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James Comey To Testify in Public Before the Senate Intel Committee; Update On the President's Arrival in Saudi Arabia; President Trump Admitted he Fired FBI Director James Comey to Ease Pressure; President's Venture to the Middle East Raising New Questions About how His Business Empire Could Also Benefit. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 20, 2017 - 14:00   ET

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


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[14:00:11] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, thank you so much for joining me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

It's the story Russia's foreign minister now says it never happened. "The New York Times" reports that during his meeting with Russian officials earlier this month, President Trump admitted he fired FBI Director James Comey to ease pressure from the Russia investigation. He also called Comey, quote, "A real nut job."

Joining us live from Washington, CNN "Crime + Justice" producer, Shimon Prokupecz. So Shimon, a lot swirling around this investigation and now we just might hear from the horse's mouth James Comey, former FBI director, who was fired. He will be testifying in public before the Senate Intel Committee, what provoked this?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME + JUSTICE PRODUCER: Well, I think Comey sort of has been in the news a lot, has always said after the firing, to his friends, to the people around and even to some of the people that he was close with at the FBI, that he wanted to be heard.

He was going to tell his story in -- just like he did when he testified -- in the last time he testified where he went on this whole rant about the Hillary Clinton investigation and where he felt nauseous and all this other stuff that he said.

So, you know, Comey in the right setting is not afraid to voice his concerns, his opinion and to really talk about what was going through his mind and the key here for Comey is going to be, he's going to have to explain why he didn't come to the -- to folks in the congress sooner.

If he did feel there was this campaign to influence him from the White House, why he didn't come to the -- to come to congress sooner, and that's still a question we don't know. And the friends who we have talked to and sort of these people that have talked to Comey since he's been fired, they have told us that, at the time, Comey did not feel that President Trump was trying to influence him when they met at -- in the Oval Office. And there were those words, you know, "I hope you can let this go, I hope you can," sort of -- you know, give Flynn a break, he's a good guy. At that time, friends didn't really think that Comey -- these friends that we've talked to don't feel like Comey felt there was an, sort of, influence here.

The problem that they do think that Trump has had is he just doesn't know the proper channels with how to communicate with law enforcement, with the FBI, and that you're really supposed to go through the Department of Justice and, I think, in the end, I think -- you know, Comey never thought he'd get fired. So, he was hoping they'd build a relationship and perhaps somehow educate Trump on the proper channels to sort of deal with these kinds of things.

WHITFIELD: Well, we know all those questions will be asked when he is on Capitol after Memorial. That we can and presumably he is doing this while also being transparent with the new special counsel Bob Mueller as well.

So as -- you know, so, that all of these investigations are able to take place simultaneously. All right, Shimon Prokupecz, thank you so much.

All right, as that enormous controversy looms over the White House, the world is watching the president take his first steps into diplomacy overseas.

Quite the greeting there, King Salman greeting President Trump with grandeur there along with the first lady, red carpets, military, brass bands, and even a Medal of Honor ceremony right there.

So, this hour, the president and first lady are now attending a royal banquet which is closed to the press, however, we did see their arrival at the Marhaba Palace there and we also heard from the president, who did have some comments just a short time ago after his meeting with the crowned prince. Let's listen in.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: That was a tremendous day. I just want to thank everybody but tremendous investments in -- to the United States and our military.

The community is very happy and we want to thank you Saudi Arabia about hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: All right and now in the midst of a wind storm or something like it, CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta, traveling with the president there, what's going on as they are in this banquet now?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, besides the wind and sand storm that's sweeping through our live location right now, Fredricka, we could tell you that the president has arrived at this dinner with King Salmon.

We saw some pretty remarkable pictures just a few moments ago. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, doing a traditional sword dance at this dinner. We're told it's called ardha dance, and some of the (INAUDIBLE) circumstances that we've been seeing all day long.

The Saudis are very proud of the fact that President Trump has made their country the first stop as president of the United States on a foreign trip overseas and we saw some of that Saudi pride on display during the press conference that was held just a short while ago with the Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Now during that news conference, just getting to the news that Shimon was talking about a few moments ago with respect to the investigation of the Trump campaign ties with Russia.

Secretary of State Tillerson did not answer a question that was asked about all of that. He basically said he didn't have any information to offer on that and then he and the Saudi foreign minister talked about some of the areas that they have in common.

One very interesting moment from that news conference, Fredricka, we heard the Saudi foreign minister used the phrase, "Drain the swamp," except he was talking about getting after the extremism that leads to acts of violence and terrorism around the world and that for both Secretary Tillerson and the Saudi foreign minister are hoping the president will get into, tomorrow, during his speech to the Muslim world.

It is a speech that the administration has been pointing to over the last couple of weeks as being one of the most important speeches of Donald Trump's presidency and, you know, one of the things that we'll be looking forward in his speech tomorrow, Fredricka, is whether the president uses that phrase, radical Islamic terrorism, it's a phrase he used time and again out of the campaign trail.

It's a phrase he used in his speech to a joint session of congress earlier this year, even though there were some misgivings that were expressed by his National Security Adviser at that time, H.R. McMaster, that he shouldn't use that kind of language in the speech, he went ahead and did that anyway.

And as the secretary and the Saudi foreign minister were leaving this event here, this news conference here, I tried to ask Secretary Tillerson whether that would be in his speech. He did not answer the question and then a separate administration official said the speech is still being worked on.

So, obviously, a lot of effort going into this speech -- critical speech of the president that he delivers to the Muslim world tomorrow, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Jim Acosta, thank you so much and thanks for enduring that wind and sand storm. It's no joke in that region. You know, we don't want you to get swept away nor buried, so, go take cover. All right, Jim Acosta, appreciate it.

ACOSTA: OK, thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right, still ahead, the president is slamming it as the single biggest witch hunt of a politician in American history. His words, by the appointment of Robert Mueller to investigate Trump's possible collusion with Russia garnered applause from both sides of the aisle this week. We'll be right back.

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WHITFIELD: All right, the president's first overseas trip being overshadowed by a week full of controversies back home. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been appointed to investigate possible Trump campaign ties to the Russians.

Meanwhile, "The New York Times" revealed new details about that meeting between Trump and the Russians in the Oval Office. The "Times" says the president told the Russians, quote, "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off," end quote.

So with me now to discuss this is CNN political commentator, David Swerdlick. David, good to see you. So, in Washington circles there, is it sounding like a possible obstruction of justice talk?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well Fredricka, I think that the fact that we moved to a special prosecutor suggest, at a minimum, that whatever was swirling around President Trump and his team all these months, there is at least a little bit of fire there and not just smoke, but I'm not going to hazard a guess on the legal particulars of whether he's going to be or anyone in his inner circle is going to be charged with obstruction of justice.

I think, though, in non-legal terms, enough reporting has come out just in the last week that suggest pretty strongly that President Trump has really been trying to wave away or bat away the efforts of congress and the FBI to investigate ties between his team and Russia.

Republicans, I think, are breathing a sigh of relief that Mueller has been appointed just because it means they can now, sort of, sit back and say, well, we got to let this investigation play out. Democrats like the fact that, you know, it's moving to a more serious, intensive phase but what is the White House get out of it?

They don't really get anything out of it and that's why, I think, yesterday, you saw President Trump say, essentially, this makes us look like a divided nation but, of course, the nation if it's divided was not divided because of the appointment of the special prosecutor.

WHITFIELD: Yes. And then, you know, James Comey will now testify publicly before the Senate Intel Committee. Everybody's been, you know, anxiously waiting to hear from him his account of events and, you know, in this past week of lots of bizarre twist and turns as all of these investigations. We got a chance to hear from a friend of his, Benjamin Wittes on PBS. Is it anyone's view that perhaps James Comey, kind of, wanted to get a sense of, you know, what the reception was like from his account who was, kind of, speaking for James Comey before he would say yes, publicly, he's eager to testify.

SWERDLICK: Yes. I think that's right, Fredricka. In fact, in a roundabout way, we almost have already heard from Director Comey, even though we'll hear more from him more directly very soon because his friend Benjamin Wittes went out there and gave that interview to PBs, an talked about his perceptions, presumably perceptions that he heard from Comey himself about his interactions with President Trump.

He -- I think Wittes used the word that Comey was either repulsed or disgusted by the interactions and the dynamic that Trump was sort of trying to reel him into his orbit and not let him keep the arm's length of a federal law enforcement officer. And if true, those are pretty shocking words from an FBI director to say about a sitting U.S. president. No question.

WHITFIELD: So Mueller's got his investigations ongoing. The House and Senate have their investigations ongoing as well. This testimony from Comey, is it -- is there a feeling that he probably would have talked to Bob Mueller in some kind of way to say, "If I testify in this forum, you know, might it potentially interfere with the investigation that you have going?"

You know, might he have gotten a green light from Mueller before doing this? How will all of this coincide?

SWERDLICK: Yes, so that, I don't know, Fredricka, whether or not Comey and Mueller have communicated about this.

What you have though is Mueller, a 12-years former FBI director, well- respected on both sides of the isle, it seems to me that there is a way for him to proceed through this methodically and carefully without stepping on too many toes.

Director Comey, although he was seen a little bit more as sort of a lightning rod, if you will, he also was not seen particularly as partisan. So the question is whether they all -- whether Comey and Director Mueller get their legal ducks in a row and proceed with the sharing of information, both between one investigation, the special prosecutor investigation and also not stepping on the toes of congress.

The point here, as you know, is partly about the process, but partly about just getting the American people the truth about what happened. We don't know that there was collusion between Trump's team and Russians. But we do need to find that out.

WHITFIELD: All right. David Swerdlick. Thanks so much. Always good to see you.

SWERDLICK: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right. And we'll be right back.

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(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LANI DICKINSON: I'm Lani Dickinson and I'm a professional dancer. I was born in Tangxi Town, China. I was taken to the orphanage then. I believe I was three days old when I was found at the doorstep.

I was born with a quarter of an arm. I was 13 months of age when I was adopted, coping with staring and rude comments, or their doubt in my abilities. I definitely had to, like, develop a resilience.

I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 8 years old. My mom, she put me into ballet training to build more muscle for my back, and also help my posture. I fell in love with dance almost immediately.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five, six, seven, eight.

DICKINSON: And that's when I feel like I found my own voice my dream was to travel and dance. I was accepted into the AXIS Dance Company. We have both disabled and non-disabled dancers.

I hope that I'm inspiring others by performing for them. If they hit an obstacle in their life, I hope to inspire on how to overcome that obstacle.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: President Donald Trump is in Saudi Arabia right now, and he says it has been a tremendous first day of his first overseas trip of his presidency. But this venture to the Middle East is raising new questions about how his business empire could also benefit. I want to bring in CNN's National Politics reporter, MJ Lee, for more on this. MJ.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Hey, Fred. Well, you know that Donald Trump often likes to remind people that he has not been a politician for very long. And the reality is that he has spent the most of his life as a businessman building out a vast real estate empire around the country.

So now, as he travels abroad, in his capacity as president, he is learning just how difficult it can be to avoid the perception that his diplomatic actions could affect his family business.

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LEE (voice-over): Donald Trump arriving in Saudi Arabia today, the first stop in his inaugural foreign trip as president. Trump, hoping to use the nine-day tour to reset his tumultuous presidency at home, as questions about his campaign's ties to Russia continue to swirl.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have to get back to running this country really, really well. LEE (voice-over): But the President's highly-anticipated Middle East visit, once again, raising fresh questions about potential business conflicts in the region, where Trump has a long history of real estate investments.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Saudi Arabia, and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me, they spend 40 million, 50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.

LEE (voice-over): Trump's vast business empire spans the globe, including apartment buildings, hotels and golf courses.

According to his 2016 finance disclosure, Trump had 144 registered companies with dealings in more than two dozen countries. Eight of them were Saudi companies, and all of them were recently dissolved or canceled.

Since Election Day, Trump has taken steps to distance himself from his family business, turning over control of his company to his adult sons.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Don and Eric are going to be running the company. They are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They're not going to discuss it with me. Again, I don't have to do this. They're not going to discuss it with me.

LEE (voice-over): But Trump's critics, not convinced that he has severed himself completely from his business empire. A group of democratic senators sending a letter this week to the Trump organization about its continued ties to the president.

The senators, writing, "This continuing financial relationship raises serious concerns about whether the Trump organization is effectively a pass-through for income that violates the constitution's two emoluments clauses."

Trump's second stop in his foreign trip, Israel, where he has also had business interest over the years.

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LEE: Now, I should also note, Fred, that Trump is not the only person on this trip who has business interests in the region. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has a long history of financial ties in Israel. So those past investments are also drawing scrutiny.

And I will also add that I did reach out to the Trump organization earlier today, and the top lawyer, Alan Garten, telling me in an e- mail about potential business ties that the Trump organization has in Saudi Arabia, he wrote, quote, "None. We have no interests in Saudi Arabia."

WHITFIELD: All right. MJ Lee, thank you so much. All right, that's going to do it for me, thank you so much for being with me this afternoon. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Much more in the "NEWSROOM" straight ahead.

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