tv Washington Week PBS June 9, 2017 7:30pm-8:01pm PDT
bob: moment of truth but who's truth? i'm robert costa. the president and former f.b.i. director accuse each other of lying. explosive testimony sparks new questions about credibility and political consequences. tonight on "washington week." >> i was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so i thought it really important to document. robert: fired f.b.i. director james comey calls president trump a liar. in sworn testimony, comey laid out details of how the president requested his loyalty then tried to influence the probe into russian meddling specifically the ongoing investigation into former national security adviser michael flynn. >> i was fired because of the russian investigation. robert: the president denies it all. president trump: no collusion.
no obstruction. he's a leaker. james comey confirmed a lot of what i said and some of the things he said just weren't true. robert: comey admitted to senators mr. trump's tweet that he better hope there are no tapes prompted him to take unconventional action. >> i asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with the reporter. i thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. robert: days later robert mueller was appointed special counsel. top republicans are standing by the president. >> he's new at government and so therefore i think that he is learning as he goes. robert: plus, bombshell revelations about former attorney general loretta lynch and her attempt to redefine the investigation into former secretary of state hillary clinton. we explore it all with dan balz of "the washington post" and julie hirschfeld davis of the "new york times," pete williams of nbc news, and kimberly atkins of "the boston herald."
announcer: once again live from washington, moderator robert costa. robert: good evening. a remarkable week in washington where scrutiny of president trump's conduct came to the fore. in policy debates, they took a back seat. today during a rose garden news conference, president trump responded to the stunning testimony of former f.b.i. director james comey. it was a memorable exchange. >> back to james comey's testimony, you suggested he didn't tell the truth in everything he said. he did say under oath that you told him to let the flynn -- you said you hoped the flynn investigation -- he could let it go. president trump: i didn't say that. >> so he lied about that. president trump: well, i didn't say that. i will tell you i didn't say that. >> and did he ask you to pledge
-- president trump: there would be nothing wrong if i did say it according to everybody that i've read today but i did not say that. >> did he ask for a pledge of loyalty from you? president trump: no he did not. >> he said those things under oath. would you be willing to speak under oath to give your version? president trump: 100%. i didn't say, under oath, i hardly know the man. i'm not going to say i want you to pledge allegiance. who would do that? who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? think of it. i hardly know the man. it doesn't make sense. no i didn't say that and i didn't say the other. >> so if robert mueller wanted to speak with you about that --? president trump: i would be glad to tell you exactly what i just told you. robert: dan, why did president trump up the ante this afternoon and offer to speak with robert mueller the special counsel? dan: he obviously takes very personally what director comey did and said on capitol hill on thursday. it was very, very damning testimony. not definitive obviously but very damning testimony. he laid out elements of the case
that some people think add up to or point to either obstruction of justice or the abuse of power, abuse of office. and donald trump is somebody who fights back. when he feels as though he's been wronged in any even small way, this is no small way, he lashes back. that is part of what he was doing today. robert: julie, does the white house and president trump's top advisers share his confidence and strategy? julie: there is no question that they have a strategy. their playbook right now is they're going to be defiant. they're going to stick by what the president is saying his version of events is. that they're going to try to undercut jim comey's credibility and, you know, that is sort of the party line right now for them. there is no question that inside the white hoss among the staff there is a lot of anxiety and of course you couldn't have listened to that testimony yesterday from jim comey and thought that was a positive thing for him at all. he stood in the rose garden today and said it was very, very good. he tweeted this morning that he was vindicated. but there is a real feeling that this is spiraling out of control
and nothing donald trump said in the rose garden today is going to lessen that. it only seems to get more intense. robert: you mentioned the president's version of events. kim, when you think about the possible tapes everyone keeps talking about, the president has mentioned he may have taped his conversations with former director comey. do these tapes exist? the president seems to be unclear. kimberly: he seems to be sort of teasing this out like it's a reality television show saying, well, the answer will come in the grand finale in a few days or some period of time. you know, it's the answer he said that you'll be disappointed in the end as well which means there either are no tapes or if they are, if there are, he doesn't intend to release them, which could lead to more trouble for him if the relevant investigative committees are looking for them and they don't provide it. robert: pete, words matter especially when it comes to the law. you cover it so well. we hear this term obstruction of justice. we heard it all week. what does it mean for president trump in this situation -- what
are the challenges he faces with regard to that question? pete: there are lots of aspects to it. the most simple version is if somebody is going to testify before a trial and you get to him and you offer him some money not to testify. that's obstruction of justice. trying to fix a jury or something like that. in this context what it means is anybody who tries to interfere with an investigation or a proceeding and then the statute uses the word corruptly. in other words, for a bad motive is what it means. so, clearly, here the question is was the president trying to get the f.b.i. to drop an investigation? and if so, would that be obstruction of justice? you said words matter. that's why this is so critical. because if the president merely was hinting at or suggesting or as he said today flat out didn't do it, that's one thing. if mr. comey's version is correct, that's another. and a problem for bob mueller is you've got just the two of them in the room. yesterday by the way the president's counsel came out and said after comey's testimony,
well, he never said those things. the only way the counsel would know that is whatever mr. trump told him. robert: julie, when you look at the white house response and the president, he is working with a hard charging new york lawyer and when it comes to this answer, the question about what did the president ask comey to layoff former national security adviser michael flynn, it is about the word as the senator said in the hearing, did he hope to do it or did he want to do it, did he direct comey to do it? are they parcing words over on pennsylvania avenue? julie: i think they are. they have to because at this point they are in a legal context and the hearing yesterday there was a lot of back and forth about what does hope mean and what comey made very clear was that he took it to mean not oh, i wish, you know, it would be nice if, but i'm telling you, alone in this room with you, i've cleared the room now, of all the rest of my staff, and i'm looking you in the eye and saying, boy, i really hope you drop this. and he took that as a direct order. and i guess what's not clear
here entirely is whether it matters how comey took it and how trump meant it but that is going to be a matter that mueller is probably going to have to get to and we heard the president say he will talk to mueller about it. >> two points. one is we're talking about potential obstruction on michael flynn but a second question about whether there was potential obstruction on the whole russia investigation. there is no he said/she said about fact the f.b.i. director was fired and that the president said i did it to get rid of this guy bugging me about russia. >> that is such a good point. we didn't learn much new about the russian collusion investigation from comey. >> only confirmation as the white house rightly points out that at the time comey left office involuntarily mr. trump was not under investigation. robert: i want to pick up on something julie said real quick, pete. why did attorney general sessions leave the room with flynn? does it raise any legal questions? pete: you mean at the meeting? robert: earlier in the year the president reportedly asked the
attorney general to leave the room so the president could have a direct conversation with then director comey. it brings up all these questions about attorney general sessions and his role in this. pete: so the main question i think that is of interest to prosecutors is the fact that it looks like the president was about to do something, he didn't want other people to know about. maybe that is not such a good motive and it goes toward the whole obstruction issue. i guess mr. sessions really was in a position where the president ordered him to leave the room. what could he do? robert: dan, the republican party, it was striking to listen to some of those questions. they're standing with president trump. this is not august of 1974 with the republican party as they did then walking away from president nixon. they seem to be sticking with him. is it because they believe in the republican party that the president still has a grip on the base in spite of his low poll numbers? dan: i think that's part of it. part of it is their desire to continue a decent relationship and not let this spiral out of control as they are attempting to put through an agenda that many of them care about as much
if not more than the president does. but i thought one thing that was interesting about that hearing on thursday was that in almost every case, republican or democrat, there was praise for director comey as they greeted him. in a sense to say, you're credible. and i also thought that for the most part the republican questioning while not uncritical was not unduly partisan. they didn't rake him over the coals if you know what i mean. and so i took both of those things to mean, they recognized the seriousness of this, that they're not ready to make a public break but in the same way there are white house staffers who are worried they are very worried. robert: kim, the republican senators in that room may have praised comey, said he was a credible person to testify. president trump is not making that argument at all. he is going after the former director as a leaker.
is this an effective argument? kimberly: i think next to being a loser that is probably the worst thing he thinks he can call them. it is effective to the point of unity with gop lawmakers. this is something that gop lawmakers were very interested in throughout this investigation. remember congressman trygg made a big point of that the last time james comey was before congress. really digging into this issue of leaking while the democrats were more focused on the russian investigation. and even marco rubio, somebody who has never been a close ally of president trump, made the point that with all this leaking going on the only thing that didn't leak was the fact that president trump wasn't under investigation while comey was there. i think it is something that can unite the president and republicans. robert: you're an attorney, kim. is there a perjury question here? as both sides make their accusations? kimberly: i think if the white house pursues perjury, we know the president is someone who likes to sue. he was like that as a business person as well. if he -- he already has essentially accused james comey
of perjury, saying that he lied. but if he pursues that, that will be tough. that might be a self-inflicted injury because the only way to prove that with two people in the room is that he would have to testify under oath and that can cause a lot more problems for him legally than he even has now. >> can i say something quickly? robert: go ahead. pete: the president has always complained about leaks of classified information. leaks are illegal or disfavored if you're revealing classified information, grand jury material, or something that is supposed to be for the good of the government secret. if it's a leak to report a conversation you once had at dinner or some other setting with the president, every book that's ever been written about the presidency is full of leaks. robert: you're saying, pete, this argument of executive privilege may be out the window for this administration. pete: well, clearly, for several reasons. one is they had the chance to assert it before comey testified and they didn't. now they're talking about what he said. so the president is saying he is willing to talk about it.
clearly there is going to be no assertion of executive --. >> the president has been tweeting about it for months so i can't see there was ever an argument for privilege. >> let's not forget when he fired jim comey the president put out a letter in which he referred to private conversations with jim comey in which comey he said told him he wasn't under investigation. that was the original sin of, you know, it would be difficult now to go back and claim those were privileged conversations that should never have been referenced. he referenced them in a public way even before any of this happened. i do think whether he pursues a perjury case against comey it's clear his lawyer is laying out the predicate for potentially doing that. because you saw in the statement he put out yesterday he talked about comey leaking privileged information and the point being obviously even if it wasn't classified it was something he should not have been talking about publicly. pete: well, they talked about it which is why it is a crazy argument. it is and it isn't. >> most people in the west wing say they probably won't be able
to use executive privilege as a way of blocking future testimony or information. julie, what is the story with sessions? the attorney general offered to resign it was reported by the post and the "new york times" earlier this week. is he going to leave the administration? julie: i mean, i would be shocked if he would do so voluntarily and it would be extraordinarily difficult now for them to get a new attorney general confirmed in this environment. but this has just been extraordinary to watch. jeff sessions was an early supporter, ardent supporter of donald trump. he campaigned so hard for him. he was a really close ally. trump felt very comfortable with him. he trusted him. in the last few months their relationship has soured and one of the things that really started to precipitate that was his ultimate decision to recuse himself from the russian investigation, which trump did not want him to do, did not think he should have had to do. we know from jim comey there is a lot of information out there that suggested that was the right call for him but i think that just was a real black mark for trump and it's not something he'll easily get over. robert: dan, we read the comey
memo, the statement to the committee. what struck me was loyalty. the president wanted loyalty. in the words of comey. what does that tell us about president trump? dan: well, i mean, he sees the world in black and white. he sees the world in adversarial terms. you're either with him or you're not with him. and the people who he wants around him are people who are utterly loyal to him and who will defend him to the end. jim comey, you have the director of the f.b.i., you know, that's not anything you should ever say to the director of the f.b.i. if you are president of the united states. and yet he did. but it conveys a mindset of the way he sees the world and the way he operated in business and he's brought that into the white house. robert: kim, if there are no tapes it is perhaps the president's word versus former director comey's word. in that scenario, how does it play out throughout the rest of the country? are they really going to value comey's credibility over the president's? kimberly: well, i think so far.
when you check the polls james comey has a bit, a bit more credibility over the president at this point in time. you have a lot of factors. james comey said what he said under oath. he is a former director of the f.b.i. you saw the members of the senate intel committee on both sides of the aisle viewed that with a lot of credibility and were very respectful to him. the president has done a lot to undermine his own credibility and so that will be tough. i think with his base they are with him. they are going to defend him any way you can. but also to the point of loyalty, i think the president's loyalty is very transactional. the president is loyal until he's not. he was loyal to rudy guiliani. he was loyal to newt gingrich and a lot of other folks who thought they'd be in the administration. he is loyal when it is advantageous to him. i think that's one issue going on with this russia probe. his loyalty to michael flynn even now is going to be a big point that i think special counsel mueller will probe.
dan: on this question of how the public will come down on it, a lot is going to depend on what bob mueller concludes in his investigation. he's going to sort out these questions of does it rise to the level of obstruction or abuse of power, who was lying and who wasn't lying between the president and jim comey. i mean, you know, pete, you know better than we do but we're so far from that conclusion. i mean, there's just so much. instead of getting closer to it seems like we keep adding new elements to his investigation. robert: there is another stunning, unexpected revelation from this week's hearing and that was former attorney general loretta lynch in the words of comey urged him to refer to the f.b.i.'s probe and to former secretary of state hillary clinton's e-mail server as a matter rather than an investigation. it was yet another term -- turn in the clinton-story. many supporters of hillary
clinton blame her defeat on comey's announcement about the f.b.i. investigation months before election day. matter vs. investigation. is that a distinction without a difference? pete: no, it's not. a full criminal investigation is a bigger deal. in f.b.i. land investigation is the big thing. you do an initial inquiry. you look at things. investigation means something. credit where credit is due. actually the "new york times" first reported this was an issue for mr. comey several weeks ago. but what she says in response, what her people say on her behalf in response is that the way comey described it isn't quite right. she didn't say he lied by the way. what she said is that they had a meeting before he was going to testify to the house where he called it an investigation. we're talking about the russia investigation, no, the clinton investigation. excuse me. she said they had a meeting to talk about it and all went around the table and decided the right word to use and they all agreed on "matter" and he at
that time didn't pose an objection to it. what he says what bothered him was the clinton campaign was calling it a matter and he thought it sounded like she was aligning her terminology with the clinton campaign and that bothered him. pete: julie, director comey didn't urge the justice department at that time to go with the special counsel because he said he didn't believe there was a case. that's riled up the conservative right here in the country. julie: absolutely. i mean, you know, they feel there was a double standard that, you know, not only did he make the opposite call in the case of the russian investigation and trump that there should be a special counsel but he actually took affirmative steps to make sure a special counsel would be named by, you know, committing all of these meetings to, memorializing them in memos and then providing the memos to reporters so the story would come out. there is no question this is going to rile up the
conservative base certainly trumps the supporters and that is useful for them. there were some takeaways from this hearing. that is a big one of them that is helpful to him at least in terms of activating his supporters. and keeping them on his side in a painful period for him. robert: how should we evaluate this in terms of the political impact it may have? dan: i think it reinforces people's attitudes about jim comey and his handling of that episode. what he said was if he had pushed for a special counsel in that case it would have extended that investigation for a year or more, well past the election. and so in a sense he felt they had reached a conclusion. there was no need to endlessly litigate it. the people who objected to this at this point are also the people who were happy when jim comey did the letter to congress on october 28 that the clinton people think helped bring her down.
so on that investigation he has detractors on both sides. it is one of the reasons the president thought firing him would make people in the democratic party happy with him. robert: it's ban pretty rough ride for the justice department, kim. kimberly: it has. some of the unexpected swipes we saw landed right on attorney general jeff sessions with the confirmation something was up that made it likely he would recuse himself came up and that is something i'm sure the justice department could do without. and in the case of former attorney general loretta lynch i think one impact also that it will have is the president loves talking about the election. and this gives him yet another sound bite to talk about and just today he said this is still an effort by the democrats to talk, to divert the election. robert: what a week. thanks everybody. our conversation will continue online on the washington week extra where we'll tell you about
president trump's pick to replace james comey at the f.b.i. find that friday night after 10:00 p.m. at pbs.org/washington week. i'm robert costa. thanks for watching and enjoy your weekend. >> funding for washington week is provided by boeing -- newman's own foundation donating all products to charity and nourishing the common good. through the foundation committed