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CNN TONIGHT

Witch-Hunt in American Politics; Tested by Challenges. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired May 18, 2017 - 22:00   ET

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


(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

[22:00:00] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: ... of course, tonight it's a defiant president doubling down on the eve of his crucial first foreign trip.

This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.

After an uncharacteristic silence from the commander-in-chief, he can hold back no longer and speaks out, first in the series of tweets calling the naming of a special counsel a witch-hunt. Then again, while taking questioned for the first time since the bomb shell news broke. Witch-hunt, bad for the country, his word.

His own alternative reality in the midst of a crisis of his own creation, all while insisting he did not ask James Comey to back off Michael Flynn, but new details tonight in the New York Times, the president contacting Comey, made him, quote, "unsettled."

Members of the president's own inner circle now urging him to lawyer up.

Let's get right to CNN's Mark Preston, Chris Cillizza, and Jeff Zeleny, also Michael Isikoff from Yahoo News.

Good evening to all of you. Jeff, I'm going to start with you. President Trump held his first news conference since the avalanche of breaking stories this week and he was asked about the Comey memo. Let's take a look.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn? And also as you look back...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, no. Next question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Jeff, emphatic no. What else did the president say?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Don, you get the sense the president did not want to talk about that all that much. He did not want to push back on this. And really it was an opportunity for him to give his side of the story, his rebuttal, if you will, to all of those, you know, the information that we've been learning in the memorandums that the FBI director was holding and really keeping in real-time here.

But the president made clear that, you know, he's angry by this idea of an independent investigation into this, it's the last thing he wanted, of course he said it's a distraction, he called it a witch hunt. He didn't mince word as he was talking about what he really thinks about this investigation. Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Well, I respect the move but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero.

I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: Well, he's right about the fact it's a divided country, no question at all about that. But in terms of a witch hunt, Don, you couldn't find many republicans agreeing with that today in Washington. Across the board in the house, to the Senate, across this town.

Many republicans thought this was a good thing, that there is a special counsel looking into this, someone of the stature of Bob Mueller, the former FBI director for 12 years, you know, from 9/11 forward, looking into this.

But the president calling it a witch hunt suggests, you know, there's nothing there, suggests there's a motive here. The reality here is he said again and again and again there's no collusion.

Don, we don't know the answer to that question. That's what this investigation is supposed to find out. If there was collusion between the Trump campaign and any Russian operatives. We don't know that there has been, we can't get ahead of ourselves here.

But this is as a serious matter. The FBI, you know, has says it's a serious matter. His firing of the FBI director last week started all of this. This special counsel would not have happened without that, Don.

LEMON: We don't know that's why it's called an investigation, right, Jeff?

ZELENY: Right.

LEMON: I want to bring in now Chris. Now Chris, let me ask you about this. Because there's also some new reporting tonight in the New York Times about another interaction, a phone call between President Trump and James Comey. Let me just read part of the New York Times story speaking this one. "President Trump called FBI Director James B. Comey weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation according to two people briefed on the call. Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau's investigation, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedure."

I mean, Chris, this is yet another example of pressure and inappropriate contact from the president.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE, CNN: Yes, no question. Look, the only two options here, Don, are did he do it knowingly to sort of lean on Comey or did he sort of blunder into it because he just didn't realize what you can and can't do?

I guess my default position is the latter, which is that Trump does and says many things that who shouldn't be saying and doing, whether it's little things like I would say with the Colombian president today essentially saying, hey, I appreciate your answer on the wall but let me tell you the real answer.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Let me answer your question for you, right.

CILLIZZA: Right. He does a lot of these things because I think he is used to being sort of the face and cheerleader of a business. He's not used to being the President of the United States. I think when he got briefings to the extent that he got them, when he got briefings on what you say and what you don't say, I'm not sure he listened all that well.

[22:04:55] And as a result, I think these things happen. Comey was probably taken aback by the very question, but my guess is Trump didn't even know necessarily he was doing anything wrong. He just kind of wanted to know the answer.

LEMON: Yes. He doesn't realize as I've been saying for a while now, he doesn't realize that he's a public service -- public servant. I want to ask you guys about this. This is also in this report. This is, we've all seen that video, right? When Comey's at the White House, right, and then the president calls him over, sort of awkward and then James Comey walks over and it looks like the president I thought was trying to give him a kiss on the cheek, when he leans in right there. When I said, well, maybe it's a whisper but it's also, it's weird.

Here's a video of Comey at the White House on January. And according to Benjamin Wittes, a friend of Comey. Comey said, "Comey didn't want to go. Mr. Comey, who is 6'8' tall and was wearing a dark blue suit that day told Mr. Wittes he tried to blend in with the blue curtains in the back of the room in hopes that Mr. Trump would not spot him and call him out. But Mr. Trump spotted Mr. Comey and called him out. Comey said that as he was walking across the room, he was determined that there wasn't going to be a hug," Mr. Wittes said. "It was bad enough there was going to be a handshake, and Comey has

long arm so Comey said he believed reached out for a hand shake and grab the president's hand but Trump hold in into an embrace and Comey didn't reciprocate. If you look at the video it's one person shaking hand and another hugging."

Let's take a look at the video.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: He's become more famous than me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Director Comey.

(APPLAUSE)

LEMON: Come on, Mark. That was really awkward, don't you think?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Right.

LEMON: I just saw James.

PRESTON: So two reactions. One, it's a good thing that Comey was the head of the FBI and not the CIA. Because clearly he was not good enough to be a spy and to hide into those curtains as he was trying to do.

But also the awkwardness, it's like going over an aunt's house and her trying to give you a kiss and try to pull you in and you just -- you just don't want to do it.

LEMON: Yes.

PRESTON: Now for Comey, though, like being very serious here, that's a very awkward moment for him. And I would say I do agree with Chris that Trump doesn't understand these things but I would think at this point in his career, in his life, he should understand those things.

And I think we all agree on that but no one's ever told Donald Trump no.

LEMON: The reason he was there is because those guys had helped him out, have protected him for...

(CROSSTALK)

PRESTON: They were law enforcement officials...

LEMON: At the inauguration...

PRESTON: ... and people who had helped...

LEMON: And he wanted to thank them and Comey didn't want to go but he said he needed someone to represent the FBI. Go ahead, Michael Isikoff, what do you make of that? It was an awkward moment. MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: It

was an awkward moment but there's been so many Trump has had with Director Comey and law enforcement and the Justice Department in general. It is clear he doesn't accept the boundaries that have been basically laying out the guidelines for interactions between the White House and the Justice Department and the FBI for years.

And that's why, you know, when -- just look at his reaction to the appointment of Bob Mueller as special counsel. The first thing he says is he expects this to be wrapped up quickly. And then he does this tweet saying it's a witch hunt.

So he's essentially saying that the special counsel investigation is groundless. It's not needed, he wants it wrapped up. I really think is something we got to watch here, is he laying the groundwork for down the road, a dismissal, a firing of Bob Mueller, which he has the power to do.

Unlike under the old independent counsel statute where the independent counsel is a creature of the court, Bob Mueller is still an officer in the executive branch, he could be fired by President Trump and it's something that I think everybody should be thinking about down the road if this investigation goes on and goes on in directions that the president doesn't like.

LEMON: I mean, Jeff Zeleny, as if there isn't enough chaos in this administration. I mean, imagine him firing Mueller. I mean, come on. Do you, I guess it's a real possibility but just imagine, you know, the optics of that.

ZELENY: I think Michael raise as very good point in terms of a lesson of history. We draw so many parallels to Watergate. Well, this is a different moment in every respect obviously but particularly on the law there.

So I think, you know, it is certainly a possibility but, look, I think that the optics of that would be horrible. I mean, I can't imagine what Congress would do, but the term witch hunt, there's one person in this town that I've heard using that term today, that's the president. There aren't republicans on Capitol Hill saying that.

Speaker Ryan was asked directly about it. He said, look, let the facts be the facts go where they go here but republicans are by and large, at least the ones speaking out are supportive of this here.

[22:09:57] So, the president is a bit on an island here in terms of calling it a witch hunt. He is trying to delegitimize this whole episode, this whole investigation right from the very beginning, as he's trying to do with the media and other things.

LEMON: Yes.

ZELENY: And you know, we'll see if it works or not. But I think there are enough reasons to believe that this investigation should go forward. And again, it's only one of them. The House and Senate are still investigating even though they've been watered down somewhat because of this.

LEMON: And Chris Cillizza, there's also another person who used the term witch hunt. And we can put this up. This is from the 1970s. I believe this is 1973. Nixon sees witch hunt insiders say and by our very own Carl Bernstein and also Bob Woodward.

CILLIZZA: I've never heard of those two guys.

LEMON: Yes.

CILLIZZA: Yes. Look, there's no chance that Donald Trump knew that but this is the problem.

LEMON: But isn't that the problem, if you don't know the history?

CILLIZZA: Yes.

LEMON: if you ignore it you repeat it, yes.

CILLIZZA: You're doomed to repeat it. He doesn't have any sense of what circumstances dictate what reaction. So everything coming out of the White House last night was, Don, was it's a measured reaction. He was angry about the special prosecutor but we put out that statement, he's good with it.

What do you wake up to at 7.30 this morning? Donald Trump witch hunt, persecuted. The reality of the situation is any time he speaks publicly, you see the real Donald Trump, the Coast Guard commencement speech where he basically says I'm the most persecuted person ever, you have to learn to be like me and fight, fight, fight and I tell you you're going to succeed.

When he tweets, in that bilateral press conference with the Colombian president, in which he reveals what he really thinks which is, yes, it's fine, sure, yes, the special prosecutor is fine.

That's said, it's terrible and it is a witch hunt. I mean, those two things don't go together, right? Either you think that the special prosecutor, fine, it makes sense. Or you try to undermine it. You can't say those two things in back-to-back sentences unless you're Donald Trump.

But watch what he says, not what's coming out of the White House. What he says he's very transparent about what he believes and he doesn't fake it or he didn't really try to fake it and do the political thing.

LEMON: Yes. Well, listen, Michael, we all wondered, everyone wondered how long it would take for him to respond to this. You know, I think he was off of Twitter maybe 17 hours, it took for him which is probably I think the longest time he's been off Twitter.

But he does and many of his supporters like to call people snowflakes and he is probably, if you look at his behavior, he may be the biggest snowflake of them all.

ISIKOFF: Right. Look, so much of this entire problem that the White House has with this investigation has been fueled by his own behavior.

LEMON: Yes.

ISIKOFF: And even today, if I could mention the reporting that we did today about how he's still in touch with Michael Flynn, who is the subject of this investigation. Even sending him, as we reported today, a message to, quote, "stay strong."

Now, that is something that any lawyer would say -- would tell the president you can't do, you can't be communicating with the subject of a criminal investigation. The optics of that coming after what we know he said to Jim Comey, asking him to back off the investigation of Flynn, it has certainly all the ingredients of, you know, that could be made for a case of witness tampering and obstruction.

Now, the response from the White House and from Flynn's defenders are, no, these are two guys who are loyal, who were in the foxhole together in the campaign and he's just reaching out to a good, loyal friend and trying to buck him up when he's down on his luck.

And maybe that's the case. But to do it under these circumstances is only guaranteeing more problems for himself. You can bet that Bob Mueller will want to see any -- all communications that President Trump has had with Michael Flynn.

LEMON: That may work when you run the company but not when you run the country. Thank you all. I appreciate it.

When we come back, why my next guess says Robert Mueller and James Comey could be the two men to bring down the president.

[22:15:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: President Trump saying the appointment of a special counsel hurts the country and calling the Russia investigation the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history. It's not.

I want to bring in now journalist Garrett Graff, the author of "The Threat Matrix." Good evening, Garrett. Thank you so much for coming on. You wrote a biography -- absolutely -- on Robert Mueller, you also have a new article out for Politico with this headline "What Donald Trump needs to know about Bob Mueller and James Comey." What's the answer? What does he need to know?

GARRETT GRAFF, "THE THREAT MATRIX" AUTHOR: Well, so these are two men who actually have had very parallel lives over the last 20 years. They have risen into the elite ranks of the highest levels of the Justice Department and then worked actually very closely together in the years after 9/11 when Jim Comey was deputy attorney general and Bob Mueller was FBI director.

They have a partnership that's longstanding, deeply trust one another and were really the two central figures in what is now the famous 2004 hospital room incident involving John Ashcroft and the Bush White House and a showdown over the NSA's terrorist surveillance program. LEMON: Yes. It was over the surveillance program. Tell us more about

that. They show up at his hospital room in the middle of the night but go on, tell us about that.

GRAFF: So this was something that unfolded over the first couple of month of March 2004, or the first couple of months of 2004, culminating in March when this program known as code name Stellar Wind was due to expire.

And Jim Comey believed under the Justice Department's rules it was unconstitutional and illegal and he went toe to toe with the White House and Vice President Cheney to get it shut down. Vice President Cheney disagreed, thought it was an important part of the government's tool kit and told Jim Comey that the program would kill Americans if it was allowed to expire and that blood would be on Jim Comey's hands.

It culminated in this dramatic hospital room visit to John Ashcroft's bedside, then the attorney general, where Jim Comey, Andy Card, then the White House chief of staff and Alberto Gonzalez and the White House counsel...

[22:20:06] LEMON: Yes.

GRAFF: ... all met to try to force Ashcroft against Comey's wishes to sign off on the program. Comey and Bob Mueller teamed up and brought that to a halt.

LEMON: It just showed you how -- it shows you how dogged that he is in his pursuit, when he's given something, he sees it to the end. You said that Comey told you he enlisted Mueller's help because, quote, "I knew that no one cared about losing a deputy attorney general, but he said, but no president could weather losing an FBI director."

And you say that phrase has been rattling in your mind for the past week. Explain that to me, Garrett.

GRAFF: Well, to a certain extent, one of the things that's worth thinking about with that phrase is that the idea that even in 2004, Bob Mueller was someone who is so wide respected, so clearly nonpartisan and apolitical, that Jim Comey knew that he could enlist Bob Mueller.

And that if Bob Mueller made this argument to the White House, it would be a clear that there was no hidden agenda, that this was just Bob Mueller and doing the thing that he thought was the best for justice in America.

And that was really important back then and I think it's a really important lesson to think about now with Bob Mueller as the special counsel.

LEMON: You also write this. You say, "It is as if after having an unrelated disagreement over a movie trivia -- over movie trivia in a bar, Trump has challenged Usain Bolt to a 100 yard dash or John Cena to a cage match to the death."

So you don't see this ending well for the president I gather.

GRAFF: Well, so this is a territory where Bob Mueller and Jim Comey have spent their entire careers. They understand deeply how to do these prosecutions, how they will unfold. Bob Mueller is a tenacious prosecutor who is going to follow this wherever it leads.

Now the good news, though, for President Trump is if there is really no there-there, I think Bob Mueller is perhaps the only person in America who could declare that Donald Trump and his campaign is actually innocent and that would be respected and trusted by both political parties.

LEMON: How do you see President Trump's relationship with the truth impacting this investigation?

GRAFF: Well, I do think that that's a real challenge. Because when you look at the history of special counsels and special investigations like this, whether it's Ken Starr in the 1990's or Pat Fitzgerald investigating the Valerie plane leaks in the 2000s, often the charges that end up stemming, the controversies that end up growing out of these cases are not the core, they're the perjury or obstruction of the investigations as they unfold.

And for an administration that has a challenged relationship with the truth, the first instinct is not going to be to tell Bob Mueller and the investigators the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

LEMON: And that's where you get yourself in trouble. Garrett Graff, thank you. I appreciate it.

GRAFF: My pleasure.

LEMON: Joining me now on the phone is former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. He is a dean of the Belmont University College of Law.

Thank you for joining us, sir. I really appreciate it.

The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein put former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel for this. Where do you see this investigation going? As many experts have pointed out for Bill Clinton, as you just heard my last guest say that investigation started with Whitewater, ended up with Monica Lewinsky.

ALBERTO GONZALEZ, FORMER UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, it's really hard to predict, isn't it? Obviously Bob Mueller has been given wide latitude to do this investigation and sometimes this is very hard to predict where investigations are going to go because today we don't know of certain facts and certain incidents and certain actions and certain statements have been made.

It really not made public. So, it's really hard to predict. Also, it's hard to predict how long this is going to take, quite frankly. But given the fact that you've also got investigations going on in Congress, you know, that the FBI, Bob Mueller investigation may conflict with the congressional investigation. One, Bob may decide to wait and let the Russia investigation proceed

to a certain measure. We don't know whether or not this investigation is it going to get close to the Oval Office. If so, might be there be an assertion of executive privilege? That might be something has to be litigated.

So, again, so many unanswered questions here.

LEMON: So which one would Trump the other, which one, again, no pun intended, but which one would Trump the other. Would it be the Senate -- the FBI investigation or the special counsel investigation, wouldn't that Trump all of them?

GONZALEZ: Well, not necessarily. For example, if it can actually the Senate investigation there is a very important witness, and in order to get that witness sign for Congress to grant immunity. That run of immunity may really jeopardize the ability of the prosecution to prosecute - prosecute that witness.

[22:24:57] And so again, there needs to be some level of coordination between these ongoing investigations, otherwise we may see a situation where justice is not done simply by virtue of the fact that, for example, Congress may want to get more information public about what really happened here.

But in doing so it may in fact hurt the investigation that's in Bob Mueller. So these are all things that have to be coordinated and will be coordinated so that, you know, the American people can be assured that, in fact, at the end of the day, we know what really happened here.

LEMON: In full transparency as it regards Robert Mueller, you have your own history with him involving the Bush era surveillance program. Again, I talked to my last guest about that. You came down on different sides. Is he the right guy for this job, though?

GONZALEZ: Well, he is. But there's so much about what your last -- your last guest said that's just incorrect. For example, it wasn't in the middle of the night, it was 7 o'clock. Bob Mueller was not even in the hospital room, we had left by the time we got there, there was no great confrontation quite frankly.

And in fact, the position it was ultimately championed by Jim Comey, the chief judge of the FISA court a few months later determined that actually the Bush administration position was a lawful position.

So, again, there's a lot of myth about what actually happened here with respect to the (Inaudible), which by the fact had three key components. Jim Comey actually approved two of them. It was just one component of that program that he had an issue with. But in any of that, yes to answer your question, yes.

I think of all the people in America that to the Congress and the American people would have confidence with someone like Bob Mueller who has obviously a great deal of experience with the FBI.

LEMON: Do you think that the president opened up a can of worms when he fired James Comey?

GONZALEZ: Well, if by that you mean has to ensure that we're going to find out what really happened here, I think that was going to have it anyway. I have great confidence in the FBI, and with or without James Comey I think the FBI is going to find out what happened here. I really do.

And I think that, you now, obviously having the leadership and experience of someone like Bob Mueller, this makes that I think that task even easier quite frankly. But you know, again, I think from my perspective even though I know about the FBI we would find it out what the truth is, if not through them, perhaps through Congress or in the American media.

So you know, it's very, very difficult I think these days to really hide any kind of wrongdoing. So I think we're going to get to the bottom of this.

LEMON: It's good to hear that you have trust in the American media. Thank you very much, Attorney General Gonzalez. I appreciate it.

When we come back, President Trump is hours away from his first foreign trip as president. But will all of his problems at home follow him abroad?

[22:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[22:30:00] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: President Trump leaves tomorrow on his first international trip since taking office. He's making five stops starting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, followed by Jerusalem and Vatican City. Then on to Brussels for meetings with NATO leaders, and finally to Sicily for the G-7 meeting.

Let's discuss now with Nicholas Kristof is here, columnist for the New York Times, and Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson Center.

Hello to both of you. Thank you so much.

And Nick, I'm going to start with you. And I think we need a spreadsheet to talk about. And I'm going to look at my notes. Because and I'm not being fictitious serious. The president fired James Comey, shared classified information with the Russians, then reports surfaced that Comey wrote a memo, in a memo that President Trump asked him to end the investigation of Michael Flynn. Now there's a special prosecutor, it's been appointed to handle the mess. Trump now calls it a witch-hunt. What's your reaction to all of this, this chain of events?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST: You know, it's a tsunami. But I must say that when he called it a witch-hunt, you know, these are self-inflicted wounds. These are not some other people saying that he was, you know, born abroad or something. These are very much self- inflicted wounds.

But I do think that part of the problem is that President Trump historically had something of a symbiotic relationship with the press, both when he was in New York and dealing with the gossip for us. And frankly when he was in campaign mode, I think that, you know, frankly, cable television in particular delivered -- he delivered good ratings for them and I think that, you know, they kept the camera on him.

And I think that now that he's in the White House, it's a very different kind of relationship and there is much more rigorous fact checking and what he does matters and policy matters. So, I mean, he's shooting himself in the foot right and left.

LEMON: He can't pick up the phone and pretend to be his own P.E. agent as he reportedly did back in the day and say, and schmooze people. That doesn't happen when you're president of the United States.

KRISTOF: And the camera is always on you. You can't B.Ss. people anymore. It's not about a great sound bite you deliver, it's about what actually happens.

LEMON: It's about actually delivering. Robin, President Trump leaves tomorrow for a nine-day, five-city foreign trip as I said in the introduction here.

Maggie Haberman and Michael Sheer are reporting in the New York Times that the president has told friends he's not looking forward to this trip, hasn't focus on the preparations. How essential is it to be prepared for a trip like this?

ROBIN WRIGHT, JOINT FELLOW, UNITED STATES INSTITUTE OF PEACE AND THE WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOLARS: It's an extraordinary trip. It's very ambitious. He's saying he's going to the birthplace of the three great Monotheistic religion, he's also going to see the leaders of NATO.

He's you know, this is a vitally important trip for establishing his image abroad. He's had a hard time establishing or acting presidential during his first 100-plus days and this is a time he has to deliver in a very short period of time the image of a commander-in-chief in control of American foreign policy with a vision of the world.

And of course there is a lot of concern that this is a president with very limited foreign policy experience. He's trying to do some very ambitious things like build an Arab version of NATO. He wants to try to push the Arab-Israeli peace process into yet another new round.

He, you know, he wants to build a coalition that will counter ISIS, Al Qaeda, and extremism generally and also as a counter to Iran. It's a very ambitious agenda. And it's just very hard to see how he's going to establish all he wants to do in a very short period of time with all this drama at home hanging over him.

LEMON: Nick, there are piece in the New York Times the one that I just referenced. It says, quote, "Mr. Trump's advisers acknowledge that they are concerned about his off-script eruptions, his tendency to be swayed by flattery and a possibility that foreign leaders may present him with situations he does not know how to handle. They worry he will accidentally commit the United States to something unexpected and they have tried to caution him about various scenarios."

So what do you think, do you think -- do you think the president -- do you think he's going to be his own worst enemy abroad?

[22:35:02] KRISTOF: You know, I think we'll see, we'll see nervously. Look, he can deliver, he's going to give a number of important speeches on the trip and he can deliver a speech from a teleprompter effectively as he did in his state of the union address, as he did in his inaugural addresses.

The problem is when he goes off script, and you know, there's going to be plenty of occasions when he may want to do that. And there's also a risk that he is going to pal around with somebody. I mean, for example, the Saudi leaders may want to get him to commit to a joining an attack on the Yemeni port Hudaydah. And it would be catastrophic if the U.S. were to commit to do that with compound of him in there.

There are all kinds, they're just a million places where he could make commitments or say things that would be embarrassing or worse for the U.S.

LEMON: I want to know, Robin, the president is also going to head to Israel and this just comes just a couple of days after it was revealed that he gave Russian diplomats intelligence, and intelligence officials information that may have come from Israel and they believe came from Israel. The president do you think he's going to be able to smooth things over with our key ally?

WRIGHT: At the end of the day, the Israeli needs the United States more than the United States needs Israel. This is a long standing intelligence relationship I think it's far less, it will have far less impact than it might have with some of our other allies.

So I think they can probably smooth over this. I think Bibi Netanyahu the Prime Minister is probably far more nervous about what President Trump intends to do on the peace process what he's going to ask of Israel.

This is a president who has said publicly he doesn't think that the peace process is at difficult as people have envisioned. And as we know from the many presidents who preceded him, the peace process is, in many ways, the toughest real nut to crack anywhere in the world diplomatically.

I think Nick is right the great challenge will be not the speeches he gives which will be scripted, it's those one-on-one exchanges where leaders will be asking things of him and he doesn't have the in-depth knowledge of the world or understanding of the real nuances and could get tripped up in terms of the kind of commitments he may end up making.

Let's just hope that some of the foreign policy advisers, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are with him to kind of advise him and make sure that he doesn't -- he doesn't wade into dangerous waters. LEMON: Nick, I'm looking at your piece here it's called dangerous

times for Trump and the nation. And part of what you write, quote, "Another danger is a risk for an erratic embattled and paranoid leader at home who feels that he may be going down the tubes anyways. In domestic policy presidents are constrained by Congress and the courts about what damage they can cause, but in foreign policy a president has a largely free hand and the ability to launch nuclear strikes that would pretty much destroy the world." Is this, I mean, is this a real concern of yours?

KRISTOF: This is something that has been talked about among the international security community for a while, and the fact that we now have a serious and criminal -- or serious investigation of President Trump and the campaign and possible collusion with Russia I think makes everybody a little bit more nervous. And the obvious parallel is with President Nixon in his late days. And I think we can learn from that.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: In 1974, right.

KRISTOF: In 1974...

LEMON: Yes. You said 1974, president -- when Nixon's presidency was collapsing his defense secretary James Schlesinger secretly instructed the military not to carry out any White House order to use nuclear weapons unless confirmed by him or Henry Kissinger.

KRISTOF: Yes. I think that is a useful...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Would that happen now do you think, no?

KRISTOF: I mean, I don't think Jim Mattis is going to send that message tomorrow but I'm sure Jim Mattis knows about it. This is a famous incident in security policy. It's something that was completely unconstitutional.

LEMON: Yes.

KRISTOF: But utterly the right thing to do, utterly wise. And I would that if you are -- I mean, at that time Nixon was drinking heavily, he was emotionally very unstable.

I would hope down the road that if something similar seems to be happening to President Trump and if there is real apprehension among our national security leaders and we have some good adult supervision there around Trump, that they will give a similar order to the military that if launch orders come, then they should be ignored.

LEMON: Let's hope we don't get to that point.

KRISTOF: That sure we don't...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Robin, Time magazine new cover shows the White House getting a Russian makeover. The stories about Russia looming over the Trump administration. Is this cover how the rest of the world views the White House right now?

WRIGHT: I think the rest of the world has a lot of concerns about the relationship, what might have been happening in the run-up to the campaign, how unsophisticated it might have been, what influence the Russians had in trying to manipulate our elections. They're concern in part because of the dangers that Russia may try to influence their own elections ad they did with apparently the French election recently.

[22:39:59] So, I think there is a deep concern about the relationship here about the lack of sophistication in the Trump campaign, that it actually could have been manipulated in some ways or that the Russians may have tried to manipulate the Trump campaign.

So I think that it is a concern. I think they're more concerned about how this plays out and the instability in the United States. Everyone wants a strong America.

The United States is at the end of the day for all its flaws and all its mistakes, it is still the most moral nation, it is the one that when there are conflicts, if the United States doesn't get involved, then it's hard to mobilize others elsewhere in the world.

LEMON: Yes.

WRIGHT: Everyone wants to -- the vast majority of country even those that don't like us very much, want to see a kind of stable -- a stable set of rules of engagement so they know...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: They turn -- they turn to the United States for guidance, right, and for stability. Thank you, Robin. Thank you, Nick. I appreciate it.

When we come back, the president calling the Russia investigation a witch-hunt but will it threaten his own party's agenda?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Our breaking news tonight, President Trump on defense over the decision to name a special counsel in the Russian investigation.

Let's discuss now with CNN political commentators, Anna Navarro is here, Kevin Madden, Alice Stewart, and Matt Lewis. Good evening to all of you. Alice, you first.

The president calling the entire thing a witch-hunt. He also tweeted today that he is the most unfairly treated president in history. Are the republicans proud of President Trump chief executive as victim posture? ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That depends on who you

ask. I mean, we all can acknowledge that a lot of the situation he's facing are self-inflicted wounds.

[22:45:01] And right now with the current situation, the silence among many republicans is deafening. And when we do hear from some, we have some coming out saying this is like Watergate, some are saying the White House is in a downward spiral.

But more than anything in what we're seeing is many republicans are now saying let's wait, now that a special counsel has been appointed, let them do their job, let them follow the facts where they lead and let them do their job.

Meanwhile, republicans here in Washington are focusing on getting their agenda through, getting it passed. And, as we saw from Speaker Ryan yesterday, focusing on pro-growth tax reform, making sure that they do away with burdensome regulations.

And going to set this side they're working on their version of health care. So in a way it's a blessing we have this counsel. They can do their job and let members of Congress do their job and put their agenda through.

LEMON: But Kevin Madden, Kevin, is any of that getting through? Because the president is off, you know, saying things and doing things and tweeting in press conferences about other things when he could use the occasion of having a special counsel appointed and say, listen, I cannot talk about that, we're going to move on with our agenda.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Alice is right in that the Republican Party's salvation does lie in promoting their agenda, fulfilling the promises that they made to the American public in 2016.

But, yes, it is certainly a huge distraction. I mean, if you're up on Capitol Hill right now, you're not -- you're not getting as many questions about tax reform or health care as you are where you stand on the bombshell of the day. And it's been like that this week in Washington has felt like five months when it comes to the revelations every single day that come out against the White House.

And for members of Congress having to re-litigate that every single day and then possibly go home and re-litigate it as well, it does provide a huge distraction for them.

LEMON: Ana Navarro, throughout all of these controversies and there have been a number of them people have asked the question. I'm sure you've been asked as well, and maybe you asked the question yourself, at what point do republicans really start distancing themselves from the president? What do you think?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I think today was an important point when Lindsey Graham came out of the briefing with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and said that this had possibly gone from a counter intelligent investigation to a criminal investigation, that has to have had an effect on a lot of republicans. The word criminal means a lot. I can tell you it made my jaw drop and

it made me look at this in a very different light. And I think, you know, I think republicans are going to have to do what Paul Ryan has been saying all along, which is walk and chew gum at the same time.

We sit there day after day listening to the speaker's press conference, you know, hearing him try to speak and talk to us about tax reform and health care, and I think most of us are sitting there going OK, Paul, that's really nice but can you please get on to the really meaty stuff?

Look, a lot of America right now is going around with paper bags that they're breathing into on the side of their cars. These are not daily revelations like Kevin just said, these are hourly revelations. People are afraid to be, you know, away from the wildfire or away from the internet, away from the TV because you don't know what other shoe will drop.

When the country is living in a state of anxiety, republicans and democrats are having to go home and face constituents who are screaming at them about this issue at town halls and at, you know, consistent meetings.

So this is not something that they can sweep away. At the same time, you've got a White House with 36, 37 percent approval who are in crisis management mode hourly, and you're hearing hourly that different people might be about to get fired. It is a lot of drama going on.

LEMON: I have to -- I've got to ask you, Matt Lewis, I mean, what do you think of that? Because I'm speaking to people and they may say, my gosh, every single alert I get, I have palpitations, like the SNL skit, when they said, can I just get, you know, one alert a day from CNN that doesn't give me a heart attack.

MATT LEWIS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes, you take a nap at 5 o'clock in the afternoon or something and you could miss a huge news story. And look, I think -- I think this takes a toll on journalists who have to cover this constantly. There's not a lot of sympathy for journalists I'm sure, but you know...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Well, I mean, just the average. This wasn't a journalist I was speaking to. This is just an average, you know, person who pays attention to the news.

LEWIS: Yes. Yes, it's overwhelming, it never stops. I think that Donald Trump likes drama. Some of this is Donald Trump being Trump. You know, he's created a really big reality show and he likes to feed -- to feed drama.

But I think that there is getting to be some Trump fatigue and I think that some of -- if you're going to start to see republicans walking away from this guy, some of it is just the accretion of every day there's another scandal. [22:50:03] LEMON: Yes.

LEWIS: Another shoe to drop.

LEMON: Twenty-fifteen...

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: There's five scandals a day. Not one.

LEMON: Twenty-fifteen, Ana, my friend who I spoke to have said was Netflix in chill, 2017 is news alert and freak out.

NAVARRO: Yes, listen, Don. I had the misfortune of trying to start a cleanse this week. Let me tell you, there is no way people can give up carbs, refined sugar and alcohol right now. You can't give up anything, you need as many coping mechanisms as you can -- as you can have.

LEMON: OK. All right, we'll move on. We'll get to the new conversation on the other side of the break. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Back now with my panel. And I'm going to turn to Kevin Madden now. Kevin, we were talking about copings mechanisms. But this, I Mean, this is serious stuff that people are going to do it.

Republican members of Congress continue to confront crowds of angry constituents at town halls all across the country. Is this early signs of the political price that some may pay for supporting President Trump and some of his policies.

MADDEN: Look, I think it's less to do with the president's policies and it has much more to do with this democrat, this enthusiasm among the democratic base where they have defined right now their party's, you know, profile with resistance to Trump.

And it's not necessarily the specifics of legislation but just the fact that they believe that Donald Trump is just, you know, taking the country in the wrong direction. So that energy that is on the democratic side has to be taken very seriously by a lot of republicans. Because if you also couple that with the fact that Donald Trump had a hard time with independents during his early part of his administration that is what sets up some of the conditions for a very difficult year in 2018.

LEMON: Yes. Hey, Alice, let's look at the president's approval rating. President Trump approval rating now at 38 percent.

CNN's Chris Cillizza writes it his poll number should terrify republicans because as he points out since 1946 when presidents are above 50 percent approval the party loses an average of 14 seats in the U.S. House in the midterm elections compared with an average loss of 36 seats when presidents are below that mark. What do you think? [22:55:03] STEWART: I think it's going to be important for the GOP to

keep focus on their legislative agenda. Look, I'll acknowledge over the last several weeks when Hillary lost this campaign democratic have been waking up in the fetal position. You can tell it's been palpable in the air here in D.C.

And there's been a spring in their steps over the last few days with all that's unraveled with regard to Russia. And it's important for the administration and conservatives to stop the talk on Russia and get back focus on the agenda and when they go back in their districts talk about what they're doing to fulfill the promises they made to their constituents.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: But Alice, let me ask you this, let me just in here and I don't mean to cut you off. But shouldn't you and other conservatives and constituents and people in -- and the people around him shouldn't they be saying that to the President of the United States.

He has the mega phone. He sets the news agenda, he sets the message. It's really not those people and you know, who are going home to their constituents. They're just going to hear from their constituents.

STEWART: I certainly hope there's people in the White House that are telling him that in regards to stop tweeting about Russia, tweet about your agenda, tweet about what you plan to accomplish on your foreign trip, this is an important trip for us to establish our leadership in the world and build relationship with leaders and reaffirm our unity with our allies abroad. That's what he needs to focus on and show how powerful...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: I want to get Ana and Matt in with less than 30 seconds. I mean, he's 70 years old, is he going to change, Ana?

NAVARRO: Sweetheart, I've got a little bit experience with men let me tell you, you don't change them, you really don't change men after 15. No matter what you do, you don't change them. They've got formative years and they're very short.

LEMON: Matt.

NAVARRO: So, you can forget, you know, changing an adult man at this time. We were all surprised that he hadn't tweeted for about a day and half or two days apparently some adult, some supervising a adult hid his phone but he found it this morning.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Yes. Matt...

STEWART: I agree -- I agree with Ana on changing the man thing.

LEWIS: No one falls control, no message of discipline. So even if special prosecutor, you know, taps down on leaks on that end, Trump can't resist tweeting about Russia.

LEMON: OK. Last word I say, check in his Twitter feed. You know what I'm talking about, Chris Evans, Ana, nice job. Thanks, everyone.

NAVARRO: You know we need a super hero.

LEMON: Yes. Thank you all. I appreciate it.

When we come back, why the president reportedly made FBI Director James Comey uneasy.

[23:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)