White House under fire tonight. How are they responding? It seems right now they are really quiet considering the situation.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Don. And I'm getting a sense of anxiety inside this White House, even some gloominess from talking to officials earlier this evening.

We should point out, first of all, the bottom line is the White House is essentially saying that James Comey is not telling what happened during this meeting between himself and the President no matter what it says in this memo. We can put out the official White House statement that they released to us earlier this evening. It says the President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn. The President has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Foreman Comey.

And I talked to a senior White House official who said, no. We are not disputing the fact that they had a conversations. They had conversations all the time when Comey was the FBI director. But they are saying -- this official was saying that there was never a conversation of this nature that occurred between the President and Jim Comey.

But, Don, I have to tell you, I talked to another top White House official earlier this evening who picked up the phone and did not even attempt to spin this controversy and said, you know, I really have nothing for you on this, and the tone there was almost defeatist as if they know that this is, or at least this one individual is acknowledging that this is a very difficult news cycle for this President.

On the other hand, Don, we should point out, there's some folks who advise this President from the outside who are still very combative about this. Talked to one source earlier this evening. He described the controversy surrounding this memo as being BS. And another one saying that, perhaps, this outrage might even help the President with his base.

And there was one other sign of combativeness over at the White House earlier this evening. The former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski was on the White House grounds, I'm told, by a source familiar with those movements. And so it's possible that if not the President, then barely top people at the White House are getting advice from Corey Lewandowski was obviously get some sharp elbows during the campaign, as we all remember, Don.

[23:05:17] LEMON: Interesting turn of events if that all turns out to be true.

Mark Preston, I want to ask you now. A spokesperson for speaker Paul Ryan said tonight, and this is a quote, "we need to have all the facts and it is appropriate for the house oversight committee to request this memo." It seems like to me, and I don't want to read into this, I want to get your opinion. This is subtle green light from the speaker to investigate the President or as John Kasich said tonight in our town hall just moments ago, Paul Ryan needs to be more aggressive.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: I think that was very telling to hear that from the governor of Ohio, John Kasich, who in many ways really is cut from the same cloth of conservatism as Paul Ryan is. You know, they are both very, very fiscally conservative. They are also social conservatives. And quite frankly, they both come from this Midwestern part of the country where they are similar.

So for John Kasich to come out and say that, I think, is extremely important. But to your point, I do think for Paul Ryan's spokesperson to come out and say that is telling, I do think we are going to start to see is more Republicans come out, Don, as we slowly see it trickle right now, demanding answers because what they can't have is to have every day be like today and yesterday. And you know, you and I often talk over the first three months of this administration, it seems like it's a crisis every time at about this time of night.

LEMON: I can't -- I'm trying to remember what the breaking news was last night. It was classified information. And then there's the night before and then the night before that and before that. It just seems - it on and on. You wonder when people of good conscious, especially Republicans are going to stand and say, wait a minute, this is enough chaos. This is nothing to do with partisanship. It has to but country.

I want to bring in my colleague David Gergen.

David, you know, the governor Kasich also said that this is not a time for Republicans to hide. You say, and these are your words, we are in impeachment territory. Is that going a little too far, too fast, do you believe that? Because you were in the mix (INAUDIBLE).

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Don, I think we are in very serious moment for the country, you know. We had two Presidents who have been accused of obstructing justice, one was Richard Nixon. And it basically forced him to resign before the indictment and before impeachment. Bill Clinton was accused of obstructing justice. And he was indicted. He won in the Senate.

And now we have another example of a President who is at least the questions are there. I'm a lapse lawyer so I can't tell you what for sure stands up in court. But I think for most laymen, perspective to see a President telling an FBI director what to do in terms of investigation is impeding justice.

LEMON: I think - let's put up the quote while you said that. Because this is according to the memo according to the "New York Times" and said when they had the meeting, and note what you said, and again, Comey, one of his associates read parts of the memo to the "New York Times" reporter. It says I hope you see your way clear for letting this go, for letting Flynn go. Mr. Trump told Comey according to the memo. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.

How else does one interpret that? And I have heard people try to interpret, well, he was just trying to help out a friend, but doesn't the United States does not help out a friend that way.

GERGEN: No, no. I think that's right. And I think it's wrong to interpret that as, well. He really was not directing him, and, therefore, it is not an impeding the investigation. I'm sorry. The President of the United States is the most powerful person in the country. And when he suggests you do something, you take that as a direction. And if there's any doubt about why the President was serious, let's remember, he get fired him when he turned out not to be his boy, not doing what the President wanted, and he fired him.

So there's a lot of strength behind. When the President may talk in a soft way, but the direction and what he wants done was very, very clear.

LEMON: Did Republicans could come along reluctantly during the Nixon administration?

GERGEN: Yes, at the beginning, yes. And then it broke as documents came out, as evidence came out, you know, as tapes came out, it made a big difference, and Nixon's support in the country fell apart.

LEMON: And it was a cover-up as we say.

GERGEN: It was a cover-up. And the fact -- I think there's something that even transcends it, Don. And that is we are in a remarkable moment when we have this three bomb shells in a row in a space of just a few days as you said where the Comey firing. And they had the sharing of high, high level intelligence with the Russians, of all people. And now, we have evidence the President was trying to interfere in the investigation.

This is a presidency that from this -- this presidency that seems to be falling apart. And many people are asking, where does this go from here? Where does this end? How do we stabilize Washington and get the country back on track because I think a lot of people are very disoriented by this, very upset by it, and there's some people who think on the conservative side, both telling me, you know, we are just blowing of where the proportions (INAUDIBLE). The other people think we have had a President who, you know, the wiring is not quite correct.

[23:10:17] LEMON: I will leave it there. Thank you.

I want to bring in now John Dean. He is a senior contributor.

John, you know David Gergen. You guys worked together in Washington during the Nixon administration. You are White House counsel for Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Is this worse?

JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Is it worse than Watergate? Well, this is more like the end of a presidency than the start of one. So what we are seeing in this accelerated week, if you will, is not something that's normal. And so, it is worse than Watergate was never like this at the beginning, but it did get that in the end.

LEMON: So President Trump's actions, is it an obstruction of justice in your eyes?

DEAN: Well, you know, there are two lines of cases. And I happen to look at this real closely over the years, and have long discussions with prosecutors including the Watergate special prosecutors, as to whether or not Nixon had committed an obstruction when he had the CIA interfering with the FBI investigation.

And there are two lines of cases. One that say when you have a pending judicial action and somehow the FBI's involved in that, and you slow them down, that is an obstruction. However, if there's no impeding proceeding, then it not an obstruction. So that's the question here. Is there -- was there a pending proceeding and was this really an obstruction? It could go either way.

LEMON: So David Gergen has said that we are in impeachment territory. Are we going to see impeachment proceedings?

DEAN: Well, Nixon was ultimately impeached for obstruction. And it was - one of the clauses, paragraph four of the first article laid out interference with the FBI investigation. So it's certainly is in the area of impeachable offense, which is a very different standard than the criminal law. And this is obviously a sitting President. He is not indictable. So we are only -- the only option is whether or not this is an impeachable offense.

LEMON: You're shaking your head, David, why?

GERGEN: Well, I think John Dean is absolutely right. And, you know, we don't -- it's often been said in Washington, we don't know exactly what impeachable offense is. The House of Representatives determines what that definition is. I think there is a practical matter, as long as Republicans control the House of Representatives. There will be no impeachment proceedings against him. But as John I think would say, look, the Democrats are trying to pull together information. They are starting to file lawsuits. They got Larry Tribe, a constitutional scholar involved with this to build up the case so in the event they could take back the house in 2018, this could be right in the center of the campaign. Then they might start proceedings on it.

But I think John would agree. John, I can't speak for you. But I don't think they will do it now with Republicans are controlling things, but I do think people are accumulating evidence.

DEAN: I agree, David.

GERGEN: Yes.

LEMON: John, I have to ask you because sort of the excuse for this has been from the Trump supporter supporters, surrogates, and Republicans in Washington, well, this is a different person. He is not a politician. He doesn't know what it is like to be the President. Basically saying he doesn't know the gravity of the office. Is that an excuse for his actions?

DEAN: I don't think it is an excuse for his actions. He sought the office. He sought the office knowing he knew little about the office. He held up his hands and was sworn in to the office. He is not surrounded himself with people like David who has some experience. To the contrary, he has brought in rookies who knows less than he does. And I think we are seeing the consequences as a result of his presidency, what's happening, it's falling apart.

LEMON: But not only rookies who know less than he does, but people who it appears are afraid to stand up to him. They won't tell the emperor he is not wearing any clothes or they just won't stand up and say, Mr. President, you should not be doing this. You may want to fire me after the conversation, but this is something you ought not to be doing.

David or John. Go ahead.

DEAN: Unique responsibility here is the White House counsel post- Watergate now has a very clear responsibility. They represent the office of the President. Not Trump, but rather the office. And they are the group that probably under the greatest strain and would be professional required to speak up and advise the President. And question is, are they doing their job?

GERGEN: Absolutely. The general council here at the White House, and again, and he was tipped off by Sally Yates who came to him, talked to him three times, and --

LEMON: If she was still there, she would still be going back over to the White House saying, hey, listen --

GERGEN: Yes.

LEMON: This guy is compromise.

GERGEN: Exactly. And again, going to the President, well, what did he tell him? You know, did he really make it clear what was going on? Or did he just sort of pass it off, you know, whatever.

I think this second person here is really important here is having a strong chief of staff, Jim Baker or Leon Panetta type who can cracks a whip in the White House and bring the order out of chaos. But even with that, Don, we have been saying for some days now that he has assemble a strong national security team. You he has got Mattis and Tillerson and he has got McMaster in the National Security Council. But with the Russians, McMaster was there and Trump went off script and told the secrets. So even with terrific people, this guy can be awful.

[23:15:38] LEMON: I was surprised that McMaster came out and even made excuses for the President, a President who had contradicted him in tweets the night before, the morning before, and came out --

GERGEN: He fell on the short list.

LEMON: I want to ask you this because the acting FBI director Andrew McCabe testified before Congress just last week. There was a key -- there were a key part of what they wanted to get. And I want your reaction to this. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Mr. McCabe, can you -- without going in specifics of individual investigations, the American people want to know, has the dismissal of Mr. Comey in any way impeded, interrupted, stopped, for negatively impacted any of the work, any investigation, or any ongoing projects at the federal bureau of investigations?

ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: As you know, senator, the work of the men and women of the FBI continues, despite any changes in circumstance, any decisions, so there has been no effort to impede our investigation to date. Quite simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people, and upholding the constitution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: OK. So, John, the White House --. Go ahead.

DEAN: I suspect the FBI and many of them double down, Don, and are actually more committed to this investigation now than they were before Comey's removal.

GERGEN: I think that's right what John Dean just said. There is an interesting question whether McCabe saw, has seen the latest memos that have been written by Mr. Comey overtime. And I think that is going to be a major part of this story because --

LEMON: Sound bite, would he know at that point?

GERGEN: He may not.

LEMON: Because McCabe's answer, the White House is pointing to McCabe's answer here. But if you look at Senator Marco Rubio's question, right, he is specifically asking whether the dismissal of Comey impeded the investigation.

GERGEN: That's exactly right. And so we don't have clear testimony on the point at issue. And that is whether, in fact, President tried to impede. We don't even know if Comey's memo is true. You know, White House is saying it's not true. So in fairness, both sides need to have to present the case. And if there are tapes, the Congress needs to have them and the Congress needs to have the memos so that, you know, the -- let the trail lead where it might. It's very important that the President have a fair hearing.

LEMON: This is what I thought was one of the most important things in this article that I'm reading from the "New York Times." It says, John, an FBI evidence contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.

DEAN: That's very true. If there's any effort to impeach him, he can turn to his notes and they can be used to refresh his election. Sometimes they can even be put in evidence. So this could be a powerful document.

LEMON: Gentlemen, thank you.

When we come back, much more in the breaking news, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle now coming for James Comey to testify in an open hearing. I'm going to talk to two of them.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:22:22] LEMON: Breaking news, sources saying FBI director James Comey wrote in a memo that President Trump asked him to end the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Let's discuss now. Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Florida Republican on the ways and means committee. Welcome to the program, sir. Thank you for coming on.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA: Good evening from sanctuary hall. Good to be with you, Don.

LEMON: Absolutely. This is bombshell. This is bombshell news. It was first reported by the Times. The key facts confirmed by CNN as well. What's your reaction?

CURBELO: Well, I think we need to approach this situation with both sobriety. And also in a very serious way. We should not be alarming people because we still have to gather the facts, but neither is this something that we can just sweep under the rug and dismiss.

What I have proposed is that director Comey come to Capitol Hill and testify under oath regarding his conversations with the President and if these memos do indeed exist, that they be handed over to Congress so that we can review them. And once we have those facts and once we better understand what was said, what was not said, then we can figure out how to proceed.

But with this situation, just like with all of the other scandals and controversies that are ongoing right now, the American people deserve to know the truth. And I think an important first step would be to get director Comey here to offer public testimony, not behind closed doors, under oath, obviously, so that we can get to the truth.

LEMON: Listen, you said as much and you tweeted out very early on. And part of the tweet you said that this is a sad chapter of scandal and controversy in our country. If this is true, you say, again, sad chapter, is this obstruction of justice?

CURBELO: Well, it depends. We have to hear from director Comey. Obviously, any effort to stop the federal government from conducting an investigation, any effort to dissuade federal agents from proceeding with an investigation is very serious and could be construed as obstruction of justice. And we have seen that these obstruction of justice cases, when they have to deal -- when they deal with Presidents can get ugly very fast. Now, I'm not accusing anyone. We don't know yet what happened. So far what we have --

LEMON: You're saying if, you are saying if?

CURBELO: If the allegation is serious, and it must be looked in to.

LEMON: Yes. You are saying if. I think everybody gets. You said if it is obstruction of justice, if it is, is that impeachable offense for you?

CURBELO: Traditionally in our country, the House of Representatives obviously is the judge because the house decides whether or not to impeach obstruction of justice. In the case of Nixon, in the case of Clinton, and in the lay '90s, has been considered an impeachable defense. Now, again, we need to get director Comey in here. He needs to lay it all out. We have to seek any evidence, and then decide how to proceed. It may be something very serious. It may be nothing. [23:25:22] LEMON: Yes. I want to ask you because earlier tonight

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said that he would like to see less drama from the White House. And that was before this latest report. Is this White House spiraling out of control, do you think?

CURBELO: Don, this daily dose of controversy, of scandal, of instability is bad for the government. And I think it's also very taxing on the American people. People in this country are talking about politics every day, 24/7, and that is very unhealthy because the reason we are talking about it is because of all the controversy, the divisions, the tenor of our politics. So I would urge the White House, I would urge all my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats. We really need to try to reset here because the American people are quickly losing the trust and confidence in our government. And our institutions are what keep us safe and what protect our rights in this country. So I'm very concerned. And I hope that we can get to the bottom of all of these issues, expose the truth so that everyone can see it, and then we're due from a political renaissance in this country.

LEMON: OK. Let me ask you that then. Because - and I don't mean to interrupt you, but just for time's sake, I have to lot to get to tonight. When you thinking about all of this, and I wonder what you are thinking about others in your party because we have, and you mentioned some of this, scandal on a daily basis, the firing of the FBI director, threatening him with tape, divulging those classified information to the Russian, now apparently trying to shut down investigation into Russian interference. The Trump campaign collusion possibly.

And, listen, this, all of this goes to the top. This is not the media. Media is just reporting this. The President is tweeting all of this stuff out. He is making these calls himself within the oval office to give up information. He is doing this himself. This person, the President of the United States, is the standard bearer of your party. Is this the person you want as a standard bearer of your party?

CURBELO: Well, what I say to this White House to the President and to his team is that they need a different strategy. This is clearly not working. There's a lot of important work to be done in this country. Taxes, infrastructure, immigration reform, a host of issues that the American people expect progress, that the president made promises, that many of us who ran for re-election on both sides made promises.

If we are going to keep those promises, if we are going to advance an agenda that can make the people of this country proud, we really need to put an end to this instability, to all of these controversies that bubble up every single day. And, obviously, leadership starts at the top, so we all have to take responsibility from the President to every member of Congress. Of course, the opposition, I think, sometimes is just disingenuous and overly opportunistic. We really need to put this country first at some point. And I think right about now is a good time to start.

LEMON: I think most Americans would agree with you and they would like to see the politics taken out of this.

Thank you very much, representative Curbelo. Appreciate your time.

CURBELO: Sure, Don. Have a good night.

LEMON: You as well.

I want to bring in now congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois Democrat, member of the oversight and government reform committee.

Good evening to you. Thank you for coming back on.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D), ILLINOIS: Hi, Don.

LEMON: First of all, what is your reaction to the news about the FBI director Comey in saying the President asked him to end this Flynn investigation. I hope you can let this go?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I think it is deeply disturbing to say the least. You know, I reviewed the classified documents relating to Michael Flynn as part of my role on oversight committee. It raised more questions than answers. Now, that we have learned that according to this memo that supposedly exists in Mr. Comey's possession, that the President asked him to stop the investigation into Michael Flynn. And then subsequently fired him, potentially because he continued the investigation. It's very, very disturbing.

LEMON: If things are - because the "New York Times" reported first and then CNN confirmed it, if they are proven true, is this obstruction of justice, do you think?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, it would appear to me, obviously, senator McCain is talking about approaching a Watergate style set of facts here, and others are doing the same. But it would appear to me if he fired Mr. Comey in effort to terminate the investigation into himself, that would appear to be obstruction of justice, and that's extremely problematic to say the least.

LEMON: OK, so I want to -- this is what Jason Chaffetz said. He tweeted this out earlier. He said government oversight is going to get the Comey memo if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready (INAUDIBLE). What role would oversight committee now play on this do you think?

[23:30:13] KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I was hardened to see that, Don. I think that, you know, tonight Jason Chaffetz actually issued a letter calling for all notes, memoranda, tapes, as well as these memos that pertain to Comey's conversations with the President. I was very heartened to see that. That was a big step forward in terms of bipartisan investigation.

However, it's not a subpoena. And so, although Mr. Chaffetz had talked about - has talked about having subpoena pen, I think it's time to buy some subpoena ink and actually issue some subpoenas to get these documents and records if the White House does not voluntarily produce them. LEMON: The "New York Times" reported this saying that Comey was at

the White House for a terrorism meeting in the oval office with vice President Pence, and attorney general Sessions when the President asked Pence and Sessions to leave. OK. And then they asked - he asked Comey to stay. Could they be witnesses to corroborate Comey's version of the events along with the memos that he took or the notes that he took?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: There could be witnesses, but there could also be tapes. That's why when the President tweeted at, like, 8:26 a.m. on Friday morning, last Friday morning, that there might be tapes that Mr. Comey should be concerned about as he continues to talk about what happened during his time as FBI director, I called for production of these tapes, if they exist. Later that day, Sean Spicer did not deny that they exist. And as of now, I have not seen any denial that they exist.

We should get the tapes because if they do exist and recorded these conversations between the President and Mr. Comey, they could really clear up exactly what transpired between the two of them.

LEMON: Representative Krishnamoorthi, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you. Thank you, Don.

LEMON: All right, I want to discuss this now.

Joining us now is Robert Ray. He is a former White House independent counsel, special prosecutor, also CNN legal analyst Page Pate and Laura Coates.

OK. Here we go again. Another night.

Robert, I have to ask you, CNN confirmed the FBI director James Comey wrote in this memo, and you are looking at the article from the "New York Times," that came up first. Is the President guilty of obstruction of justice if this is true?

ROBERT RAY. FORMER WHITE HOUSE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL & SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: Well, the part about "if this is true," I mean, the "New York Times" headline, which I guess will be in tomorrow's paper, says that the President asked him to end the Flynn investigation, which is not what the quotations apparently from Jim Comey's memo say.

LEMON: Let's see the quotation. The quotation says, I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go to letting Flynn go. I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, letting Flynn go. Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey according to the memo, he is a good guy. I hope you can let it go.

RAY: I mean, I can see the obvious, which is that the optics are not great. But expressions of hope and intimations do not equal corrupt intent if we are talking about trying to prove obstruction of justice. I mean, that, you know, that's a big leap.

LEMON: OK. Do you think he is trying to influence him?

RAY: Well, I think, you know, you can also pass it off, if I just fired the guy, OK. Enough is enough already. I hope you can see your way to kind of, like, just let this go.

LEMON: Robert.

RAY: No. Well, you can laugh.

LEMON: Come on, Robert.

RAY: But that, you know, the people are throwing around obstruction of justice as if --

LEMON: Robert, if I'm your boss, and I said to you, Robert, listen. He is a good guy. He is my friend. I hope you can let it go. What do you think I mean?

RAY: Well, obviously, I mean, people seem to think that if they have Jim Comey on the stand before Congress under oath that he is going to admit that this constitutes obstruction of justice. I have news for you, I think that's very unlikely to happen.

LEMON: So you don't think the President of the United States was trying to influence Comey at all?

RAY: I think he was trying to measure and gauge him. And --

LEMON: In order to what end?

RAY: In order to find out what, you know, the sense of the person he was dealing with. Remember, this is early on. We are talking about --.

LEMON: Hang on. Hold on --

RAY: We're in January.

BROWN: LEMON: Sense of the person for what reason?

RAY: The sense of the course of the investigation, which he has every right to find out. He is the executive branch.

LEMON: He should know about an investigation - he needs to know the details of the investigation that involves him as well?

RAY: He didn't asked the details.

LEMON: But that's what you just said. I'm just following your line --

RAY: He was trying to make an assessment of who it was he was dealing with. And by the same token and by the same measure, Jim Comey did the same thing.

LEMON: OK. RAY: And Jim Comey as a result of that did what he should have done.

One, he documented what happened. Two, he didn't disclose it to the investigators, which is to say his job was to protect the investigation.

LEMON: Yes.

RAY: Which is apparently what he did. And, three, he did so potentially at the price of his own job, which is ultimately what happened.

[23:35:06] LEMON: Laura, what do you think? Do you see where I'm going with this?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is. I mean, this is kind of why people hate attorneys, right? Because we tend to say things and parse words and use defenses that can often belie common sense, not necessarily that he doesn't know what he is talking about, but this is why people are very skeptical about the credibility of attorneys who protect different entities and organizations.

What we have here is not yet risen to the complete criminal level of obstruction. But you certainly do have the intimations and the influence and the contextual clues that can get you there. Remember, the most important thing here to think about is two things, number of one, at this discussion, at this meeting, the President said, Sessions, leave the room. Why do you have Jeff Sessions leave the room? Because he has already rescued himself from any discussion about the campaign related investigations and Russia. Now, enter into the story - you are going to have a conversation about the very topic that you know that your attorney general, Comey's boss essentially, cannot be a part of.

This intimation gets you a little bit more towards that pendulum shift away from the innocent, benign conversation and far more to someone trying to push their way around and not just inquire as to what type of person I'm talking to, but whether or not I have a marionette at the end of the string.

I agree with the former guest who talked about the idea that Comey was also feeling him not to see what he was dealing with. But remember, the reason that the FBI does not want to disclose the nature or the ongoing nature of investigations is because they want to protect the opportunities to gather as much evidence as they need.

LEMON: OK. Before I get Page in, do you have a response?

RAY: Well, I mean, sure. That's a beautiful display of potential interferences that can be drawn and speculation that can arise as a result of what this meeting is, but that's a far cry from everybody throwing around words like, obstruction of justice, impeachable offense, all the rest.

Look, I am a lawyer. And because I'm a lawyer having both prosecuted obstruction cases and defended obstruction cases, obstruction requires proof of corrupt intent. And I got to tell you, without context and without ultimately knowing that behind all of this is credible evidence that there was collusion with regards to the Russians and that it was orchestrated by the White House, you know, this seems to be me, I hope you can let it go, again, and intimation. That's not enough.

LEMON: The initial question, though, Page, if this is true, if the memo's true, is it obstruction of justice? That was the original question.

PAGE PATE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Don, the memo itself is not obstruction of justice. But Laura's right, it's the context. It is not just the words that the President said. It is how did he say them, where did he say them, and what was the circumstance at the time?

So I think if you add in all of the other evidence, everything else that was going on, he asked the attorney general and vice President to step out of the room. The words that he uses, certainly important, but how he says the words also important. I mean, to have the federal crime of obstruction, corrupt influence or an attempt to corruptly influence an investigation, that's a very vague standard, for a lawyer, for a jury, for a judge. And so I think you can't just look at the words that he said, but you have to consider how he said them.

LEMON: But according to the "New York Times," Comey, the reasons he - one of the reasons he wrote these notes is because he felt the President was pushing him to back off this investigation.

PATE: Absolutely. And how it affected Comey, the person who is hearing these words. I mean, it's the subjective impact that it has whether you intend to obstruct is important, but the effect that those words have even more important in a situation like this.

COATES: And I'm actually glad, if I can jump in here, glad you said that Page. Because remember here, we are talking about, this is in conjunction with the testimony of the now acting director of the FBI who said, and you talked about it earlier in the program, he has not felt that there has been any impediment to the investigation or anyone one hindering in any way. Whether that was him being defiant in some way or holding things close to the brow, we do not know. But fact does undermine that subjective impression of suggests impressions that the investigation is being impeded or obstructed. So we need to do -- hear more from Comey, the FBI, and understand the other contextual clues to determine whether or not we actually do have a true criminal obstruction case. Impeachment? That's for congress. In the court of law, this is a high sentence. We are leaning towards that now.

LEMON: That's going to be the last word. Thank you. I appreciate it. Very interesting conversation.

When we come back, much more on the breaking news is President Trump's. Is this President Trump's Watergate?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:48:37] LEMON: The White House grappling with a fire storm tonight reports President Trump asked FBI director James Comey to close the investigation in a former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

I want to bring in now CNN global affairs analyst Tony Blinken and a former deputy secretary of state and for deputy national security adviser, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley and Doug Wead.

Good evening to you. Here we go. Another evening, Doug Brinkley. We were talking about some bomb shell story coming out of Washington and the White House specifically. Just one week ago, the President fired FBI director James Comey launching a fresh scandal, with shades of Watergate. Then yesterday reports the president disclosed classified information to Russians. And tonight now, there is news about the FBI director believed that president was trying to interfere in the Russian investigation, and then he documented in memos. What is the state of the presidency right now?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: The White House is in utter chaos. Donald Trump is kind of trolling about. He doesn't really have any advisers that can calm him down. He has made so many mistakes, you know, the way that he has used twitter, the potential here for obstruction of justice, the cover-up attempt, the fact that you are getting Republicans on their heels right now.

I think today was sort of an end of the line for Donald Trump. Question's always been will Republicans start jumping ship? And you are starting to get intimations of that. John McCain, this evening, put out one of the harshest comments I have seen yet about Donald Trump. And there is a fear that we might be having a Watergate 2 impeachment, the smell of impeachment in the air now.

[23:45:13] LEMON: Tony Blinken, what do you think? Do you agree with that?

TONY BLINKEN, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, you know, there is just an accumulation that at some point you think the dam has to break. I don't know when the point is. We said that before. But this is just incredibly corrosive in so many ways. It's mostly corrosive to people's faith in our institutions and leaders when you see this day after day after day. And when I step back and think about this, you know, this all started in large part with the concern that Russia had tried to influence our election, and what they were trying to do was undermine people's faith in our institutions.

And now, unfortunately, the President by his actions is actually doing Russia's work for it. Every step along the way now, firing Mr. Comey, apparently, sharing this intelligence that he shouldn't have shared. And now perhaps having to try to influence Mr. Comey to lay off Mr. Flynn.

All of that actually does exactly what Russia was trying to achieve in undermining the credibility and legitimacy of our institutions and our leaders. So that's what's really bad about this, and why it -- one way or another needs to end. And I hope it ends with the President starting to act like a President.

LEMON: Yes.

Doug, before I move into specifics, I just want to get your just general response to this breaking news.

DOUG WEAD, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Yes. I disagree. I don't -- I see it totally differently. I mean, the Jim Comey firing is portrayed like the FBI or 12 men operating out of a garage, and so he is fired, and that ends the investigation. And what's not been said and what's not discussed is his successor, Andrew McCabe is a Democrat, who investigated Hillary Clinton, found her innocent, and his wife, Jill McCabe, received $700,000 when she ran for office in Virginia from the Clinton machine, $500,000 of it from Terry McCallough (ph). No one talks about that. He is the acting director of the FBI.

LEMON: What does that have to do with the investigation?

WEAD: It has to do with the fact that all day long people have been saying he fired Comey, therefore, he was trying to obstruct justice by keeping the investigation into the Russian collusion. Well, it didn't stop the investigation at all. It didn't even cause a roadblock --

LEMON: With all due respect, I still don't understand what one has to do with the other.

WEAD: Well, you just mentioned that your guest before mentioned the firing of Comey as part of the obstruction of justice because just because you get rid of Comey, you don't get rid of the FBI investigation, the current acting --

LEMON: I'm still trying to understand what that has to do with the current FBI guy being a Democrat and investigating Hillary Clinton. I don't see a clear line here.

WEAD: Because the President does not improve his chances in the investigation by exchanging Comey for Andrew. There's no improvement for Donald Trump.

LEMON: Andrew is the acting director, correct?

WEAD: That's correct.

LEMON: OK. So the -- he has to appoint -- he's going to appoint a permanent director.

WEAD: Maybe, but they are considering McCabe too.

LEMON: Does anyone on this panel want to respond to that?

BLINKEN: Look, I served with Andrew McCabe. He is a consummate professional. So, you know, it's -- it's always fun to try to tear down people in order to distract from what's really going on, but you are barking up the wrong tree tearing down Andrew.

WEAD: I'm not tearing him down. I'm just stating the fact he is a democrat. So it's not improving the President's odds by getting rid of Comey.

BLINKEN: No. What he is is a professional. And that may not improve in the president's odd either. BRINKLEY: Well, I guess the point maybe you are trying to make, Doug,

it's little disjointed. But, look, the FBI is not about one person, and they are going to continue with this investigation. Question is, it Donald Trump in the position to choose a new FBI director? Will Senate, Congress approve somebody who Donald Trump even picks?

I think Trump has a real problem in the Republican Party now. People are starting to look for an exit strategy. The very fact that Comey kept this memo, is it going to be a permanent record? He is probably going to end up testifying in front of the Senate hearing. This Russian situation's not going away. It's because Donald Trump, President of the United States, is not being forthcoming about what his relationship is with Russia.

He is every moment trying to hide, deflect, fire, ignore, blame the press, blame Democrats when it's Donald Trump's problem. Whatever he did in 2016 with Russia, there needs to be a transparency. And the fact that he had (INAUDIBLE) on the goal ti pull Comey aside and try to get him to be easy in Flynn, Doug, give him a get out of jail pass for free and therefore maybe I'll keep you, Mr. Comey, on as FBI and we'll be in cahoots together is really troubling.

[23:50:23] LEMON: I'll give you the last word here, Doug Wead. Go ahead.

WEAD: Well, President Obama tried to work with Russia when he came into power over Syria and the bureaucracy resisted him just as they are now resisting Trump. They don't like -- they're pulled kicking and screaming in that direction. They don't want to go there. It's almost like another branch of government, the bureaucracy. So it's a similar crisis. It was a similar crisis.

BRINKLEY: But here is a thing. We just had a cyberattack in 2016 on our election system by -- with Russian involvement. Everybody knows Russia was involved with the cyberattack. That's different than when Obama was president. Maybe you forget (ph) what you're talking about.

WEAD: Well, that's more recent. But we have had interference with elections from foreign governments from the very beginning.

BRINKLEY: Not like this.

WEAD: (INAUDIBLE) was an agent of the United Kingdom. Thomas Jefferson was an agent of the French. All through our history we have had. Yes, we have had worse than this with the Chinese under the Clintons where millions of dollars were donated to the Clintons and Chinese officials in the oval office. And the money had to be refunded. Your viewers can Google it and read all about it.

LEMON: You don't that this is an interference of a different kind especially when it has to deal with cyber and about putting out propaganda through means you didn't once have to do. You can spread it faster and quicker than in any point in history, Doug Wead?

WEAD: Well, technology has changed maybe so that the Chinese -- the money that came into the Clintons that had to be refunded that came both to the DNC and came to the President's legal trust fund, that had to be refunded. There were 66 criminal counts brought against the people who made the donations. That was a serious crisis. And some of the donors were from the people's republic of China. They scattered when the FBI tried to prosecute them.

LEMON: Let's get this back on track. I want to bring Tony Blinken back into this.

Tony, I don't know if you want to respond to any of that but in my questioning, you can respond however you want. But please answer, what is a denial from the White House worth these days?

BLINKEN: You know, Don, again this is the problem. What we have seen with President Trump and this pains me more than anything else is an adversarial relationship with the truth going back a long time. Time and time again. We have heard things from the President that basically have made him the main consumer and purveyor of fake news and misinformation. And as a result his own credibility is self- tattered. And what we have seen in all of the stories you have referenced this evening is in the first instance the White House coming out and saying it never happened. And then the next day, the President himself saying well, you know, what it did and it's fine because I did it.

And this is also putting a lot of very good people in a very tough spot. There are very honorable men and women working for the president who are in a hard place. H.R. McMaster, Dina Powell, others who now have to vouch for him and then find themselves undercut the very next day by the President himself.

And all of this is just incredibly corrosive to our democracy and to our standing in the world. The President is about to go off on a very important trip. And I think this story is going to hang on him like a dead weight.

LEMON: Yes.

BLINKEN: And he will be focused on that not on doing the business of the country and our nation's security when he is traveling abroad.

LEMON: Tony Blinken, Doug Wead and Douglas Brinkley, thank you very much.

When we come back, more on our breaking news. Some Republicans distancing themselves from the President. Where does the GOP go from here?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:57:55] LEMON: Here is our breaking news tonight. Fired FBI director James Comey reportedly wrote a memo stating that President Trump asked him to end the Michael Flynn investigation.

Let's discuss now. CNN political commentators Kevin Madden, Ana Navarro and Jason Miller.

OK. Jason, I'm starting with you. Your reaction to this breaking news.

JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think it's important first and foremost point out that the White House is denying that this conversation happened that supposedly what was said in the course of this to sitting down. But what really jumps out at me is this inconsistently.

So Comey came under a lot of criticism for having to do in what his mind was morally right with coming forward after Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch had their meeting on the tarmac. He had to go and notify people on Capitol Hill when they found out this information just before the election in Anthony Wiener's computer. But supposedly he has this conversation with the President and he doesn't go public or he doesn't decide to resign. It just seems really inconsistent from his previous MO.

LEMON: OK. So what's your reaction?

MILLER: I think it is preposterous. I just think it doesn't make any sense and so I don't buy it.

LEMON: All right. Kevin, what do you think?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, my first reaction is I can't believe it's only Tuesday. You know? It's a lot of news in the last 48 hours.

But you know, to Jason's point, look. I think the idea that it's preposterous that a, you know, person with a 20-year record of law enforcement having worked at the FBI and having worked as a prosecutor would keep detailed notes about investigations that he was involved in, I think is actually very believable. And we have seen courts that do take very seriously the contemporaneous notes of FBI agents about the investigations that they are working on. So I think it does present a challenge for this White House to respond. And I also think it continues to present them a challenge given that there are 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.