'This Week' Transcript 5-21-2017: Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and Rep. Elijah Cummings
A rush transcript for "This Week" on May 21, 2017.
— -- THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT FOR 'THIS WEEK' on May 21, 2017 and it will be updated.
ANNOUNCER: Starting right now on THIS WEEK with George Stephanopoulos. Trump's high-stakes trip.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have some very serious discussions right now going on.
ANNOUNCER: The ambitious overseas agenda on the heels of a bombshell week at home.
TRUMP: The entire thing has been a witch hunt.
ANNOUNCER: New revelations around that stunning Oval Office meeting -- Trump reportedly sharing classified intel with the Russians, calling James Comey a nut job. We talk to the man who was in that room.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC HOST: Is that what the president said?
ANNOUNCER: Our exclusive interview with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
TRUMP: There is no collusion.
ANNOUNCER: A special counsel appointed to oversee the Russian investigation. Now, what's Congress's next move? Tough questions for the chair and the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee.
Plus, one of Trump's staunchest supporters during the campaign, Republican Senator Ben Sasse.
As the president takes the world stage, can he outrun the chaos here at home?
From ABC News, it's THIS WEEK. Here now, chief anchor George Stephanopoulos.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning. As we come on the air this week, President Trump in Saudi Arabia, about to give major speech to the Muslim world. Billed as a message of hope and tolerance, it's likely to signal a major break from the harsh rhetoric of the president's campaign, when Trump railed against radical Islamic terrorists and said flatly Islam hates us.
The White House also hopes that this whole trip will bring a welcome break from the most battering week of the Trump presidency. A daily cascade of damaging headlines.
Monday, "The Washington Post" reports that the president revealed highly classified information about ISIS to the Russians in the Oval Office, compromising a key source and complicating our relationship with Israel.
Tuesday, "The New York Times" reports that Trump privately tried to get FBI director James Comey to drop his investigation into former national security adviser General Flynn. "I hope you can let this go," he said, according to Comey's memo.
Wednesday, the president was blindsided by his own Justice Department. Of course, that was the appointment by Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in
this campaign. And this drew a sharp response from the president on Thursday, who called this a witchhunt.
And of course Friday, there were those two bombshells from "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" tag team. "The Washington Post" reporting less than two hours after the president took off from (sic) Saudi Arabia that a senior White House official has been identified as a person of interest in the Russia investigation, reaching closer than ever to the Oval Office. And "The Times" revealing more about that extraordinary Oval Office meeting with the Russians.
Now, remember the timing of that meeting was less than 24 hours after the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the investigation into Russia and the 2016 campaign. In his first face-to-face meeting with Russian officials, Foreign Minister Lavrov, Ambassador Kislyak, the president told them, "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy. A real nut job. I face great pressure because Russia. That's taken off."
There are so many questions swirling now about that meeting -- the timing, what exactly was said and why? How will the Russians use what they learned? And of course all that is fodder now for the special counsel and Congress.
And with a few people in that meeting, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, he's our exclusive guest this morning from Saudi Arabia with the president.
STEPHANOPOULOS: General McMaster, thanks for joining us today. I want to get to the trip, but first some questions about that meeting you all had with the Russian foreign minister. "New York Times", as you know, reporting that here's what the president said in the meeting. "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's take off."
Is that what the president said?
H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well I don't remember exactly what the president said. And the notes that there apparently have I do not think are a direct transcript. But the gist of the conversation was that the president feels as if he is hamstrung in his ability to work with Russia to find areas of cooperation because this has been obviously so much in the news. And that was the intention of that portion of that conversation.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you know he was going to report that to the Russians? And what did you think when you heard it?
MCMASTER: Report what, George?
STEPHANOPOULOS: The -- what you he said about James Comey. That he fired him and why.
MCMASTER: Well, the firing had been in the news. But I didn't know in advance that the president was going to raise it, but as I mentioned he raised it in the context of explaining that that he has been -- feels as if he's been unable to find areas of cooperation with Russia, even as he confronts them in key areas where they're being disruptive, like Syria for example, and the subversive activities across Europe. Their support for the -- not only the Assad regime but for Iran and its activities across the Middle East.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you understand how this might look though to an average American right no? You have the President of the United States telling the Russian foreign minister, in their first meeting, that that the pressure is off because he's fired the FBI director investigating Russian interference in the campaign. Does that seem appropriate to you?
MCMASTER: As you know, it's very difficult to take a few lines, to take a paragraph out of what are -- what appear to be notes of that meeting. And to be able to see the full context of the conversation.
As I mentioned last week, the really purpose of the conversation was to confront Russia on areas, as I mentioned, like Ukraine and Syria, their support for Assad and their support for the Iranians.
We're trying to find areas of cooperation in the area of counterterrorism and the campaign against ISIS.
And so that was the intent of that conversation was to say what I'd like to do is move beyond all of the Russia news so that we can find areas of cooperation.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So, did the president confront them on their interference in our election? This was their first meeting?
MCMASTER: Well, there already was too much that's been leaked from those meetings. And one of the things that I'm most concerned about is the confidence, the confidentiality of those kind of meetings, as you know, are extremely important. And so, I am really concerned about these kind of leaks, because it undermines everybody's trust in that kind of an environment where you can have frank, candid, and often times unconventional conversations to try to protect American interests and secure the American people.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I understand your concern about leaks, but I could an see the -- the feeling of perhaps someone likely on your staff or in your community who leaked this thinking they had a duty to leak it because you have this apparent contradiction.
The president disparaging the person who was investigating the Russians, but not confronting the Russians who interfered in our election.
MCMASTER: Well, as you know, the initial leak that came out was a leak about concerns about revealing intelligence source and methods, information that's not even part of the president's briefing. And so in a concern about divulging intelligence, they leaked actually not just the information from the meeting, but also indicated the sources and methods to a newspaper? I mean, it doesn't make sense, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I take your point on that, although there's also the question of whether or not it was right for the president to give that information to the Russians. But I just asked a direct question. Did the president confront the Russians on their interference in our election?
MCMASTER: Well, I'm not going to divulge more of that meeting. Those meetings, as you know, are supposed to be privileged. They're supposed to be confidential. They're supposed to allow the president and other leaders to have frank exchanges.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, let me ask just one final question, then, on that meeting. Sean Spicer has spoken out, the president's press secretary. He said by grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russian's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia.
You're the president's national security adviser, do you agree that the former FBI's director grandstanding and politicizing, those are Sean Spicer's words, hurt our ability to deal with Russia?
MCMASTER: I think what's been hurting our ability to deal with Russia more than any other factor, has been Russia's behavior. But since President Trump has taken action in Syria, we think that there may be opportunities to find areas of cooperation in places like Ukraine, places like Syria in particular.
STEPHANOPOULOS: After your first press conference on that meeting, your friend and former colleague, retired Colonel John Neagle told NPR that you're in an impossible situation, because the president expects you to defend the indefensible. What's your reaction to that?
MCMASTER: I don't think I'm in an impossible situation. I think what the president expects and what is my duty to do as national security adviser and as an officer in our army is to give my best advice, to give my best, candid advice. Nobody elected me to make policy. What my job is, is to give the president options, to integrate the efforts across all of our agencies and departments. And then once the president makes decisions, to help him execute those decisions to protect and advance the interests of the American people.
So, I find no difficulty at all serving our nation and serving the president in my current capacity.
STEPHANOPOULOS; But if the president did put you in that position as you wrote about with President Johnson and Vietnam, would you resign? Would you push back?
MCMASTER: Well, you know there was middle ground there during the Vietnam period. What occurred in that period is many of the president's senior advisers, civilian, and military, didn't give their best advice, because they concluded that what would be appropriate for them to do given what Johnson expected, President Johnson expected, was to tell him the advice he wanted to hear. I don't think the president expects that from me, and certainly I don't think I'd be fulfilling my duties and responsibilities unless I gave him not just my candid advice, that's really not my job either -- is to integrate and coordinate across the departments and agencies to give him the best advice from across our government and with our key multinational partners.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it sounds like one of the difficulties of this meeting --and I do want to get on to the trip -- is that when the president disparaged James Comey, when he gave that information to the Russians who had interfered in our campaign, when he apparently did not confront the Russians over this, he didn't even ask your advice.
MCMASTER: Well, George, what I'd like to talk about is where I am right now, in Saudi Arabia. I mea.n I think I answered the questions concerning the media and I'd like to move on while we still have time.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We definitely will have time. So, you -- did the president ask your advice about this before he talked about James Comey?
MCMASTER: The president always asks for advice before these sorts of sessions, but the subject of the FBI investigation to my recollection didn't come up. But really, that conversation, although I don't want to talk about any more of the specifics from within it, covered a broad range of subjects, most of which had to do with areas in which we think Russia's behavior's been unacceptable and is increasing risk to international security, is supporting those who are helping to create a humanitarian crisis in Syria and across the region. That would be the Assad regime and Iran. But then also look for areas where we can cooperate and begin to move toward a resolution of conflicts in Ukraine, in Syria, and then to be able to cooperate more effectively in our counter terrorism campaigns.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk broadly about the goal of this trip. The president said you had a very good start. What exactly do you want to accomplish?
MCMASTER: Well, really three main things. The first is to advance the security of the American people. And to recognize that to do that, America needs allies and partners to deal with the very complex problems that we are dealing with. And of course in this region, those are two main and interconnected problems, the problem of transnational terrorist organizations, some of which now, like ISIS, control territory and populations and resources. But then how that problem is connected more broadly to the problem of Islamist extremism and the brainwashing of youths with really an irreligious ideology that is meant to foment hatred and justify violence against innocents.
And the second problem of Iran and Iran's actions across the region, which we believe are aimed at keeping the Arab world perpetually weak and mired in a very destructive civil war. And you see that in Syria, obviously, a great human cost, but you see it in Yemen as well. You see it to a certain extent in Iraq.
And so security, cooperation, counterterrorism, but also counter-extremism is a big part of it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, the Saudis...
MCMASTER: The second part of it...
STEPHANOPOULOS: Go ahead
MCMASTER: The second part of it is economic cooperation, being able to get better access to markets, develop trade relationships, to create American jobs. There are a lot of important signings that happen in that connection.
And the third is to foster -- this is just for this leg of the trip -- better defense cooperation in the region and to encourage additional burden-sharing, responsibility-sharing with allies and partners so Americans don't foot the full bill for security in this region and globally as well.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The Saudis have been in the past consistent backers of extremists around the world, around the region and around the world. Are you convinced that they're truly ready to change?
MCMASTER: Well, we're going to ask them to convince us. And so there's some very good first steps being taken with the establishment of the center for combating global extremism, or terrorist extremism. We'll have to see what the results are.
But I think the willingness to talk about it is somewhat different than it has been in the past. And as you know ,the record is poor going back to the '60s and '70s and beyond. And even today. And so what we need is we need to convene leaders across all religions, and that is a big theme of this trip, is to promote tolerance and cooperation across our religions to identify these terrorists for who they are -- the enemies of all civilized people, irreligious criminals who use a perverted interpretation of religion to advance their criminal and political agendas.
And that's the tone and tenor of the conversations that occurred today, which I think that is encouraging. Now I think there have to be concrete steps taken. Funding has to be cut off to these madrassas and mosques that are fomenting hatred and intolerance. Funding has to be cut off to terrorist organizations through effective threat finance measures, and that's a big part of the initiative as well.
And so we'll see. I mean, I think the expectation is that there -- results -- that we deliver results together. That's what we've said that we expect of each other, and that will be a big part of the conversation tomorrow when the group of leaders expands dramatically to include not only the Gulf Cooperation Council but also about 50 nations of predominately Muslim and Islamic populations.
STEPHANOPOULOS: General McMaster, thanks for your time this morning.
MCMASTER: Thank you, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's bring in Republican Senator Ben Sasse.
He's just out with a new book called "The Vanishing American Adults: Our Coming of Age Crisis, How To Build A Culture of Self-Reliance."
Senator, thank you for joining us.
I'm going to get to the book in a moment.
First, though, the news of the week.
SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: Good morning.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You just heard General McMaster right there and his reaction to that meeting with the Russians where the president was apparently freelancing when he talked about James Comey and said the pressure was off after he fired them.
Was it appropriate for the president to be talking to the Russians about that?
SASSE: Well, I mean let's be clear, obviously, we don't have aligned interests with Russia. Russia is -- Putin in particular is an enemy of free speech, religion, press, assembly. He's the enemy of many of the things that are at the beating heart of America.
So we need to be clear that we don't have aligned interests with Russia.
And yet, there's a lot in that last segment that's pretty encouraging to the American people, I think. General McMaster is a special guy. The president should be applauded for having him in place.
And I think he said clearly in that interview -- I heard most of your segment -- he said the biggest problem between U.S. and Russian relations is Russian behavior. That's a pretty good thing to have the administration acknowledging.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, I actually agree with that. But if you listen to the whole interview, it also sounded like the president didn't even confront Russia on the election interference.
This was his first meeting with a high level Russian official. The president disparaged the person investigating Russia, didn't apparently confront them on their own interference.
SASSE: Yes, no, clearly, we need to know a lot more about what happened in 2016. Russia has bad motives toward the U.S., past, present and future. We need to know more about 2016 and the American people should applaud the appointment of Bob Mueller this week as special counsel.
I also think we need to be looking to the future, because what comes next in 2018 and 2020 is more aggressive Russian behavior, augmented by new kinds of technology that are going to make the erosion of American public trust even easier for Russia to advance.
So obviously, we, the American people, all across the political spectrum and in both the legislative and the executive branches need to be confronting the challenge that we face from Russia going forward, as well as see the investigation play out about last cycle.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You're a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's been a remarkable 10 days of news coming out of the White House ever since the president fired James Comey. We've learned reports that the president asked Comey for a loyalty pledge back in January, that in February, he told Comey he hopes that he'll close the Flynn investigation. The firing of Comey saying that Russia was on his mind. And then he tells the Russians, the pressure is off the next day.
When you put that all together, when you see that pattern, what does it tell you?
SASSE: Yes, I mean there's obviously a lot that's troubling about that. There's also a lot that we don't know yet. And I want to underscore how good it is for America that Bob Mueller has this position. This is a decorated Marine through to U.S. attorney to head of the criminal division to, you know, bipartisan applauded head of the FBI for 12 years. Lots of good stuff for the American people to put hope in about the fact that Bob Mueller is going to conduct that investigation.
But frankly, we all need to be looking forward to the task of trying to rebuild trust in a lot of these institutions. The FBI doesn't take loyalty pledges to an individual. The FBI is a special institution that is supposed to be defending the American "Constitution" by letting investigative paths go where they lead. And, obviously, when you're an agent at the Bureau, all the way up to the director of the Bureau, you don't take a loyalty pledge. That's a specific agency that has a really hard job. And we need the American people to know that they can trust the FBI in the future.
And so everybody needs to be taking it upon themselves to say what am I doing now to advance the ability of the American people to trust in the institutions of our government, like the Bureau, in the future?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, that's one of the big questions, do you think the president is doing that?
You know, you're a Republican, but you made no secret during the campaign of your opposition to Candidate Trump. And you said he displayed no understanding at the time of our constitutional system.
Are the fears you expressed in the campaign playing out now?
SASSE: Listen, the problems that we face in terms of not having a shared understanding of why America has a -- has limited government and what the constitutional structure of checks and balances are supposed to protect, that problem isn't a problem just in the last four months. It isn't a problem just in the last 18 months.
We've had an erosion of an understanding of basic American civics for decades.
But, yes, I am concerned that at this particular moment, there's not enough long-term thinking about how we restore an understanding of the American structure of government.
So I wish that everybody in government, including in particular the president, would spend a lot more time and energy saying five and 10 years from now, am I going to have contributed to a world where American kids understand why the First Amendment is so glorious?
Because right now, there's a ton of data, our kids don't understand it. And we're not teaching them. And that starts all across the federal government.
And no, no one's doing enough to restore that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And that's one of the things you write about in your new book, "The Vanishing American Adult." You know, first of all as I looked at it, it made me think I have to do a better of toughen up my kids. But you also make a separate point. You argue that better parenting, building a more resilient generation, is essential to the success of our democracy. Explain what you mean by that.
SASSE: Listen, we have far too many of our kids that are stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence right now. And that's more our fault than theirs. We're not doing enough to celebrate scar tissue together. Our kids have huge potential. But they are also going to have a demand, and a necessity of becoming more resilient than the generations before them, because they're entering an economy where at age 40 and 45 and
50 and 55, they're likely going to get disintermediated not only out of their job and firm, but out of their entire industry. That's never happened before in human history.
We are going to have to build a civilization of life long learners. And at the same time as we should be toughening our kids up, we're trying to bubble-wrap them a little too much. There's a lot that should be happening as our kids come of age that right now we're not spending enough time attentive to habit formation for our kids.
And again this is a constructive book, it's two-thirds what should we do about it to do right by our kids. It's only about one-third stage setting. It's not a blame laying book. But to the degree that there's blame to be laid, it's on we, the parents and grandparents that are not attentive enough to what
kind of formative experiences will help our kids.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I have got to share everybody a tweet you sent around this week. It was a picture of you and Senator Schumer. Apparently, you were just coming out of the gym there on the capital. You said it looks like Senator Schumer and I are smoking reefer outside a wedding, a little joke right there.
But I actually want to use it to get to a serious point, because one of the other things you have been talking about. You have compared Washington right now to a kiddie soccer game, no cooperation across party lines. You're sitting there talking to the Democratic leader, Senator Schumer. Some of your Republican colleagues are saying now is the time to abandon this partisan effort on health care and work toward a bipartisan proposal. Is that the right way right now?
SASSE: Well, I'll come back to health care, but let's say a prior point first. When I say that Washington is like kiddie soccer, what I really mean is there's a whole bunch of frenzy and almost never strategy. So, fundamentally, the American people don't really know what the priority set is
I'm the third or fourth most conservative guy in the Senate by voting record, so I'm not making an argument for a mushy middle on policy, but I am making an argument for saying how do we prioritize what core issues we should be focused on for five, and 10, and 15 years from now, because this city is obsessed with short-termism.
So, that's really what I mean by kiddie soccer.
But on health care, I think it's pretty clear that the five, and 10, and 15-year agenda for America
should be that we create a health care system where the American people can buy the policy they want and take it with them across job and geographic change.
Right now, I think Obamacare exacerbates more problem than it solves. I think it needs to be fully repealed and replaced, but we Republicans also need to admit that the American health care system wasn't doing what it needed to do pre-Obamacare. So, the problems didn't originate with Obamacare, they're much deeper than that.
And as we transition to a more mobile, portable economy, we need the American people to know they're going to be able to buy a policy that goes with them across job and geographic change. Right now, Washington isn't focused on that, it's more shirts and skins exercise of who wants to be more for or more against Obamacare. The challenge before us is longer-term than that.
STEPHANOPOULOS; Senator Sasse, thanks for joining us this morning.
SASSE: Thanks for being in Nebraska, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Our roundtable coming up.
And up next, two top House leaders and how they're going to investigate President Trump. Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Elijah Cummings join us live.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Will special counsel Robert Mueller derail congressional investigations? We're going to ask two of the top House investigators next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: Just because there's an investigation or work being done at the Department of Justice doesn't excuse the Congress from doing its own work and getting to the bottom of things.
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: This is about the fight for the soul of our democracy. We cannot afford to lose this one.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANOPOULOS: There you see the leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chairman Jason Chaffetz, ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. They both join us now this morning.
Congressmen, thank you for joining us the morning. Mr. Chairman, let me begin with you. And, first of all, your reaction to the more we're learning about that extraordinary meeting between the president and the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov.
You have both the revelation of highly classified information and then this report in The New York Times that the president was talking about James Comey in the meeting, calling him a "nut job," and saying the pressure is off. Your reaction?
CHAFFETZ: Well, I hope that's not true. I don't know if that was said or not said. You would like, I would think the president, to kind of beat him over the head with the fact that if they did -- the Russians, if they actually did interfere in any way, shape, or form, how wrong that is and how outraged America is on both sides of the aisle.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Cummings, it sounds like a -- if you were listening carefully to General McMaster, that the president apparently didn't even bring up, confront the Russians with their interference there. Will you all demand to see the notes of that meeting?
CUMMINGS: I -- we have been asking for -- I want every note that they have, George. There have been so many lies, so many contradictions. And I think documents will help us to ferret out exactly what's the truth and what's a lie. And so I'm hoping that the chairman will issue subpoenas so that we can get every document. Because I think that's what we need.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Mr. Chairman, you've also asked -- on a different matter -- you've also asked the Justice Department and James Comey for any documents he has of any meetings the president, asked him to come publicly testify next Wednesday, May 24, given that deadline. Have you heard from James Comey? Have you heard from the Justice Department?
CHAFFETZ: What I have heard is that I believe Director Comey and I are going to have a conversation on Monday. So I have not spoken directly with him.
It's important remember nobody's actually seen these documents. Even the reporter at "The New York Times" has not seen these documents. So there's been an awful lot written and said about it, but I don't even know that the Department of Justice has them. Maybe Director Comey has them. I don't know where they reside. I don't know if there are documents. But we're certainly pursuing them. And if they're there, I hope we find them and get them sooner rather than later.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And Congressman Cummings, when you look at the pattern of the president's interactions with the former FBI director, as I was asking Senator Sasse earlier -- the meetings in January, the meeting in February, the firing of James Comey, what we've learned about the notes of James Comey. Some of your Democratic colleagues are already seeing there the beginnings of a case for impeachment. Are they right or is that going too far?
CUMMINGS: I think that we need to gather the facts. I have always been one to be very careful with regards to the gathering of the facts and then coming to the conclusions, as opposed to having a conclusion and trying to search for the facts. I've seen that in the past so many times.
I think that we -- that will take care of itself. But basically, George, there are three things going on here. One, we've to figure out what this whole idea of the Russians interfering with our elections was all about. After all, seventeen of our intelligence agencies said it did happen. Two, we've got to figure out whether there was collusion and that -- I'm sure that will come out. And three, we've got to figure out exactly whether there was some type of cover up. That's how I see this.
And so all along we're going to have to look at it very carefully. But again the Congress has its role. We have a role for an independent commission. And certainly, the special counsel.
STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the other things we learned, Mr. Chairman, this week is that, according "The Washington Post", there is a person of interest in the investigation who is now a senior official in the White House. Does the White House have a obligation to reveal who that individual is and wall that individual off from any sensitive information?
CHAFFETZ: Well, I want to see that this person is prosecuted. I think the president makes a very good point. No matter who is in the White House, you cannot have the type of leaking of information, sources, methods, classified information. I don't care who it is, Democrat or Republican, you cannot have that happen. So, not only do you need to wall them off, you probably ought to put handcuffs on them and put them in jail.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, that's for people who are leaking. That's different from the person of interest in the investigation, isn't it?
CHAFFETZ: Well, I don't know where this is going to go. I mean, again, we got to step back and let the investigators and the FBI and the others to do their job. We are not in a position to actually dive in and go individual by individual and do these type of interviews. We got to let those professionals with the Department of Justice do that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Cummings, how do you think the White House should deal with that person of interest in the investigation?
CUMMINGS: Well, I think that's going to come out whether the White House acts or not. I think that will be left up to Mr. Mueller, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for. And there can be -- there will be, hopefully, parallel investigations going on. Just the other day in our briefing, Mr. Rosenstein told us he pretty much welcomed us pursuing our investigation with regard to look at this broad picture of -- of the whole idea of the Russians interfering with our elections. And --
STEPHANOPOULOS: On that point, can I just interrupt you for a second there, Congressman Cummings?
CUMMINGS: Sure, sure.
STEPHANOPOULOS: In that meeting, is it true that Mr. Rosenstein did not tell you who told him to write that memo that was released at -- parallel with the firing of James Comey?
CUMMINGS: No, he did no tell us. No, he did not.
But again, we've got to --
STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
CUMMINGS: You got to ask him. But I can tell you, George, as I -- my impression, when I walked out of the briefing was that this thing runs deep. In other words, I think that there may be quite a few people that may have some problems with the law with regard to this whole incident.
But we have got to stay focused. Impeachment is one thing. But, George, we've got to concentrate on the the fact that the Russians interfered with our elections. And I keep telling people don't lose -- don't get so caught up in impeachment that you forget about that, because I'm telling you, that's something that goes to the very heart of our democracy. And we can't have people in Russia determining who will be the president of the United States and what policies will be pursued. No, we cannot have that.
And Democrats, and independents, all of us ought to be concerned about that. And that's a role that clearly the congress has so play and that's a role that an independent commission, that Congressman Swalwell and I have proposed would play.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Chairman...
CUMMING: ...finding the answers to those questions.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Chairman, final question, you've announced you're going to be leaving congress on June 30th. Some of your colleagues are suggesting that you should leave now so the next chairman should get to work. What is your reaction to that?
CHAFFETZ: Oh, look, I'll work with the steering committee and we'll pass the baton. I have -- that's why I announced gave people six weeks notice. I was honest and candid about it. And I just want to simply pass the baton. And we will do so, because there's a lot of investigations going on. A lot of good work. And I want to do it in the right way.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Chaffetz, Congressman Cummings, thanks for joining us this morning.
The Roundtable is coming up with an analysis of an extraordinary week, plus Jon Karl live in Saudi Arabia with the president.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Back now with more on the president's trip to Saudi Arabia. Our colleague Jon Karl is there right now with the president.
Jon, we're awaiting the president's speech coming up. Described as major speech to the Muslim world, a message of hope and tolerance. And from the excerpt we've seen, appears to be a pretty dramatic break from his campaign rhetoric.
JONATHAN KARL, ABC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A strikingly different tone, George, from what we heard from what heard from the president during the campaign.
He is talking about the war on terror, but not portraying it as a clash of civilization or a war of the West against Islam, but Instead, as a fight between good and evil where moderate Muslims around the world are our allies in the fight.
In those excerpts, one line that stuck out to me was this. "This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations."
STEPHANOPOULOS: And so far, from the excerpts we've seen, no mention of that radical Islamic terrorists, which, of course, the president said was necessary to talk about during the campaign.
The White House also placing great stock in what the king of Saudi Arabia is going to say, him taking on extremists.
KARL: Absolutely, taking -- saying it is the responsibility of Muslim leaders to take on the terrorists in their midst. And this has been a strikingly warm welcome for the president. You saw the king greet him at the airport. That's a courtesy that was not afforded to President Obama in his most recent visits here to Saudi Arabia.
And the president was given at one point a ceremonial sword and took part in a peace dance, a traditional Saudi peace dance. He seemed to thoroughly relish the moment. And so did his embattled aides who -- some of whom took part. All smiles.
And, you know, finally, George, there was the moment here with the president of Egypt where the president of Egypt said that Donald Trump has a unique personality and is capable of accomplishing the impossible. As soon as the translator was done translating it, the president laughed and said, I agree.
So what you see here is really a welcome relief from all the tension back home. But it's more than that. He is going to be surrounded by the leaders of more than 50 Islamic nations around the world.
For somebody who, as a candidate, said Islam hates us, this trip is also quite an accomplishment.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You're right. And the president does seem to be getting that break that they needed and they wanted and they expected coming out of this. It's just the beginning of this trip.
Going on to Israel. Going on to the Vatican. Going to meet with G-8 leaders as well. Quite a long trip for a first trip.
KARL: It's an incredibly long trip. You mention, you know, from here to Israel to the Vatican. Brussels is where the NATO meeting is. The G-7 meeting is in Sicily. All told, nine days.
I'm told that the president's staff kind of didn't really bring up exactly how long it was until shortly before departure. And that when he saw how long it was, he actually asked if it could be made shorter. It will not be made any shorter, at least that's not the plan.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, maybe this first welcome will make him want that long trip. OK, Jon Karl, thanks very much. We'll be checking in with you later.
And we'll be right back with the powerhouse roundtable.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We got a lot to talk about now on our roundtable. I'm joined by our chief political analyst Matthew Dowd; Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, the deputy chair of the DNC; Newsmax Media CEO Christopher Ruddy, a friend of the president's who's joining us now as an ABC News contributor; and Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter.
And Matthew, let me begin with you. What a dizzying ten days it has been ever since the president fired James Comey. A headline every single day, usually right around 5:00. Trying to put everything in context. Where are we now in this presidency?
MATTHEW DOWD, ABC NEWS CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, a week like no other, coming from a presidency first 100 days like no other, coming from an election like no other. I mean, I think we're now in a phase -- I mean, there's -- it's a bombshell after bombshell. My guess is, next Sunday, we're going to sit here and say, wow, can you believe what just happened this week?
In this, I think we're in a marathon phase now. And I think it's important for everyone to sort of understand that. I know we all focus on the one little bit, but I think now, you have a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who's going to take this wherever he takes it. And I don't think people fully understand -- it's not just about the tree of Russia or collusion. He's going to go for all the root systems throughout that, and wherever that goes, he's going to examine.
And I also don't think we should underestimate what the House committee and the Senate committee could do or could reveal in the course of this. People forget that, during Watergate, and I'm not comparing the two, but during Watergate, that it was not only a special counsel that was involved, but the House committee and the Senate committee did an extensive research on that, and they revealed -- much of what came out of Watergate was revealed in the House and Senate committees.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me take up on that right there. I want to bring this to Chris Ruddy, because it does appear that this showdown with James Comey is going to come sooner rather than later. We now know that he's going to speak to the Senate Intelligence Committee, sometime it appears in June. And he's got notes of every encounter with the president. The president threatened him with tapes. How does the president survive that showdown?
CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Legal experts I've spoken to, Alan Dershowitz for instance, said there's no obstruction in this. What the president did was perfectly legal. He had a right to speak to the FBI director about the matter. I think the press is criminalizing this.
I think it's a little weird, and I think it's -- the president's instinct about letting Comey go is right. This memo proves it. Isn't it a little strange that the FBI --
STEPHANOPOULOS: What memo proves it?
RUDDY: Well, the leaked memo that -- or the details of the leak, we haven't seen the memo yet -- of Director Comey's conversation with the president.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That's reason to fire him?
RUDDY: Well -- I think it's about his instinct that you can't trust the FBI director. Isn't it a little strange the FBI director has a private conversation with the president. Instead of saying to the president, Mr. President, you're new to this job. You're not a legal law enforcement guy. What you're saying is inappropriate to me. Speak to your White House counsel and the Justice Department about how to approach this. Instead, he
goes back to his office, he writes a memo to himself, sticks it in a file, supposedly he did this on every presidential encounter.
What was his purpose for writing these notes? If he thought the president was doing something inappropriate, George, he should have -- he should've immediately spoken to the president about it, then gone to his attorney general.
STEPHANIE CUTTER, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: What I think that the president -- President Trump doesn't understand is that the FBI director is not meant to be loyal to that president. That's the reason they serve ten-year terms. And it's unusual for a president to ask for a one-on-one meeting with the FBI director.
And even the president asked other people to leave the room in those encounters. And it's a very common practice in a situation like that to go back to your office, write down what happened, to ensure that you remember the facts correctly. It's a prosecutorial process.
RUDDY: Again, don't you agree that if he thought the president was doing something inappropriate, he should have immediately acted --
CUTTER: But is that any reason, though, to discount what --
RUDDY: Well, we don't know if the president asked him for loyalty.
CUTTER: -- was actually said? Is that any --
RUDDY: That's a leaked comment.
CUTTER: Well, even so --
STEPHANOPOULOS: That was from a different meeting (ph).
RUDDY: So many stories, fake news stories, are becoming fact here. Where in the Russia investigation has there ever been an allegation that the president had done anything wrong with the Russians? Where is there any evidence --
STEPHANOPOULOS: Wait, wait, before we --
RUDDY: We have this major investigation in a way there's no evidence...
CUTTER: And it's his Justice Department that appointed a special counsel because they see the problem.
REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: George, what I want to say is that I've just been on the trail talking to people all over the country. I was just in Oklahoma. And to them, it's like, yeah, this Russia thing, they're very concerned about it. But also the health care debate we're in, repealing Dodd-Frank, the whole piece of it is what people are really focused on.
You want to talk about what's the real story as opposed to this week's mess? All this stuff just looks to people like it's crazy. It's chaotic. And I'm going to show up in my congressman's meeting and I'm going to be part of this upsurge of democracy.
DOWD: Regardless, to me, this is all going to unfold. And we are going to learn a lot more. And we already have learned a lot more, which we wouldn't have known but for things that have come out. I mean, that's part of this that I think is important to understand.
When we look forward on this, Donald Trump has been a victim of his own errors in every step of the way. This is not -- all of these things have come out, you can blame FBI Director Comey for saying he should have done this, should have done that. It was created by what Donald Trump did. You can blame him for like, well, somebody leaked a thing about Mike Flynn. This is somebody that Donald Trump hired.
All of these things are unforced errors. They're interceptions. And everybody keeps saying it's like Johnny Manziel. It's like Johnny Manziel saying, why is everybody talking about me? Well, because you keep doing it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And Chris Ruddy, you're seeing the same complaints even from inside the White House now. You know that the leaks apparently are the bane of the president's existence. He is complaining to everybody. One of the things we're seeing from inside the White House is they're saying, we don't know how the handle this. The president is the problem.
RUDDY: The Shornstein Center Study came out from Harvard, not a conservative organization this week, study of the press coverage of the Trump administration to date. They said 80 percent negative coverage. Look at the language from their report. Never had there been anything like this in modern American, Matthew and Stephanie have been involved in...
ELLISON: He's not a victim.
RUDDY: That's because they're covering the news. There hasn't been anything positive.
A week ago, the Chinese opened their markets to U.S. businesses. Presidents have been trying for 30 years to do this. Donald Trump did this in three months.
ELLISON: He also got some trademarks that came back at a suspicious time.
I mean, there's this whole monetization of the presidency problem. So, when you talk about...
RUDDY: Do you think -- you know, you represent people in Michigan.
RUDDY: Minnesota, I'm sorry. But it's, again, a very Midwestern state. Don't you think that people there are seeing that jobs are important? The president's made this a prior to. You wouldn't know that watching the press.
ELLISON: We're looking at his budget coming out. We already saw the skinny budget. He's about to decimate people who voted for him. He's going to cut the Appalachian Regional Council. These folks voted for this guy. And when you -- on this trip he's on. I mean, I'm shocked, he said Saudi Arabia and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million, and I'm supposed to dislike them? So, now he's in Saudi Arabia and we're supposed to celebrate that.
It goes back to him just trying to cash in on being the president of the United States and not...
RUDDY: He's just bought tens of thousands of jobs with that arms deal.
DOWD: Here's a problem with those studies, which is great. They're -- I think it's very factual and all of this, all they're doing is reporting on what is going on. And if that happens to be 80 percent or 90 percent negative.
RUDDY: The press is driving the narrative here.
RUDDY: Anything good that Donald Trump...
DOWD: He steps on.
RUDDY: Well, no, you guys just don't want to report on it.
I think there's a balance. I think criticizing the president is fine. Some of the things he has done are not right. He needs to -- and he will be on a learning curve. This is a guy who has never been a politician.
There was polling data, and Matthew is an expert on this, you know that the president still has the same voters that voted for him say they would still vote for him now.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me do a thought experiment with you for a second. You talked about ten days ago we should have been talk about the opening up of the Chinese beef markets to America. At that exact same time, the president fired his FBI director. His entire staff came out for 24 hours, including the vice president, giving one reason for the firing. 24 hours later, the president gave a completely separate reason for the firing, saying he had Russia on his mind. How are we supposed to ignore that?
RUDDY: They need to synchronize their messaging in the White House. It's a new presidency. There's a lot of -- this is not the first time that presidential administrations have had messaging problems.
CUTTER: This is not a message problem.
RUDDY: Look, you forget why didn't the press report on all the Democrats that called for Comey's resignation a few months prior? That was not part of the narrative.
ELLISON: George, that is a red herring the fact is.
RUDDY: Chuck Schumer said he should be fired.
ELLISON: We are raising this problem with Comey's firing because Comey was investigating him. This is not about like Comey, don't like Comey, this is about the guy who is investigating you for colluding for a foreign hostile power to undermine our elections. You fire the guy. And then you say, oh, well we don't have to worry about him to the country that is undermining your elections.
This is outrageous. You have got to focus on why we are raising these issues. It's about what he did and the firing.
CUTTER: Right. And working in a White House on a normal day is -- on a 1 to 10 scale, it's a 10 in terms of tension. Under this current White House, I can't imagine what those staffers are going through.
It's not a synchronization of message. It's a synchronization of truth. The president completely did a 180 on them.
RUDDY: Well, I talked to people at the White House…
CUTTER: Including the vice president.
RUDDY: … and they're saying they're very frustrated by the negative press coverage. And no president…
CUTTER: … they don't know when the president is going to tweet next.
RUDDY: No president -- can we all agree that no president in modern history has undergone the barrage of negative press that this president has?
DOWD: Well, here, I'll argue it. The last person to talk about a witch hunt, the last person to say the press was the enemy, and the last person that said all the leakers should be locked up, you know who that was? Richard Nixon.
Richard Nixon is the last person with the same message, the same thing that happened, and when we look at this, the leakers actually helped -- Mark Felt helped bring down a president who was a corrupt person in office that did many things.
So let's not talk about the press. The only thing the press is doing -- they have their faults. They're reporting facts on what this president says and does and what his White House says and does.
I must say one thing about the Democrats. I think the Democrats have to be very careful in this process. They can't get ahead of their skis. The American public wants this to unfold. They're very concerned, if you talk to the American public, they're very concerned about what Donald Trump is doing. But if the Democrats get too far ahead of their skis, then the American public is going to back up.
They want the facts to lead where it should.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You even saw Congressman Cummings there, Stephanie Cutter, push back against that talk of impeachment coming from some of his colleagues. You can't seem to be gunning for this.
CUTTER: No, you can't. I mean, look, is this mired in politics? Absolutely. However, we can't make this investigation a political process. And I think that the Senate Intelligence Committee is actually handling it in a very bipartisan way.
We do have let the facts determine where we go here. There is a special counsel investigation out of the Department of Justice. And there are multiple congressional investigations. Let's see what we learn from them. We're going learn something.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm afraid that is going to have to be the last word. We're out of time for today. Much more to talk about in coming weeks. We'll be right back.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And we'll be right back after this from our ABC stations.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That is all for us today. Thanks for sharing part of your Sunday with us. Check out "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT." I'll see you tomorrow on "GMA."