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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Interview With Stormy Daniels Attorney Michael Avenatti; White House Chaos; White House: Trump "Eventually Learned" He Repaid Stormy Hush Money. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired May 3, 2018 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Maybe Rudy Giuliani should have received the hush money.
THE LEAD starts right now.
The White House now facing a severe crisis of credibility, as Press Secretary Sarah Sanders all but admits she is sometimes feeding us false information. Can we trust anything from the Trump administration?
The latest bit of damage control coming as the president's new lawyer turns the Stormy Daniels scandal upside-down, admitting that the president did pay back a porn star's hush money. Stormy Daniels' attorney will be here to respond.
Plus, could President Trump toss his son-in-law under Mueller's bus in order to save his daughter? The stunning comments from Rudy Giuliani that you might not have heard.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
TAPPER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We're going to begin with the politics lead.
The White House is facing a deep credibility crisis this afternoon, facing off with reporters after the president's new lawyer Rudy Giuliani admitted that Donald Trump did indeed pay the $130,000 to Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about the alleged affair she had with Donald Trump by reimbursing his personal attorney Michael Cohen, who made that original payment.
The new claim that directly contradicts what Donald Trump and his communications staff, paid for by taxpayer dollars, have been telling you all year.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There was no knowledge of any payments from the president.
TRUMP: Well, you have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney.
RAJ SHAH, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: The president strongly, clearly and has consistently denied these underlying claims.
TRUMP: He did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, the president has denied the allegations.
QUESTION: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
TRUMP: No, I don't know.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: That President Trump has been untethered to the truth has been clear for quite some time, and the fact that his staffers are commanded on occasion to follow suit, that's been apparent ever since Press Secretary Sean Spicer's infamous spray of nonsense about inaugural crown sizes.
But the continuing, insistent lies told by the president and all the president's men and women has been reaching a fever pitch.
We have all angles of this story covered, from the White House to our political panel to Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, who we will speak to in just a minute.
But let's begin now with some breaking news on the chaos that Rudy Giuliani's media blitz is causing.
Let's go right to CNN's Gloria Borger.
And, Gloria, you're learning that Giuliani's comments have confused and angered some of the people on President Trump's own legal team.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, exactly.
My colleagues Pamela Brown, Evan Perez and I have been talking to some of these people and people within that circle. And it's as if Rudy Giuliani threw a hand grenade right into the middle of his own legal team, having just joined a short while ago.
Nobody expected that he would go on FOX News and say what he said last night about the president, about Michael Cohen, about the payoff to Stormy Daniels, and how -- and how that was handled.
And, you know, these people are kind of in shock, saying that this is Rudy Giuliani winging it, that he was really brought on, A, to do some sort of hardball New York negotiating with Mueller, but, B, to stick to the talking points for the president, which is that he is being treated unfairly, that James Comey is not telling the truth, and on and on.
And, instead, he veered off into some territory that nobody wanted him to go into, save perhaps the president, because there is a theory, of course, that he and the president spoke about this both before and after. At least, that's what Giuliani says.
TAPPER: That's right.
So, Giuliani says that he coordinated this with the president, or at least informed him that he would share this news. But is there any evidence that Giuliani coordinated any of this with anyone on the president's legal team?
BORGER: No, no, no.
And, in fact, if he had, they would have said to him, are you kidding me? You know, do not do this. We are trying to get to the end of this. We are not to try to -- trying to stir up and resurrect this Stormy Daniels problem. What we are trying to do is sit down with Mueller and figure out a way to get the president out of the Russia investigation and figure out a way he can testify in a narrow way or not testify. That is what you are here for.
Instead, Rudy Giuliani hijacked the strategy, as one person put it, and decided to veer off in his own direction. So they all are scratching their heads. They're angry. They're frustrated. They're upset.
And as one of them said to me, look, it is a little depressing, because we have got a new team now on board. They have the husband and wife team, the Raskins from Florida, who have just joined, Rudy Giuliani.
And now they're -- they feel like they have been set back. And this is probably a good day for a person you're going do interview later, Mr. Avenatti.
TAPPER: Let's go now to CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.
Gloria Borger, thank you for that breaking news.
Jeff, Sarah Sanders said this afternoon that the White House communications officials give -- quote -- "the very best information that we have at the time."
What does best information mean in that context? Because, surely, we know it does not mean most accurate.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, she said that more than once.
That was her default position today, but we know now, after 15 months of this administration, whether something is coming from the president or the press secretary, many things simply turn out not to be so after the fact.
She also said -- I was struck by this, Jake -- that she learned about this change of strategy on Stormy Daniels, this change in reasoning from watching television last night. That's one clear sign this credibility crisis here is rooted in the Oval Office.
TRUMP: What a day. What a beautiful day.
ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump searching for rays of optimism today amid more White House whiplash over new revelations he was the source of hush money paid to Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.
Rudy Giuliani, one of the president's new lawyers, contradicting months of denials the president knew anything about the $130,000 payment his lawyer Michael Cohen made to the adult film star.
RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: Funneled through the law firm, and the president repaid it.
ZELENY: Those four words, "The president repaid it," are at odds with everything the president and White House have led Americans to believe. It is clear Trump and his new legal team are waging a two- front war, a political fight and a legal one.
By trying to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, they're hoping to inoculate themselves for the outcome of an investigation for which they cannot control. A month ago, Mr. Trump said this on Air Force One:
QUESTION: Do you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
TRUMP: No. No. What else?
QUESTION: Then why did Michael -- do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
TRUMP: No, I don't know.
ZELENY: In the Rose Garden today at a National Day of Prayer ceremony, he didn't answer a central question weighing on the White House.
QUESTION: Mr. President, why are you changing your story on Stormy Daniels?
ZELENY: In a string of tweets, he acknowledged the payment and the legal rationale, saying: "The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair."
Cohen, the president's longtime lawyer and confidant, is under FBI investigation. At issue is whether the $130,000 paid to keep Stormy Daniels from telling about her alleged affair with the president could be seen as an illegal campaign contribution.
Giuliani addressed that point during interviews on FOX News, when he insisted Cohen was paid back.
GIULIANI: He was definitely reimbursed. There's no doubt about it. If we had to defend this as not being a campaign contribution, I think we could do that. This was for personal reasons.
ZELENY: CNN has learned White House officials were caught off-guard by Giuliani's remarks, a point he did not dispute. He told CNN "They were. There was no way they wouldn't be. The president is my client. I don't talk to them."
For months, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has denied allegations of the president's affair or knowledge of the hush money. She said today she was not knowingly misleading Americans.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: The first awareness I had was during the interview last night.
ZELENY: Now, Jake, she went on to say that the president eventually learned about this payment to Stormy Daniels. It was a process. She did not say how he eventually learned about the fact that he reimbursed the payment himself.
One other note. She was asked directly if the president believes he is above the law. She had one word to say. She said no -- Jake.
TAPPER: And, Jeff Zeleny, just to follow up, the White House and the president have been misleading the public on this issue for quite some time. Did Sarah Sanders apologize?
ZELENY: Jake, there was no apology. There was simply, I offer the best information that I have when it comes to me.
So it's clear that she is kept in the dark, like many officials here are kept in the dark on many things. It's clear the president is, you know, controlling the information here, but no apology at that point. She did say one interesting thing. She said, I will do the best job I can with the information I have available as long as I'm in this position.
Jake, you do sort of wonder how long someone can stay in a position being the face of an administration simply not saying words that turn out to be true -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.
Let's bring in Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels,
Michael, you have said before that you're convinced that Michael Cohen is going to flip on President Trump. Do you think the Giuliani interviews possibly were Giuliani trying to get in front of whatever Cohen might know or the documents seized in the raids, in other words, get this information out as soon as possible because it is going to come out anyway? MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: I absolutely believe that. I believe that this was an attempt by Giuliani to hang a lantern on this and to disclose it on terms that he believed to be friendly to the president and friendly to him.
The problem, Jake, is -- and you put your finger on it at the beginning of the show. The problem is, is, you have had four months or thereabouts of constant lies.
And let's call it like we see it. These are not half-truths or possibly being misled. These are outright lies to the American people. They're lies by Michael Cohen. They are lies by Michael Cohen's attorney, David Schwartz. They're lies by Donald Trump. They're lies by people that are running the White House briefings. They're lies.
The American people have been lied to repeatedly in connection with this. And the fact that we have videotape of the president of the United States on Air Force One being asked point-blank about this and openly lying to the American people should be an outrage to everyone.
I don't care what your politics are. I don't care if you're the left, the right or the center. This is not right and it shouldn't be tolerated.
TAPPER: Giuliani today had some harsh words for you. He called you an ambulance chaser. He said you should turn in your law license. I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond.
AVENATTI: Well, you know, Jake, we must be doing a really good job, because the best they have got is name-calling.
They want to call us names. They want to call my client names. They want to call me an ambulance chaser, because they want to distract away from the issues at hand and the facts.
We have done a remarkable job. My client has shown incredible courage, and she's going to continue to do so, and we are going to keep fighting until all of the facts and all of the evidence are come to light.
I'm no ambulance chaser. People can look at my background and the cases that I have been involved in. And they know that I'm a real lawyer.
And let me tell you something. Rudy Giuliani also knows that I'm real lawyer. The only person that seems to be ignorant as to the law right now is Rudy Giuliani, in two respects. Number one, he suggests that the only way you can have a campaign finance violation if you use campaign funds for the $130,000.
That's not even close to being the law. And then, secondly, he seems to suggest recently in the last hour or two relating to these wiretap allegation that the president should have been informed that Mr. Cohen being wiretapped.
Not only is that not permitted, but that's illegal had anyone done it. So I'm confident in my abilities and I'm confident in my client.
TAPPER: I don't know if you saw, but George Conway, who is a noted conservative lawyer in Washington, D.C., he was talked about as a possible solicitor general candidate for President Trump -- his wife happens to be Kellyanne Conway, who works for the White House.
He tweeted today the description of what FEC violation might have been occurred with this -- quote, unquote -- "loan."
Just to explain to the public, if President Trump, if Michael Cohen paid this $130,000 to Stormy Daniels for election purposes -- and Giuliani suggested in his interview on FOX that one of the concerns was having this be raised during the election -- so if it was for election purposes, and President Trump repaid him, what exactly is the possible federal election code violation?
AVENATTI: Well, there's a number of potential violations.
You can have an -- it could be considered an in-kind contribution that hasn't been reported. It very likely could be a contribution beyond the limit of any one individual's ability to contribute to a campaign. If there was communication between Michael Cohen and Donald Trump relating to the way that this was going to be done in order to keep it off the books, that could also be a problem.
And, Jake, I also want to pinpoint one issue that I think is really important here. If this was all above-board, as Rudy Giuliani now wants the American people to believe, and there was nothing wrong with this, then why did they have to structure the reimbursement of the payment across many months in connection with bogus retainer invoices?
Why wouldn't the president have merely cut a check for $130,000 back to Michael Cohen directly or wired the money back to Michael Cohen directly? Why create this LLC and go through all of this structuring in order to reimburse the money?
The whole thing stinks. And the American people are smarter than this.
TAPPER: All right, Michael Avenatti, thank you so much. Appreciate your time, sir.
AVENATTI: Thank you.
TAPPER: Did Rudy Giuliani just completely undermine the president's and the entire Trump administration's credibility? We will talk about that with our political panel next.
Stay with us.
[16:18:38] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with our politics lead today as the White House scrambles to try to attempt to explain the conflicting answers given by the president and his communications staff about a six-figure payment made to an adult film actress. Now, the White House acknowledging that the president did repay his personal attorney Michael Cohen, the $130,000 that Cohen gave to Stormy Daniels.
But for months, of course, both President Trump and the staff had completely denied it.
Let's bring in my panel.
Kaitlan Collins, so the president was lying and his staff was lying.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, that's the question here. I mean, less than a month ago, the president said he didn't know about that payment and he didn't know where the money came from. Last night from Rudy Giuliani a lawyer who's joined the president's legal team who doesn't even work at the White House is the one that told us, in fact, the president did know about that payment and he did know where the money came from because it came from him.
So, it raises the question of, who are we supposed to believe here? Because for months, we have been told by the White House that the president he didn't know about this payment, he didn't know where it came from, it had nothing to do it and now, of course, they're saying that he did do it. But I mean, the question is, did they know about it? Of course, Sarah Sanders saying she just learned about it last night. So then it raises the question of how's the White House trustful with reporters if they can't even know what the president is telling them? Because, clearly, the president told Sanders he didn't make or know about the payment.
[16:20:01] TAPPER: And, Bill Kristol, Sarah Sanders asked repeatedly this afternoon about the changing story. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We give the very best information that we have at the time. I do that every single day and will continue to do that every day I'm in this position.
REPORTER: When did you specifically know that the president repaid Mr. Cohen for the $130,000? You personally.
SANDERS: The first awareness I had was during the interview last night.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: So, Bill, as Kaitlan outlined for us, it's pretty clear President Trump was lying to the country about this and he was lying to his own communications director.
BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes. And I think he's been lying for three years on and off on a huge variety of topics, including his own background or things he's done, things he's seen, positions he's just changed and so forth. And he's paid very little price. I mean, I think that's the fact that in -- this is his modus operandi, which is to say whatever is convenient at the time. Most of us, of course, assume if you do that over and over and you change your story many, many times you pay some price for that.
He was elected president of the United States. Right now, he is not wildly popular. He hasn't improved the approval rating much as president. But he's held his base.
He's got a strong support from Republicans on the Hill or at least some strong support and some grudging acquiesce for Republicans on the Hill, fanatical support from parts of the conservative media and parts of his own base, unbelievable amount of excuse-making and rationalizing by parts of his -- some of his supporters, I mean, you wouldn't think would do that, such as the evangelicals and, you know, whom Kaitlan was with this morning.
So, it's you know, he's going to keep doing it. I think people, the lawyers -- I mean, great to see the legal analysis of this particular statement of Giuliani's helps on the FEC violation, but hurts a little on this part of campaign finance law. Trump is not thinking about that. Trump is not going to presumably appear in a court of law. Maybe he'll get dragged in because of the Stormy Daniels case, but they're going probably to try to delay that as much as possible.
He is in a political fight. He is in a political war. This has worked for him pretty well, discrediting his opponents, throwing mud everywhere. Some of it sticks. The stuff that doesn't stick, just moves on, you know?
We all -- so much going on and we kind of forget about so many of these lies so quickly. And that's his -- that's what he is doing. He's fighting a political war.
From his point of view, I'm not so sure he's not doing pretty well given that he has a weak hand and he has a weak hand, but ultimately he has real problems with the substance underneath this, you know, that could be discovered by Mueller and this investigation.
TAPPER: Robby, the president's new lawyer Giuliani, he's the one that revealed the president's payment and he told "The Washington Post" that the president paid Cohen with his personal funds. Quote: they were paid in the personal funds because they never considered this a campaign payment. This was considered more a harassment case.
But he also said this, quote, imagine if that came out on October 15th, 2016, in the middle of the last debate of Hillary Clinton. Cohen didn't even ask. He made it go away. He did his job.
So, how is this not related to the campaign?
ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Exactly. I mean, I'm not a lawyer here but sometime, you know, we're very focused on the fact that the president lies. I don't think there's any news in that. You know, they lie about everything. We just found out he dictated a bogus health letter to his doctor yesterday. But we do have incrementally more evidence here of a real campaign
finance violation and perhaps from two different angles. Somebody can't give something of value to your campaign and the campaign not report that so either a loan needed to be reported because this amount of money is illegal for anybody to give to a campaign. Cohen could have only given, you know, up to $2,700 in the General Election or the president -- or needed to be reported as the president reimbursing and this was a personal contribution from the president himself which can be unlimited.
So, there's clearly a campaign finance violation but to me, that isn't even that new. I think what's new today is that you are starting to see the president's own team have to back off a little bit. This press conference was fascinating because you could see Sarah Huckabee Sanders is probably now worried personally if she is aiding and abetting the lying actively and she knows she is lying, it's potentially obstruction of justice. I'm not a lawyer but you could almost see it in her demeanor. Something was different today.
You know, I probably used to think naively the Republicans are going to have to come to terms with this in the House and Senate ought to take action, I'm actually starting to wonder if where the dam is going to start to break a little bit is with the president's own staff. They're going to be in their own legal jeopardy if they continue to kind of play the game that they have been trying to play and actively participate in the lying the way that they have.
TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about.
Coming up, what else Rudy Giuliani said that could play a major role in the special counsel's investigation. Might not be as covered as much as other parts of that interview.
Stay with us.
[16:29:08] TAPPER: In addition to this fiasco over Rudy Giuliani revealing that President Trump had actually reimbursed his attorney Michael Cohen for that Stormy Daniels hush payment, the White House is also today scrambling to respond to another bombshell dropped by the former New York City mayor. Rudy Giuliani gave a new reason as to why President Trump had fired former FBI Director James Comey.
Does this Giuliani revelation now factor into the obstruction of justice case that Robert Mueller might be building?
CNN's Jessica Schneider now looks into what kind of strategy Giuliani's comments may now reveal.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Rudy Giuliani, the newest member of President Trump's legal team, making the case for why the president is ready for battle with the special counsel Robert Mueller.
RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: This started as collusion with the Russians. No.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
GIULIANI: Now, they go to obstruction of justice, collusion among the players. What they're trying to do is trap him in perjury.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, let's talk about --
GIULIANI: And we're not suckers.
SCHNEIDER: Giuliani expressed his disappointment and frustration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions who recused himself from the Russia probe --