Clapper: No big surprises in Comey memos

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper discusses former FBI Director James Comey's memos documenting conversations with President Donald Trump.

Posted: Apr 20, 2018 2:03 PM
Updated: Apr 20, 2018 2:15 PM

If House Republicans thought they were helping President Donald Trump by forcing the release of James Comey's memos, they might want to think again.

The documents written by the then-FBI director, detailing his interactions with Trump, present a contemporaneous and deeply unflattering view of a President throwing his weight around in his first days in the White House -- that at the very least seems highly inappropriate.

Only special counsel Robert Mueller can decide whether the stunning accounts of conversations in which the President got the then-FBI director alone in the White House and leaned on him amount to obstruction of justice.

The Comey memos suggest Trump has a scattershot and self-obsessed mindset, brooding about his subordinates, leaks, his campaign and his inaugural crowd size and not appreciating or caring about protocol boundaries that separate the White House and the Justice Department.

Furthermore, the conversations with Comey soon after Trump moved into the White House paint a picture of a new President more concerned with own fortunes than the burden of his new responsibilities.

CNN obtained the documents, which offer a staggering insider account, after they were sent to Congress by the Justice Department on Thursday in response to requests from three GOP House committee chairmen on Capitol Hill.

Trump responded to the release of the memos in a tweet just before midnight Thursday that appeared to be an attempt to direct conversation away from the embarrassing substance of the documents.

"James Comey Memos just out and show clearly that there was NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION. Also, he leaked classified information. WOW! Will the Witch Hunt continue?" Trump wrote.

'I am aghast'

It's possible that the House committee chairmen wanted the memos released to undercut Comey's current book tour and to weaken the Mueller probe.

If that was the case it has backfired.

"Honestly, I am aghast that they thought this was going to be helpful to the President and undermine Comey, therefore the FBI, therefore special counsel Mueller," Jack Quinn, a former counsel to President Bill Clinton, said Thursday on CNN.

"I can't get over the fact that they made this calculation. I am sure the President is not going to be sitting up tonight writing thank you letters to them," he said.

If anything, the memos appeared to bolster the credibility of Comey -- given their exhaustive detail. Comey will be a key witness in the question of whether Trump obstructed justice by firing him.

But it was also unclear whether they showed a clear intention on the part of the President to obstruct justice. Politically, they seem unlikely to shift entrenched perceptions of Trump among his supporters and critics.

"It doesn't seem like there is very much new in there," Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, told CNN's Don Lemon on Thursday night, also finding nothing likely to change the trajectory of the special counsel investigation.

The documents will also renew attention on the odd relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That's because while noting Trump's denial about notorious allegations that he watched prostitutes engage in lewd behavior in a Moscow hotel, they include a bizarre comment by the President about an undated conversation with Putin.

"The President said the 'hookers thing' is nonsense but that Putin had told him 'we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world' (He did not say when Putin had told him this)," Comey wrote.

Trump has vehemently denied the allegation about the prostitutes and it has not been publicly authenticated by US intelligence agencies or news organizations.

There will also be renewed debate about Trump's own judgment in personnel matters since Comey writes that he confessed to serious reservations about his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was fired shortly afterward.

Those questions could extend to former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, whose inquiry to Comey about Flynn showed an apparent disregard in the White House for the firewall between the FBI and the executive office of the president.

Comey writes that the then-chief of staff asked him if the FBI had a secret court surveillance order on Flynn.

The FBI director answered the question -- but also rebuked Priebus, saying it was "the kind of question that had to be asked and answered through established channels."

Return of Giuliani

The documents overshadowed an attempt by Trump to bust out of the deepening morass caused by the Russia investigation and his other legal woes.

Trump's big move Thursday was to recruit a new big-time adviser: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

It's a wonder it took this long. Like the President, Giuliani is a tough talking New Yorker who relishes a fight and proved his loyalty as a lone voice defending Trump when the "Access Hollywood" tape rocked the 2016 campaign.

He fits Trump's template in that he's a master at mixing it up on cable television and will not hang back if required to lacerate the President's enemies.

Even so, Giuliani struck an almost conciliatory note Thursday, suggesting that his acquaintance with Mueller could help him "negotiate" an end to the Russia investigation.

He later told CNN's Dana Bash that he would ask Mueller for a list of what was needed to "comply" with the rest of the investigation as soon as he can -- a process he thought could take a "couple of weeks."

Giuliani's arrival, after he was passed over as Trump's secretary of state and attorney general at the start of the administration, raises a number of questions.

First, his history with Trump, matching personality and political experience suggest that he may have as good a chance as anyone at getting his advice to stick with the President. There have been clear signs in recent weeks that Trump has been acting as his own lawyer, with mixed results.

"If Rudy is the guy that the President will listen to, will keep confidences, will establish a proper attorney-client relationship, then that potentially should be useful to him," said Carrie Cordero, former counsel to the US assistant attorney general for national security, told CNN's Erin Burnett.

Giuliani's legal acumen was proven by a renowned spell as the US attorney for the Southern District of New York before he ran for mayor. But there must be some risk that his love of the limelight could grate on the President over time, a lesson many Trump aides have had to learn.

However, the former New York mayor's apparent plan to leverage his history with Mueller to speed the end of the investigation seems highly optimistic, given the special counsel's by-the-book style.

"I don't know that it changes the dynamic in any way. The idea that he is going to cause by force of personality, or resume, or anything else Bob Mueller to go away in the course of two weeks doesn't seem very realistic to me," Preet Bharara, who was fired as the Southern District's attorney by Trump, said on CNN.

Trump, who has been searching for white collar representation for weeks, also bolstered his legal team with the husband and wife duo of Jane Serene Raskin and Marty Raskin, who are criminal defense attorneys from Florida.

Cohen factor

The President was, meanwhile, consumed by the fallout from the FBI's raid last week on Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer, a source told CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

Another former Trump attorney, Jay Goldberg, told CNN on Thursday night that he was concerned Cohen will lie to prosecutors to get leniency on his own charges.

Goldberg told CNN's Gloria Borger on Wednesday that he had warned Trump in a call last Friday that Cohen could end up cooperating with prosecutors.

"Anybody who is facing 30 years never stands up," Goldberg says he told the President. "Without exception, a person facing a prison term cooperates."

Trump's concern with the plight of Cohen, who has been his personal fixer for years and intimately understands his web of business interests, raises the question of whether the President thinks that his lawyer committed a crime.

There was a semblance of good news for Trump, though, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein informed him he was not a target of the Cohen sweep, a source familiar with the matter told CNN's Jim Acosta.

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