Return to Transcripts main page


Interview with Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky; John Kelly Issues Crackdown on Security Clearance Protocol After Porter Abuse Allegations; Feinstein Announces Bill Rising Legal Age to Buy Rifle to 21; "National Enquirer's" "Catch & Kill" Buried Negative Trump Story. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 17, 2018 - 17:00   ET




ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, you're in the CNN NEWSROOM. Great to have you with us this weekend. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York.

For the first time, President Trump's own national security adviser is publicly saying there's undeniable proof that Russia meddled in the election.


H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain.


CABRERA: This admission is significant because even though U.S. intelligence agencies have been saying Russia interfered for more than a year, President Trump has been hesitant to believe them. But now the special counsel has formally indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities for election meddling, and the charges detail exactly how they did it.

We are covering this from every angle. CNN senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance is in Moscow. CNN White House correspondent, Boris Sanchez, is traveling with the president, and CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz is in Washington.

Shimon, you have been breaking this story for us. I want to start with you and the indictment, the stunning details we're learning. They traveled to the U.S., Russians stole American identities, all with one goal.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right. And one goal in mind here, when you read through these documents, and it's clear that this was an anti-Hillary operation. They did, they traveled, two Russians traveled here in 2014. It was June 2014. They visited several states. All in hopes of learning more about the political system, what sort are some of the hot button issues would be in the upcoming election in 2016. And they came here and basically blended with Americans. They even used U.S. identities as they traveled through the country to different states.

And look, these stolen identities, the indictment says, were not only used to sort of perpetuate the fake personae that these two people traveled to the country with. They also used it to build PayPal accounts. They opened PayPal account which then they used the PayPal accounts to buy social media ads.

They then also created basically virtual service here in the United States that they controlled out of Russia, which then were used to disseminate all sorts of social media, stuff on Facebook, they created pages on Facebook, all really, as you said, Ana, was to create this discord, and in the end, it became an anti-Hillary operation.

CABRERA: And explain, too, how they actually orchestrated Americans to do things like rallying for Trump and rallying for specific causes and so forth.

PROKUPECZ: Well, one of the things they did here was they would, with the stolen identities, this was all being done while the organization, the people that were part of the organization, were in Russia.

They had these stolen identities, and they would reach out to people, Americans with these various political groups like Black Lives Matter, other organizations, and it was really in hopes of getting them, you know, getting their causes out, saying they should vote anti-Hillary.

That they were supporting their movement, and they would also give money, money to help build out some of the rallies, some of these political organizations. And there was sort of an effort here, when you read the indictment, to perhaps even maybe depress some of the voting, to keep voters, steer voters away from Hillary.

It's very clear as much of that in this indictment, and then there's this one line in there which kind of describes exactly what was going on. It says specialists were instructed to post content that focused on politics in the U.S.A. and to use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest, except Sanders -- that's Bernie Banders, and Donald Trump. We support them.

Now, these specialists were people who were assigned to this organization, this Russian organization of some 13 people, and their sort of specialty, was to figure out what some of the political discourse was, and then get it out there, and in favor of the people that they wanted to perhaps see elected.

CABRERA: So, Boris, now that we have a little more context in terms of how the Russians pulled this off, the president is reacting, and apparently, sees what's in this indictment as a win.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Ana. The president tweeting about a newspaper's reading of Rod Rosenstein's announcement yesterday, and his detailing of the contents of the indictment. The president again reiterating multiple times that there was no collusion in a statement put out by the White House yesterday, they noted that no one in the Trump campaign did anything wrong.

[17:05:06] That's not exactly what the deputy attorney general said, though. He noted that in this indictment, there were no Americans named that wittingly worked with Russians to interfere in the 2016 election.

But he also said that Rob Mueller's investigation was not concluded, and he didn't rule out any possible indictments in the future of people who worked on the Trump campaign.

The president was busy on Twitter again today, writing, quote, "Funny how the fake news media doesn't want to say that the Russian group was formed in 2014, long before my run for president. Maybe they knew I was going to run even though I didn't know."

Well, Ana, a series of facts cast doubt on whether the president knew that he was going to run for president in 2014. Namely the fact that Donald Trump has been teasing a run for the presidency since before 1992.

Further, he trademarked his big slogan, make America great again, in November of 2012, and there's a tweet for everything. In September of 2014, the president tweeted this, quote, "I wonder if I run for president, will the haters and losers vote for me knowing that I will make America great again? I say they will."

Again, doubtful that the president didn't have some idea that he was going to announce his candidacy and then make a run for 2016. Two very quick things I wanted to point out in the president's tweets and the statement from the White House yesterday.

Nowhere in the statements or the tweets do the administration acknowledge the fact that the Russians specifically tried to disparage Donald Trump's opponents while boosting him, and further, there's no real condemnation of Russia in these statements.

No indication from the president that he's going to aggressively punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 election or further that steps are going to be taken to protect the United States from meddling in upcoming elections. Obviously, one coming in just a couple months -- Ana.

CABRERA: Guys, stand by as I turn to Matthew in Moscow for us. Russia is responding as well to 13 of its people and three enterprises there being charged. What are you hearing?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're responding, but whenever the Russians are faced with these allegations of meddling in the U.S. presidential election or in stoking unrest in U.S. politics, they always come back with the same response, which is one of denial and then denial again.

And that's exactly the pattern that they have been following over the past 24 hours since these indictments were issued by the U.S. Justice Department. We had a foreign ministry spokesperson saying it was absurd that 13 Russians could oversee the intervention in this way that's being alleged in the U.S. political system.

The Russian foreign minister, her boss, saying it was all blather and that he hadn't seen any facts. And there was also this sort of intervention by Sergey Kislyak, who you may remember was the Russian ambassador to Washington for many years.

And he put an end to some of the political careers of people close to the Trump administration by the sort of unannounced meetings and undisclosed meetings he had with them. He said this.

He said the allegations of Russian interference in American affairs have, quote, "spoiled the trust" between the two countries. Even before these latest indictments were made public.

So, he's basically saying, look, the U.S. law enforcement agencies have a record of getting things wrong perhaps they are wrong about this too. But it all falls into this general pattern that the Russians are fulfilling again, which is that they are categorically denying any part, still, even in the face of this evidence, of the allegations of meddling in the U.S. political system -- Ana.

CABRERA: Matthew, real quick before I let you go. I mean, you have been covering the workings of the Russian government for quite some time. Do you think Putin is laughing right now or is he cringing?

CHANCE: You know, I think it's probably a mixture of the two, because on the one hand, the Kremlin is satisfied. You get the impression talking to Russian officials they kind of like the idea that America is in such contortions in this way as a result of their action.

But they want a stable relationship with the United States. They want the sanctions lifted from this country because it's causing so much damage to their economy. And I think, you know, there's a part that realizes this could all go very wrong, maybe they went too far. I'm sure that's a thought, a doubt that they're having in the Kremlin tonight.

CABRERA: All right, thank you so much. Matthew Chance, Shimon Prokupecz, Boris Sanchez, I appreciate it, guys. Let's bring in our panel, joining us, CNN political analyst, Ryan Lizza, CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan, and CNN national security analyst, Juliette Kayyem.

So, Juliette, the president's response here seems to be one of vindication, not a condemnation. He said nothing about punishing Russia for this or finally imposing new sanctions. What do you make of it?

[17:10:10] JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's absolutely outrageous at this stage that the president just is unable for reasons that may go back a long time about his personality, to separate the institution and our democracy -- the institution of our democracy and himself. And so, at this stage, it's -- it belies anything rational except for two things. One is he wants Russia to continue to do that. You know I don't say that easily, but there's no other explanation, right?

We have 2018 around the corner. The other sort of defense is that he actually, the president doesn't know essentially how to go after Russia without undermining his own legitimacy. Meanwhile, right behind him is his national security adviser, right, who is saying actually, we do believe Mueller, and we believe that the Russians did this.

So, at this stage, Trump has made himself sort of insignificant as regards to our own democracy. That's really scary from a national security perspective.

CABRERA: I encourage all of our viewers to read this indictment. It's 37 pages. Actually, reads pretty quickly. It's so fascinating, Ryan. It's hard not to really just get into it because there's so many juicy details about how the Russians did what they did and the specific messages that they were posting on social media.

The advertisements that they paid for, what they were orchestrating with these rallies. I know you interviewed a journalist who was a former Russian journalist for the state tv there, about Putin's direct involvement in orchestrating messaging connected to the 2016 U.S. election. Are you seeing parallels when you read this indictment?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, that's very interesting you point that out. I was recently in the Netherlands at an investigative journalism conference, and one of the speakers there was a former Russian tv news producer.

And he had left, and he gave a talk about how he and his colleagues were instructed to cover the American election by the Kremlin. And in his telling, there was a phrase among what he called the Russian elite, and that phrase was, Trump is our president.

He talked quite a bit about how the coverage inside Russia by state tv was directed to be pro-Trump and anti-Hillary. Very similar to what we saw with the indictment this week where there was this troll factory set up in St. Petersburg, dozens of employees spending millions of dollars.

I believe over a million dollars a month, to try to use social media in America to influence the election in 2016. So, this was a large- scale state operation, and frankly, a very low-cost operation considering, you know, what they arguably got out of it.

CABRERA: Well, the millions, tens of millions of people who they reached through this campaign, and Paul, it is interesting and important to know that the Russian campaign actually started in 2014, before President Trump announced his bid, before we knew which candidates these was all going to come down to.

The indictment, though, refers to the Trump campaign officials that were eventually contacted by these Russians as unwitting, and I assume that's good news for the president and his campaign.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it is good news so far. But remember, the investigation continues, and the indictment lists a number of unnamed co-conspirators. So, we don't know if there may be future developments that will change that.

But certainly, that is good news for campaign officials at the Trump campaign, that although they may have ironically colluded with the Russians because they did it unwittingly, it's probably not criminal conduct.

And on that issue of the investigation or the interference reaching back to 2014, not surprising at all, the Russians have tried for years to penetrate and influence our elections. There's always been a propaganda war going on between the two countries.

What's fascinating here is that the Russians latched on to the Trump message. The message of anti-immigration, anti-Muslims, anti-Black Lives Matters, and it adopted those themes very aggressively and very effectively to help the Trump campaign in many, many states where there were very, very close elections going on.

So, they may have started before Trump got into the campaign, but they recognized his message as a message that they could adopt to sabotage and destroy the Hillary Clinton campaign.

[17:15:10] CABRERA: Juliette, I want to play for you what Rod Rosenstein said yesterday about whether this impacted the outcome of the election.


ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: There's no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election.


CABRERA: Straight up, he says no indication impacted the outcome of the election. Meanwhile, John Brennan, the former director of the CIA, tweeted this, "My take, implausible that Russian actions did not influence the views and votes of at least some Americans." Juliette, how do you see it?

KAYYEM: I see it exactly like John Brennan. We should be careful -- I mean, in other words, what was said at the press conference was, no allegations in the indictment. And that's why a lot of us on your panel are saying this is just step one of indictments.

And this series of indictments, it does not mention any proof, any discussion of switched votes. Let me just, you know, two plus two equals four. Common sense should tell you the Russians are not spending a million dollars a week trying to influence this campaign.

President Trump as Candidate Trump and his team are not taking these meetings or luring on the Russians because they think it's not working. They clearly knew it was working. And so, you know, can I tell you Person A in Iowa changed their vote? Absolutely not.

But what I can tell you is the Russians knew it was working, they were investing in it. The Trump campaign knew it was working because they were luring it on and meeting with the Russians. And we're left with the question of why. I think that's the next stage.

What financial dealings were happening between the Trump people and Trump himself and Russians that would explain the desire of the Russians to have Trump, and Trump's desire to not go after the Russians anymore. We are now a year after that campaign, and nothing has happened to protect our democracy.

CABRERA: Well, we'll see if there is another shoe to drop. We know Mueller and his team know a lot more than we do at this point. Juliette Kayyem, Paul Callan, and Ryan Lizza, thank you all.

Still ahead this hour, new crackdown, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly set to overhaul how security clearances are handled going forward. So, should Jared Kushner, who still lacks full clearance be worried? Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy who just introduced a bill to tighten rules on these clearances joins us live.

Plus --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you.


CABRERA: A powerful message straight from the students who survived a massacre. Their calls for change next. You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.



CABRERA: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a short time ago, a few miles from the school where 17 people, students and faculty, were shot dead Wednesday by a former student with an assault rifle. Speakers at this anti-gun rally included students who survived the massacre.


EMMA GONZALEZ, SCHOOL SHOOTING SURVIVOR: If you don't do anything to prevent this from continuing to occur, that number of gunshot victims will go up, and the number that they are worth will go down, and we will be worthless to you. To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you.


CABRERA: The man who legally bought that rifle and opened fire on his former school is now charged with 17 murders. His defense team says he will plead guilty to avoid the death penalty. But prosecutors are not discussing that yet, saying now is the time for grief.

A formal announcement on prosecuting the shooter will come at what they say is an appropriate time. In the meantime, people who know the gunman, who went to school with him, who lived near him, are painting a picture of a frightening and violent young man who even would introduce himself to people as, hi, I'm a school shooter.

CNN's senior investigative correspondent, Drew Griffin, is joining us now in Parkland, Florida. Drew, what else have you learned about this very disturbed person, clearly.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: You know, not only was he telegraphing through social media what he was doing, telling other people what he was about to do, he was being visited by the police. They had a long history with Nikolas Cruz, with his brother, with this family.

Interjecting with the family who was trying to deal with obvious mental illness, documented mental illness. Nikolas Cruz was being treated for many, many years for his various problems, which is why everybody in this community, you know, all the investigations are pointing to all these red flags missed.

But at the end of the day, Ana, the question is, how could a person no matter what kind of background check, if you have any kind of background check, how could this person be the one who could possibly buy not one but five guns in the last year as CNN has been reporting.

Paul Gold is one of his former neighbors. Just listen to what he has to say about this.


PAUL GOLD, SCHOOL SHOOTER'S NEIGHBOR: Why was he ever allowed to buy a gun? That is crazy. I mean, if I would have known that he had a gun, I would have taken it. I would have personally taken action. I would have, you know, I would have taken the gun from him. He had too much of a temper. He would break things. He would be the last person who should ever have a weapon.


GRIFFIN: Nikolas Cruz was in a family that you could just -- it was so dysfunctional. It's hard to imagine. The police were at this home 30 to 39 times over the past several years, and it all came to a head, culminating in his mother's death.

She was a single mother by that time. This was November, and Nikolas Cruz actually called Paul Gold because he had no other way to get to his mom's funeral. Paul Gold says the funeral consisted of Nikolas, his younger brother, and two friends. That's it, four people.

[17:25:11] We have these pictures of Nikolas and those are the arms of his brother, putting his mom's ashes into a mausoleum. Paul Gold said he was very distraught the fact nobody showed up for his mom's funeral. That could have been the tipping point in a long road that Nikolas Cruz was taking to becoming this next school shooter -- Ana.

CABRERA: Deeply, deeply sad, troubling story. Drew Griffin, thank you for your reporting.

Straight ahead, you heard it a moment ago. Outrage growing in the wake of another school massacre. The mayor of Parkland, Florida, joins us live next. You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


[17:30:20] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: A wave of outrage rising today in Florida. Passionate voices demanding change, just days after that school massacre. Thousands gathered at this rally in Ft. Lauderdale today, where we heard from emotional survivors, from students and teachers who escaped alive from a bloodbath at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Seventeen lives were lost in Wednesday's massacre. The gunman legally owned an assault rifle used in this attack.

In Miami, up in the sky, this message for Florida's junior Senator. A plane leaving behind the words, and I quote, "Shame on you, Marco Rubio, and the NRA."

Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky is joining us.

Mayor, President Trump, I understand, called you today. What was his message?

CHRISTINE HUNSCHOFSKY, (D), PARKLAND MAYOR: He just called to give his condolences and to say that he would be here and help us in any way he could. And he spoke about the impact it had on him yesterday, visiting the people who were still in the hospital recovering.

CABRERA: And I imagine it was nice to get a call from the president. How did that make you feel?

HUNSCHOFSKY: It was nice that we know that he was thinking about this city and that he, you know, felt terribly about the awful thing that happened. And I think him visiting the people who are still recovering in the hospital really brought it home how we have been affected by this.

CABRERA: How are you doing?

HUNSCHOFSKY: I'm doing -- it's a moment to moment thing. We're dealing here with a tragedy. We could never have prepared for in the sense of being ready to handle it emotionally. And it's been difficult. But we have a wonderful community. There's so much outpouring of support from all different agencies, from the Broward County public schools, from the police, from the first responders. We have just been very blessed that we have a strong community foundation here that comes out and offers their support when it's need.

CABRERA: I imagine now that it has been a few days, at first, there's got to be shock. Then I imagine there's different stages to your emotions and thoughts and feelings about all this, not to mention all the exhaustion that's got to be setting in, too.

HUNSCHOFSKY: Yes. The first couple of days, you could tell everybody was in a complete state of shock. And you still go in and out of shock. I was up at the area where we had the vigil the other night just about an hour ago and met residents and friends of mine. And every time there's a hug, there are tears associated with it. And everybody here is just working together to comfort each other and to help each other get through this. Our city is a very small city. It's always been a very family-oriented, tight-knit community, and that's a wonderful quality that we have and that's really going to help us through this difficult time.

CABRERA: I have to ask you your thoughts on the news that we got kind of late yesterday about the FBI and their failure to act on January 5th on this tip that really kind of laid out the threat that this shooter was, his desire to kill, his erratic behavior. How do you feel learning that this slipped through the cracks, and do you have a message or any thoughts about how the FBI failed?

HUNSCHOFSKY: It is beyond frustrating. Our community is very angry about that. There were lives lost that might not have had to have been lost had this information not fallen through the cracks. I really hope that all agencies will do their best to learn a lesson from this and make sure they have the processes and the procedures in place that information that comes in does not fall through the cracks. These days, we're all inundated with information. It's important that agencies are able to sift through, recognize the important information, and know what to do with it immediately. I really hope that there will be a concerted effort to make sure that something like this never happens again.

CABRERA: Parkland, Florida, Mayor Christine Hunschofsky, you talk about the strength and the people there and the way you all are helping to support one another. We're all there for you as well around the nation, sending a virtual hug your way.

I thank you for your time.

[17:35:08] HUNSCHOFSKY: Thank you very much.

CABRERA: Seventeen people were killed in this shooting. We want to remember who they were. Here are some of the names and faces of those who were lost.





[17:40:01] CABRERA: A new development to tell you about in White House security. White House chief of staff, John Kelly, issuing a crackdown on security clearance protocol. Kelly's move is intended to keep White House staffers who have interim clearances away from top- secret information. And it follows the Rob Porter scandal, the controversy in the news that dozens of staffers lack long-term clearance, including the president's own son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy is joining us now.

Thank you so much, Congresswoman.

And again, you're from Florida. Our condolences to you and the members of your state.

I want to ask you, first, before we talk about what's happening in your home state right now, you sponsored a bill to force tighter White House security clearance rules. What are your thoughts when you heard so many people close to the president, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, still lack a full clearance?

REP. STEPHANIE MURPHY, (D), FLORIDA: That's right. I introduced a bill call protect America's secrets act. Because as a former national security specialist, I know that there is no greater responsibility for people who have access to classified information than to protect it and for those people to remain without the vulnerabilities of being compromised by foreign agents. It's incredibly important that people who have access to our highest levels of information have permanent clearances. The bill I like to call it the coats rule, after the Trump's director of National Intelligence rule that anybody without a permanent security clearance shouldn't have access to the highest and most sensitive classified information.

CABRERA: So our reporting is that at least 100 White House personnel did not have clearances as of November. They only had the interim clearances. What could be holding all of these up?

MURPHY: I'm not quite sure what would be holding all of these clearances up. But what I do go for a fact is it is incredibly reckless and dangerous to our national security to have people who have not been fully vetted have access to full information. The vetting is in place so that we know whether or not somebody has something in their background that can be used to blackmail them and cause them to compromise sensitive information that they may have access to. So it's incredibly important that people who have access to information also have been fully vetted.

CABRERA: Do you believe Jared Kushner should be cut off from access in his role currently?

MURPHY: My legislation would put in place the rule that anybody who doesn't have a permanent clearance wouldn't have access to the most sensitive information. I think there are ways people can still carry out their responsibilities without access to permanent -- the most sensitive information until they receive their permanent clearances.


MURPHY: I don't think anybody should be above the law.

CABRERA: Including Jared Kushner? MURPHY: It doesn't matter who you are. I think if you are given the

responsibility of our most sensitive information --

CABRERA: Gotcha. I just was curious if it's just a yes/no question. I assume, then, that includes Jared Kushner.

Let me ask you about what has happened in Florida this week. It has really captivated all of us because it's hard to believe we're talking about another, another school shooting that occurred. Seventeen people are dead. What's your reaction now we know the FBI did not follow up on two tips about the shooter ahead of the massacre?

MURPHY: You know, as a mom, when I see what the aftermath of the school shooting, my heart is just broken for those families. You know, as an American, I am just outraged that we live in a society where mass shooting, whether they happen at schools or in nightclubs like they did in my hometown, or at concerts, continue to happen. And as a legislator, I'm incredibly frustrated that Congress refuses to act. To implement commonsense gun safety measures. I think it's well past time.

CABRERA: Senator Dianne Feinstein has announced a bill to raise the age minimum to buy a rifle to 21. Currently, it's 18. Is that something? It's something little, but do you think Congress will agree on that?

MURPHY: You know, of course, I support legislation that would make our communities safer, and Senator Feinstein's bill is in that category. But I have also introduced my own bill, and it's the Gun Violence Research Act. It basically repeals the Dicky (ph) Amendment, which prohibits CDC funding from going into gun violence research. Gun violence is a public health issue for us. And yet we aren't allowed to even study it. I think any action that we take from a legislative perspective needs to start with a debate on the facts. And right now, we're prohibited from even gathering those bare minimum facts.

CABRERA: As you have pointed out in introducing this, the president's new HHS secretary is also supporting gathering more information and data and having this research done and conducted. Does that give you optimism that people will cross the aisle and actually vote on legislation that may have this kind of an impact?

[17:45:23] MURPHY: I'm really glad to hear Trump's HHS secretary support the idea of gathering facts on gun violence. And I'm also really proud to say that my bill already has over 120 co-sponsors, including as of last night, Rep Carlos Curbelo, from Florida. I'm really glad that he joined our effort to make this a bipartisan effort. I don't think that it should take a whole lot of moral courage for my other colleagues to join this effort and begin to take this very important, very commonsense step forward to address gun violence in this country.

CABRERA: Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, thank you for your time.

MURPHY: Thank you so much. CABRERA: And best of luck to you and everybody there in Florida.

MURPHY: Thank you.

CABRERA: We're back in just a moment.


[17:50:34] CABRERA: Well, President Trump frequently slams the news media. But he's praised certain outlets in the past, among them the "National Enquirer." "The New Yorker's" Ronan Farrow reported this week the "National Enquirer" used a tactic called "Catch and Kill"," to bury stories that are no favorable to Trump. The secret practice involves buying the rights to the story and making sure it never sees the light of day.

CNN's Brian Stelter explains.


BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT & CNN HOST, RELIABLE SOURCES (voice-over): Donald Trump and former "Playboy" model, Karen McDougal. "The New Yorker" is detailing evidence of a nine-month affair that started in 2006. And a payoff scheme to keep the story from going public before the election.

RONAN FARROW, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, THE NEW YORKER: Karen McDougal feels she was cornered into a set of contracts that she finds onerous and exploitive. I think she's frustrated with her inability to speak in her view. And she has regrets about this.

STELTER: Ronan Farrow said that the "National Enquirer" paid $150,000 for the exclusive rights to McDougal's story in 2016, but then never published it. The company in charge of the tabloid, which is unabashedly, pro-Trump, said it did not find McDougal's story credible, but former employees of American Media, Inc., which owns "The Enquirer," says this is a classic "Catch and Kill." You buy a story unfavorable to Trump, then you kill it. You bury it.

STU ZAKIM, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS/MARKETING EXECUTIVE, AMERICAN MEDIA, INC: What it really means it takes the story out of the market. So that it won't see light of day.

STELTER: Why? Well, American Media's chairman, David Pecker, is a long-time personal friend of Trump's.

ZAKIM: These guys met many years ago and they have maintained a friendship for a long time and David Pecker takes care of his friends.

STELTER: It's a back-scratching relationship with Trump sometimes praising "The Enquirer."

TRUMP: I always said, why didn't the "National Enquirer" get the Pulitzer Prize for Edwards and O.J. Simpson and all these things.

STELTER: During the presidential campaign, he mentioned it while implying that the father of Senator Ted Cruz was involved in the killing of Kennedy.

TRUMP: On the cover of the "National Enquirer," there was a picture of him and Crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast.

STELTER: That was debunked. More recently, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski claimed that the White House threatened to run a hit piece on them through "The Enquirer."

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST, MORNING JOE: They said if you call up the president and apologize for your coverage, then he will pick up the phone and basically spike the story.

STELTER: On Twitter, Trump called those allegations fake news.

More fake news is also how the White House describes the alleged affair between Trump and Karen McDougal. Just like it is denied the alleged affair between Trump and porn star, Stormy Daniels. Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, admits he paid $130,000 for Daniels' silence ahead of the 2016 election.

Which tabloid has been all over that story? No, not "The Enquirer," but its rival, "In Touch" magazine.


CABRERA: Brian Stelter is with us now.

So this is interesting, Brian. Just how common is this "Catch and Kill" tactic?

STELTER: That is the big unanswered question. We don't know how many other stories the "National Enquirer" has caught and then killed in order to help Donald Trump. This is something that dates back over a decade. We know it's been going on for a long time. We don't know exactly how many stories had been buried by his friend, David Pecker

What we know is it's a tactic that just applies to the Donald Trump. It applies to other friends of the "National Enquirer's owner." In the past, that's meant Arnold Schwarzenegger has been kept out of the headlines. And Harvey Weinstein is another person that Farrow is documenting where there were bad stories about Weinstein that were buried by "The Enquirer."

It's interesting, as you look at "The Enquirer," at the supermarket on the way out the door, you see those sensational headlines. A lot of them are pro-Trump headlines. It also makes you think about what stories they're not including.

CABRERA: It makes you wonder if an entity like the "National Enquirer" has some kind of leverage now over the president.

STELTER: Right. Some kind of influence. Now, the company rejects that. They say it's laughable. But it stands to reason that if you're burying stories to help out your friend, you might someday want those stories to come out if he's no longer your friend. The obvious logic in this. If you want to keep things hidden -- things don't stay hidden forever. The company thinks it's laughable, but I think Farrow's reporting, it goes to show how these tabloids sometimes operate. And in this case, how it benefits the president.

And by the way, in the midst of all this, we're talking about another alleged affair in Donald Trump's past. You have to think about what it means for his family. You know, you have to think about what it means for Melania. We saw her travel separately from the president yesterday. These stories seem to keep coming up.

[17:55:36] CABRERA: Brian Stelter, you're staying on top of it. We appreciate it.

STELTER: Thanks.

CABRERA: And you can catch Brian's show, "RELIABLE SOURCES," every Sunday at 11:00 a.m., right here on CNN. I'm sure you'll dive even deeper into this discussion.

I'm Ana Cabrera, in New York. I really appreciate you spending some time with me today. I'll be back in an hour from now, live in the CNN NEWSROOM.

And in the meantime, "SMERCONISH" is next.