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Fallout Over Firing Of FBI Director; Turkey Objects To U.S. Plan To Arm Kurds In Syria; U.S. Education Secretary Booed At College; Comey Firing Compared to Nixon-era Event the Saturday Night Massacre; Ankara Angry over Washington's Decision to Arm Kurdish Fighters in Syria; Bethune-Cookman Students Boo, Turn Backs on DeVos; Spicer Back in Spotlight after Briefing in the Dark. Aired 1-2a ET
Aired May 11, 2017 - 01:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[01:00:00] ISHA SESAY, CNN NEWSROOM ANCHOR: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. Ahead this hour: the firing and the fallout. The White House offers a new timeline in the lead up to the dismissal of the FBI Director amid increasing calls for investigations. Diplomatic complications; Turkey's President is lashing out at the U.S. over plans to arm Kurdish rebel fighters in Syria. And bad reception; new graduates jeer and turn their backs on the U.S. Secretary of Education. Hello and thank you for joining us. I'm Isha Sesay. This is NEWSROOM L.A.
Well, the White House is insisting that firing FBI Director James Comey was a straightforward decision. Officials seem to be in disbelief that there'd be any backlash at all, but the questions and accusations show no signs of stopping. Comey himself has not joined that chorus, writing in a farewell letter, "I've long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason or for no reason at all. I'm not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won't either. It is done, and I will be fine."
As for the President, a long-time friend of Donald Trump says he was white hot with anger leading up to Comey's dismissal. Well, Mr. Trump and his surrogates have a simple explanation for Comey's firing, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they just aren't buying it. Our own Athena Jones reports.
DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: Things are happening that-
ATHENA JONES, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: In the wake of an enormous backlash over his sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, President Trump is defending himself before reporters-
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why did you fire Director Comey? Why did you fire Director Comey?
TRUMP: Because he wasn't doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.
JONES: That appearance alongside Henry Kissinger, who served as Secretary of State during the Nixon administration, the only one in front of cameras. The President also met behind closed doors with Russia's Foreign Minister and Ambassador, who U.S. Intelligence officials consider to be a top spy and spy recruiter.
CROWD: Country over party!
JONES: But as protesters gathered outside the White House today, critics slammed the move, questioning the administration's rationale for dismissing the director. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pointing to Comey's mishandling of the Clinton e-mail investigation.
JAMES COMEY, FORMER FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION DIRECTOR: Secretary Clinton's use of a personal e-mail-
JONES: In this letter to the President. Even though then candidate Trump applauded Comey's moves during the campaign.
TRUMP: I have to give the FBI credit.
JONES: And as recently as last month said he had confidence in the director.
TRUMP: I have confidence in him. We'll see what happens.
JONES: But today at the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the President's displeasure with Comey's job performance had been growing for some time and suggested his testimony before congress last week was the last straw.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: He'd lost confidence in Director Comey, and frankly, he'd been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected.
JONES: At one point, Sanders accused Comey of using his position to commit atrocities at the Justice Department.
SANDERS: I think also having a letter like the one that he received and having that conversation that outlined the basic - just atrocities in circumventing the chain of command in the Department of Justice. Any person of legal mind and authority knows what a big deal that is.
JONES: Now, members of both parties on Capitol Hill are raising serious concerns about the timing of the dismissal. And White House officials, many caught off guard by the move and the blowback, are scrambling to explain it, insisting it had nothing to do with the fact that Comey was leading the investigation into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials during the Presidential campaign.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT: This had nothing to do with Russia. As much as somebody must be getting $50 every time the word is said.
JONES: Vice President Mike Pence, on a trip to the Capitol, also defending his boss.
MIKE PENCE, UNITED STATES VICE PRESIDENT: The American people have to have confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The President made the right decision at the right time.
JONES: Those explanations not sitting well with some members.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Why did it happen last night? With those investigations getting too close to home?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When you fire probably arguably the most respected person in America, you'd better have a very good explanation. And so far, I haven't seen that.
JONES: Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Deputy Rod Rosenstein were set to interview four potential interim replacements for Director Comey today. A formal announcement could come in short order, possibly as soon as later today or tomorrow. Meanwhile, President Trump met today with the acting Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, to talk about morale at the bureau. Athena Jones, CNN, the White House.
[01:05:26] SESAY: With me now, former FBI Special Agent Bobby Chacon, Democratic Strategist Caroline Heldman, and Republican Strategist Austin James. Welcome to you all, good to have you with us. Bobby, let me start with you. We're now learning that the firing of James Comey comes a week after he went to the DOJ asking for more resources to expand this Russia probe. Do you buy the administration's explanation for how he came to be fired, especially in light of these new details?
BOBBY CHACON, FORMER FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION SPECIAL AGENT: Well, you know, I'm not sure. And I know that there's some deniability on the part of the Justice Department over whether that request actually took place or not. You know, there's no way around how bad this looks as far as timing and compounded by the way it was actually handled and the way the termination actually took place. I mean, I think that there were a number of things that started to make Director Comey, not the most effective leader over at the FBI. And so, I think that at least among the rank and file there was a split about over whether, you know, his days were numbered and whether it might be good to bring somebody new in. But the timing certainly doesn't look good.
SESAY: Yes. Caroline, to you, we're now hearing that the Presidential had effectively been stewing on this situation with Comey for a while now, for a couple of days. And according to sources, he had become increasingly frustrated with Comey and had ultimately concluded that Comey was his own man and could not be trusted in a role so pivotal to the presidency, this coming to CNN via sources. What do you make of that?
CAROLINE HELDMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, a couple of things. The first is, there could be a concern that if he's his own man in Russia that that bodes poorly for the President's campaign, given the ongoing investigation. But it's really clear, right? That he's had issues with Comey for a while. Early on in the presidency, he made a comment, you know, he blew Comey a kiss in January and said: "you're more popular than I am." Which critics at the time said, you know that's not a good place to be with Donald Trump, he likes the spotlight. And then a couple of months later, we have Comey coming out and saying that there is no justification or basis for the claim that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump tower, and that was embarrassing.
And then last week we saw Comey embarrass the President again by essentially challenging the legitimacy of the outcome of his election by saying it made him mildly nauseous that he might have played a role and of course there's good evidence that he did. You know, there's a three percent drop after his October 28th letter came out saying that they were reopening the investigation into Clinton. So, there are lots of reasons to think that a thin-skinned President might react in a retaliatory fashion. The problem is the timing, though. You can't fire someone who is investigating you like this and expect to get away unscathed.
SESAY: Austin, the White House apparently is surprised by the backlash. That's what we were getting from our own Dana Bash. The White House was keen to stress that the President's decision to fire James Comey was predicated on this memo from the acting Attorney General. Now we're hearing that the Attorney General according to the Washington Post is none too happy with that narrative that is emerging and is threatening to resign. Does this put the White House in a tight spot?
AUSTIN JAMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Sure. Perspective a little bit. I think - you know, and Bobby had some good points to make on this. Trump promised to remove bad actors from Washington. And Comey was a lightning Rod for multiple reasons going back to October of last year led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. They were calling for his resignation. I mean, there were claims that he broke the law. And so, Trump is only following through with that. You know this is a leader-
SESAY: Ten months later?
JAMES: Well, and so, there's probably a debate - he had much more important things to do, I would argue in his first 100 days. There's probably a debate of whether he should have - you know, maybe if he was here he could tell us I wish I had done it previously. But I think she's absolutely right. I think this boils down to a decision that was always going to come to bear. I mean, this is the leader of the most important, most powerful law enforcement organization in the world, arguably. And he was corrupted, right? He was a bad actor.
SESAY: By your own logic, he was the leader of the most important Intelligence Agency in the world by your analysis. Why wait ten months to remove him, then?
JAMES: Listen, the White House and Trump himself are saying - listen, this has been on my mind since day one. And I think what we're trying to do is we're trying to over-politicize bad optics, and it comes down to bad optics. We elected a businessman. And I know you would disagree. But we elected a businessman who doesn't understand optics. And I think that's probably a good thing if the media and Democrats, you know, kind of got off their high horse a little bit and kind of looked at this objectively. There's nothing nefarious here. And so, if nothing nefarious comes out-
HELDMAN: We don't know that. We don't know that if there's anything that-
JAMES: Exactly. So how can you make-
[01:10:02] HELDMAN: Because Donald Trump - but we don't know because Donald Trump has given us a false reason for doing this. According to the Rosenstein document, he did this because he's upset about Hillary Clinton on how she was treated back in July. And that's ridiculous.
JAMES: That goes back to her questions - listen, that goes back to - I mean, you've got a businessman in the White House. You don't have a business in the White House.
HELDMAN: You think he cares about Hillary Clinton? You think that is why he fired Comey?
JAMES: The White House-
HELDMAN: But he has, to be honest with us for us to know, to have any faith in his decisions-
JAMES: He needs to stop being an authoritarian successful CEO, and he needs to start being a President and a leader of the White House. Those are things he's going to learn on the job.
SESAY: Let's bring Bobby in at this point. One of the concerns in the fallout of all of this is where does it leave the investigation? The investigation that the FBI had been leading into all things: Russia. Where does it leave the issue of independence on the part of the FBI when it comes to that probe bearing in mind the man or woman who will lead it next will have been picked by the President?
CHACON: Well, you know a lot of us hoped that the person picked will come from either inside the FBI or was at one point an agent in the FBI. That's a huge hope for the bureau. If that's the case, you have somebody that's familiar with how these investigations should go. They're not from the Justice Department. They're not a career Justice Department official because they have a different mindset when they approach these things. And so, you know as far as the investigation, personally, I've been in some of those rooms. I've been on some of those investigations. Things don't change. The team, the investigative team is still in place. Their supervisory structure is still in place all the way up to the Deputy FBI Director. And so, the one man at the top changed. And so, the rest of that chain of command hasn't changed and the team hasn't changed. They're going to go ahead with their work. They're the utmost integrity. They're professionals. They're experienced in this stuff. They're going to go ahead and do this investigation-
CHACON: -- the way it should be done.
SESAY: Let me follow up with the question that many have which is, should Donald Trump put in a Trump loyalist in the - to lead the FBI? Could that person quash the entire investigation?
CHACON: Number one, I hope he doesn't put a loyalist in. You know, the FBI has always prided himself on the FBI Director being his own man. And unfortunately, that's one of the reasons that's being tattered as, you know, him getting rid of - Comey was not exactly, you know, in favor in the Obama White House after he made the speech on the Ferguson effect. He was called back to the White House, taken out back to the woodshed and read the riot act by Obama administration.
We all remember how Louis Freeh's contentious relationship with his boss bill Clinton. And so, you know the FBI Director has a history of being their-own-man, and I think it should be - that should remain, and that's a good healthy relationship, and it needs to stay that way. And you know, we hope that it's a career FBI agent. There are plenty of them out there that are qualified. You've got guys that are like Mike Rogers who was an FBI agent then he was on the Intelligence Committee in Congress.
You have many others that were career FBI people that know the bureau and know how it should be run and we're all -- you know, many of us are hoping that the pick is someone who can be their own man but also know how the bureau should conduct its affairs. That's not always the case with career Justice Department officials.
SESAY: All right. Caroline, to you, the White House's working overtime to get the timeline right and to get their point across as to why they came to this decision. But Senator Elizabeth Warren is not buying it. Take a listen to what she had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Do you think this was a cover-up?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I think that there's just no doubt. Given the timing that the reason Comey was fired was because Donald Trump wants to cut off any investigation into any connections that he has with his campaign and connections to the Russians.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: So, Caroline, what should the Democrats' next move be here?
HELDMAN: Well, they've already come out and said we're going to stop business perhaps in both the house and the senate.
SENATE: Right move?
HELDMAN: Well, it's a partisan move. I don't know if it's a right move. I think that they need to use whatever - exert whatever leverage they can in order to make sure that a person gets into the top position at the FBI who's not a loyalist, right, someone who's actually going to be objective. There's been talk about putting Trey Gowdy in, that he's on the shortlist as well as a number of other politicized people. So, I think they need to absolutely put a stop to that. Elizabeth Warren is claiming to know that it had to do with Russia. I know that the optics are bad-
JAMES: She's just one of many. So, I mean, we have to call a spade here.
HELDMAN: Well, until he comes out and really rebuts that, we don't have anything to go on, so we'll just assume that's the case.
SESAY: And Austin by that point, I understand what you're saying that we only have the White House's word to go on this.
[01:14:50] JAMES: Sure. But don't we have a responsibility - don't elect officials to have a responsibility to make claims that they can back up? I guess my broader point is that you know, listen, there's no love lost between, you know, media channels, there's no love lost between the mainstream media. There's no love lost between democratic politicians. To your point, though, to overly politicize this, I think takes us in a completely wrong direction and that could be a political battle that we have for the next three years. And whose fault is that at the ebbed of the day?
[01:15:15] SESAY: But let me push back and ask you to respond to the counter of that, which is the President chose to fire the man who's leading an investigation into him, that he made this a political -
JAMES: Caroline, you know we were talking back in the green room and we agree on a whole ton but we do agree on this. That the man, the man you know he probably has come from a very successful business career where I know a lot of CEO's in the private sector and they make decision that they think are best and everyone is supposed to follow that. If he is now in the position where he needs to take collective knowledge and make group decisions right? And if even though he's you know the ultimate you know kind of pulling the lever. You know, listen, I don't know that there's any way to say this in a way other than to be blunt, which is, he probably had an ego breakdown, right? He probably said listen, this is a man who I thought we had gotten over with I had my doubts, OK? I thought that we had gotten over that, now during the hearing he says, I'm going to wade back to the middle, I'm going to try to appease Democrats, he doesn't know where this -- what this guy's going to say next, you know he's a compromised leader of the most important law enforcement agency.
HELDMAN: And that includes being a wild card with Russia. That includes not knowing what he's going to say next and being his own man on the Russia investigation.
SESAY: And this conversation could go on and on and on. And it will.
JAMES: It probably will.
SESAY: In days to come. Another three years. Caroline, Austin, Bobby, my thanks to all of you. Please come back. We'll keep it going.
JAMES: Thank you.
HELDMAN: Thank you. SESAY: All right. Quick break now and we have a lot more to tell you about the Trump campaign's alleged Russian connections including the new demand Senate investigators are making of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. That's next.
SESAY: There are new signs an FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russia is gaining momentum. And some say that's a key factor in President Trump's decision to fire the FBI Director. CNN's Jim Sciutto reports.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, growing charges of white house interference in the FBI's ongoing investigation into whether Trump campaign associates colluded with the Russian government. The day after the President fired the FBI Director the White House downplaying the importance of the probe.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, SECRETARY OF PRESS: That's a probably one of the smallest things that they've got going on their plate.
SCIUTTO: Some lawmakers, however, are now demanding that the Justice department appoint a special prosecutor. Independent of the administration and Capitol Hill to lead the probe.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Were those investigations getting too close to home for the President? If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now.
SCIUTTO: Those circumstances sources tells CNN that just days before being fired FBI Director James Comey asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for more resources to devote to the bureau's Russia investigation, an account the Justice department denies. One indication the FBI's investigation was ramping up, Federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, seeking business records. Another sign, Senate Russian investigators have also sent a request to the treasury department for any financial information related to President Trump, his top officials, and campaign aides.
[01:20:48] SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: The decision to fire Comey raises questions about the appropriateness and timing of firing the person in charge of an investigation that could, I won't say would, but could implicate the administration. To have this happen and happen now is beyond surprising.
SCIUTTO: At his confirmation hearing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein said that he was open to the possibility of appointing an independent prosecutor if warranted.
ROD ROSENSTEIN, UNITED STATES DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm willing to appoint a special counsel Senator whenever I determine it's appropriate based upon the policies and procedures of the Justice department. SCIUTTO: Today Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said an
independent prosecutor isn't necessary.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: Today we'll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation which could only serve to impede the current work.
SCIUTTO: And the White House agreed.
SANDERS: We don't think it's necessary. You've got a House Committee, a Senate Committee and the department of Justice all working on this.
SCIUTTO: Now in addition to claiming the overall Russia investigations are going nowhere the White House, the President repeatedly said the question of collusion, possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians during the campaign is case closed. The fact is that's not the case. I spoke with the ranking Democrat and the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. I put that question to both of them. Is the question of collusion still an open question? Both of them said to me on the record it is still an open question, something the Senate Intelligence Committee and House Intelligence Committee continue to investigate. Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.
SESAY: Well with the Russia investigations heating up you might think the last person President Trump would bring to the White House is Moscow's U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. You might. Our reporters were banned from the meeting. Russia's Foreign Minister was also there and he says they talk mostly about Syria.
Well, Robert English is the Director of the USC School of International Relation, Robert great to have you with us. Let us start with that issue of the meetings and President Trump meeting with Sergey Kislyak and of course Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister. The President did not have to meet with Sergey Kislyak, a man who's been at the center of so much controversy. Why would he? What is your read on the situation?
ROBERT ENGLISH, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA DIRECTOR SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: This was second step. A month ago all right Secretary Tillerson went to Moscow, met with the Foreign Minister, also met with Vladimir Putin, their President. So this was reciprocity, diplomatic reciprocity, the next step. And Sergey Lavrov is on his way to Alaska for an important meeting of the arctic council, where world diplomats are gathering. So this was the ostensible reason.
SESAY: You meet Lavrov. I understand. Why Kislyak?
ENGLISH: Again, I know that he's controversial now. But it is ordinary for the Ambassador in a country at a high-level meeting like this to also be included. Not mandatory but it's not extraordinary. Obviously, this is tone deaf, right? The optics are horrible. And it's hard to imagine why Trump and his team would have gone ahead at least with such a public meeting. And even so far as to bar American reporters but allow the Russian media to come in and take pictures. It looks awful. Timing couldn't have been worse. But they seem to have thought that they put things behind them, business as usual and somehow firing Comey would have put this to rest when of course it only stirred it up.
SESAY: Well President Putin himself all the way over in Russia has been asked about the Comey situation. Take a listen to what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: We have nothing to do with it. President Trump is acting in accordance with his competence and in accordance with his law and constitution. What about us? Why we? Do you see I'm going to play hockey with a hockey fan?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: A lighthearted President Putin there saying Russia has nothing to do with it that Comey firing. But does Russia stands a benefit in any way from the removal of James Comey?
ENGLISH: They may have thought perhaps but now they have been (INAUDIBLE) that illusion. I think Russians like all of us are sort of reeling because this is unprecedented. Because this kind of President, is kind of administration, we have never seen before. People are you know making reference to Watergate, which was after all 45 years ago. But Trump is nothing like Nixon. All right this is just unprecedented. But you know the comparison with Watergate when you ask about how Moscow abuse things, is actually kind of illustrative. When Watergate occurred, the communist leader, Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of their party, couldn't understand how some trivial matter can bring down the American President, the most powerful man in the world. What's more, they couldn't understand why he couldn't just shut things down why he couldn't fire those annoying reporters at the Washington Post or get rid of those annoying Senators on the Watergate committee.
You know when you're an autocrat, the instincts is to think that others operate the same way. So they're continually amazed at how the strongest country and leader in the world can simultaneously be so weak. Now 45 years later, Russia has gone through a kind of messy Democracy of its own, a return to an authoritarian system. Certainly, they understand us better than they did back then. But still, they are amazed. Their heads are spinning. And after all, they thought they have their man, right that this guy -
[01:26:21] SESAY: Then there was a reset on the horizon.
ENGLISH: Reset. And it said everything's frozen. They know they might have had that meeting at the White House but until that cloud dissipates, nothing substantive can be done. They can have all the diplomatic pleasantries they want. And the cloud is only getting darker. SESAY: That certainly is the case. Robert English, such a pleasure.
Thank you. Well all right quick break here next on NEWSROOM L.A. the firing of James Comey has drawn a lot comparison as you just heard from Robert of what they can do during the Watergate investigation. We'll take a look at U.S. Presidential history then and now.
[01:30:21] ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay.
The headlines this hour --
SESAY: Well, before James Comey was fired on Tuesday only one, only one FBI director had ever been sacked by a U.S. president, and that was in 1993 by Bill Clinton. But Comey's ouster wasn't like that either. Instead, it's been compared to a Nixon-era event known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Here's Tom Foreman to explain.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A president under pressure, an investigation in play, and a sudden firing of the man leading the probe. For critics of Donald Trump the parallels to Richard Nixon are startling. This is Nixonian, a Nixonesque cover-up.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D), CONNECTICUT: It certainly is Nixonian in its air and quality and tone to fire someone of this stature, even though I've had disagreements with him as General Hayden did, in the midst of an investigation.
FOREMAN: The cornerstone of the comparison lies in Watergate, of course, the investigation into whether White House operatives engaged in, quote, "a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of president Nixon's re-election." Nixon steadily denied it.
RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.
FOREMAN: But when Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox demanded recordings of Oval Office conversations, which contained damning evidence of plans to derail the investigation --
ARCHIBALD COX, SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: The investigation on the Democratic break-in thing we're back in the problem area because the FBI is not under control.
FOREMAN: Nixon stonewalled. He offered compromises. And finally, he ordered the firing of Cox, prompting the attorney general and his deputy to resign, too. It was called the Saturday Night Massacre. SEN. JOE MANCHION, (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I'm old enough to remember the
Nixonian move as we speak. And it didn't come out so well for president Nixon.
FOREMAN: It did not. The push for impeachment heated up and, by the next summer, boiled over.
NIXON: Therefore, I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow.
FOREMAN: But there are key differences between the situations, too. The probe into possible Russian meddling in U.S. politics has been under way about 10 months. The Watergate investigation lasted years. Although President Trump has pushed out the FBI boss, as the Nixon Library tweeted, "Fun fact. President Nixon never fired the director of the FBI."
(on camera): And the biggest difference is this. We now know the Watergate investigation uncovered illegal acts directly linked to President Nixon. And so far, we have no proof of anything like that about President Trump.
Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.
SESAY: Douglas Brinkley is a CNN presidential historian and author and joins me now from Austin, Texas.
Douglas Brinkley, always good to have you with us.
First off, does the administration's rationale for the firing of former FBI boss, James Comey, make sense to you?
DOUGLS BRINKELY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORICAN: No, it doesn't make sense to me or anybody who's objective. I mean, the rationale that Donald Trump has given for firing of Comey was because he had botched the e-mail situation with Hillary Clinton. Nobody's buying that. Clearly. this has to do with the investigation for criminal charges that are being looked at by the FBI with Trump and associates during the 2016 campaign. So this is a shocking moment in American history. We haven't had anything like this since 1973, during the Nixon years, where there's a potential of a president of the United States trying to finish, obfuscate from an investigation into perhaps elicit behavior.
[01:35:04] SESAY: Critics of this move are framing it as an abuse of power. Firstly, do you agree with that assessment and are there applications for this country's well-established balance of power structures?
BRINKLEY: The problem we have right now, during Watergate, which many people are comparing this to, you had Democrats in control of -- in Congress. Right now, we have a Republican Senate, Republican House and, of course the Trump White House. So the question we're all waiting to see is who's going to look into the obstruction of justice, if that's what's occurred, who's going to be able to really weigh in. Congress has kind of blown their attempt. Now Comey and the FBI is compromised. We probably need about eight to 10 Republican Senators to stand, as like a gang of 10, let's call it, and demand we get to the bottom of this. We've been spending months and months on this Russiagate and others. The Trump White House has done everything it can to not cooperate. And this firing of Comey may have been the straw that broke the camel's back. People are getting really tired of it and suspicious of the White House.
SESAY: Well, and Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal, who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the firing of Comey presents a looming constitutional crisis. Is that where this country is headed?
BRINKLEY: We are in a crisis of confidence right now in America. There is about 60 percent of the American public that's questioning whether Donald Trump is fit for command. Conversely, he has about 40 percent of the public that, thus far, is sticking by all of these acts of his. But when you start -- Director Comey was one of the most respected public servants in America. To can him, you know, because he is starting to look into your own activities, perhaps illegal activities, for Donald Trump to have fired him in such an abrupt and actually cowardly fashion. He didn't even tell him, he had Comey fly all the way to California and he had to find out about it on television. We expect more of an American president than this. But hopefully, we have a lot of checks and balances that will start kicking in and we can get an honest investigation of what's occurring.
SESAY: We learned from our own Dana Bash that the White House was surprised, Doug, by the political explosion caused by this. I mean, what does that say to you?
BRINKLEY: It says that Donald Trump's a one-man show. We've seen that with his Twitter account. I think he was stewing over Comey's recent testimony when he talked about being mildly nauseous, or something to the effect, that he may have weighed the scales against Hillary Clinton in 2016. And so people are -- everybody is still shell-shocked by this. The questions is, are there enough Republicans that are going to loyally stand by Donald Trump. Mitch McConnell is the head of the Senate. He's sticking by Trump. Paul Ryan, sticking by Trump. The question is, will there be a group of mavericks? President John Kennedy once wrote a book called "Profiles of Courage," all about Senators who broke ranks with their party for the good of America. We're starting to see people, like John McCain and, to some degree, Richard Burr of North Carolina, they're starting to talk that this is unacceptable behavior coming out of the White House. We'll have to see if we can get a growing chorus of Republicans that seem to be upset by what occurred.
SESAY: We should see what happens next. The fallout continues.
Douglas Brinkley, always a pleasure. Thank you.
BRINKLEY: OK. Thank you.
SESAY: Quick break here. As forces close in on Raqqa, a flare-up in tensions after the U.S. role in Syria. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[01:42:08] SESAY: Hello, everyone. Washington's backing of some of those militias is coming under fire from Turkey. Ankara is angry over Washington's decision to arm the Kurdish fighters. Turkey says the People's Protection Units, or YPG, is a terrorist organization. It's expected to come up at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's meeting with President Trump next week.
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RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKISH PRESIDENT (through translation): The fight against the Turkish terrorist organization, Daesh, should not be carried out with another terrorist organization. This kind of step would endanger the future of Syria and the region. It's obvious where the wrong steps taken in the past brought Syria.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: Joining us now is CNN military analyst, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.
Rick Francona, always good to have you with us.
LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Thank you.
SESAY: You say the Turks are acting like petulant children in their objecting to the U.S. arming a Syrian Kurdish militant group. And you say this could have deadly consequences. Explain what you mean.
FRANCONA: Absolutely. If you look at the military situation on the ground, you look at the position of the Free Syrian Army that is supported by the Turks, they're bottled up in the el Bab (ph) pocket. They've been cut off very effectively by the Kurdish forces on one side and the Syrian regime on the other. They've got nowhere to go. They're 100 miles from Raqqa. It would take them months to get all the way down there to lead the fight into Raqqa, which is what they want to do. Whereas, we've got the Kurdish forces, the YPG, which is part of this group called the Syrian Democratic Forces. We have to be very careful not to call it the Kurdish forces. Although the majority of the force are Kurds, it is a Syrian, Arab and Syrian Kurd organization. They're, in some points, as close as five miles to Raqqa, and their main fighting force is only 20 miles away. They've just taken the major city of Tabaqa (ph) and they're moving east toward Raqqa. They could be there in a few days. So do we want the citizens of Raqqa to sit there and wait for the Free Syrian Army to fight their way all the way down there? The people of Raqqa need relief.
I know president Erdogan says you can't use one terrorist group to relieve another. I don't think that's the case. I think the United States has made the distinction between who he considers the terrorists, the PKK -- and we agree they're terrorists -- but they're not the people we believe are part of the YPG.
It's a very troubling political situation. But if you look at the military situation, it's quite clear. The Kurds are in a position to liberate Raqqa and we need them to do that quickly.
SESAY: Turkey has said they will not accept the situation. They say they object to it and they will not accept the U.S. going down this road. What might they do if the U.S. Refuses to reverse this decision.
FRANCONA: They've actually already done it. If you look at what they've done over the past 10 days, they've actually used Turkish aircraft and artillery to fire on a bunch of Kurdish units all along the Syrian border. That diverts resources. Now, the Kurds have to move resources to defend themselves against the Turks when they're supposed to be moving on Raqqa. It's just the wrong thing for the Turks to do. They're actually hindering a U.S. operation, a coalition operation, a coalition that Turkey has signed up to support.
[01:45:23] SESAY: So President Erdogan is heading to Washington, D.C., will meet with President Trump. This obviously will be top of the agenda. Is there any room for compromise here between the U.S. and Turkey to resolve this issue at such a critical time with a desire to move on Raqqa?
FRANCONA: I think -- there's probably some political solutions, something we can do with the Turks after Raqqa is taken by the Kurds, maybe bring in the Free Syrian Army with Turkish support to administer the city, turn it over to them, set up joint control. But the actual fighting, the actual people that are going to take Raqqa from ISIS, are going to be this Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Force. There's just no other military way to do this. And I think Erdogan knows this. He's playing a very tough political battle here. He wants to go head to head with President Trump on this. I don't know how this can be resolved politically. But this is very dangerous. Turkey is a NATO ally. We've got to consider the future of NATO while we're trying to do the attack to defeat ISIS.
SESAY: Colonel Rick Francona, appreciate the insight as always. Thank you.
FRANCONA: Thanks, Isha.
SESAY: Now, Betsy DeVos got a rough reception Wednesday as she delivered her first college commencement address since becoming U.S. education secretary. As she took the podium at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Florida, here's what happened.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BETSEY DEVOS, EDUCATIOIN SECRETARY: Dr. Jackson, board of trustees, thank you so very, very much for this great honor and privilege.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: Well, as you hear there, very clearly, that's when many graduates stood and turned their backs to DeVos. At times, the noise level drowned out her speech. Protests and petitions to stop the secretary's appearance started last week. Some complained her views on education were not compatible with the experiences of many minorities.
Well, next on NEWSROOM L.A., Sean Spicer is back in the spotlight after a press briefing in the dark. The bizarre details are just ahead.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: And that's from Melissa McCarthy's new promo clip for her appearance on "Saturday Night Live" this weekend. Looks like her Sean "Spicy" Spicer impersonation will be back.
The real Sean Spicer's last public appearance was on Tuesday night. And it was bizarre. After a TV interview, he disappeared behind a hedge and huddled with his staff in the dark. A few minutes later, he took questions from reporters, who were standing between him and his office.
Eric Boehlert, is a senior fellow with the press watchdog group, mediamatters.org. He joins me now.
Eric, it is so good to have you with us, because you simply cannot make this stuff up. Huddling by bushes, briefing the press in the dark. What goes through your mind?
ERIC BOEHLERT, SENIOR FELLOW, MEDIAMATTERS.ORG: Well, the context was the bizarre news last night where President Trump fires the head of the FBI, which sends all of D.C. into this catatonic reaction. And we're getting reports that the White House didn't think it was going to be any big deal. But again, when you have a scandal, a controversy, where you have the president of the United States firing the head of the FBI and you have the White House press spokesperson who's kind of lost behind the hedges on the White House grounds, unfortunately, for the White House, it's a perfect metaphor of how they do not communicate and, frankly, how they do not want to communicate with the American press.
SESAY: Tensions with the media extend far beyond the White House grounds, as you know, when it comes to this administration. We're hearing that a reporter from the Public News Service in West Virginia, a gentleman, called Dan Hayman, was arrested after asking questions of the Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Listen to his description of what he says happened.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAN HAYMAN, REPORTER, PUBLIC NEWS SERVICE: I was recording audio on my phone, and I reached it out to him past his staffers and the other people who were with him and I asked him the question repeatedly and he did not answer. At some point, I think they decided I was just too persistent in asking this question and trying to do my job and so they arrested me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SESAY: The question he was asking is whether domestic violence is going to be a pre-existing condition under the new health care law. Now, the Secret Service is not commenting, but the American civil liberties union of West Virginia has called Mr. Hayman's arrest a blatant attempt to chill an independent free press. Do you agree?
BOEHLERT: Based on the facts, what we've seen, this is fairly outrageous. We haven't seen any evidence where this reporter was wildly out of line or was threatening anyone. Reporters have been asking and occasionally shouting questions to public figures for many decades in this country, and they're not normally arrested. Reporters in this country are not supposed to be arrested for trying to get basic information from government officials.
SESAY: Yeah, that's certainly not the expectation.
Then to top it all off -- yes, Eric, there is more -- on Wednesday, President Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Yes, I am talking about the very same Sergei Kislyak who's been at the center of investigations surrounding Trump campaign officials' ties to Russia. There was no U.S. media admitted. But then an image of Lavrov and Trump emerged shaking hands, courtesy of the Russian media agency, TASS.
Why would the White House make such a decision, to leave U.S. media out in the cold but let Russian media in, at least for some part of it, to capture images and to be present at all? What's your read here?
[01:55:18] BOEHLERT: This is just incredible. If there weren't so many incredible things happening, if it were just this in a normal administration, this would be a shocking scandal. You don't freeze out the American press from access to the Oval Office and then allow Russian media or any international media, let alone, Russian media, which is at the center of this controversy in terms of the Russian government trying to hack our election last November. Look, this is just the latest. Right? I was talking about that culture of intimidation. This is just the latest example of kind of Trump's war on the press. I mean, this is -- it's just beyond, it is just beyond what anyone probably could have imagined. And we're only three months into this.
SESAY: There is so much more to come, so brace yourself. Eric Boehlert, I think is the best piece of advice I could give you.
(CROSSTALK) SESAY: Thank you so much for joining us and giving us some great perspective. It's much appreciated.
BOEHLERT: My pleasure.
SESAY: You are watching CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay.
I'll be back with more news right after this.
[02:00:13] SESAY: This is CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles.