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Trump Told Russians in Oval Office Firing "Nut Job" Comey Eased "Great Pressure" from Probe; Comey Efforts To Distance Himself From Trump; Researching Impeachment; "He Was Crazy.". Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Happening now: "a real nut job." "The New York Times" reports President Trump told Russian diplomats inside the Oval Office that newly fired FBI chief James Comey was "crazy" and "a real nut job" and that the removal of Comey would relieve "great pressure" from the Russia investigation.

Comey alarmed: a friend of the fired FBI director says Comey told him of his concerns about Trump's behavior and his attempts to avoid the president, including a failed effort to escape a public hug.

Answering to the House: deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who, this week appointed a special counsel to lead the Russia Trump probe, tells House members he knew in advance that Comey would be fired but insists his now-famous memo was not meant to justify the firing.

And overseas mission: as the late controversy erupts, President Trump is heading towards Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his first overseas trip. The stakes and the risks, they are high, including an address to leaders of 50 Muslim nations, written by a leading figure behind the president's travel ban.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news: President Trump is on his way to Saudi Arabia this year hour but he can't get away from the chaos here in Washington. "The New York Times" reports the president told Russian officials inside the Oval Office that firing FBI director James Comey had relieved great pressure on him, citing a summary of the meeting by a U.S. official, "The Times" says the president told the Russians he fired Comey because -- and I'm quoting him now -- "he was real crazy, a real nut job," end quote.

The White House is not disputing the account saying Comey, quote, "created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia," end quote. That comes as the president begins a very high-stakes foreign trip. He'll begin in Saudi Arabia, where he'll make an extraordinarily

important and high-risk address to leaders from 50 Muslim nations crafted by an architect of this travel ban which targeted mostly Muslim countries. He'll also visit Israel and the West Bank, Belgium, Italy and the Vatican for a meeting with the pope.

The president is taking a large contingent of aides and one official says the trip is "do or die," referring to the stakes for the president as well as staffers whose jobs may be on the line.

And we're also learning more about James Comey's uncomfortable relationship with the president. A Comey friend says that shortly after the inauguration, the FBI chief wore a blue suit to a Blue Room event in the White House and stood near blue curtains, hoping to be inconspicuous but he couldn't escape the president's grasp for a public hug.

I'll talk to Democratic congressman Ruben Gallego and our correspondents, specialists and guests, they are all standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories. Let's begin with this stunning new account of the president's meeting with Russian diplomats. I want to go straight to our White House correspondent, Athena Jones.

Athena, update our viewers.


Well, it's more bad news on a day when the president and his team have just set off on a trip that the president himself has called crucial. Aides have been hoping that a successful trip would be a reset of sorts, helping to shift the narrative away from this swirl of back-to- back controversies, most of them of the president's own making.

But with news like this breaking almost daily, changing the storyline around the president, it's going to be a tall order.


JONES (voice-over): President Trump departing Washington today for his first overseas trip but unable to escape the controversies swirling around his presidency. The latest bombshell: a "New York Times" report that the president told Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting earlier this month that firing Jim Comey as FBI director removed great pressure on him.

"I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job," Trump said, according to a document summarizing the meeting. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off," he added.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer not denying the account.

"By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia," Spicer said in a statement. The late revelation comes as the president offered yet another version

of the events leading up to the dismissal of Comey, who was leading the bureau's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision -- and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from --


TRUMP: -- the deputy attorney general.


JONES (voice-over): After saying this about the firing last week...


TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.


JONES (voice-over): Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein telling lawmaker on Capitol Hill that he wrote the memo after he knew the president made the decision to fire Comey but making clear he takes responsibility for the document.

"I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He knew that a decision had been made and, at the same time, he observed that a decision is not final until it's final.

JONES (voice-over): Rosenstein today briefing House members about his decision to appoint former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe Mueller will conduct a fair investigation?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. You know, the definition of fair will not be a Republican definition. They won't like it. A Democratic definition, at times they won't like it and the president at times will be frustrated. But, you know, again, this is about public confidence.

JONES (voice-over): The controversy engulfing Trump's presidency as he embarks on an eight-day, five-stop tour that one official describes as "kind of do or die."

The president tweeting this morning, "Getting ready for my big foreign trip. Will be strongly protecting American interests. That's what I like to do." Trump, a foreign policy novice, will be joined on the trip by the

first lady and a long list of top advisers, including Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.


JONES: Now at his first stop in Saudi Arabia, the president is set to deliver a major speech on Islam aimed at, as he put it, "encouraging Muslim leaders to fight hatred and extremism."

It's a high-risk move by a president who has had harsh rhetoric for Islam and for Muslims and the speech is being written by Stephen Miller, the chief architect of that now-blocked travel ban that targeted six Muslim majority countries.

Miller himself has a long history of anti-Muslim rhetoric -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Athena Jones, reporting for us, thank you.

Up on Capitol Hill, the reaction is one of shock and dismay. Let's got to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.

Phil, what are you hearing?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the blowback's been swift, at least on the Democratic side of things. Republicans not really responding yet but when it comes to Democratic lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, you get a mix of reaction, Wolf.

Those who are just stunned to those who believe that this is evidence of obstruction. Take a listen to an interview I just had with Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan.


REP. DAN KILDEE, MICH.: It's just dumbfounding. I mean, just when we think this president has gone as far as he could possibly go, we hear this sort of a report. If it's true, I mean, this is just -- it's bad for the United States of America that this is the kind of thing -- these are the kinds of things that the president would say.

The fact that he might think this and actually want to provide some comfort to the Russians by denigrating a career public servant -- who I have differences with -- but by denigrating a career public servant using that sort of language in order to provide some comfort or reassurance to the Russian government, who are clear enemies in many ways, certainly not allies, you've got to wonder, what is going on inside the head of Donald Trump?

MATTINGLY: The White House says that this was -- the implication being that this was part of a negotiating strategy.

Does that make sense to you?

KILDEE: Every time the president makes a mistake or says something stupid, he says it's a negotiating tactic. He's kind of running out of tactics.


MATTINGLY: Now there was also a tweet from Senator Patrick Leahy, now he's a senior Democratic in the U.S. Senate, also the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who said plainly, Wolf, "This is what is obstruction looks like,"

Pointing to the quote from "The New York Times" story, it said, "I faced great pressure because of Russia; that's taken off."

Now the big question is what happens next. And obviously this is a very fast-moving story but we're already starting to see action on that front. Elijah Cummings, the top government on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has already informed Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of that panel, that he expects him or is requesting him to request any transcripts of that Oval Office meeting.

And if those transcripts are not provided from the White House, he was asking Jason Chaffetz to subpoena them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's see what Chaffetz decides to do. Thanks very much, Phil Mattingly, for that.

Let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

So, Jeff, what do you make of this bombshell "New York Times" report?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Well, if you just parse the words that Donald Trump says, it does seem very close to a confession of obstruction of justice. He is talking about James Comey, who was investigating him and his campaign in connection with the whole Russian campaign matter.

And he says, I fired him and the pressure is off. I mean, it doesn't seem much more complicated than that. You know --


TOOBIN: -- the insults, the "nut job," "crazy," whatever, I mean, you know, people can judge whether that kind of talk is appropriate or not. But I don't think it's legally all that significant.

What's significant is that he's saying that there was pressure and he got rid of it. That seems pretty straightforward to me.

BLITZER: How does that fit into building a case for intent?

TOOBIN: Well, I think the words speak of his intent. He thought this investigation was a problem and he got rid of it.

Now, apparently, the latest justification is that this was some kind of four-dimensional chess that he was playing with the Russians and this was designed to advance the foreign policy interests of the United States, except that's completely different from other explanations that he's offered. He offered -- he said that Hillary -- that he had -- that James Comey in the Rosenstein memo that Comey had violated the rules regarding Hillary Clinton.

He had said that -- you know, he had offered another reasons and this sort of foreign policy justification, you know, I just think the words mean what the words mean and it's tough to explain them away, I think.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, stand by. We're going to get back to you. Right now, though, I want to bring in Democratic congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona, he's a member of the Armed Services Committee and an Iraq War veteran.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZ.: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: So let me read the quote one more time -- this is from "The New York Times," the president referring to the now former head of the FBI.

"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. I'm not under investigation."

He said this, according to "The New York Times," in that meeting with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States in the Oval Office.

I want you to react to that.

GALLEGO: First, let's begin by just saying one of the most obvious things, how unpatriotic it is for someone like Donald Trump to be saying something about a civil servant, a career civil servant, who has been protecting this country for many years, to one of our chief and main adversaries in the Oval Office. It's sad. It's a sad statement and it really is a sad -- that this occurred in the White House and that's coming out of the mouth of a U.S. president.

Number two, it does show that where there's smoke, there is fire. We have been saying for some time now that there's clearly some indications of obstruction of justice. We have seen his own words, where he's admitting this. This is the second time.

And I think it really goes to show why it's important that not only do we fully empower special counsel, that we have our own independent commission both in the House and the Senate to really get down to the bottom of what occurred in the firing of Director Comey as well as what other type of collusion occurred between the Russian government and Russian spies and the Trump campaign.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, obstruction of justice, you have to have intent. That's what we just spoke about with Jeffrey Toobin. You're convinced, at least based on what you know right now that, A, there was intent and, B, there was obstruction of justice?

GALLEGO: I -- right now what I can tell and can see is that this is a worthwhile investigation. From the words that we've seen, from, you know, President Trump, from what we've seen from the transcripts -- now this -- these are actual transcripts from the actual office; this is not hearsay or speculation -- that this warrants us doing further search.

It warrants us having impendvestigation (ph) and the same time, you know, I think that President Trump owes an apology to the American public for really embarrassing us by denigrating, again, a career public servant, whose job it was to track down Russian spies.

And doing that in such a manner is just disgraceful to the office of the presidency.

BLITZER: Here's the White House reaction, Sean Spicer, the press secretary, issued this statement.

"By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. The investigation would have always continued and, obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it.

"Once again the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."

Do you accept that explanation?

GALLEGO: Well, the first explanation it's, one, it's just an excuse.

Two, the leak or actually the transcripts of actual people in their office. This is not a leak. This is their own transcripts, the own words of the president and they need to really stop making excuses.

This is the first president I've ever seen that tries to blame everyone but himself. The fact is, the words came out of his mouth. He should be an adult and deal with the fact that they came out of his mouth and, at the same time, should give -- step away from the investigation as much as possible and let also Congress do its job and encourage the Republicans to actually support us in our movement for an independent investigation.

BLITZER: White House officials also say this exchange was a negotiating tactic with the Russians. There was a strategy there.

Do you buy that?

GALLEGO: Absolutely not. The Russians aren't exactly known for showing mercy. And I doubt that that's the best strategy. And maybe other people who have worked --


GALLEGO: -- in this field can attest to that. I think this is just an excuse that was made up after the fact because, again, this administration is really coming apart at the seams and they really had no excuse for the president really running his mouth in such a manner. BLITZER: Do you believe the Congress will get the transcripts of that conversation that the president had with the Russian diplomats in the Oval Office?

GALLEGO: I believe Congress has a right and the people and public has a right to see what was said, considering that, at this point, the president is using that as a basis for him to get rid of James Comey, which is, again, another change in his excuse or his determination for firing James Comey.

BLITZER: Congressman, we have more to discuss. There's new developments unfolding even as we speak. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.





BLITZER: Our breaking news: another bombshell report, this time from "The New York Times," saying that President Trump told Russian officials inside the Oval Office that the newly fired FBI director, James Comey, was, quote, "crazy" and "a real nut job."

In an account not disputed by the White House, the president reportedly told the Russians that he was under great pressure because of Comey and that that pressure was now off.

The president right now is en route to Saudi Arabia. We're back with Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona, he's a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Do you have confidence in the newly named special counsel, Robert Mueller?

GALLEGO: I have confidence but I think we also have to continue our oversight to make sure that he does his job and also that he does not receive pressure from the White House.

He can be fired at any point by the White House. That is a danger and this is why we still believe that there should be an independent investigation run by members of -- the House members of Congress, not just to get to the bottom of what happened but also what we need to do to stop further Russian collusion.

You know, we have the 2018 elections coming up. The Russians are not going to shy away all of a sudden. They clearly did not shy away in France and they are going to make sure that they have the political outcome they want in 2018.

And we need to figure out what happened so we can figure out what to do in the future to prevent it from happening again.

BLITZER: You joined your House colleagues today in that closed door meeting with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

Did you learn anything new?

GALLEGO: There's nothing that we learned that has not been already produced in the press or through the Senate hearing. You know, I think many of us actually walked away quite disappointed. We felt that that was not the best use of our time, to be honest.

And the deputy attorney general did not provide much -- more information or any kind of context about what his motivation was for writing that memo and only left many of us with more questions about who ordered the firing of Donald -- of Director Comey.


BLITZER: What was his explanation for not providing answers to your questions?

GALLEGO: His explanation which is -- can be found in public and not necessarily this classified briefing, was that this is something that can be left for Special Counsel Mueller to discover and he would refuse to answer those types of questions.

BLITZER: He was afraid if he said anything, it could undermine Mueller's new investigation, is that what he was suggesting?

GALLEGO: That's what he was suggesting. That's what he is suggesting.

BLITZER: You don't buy that though?

GALLEGO: I don't understand what occurred. It's his job to explain to the public and to Congress what was the motivation, why did he write the memo?

His answers do not add up and it only creates further questions among members of Congress that there is some type of cover-up occurring.

BLITZER: Do you believe he was forced to write that memo?

GALLEGO: I believe something occurred. I don't know if he was forced to do that. I would hope that a 22-year veteran of the Department of Justice would not feel forced to do that.

But something occurred that we think in Congress was an unjust act. And the motivation behind that is questionable. And this is why we need to, again, empower the special counsel, protect the special counsel as well as have our own independent investigation.

BLITZER: Because the president and his top aides, they really hid behind that memo originally announcing the firing of Comey, although the president the next day sort of undermined that entire explanation by telling Lester Holt he would have fired him no matter what the recommendation was.

GALLEGO: We do not have an answer, a clear answer from the president, from the deputy attorney general, about what occurred, why it occurred and why he wrote that memo and I think this is, again, further proof that we need a full independent investigation.

BLITZER: Do you have confidence in the deputy attorney general Rosenstein?

GALLEGO: No, I do not.

BLITZER: Really?

GALLEGO: I do not.

BLITZER: Because he was confirmed by the Senate 94-6.

GALLEGO: Well, from what -- his actions so far, I've got to say that I do not believe entirely that I can trust him at this point.

BLITZER: And what about Mueller? You have confidence --

GALLEGO: I do have confidence in Mueller. I do.


BLITZER: -- Rosenstein appointed Mueller, as you know.

GALLEGO: and that brings us a lot -- it gives us a certain sense of security. But the non-answer to why he wrote the memo and who ordered the firing, you know, really does call into question whether I can trust him or not.

Congressman Gallego, thanks for coming in.

GALLEGO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, we'll have more on the breaking news, "The New York Times" bombshell report on what President Trump told Russian diplomats during that Oval Office meeting.





BLITZER: We're covering the breaking news. "The New York Times" citing a written transcript of President Trump's Oval Office meeting with top Russian diplomats that quotes the president as calling FBI director James Comey, "crazy" and "a real nut job" and that firing Comey relieved great pressure on him.

A White House statement does not deny the details of the story. Let's bring in our legal and political specialist.

And, David Chalian, let me read precisely from this bombshell report in "The New York Times." This is quoting the president in the meeting with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador.

"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. I'm not under investigation."

How damaging potentially is this for the president?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, "crazy" and "nut job" are obviously the words that are going to ricochet around. But it's actually the pressure line that is what Sean Spicer felt the need to respond to.

You saw that the White House tried to explain what he meant by "pressure" was that the grandstanding and politicization of Comey put such pressure -- nobody is going to buy that excuse. What is the -- no.

Who talks about pressure that way?

[17:30:00] Clearly, the President is saying here that he felt -- pressure was alleviated on this investigation by getting rid of Comey. That's going to be legal problem one, potentially. Secondly, think about this, Wolf. This is extraordinary. This is the official government document of a meeting of the President of the United States and Russian officials inside the oval office, and it's being read to a New York Times reporter. They have a point about leaks. It's not going to save them from their real legal and political troubles, but it is extraordinary to see and another warning sign to Donald Trump that there are people in this government who seem pretty committed to taking him down.

BLITZER: Because almost every day there's a blockbuster leak like that coming out. Jeffrey Toobin, is this closer and closer towards a suggestion of obstruction of justice?

TOOBIN: It sure, It sure looks that way to me and, you know, one of the things that I think is worth pointing out is that if you're talking about the statute, the law that prohibits obstruction of justice, it's illegal to attempt to obstruct justice. It doesn't matter if you succeed in obstructing justice, because one of the points you've often heard in defense of the President's comments is, well, the investigation continued anyway.

That's not the law. The law - I mean, that doesn't excuse you if you try to obstruct justice; that you fail to obstruct justice. The crime is attempting to obstruct justice and, you know, I think the plain words of the President's statement here, if they are accurately portrayed and Sean Spicer said they are accurately portrayed, is that he succeeded in stopping the investigation which is what he wanted to do: an investigation of him, among other people.

BLITZER: Yes, he said something similar to Lester Holt in that NBC interview when he said he was thinking of Russia when he fired - when he fired the FBI Director. Let me read, Chris Cillizza, the exact statement once again from Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, reacting to this New York Times report. "By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our National Security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations." So, what Sean Spicer of the White House is suggesting, this is a negotiating strategy on the part of the President - the way he's speaking to the Russians.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: OK. I mean, I'm with David. I can't say it absolutely isn't but seems on the realm of plausibility way over on the implausible end of things. I think the most important thing in that statement, Wolf, is that there's no denial of the facts as the New York Times reported them. One point on this meeting; three things Donald Trump did in this meeting. One, they let the Russian news agency in to take pictures that the Russian embassy then tweeted out, point one.

CHALIAN: No American?

CILLIZZA: No American journalists, OK. And they were furious about this in retrospect. Point two, he told information to Kislyak and Lavrov that was so top secret and so classified that the White House even retroactively urged news entities, including CNN, not to report it; OK, point two. Point three, he called Jim Comey a "nut job," he said he was crazy - and to David's point the most important thing here is he basically said, "I got rid of Comey and now the pressure is off me."

Those three things happened in one meeting with two top officials - if - try to think of a good spy novelist - but if you wrote that, that would never happen in one meeting, no one would do that. I mean, it's - we have to pause because I feel like there are so many mountains coverage wise with Donald Trump and bombshells. We have to pause and realize that this is a real mountain. This is - this is not a molehill; this is a real mountain. It is a remarkable thing that came out of that have May 10th meeting.

BLITZER: OK. Kaitlan Collins is with us; you're a White House Correspondent, Kaitlan. What does it say to you that Sean Spicer, in this statement, did not say the story is false, the story is wrong, totally inaccurate, he's not denying it?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Not at all. And the idea that firing James Comey would alleviate pressure from the investigation into Russian meddling in the election, and whether Trump's campaign had anything to do that, is almost comical. But what's especially troubling here is that Russian officials found out why the President fired the FBI Director before the American people did.

That meeting was the day after he fired James Comey, and that was the same day that Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders came out and said the reason they fired him was because of the recommendations from the Attorney General. So, Trump told the Russians why he fired him and we didn't find out until Thursday when he admitted to Lester Holt that it was because of the Russian investigation.

BLITZER: David, that's a fair point that the President speaking that openly to the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Ambassador. The Russian Ambassador, Kislyak, who's at the center of a lot of these allegations of improper contacts with Russians.

[17:35:17] CHALIAN: These conversations with Michael Flynn, with Jared Kushner, and with Jeff Sessions - because of that conversation and not revealing it had to recuse himself. He is clearly at the center, that's why that photo, right there, is astounding -just dominating the airwaves for the last week and confounding people.

To add to Kaitlan's point, also, yes, they heard the real explanation first and yet yesterday the President is back to explaining it as it was the Rosenstein memo and about Comey's investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails. So, this is now - although sequentially, when this happened, but we are learning again that he has gone back and forth now about what the rationale was for firing Jim Comey. He tells Lester Holt and the Russians one thing, his aides and then even yesterday in his press conference he's all on something else. No consistency in that story is also going to be part of this entire thing.

BLITZER: Yes. Bob Mueller, the new Special Counsel is going to have his hands full over these next months and maybe years the way the Special Counsels operate. Everybody stands by, we're going to have much more right after this.


[17:40:52] BLITZER: We're back with our political and legal specialist. So, Jeffrey Toobin, how important will it be for the new Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI Director, to obtain the transcripts of that conversation in the oval office with the Russian diplomats and how significant a factor in the investigation could that be?

TOOBIN: Well, it's indispensable. And remember, and that's just the beginning. I mean, this has been made public. We still have the Comey memos which presumably described the President's conversations with the former FBI Director about the future of the Russian investigations. There are other White House records that reveal the President's statements. There are internal documents that he's certainly going to want to subpoena and obtain, and that could lead to fights about executive privilege.

And you know, the President is quite clear that he doesn't approve of this investigation so, you know, there is a very real prospect of legal fights over access to information. And of course, towering over all of this is the question of whether there are White House tapes. The President has suggested that there might be, and if they are, that will certainly be subpoenaed and that could probably resolve more clearly than anything: what the President said about this investigation. But certainly, all of those, you know, White House documents will be very early in Bob Mueller's agenda to obtain. BLITZER: Yes. This thing could go on, and on, and on. David, a lot

of unflattering bombshell headlines this week - dealing with the President, so how do they engage and can they really engage in damage control from the White House perspective? How do they do that?

CHALIAN: So much of this is happening outside their control right now, Wolf, so I don't think - I don't think there's a damage control thing that they could do. They need a flawless foreign trip, that's clear. If that can go well and they need some of this leaking to stop, which is just luck and open - cross your fingers, because if they can hold off a little bit on further self-dropping and have a good foreign trip; at least they could try to get back on course; I don't think it's real damage control. And I will say this: you want to know where to look for what the strategy is going forward? Look to the Senate and House Republicans.

That is where, politically, this is going to be determined, because the moment they start leaving a mess - they felt a sigh of relief that the Special Counsel got appointed, but then this happens and they get nervous again. We've two special elections coming up. More poll numbers are going to come out. And those - if Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan, and their troops start getting nervous, and start leaving the President, that is where politically this is going to start falling apart very quickly for him.

BLITZER: You think these leaks are coming because of the President's criticism comments about, let's say, the law enforcement community, the FBI, the CIA, the Intelligence Community? You and I have been in Washington for a while. Do you go after elements like that? You know what, they don't want to get even - they're going to get - they don't get mad, they are going to get even.

CILLIZZA: The chickens will come home to roost in Washington. It is an establishment town and they - I think the theory of the case generally is: we will outlast you. You'll be President for four or eight years, we will be here forever. So, yes, of course, Wolf, I think some of it is that. I would say - David mentioned a flawless broader trip beginning with Saudi Arabia; nine days. Try to remember the last time Donald Trump went nine days without a self-inflicted crisis or mistake.

I wrote this, but it keeps coming back to me. George Costanza in an episode of "Seinfeld," famously said, "I'm going to do the opposite of what have my natural instincts is," because his life was just going down the toilet. So, he's - just do the opposite. Donald Trump, in some ways, should do the opposite of what his natural instincts is on this trip. If you are thinking of tweeting something about the Special Counsel; stop, don't. That won't work, but that's what he would need almost to do what David is talking about which is what he needs to do: a flawless nine days. When have we seen that?

[17:45:01] BLITZER: How is this foreign trip going to factor into all of this, Kaitlan?

COLLINS: What I'm interested to see is the different in the time zones and when his tweet storms are because we're used to them being 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning.

CILLIZZA: Seven hours ahead, right? At least in Saudi Arabia.

COLLINS: Yes, exactly. So, it's very interesting to see how that works. But they're right, a lot is riding on his trip, but as people have said foreign trips don't always go very smoothly the first time around. It's a new ballgame for these people, so it will be interesting to see but I don't think it will be that easy for them to manage problems at home while they're abroad for nine days.

BLITZER: He's got his big speech in Saudi Arabia Sunday morning Eastern Time; later in the afternoon, over there. Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Well, I just want to say, you know, I remember sitting around that table, you know, when Donald Trump said all these - you know, John McCain. You know, I don't like prisoners who get captured, and he said terrible things about Megyn Kelly, and we all sort of shook our heads and said: this is it, he can't recover from this. You know this is bad. I mean, there is no doubt that this is a very bad story. It sure looks to me like obstruction of justice, but the forces of political gravity have not brought down Donald Trump yet. And I think, you know, we are very wise not to count him out regardless of what seems like very big problems.

BLITZER: That's a good point he makes. He survived that "Access Hollywood" video as we all remember as well. All right, everybody stand by. This important note for our viewers: tune in later tight for a CNN special report "White House in Crisis." That's at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN. Coming up, more on the breaking news; plus, new revelations about fired FBI Director James Comey's attempts to distance himself from the President.


BLITZER: Our breaking news: the New York Times reports President Trump told Russian diplomats in the oval office that fired FBI Director James Comey was "crazy, a real nut job," and that firing Comey "relieved great pressure on him." Meantime, we're learning more about Comey's attempts to get avoid getting too close to President Trump. Brian Todd has been looking into that for us. Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we are getting new accounts from James Comey's side. According to a friend of Comey's, in the early days of the Trump administration, Comey grew more and more uncomfortable with how the President was interacting with him. This was illustrated in a now well-documented encounter at the White House. The now ousted FBI Director, and the man who fired him, in an awkward television moment that tonight has new meaning.

It started a friend of James Comey's, says, when the FBI Director arrived in the blue room of the White House on January 22nd. Comey was hoping President Trump wouldn't notice him, and even stood as far from the President as possible. Comey's friend says, the 6'8" Director wearing a blue suit, was trying to blend in with the blue curtains, but the President singled him out. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: He's become more famous than me.

TODD: Comey's friend says, he was annoyed; Comey didn't want to seem friendly with the President, so he tried to avoid getting too close.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you watch the video, he extends his hand and Comey's arms are really long. He extends his hand kind of preemptively, and Trump grabs the hand and pulls him into a hug. But the hug is entirely one-sided. So, one guy in the hug is shaking hand and the other guy is hugging.

TODD: Benjamin Wood has told PBS, his friend, Comey, did not want to be at the White House event two days after the inauguration with the President, whose campaign he was investigating. But felt he couldn't refuse attending a reception for law enforcement. Wood has says, that moment was one of a few incidents where Comey felt President Trump inappropriately tried to get chummy with him. One time, he says, the President even telephoned Comey as the Director was boarding a helicopter: not for an emergency, just to make small talk. Wood has says, Comey eventually felt he had to coach the White House to not have the President contact him directly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The color of the wallpaper was that these were not honorable people. And that protecting the FBI from them was his day job.

TODD: Former FBI and justice officials say, it's protocol for the FBI Director to not appear to be personally close to the President.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you have an investigation, if you have allegations made against the President, or against members of his administration or people they are considering for the administration, you don't want the appearance of a lack of objectivity, let's say, or bias on the part of the FBI.

TODD: Former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes says, it's possible President Trump simply didn't know better than to reach out to Comey directly, but others believed the contacts were calculated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What Trump was doing right from the beginning was to try to get close to Comey, trying to feel him out, trying to get him on board. And when that didn't happen, I think Trump realized that there was no way that this guy was going to be on board and that his only choice in trying to scuttle this investigation was to get rid of the Director of the FBI.


TODD: Benjamin Wittes says Comey was disgusted with the scene at the White House where President Trump shook his hand in front of those cameras. We pressed the White House repeatedly today to respond to that, to Comey's reported account that President Trump and his team are "not honorable people," and to the overall criticism that the President behaved inappropriately with Comey. We got no response from the White House to any of that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, how did President Obama interact with Comey?

TODD: By contrast, Wolf, a person with knowledge of that told CNN that when President Obama met Comey to discuss appointing him as FBI Director, Obama made clear that two men would not meet one on one after that. President Obama, according to the source, thought the White House should have a clear separation from the FBI about ongoing investigations.

[17:55:13] BLITZER: Important stuff, Brian Todd, thank you. Stay with us, we have more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Our Justice Correspondent, Evan Perez, is standing by live.


[17:59:47] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news: researching impeachment. CNN has learned that White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment procedures. Sources say, the White House only believes it's a distant possibility. The President would have to fend off its hand-picked removal. Tonight, new details of what's happening behind the scenes. "He was crazy."