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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Michael Cohen Attempts to Block Access to Seized Documents; FBI Seized Michael Cohen Recordings with Stormy Daniels' Former Attorney; Trump Advisers Conclude the Cohen Investigation a Greater Threat Than Mueller Probe; President Trump Claims Comey is "Untruthful Slime Ball"; NY Times: Trump's Advisers Conclude the Cohen Investigation is Greater than the Mueller Probe; President Trump Expected to Address the Nation on Syria Tonight. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired April 13, 2018 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[20:00:01] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. It has been a day that defies comparison, although frankly many days lately seem to defy comparison.

We learned that the president's personal attorney Michael Cohen is under criminal investigation. Has been for months. What's more, according to the "New York Times'" Maggie Haberman, presidential advisers consider it a bigger threat to Mr. Trump than Special Counsel Mueller's probe.

We learned that Cohen arranged another hush money payout. This one just last year to a Playboy model who became pregnant during an affair with a big Republican donor. We also saw Michael Cohen's attorney, that's the president's lawyer's lawyer, in case you're keeping track, tried to block the Justice Department from reading documents seized in raids on Cohen on Monday. Documents involving the president. Then we learned that the president phoned his embattled lawyer today even as his press secretary failed to answer this simplest question about whether Michael Cohen still is the president's lawyer. She says she didn't know.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Is the president still associated with Michael Cohen? Is he continued to consider Michael Cohen someone he holds in confidence?

SARAH HUCKEBEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I know that the president has worked with him as a personal attorney. Beyond that I don't have anything else to add.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So there's that tonight, and there's James Comey and is book, and all of it has left the president, and I quote, "pissed, flailing and upset." That's what a source close to the president told CNN's Gloria Borger. His anger says her source is, and I'm quoting here again, "beyond what anyone can imagine." Another said he is currently in lash out mode, which he did today at the fired FBI director and later at Andrew McCabe, the deputy director who was also let go. "James Comey is a proven leaker and liar," the president tweeted.

"Virtually everyone in Washington thought he should be fired for the terrible job he did until he was in fact fired. He leaked classified information for which he should be prosecuted. He lied to Congress under oath."

The president goes on to say, "He is a weak and untruthful slime ball who was as time has proven a terrible director of the FBI. His handling of the crooked Hillary Clinton case and the events surrounding it will go down as one of the worst botched job of history. It was my great honor to fire James Comey."

Then later the president of the United States tweeted this about Andrew McCabe after CNN obtained the Justice Department inspector general's report criticizing McCabe for a lack of candor concerning the Clinton Foundation investigation, which is a serious offense at the FBI.

Here was the president's take, quote, "DOJ just issued the McCabe report which is a total disaster. He lied, lied, lied. McCabe was totally controlled by Comey. McCabe is Comey. No collusion. All made up by this den of thieves and low lives."

Thieves and low lives. Now "Keeping Them Honest," we don't know if he was talking about McCabe and Comey who aren't even actually involved in the probe, Robert Mueller, of course who is. Rod Rosenstein who oversees it. His attorney general who recused himself. Are they all thieves and low lives? We don't know. No answer on that yet today. We only know the White House denies the contemptuous things the president says about the people he himself appointed do not reflect any contempt for the justice system itself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So how would you characterize the president's attitude towards the rule of law and things that he says publicly about many of his top federal law enforcement officials?

SANDERS: The president has a great deal of respect for the rule of law. But the president does not have a lot of respect for people whose sole job is to carry out the law and they leak classified information and they lie to the American public about it. Charlie?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: His own attorney general, this is his own deputy attorney general, a special counsel, FBI, judges who make decisions that he doesn't like.

SANDERS: I'm sorry, I'm not -- what was the question?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Just a whole list of federal law enforcement officials that he has undermined. It's not just people who have proven to leak information.

SANDERS: The president hasn't undermined them in any capacity just because he calls out things that he finds to be problematic or concerning. I think that he should do that. (END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: The president has not undermined any of them just because he calls things out.

So by that logic, back during the campaign, Mr. Trump was showing a great deal of respect when he said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me just tell you, I have had horrible rulings. I've been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now this judge is of Mexican heritage, I'm building a wall. OK. I'm building a wall.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Does that sound to you like a great deal of respect? How about when he calls his own attorney general weak on Twitter or slams him down in public?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: But I am disappointed by the attorney general. He should not have recused himself almost immediately after he took office, and he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office. And I would have quite simply pick somebody else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So does that show a great deal of respect toward the rule of law? How about tweeting that the FBI's reputation is, quote, "in tatters worst in history"? Is it respectful of the rule of law to pardon Scooter Libby like he did today and before him Joe Arpaio without following the normal Justice Department procedures for doing so?

The president's words and actions speak to all of it. Respect for the rule of law or not, the day ends with so much we simply did not know about the case against Michael Cohen so much of it coming out in connection with court proceedings in Lower Manhattan today.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz joins us now with more.

[20:05:02] So Cohen's attorney attempting to block the Justice Department from reading the documents they seized during the raids. What's the latest on that?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Anderson. We had come to court here this morning, I've been here all morning and all day now expecting to hear arguments as to why the government, why the FBI agents and the U.S. attorneys should not view some of these materials that they obtained in these search warrants. Michael Cohen's attorney is arguing that some of this is privileged information. That this is information that he has through his work with certain clients, with other attorneys. And the judge really putting pressure on his attorney all day asking

who are these clients? Who are these attorneys who you're claiming you want privilege with? These clients who you have privilege with? And his attorneys so far, up until the end of the day, were not able to provide any of that information.

And then earlier this morning, while we're in court, we learned that the president, Donald Trump's attorney, newly hired attorneys that he just brought into the case on Wednesday, were also intervening in the case and they plan to argue that the communications that the FBI may have between the president and Michael Cohen should not be viewed by the FBI, by the U.S. government because it is privileged information and the only person who can waive that privilege is the president.

COOPER: So I understand the court filing helped -- today helps to explain the urgency of the raids in the government's opinion.

PROKUPECZ: Yes, some significant information, Anderson, in these court filings. They were released late this afternoon. And what it really showed is what the government had been doing as it relates to Michael Cohen. It reveals that a grand jury has been empanelled here in Manhattan, that is hearing evidence. They also revealed that they had concerns. They would not say what those concerns were, they would not go into detail about it.

In fact in the court documents they redacted it but they said that they have information indicating that had they not done these search warrants, that information, the information that they were seeking would have been deleted, destroyed, and so therefore they needed to move in and do these search warrants at his home -- at this home, his hotel, his office, also they searched bank boxes, his electronic devices which as we've been reporting, may have some recordings on them.

All of that, they say, could have been destroyed and therefore they needed to be moved -- they needed to move quickly in this case.

COOPER: Is Michael Cohen being cooperative?

PROKUPECZ: No. I understand the court documents here say that he has not been cooperative. In fact they used that as one of the reasons why they needed to move so quickly in the case. There is a part in their court document that says the special counsel had -- Robert Mueller's team had made some requests of him for communications regarding the Trump Organization and, though Michael Cohen has given some indication that he was trying to be cooperative, they say he wasn't and therefore did not provide the information that the special counsel needed -- Anderson.

COOPER: And the judge ordered Michael Cohen to appear in court on Monday. This afternoon, and we're showing the video right now, he was basically hanging out with, I guess, his friends in a sidewalk cafe, I think, outside a hotel. It looks like some of them are even smoking cigars.

PROKUPECZ: Yes. And this is remarkable. Look, I've spent a day in court here. The judge was extremely frustrated with the attorneys, Michael Cohen's attorneys, and that she felt that he was not either cooperating with them or was not providing them enough information.

The key here is that the judge needs to know who he claims his clients are. And then you go and you this video when the judge kept all day adjourning, she gave him hours and hours of adjournments to get their acts together, his attorneys, Michael Cohen's attorneys, and at the end of the day she was extremely frustrated to the point where she ordered -- she had ordered Michael Cohen to appear here on Monday.

And we've also learned, this is going to be pretty interesting, you know, we know Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' attorney, was here all day, he says he may bring Stormy Daniels here on Monday as well so we may have them all together in this room, in this courthouse here on Monday for the first time.

COOPER: Wow. Shimon Prokupecz, appreciate the update.

Let's go now to CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger who has some new information about what federal investigators actually seized earlier this week from Michael Cohen.

So what have you learned, Gloria?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right, Anderson. CNN has learned tonight that when the FBI raided Michael Cohen's office, his apartment and his hotel room, they seized audio recordings between Cohen and Keith Davidson. And you might remember, Keith Davidson was Stormy Daniels' and Karen McDougal's first lawyer who negotiated their hush money and, as you know, he no longer represents either one of them.

Now the recordings could prove really valuable to the government's investigation of Cohen who of course is under scrutiny for his role in trying to keep these alleged affairs secret before the presidential election, and the warrant for that search last week specifically mentioned these women.

[20:10:04] Now Cohen, as you know, has admitted no wrongdoing. The president has denied any of these affairs. And I should also add that we do not know how many of these calls were recorded or what the conversation specifically contained but I can guarantee you they're going to be of a great deal of interest to law enforcement.

COOPER: So -- yes, I mean, let's talk about how it could be useful to investigators. I mean, obviously getting e-mails is one thing but actual phone conversations, I mean, that's an extraordinary level of detail.

BORGER: Well, it is. It is an extraordinary level of detail. I mean, you know, they don't have to guess about who said what to whom when. And I mean, this is speculation, but let's say they were talking about well, we've got to get this done quickly, because the election -- you know, the election is approaching. How much money does she want? Why does she want this? Where is the money coming from? You know, these are all questions Michael Cohen has said that he paid

this out of his personal account. Did they talk about how that would work? I mean, you know, we should also tell you that Sarah Sidner, our colleague, spoke with a spokesman for Keith Davidson today and he said he never consented, absolutely never consented to any recordings, and that he's willing to pursue his legal rights regarding these phone conversations because, you know, depending on which state you're in, recording could be illegal. Presumably he was in California and Cohen was in New York, but we really don't know.

COOPER: So just lastly, what more are you learning about the president's call with Michael Cohen today? Because I mean --

BORGER: Yes.

COOPER: I mean, I'm not a lawyer. That just doesn't seem like a good idea.

BORGER: Me neither. No. It does not seem like a good idea. The president saying anything to Michael Cohen isn't a good idea. Even when he said, ask Michael Cohen or Michael Cohen is my attorney. That turned out not to be a good idea as we saw in court today.

I think -- I was told the president called him. I have to assume that it was a pleasant call of commiseration but our sources were very -- just, you know, didn't want to discuss the conversation that the president had with Cohen but we know, Anderson, and you know this, they have a long standing relationship. Michael Cohen has worked for him since 2006. He is the ultimate loyalist to the president. The president knows him. Had him to Mar-a-Lago a couple of weeks ago publicly. So I would presume that there was sort of some level of how are you doing.

COOPER: Yes. Also, I mean, just we should point out publicly he is the ultimate loyalist, we have no idea what's going to happen if Michael Cohen is charged with crimes.

BORGER: Yes.

COOPER: And if they try to get him to flip. I mean, we'll see how -- you know, how deep that loyalty goes.

BORGER: Well, and if you were to be cynical, you'd say, you know, that's why the president has taken him under his wings so closely. We'll see.

COOPER: Gloria, fascinating. Thanks very much.

More now on the notion that what unfolded this week could in the end do more damage to the president than anything Special Counsel Mueller is looking into. According to new reporting in the "New York Times" that's precisely what the president's advisers have concluded.

Political analyst Maggie Haberman is with us. She is so -- as she is so often on the byline in her capacity as White House correspondent for the "New York Times." She joins us now by phone. So, just talk a little bit about why the president's advisers seem --

or more concerned with the Cohen investigation. What's happening in the New York state than they are about at this point the special counsel's investigation?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. Anderson, thanks for having me. You know, as we know, they have repeatedly said that Mueller's original charge is possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. They argue that so far they haven't showed up and we don't actually know that, and it is worth nothing that a number of campaign officials have pleaded guilty, although primarily on charges related to lying to investigators.

In this instance, the main thing that is concerning Trump's lawyers is they don't know what was taken and they're not certain they're going to know what was taken. They have not been able to discern exactly what files went away and what now -- I believe that Michael Cohen's files on a lot of issues, I mean, among them, this Karen McDougal case, among them conversations with Keith Davidson, recordings I think, but also possibly files. Those are there.

But in terms of things that relate to the president and Michael Cohen, the president's lawyers don't know what exist and when you don't know what exists, the world of possibilities is pretty vast.

COOPER: Yes.

HABERMAN: But also that this is a search warrant that was lengthy and it went into a lot of different areas. The Southern District of New York is looking at a bunch of things.

COOPER: Well, I mean, that's one of the -- to the point you just made about they don't know what exists, that's what's so fascinating about this because it's not just that they don't know what Michael Cohen had or had kept and was taken. They don't -- they probably, I'm guessing, but it sounds like based on your reporting, his -- the president's own lawyers don't know what the president has done with Michael Cohen over the last 10 or however many years, 12 years.

HABERMAN: So as we know, you know, as we reported earlier today, there was this phone call between the president and Michael Cohen.

[20:15:07] My understanding is the president's lawyers had urged him not to make that kind of a call. He made it anyway. You know, we don't know details about what was said. But lawyers are always going to be concerned about that kind of a call. Both of them, both Michael Cohen and the president, are not always forthcoming with the people who are working for them in terms of what is there, we said has been the concern among Trump lawyers.

And so right now, you are kind of flying blind. I mean, they really don't exactly know what they are looking at and they're not going to know until more information comes out from prosecutors. That is a scary proposition if you are a lawyer even if it all turns out that there is nothing the president and his lawyer correctly said, has denied any wrongdoing. Michael Cohen has not admitted any wrongdoing. But not knowing what is there is scary for an attorney.

COOPER: It's also hard to overstate just how far-reaching Cohen's involvement with the president is. I mean, he's been more than just a regular attorney. I mean, he at one point, you know, he sent out a tweet with #raydonovan. He's called himself the fix-it man. His friend David Schwartz has called him the fixer.

HABERMAN: Yes.

COOPER: There is no telling what -- how deep he, I mean, what he has done.

HABERMAN: Right. I mean, that was an argument the prosecutors used in court today to be clear. Michael Cohen has long identified himself as the president's personal lawyer. The president described him that way as well last year and then again on Air Force One recently. The prosecutors are arguing that there was very little lawyering involved here and so therefore the files should be more available.

Michael Cohen was very good at -- excuse me -- on shooting down threats real and perceived for the president, and he was so good at it that he was able to sort of figure out what could be a problem at some point. That's what the concern here.

COOPER: This is also a man who has said that he would take a bullet for his client. I mean, a lot of people say that and then, you know, obviously when they're facing severe legal jeopardy, you know, it's a different situation entirely. It's certainly going to be interesting to see just how loyal Cohen actually is to the president and how loyal the president actually is to Cohen.

HABERMAN: Look, I mean, I -- this is something that I have thought a lot about today and talked to a bunch of people about. You know, the president loves to talk about what a loyal person he is. In fact loyalty is a pretty one-way street with him historically. Those people that worked for him would privately say that, some has said it publicly. Sam Nunberg comes to mind about how he said it publicly.

And in terms of Cohen's loyalty, he has been extremely loyal. It's a lot of loyalty to have somebody to give up their life for you as I understand he has said he would take a bullet for the guy, but I think that when push comes to shove, to your point earlier on the show, we don't know whether there would be charges filed against him. We don't know what kind of pressure prosecutors are going to apply but we have to assume it's going to be pretty firm. Most people usually value their own life more than someone else's unless you're in the Secret Service.

COOPER: Also, it appears that the government has actually had access to Michael Cohen's e-mails for some time.

HABERMAN: Yes, apparently they have had -- secretly had access to a bunch of e-mails. I'm not entirely sure on how, but they are in possession of a trove of materials. You know, among the things that prosecutors asked about in the -- excuse me, that investigators asked in that search warrant was specific communications between, they named Hope Hicks and Corey Lewandowski, in particular. They spokeswoman for the campaign at the time then the comms director in the White House, and Corey Lewandowski, the original campaign manager.

It's worth remembering that for a time before the president actually declared his candidacy, it was really just Michael Cohen, Sam Nunberg, Roger Stone, sort of on the outside, Corey Lewandowski and Hope Hicks, and that was about it.

COOPER: Yes.

HABERMAN: So they are clearly going back to the very beginning to look for stuff.

COOPER: It's just incredible.

Maggie Haberman, appreciate the reporting. Thank you.

Coming up next, our distinguished legal panel, Professor Alan Dershowitz, Ambassador Norm Eisen, and later we'll asked two former White House insiders if they have ever seen anything like what we have seen from this White House just this week alone.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:22:45] COOPER: Whether it's the president's rage tweeting of James Comey and Andrew McCabe, or the explosive new twist in the Michael Cohen story, or especially some presidential actions that might have brought even more legal jeopardy for Cohen, it's a pretty good reason for talking to our next two guests.

Norm Eisen, President Obama's ethics adviser and former ambassador at the Czech Republic, and his Harvard Law professor, Alan Dershowitz. Professor Dershowitz is both the recent author of "Trumped Up" and a recent guest at the White House.

Mr. Dershowitz, this reporting that the president's advisers have concluded that what's happening in New York, the Cohen investigation, actually is of greater and more imminent threat to the president than the Mueller investigation. Do you agree with that?

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: There's no doubt about that. I said that months ago. I think he's at very slight risk if they were to go after him on constitutionally protected grounds, for example firing Comey, or on other political grounds like collusion which isn't a crime. His real vulnerability has always been what he did before being president, whether it'd be business dealings or alleged dealings with other women.

So I do think that the investigation in the Southern District is far, far more dangerous, also means he is not going to fire Mueller because that's not going to do him any good. He can't go around firing U.S. attorney of the Southern District also.

COOPER: Well, also, Ambassador Eisen, I was talking to somebody the other day who was saying one of the things that Mueller has done is he's actually kind of block chained out the information. He sent out files to New York and so even if his investigation was shut down or his files seized, the information is -- it's decentralized. It's in other areas for New York investigators to pursue.

NORM EISEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS CZAR FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's right, Anderson. This is not Bob Mueller's first rodeo. I have worked with him on cases and I've been on the other side of the table, and he is a tough and smart, fair but very tough adversary. So he has protected his investigation.

I do agree with Alan that this is a great danger but for the following reason. If Michael Cohen flips, he knows all the secrets. He knows all the dirt. They've got him it appears on strong evidence of possible criminal activity. If he flips on the president, this may open up a wide universe of illegal conduct. So it is a new stage in the unfolding matter.

[20:25:07] COOPER: And Professor Dershowitz, I think there are a lot of people who don't realize that the president can pardon somebody on a federal crime but if -- on a state level a pardon doesn't matter.

DERSHOWITZ: Oh no, of course not. If the attorney general of New York were to file criminal charges, that could not be subject to a pardon. If the president does pardon, he will be acting within his constitutional authority regardless of what his intent may be. But I doubt that he is going to go down that line.

COOPER: If you were Michael Cohen and you have -- you are a self- described fixer, Mr. Fit-it Man, as he called himself, and you for 10 years have been doing this and you claimed that you and his friends have been claiming on television that there was so much for him to fix, that he had wide latitude to operate on his own. The president himself last week said, well, listen, I knew nothing about this payment to Stormy Daniels.

Does that mean that there is no attorney-client privilege?

DERSHOWITZ: Oh no.

COOPER: Because that's what it seems like the government is arguing.

DERSHOWITZ: Yes. But it's a false argument because even if Cohen discussed the matter not with President Trump but with other members of Trump's defense team or people who work with him, paralegals, all of those are covered by the lawyer-client privilege. If he was performing a legal function. That's the key issue.

Now being a fixer sounds like it's not legal. But if what you're doing is making a deal for the president, your discussions with the president are covered. But your discussions with people who are outside, who you're making the deal with are not covered.

My point, though, is that these decisions shouldn't be made, what to read and what not to read, by prosecutors, FBI agents, even if they call themselves a taint team, it should be made by a judge whose objective and neutral and won't leak. COOPER: Ambassador Eisen, the fact that the president and Michael

Cohen spoke on the phone today, do you think it's a good idea for the president to be communicating directly with Michael Cohen at this stage?

EISEN: No, Anderson. One of the things I learned when I worked for Alan Dershowitz is you don't let your criminal clients talk to the other members of the possible conspiracy or criminal activity. When my client would come to court for a pretrial hearing, I'd put an associate next to him to make sure the other defendants didn't talk to him. And that's where Alan is wrong, this is not just about past conduct.

The president has dragged it into the present by repeatedly talking to Cohen. This isn't the first conversation. But doing it today when he offered a pardon to somebody else sending a signal that he is prepared to use pardons, it's very troubling.

And Anderson, I have to disagree with my old professor and my old friend on another account. This is part of a pattern of what appears to be raises serious question of obstruction of justice. The Comey firing, the witness contacts before and after that. Now talking to Cohen today, on the day when they're having this hearing in New York, it doesn't look right and the president is exposing himself deeper and deeper with every one of these acts.

DERSHOWITZ: My former student just proves my point. He's prepared to criminalize anything that Trump does. Making the call to a lawyer. The call might have just been, hey, Michael, you know, I'm on your side, I'm with you, you've done so much for me over the years, be strong.

We don't know anything beyond that. And the idea that we're creating an obstruction of justice out of that is what worries every civil libertarian. Because if you give a smart lawyer like Norm Eisen material like this, he can weave something, create something that the law should not be used to do.

COOPER: Ambassador Eisen, the judge today took issued with the fact that Michael Cohen wasn't in court, suggested to his attorney that he'd be there for the 4:00 p.m. hearing. I just want to play what Michael Cohen was doing right around 4:00. And let me just say it wasn't arriving at the courthouse. Take a look.

So he's sitting outside his hotel, gripping and grinning with a group of guys smoking cigars for the cameras. Is that smart?

EISEN: Anderson, I don't know what's happened to our society that he's not wearing a necktie.

(LAUGHTER)

EISEN: It's not the close of business yet on Friday. In addition to that, no, what you're seeing is a contempt for the process. Just like Alan Dershowitz would have never allowed me to let one of our clients call another client. DERSHOWITZ: Right.

EISEN: When there's a criminal investigation, call another individual, never. He would have had Michael Cohen there in a sober blue suit with a necktie in the courtroom.

DERSHOWITZ: Right.

EISEN: These people, events both in their legal conduct and in their demeanor contempt for the law. It is --

DERSHOWITZ: It looks like a scene out of "Billions."

EISEN: He should not be --

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Yes.

DERSHOWITZ: It really looks like a scene on television.

COOPER: Or like -- or like a B-level "Good Fellas."

DERSHOWITZ: Yes. Yes.

COOPER: I mean, it's just --

DERSHOWITZ: You see that's another problem. When Comey goes around calling the president of the United States a mob leader, it again proves my point. He is using the term mob leader in such a metaphorical way.

COOPER: Professor Dershowitz, Ambassador Eisen, thank you.

EISEN: Thanks, Anderson.

DERSHOWITZ: Thank you.

COOPER: Coming up, from the White House press briefing room and from the Presidents Twitter finger, it's an all out war on former FBI Director James Comey and the latest from the White House next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: The President of the United States calls the former director of the FBI a "slime ball." Former director says he doesn't know whether the President was, "with prostitute paying on each other." And yes, this is real life and this is verbal war, an all-out verbal war in James Comey, by the President and the White House.

Our Jim Acosta joins us now. I mean, Jim it's certainly a full core press from the White House on this book right now?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Anderson, we saw that all day long today not only with the President's tweets but obviously with what Sarah Sanders said during the briefing earlier today. She essentially ripped into the former FBI Director James Comey for a good 30 or 40 minutes and the bulk of the questions during the briefing today was about that.

Now, we do understand from our sources, my colleagues, Gloria Borger talked to folks, I've talked to folks over here. And we are all getting essentially the same message and that is that the President is just deeply, deeply upset about these allegations in the Comey book. And it sort of fits into the same box, if you will, that they really feel, Robert Mueller is driving at. That Rod Rosenstein is driving out. That this is really less about the Russia investigation, it is less about Russia collusion with the Trump campaign and it's more about trying to unearth as many embarrassing anecdotes as you can about the President.

Now, I asked Sarah during the briefing and if you saw this earlier today, you know, Sarah Sander said right before the 2016 election, November 3rd, 2016, she said, "If you are attacking FBI agents you are losing." And she essentially defended that comment by saying, "Well, this has to do with Jim Comey." They feel that he is a liar and a leaker.

But, Anderson, at the same time we should point out the very same day that they're accusing Jim Comey of being a liar and a leaker. The President issued a full pardon to Scooter Libby, the vice president's former Chief of Staff during the Bush administration to change former Chief of Staff.

Of course, Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury, of lying to Federal investigators about the leaking about the leaking of the identity of a former CIA agent, Valerie Plame when there was all that discussion about weapons of mass destruction during that run off to the Iraq war. And obviously that's a level of hypocrisy that a lot of Americans are going to have a problem with. But no question about. This was unrelenting all day long.

COOPER: But on the other thing as I mentioned, it is not like this book is the only challenge the White House is trying to deal with right now. I mean, there's far more serious things, frankly. The Cohen investigation, the Mueller investigation, and possibly military action in Syria.

[20:35:06] ACOSTA: That's right. And just to pull those apart one by one, obviously they feel that the raid on Michael Cohen's office, his hotel room and so on, they feel that that again is sort of, you know, dumpster diving for an indictment. They feel that that is another attempt by the Justice Department to try to embarrass the President. It certainly has gotten under the President's skin. You can see that in the tweets and things that have been said all week long. The Mueller investigation, obviously, that they are starting to feel like that is -- that goes into the same category.

I will tell you Anderson, talking to sources today in all week long there is some push back that this is all the President's obsessed with. And we do know that the President has been meeting with military and national security advisers all day long and all week long. And I just got finished talking with a source and a lot of these conversations behind the scenes who insists that the President has been deeply focused on these military options for striking Syria in response of the suspected chemical weapons attack.

And of course we heard the Sarah Sanders say in the briefing earlier today really just sort of brushing off this ridiculous claim from the Russians that the British were somehow behind what happened in Syria. The U.S. is pretty firmly with France and the U.K. at this point that obviously Bashar al-Assad forces were behind that attack. Anderson.

COOPER: Jim Acosta, thanks very much from the White House.

Joining me tonight with a lot of ground to cover, CNN Senior Political Commentator, David Axelrod and Senior Political Analyst, David Gergen.

David Axelrod, you compared this moment where into the winning days of Watergate. I'm not sure Nixon ever publicly referred to his former FBI director as a "slime ball." I have that in all the tapes. And to the upper echelons to the FBI is a den of thieves and low lives.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Well, I think that this is very, very serious, clearly, just generally as a rule when the guy who is publicly identified as your fixer, is now under criminal investigation and all of his records and tapes have been seized, that's a very bad day. And so clearly, he has got something to worry about.

I think the thing that we certain are glossing over here is that, as all of these things are going on the President of the United States is contemplating, launching a major attack on another country. And you know, so you have to wonder about how all of this is going down.

David, it's been awhile, this happen awhile, neither of us has experience anything quite like this where you don't know what's going to happen moment to moment in terms of all of these legal actions. And you don't know what the principal is going to do because the President of the United States could fire someone at any given moment, tweet something at any given moment. And my strong suspicion is that the people around him in the White House don't have a clue about any of it.

COOPER: Well, that's what so interesting there, Gergen, I mean, yes, the people around the President don't know what the President has done or hasn't done or what he has said to other people. Nobody seems to know exactly what Michael Cohen has perhaps done. And there's got to be concerned about people around the President in the White House not wanted to get to mess in this because they don't want to end up in the criminal investigation.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: There are similarities to Watergate in that regard, that is the taping system was only known to two or three people and Richard Nixon White House and all of the rest have completely in the dark and we have no idea what was being said.

COOPER: You never knew that there was a taping system going? GERGEN: No. It was a big bombshell when it came out. And, you know, half of the staff thought this is it, it's done for. And half of it thought this would exonerate him. And it turns out that if you were scenic you were right. But nonetheless, I must say I think David Axelrod is absolutely right about, if we have this much uncertainty, it's hard to govern.

COOPER: And David, I mean, the White House seems to be firing from every angle and James Comey right now. The President tweeting Kellyanne Conway is making media around. Sarah Sanders issuing barb from the podium, all men of surrogates obviously on cable news. Do you think that's a wise strategy? I mean, you know, I guess some would argue, David Axelrod, that it's giving Comey's book more oxygen although. Although, it does fit the narrative that the President has been trying to do for a long time which is erode confidence in the FBI, erode confidence to the Department of Justice so that whatever Mueller comes up with he can just say, well look, this is this tainted organization.

AXELROD: Yes. You know, I agree with that. I have respect for Jim Comey as a public servant. He devoted his life to this country. I think he served the country with integrity. But he also tends to see himself as the central character in an ongoing morality play as the protagonist.

And, you know, I don't think -- I understand he is doing great work for his book, he's going to sell a lot of books here. He's going to get a lot of attention. He is venting a lot of his outrage. And he is entitled to do that.

But he is not helping the process here at all. I think by injecting himself here as he is injecting himself. And by the way by making references to the President's hands and his hair and all of that. I think he just adds to the circus. And we have enough circus right now. What we need is a sobriety.

[20:40:14] COOPER: David Gergen, do you agree with that?

GERGEN: David Axelrod is usually right on this. I have some disagreement. I think that he -- Comey is a professional, and a gentleman and I think he's extraordinarily offended by what he is seeing. And I think the argument that what we're getting with is that mob role is taking the conversation to a different level in a different place. And I do think, yes, he sometimes grand stands too much and that's been Trump's criticism among others, but I do think we also have to -- somebody here has got to call it for what it is and try to assert what is this we're looking at.

COOPER: And senator that's actually --

GERGEN: What I think he's trying to do --

COOPER: -- and somebody who has been in the room --

GERGEN: Yes. COOPER: -- who've been in the room with him, seeing it from the inside. It's one thing -- you know, you have cable news, one that's saying this night after that?

GERGEN: Right. And then who --

AXELROD: Yes.

GERGEN: -- personally -- I'm sorry David, I don't mean to interrupt.

AXELROD: No. No. But look David I have -- he provides important observations, he'd provided them to a congressional committee. But there is an ongoing investigation, there's a probe going on. This is obviously a fraught time in which our whole justice system is on tinder hooks here because of the campaign that's being waged against it by the President and his allies.

And I think that Comey unwittingly abets that by leaping in here now. He could have written this and released this book at any time. This was dictated by a publisher who wanted to maximize sales not by a public servant who wants to make sure that this investigation ends in the right way. And so, you know, I don't -- I have -- I'm not questioning his core here. But I am questioning his timing.

COOPER: David Axelrod, David Gergen thanks.

Well, with more breaking news tonight about former FBI Director Andrew McCabe who was fired right before his plan retirement, tonight CNN has learned that McCabe is considering filing civil lawsuits against the President and senior administration officials. His counsel says they have been actively considering this for sometime. And the lawsuits would allege wrongful termination, defamation, and constitutional violations.

In a statement that counsel says, "this is just the beginning."

Coming up, Michael Cohen, the fixer, tonight CNN is learning new details about 1.6 million payment plan to a former playboy model who allegedly had an affair with a Republican fundraiser get pregnant and had an abortion. So the Michael Cohen, the latest next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:45:21] COOPER: We've just learned the President is expected to address the nation tonight about Syria. He we will, of course, brings you that when it happens. I want to Jim Acosta who's standing by at the White House.

ACOSTA: Yes.

COOPER: Jim, what have you learned?

ACOSTA: Yes. Anderson, just some quick details on this, we do expect the President to speak momentarily on the decision that has apparently been made about retaliating against the Syrians for that suspected chemical weapons attack. We keep saying suspected chemical weapons attack, but we do now believe that the U.S. government has made this conclusion along with its partners, the U.K. and France that Bashar Al-Assad versus we're behind that chemical weapons attack. That of course started this conversation, I talked to senior administration official earlier today who said and I think others here at CNN have been reported this, that the President has been pushing for some tougher responses, some tougher actions to take against the Syrians all week long.

That conversation continued into today. The President was meeting with his stop military and national security advisers. And according to a source I talked to earlier today, there was resolution on that discussion. There were some back and forth over that subject and according to some of my colleagues here at the White House Jeff Zeleny, Kevin Liptak, and other, the President has apparently made the decision to strike at Syria at some point and apparently the President is going to be speaking any moment now.

COOPER: Yes.

ACOSTA: Of course if the President is speaking Anderson that strike may have already happened.

COOPER: Jim --

ACOSTA: But we're waiting to find the latest --

COOPER: Yes. If you can stand by, CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon, of course, right now. Barbara what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Anderson right now, no official work from the Pentagon but we certainly do know what the parameters are of this issue right now. The question at hand once the President makes the decision to strike his, what will the target list be? How robust the target list will they go after?

Will it simply be airfield helicopters? Will they go after the chemical stocks? Those are difficult to bomb. You know, risks civilian casualties or will they go further? Will they go after Bashar al-Assad commanding control in intelligence structure that governs, that oversees his chemical core? That is one of the key issues right now.

COOPER: Yes.

STARR: The big issue that Secretary Mattis has been worried about for the last several days is the reaction from the Russians who are heavily committed inside Syria. They do not want to strike Russian targets. They want to make it clear to Moscow tonight they are not going over Russian personnel.

But what they don't know is what the Russian and in fact the Iranian reaction will be if there is a strike by the U.S. and the allies. How will the Russians react? Secretary Mattis has been extremely concerned about escalation of this crisis. And that we do know has governed much of his thinking about this, Anderson. COOPER: Yes. Barbara, that's one of the things that CNN has been reporting today, that General Mattis and others were raising concerns about the scope of any possible retaliation.

STARR: Well, that's right because no matter what, you know, just for purposes of discussion. Let's say there are a series of air strikes. When they are over, Bashar al-Assad is still going to be inside in power then the Russians are still going to be inside Syria, Iranian proxies are still going to be inside Syria. It's not fundamentally going to change the military balance on the ground. It's not going to push Bashar al-Assad out of power.

The point that Secretary Mattis we believe has been making behind close door is this is a crisis that still very much requires an international diplomatic solution to get Assad out of power and it is the Russians that at the core play the key role in making that happen. Right now, there is a very adamant view at the defense department and I think in the intelligence agencies, it's fair to say, that the Russians want Assad in power.

They like having him there. It gives them free reign inside Syria. It gives them valuable territory, it gives them a port on the Mediterranean that is important to the Russians for trade and commerce and their own perception of their security if you will. So they're very happy to have Assad there regardless of the atrocities he inflicts on his own people.

How do you incentivize the Russians to get him Assad out? Bombs, missiles are not going to do it. But there's very much appealing after last week's what appears by all accounts to be a terrible chemical attack against men, women and children the international community cannot leave it unanswered. And that the Russians are complicit, they are Assad's sponsors, they had to have known what he was up to.

[20:50:07] COOPER: I want to also bring in our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto who's joining us as well as we are waiting President Trump to address the nation tonight on Syria.

Jim, unclear exactly what source of response might be happening.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The debate this week has been not whether to attack in response to this chemical weapons attack or what is believed to be a chemical weapons attack, but how much to respond, right.

The President wanting a sustained attack that position apparently supported by his new National Security Adviser John Bolton as well as well as Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador who left the White House just a couple of hours ago after a meeting with the National Security Council and Mattis, not so much on the other side, but counsel in cushion as Barbara noted there, Syria does not just involve Syrian forces today. It involves Russian forces, Iranian forces. And a danger that Mattis has express to the President of escalation. The possibility of killing Russian forces on the ground there which then could bring escalation. That's a risk that did not exist a couple of years ago in Syria, but does exist today. That debate playing out the administration.

The question is how far do they go? Did the President listen to that council? Is the strike tempered by that concerned about escalation and the risk of conflict with Russian or Iranian forces, that's the question here?

But, the bigger picture here as well, Anderson, is this, whatever happens tonight, does it change the fundamental situation on the ground there? Russia, Syria, Iran, the U.S. has made very clear do them not just on the last year but over the last several years. It does not want a sustained military involvement in this conflict. This is primarily about message sending about the use of chemical weapons. It's an important message to send and one of the U.S., this administration shares with this European allies that it must be made clear that there are cause to using this horrible weapons on the ground there and they want to express that.

COOPER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Is it going to change Russia out of their new seaport in the eastern Mediterranean? No. Is it going to change Iranian support for the Assad regime? No. Is it going to change Iranian support? No. And also Iran's risk and danger that opposes to Israel as a result of its --

COOPER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: -- position on the ground in Syria? No. Those things will not change regardless of what kind of attack you see tonight.

COOPER: All right, Jim, I also want to bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh who is in Northern Syria for us tonight.

Nick, explain where you are and what you're hearing?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolute silence. Dead of night here, Anderson, just coming out about 4:00 in the morning. I'm in Northern Syria. That is the area held by the Syrian Kurds who back by United States to fight ISIS. But as the U.S. continue presence there up 2000 troops, but I'm now very much in the spotlight. If we do indeed see some kind of military action accompany Donald Trump speak in the coming minutes ahead.

Now, just to remind you here how volatile the situation already is in February itself. A group of Syrian regime militia moved towards the territory where I'm standing held by Syrian Kurds seems trying to take an oil filled off those Syrian Kurds.

Now, in the midst in some they perhaps coordinating that move where Russian mercenaries from supposedly the Vokno (ph) private mercenary group is being alleged. They ended up firing upon a U.S. position. That was known to exist here and that lead U.S. Special Forces who I was with at that time to launch a ferocious counter attack using AC- 130 gunships remark on (INAUDIBLE) routine over a sustained period of time that killed dozens potentially of Russian mercenaries, 200 in fact, if you listen to Mike Pompeo's recent testimony. He gave just couple of days ago on the Hill.

Throughout that fight, the deconfliction line between the U.S. and the Russians and the Syrian Kurds was all open. They were talking to each other we were told. Yet, still, the fact that they were Russian mercenaries in the mix there was not declared.

So there's a lot of lack of transparency on the battlefield here, we do start seeing things happening tonight which we'll have many concerns. I have to point out other reporting you've heard too suggest a lot of measures taken by the U.S. to ensure the Russians they are not the target of this as Jim was pointing out. You know, six years of covering this, the one thing you can certainly say about the U.S. policy under Obama and Trump is they don't want to own this conflict, but they will going to try and change it.

We got a whiff from Rex Tillerson when he was secretary of state. They possibly had a longer term vision that involves Assad living power, Iran's influence being check, et cetera, et cetera. He is out, I mean, haven't heard a whiff about longer strategist since then. It remains to be seem what John Bolton and Mike Pompeo I think as they take up their respective seats.

[20:55:01] But it's pretty clear much of this is going to be about sending the message about chemical weapons not being acceptable in the modern world. Nikki Haley when she spoke was quite clear that 50 separate instances being counted by the United States chemical weapons used by the regime. So, in their mind, this is sort of a long due reckoning. Anderson?

COOPER: Nick, just in terms of Russian forces, you talked about Russian mercenaries, are there regular army, regular military, Russian forces on the ground there? If so where and also just talk a little if you can about Iranian forces and their role.

WALSH: Yes. They are absolutely regular Russian forces. No clarity as to the usual basis but there are many of them on Damascus, the airfield oversee will have some ground support too. They're being spotted in various front lines assisting the Syrian regime.

You got to remember, over the last six years, what used to be known as the Syrian-Arab army and still is, is being whittled away down. Extraordinary loses, they have suffered to the point where back when we have the first instance of potential actions of the chemical weapons, there were concerns frankly that actually a heavy strike could frankly have taken out much of the Syrian military and let the rebels take hold of key cities.

They should managed to rebuild themselves through Iranian militia, through the Iranian Republican guards coming in and providing kind of command and control or advise and assist missions here. They were then backed up by the Russian forces turning up too. They have been in last reports and citing of Afghan mercenaries ever dropped in to both stop their numbers as well. The Iranians can be seen across around Damascus, other areas to here.

You're going to really think about the moment we are in, in this particular war with a regime has -- have gone over the last years to pretty much to find the borders it certainly wants in the short to median term to maintain here. That slowed down some elements of conflict. The bombing game civilians still continued to be ghastly as Assad wishes to kick the rebels out of certain areas, but those are slowing in territory change. It has unclear what tonight may do to that. Anderson?

COOPER: Nick Paton Walsh.

Joining us as well is CNN Military and Diplomatic Analyst, Admiral John Kirby.

Admiral Kirby, just talk about if you can about the considerations of the undertaking just over the last -- well, really since this apparent chemical attack by the White House, by the military, all the different sort of angles that they have to analyze --

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes.

COOPER: -- about the repel effects of any kind of strike.

KIRBY: Yes, so the way I've been putting it all week is three things, targets, timing and team work. So on targets and you have already kind of heard from our reporters in the last few minutes. Targets are going to be a real consideration. It's going to be really interesting if they do strike. What are they heading and what message does they send about what they're heading and how are they preventing or trying to scope down any possible escalation with the Russians over the Iranians here.

I mean, you got to remember, the goal here is to bloody Assad's nose for use chemical weapons and not just send a message, but deter any future use of chemical weapons. So you want to hit something that sort of proportional and appropriate to that goal. But not so much and not so heavy that you really risk ramping it up with the Russians. And I think that's the tension that we've been hearing reported between the Pentagon and White House particularly the President were trying to be more aggressive.

Timing is also going to be key here that the President is going to be speaking to us in a couple of minutes. Probably means in my mind that he is already made -- not only made his decision but the things, you know, could actually already be happening. That might be why he is coming out to talk about what has occurred or what is occurring rather than just hey, I've made a decision. So we'll see what he has to say, but timing was also a bit thrown off by the fact that they telegraphed this thing a few days ago and sort of lost any element of real surprise there.

And then teamwork, you know, if they strike, we need to look and see who else participated in it. And it will be really interesting. We have been reporting all week that the Brits and the French, French might be involved in this. They do have assets in the region capable of stand off missile use crews, missile use both from the air and or from the sea. The Brits and the French, so we'll see if they participated and what that looked like.

COOPER: Admiral Kirby, I mean, if there is a concern about, you know, engaging directly with Russian forces, Iranian forces, is there a communication in the event there is a strike between the U.S. and Russian forces on --

KIRBY: Yes.

COOPER: -- you know, Russian leadership?

KIRBY: That is a great question, Anderson. As you remember last year, we found out after the fact that the Russians had been informed but not too far in advance, you know, because we don't want -- we wanted to make sure that they know that it was happening while, you know, just before and we're able to make sure that their personnel were out of the way and safe.

I don't know, I mean, we -- you know, we've have had some press reports that Chairman Dunford -- the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been in contact with his counterpart -- his Russian counter part. That might be a little bit of that coordination. We don't know. So it would be really interesting to see how much if any of a heads up that they gave to the Russians before this.

COOPER: I just want to let you know, that's the podium where the President is going to speak. We anticipate him speaking just in couple of minutes. We just got a two minute warning in fact, so within three minutes the President should be speaking address the nation on Syria.

[21:00:08] Jim Sciutto, as we wait to hear from the President should be now about a minute and 30 seconds or so, it is --