Return to Transcripts main page


Mueller Charges Lawyer with Lying about Interaction with Gates; CNN: Mueller looking at Kushner's Business Talks during Transition; Parkland Students to Rally at Florida Capitol. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 20, 2018 - 10:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

There is breaking news in the Russia investigation. New charges from the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, this time, charges on a man named Alex Vanderzwan charged with essentially, lying to investigators, specifically about his contacts with former Trump campaign official Rick Gates also someone named Person A. Vanderzwan expected to plead guilty in federal court this afternoon. This came as a big surprise this morning.

CNN's Jessica Schneider outside the courthouse with the very latest. Jessica, what have you learned?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, you said it, somewhat of an unexpected move from Mueller's team here. This is a lawyer from a prominent New York City law firm, who does have ties to both Paul Manafort as well as Rick Gates, charged now with lying to the Special Counsel's Office and also - for not turning over certain documents.

Now, this all is contained in a two-page information. It charges this New York City attorney. His name is Alex Vanderzwan. Now to put this all in perspective for you, Alex Vanderzwan was involved back in 2012 with the team of lawyers. They drafted a report that was used by allies of the Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to actually justify the jailing of one of their political rivals.

Now, the "New York Times" has also reported in a report back in the fall that Paul Manafort was involved in the commissioning of this drafting of this report. So, again, this all ties to Paul Manafort and as you'll remember, Paul Manafort has pleaded not guilty to a range of charges that relate to his work doing lobbying for Ukrainian government, Viktor Yanukovych and also alleged money laundering. So the interesting thing about this is although this lawyer, who is now been charged in this two-page information, although he seems to be tangentially related to this whole Russia probe, he does have these ties to Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Now, we know that this information was handed down this morning. We expect that this attorney, Alex Vanderzwan, will appear in court for a plea hearing this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. It is expected that he will plead guilty. But the broader picture of this is it really does show how Mueller's probe has expanded here and it also raises the question does this further put the pressure on Paul Manafort. Of course, we know that that Alex Vanderzwan, connected to Paul Manafort, and of course we know, we've reported that over the past month or so, Rick Gates has been involved in plea negotiations. So the question is, if Rick Gates eventually pleads guilty, if Alex Vanderzwan pleads guilty this afternoon, as we're expecting, what kind of pressure does this put on Paul Manafort and obviously this could be a real boon for the special counsel's probe here. John?

BERMAN: All right, Jessica Schneider thanks very, very much.

Joining me now, Paul Callan, CNN legal analyst, Garrett Graff, CNN contributor, the author of "Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller's FBI and the War on Global Terror" and CNN's Shimon Prokupecz with us. Paul Callan, I think one lesson and observation here the lesson is and we'll have don't lie to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, because he is he's coming after you. And number two, this seems to be all roads lead to Paul Manafort.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It does seem to be two roads. One is to Paul Manafort, but the other is the general subject I think of money laundering, which is always been a worry to the Trump administration and the Trump organization. Is he going to cross that red line and start looking at money laundering?

Now in this particular case, Manafort had a relationship with the Ukrainian government, and this lawyer was doing work for the Ukrainian government. So that's the link and he'll try to turn this witness against Gates, against Manafort, and possibly against others.

BERMAN: By all accounts, he's pleading guilty. This isn't an indictment. It is information which indicates that he is cooperating. Garrett Graff, you've written extensively about the scope now. What appears to be -- I don't know if it is expanding, but just a very large scope of the Robert Mueller investigation. What does today's -- what do today's charges tell you about that?

ROBERT GRAFF, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: So this is the part of the strategy that is hard for us to understand. Bob Mueller obviously knows where this investigation is going, and he knows what the next step or two or six or 12 of this investigation is going to be. And so part of the question is why is he bringing and unveiling these charges today. This is in reference to a conversation, a series of false statements that happened in November of last year. So why on this Tuesday morning in February does Bob Mueller feel it necessary to bring these charges publicly?

My guess is, as Paul and as Jessica sort of pointed towards is because it is another way for him to apply pressure to Paul Manafort and that that is at the center of where this investigation is heading right now, even as we're seeing very important steps in other parts of related probes, like Friday's indictment of the Internet Research Agency.

[10:05:08] BERMAN: Like Friday's indictment of the Internet Research Agency, like Steve Bannon going and answering questions over two days, like the fact that as far as we know they're still negotiating with the president's team himself to get him to come and answer questions from the special counsel. Shimon Prokupecz, where do you see it heading?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, I agree with everyone. I think this fits into the larger picture of concerning Paul Manafort. Certainly some of the reporting that we have done here, our team covering this here, there seems to be a lot of focus on Paul Manafort from the beginning. There have been a lot of people within the FBI and within the Department of Justice who feel that he knows a lot, who feel that he was at the center of a lot of communications with Russians, certainly this charge today shows that he was playing a role in backing the Russian-backed president of the Ukraine.

So there is every indication here that this is really, really about getting Paul Manafort perhaps to cooperate and this is just a building block towards that. It also seems that anyone, anyone who did work with Paul Manafort is in the crosshairs of the Department of Justice, of the special counsel, of the FBI. It just certainly seems that way. This is a pretty aggressive move by the special counsel. And like you said, and like everyone here said, it seems this probe -- this special counsel probe is much larger and much wider than any of us know.

BERMAN: And, Garrett Graff, just to point a point on this, you know you write about the different silos of this investigation. I think you see as many as five of them, but Paul Manafort really transcends more than one of them. Because you know he's one in of it dealing with his own Ukraine financial dealings going back in these charges of money laundering, but he was also at the Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. when he was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. He was the campaign chair up through the convention when there are questions about that and through this crucial summer as well. So just because some of these charges with Paul Manafort right now deal with money laundering in Ukraine doesn't mean it could transfer to another area.

GRAFF: Absolutely. And in fact that's a very standard FBI investigative technique here, which is you're trying to apply pressure at the edges in order to work your way closer to the center. And that's very much what we are seeing, sort of day in and day out on Paul Manafort. And remember this is actually just the latest, you know. We saw Friday afternoon sort of buried in the midst of some of the Internet Research Agency indictment news was new news by Bob Mueller's team that he says that he has new evidence of new bank fraud by Paul Manafort.

So there is a lot of new pressure coming on Paul Manafort and ultimately, you know, I don't think Bob Mueller's goal in this is to prosecute, you know, the law firm for work that it was doing five, seven years ago. The goal is to figure out what is the truth at the core of this Russia investigation. And that's an area where Bob Mueller thinks Paul Manafort knows more than he's saying. BERMAN: So Paul Callan, Counselor, if you're Ty Cobb or Don McGahn or anyone advising the president on his legal course of action, what do you make of all of this? Robert Mueller seems to be pressing charges against people who have any issues with the truth. If you're Ty Cobb, you're saying this guy is going down for a lie which could be a small lie, am I going to put the president in front of him.

CALLAN: I think that's the thing that should send shivers down everybody's spine. If you look at this information, one of the counts is that this lawyer misrepresented and said he didn't know why one e- mail had not been produced. And Mueller knew he was lying about that one thing, and indicts him for it. Now that sends a message to all of these other witnesses who are being interviewed by Mueller. You better be telling the truth about every single detail of your testimony or you face possible indictment. Think about what Mueller could do with the president of the United States under that kind of a microscope. It is a powerful message, Mueller is sending to the White House.

BERMAN: Meanwhile, Shimon, there is new exclusive reporting from CNN over the last 24 hours of Robert Mueller asking questions about the financial dealings of Jared Kushner. These are questions that have been asked, you know Jared Kushner's legal team says he hasn't been asked to produce any documents dealing with this, but again, this is an area possibly of new interest by the special counsel.

PROKUPECZ: That's exactly right. This has to do with investments into his -- into a building in Manhattan, 666 Fifth Avenue which Kushner company is part of and it's over a billion dollars in debt, and there were specifically two countries that had interest in investing in the building and helping with the debt and China, and Qatar and there were some conversations that Kushner had with folks from that country to get them to see if they would invest. Those talks eventually broke down.

[10:10:06] And what we have been told is that the special counsel has been asking questions of people close to the investigation, people close to Kushner, of people who were in these meetings, about those. And what that was about. And we're not entirely sure why that is. As you can see by today, we just don't have a great sense of what Mueller is exactly doing here, but it seems anything that comes close to where people are lying to him or not giving him a complete picture of what they were doing, of what was happening, during the campaign, during the transition, even before, with Paul Manafort, he's going to charge them.

BERMAN: Garrett Graff, any matters that might arise in the investigation? That was the original appointment from Rod Rosenstein the special counsel seems to be taking advantage of that.

GRAFF: Absolutely. Although remember this is very core to the central question of sort of what was the Russian influence on this campaign. When you have these set of business ties for the campaign chairman who, remember, was working for free, who volunteered to work for free for the campaign, that sort of points to, you know, why did Paul Manafort do that, why did he step into that role, what was his goal in trying to do this? And there are a lot of interesting questions, remember, we still know exist that we haven't seen public evidence about, including why did the RNC sort of attempt to change and soften language relating to the platform at its convention, relating to Ukraine. That could be very much a part of this larger picture. Bob Mueller knows where this investigation is going. And it is clear to us day to day, we don't.

BERMAN: We will see perhaps more as the day develops. This individual Alex Vanderzwan due to plead guilty this afternoon and who knows what else could happen today. Paul Callan, Garrett Graff, Shimon Prokupecz, thanks very much for being with us. I appreciate it.

Just hours from now, the White House doing something it has not done for a full week, taking questions at the White House briefing from reporters. There are a whole lot of questions to ask. You know, where are they now in cleaning their House after the Rob Porter scandal, what is their response to the students speaking out against gun violence in Florida, and what about these new reports about women coming forward saying there were payouts in relationships they had with pre-President Trump. These are just some of the questions that might be asked, we're all over it.

Plus, grief turns into action surviving students in Florida mobilizing after the shooting claimed the lives of so many of their classmates. They are taking that message today to lawmakers.


[10:17:02] BERMAN: All right. We're due to get a White House press briefing today for the first time in a week. The Parkland shootings and their aftermath sure to come up and so will Russian election meddling, which the president is back to calling a Democratic excuse while simultaneously blaming President Obama for not doing enough to stop it.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House with the very latest. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, John. The president has been on a tweet storm continuing that same one from this weekend now that he's back here in Washington. And this morning it has been a lot of blaming on his predecessor Barack Obama. He quoted him saying where Obama said there is no serious person who would suggest that you can rig America's election, and then President Trump said that change, once he won the election, saying that the Democratic narrative became that this Russian meddling in the election was a real problem. But then also President Trump was hitting Barack Obama for not -- what he says was not handling Russian interference in the election when he was president.

So John, we're seeing two different narratives coming from the president here. He's first saying there is a Democratic narrative that the Russians meddled in the election in an attempt to undermine his win. But then he's also saying his predecessor didn't do enough to confront this problem, but the fact of the matter here is, John, Donald Trump has been president for a year now, so the weight it on him and many critics would say he has not done enough to confront Russia for its meddling in the election.

He also has meetings to outline what he's going to do to prevent them from meddling in the election in the midterms or next presidential election. And the weight is on him and many have also said he's given weight to Vladimir Putin's denials that Russia meddled in the election while also undermining the special counsel's investigation into meddling in the election.

So a lot going on in the president's Twitter feed this morning and we're going to see him here at the White House this afternoon, during a ceremony for first responders. And we're also going to see the Press Secretary Sarah Sanders for the first time since that tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where she's going to have to answer questions not only on that, and the White House now saying that the president is open to supporting improvements for the background checks system, providing firearms, but also the continued fallout from the porter scandal and change to the security clearance here at the White House, so a lot going on here today, John.

BERMAN: All right, Kaitlan Collins for us at the White House. I do want to add to this press briefing today that many busy things they will have to discuss, a new statement from the president, which is sure to come up. This, the president for first time in a long time directly addressing one of the women who accused him of various kinds of sexual impropriety. Let me read you the statement from the president just moments ago.

"A woman I don't know and, to the best of my knowledge, never met, is on the front page of the fake news Washington Post saying I kissed her (for two minutes yet) in the lobby of Trump Tower 12 years ago. Never happened! Who would do this in a public space with live security cameras running," to the best as I can tell he's talking about Rachel Crooks, who says back in 2006 there was an incident. The article is in the "Washington Post" this morning as the president noted. She has been on the radar for some time.

[10:20:06] Here now to discuss, CNN political analyst Matt Viser, CNN political commentators, Doug Heye and Patti Solis Doyle. I guess let's just deal with the newest thing, Doug, there were a lot of questions, have been a lot of questions for a long time about the president's dealings with women during the campaign, certainly. During the MeToo movement which is still very much going on certainly, last week during the Rob Porter scandal certainly. And now the president chooses really for the first time to address any part of this by singling out one accuser. What do you make of it?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POTILICAL COMMENTATOR: First, John, I would say thanks for starting with me on such a great topic. Look, what we have -- if you go back a week ago, it was supposed to be infrastructure week. If you go to the first Friday of every month, we have the jobs numbers come out. These are opportunities for the president and for this administration to talk about positive news, talk about the Dow, which by and large has increased over the last year, to talk about wage growth, talk about the tax bill. Instead we see time after time these self-created outrage du jours that come from the White House, whether they come from indictments or directly from the president's Twitter feed and often from the president's Twitter feed.

What they do is they distract us from what should be good news. This is not the what president should want to be talking about, not what he should be talking about, and it guarantees that the press briefing today that it is going to be more bad news that again obscures good news that comes from this administration. That's why so many Republicans on Capitol Hill are troubled. At least privately, not just by the revelations, but by the fact that whatever good news they're doing on Capitol Hill, whatever good works they're doing, always get obscured by this administration and their self-created crises.

BERMAN: You know, Matt Viser, at the White House briefing today, for a long time, the White House has danced and weaved around these direct questions about these direct accusations for women, but now the president is engaged here. The president is in on this. At a certain point, you know Sarah Sanders is going to have to respond I think directly and specifically.

MATT VISER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And that -- I interviewed Donald Trump during the campaign about some other allegations that women had brought forward against him and some lawsuits. And that is his typical response. I don't know this woman. I don't -- I wouldn't recognize her if she walked in the door right now. So this is a familiar response from him to downplay the allegations, which are very specific in this instance. And -- but, you're right, he's engaging. It opens the door for more questions about sort of what he's denying specifically and is he denying some of the other allegations. It, again, puts this topic front and center as Doug mentioned at a time when Republicans want to be talking about a lot of other things.

BERMAN: Let me hope it doesn't obscure some of the other important topics that country needs to face right now, especially in the wake of what happened in Florida. Let me read you some new poll numbers from ABC News and "The Washington Post" Patti. This has to do with gun control. Six in 10 Americans fault Congress and President Trump for not doing enough to prevent mass shootings. 77 percent said they think more affected mental health screening and treatment could have prevented the issue. 58 percent of adults say stricter gun control laws could have prevented the shooting. And a bus load of students from the high school in Parkland, Florida, on their way to Tallahassee right now to push for action. What do you think the impact of that combination of things is?

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: We also have, you know, who knows how many, but I would venture to guess at least a million students coming to Washington on March 24th to march and protest and speak their minds for sensible gun regulations. I think we're living -- I think one thing that Donald Trump has done, that is positive, coming as a Democrat, is really engage the American people in politics and in issues.

We have seen it in the MeToo movement. We have seen it in the resistance and now we're seeing it from young people on the issue of gun control. And I think that's really positive. I think if there is one good thing to come from this tragedy in Florida, if we can get lawmakers held accountable, all of those lawmakers who take money from the NRA to look these kids in the face and explain to them why they do it, and why they're not for sensible gun control, so for that I do give Donald Trump some credit, for engaging -

BERMAN: I think the students deserve a whole lot of credit right now for engaging the system. Go ahead, Doug.

HEYE: Can I say I've seen a lot of my conservative brethren really be critical of the students and even question their right to talk. Jack Kingston this morning, CNN commentator, former Republican member of Congress, questioning whether or not this was all part of an organized effort, these kids were so brave in the attack on Florida, even filming some of this, they're speaking out from their hearts, they have every right to say whatever they want to.

[10:25:00] I may disagree with some of the political things that they say, but these kids deserve every hearing that they can get and if they want to get organized and involved, whether I agree with them or not or Patti or Matt does, I want to hear more from students like this because they're the ones who are impacted most directly in ways most of us can't even imagine.

BERMAN: So, Matt Viser, the "Washington Post" has a story out this morning that suggests that last week the White House, you know, this is not to say they welcome the school shooting, but the focus on the school shooting allowed them to get out from some of the things that were plaguing them from a public relations standpoint, Rob Porter mess, some cabinet secretaries, of course, that had been accused of various forms of impropriety, you know, the story in the New Yorker that Ronan Farrow put out about the playmate who suggested she received payoffs from the national inquirer to keep her story short, all of these things happened since the school shooting last Wednesday and again, we're just a few hours before the White House will face questions on all of this. It is hard to remember a time when there are so many different balls in the air at once that the White House is going to have to juggle.

VISER: Yes. I mean, you talk about sort of a fire hose mentality. I mean, there is news coming every which way for the White House and it is hard to look at a tragedy as a positive thing in any way. But for the White House, they were beset, you know, probably eight or nine days straight of dealing with the Rob Porter incident and that scandal. And that they hadn't handled that well. And the shooting distracted from some of that. So -- but, again, that's why today's White House briefing is pretty important. I mean, there are lot of issues in front of the White House to respond to. And now is their chance to sort of reset in a way and see if they can handle things a little bit differently, where questions may not be on Rob Porter anymore, but they are on, you know, the Russia investigation, on the news that Mueller's investigation brought out on Friday, as well as just this morning, you know, so there is a lot of open questions for the White House to handle and we'll see if they can handle that in any better way than they did last week.

BERMAN: Every time one of you speaks, you bring up a new issue, haven't had a chance to discuss. The Russia investigation right now, the indictments last week, the 13 indictments today, the new charges that we're finding today and Patti Solis Doyle, the new charges for the president, this is all Obama's fault now according to President Trump. President Obama let this happen during the last year of his administration. Look, there are plenty of supporters from Hillary Clinton's campaign who wasn't happy about the way President Obama handled it either. But now President Trump is saying it was Obama's fault at the same time he's sort of saying it's a hoax and Democrats are using it as an excuse.

DOYLE: The idea that Donald Trump saying that he's done more against the Russians than Obama is just -- that's just laughable. President Obama, you know, closed two Russian facilities, expelled a bunch of Russians, you know, told Vladimir Putin to his face, cut it out. I don't think that was enough. I think I really wish that we had known before November 8th the extent of what Russia was doing in terms of interfering in our election. Perhaps there would have been a different outcome, we will never know. But certainly I think voters deserve that information.

But the idea that this is Obama's fault and that, you know, Trump is harder on Russians than Obama is just ridiculous. We have yet to see him even say one negative thing about Putin. We have yet -- he has yet to, you know come up with the sanctions that Congress told him he needed to apply. And it is all about him. It is all about his election. It's all about his campaign. It is really kind of sad.

BERMAN: Patti Solis Doyle, Matt Viser, Doug Heye, not the discussion I thought we're going to have heading into today for sure, but interesting nonetheless, thanks, guys.

Parkland students soon on their way to the Florida State Capitol and they have a lot to say to lawmakers about gun control.