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Trump: Cohen Represented Me on this Crazy Stormy Daniels Deal; EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Capitol Hill Grilling on Ethics Scandal; Dr. Ronny Jackson Withdraws as VA Secretary Nominee. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 26, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

The breaking news, a truly remarkable morning in Washington. In a new interview, the president of the United States attacked his own Justice Department, attacked Democrats, attacked fired FBI Director James Comey. But the most interesting thing, this surprising twist, new statements about Michael Cohen, his friend, personal lawyer, and fixer who is at the heart right now of a criminal investigation, at the very same time the president seemed to admit one type of relationship with Michael Cohen that he hasn't before, while creating distance in another area.

Joining me now, from the White House, CNN's Kaitlan Collins. And I have to believe that Michael Cohen's lawyers and the president's lawyer is not happy about this interview this morning. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Certainly not, you would assume here, John. This is the first time that the president has acknowledged that Michael Cohen did represent him with the handling of this Stormy Daniels case, making some stunning comments during that freewheeling 30-minute long interview this morning. And I should note that when that interview began, the president sounded like he was in a good mood, he was talking about Melania Trump's birthday, but things quickly got out of hand as soon as he began talking about James Comey, the Justice Department and Michael Cohen. Here is what he said about his long-time attorney.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (via telephone): Michael is a businessman. He's got a business. He also practices law. I would say probably the big thing is his business. And they're looking at something having to do with his business. I have nothing to do with this business. I can tell you.

STEVE DOOCY, HOST, FOX AND FRIENDS: How much of your legal work was handled by Michael Cohen?

TRUMP: Well, as a percentage of my overall legal work, a tiny, tiny little fraction. But Michael would represent me and represent me on some things, he represents me, like, with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal. He represented me, and, you know, from what I see, he did absolutely nothing wrong. If there were no campaign funds going into this -

AINSLEY EARHARDT, HOST, FOX AND FRIENDS: Then why is he pleading the Fifth?

TRUMP: -- which would have been a problem. Because he's got other things. He's got businesses and from what I understand they're looking at his businesses, and I hope he's in great shape.


TRUMP: But he's got businesses, and his lawyers probably told him to do that. But I'm not involved, and I'm not involved.


COLLINS: So, John it was essentially a version of I hardly know the guy. The president speaking to put a lot of distance between himself and Michael Cohen. Somebody who has said he would take a bullet for President Trump, I should note. And of course, this is the closest we have come to a concession from President Trump acknowledging what had happened and what Stormy Daniels' allegations are here. Of course, this certainly complicates things for Michael Cohen and his attorneys and it's quite a change of what the president was saying about Michael Cohen, just a few weeks ago on Air Force One, when he told reporters this.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

TRUMP: No. What else?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Then why did Michael - why did Michael Cohen make it if there was no - if they're allegations?

TRUMP: You'll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my, attorney. You'll have to ask Michael.


COLLINS: So, certainly, downplaying the relationship today, John. Of course, now this raises a fresh new set of questions including that the president, as he said this morning, said that Michael Cohen only did a tiny bit of business for him. It raises questions about what information and what conversations they had is truly privileged, of course. We know that that is something that is going on right now after those FBI agents raided Michael Cohen's home, office and hotel and got a whole bunch of information. Now we're going to see how that complicates this and what the president said today. John?

BERMAN: All right. Kaitlan Collins at the White House. Kaitlan, thanks very much for explaining that. Joining me now, Eliana Johnson, CNN political analyst, and David Chalian, CNN political director. Friends, two sort of separate things here, all within that one piece of sound we just heard. On the one hand, a slight contradiction or movement on what Michael Cohen's relationship was vis-a-vis Stormy Daniels and the case there and the fact that he was representing the president on that case. On the other hand, David, and this is what I want to start with, the president basically saying, safe travels, Michael Cohen. Michael Cohen is mostly a business man, I have nothing to do with his business. Interesting.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. I mean, no doubt. He's trying to build a wall around him and his relationship and legal dealings with Michael Cohen and making it clear that he believes his business dealings which Donald Trump has absolutely nothing to do with are completely over here and that's what they're looking into. So, this taint on Michael Cohen should not rub off on me. Here is the issue that I'm really curious to see in either court today or in the days that come. If, indeed, Michael Cohen is just a tiny fraction of all of Trump's legal work, doesn't that play into prosecutor's hands here in the southern district case? That is what I'm curious to see. They're arguing that you can't just have some blanket attorney/client privilege over everything. And it seems to me that maybe Donald Trump may have just played into that argument a little bit.

[10:05:09] BERMAN: Yes. Opening a legal door there for sure. Now, Eliana, he opened a bit of a political door with a statement that seemed to be a throwaway statement. Sometimes you get that when he talks and rambles as he did right there on the phone for a long time, where he said Michael Cohen represented me in the crazy Stormy Daniels thing. Well, he really hasn't said that before, has he? And - in fact, we heard him on Air Force One saying he didn't know about the $130,000 payment and dodging the question. So, that was new.

ELIANA JOHNSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, exactly. It is ironic because he said it as he was trying to distance himself from Michael Cohen, but it was a slip up. It sounded to me like a slipup that really inexorably linked him to Cohen in the Stormy Daniels suit, which he was pretty disciplined about in his remarks for a month or two. But he really has begun to slip up about it, and, you know, in this freewheeling half hour "Fox and Friends" interview, I guarantee you that's likely to be quoted in court filings and you already had Stormy Daniels' lawyer this morning, Michael Avenatti, come out on Twitter and say thank you very much, Mr. President, for doing that interview. So, I think this is likely to be a quote that comes back to haunt this president.

BERMAN: In fact, Eliana -- David, stand by because (INAUDIBLE) is with me right now. Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels, who made that statement that Eliana just mentioned, is here with me now. Michael, what did you make of the president's comments, he said clearly in that interview with Fox News this morning, Michael Cohen, he represented me in the crazy Stormy Daniels thing.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' ATTORNEY: Well, John, this case gets better every day, every hour, and one of the reasons why it gets better is that they step in to every trap we lay. Fox and Friends, I want to thank "Fox and Friends" for having the president on this morning to talk about our case and Michael Cohen. The president's statements this morning are very, very damaging to him in our case, because it directly contradicts what he said on Air Force One relating to his knowledge or lack thereof of the agreement and the $130,000.

And here is the other thing and this is why I think critically important. It is going to add considerable momentum to our efforts to depose the president and place him under oath, because now we have two contrary statements, made within the same month, relating to what he knew about the agreement, what he didn't know, what his relationship was with Michael Cohen and we're going to utilize that statement today to argue for his deposition.

BERMAN: The statements are different. The question is, are they contradictory. We just heard -- if we can actually cue it up as I'm talking to Michael here. On Air Force One, he doesn't say Michael Cohen didn't represent me or isn't representing me as Stormy Daniels. The question he was asked, did you know about the $130,000 payment. Let's listen one more time.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

TRUMP: No. What else?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Then why did Michael - why did Michael Cohen make it if there was no - if they're allegations?

TRUMP: You'll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my, attorney. You'll have to ask Michael.


BERMAN: He says he doesn't know. He says he doesn't know about the $130,000 payment. He never said there that Michael Cohen didn't represent me as he put it today in the crazy Stormy Daniels thing. So, is it a contradiction?

AVENATTI: No, but Michael Cohen, John, has said previously and he's been unequivocal about this, that the president knew nothing about it, that he did it on his own, that he went out and negotiated this agreement and paid the $130,000 without any involvement or knowledge by the president. And you cannot reconcile Michael Cohen's statement with the Air Force One statement, with the statement today. You just can't. I mean, this is like getting into the definition of what -- of the word is. And never before, I mean John, this is consistent with the old adage, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive. And that's what happens.

BERMAN: It is tangled and there was a word there and the president says things that are hard to decipher. However, it could be possible, could it not, that Michael Cohen was serving as a lawyer for the president in the Stormy Daniels matter but never told the president about the $130,000. AVENATTI: I don't think that's possible. I just don't. I don't think it is possible. I don't think it is probable. But, look, we're going to get the president under oath and he's going to raise his right hand and we're going to ask him questions about what he knew and when he knew it and what he did about it. And he's not going to be able to back track from that. And I'm looking for it --

BERMAN: Do you have proof other than the president's statements today? Do you have proof that he knew about the $130,000 payment?

AVENATTI: Yes, I'm not going to disclose what that is today on national television.

BERMAN: Written proof?

AVENATTI: Because we have a case to try.

BERMAN: Is it written proof?

AVENATTI: John, I haven't been wrong about anything in this case thus far. If anybody questions my ability to predict what happens in this case, they ought to go back and look at my record of the last six weeks.

BERMAN: I didn't question. I was asking you -

AVENATTI: You would agree I've been perfect, right?

BERMAN: Is there written proof?

AVENATTI: You would agree I've been perfect, right?

BERMAN: I would agree that you've certainly brought this into the spotlight -

AVENATTI: No, I've been perfect -


[10:10:00] BERMAN: -- been reading this story - perfect is a value judgment. Look, I like your suits. I think your suits are perfect, and your fashion is impeccable. But again, the issue is you said that you have proof of the president knew about the $130,000 payment. It's just that is there written proof?

AVENATTI: John, this isn't about my suits. This is about me being perfect on substance. And I've been perfect on substance in this case whether you want to admit it or not. And here is the bottom line. Listen, I don't want to debate -


BERMAN: Can I ask you? Your insistence that you've been perfect, I'm just curious here, stylistically, why does that matter? It is like saying the president is saying I have the best words. Why does it matter? AVENATTI: No. No. John, you know I'm going to push back on you. No, it does matter. You know why, because you and others early on in this case cast doubt on the allegations that we made in the case and whether we were going to be able to deliver. And you know what, we keep delivering. And every time we deliver, people want to set up another roadblock and say, oh, no, no, but you haven't done this or you haven't done this. It is nonsense.

Yesterday - hold on a minute. Yesterday, we had the president's attorney plead the Fifth Amendment in connection with questions about this case. You think he played the Fifth because he's innocent? You think he played the Fifth because the president didn't cover anything up? You think he played the Fifth because the president didn't know anything about this? Of course not. It is clear as day. We're going to prove it. And the statements by the president today on "Fox and Friends" is very problematic for the president.

BERMAN: That may be the case. I'm just trying to figure out what is contradictory or not. On the fact of whether I've been casting doubt or anything - no, we just question what is going on here. I've always thought that this was very interesting legally, even before you came on to the Stormy Daniels case, when it first came to light in the "Wall Street Journal" piece, we've always said on this show, this is an interesting, intriguing legal angle here and it's clearly borne fruit here. You brought up Michael Cohen pleading the Fifth. You're a good lawyer. By your own account, at sometimes, perfect lawyer. You would certainly advise Michael Cohen, if he were facing a civil case, and a criminal case at the same time, most lawyers I've talked to, all lawyers I've talked to, said they would advise Michael Cohen to say you're taking the Fifth, assert your Fifth Amendment rights in the civil case.

AVENATTI: Maybe, maybe not. You know what I do, I would advise a client to do that on a question by question basis, which is actually what is required under the law. You have to actually know what the question is before you assert the Fifth. And John, this is not a normal case. This is the attorney to the president of the United States, so someone may or may not do or may or may not advise in a normal civil case, somewhat goes out in the window in connection with this case because who the players are and what is at stake, et cetera.

BERMAN: But if you could be criminally liable for something you say in a civil deposition, you wouldn't risk it, you would not risk it. By the way, we have video right now. There's new video of Michael Cohen leaving his hotel room right now. I guess headed soon to your hearing downtown. But, again, just to be clear, you would advise most clients, any client, even Michael Cohen, put yourself in your attorney's shoes, you would advise him to take the Fifth in the civil case now. Wouldn't you?

AVENATTI: Not necessarily. Not if they didn't have anything to hide. I thought he had nothing to hide about the $130,000 payment. I thought there was nothing, that everything was above for - in connection with the $130,000 payment and the agreement. I mean, that's what we've heard from Michael Cohen. That's what we've heard from the White House spokespeople. I thought there was nothing to hide. If there is nothing to hide, you don't need to plead the Fifth. You can look at the president's own statements that he used over the last two years, relating to the Fifth Amendment. We know what the president thinks about people that plead the Fifth. He says they're guilty. He says, if you don't have anything to hide, you don't plead the Fifth. So, why doesn't that approach or wasn't that rational hold in this case? I think it does.

BERMAN: In this case, because we're not there yet, to be clear, he hasn't been charged with anything officially in the criminal case yet, it is early. It is early in this case. And to say something in a civil deposition right now before there are criminal charges, it would just be too risky. You say -- you refuse to say that you wouldn't advise him to take the Fifth.

AVENATTI: I would not advise him to take the Fifth. I would have to hear the question. -- We don't know what the questions are going to be. I know what some of the questions are going to be because I intend on asking them. They don't know what the questions are going to be.

BERMAN: The fact that the president says that Michael Cohen is primarily a business man, not a lawyer, do you dispute that? Do you think that most of what Michael Cohen does is business or law?

AVENATTI: I don't know enough about what Michael has done over the last 10 to 12 years to be able to opine as to whether it was business or law. I think at a minimum, the line was very, very blurry. But what I do know is this, the president had no business trusting as much as he trusted in Michael Cohen from either legal or business perspective. This guy wasn't tough enough, and he wasn't smart enough and he was clearly sloppy as evidenced by the NDA and other facts in connection with this case. That's what I do know.

BERMAN: Do they have to protect the communications? Do you think that Michael Cohen did work as his lawyer, in enough things that he has protected communications with him.

AVENATTI: I think he may have in certain instances. In other instances, I'm certain that he didn't. But it doesn't help the president when the president is not clear as to whether he was acting in this capacity as an attorney or not, at various points in time. You look at the "Fox and Friends" video, he contradicted himself during that interview.

[10:15:00] BERMAN: Well, he did say that Michael Cohen was his attorney on the Stormy - the crazy Stormy Daniels thing, that much, that much is clear. There was a question I was going to ask you about the business dealings of Michael Cohen. Do you think it is possible that Michael Cohen -- OK, I'm going to back off that statement, where are you right now in your legal case? You have an appearance in federal court today here in New York?

AVENATTI: That's correct. In our case, in the civil case, the judge is considering whether to stay that case. The declaration that Michael Cohen filed, which is something that we demanded he be required to file and the court agreed. That declaration is a part of their effort to stay that case. We're going to oppose that. We're going to file a responsive pleading today. And I expect the judge to rule in the coming days as to whether that case is stayed or paused. I do not think the case will be paused. I think the judge will put in place certain procedural safeguards to ensure that his Fifth Amendment rights are protected. And then, meanwhile, here in the southern district of New York, today, we're going to have a hearing relating to the review of the documents in connection with the criminal matter.

BERMAN: Michael Avenatti, great to have you with us. Thanks for being --

AVENATTI: John, always a pleasure.

BERMAN: Take care.

AVENATTI: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. We do have other breaking news this morning, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt testifying on Capitol Hill as ethics scandals continue to swirl about him.

Our Rene Marsh is live right there.

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, I can tell you that it is under way and the opening statements are beginning now. And the Republican chairman of this subcommittee opened up essentially saying that he considers much of the narrative around these ethical questions involving Scott Pruitt. And I'm quoting now, "a distraction," but the committee cannot ignore all of those ethical issues. So there, setting the tone, that coming from a Republican, I can tell you that this will not be a walk through the park for Scott Pruitt. As he sits down in front of this House committee here.

This committee is supposed to be focusing on EPA's budget and they will. They will touch on that topic because, of course, Democrats have a gripe, and a bone to pick with Pruitt over the EPA's budget for 2019. However, a large chunk of this, John, will surround the questions about his ethical issues, whether we're talking about that sweetheart deal for that condo where Pruitt lived for a short time, it belonged to a lobbyist who was a friend, those first class flights, 24/7 security as well as violating federal spending laws when he installed that $43,000 privacy booth within his office.

He can expect tough questions from both sides. Democrats and Republicans, and we're really going to be paying close attention to the Republicans' tone as well as their question. Because this may be the first time that we're able to see on full display whether or not truly indeed GOP enthusiasm for Scott Pruitt is diminishing. After he's done here at 10:00 a.m., of course, he'll be in front of another House panel, that is at 2:00 p.m., back to you, John.

BERMAN: All right, Rene Marsh, we're going to be watching this very closely.

Still to come, the doctor is out. Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson withdraws his nomination to be VA secretary. So, who does the president have in mind to replace him? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:22:26] BERMAN: All right. You're looking at live pictures right now of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. He is up on Capitol Hill, facing very tough questions in front of the first of two Congressional committees, many questions about ethics issues that have been plaguing the EPA since his tenure, questions about how much money he's spent on various things. We're going to watch this very closely. Because both Democrats and Republicans could be asking tough, tough questions.

In the meantime, there was an extraordinary interview the president of the United States gave this morning which raised new legal questions, which we have been talking about, also some political ones.

Joined again by Eliana Johnson of "Politico" and David Chalian, CNN political director is here as well. Interesting conversation I just had with Michael Avenatti about the legal aspects --

CHALIAN: Perfect conversation.

BERMAN: You know, he wanted me to say he did perfect on this, it was important for him to get that point out.

David, on the Russia investigation, President Trump clearly frustrated about it. He doesn't even deny that he's frustrated about it today and he was pressed on where it's headed. Listen to what he said.


TRUMP (via telephone): They have a witch-hunt against the president of the United States going on. I've taken the position, and I don't have to take this position, and maybe I'll change, that I will not be involved with the Justice Department. I will wait until this is over. It is a total -- it is all lies and it is a horrible thing that is going on. A horrible thing. So, I'm very disappointed in my Justice Department. But because of the fact that it is going on, and I think you'll understand this, I have decided that I won't be involved. I may change my mind at some point because what is going on is a disgrace. It is an absolute disgrace.


BERMAN: I've made my mind up that I won't be involved but I might change my mind at some point, David, which seems to undercut everything he had previously just said and Mitch McConnell continues to say the president is not going to fire anybody.

CHALIAN: Right. Can you imagine being Attorney General Jeff Sessions and waking up every morning for the last year with this kind of sort of yo-yo back and forth, he's OK, he's not going to touch him, he may change his mind, I don't like him, I wish he wasn't there, I'm keeping it - I mean, it is just -- it is an unbelievable sort of relationship between a boss and president boss and cabinet member. But that being said, John, Manu Raju was just up on Capitol Hill. I was just seeing some of his reporting coming in, talking to senators up there and Republicans responding to this comment saying, you know, that's ill- advised, I think is what John Cornyn just told Manu. So, again, Republicans do get nervous up on Capitol Hill when the president threatens to cross this line of allowing some independence for the Justice Department from the presidency.

[10:25:08]BERMAN: The only statement that he said there that mattered at the end was I may change my mind. Because that indicates that nothing is certain right now. No matter what the 150 words were that happened before it.

Eliana, it was interesting, President Trump admitted that he watched James Comey on CNN last night. He says, he doesn't have much time to watch tv, but clearly, he does. He watched the special with James Comey and Anderson Cooper last night. And he draws into dispute the Comey memos and the statements from James Comey that the president told him that he only, you know, left Moscow without spending any nights there during that Miss Universe pageant. Listen to what the president said about this.


TRUMP (via telephone): He didn't write those memos accurately. He put a lot of phony stuff. For instance, I went to Russia for a day or so -- a day or two because I own the Miss Universe pageant. So, I went there to watch it, because it was near Moscow. So I go to Russia -- now, I did go there -- everybody knows. The locks are there, the planes are there. He said I didn't stay there a night. Of course, I stayed there. I stayed there a very short period of time, but, of course, I stayed. Well, his memo said I left immediately. I never said that. I never said I left immediately.


BERMAN: The memo says the president told James Comey he never stayed there overnight. Now the president deciding to go on an interview to make the case that, no, no, I have always told James Comey I did stay there. Just really strange.

JOHNSON: It is strange. But I have to say, it does lend credence to something else in the Comey memos which is Comey's comment that the president does seem obsessed with the Russia dossier. And in that dossier, of course, there -- it says that the president made this trip to Moscow, during the Miss Universe pageant and that he was involved with prostitutes there, which indicates he would have had to have spent the night. But Comey remarked on the strangeness of the president's obsession with it and I think he made clear in the Fox interview that not only is he obsessed with the Comey memos and Comey's book tour, which clearly has gotten under his skin, but he's clearly still thinking about that Russia trip and the details of it.

BERMAN: David, I want to ask you about the other big news, which was a big headline, 8:00 a.m. this morning, which is Dr. Ronny Jackson, the read admiral, has withdrawn his name for consideration to be the new secretary of Veterans Affairs. He says in all of the allegations that have come to light against him are false, but he says he doesn't want to put the president through the distraction. At a certain point, I suppose this was inevitable with the volume of things that came out here. Does this draw more questions to Dr. Jackson or more questions to the vetting process that apparently didn't take place inside the White House.

CHALIAN: Well, I think both, John. I mean, one of the big questions I think now does Dr. Jackson remain as the president's physician? The White House physician, after all of these things have come out. I think - so that is a question that I think does still follow Dr. Jackson. But -- as well as the administration and vetting, I mean, clearly, you're right, they were taking on too much water on this, and it was not going away. If the president really wanted to stay and fight and battle this out, he would have Ronny Jackson's day and do that. The fact that Jackson is withdrawing his nomination is because that's precisely what the White House would prefer him to do.

BERMAN: All right. Hang on one second here. We got some breaking news, Scott Pruitt, the administrator, making some news in this hearing. Let's listen.

SCOTT PRUITT, EPA CHIEF: We'll work with Congress. Both with Oversight as well as this committee, to provide any and all information that helps answer those questions. Those have been a distraction to our agenda. I think the Congressman mentioned that earlier and that troubles me. Ultimately as the administrator of the EPA I have to take responsibility to make changes internal to the agency to get to accountability in our processes to ensure that in each of these areas we get better results and that we show the American people that we are committed to being good stewards of taxpayer resources, staying true to our mission at the agency, which I believe that we are and have, and I'm committed to doing that. That's why I'm here to talk to you about it today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I yield back my time. I turn to the ranking member of the subcommittee Mr. Tonko for five minutes.

REP. PAUL TONKO (D), NEW YORK: Thank you, Mr. Chair. Recently it came out that two EPA employees who came with you to Washington from Oklahoma were given significant raises over the White House's objection. When you were interviewed by Ed Henry on Fox News, you claim to have been unaware of those raises. At the time that Henry asked you whether you intentionally went around the White House or whether you simply had no idea what your staff was up to. The EPA inspector general is looking into those raises and last week the IG released preliminary information showing that the forms to grant the raises were signed by your chief of staff, Mr. Ryan Jackson, who wrote he was signing on your behalf. This is your opportunity to set the record straight. Did you, administrator, authorize Mr. Jackson to sign the documents for you?

PRUITT: Congressman, those were delegated to and -- to Mr. Jackson and the inspector general did reference that in his management alert.

TONKO: So, you did authorize him then to sign them?

PRUITT: Those -- those decisions, that decision was made by -

TONKO: Yes or no? PRUITT: Did you authorize him?

PRUITT: There are delegations giving him that authority.

TONKO: So, that's a yes.