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Watchdog: Porn Star Alleged Hush Money Could Have Broken Laws; Sessions Interviewed by Mueller Team in Russia Probe; Trump to Sign New Tariffs on Foreign Imports. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And we have more developments in the president's alleged hush money to porn star, Stormy Daniels, money that came from his personal lawyer, under a different name, we're told. A watchdog group claims the reported $130,000 payment may have violated campaign finance law. We'll have that next.


KEILAR: Donald Trump's lawyer, his personal lawyer, is facing questions over a reported payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. A watchdog group is filing an official complaint with the Department of Justice and the Federal Elections Commission. The "Wall Street Journal" reports that Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid this actress $130,000 to keep quiet. About a month before the election. And the whole point was to keep quiet about an alleged affair that happened back in 2006.

So here with some of the legal ramifications, we have CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan.

Paul, thank you for being with us.

Tell us if you see a sign here of an actual campaign finance violation. Does that allegation hold water?

[11:35:11] PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Brianna, I see a situation where there is going to be a lot of embarrassment for the president because a lawsuit has been filed, there is a complaint, formal complaint been made, the federal election commission will have to look at the complaint, but I think in the end, nothing will come of this because the president's lawyers will say that this is not a campaign contribution, even if it was hush money, it is not a campaign contribution. He did it so save his marriage, not to advance his political campaign. And there is also a precedent as to what happens when these things make it into court and that's that famous case involving John Edwards, North Carolina Senator, who ran for -- was vice president, running for president in 2008. And he got contributions of almost a million dollars and then he used that to help support his mistress and the mother of a child who had been conceived out of wedlock and he was brought to trial on it and ultimately acquitted on one charge and hung jury on the others. So I think that precedent probably would say these are really hard cases to prove. KEILAR: The John Edwards standard. It is so interesting, not a very

high one, obviously, as you point out. If the case can be made that this is not a campaign finance violation, then this complaint to the DOJ, you would expect that would go nowhere.

CALLAN: I would think it is going to be a real uphill battle on it. If you look at the way corporations have functioned in the United States for a long time, in sexual harassment cases, they constantly negotiate confident agreements and settlements with women and men who bring sexual harassment complaints. So confidentiality agreement, hush money, the same thing. It has been going on in corporate America for many, many years. And what Trump's lawyers are going to say is this is no different than confidentiality agreements in any kind of civil litigation. Nothing criminal about it.

KEILAR: Legally, OK, it seems like legally probably President Trump, those around him are OK. But how does this change just the equation in general? How does this -- you said this is going to be a headache for him.

CALLAN: I think it is going to be a headache. He survived, but he survived other claims by numerous women of sexual harassment. And, of course, he survived the Billy Bush bust incident. So he seems to be somewhat immune to the charges in the way that other presidential candidates have not. This is a porn star and the allegation is that she was paid off for her silence while Melania Trump was pregnant. I think this is really bad generally for a politician, particularly for a sitting president.

But I don't know. I can't explain it. It is a political issue and he seems somehow immune to personal attacks. So we'll have to see how it plays out. But I think legally it is not going to go anyplace. It will be a big political issue. But I don't think legally it's going to advance.

KEILAR: Paul Callan, thank you very much for your legal insight, sir.

CALLAN: Thank you.

KEILAR: Up next, more on breaking news on the Russia probe, now reaching inside of the president's cabinet. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has spoken with the special counsel, with Robert Mueller's team. Does this mark a new phase in this investigation? We'll discuss.


[11:42:53] KEILAR: We have breaking news on the Russia investigation, and word that Robert Mueller's investigation has touched the president's cabinet. CNN has learned that the special counsel's team interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, concerning the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether President Trump has obstructed justice in the year since he took office.

Joining me now to discuss is CNN political commentator and former special assistant to George W. Bush, Scott Jennings, and chief executive officer of the Democratic National Committee, Jess O'Connell, with us as well.

Jess, I want to challenge you a little bit with the question which is we hear Democrats say so often that know the White House is not cooperating enough, but Jeff Sessions was not subpoenaed, he spoke to Mueller's team. Is this some of the cooperation and transparency that Democrats would like to see?

JESS O'CONNELL, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Well, look, we certainly welcome any cooperation with the investigation. This has been an ongoing investigation since Donald Trump took over the presidency essentially and we welcome the transparency in that. I think that what is most concerning about all of this is that as you said, this is the first time we have seen this reach a cabinet level position of the president. We already have seen this investigation lead to four indictments to folks who pled guilty already at the highest levels of Trump's campaign. So I'm not sure that this is cooperation so much as they got to talk to these folks because Americans want answers to this question. It is outrageous that Donald Trump continues to suggest that, you know, that there have been no issues around this when intelligence agencies have already proven that. I think this investigation has to continue on and Americans want that. So I'm not sure they really have a choice about that.

KEILAR: Scott, what do you think?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's not surprising that Attorney General Sessions would be questioned. He certainly was part of the campaign and was seen in some photographs with people that we have seen in the news regarding the investigation. He went willingly. He is cooperating. There is no subpoena. He's repeatedly said he wants to tell anybody anything that they want to know. And he's showed up not just for this piece of the investigation, but also in front of Congress on numerous occasions. I think if you're looking for a silver ling to this, for the Trump White House, it is that they tend to interview people from the bottom up and so if you're interviewing a cabinet official at this point, perhaps, this is speculation, but perhaps blessedly this means that potentially the investigation is winding down.

[11:45:23] KEILAR: That is some silver lining. We may have a little ways to go yet, though. I wonder what you think, Scott, about learning that he spoke to Mueller's team at a time when we also learned first reported by Axios that Sessions was pressuring the FBI director to vacate basically senior positions, including andrew McCabe who has been a specific target of President Trump's. That one is pretty bad.

JENNINGS: Well, I don't know if we can connect the timing of these two things. We don't really know --


KEILAR: I'm not connecting the timing. I'm saying this is the timing, right? We have this one story and he's being -- just sort of in a way shows that Sessions who is supposed to recuse himself from some of these things is exerting pressure, pardon me, where many observers say it is very inappropriate.

JENNINGS: Well, but nothing has happened. And we had some reporting on this, but the man is still on the job. And the White House has expressed confidence in Director Wray and Attorney General Sessions I'm sure went in there and answered all the questions honestly and to the best of his ability. That's all anybody can ask for here is for people to show up, cooperate and answer questions and be truthful and I have a lot of confidence that that's what Jeff Sessions is doing and will continue to do because I think frankly he's one of the best people that Donald Trump recruited for this administration.

KEILAR: Jess, what do you think?

O'CONNELL: I couldn't agree more. I hope that Sessions is truthful in this. I think he gave some testimony that he had to explain to Congress later and I think that we hope that he is being truthful because this is something that we have to get to the bottom of. And, you know, I certainly hope that this investigation can conclude more quickly rather than not, but the reality is that this investigation continues to lead to more and more things. A little bit like an onion. Peel one layer back, there is another layer. We need to allow this investigation to go forward, take as long as it needs to take and that is certainly something we expect the president, his administration and anyone involved in his campaign to participate in.

KEILAR: You want this to wrap up soon?

O'CONNELL: I want it to wrap up in whatever way is required for Robert Mueller to get to the truth. That's what Americans need. We have to step back for a minute and remember what this is about. This is about the fact that Russians interfered in an election and find out who was involved in that. We this is important not just for where we are today, but for the future. Every single American should want that.

KEILAR: Jess O'Connell, Scott Jennings, thank you to both of you. I do appreciate it.

Still ahead, the Trump administration is slapping tariffs on certain foreign products. It is a direct shot at China. We'll discuss next.


[11:51:08] KEILAR: President Trump is moving forward with his campaign promise of an American First trade policy. In the next few hours, the president is set to sign sharp new tariffs on imports of solar panels and washing machines. But the decision could spark trade tensions with China and other trade partners, all of this ahead of President Trump's trip to the world forum in Davos, Switzerland.

I want to bring in CNN global affairs analyst and former deputy national security advisor under President Obama, Tony Blinken, with us. Aside from thinking about how this move might affect foreign

relations, just on its face, should there be a tariff on solar panels and washing machines made in China?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Brianna, it's really a double-edged sword. It may be that some of our manufacturers are being unfairly competed against by foreign manufacturers from China and South Korea. But when you impose a tariff, it ends up being a tax on Americans because the products in question, in this case solar panels, washing machines, they get more expensive, so we have to factor that in.

But the real problem is this. If we go down this road with tariffs, the other companies are going to retaliate. They impose tariffs on our companies, our products. We need to be able to sell around the world. 90 percent of the consumers live outside the United States. Then you get in these cycles where you have a trade war. There is a better way to do this.

KEILAR: Do you think this really could spur a trade war?

BLINKEN: It could most certainly spur the Chinese and the South Koreans to retaliate. Go to the World Trade Organization, you've got a gripe, have it litigated. The other thing we didn't do, the president is right that sometimes there's unshared competition. Other countries get to have lower environmental standards, lower worker standards, lower standards for property. That's why you have trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Trade Deal that he pulled out of, to level the playing field so our companies can be treated fairly.

KEILAR: We would have pulled out of that anyways. Hillary Clinton, who once called it the gold standard said she was going to. It seemed clear there just wasn't an appetite, and that seems to be among American voters that they didn't want to your point there.

We're getting a sense of how China feels about this. They put out a statement expressing strong dissatisfaction with the decision, OK? So that's very diplomatic. But we know what they mean, right?

The timing of this. Now let's put it into needing help from China when it comes to North Korea. North Korea is a massive global threat right now. What do you make of the timing of this?

BLINKEN: The timing is not great. Look, on two fronts.

KEILAR: Also, diplomatic.


BLINKEN: We need China to exert real pressure on North Korea to get it to come to the table to negotiate something on the nuclear weapons and missiles. But we also don't need division with our closest partner and ally, South Korea, right now. South Korea has responded to this diplomatic overture with North Korea on the Olympics. That's going to divide us with South Korea. Adding this to the mix right now really doesn't help. KEILAR: Do you think, as we just discussed, we weren't going to have

TPP. The U.S. wasn't going to have TPP no matter who was in the White House.

BLINKEN: If Hillary Clinton had been elected --


KEILAR: She would have found an alternative or something? OK. But there is such an animus from a majority of Americans when it comes to a trade agreement. Maybe she would have repackaged it in a different way.

But does that -- do you see a move towards that create a very difficult situation when it affects the U.S. asking for help from international partners?

BLINKEN: It does, but it's complicated. When you look at the polling, actually support for free trade and agreements have actually gone up. I think we've done a really bad job explaining it. I think we've done a bad job of explaining when done right, it makes it fairer for trading around the world. But the alternative, getting into self- destructive trade wars, is not going to benefit anyone, least of all the American people.

[11:55:18] KEILAR: Just real quick, how do you square President Trump's talks with China? How do you square this with that?

BLINKEN: Trying to square a lot of things coming from the president -- look, he says one thing one day, he tweets the opposite the next day. It's hard to keep up. Now he's going to Davos. This is really oil meeting water because the entire Davos crowd is -- the things they care about is everything the president has shown disdain for, climate change, free trade, protectionism, avoiding conflict, avoiding populism. So this is going to be a very interesting encounter.

KEILAR: It sure will. We'll be keeping an eye on it with you.

Tony Blinken, thank you so much for that.

BLINKEN: Thanks.

KEILAR: Up next, more ON THE breaking news. Attorney Jeff Sessions being questioned by Robert Mueller's team. John King picking that up after a break.