Return to Transcripts main page


Mueller Subpoenas Trump Organization; Daniels Physically Threatened; Trump to Replace McMaster; Bill to Deter Election Meddling; British Nerve Agent Attack; Helicopter Crash in Iraq. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired March 16, 2018 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Power as he would like to have. And so he has to capitalize on that now to be clear that it lays out exactly what they want and when they want it. If they fail to provide it, you could have more avenues for obstruction.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now, the big issue here -- another big issue, is we don't know exactly what the special counsel is looking for here.

COATES: Right.

BERMAN: It's possible that this has to do with the collusion issue, in which case, you know, maybe it is a mop-up thing at the end here. They're just dotting their "i"s and crossing their "t"s. However, it's also possible that the special counsel is digging into financial issues, digging into some of the money involved in the Trump Organization and possible deals that may or may not have been taken place, or even just sought by the Trump Organization.

If it's the latter, if it's the money issue, that gets right on that red light that the president brought up of, he doesn't think the special counsel should be delving into his businesses.

COATES: Well, the president's views on the red line are wholly irrelevant. He has no power over the Mueller investigation except that he could fire Rod Rosenstein, sure. But the idea that he has within his power to dictate the terms or the length of the investigation was about exercising bravado and barking with no bite.

But the reality here is, if they are to be comprehensive, John, they have got to figure out if there was an avenue for undue influence. That requires you follow the money trail. And it may mean ultimately that nothing comes of it. This may be a rabbit hole or simply one of crossing t's and dotting i's. But you have to believe that they're doing what the House Intel Committee was unwilling to do, which is to say we're going to ensure that we're thorough, we're going to uncover every single stone, we're going to insure that we are following all of the avenues for potential undue influence.

And, remember, Mueller has already indicated just last week that he's interested in whether or not any foreign country's money was involved. You have that with the Emiratis. You have that with his recent cooperators. He's always been following the money trail, even outside of Russia.

BERMAN: All right, Laura, if I can, I want to ask you about the developments that just happened about 30 minutes ago having to do with Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels. Her attorney this morning, including right here on CNN, suggested that Stormy Daniels had been physically threatened to stay silent about her alleged relationship with then Donald Trump. He wasn't president at the time. I think we all understand the implications of that.

The other thing that the lawyer said was that he has had six women come to him and suggest similar patterns having to do with Donald Trump, including two who claim to have non-disclosure agreements, were -- were signed non-disclosure agreements to stay silent.

Any legal implications in that?

COATES: Well, first of all, obviously if she was physically threatened, he's arguing that there was duress involved, which is another reason he's trying to insure that she can get out from under this contract. If one, there was the option that there was no signature. Then it was whether or not Michael Cohen speaking about it voided the contract. Now it's an issue of whether or not duress was involved. All of those things are what a court will consider about whether to throw out a contract or not to honor it. They're all pretty uphill battles, though, in their own way.

On the issue of the other women, remember I think what you're seeing here is Avenatti, you know, playing out his case a little bit in front of the court of public opinion because you're going to be as strong in the criminal court. And the reason I say that -- or civil court. The reason I say that is because he hasn't fully vetted those six women according to himself. He hasn't looked at all of the NDAs to figure out who are the parties to them, according to his own statements. And so we're waiting for that information to catch up.

But what it does indicate to you, there is a thematic pattern. And if there was an entrance (ph) by the Trump campaign, the Trump Organization or Michael Cohen as a facilitator on behalf of either to actually execute or facilitate contracts that are over $2,700 -- that's the key word for federal campaign finance laws. If they're all similar to the $130,000, $100,000 or even $3,000 payments, while you've got to compilation of federal campaign finance violations, and that's what being taken seriously. The American people, I think, John, are less concerned with the marital vows issue of the additional people coming forward and more concerned with the fact that the -- the person who was in charge of the executive branch has an oath of office and there may be a violation of that.

BERMAN: All right, Laura Coates for us.

Thank you very much, Laura. Appreciate it.

COATES: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, who doesn't love a great season finale? A source close to the White House says the president is contemplating moves involving chief of staff, national security adviser and other members of his cabinet. And, again, that was a source close to the White House telling Jim Acosta, who doesn't love a season finale? This is the White House we're talking about, folks. Stay with us.


[09:38:45] BERMAN: This morning, sources tell CNN that President Trump has decided to replace his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. This move could happen as early as today.

Joining me now is Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Senator, thank you very much for being with us.

The secretary of state, fired earlier this week. The national security adviser could be close behind. Do you think America is safer? Does this make America better off?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: No, it does not, John. What it tells the world is that we are in chaos here at home, even at a time when there's a lot of chaos around the world. And that is a recipe for trouble for the United States and our leadership.

We have a hollowed out State Department as it is. That means diplomats have been sidelined. And now you've got the president trying to put more yes men in places like the State Department. I think this is a very volatile time for the United States and puts us at greater risk.

BERMAN: You used the word "volatile" there. Our Jim Acosta reporting a source close to the White House said to him just moments ago, who doesn't love a season finale? What do you make of that depiction?

VAN HOLLEN: Exactly. I mean it's that kind of thing that I think really creates more risk around the world, because when you've got a State Department that doesn't have an ambassador to Korea, at the same time you're talking about having talks between the president of the United States and the North Korean leader, it really raises the stakes. I mean, obviously, there are some opportunities in having a summit, but there is also potential for a catastrophic failure. And I mean catastrophic because the temperatures get raised, expectations get raised and then nothing happens. So these summits require lots of preparation and we don't have the team right now to do the preparation.

[09:40:37] BERMAN: You co-sponsored the Deter Act with Senator Marco Rubio, which is a bipartisan bill to put harsh sanctions on foreign interference in U.N. elections. You said yesterday's sanctions, I think you support them as being a step, but they didn't go far enough. Why? How?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, it really was too little too late. And remember that Congress, on an overwhelming bipartisan vote, passed legislation really requiring the president to impose sanctions on Russia because it interfered in the 2016 elections. They dragged that out for a long time. And, at the end of the day, they imposed sanctions on people who had already been sanctioned by President Obama or people who had already been named in the Mueller indictment. It was really a minimal statement. The president really never talked about Russian interference in our elections.

But I'm glad you mentioned the Deter Act, because what the Deter Act is focused on is not punishing Russia for past behavior, but making sure that Russia or other foreign governments don't interfere in the 2018 elections and beyond. And it sets up a very simple mechanism. It says 30 days after the election, the director of National Intelligence will make a determination, did Russia interfere in our elections. And if the answer was yes, it has automatic, very tough penalties, not just on a couple oligarchs, but on the Russian oil sector, on the banking sector. So if you're Putin and you're thinking about messing around in our 2018 elections, you will know there will be a very, very high cost if you get caught.

BERMAN: Senator, if I can, I want to talk elections for a moment because I'm not sure everyone knows this but you're sort of second job is electing Democrats to the Senate. You did it in the House as well. And there was a fascinating special election in Pennsylvania this week where Conor Lamb, the Democrat, seems poised to win. He's ahead. There may be a recount, who knows. It's likely he will win this race.

And he ran in a very interesting way. He didn't really run against President Trump. Not at all. He ran more against Nancy Pelosi, to be frank. What are the lessons that Democrats should take from his apparent victory?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, first of all, John, Trump ran against him. Trump went up to Pennsylvania two times and failed.

BERMAN: That's true. That's true, but Conor Lamb did. But Conor -- but that's different than saying that the Democrat in this case, Conor Lamb, who ran against the president, because he did. I mean he dodged any questions about the Democrat -- about the president.

VAN HOLLEN: Yes. What Conor Lamb did is what many of our members will do, which is said that, you know, where they disagree with the president, where the president is bad for their district or their state, they will fight him. But where the president is proposing something that's good for their state, they'll support him.

In the case of Pennsylvania, for example, he supported the president's tariff proposals. So he also focused on core economic issues, protecting Social Security, protecting Medicare, and pointed out that Paul Ryan and the Republican congressional budget actually goes after Medicare and cuts Medicaid, even as it provides these huge tax breaks for corporations.

And he did focus on those bread and butter issues. And as you know, the Republican effort to make this about the tax cuts ended up being a total failure. So I would say focus on those bread and butter issues. That's what happened down in Alabama where Doug Jones won the seat there, the Senate seat, as a Democrat, even though Trump went down there to the Alabama-Florida border and campaigned against him as well. BERMAN: But would you advise Democrats, though, running around the

country -- and you know that many Democrats, liberals, progressives are obsessed with the president, frankly. I don't think there's any other way to put it. Would you say, warn them, don't make your campaign all about Donald Trump?

VAN HOLLEN: Oh, look, every campaign is different. And that is, of course, true in House races. It's also true in Senate races.

I would say that in many of our Senate races, our candidates are taking this approach that Lamb did in Pennsylvania, which is, again, on core economic issues, that's what counts and that they are going to work with the president if the president supports issue important to their state, but they will fight them on these other big issues. And if you look at Tennessee, for example, there's a two-term governor, Phil Bredesen, running as a Democrat. He's been very focused on those economic issues and sort of common sense. That's what Doug Jones did. That's what others are doing.

[09:45:01] BERMAN: Senator, if I can, because there is breaking news this morning that has to do with Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who had alleged she had an affair with the president and was paid hush money to keep silent. This morning her lawyer says that she's been physically threatened to stay silent. At what point does this become something that you, as a senator, should be asking questions about?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think when it gets to the questions of, what was done by the president or his proxies with respect to trying silence Stormy Daniels and --

BERMAN: But we know -- but we know her lawyer -- we know -- I mean the one thing that's agreed on, her lawyer says, you know, he paid her $130,000 to stay quiet. So we know that happened.

VAN HOLLEN: That's right. And as you know, there may be a campaign finance issue involved in that, depending on where the monies came from.

But, look, I mean, as I understand it right now, you've got an individual who wants to be able to tell her story. It's kind of difficult for the president and his team to take the position that nothing happened and at the same time say they don't want her to tell her story, right? If nothing happened, why not allow her to tell her story?

So this is going to be an ongoing saga in an administration where there is chaos in the White House and throughout, you know, throughout the campaign. And I will say, just where we started here, it does create a -- I think a very sort of dangerous environment, especially with respect to our conduct of foreign policy. You see the president's comments regarding the Canadian prime minister, Trudeau, bragging about lying and then the next day claiming he wasn't lying. I mean it is just total chaos. And that is -- that is trouble for America in a troubled world.

BERMAN: All right, Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, thanks for being with us today, senator.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, the British say it is overwhelmingly likely that the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, personally called for the nerve agent attack on a foreign spy. We're live in London.


[0951:37] BERMAN: This morning, the British foreign minister says it is overwhelmingly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally gave the order to use a nerve agent to attack a former spy. British officials say it is the first time since World War II that a nerve agent was used on the streets of Europe.

Our correspondent Nic Robertson in London with all the details.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, John, what we're hearing from the British foreign secretary sounds very much like a diplomatic hand grenade. There have been criticism by the Russians that while Britain has fingered them as being responsible for the use of this chemical nerve agent in Salisbury, that they haven't provided the evidence so far to back that up. And what we're seeing at the moment is President Putin really sort of slowing this process down, getting Russia back in the driving seat.

Britain announced a couple of days ago throwing out 23 diplomat, sanctions coming from the United States. The expectation that it's going to do something. Now, of course, everyone has to wait and see what precisely that is.

So when you hear the foreign secretary today say that Putin is most likely responsible, it sounds like a diplomatic hand grenade. Here's what he said.


BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: Our quarrel is with Putin's Kremlin and with his decision. And we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War.


ROBERTSON: So what President Putin is being able to do at the moment is project a position of strength. All of this -- these kind of -- as the Kremlin has taken it, an insult -- a diplomatic insult coming from Boris Johnson. That's how the Kremlin reads it. Water off a duck's back to a degree at the moment, John.

BERMAN: All right, Nic Robertson for us in London. Nic, thank you very much.

We're also getting new details this morning about the U.S. military helicopter that crashed in western Iraq near the Syrian border.

Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us now with the very latest on that.

Barbara, what have you learned?


What we now know is all seven souls on board that helicopter in western Iraq did perish, they are deceased, when their helicopter crashed yesterday.

All the indications are, according to the U.S. military, it was not hostile fire. There was another helicopter flying alongside, as they always do. It reported seeing no signs of enemy action. An investigation underway to find out exactly what did happen.

And it is a reminder to everyone, of course, that even if you are not on a combat mission in a war zone, serving in the U.S. military is incredibly dangerous business, very tough, and the -- sadly the routine that we know is now underway. Teams are fanning out to the hometowns of these service members, where they live, notifying their next of kin. And after all of that takes place, in the coming hours, we will learn their names, we will learn what units they belong to.

But, still, seven souls, so important to recognize their service, their family's sacrifice to the nation, and we will learn exactly who they are and more about what they were doing in Iraq in the coming hours.


BERMAN: Very quickly, Barbara, just a few more seconds. You keep on mentioning these helicopters are flying in pairs. Is that because of any new particular danger in the region?

STARR: It's a great question and it's good to remind everybody that typically in the U.S. military aircraft do fly in pairs for the very reason that the other helicopter can keep its eyes out to see if there is enemy action, if there's action on the ground, if there's something that everybody needs to be aware of. It's pretty standard procedure in a combat zone and that is what was happening yesterday.

[09:55:17] They were not on a combat mission, but as we know, combat can come to them.


BERMAN: Indeed. Combat zone. A very important reminder that is where all these men and women are currently serving.

Barbara Starr, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

STARR: Sure.

BERMAN: We have our eyes on the White House this morning. Could there be new turnover today. Talk that the president's national security adviser could be on the way out. And, look, he might only be the beginning today.


[10:00:10] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BERMAN: All right, good morning, everyone.