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CNN TONIGHT

Mueller Questions Russian Oligarch About Payments a U.S. Investment Firm Linked To Him Made To Michael Cohen; Don Blankenship Concedes the Race. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired May 8, 2018 - 22:00   ET

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


[22:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: OK. That's it for us. Thanks for watching. Time to hand it over to Don Lemon. "CNN TONIGHT" starts now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon.

Major breaking news on two fronts to tell you about. A CNN exclusive. Sources saying Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators have questioned Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to a U.S. investment firm linked to have been made to President Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen after the 2016 election.

This development is raising a number of questions, where did all that money go? What did that company get in return for the payments of anything? And why were funds directed to shell company? A shell company set up to pay hush money to a porn star. At the same time, Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels alleged said Cohen received $500,000 from a U.S. company linked to the oligarch after the election. I'm going to talk to Michael Avenatti tonight.

Also breaking tonight, results are coming in tonight in the first multi-state primary election day of 2018, voter in West Virginia, in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio casting their ballots. This is six months before Election Day before the midterms. What will the results of the midterm elections be? What does that mean for that?

OK. A lot to get to tonight in the coming hours here on CNN. I want to bring in CNN exclusive reporting talk about that. Now let's bring in CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz and reporter Kara Scannell who broke the story. We probably need to be taking notes at home because there's so much going on. Shimon, good evening. I want to start with you. What can you tell us about this?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Yes, hey, Don. So Mueller's investigators as you've said have questioned a Russian oligarch. His name is Viktor Vekselberg. And they've questioned about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments that were made to President Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen in 2017.

Now the payments went from Vekselberg's firm that is linked to Vekselberg, it's called Columbus Nova, it's a financial company out of New York. And it's run by Vekselberg's American cousin Andrew Intrater.

And as you -- we've been reporting all night, Stormy Daniels' attorney Michael Avenatti has posted documents where he alleged that a half million dollars was paid to Cohen beginning in January of 2017.

And then last month, back to where Viktor Vekselberg gets into this, the Trump administration placed him on sanctioned Russians for election interference. Now as to what the purpose of these payments were made that were made to Cohen or the nature of the business relationship between Cohen and the company is unknown.

We've reached out to Cohen and Vekselberg and both have not responded to our questions. And really, Don, in the end what's really significant here as you pointed out at the top of the show is that you have money coming from a U.S. company that is linked to this Russian man who has been sanctioned who the U.S. government says interfered in our election that was going to Michael Cohen, certainly leads to all sorts of potential questions that now we know the FBI and U.S. investigators are asking.

LEMON: And he's being interviewed by the special counsel, right?

PROKUPECZ: That's correct. Well, as far as we know he's being interviewed by at least by FBI investigators associated with the special counsel.

LEMON: OK. So Kara, let me bring you in now. Because what more do we know about Vekselberg and what the FBI what do they want to know from him?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Vekselberg is one of the most prominent businessman in Russia. He's very close to Putin, and in fact, he once spend $100 million to bring Faberge eggs bag to Russia. Vekselberg is one of the two Russian oligarchs that we have previously reported were stopped to the airport when they came into the U.S. on their private plane.

So we know that Vekselberg is now questioned about these payments that were made to Michael Cohen. And what we've also learned is that Vekselberg was questioned about payments that his cousin Intrater, the head of that U.S. company, Columbus Nova, he was asked about political donations he made. He made $300,000 donations to the Trump victory fund, the Trump inauguration fund, and the RNC in 2017.

So those are now issues that the special counsel has ask Vekselberg about. That we also our sources tell us that they've interviewed Intrater himself. Now Columbus Nova did not give us a statement before the story but they have since given us one. I'd like to read a bit from it tonight in which they say that--

LEMON: It's OK.

[22:05:00] SCANNELL: Sorry. Yes. It's a little bit of a longer statement. So they told us that "After the inauguration the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures.

Reports today that Viktor Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen are false, neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova's owners were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement."

So they're confirming that they were paid by Michael Cohen and that they were hired for certain services. That doesn't change that because Vekselberg was ask questions about these statements and about Intrater's political donations.

LEMON: Yes. And this is the new statement that was issued tonight. This is from Eric Kosta, the general counsel of Columbus Nova. And Eric says, "As the general counsel of Columbus Nova, I can confirm that the company is 100 percent owned and controlled by Americans. Any suggestion that at any point in time Viktor Vekselberg or any of his companies owned or exercise any control over Columbus Nova is patently untrue." What do you say to that?

SCANNELL: You know, I mean, that's the case. We have seen regulatory filings that show that there was history that link them in the past. But you know, like I said, this is something that Mueller's team is looking at. They're going to follow the money, they're going to look at these flows. And they question Vekselberg about this connection.

LEMON: Both of us having read those statements, Shimon, do we know if there was anything illegal about these payments?

PROKUPECZ: No, quite frankly, Don, we don't. But this is something that the special counsel, that FBI is looking into. Because as we've reported, they were looking, the FBI was looking at whether or not money was flowing into the Trump world, into the Trump orbit through U.S. officials from Russians. Whether or not they were using Russians, that is using Americans to try and hide perhaps of money that was going into the Trump world.

That we have reported on. And also it's important to know that no one is really from the company at this point is explaining this Columbus Nova as to what these payments were about. They're arguing that perhaps, you know, Vekselberg is not the direct owner, he has no say.

But up to this point, they haven't really explained -- neither has anyone from Michael Cohen side where this money was going or what was the purpose of this money going into essentially a hush account that was set up by Michael Cohen to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels. We still don't have explanation for that.

LEMON: OK. So he mentioned Michael Cohen, right, where does things stand, Kara, with the criminal investigation of the Southern District of New York?

SCANNELL: Well, so that investigation is ongoing. We know prosecutors there are looking into Michael Cohen's financial dealings. A judge in that case has set up a special master to review documents that was seized in that FBI raid of Cohen's office and hotel room. The judge has this special master looking for what might be privileged

and those documents that would be covered by attorney/client privilege. So both FBI has a team in place that's helping to produce these documents to Cohen. They produced eight boxes of digitized documents and the contents of over 12 dozen -- of over a dozen cell phone and electronic devices.

So we're expecting by the end of this week the judge said that they expect to have the government provide all the documents that they have seized and there's a hearing set for two weeks from now where I think we'll get a better sense of just how big a volume this is of information that might release the client. Of course Michael Cohen said in court he had three clients that could be covered by this. President Trump, Elliott Broidy, and Sean Hannity.

LEMON: All right. Interesting. Thank you, Kara. Thank you, Shimon. I appreciate it. I know that there's a lot going on. The story is a little bit complicated. We're going to try to break it down for you more.

So I want to bring in now CNN Political Correspondent, Dana Bash, and CNN Political Director, David Chalian.

Good evening to both of you. So, David, I want to get your reaction to tonight's breaking story that Mueller's team question a Russian oligarch about a huge payment made by U.S. company link to Michael Cohen, President Trump's long-time fixer, after the election. This is explosive reporting.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Without a doubt. It's not welcome news for Michael Cohen clearly. And it's not welcome news for the president's legal team here. I mean, let's just acknowledge what it is at its very base. We are now seeing reporting of some Russian money making its way in some form or another to the person who is identified as Donald Trump's fixer, one of his closest confidants and who the president was just touting as his attorney less than a month ago while standing on Air Force One.

LEMON: Dana what's your thoughts? Who do you think we're going to hear from the president about any of this?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, unclear. You know, as his lawyer sees that he's focusing where he should be on North Korea and on Iran. Last time we heard that, the president sent out four tweets about the Russia investigation the next morning.

[22:09:49] So it's hard to imagine the president sitting on his hands on this one when this is, as David just said, about as close as we've seen to -- not a collusion allegation, but a Russian oligarch, somebody who is incredibly powerful, funneling a lot of money into the account of his lawyer, the same account used to pay Stormy Daniels.

I mean, those are big open questions. How that happened, why that happened, why the money came in, as Shimon and Kara were saying, that we don't know the answer to. And it's also noteworthy that the president and Rudy Giuliani, Rudy Giuliani especially, they've been so much more aggressive with Rudy Giuliani out in front so visibly over past couple of weeks.

And have felt that they, at least Giuliani feel that they're more on the offense. Whether this puts him back on his heels, another thing we're going to have to wait and see.

LEMON: Yes.

CHALIAN: Don, I want to underscore something Dana said though that I think is key here also. It's the convergence, it's the inner section now of the Stormy Daniels story and of the Russian investigation.

BASH: Exactly.

CHALIAN: Remember, we have initially learned that Mueller's team referred some matters to the Southern District of New York and then began the Michael Cohen investigation. We're now seeing those streams crossing and intersecting in the way that we have not before.

LEMON: Yes. I just want to read this again because this is what Columbus Nova is saying. David, I want to give this to you because you're saying this is the first time that we've seen Russian money in some way coming into play here.

But "As the general counsel of Columbus Nova, I can confirm that the company is 100 percent owned and controlled by Americans. Any suggestion that at any point in time Viktor Vekselberg or any of his companies owned or exercise any control over Columbus Nova is patently untrue." That is important to them. They want to make sure that is understood that it's not owned, it's not Russian owned.

CHALIAN: Fairly, so totally as that should be noted. It's just, it's Russian affiliated financing that we're talking about that now has made it into somehow, whether through total wholly American owned companies into Michael Cohen's bank account, as Dana notes, a bank account but then was used to pay Stormy Daniels.

BASH: And the key to remember is what Kara and Shimon are reporting that they have from their sources that Vekselberg isn't necessarily just this outside person who, by the way, was sanctioned as one of the 13 Russian sanctioned in and around the election meddling, but also he has been interviewed by the investigators working for Robert Mueller. That is another intersection, probably the biggest one.

LEMON: Yes. OK. I need to turn now to -- we have more news to talk about developing if you can believe it or not. I need to talk about this special election that's going on, these primaries, I should say.

West Virginia, Don Blankenship claimed to be Trumpier than Trump, yet President Trump told voters to cast their ballot for the other guy. I'm sure I think voters are listening to him because Blankenship is conceding that he lost.

CHALIAN: Yes. He's conceded the race. And not only that but in his concession noted exactly what you were saying about President Trump's involvement, clearly saying that it had some impact on the race as he's conceding it. The president's going to claim some credit here no doubt, we know that

he loves to do so when he's proven right about something and here he urged folks not to vote for Blankenship. The Republican establishment was so concerned that this would be sort of just be handing a Senate seat that should be winnable because the president won West Virginia by 42 points in 2016, just handing it to the Democrats.

That's most the case now. Huge sigh of relief. President Trump is going to get a pat on the back from the unlikely allies in this town for him, the Republican establishment.

LEMON: It's probably not -- it's probably a good idea that the guy who called Mitch McConnell, cocaine Mitch, and also used the terms referring to his family as China people and China family did not win tonight. That would not be good for them going into the midterms.

Dana, what does tonight's outcome say to Washington establishment?

BASH: Well, that's a god question. I think as David just said the Republican leadership here in Washington they are breathing a huge sigh of relief about what happened in West Virginia. And in Indiana the other really competitive important Republican primary race we were looking at, there is a -- there is -- excuse me -- a Trump-like candidate who won because he's got money and he spend it. And he beat two people who are elected officials. So in that case--

(CROSSTALK)

CHALIAN: And outsider businessmen.

BASH: An outsider businessman, exactly, beat the outsiders. So that is consistent with kind of the Trump model. And that is another state where there is a very vulnerable incumbent Democrat, Joe Donnelly, and in this state where Donald Trump he didn't win as big as West Virginia but he won pretty big.

LEMON: All right.

CHALIAN: By 19 points.

BASH: Nineteen points. Not 42 but it is still pretty big.

[22:15:01] LEMON: Yes. Thank you, Dana. Thank you, David. Dana, get some water please. We want you to be OK.

BASH: Thank you.

LEMON: We appreciate your time. Just ahead, more of our exclusive breaking news. Robert Mueller's investigators have questioned the Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments a U.S. investment firm linked to him, made to President Trump's attorney Michael Cohen. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Here's breaking news, a CNN exclusive, a source saying that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to U.S. investment linked to him, made to the president's attorney, Michael Cohen.

Moments ago, we got this statement from Eric Kosta. He is the firm's lawyer. And he says, "As the general counsel of Columbus Nova, I can confirm that the company is 100 percent owned and controlled by Americans. Any suggestion that at any point in time Viktor Vekselberg or any of his companies owned or exercised any control over Columbus Nova is patently untrue."

So I want to bring in to talk about this, Jack Quinn. He is a former White House counsel to President Clinton, CNN Counterterrorism Analyst, Philip Mudd, and Julia Ioffe, a staff writer at the Atlantic.

Good evening to all of you. Welcome to the program. Julia, I want to get your opinion of this breaking story and put this into context for -- in the Russia investigation. What does this all mean, what does it all, if anything to Mueller?

[22:19:58] JULIA IOFFE, STAFF WRITER, "THE ATLANTIC": Well, to me at least it smells and looks and sounds like the Russia I know, which is, you know a lot of dark money slashed around really strange dark companies that, you know, it's more of the follow the money corruption story, more than it was, you know, at least in the first phase of the Mueller investigation.

Bots, and trolls and troll factories, you know, this kinds of, you know, payments under the table is a lot more like the Russia I know.

What's interesting about Vekselberg is, you know, he was sanctioned and I remember wondering why he was put on the sanctions list. Well, now it seems, you know, we know why. It seems like he was even after the inauguration funneling money to this unknown LLC that the president's lawyer had. How would he have known about it? What was that money for?

You know, I talked this evening to a source close to the Trump world. And I said, what was that money for? And he said, you know, for access, of course, what else?

LEMON: Do you -- but there's no -- I mean, there's no proof or indication at this point, Phil, that any of these -- any of these payments were illegal. I mean, it seems now to be just information that wasn't previously disclosed, do you disagree with that?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I don't disagree but I do agree with Julia, it's a rare moment I have to line up right behind her on this one. But let me ask you a couple of questions as someone who has involved in the investigation.

We got some of the who, what, when, where, why it's all here. We know what happened, money changed hands. We know where it happened. We know when it happened. We're missing the why. And who the why as you're saying is an open question. To me, the real question behind the scenes is to who. We keep talking about Mueller's team talking to these individuals as

they came into the airport in New York. I think we're missing a key part of the story. The Mueller team was so concerned about these Russians coming into New York that they mirrored their digital information.

In other words, they took their, presumably their phone, maybe their laptop and took the digital information off of that. That's very intrusive. You don't do that unless you have probable cause to believe there is something nasty going in there.

Let me give you the bottom line, Don. When they took somebody's phone and they looked in that phone, did it show contact with other members of the Trump team that would explain, for example, why these guys showed up at the inauguration. I want to know the who, the why we may never know.

2LEMON: You know, we're talking about a shell company it was set up by Michael Cohen before the election to pay Stormy Daniels, but was later paid into by several corporations. I mean, Jack, what are your questions on this?

JACK QUINN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, look, I have to think the questions Phil does, the who and the why. But to me, the why is a whole lot easier.

This is Michael Cohen, you know, a guy whose legal skills have been cast in some considerable doubt recently. Why would somebody be paying him, anybody, an American company, somebody from Russia, they're paying him for access to the president. They're paying him for information that will help them influence the United States policy on things like sanctions, Iran and other things in which they have a big, big stake.

I don't think there's any doubt about that. I'm not here saying that any of this is illegal at this moment. It is very confusing. But as confused as many of us may be, you can be sure that Robert Mueller and his team are not so confused.

And I think that, you know, you're going to see an awful lot of people -- if this is legal calling for reform of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, provisions that allow things like this to happen.

LEMON: You're leading me to my next question then. If this is, because again, there's no indication at this point that there's anything illegal about this. If the -- is it unusual to pay consulting firm or what have you, or a person who has access and a person who is in power, the president's ear to get information about him or how he operates, especially because if he has no political past?

QUINN: It is not unusual to have political consultants who do that sort of thing. You know, it's probably pretty darn unusual to be paying a president's personal attorney, who is not in the public policy business, in a lobbying firm or a law firm that does this sort of thing. This money was in an account, apparently, from which payments went to help resolve-- (CROSSTALK)

LEMON: An LLC set up two weeks before the Stormy Daniels case.

QUINN: Yes, the Stormy Daniels case. This stuff is just all intertwined.

LEMON: Before it was settled this Stormy Daniels case was going to put the payment--

(CROSSTALK)

QUINN: Right.

IOFFE: Also, can I jump in here for a second?

LEMON: Yes. Hang on, hang on, Julie. I'm going to let you jump in. Finish your thought, please.

QUINN: This is just an enormous. It raises so many red flags and they need to be run to the ground as quickly as possible.

LEMON: Go ahead, Julia.

IOFFE: Well, you know, aside from the question of whether it's legal or not or whether it's unusual or not is the question of how it looks and plays politically even outside of the Trump base.

[22:25:01] So I keep thinking back to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and the ways in which he went after Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. And do you remember the three words he used all the time to talk about that, pay to play.

LEMON: Pay to play.

IOFEE: And you know, and this looks a lot like pay to play and it looks a lot more direct than a lot of the stuff that Trump and his surrogates were accusing the Clinton Foundation of.

LEMON: All right.

IOFFE: So even if that stuff was not illegal, even if that stuff wasn't unusual, people didn't like hearing about it.

LEMON: All right. Hold your thought because we're going to come back. Everyone stay with me.

When we come back I want to dig into what else we know about this Russian oligarch that Robert Mueller has questioned about the payments an investment firm linked to him, made to Michael Cohen.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: More on our breaking news. Now CNN learning exclusively that the special counsel questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars that a U.S. investment firm linked to him paid Michael Cohen. Why was the president's personal attorney receiving this money after the election?

[22:29:56] Back with me now, Jack Quinn, Phil Mudd, and Julia Ioffe. Phil, let me ask you a question here, because this Russian oligarch Veselberg -- Vekselberg, I should say, denies any connection to these payments but he also attended the December 2015 dinner in Moscow for R.T., the state-controlled TV channel, that's according to MSNBC News.

And we know that Michael Flynn was also there, Flynn is cooperating with the Mueller investigation. There are a lot of connections here. Is there -- do you think that this is a connection?

MUDD: I do. Let me give you a simple explanation why. As we discussed earlier, none of us knows whether anything illegal happened here. The real question is, whether this is worth investigating, yes.

Let me tell you one reason why. What happened between the Trump campaign and the Russians before the election, we know this -- pardon me -- after the election and before. We know this because Michael Flynn resigned for this, and conversations -- uncomfortable conversations about sanctions relief.

What would a Russia businessman want from the Trump campaign? Let me give you one guess, Don, sanctions relief. So here's the bottom line question, was there money changing hands between Russian or Russian backed entities in the Trump campaign because people wanted to gain influence to support the Trump campaign in an effort to relieve sanctions.

Flynn was right in the middle of that, that's why he lied to Vice President Pence, that's why he's not there anymore. That's a simple question you'd have if you were Special Counsel Mueller.

LEMON: Julia, you're shaking your head.

IOFFE: I am because Michael Flynn was trying to unilaterally lift sanctions in the, you know, wink of an eye that he was national security adviser.

He was working very hard to unilaterally lift the sanctions that Barack Obama had imposed, you know, a month before -- less than a month before leaving office in December of 2016. That did not come to pass.

From what I heard, there were, you know, Flynn deputies working to do that even a couple of days after Flynn was fired. It was a kind of, you know, chicken running around without its head before it fell down. I'm sorry for that image.

LEMON: That's exactly what we needed. So, listen, when we talk about -- talking about the different investigation avenues for this -- for the Mueller investigation. There was obstruction of justice, collusion, and on, and on that can be follow the money, right? This is a point, I think, where a lot of that may intersect. But the

big question that everyone has been asking is, is the President can be questioned by Mueller or not? Does this affect that at all, you think?

QUINN: It has to affect that. I mean, it has to, number one, really ratchet up the pressure Mueller must feel to get some answers to these questions.

Let me remind you by the way that we have still not seen indictments in connection with the hacking of the Democratic e-mails, OK? And a critical part of that episode is whether there were any Americans involved.

Was there a quid pro quo between anyone involved in the campaign to be sympathetic to push for sanctions relief, for example, in return for a systems in getting those e-mails out, we don't know that. But, things like that are really -- Bob Mueller really needs to run those to ground.

LEMON: The concern level, Philip, for the President, what do you think because folks have said, well, you know, this -- he should be concerned about Stormy Daniels thing, he should definitely be concerned about what happened to Michael Cohen, and the raiding of his home office and hotel, what do you think the President's concern level should be with this?

MUDD: Only one issue, I don't think he'll be connected with any Russian melding. I don't think he'll ever be charged by -- there are constitutional issues obviously by the Special Counsel. I think there is one thing as I look at this, and this is sort of my own bias, Don, and that is dirty money.

You look at dirty money in the Trump family, and you look at the son- in-law, then you look at the son, you look at people who have already been indicted for dirty money, that includes Paul Manafort.

If I were him, I could be concerned that the indictments get closer to the White House that they don't involve directly Russian meddling in the elections, but they do involve, and you are seeing something this year, dirty money that's connected with the family, and then the President has a tough decision, and that is what to do about the family.

LEMON: Yes, so listen, Julia, we know the President was upset about that raid I just mentioned that on Michael Cohen's house, office, and hotel room, and then he's particularly worried about financial manners -- matters in Michael Cohen's businesses, and on, and on, and on. Is there more you think to emerge here?

IOFFE: Absolutely. I think, you know, one of the things we still don't know about, and I think Robert Mueller with his, you know, subpoena super power, will be able to get to the bottom more easily than a bunch of reporters because the stuff is hard.

It's how is Donald Trump able to finance a lot of his business after banks cut him off, after he default, you know, went interrupt, and you know, declared bankruptcy several times.

[22:35:03] How is he able to finance these projects?

Were Russians as I think they were, you know, using him essentially as a laundry mat in New York and Florida, especially where Russian like to buy property, and where Donald Trump was selling it, and wasn't asking a lot of questions because he needed the money and they needed to launder it.

I think a lot more of that -- I think, you know, to quote Senator John McCain, I think this is a centipede or maybe even a millipede, and there are even more shoes to drop.

LEMON: Jack, you wanted to weigh in?

QUINN: Yes, I mean look, I'm inclined to agree with Phil, but as things stand right now, the evidence is not there, the President's involvement in this. Having said that, the evidence of Russian efforts to undermine our democracy are simply overwhelming. The idea of shutting down this investigation any time soon without getting all the answers to every way in which that happen is just beyond the pail.

LEMON: Thank everyone I appreciate it. When we come back, much more on our breaking news tonight, a Russian oligarch questioned about payments. A U.S. investment firm linked to him made to Michael Cohen. Just how bad could this be for his client, President Trump?

[22:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Here's breaking news, a CNN exclusive. The Special Counsel questioning a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars of U.S. investment firm linked to him paid Michael Cohen after the election. That is according to a source familiar with the matter. What does this mean for President Trump if anything?

Let's discuss. Assistant Editor of the Washington Post, David Swerdlick, he is a former senior adviser to President Obama. Well, here is now, but Dan Pfeiffer is. And former Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes. All are CNN Political Commentators. Good evening to all of you. Welcome to the program.

STEVE CORTES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: We've got east coast, west coast, and central, all represented on this panel. So, David, you first. Michael Cohen reportedly received approximately $500,000 from a U.S. company linked to a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg. What do you make of all this?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I think it's important to say at the start that Michael Cohen hasn't been charged or indicted yet, and nothing that's been reported by CNN or New York Times this evening...

LEMON: Right.

SWERDLICK: ... approves that the President or people close to him did anything illegal. But...

LEMON: Or Michael Cohen.

SWERDLICK: Or Michael Cohen, right. Yes. But we're at a situation now where if you look at this reporting you've got to come to this conclusion that this narrative that the White House has been pushing for the last year and a half that, look, there's nothing to see here, this investigation is a witch hunt, let's move on, you know, no Russians anywhere near the President's circle.

That is just getting stretched thinner, and thinner, and getting harder, and harder to take day by day when you have Russian oligarchs, American cousin who runs a company affiliated with his Russian company, giving money to Michael Cohen's, you know, side company, essential consultants which is the same company that we understand was used as sort of a slush fund to pay a fee to Stormy Daniels for NDA, you know, your viewers know the whole rest of the story. It's really incredible.

LEMON: Dan, I know you want to weigh in here. But let me -- this is a company -- the U.S. company, Columbus Nova LLC released a new statement tonight saying, as a general counsel of Columbus Nova, I can confirm that the company is 100 percent owned and controlled by Americans.

And he is suggesting that at any point and time, Viktor Vekselberg, or any of his company is owned, or exercised any control over Columbus Nova is patently untrue. How important is this?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I don't know about that statement or whatever that means. The broader picture here as David lays it out, is very damning for the President and Michael Cohen. Look, we don't know what crimes were committed, who committed them, that is Bob Mueller's job to figure out.

But what we do know and this become even more clear tonight is that Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's spokespeople, and Michael Cohen's spokespeople have been lying to the American people about this for a very long time now.

So they're trying to hide something. And it is really going to be incumbent on Bob Mueller to figure out what that is, and decide whether that is criminal activity that can be charged in a court.

LEMON: Yes. Steve, I want to bring you in now because Vekselberg's cousin was also a donor to the RNC, where Cohen served as a deputy finance chairman. He donated $250,000, and Trump's inauguration committee, $35,000 to a fund racing community for Trump's reelection, and the Republican National Committee, do you have any concerns about this at all?

CORTES: No, I don't at least yet. And by the way, he's an American, when we talk about his cousin. Last I checked, being a Russian decent in and of itself is not a crime.

Look, here is a deal, I think Michael Cohen has to answer some of these questions, and there are legitimate questions to be asked of him. That is a legitimate line of inquiry.

What is not legitimate in my view is to say that because they paid -- by the way, if we were to accept this story as true, and NBC for example reported falsely already on Michael Cohen for instance that he was being wiretapped. So if we assume the story is true though, and let's say at the...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: And they corrected it.

CORTES: OK, but they reported a non-true story, and this could be corrected tomorrow. But let's just it's true. If this true, and if they were trying to buy influence, which I don't dealt a lot people, a lot of companies, a lot of countries try to buy influence in every administration, guess what, they wasted their rule books (ph) because they got nothing.

What did they get instead? They got sanctions on this very oligarch consult of his company. They got the Ukraine armed, and they got the United States attacking Syria. So if this was an attempt by Russia to buy influence on the President, it failed miserably, and it was a giant waist of money.

LEMON: Well, they got Comey fired according to the President and the interview that he did, you know, with lesser hope. But here's the question, you said that -- you said Michael Cohen has to answer -- had some questions to answer, right? Did you not say that Steve? He should answer some questions?

CORTES: Yes, I believe he does.

LEMON: So what questions would you have for him?

CORTES: What were these payments for? You know, again if it happened -- and I'm even -- I'm not accepting a narrative yet.

[22:45:02] But if it's true -- if the reports are true, you know, what is it that you were paid to have a half million dollars for? That's a very legitimate question for Michael Cohen to answer.

But the idea of that if -- let's just say, if this supposition is true that the Russians were trying to buy influence via an American cousin, OK, and that it's a big if, but if that's true, guess what, they didn't -- they didn't buy what they thought they were buying. It did not work.

LEMON: But their...

CORTES: Donald Trump has been incredibly hard on Russia, incredibly hard on Putin, so the idea that he's Putin's puppet is just an absolute charade.

LEMON: Steve, the companies have issued statements at least confirming or at least denying some of the things, or explaining it, I should say -- explaining it, so there's no if any of this is true. The company's issued statements explaining this. So, just for the sake of accuracy, so again, what questions what you have for Michael Cohen?

CORTES: You know, I would say this, what did AT&T pay you for? You know, look, the swamp is -- the swamp is deep, and we all do that.

LEMON: All right, that is one question, but let's see what are the other questions.

CORTES: No, but that would be one of them is the idea of buying influence unfortunately is Washington tradition. One which I think Donald Trump is breaking, and if AT&T and if Russia thought they were buying influence with the President, guess what, they didn't, because this is a President who can't be bought. He's our first ever citizen President with no government experience who has no...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Steve I'm not trying to cut you off, I think you're making good points that's why I want to stick to that. I actually do think you are making good points, but I would like to know, because I think that, you know, people sitting at home would like to know what questions would you -- because it's a good point...

(CROSSTALK)

CORTES: Again, I would ask him what was this company? And it's not really a Russian company, but a Russia-related company. What was it? What services were they buying, what services were AT&T were buying. I think those are very legitimate questions...

LEMON: Yes.

CORTES: ... for Michael Cohen to answer.

LEMON: All right.

CORTES: I think it's also very legitimate for the President to say whatever they thought they're buying from Michael Cohen, they were not buying from me.

LEMON: All right.

SWERDLICK: Don, can I tell what I would like to ask...

LEMON: Yes, but continue on the other side of the break. And, Dan, I'm going to keep you guys around because Dan didn't really get to talk that much this time. So stick with me everyone.

Up next, more break news tonight. Three Americans detained in North Korea, they may be on their way home shortly. We're going to tell you about that next.

[22:50:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right, I'm back now. I'm discussing this with David Swerdlick, Steve Cortes, and Dan Pfeiffer. David, what did you want to say?

SWERDLICK: I was just going to say, I'd like to ask Michael Cohen, I would like to hear him answer the question, what was the purpose of essential consultants?

Because Steve made the point before the break that that, you know, yes, we live in a world where companies, and entities, and various individuals try and buy influence with the government, what's less common is entities, at least, tangentially connected to Russia making large payments to a company that also is allegedly the same company that pays off the alleged mistresses of the President of the United States. That is -- that is not typical swamp stuff even by, you know, 2018 standards.

CORTES: OK, wait a second.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Hang on. I wonder if this answers your question. Hold on, Steve. I'm going to let you answer next. I wonder if this answers your question from the previous statement from Columbus Nova's Attorney Richard Owens, OK?

He says that, it is investment management company solely owned, but controlled by Americans. After the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital, and potential investments in real estate, and other ventures. Steve.

SWERDLICK: Are you asking me, Don?

LEMON: No, I was asking Steve.

CORTES: I'm sorry. I didn't know this was for me. Yes, listen, and that's very possible. And again, Michael Cohen may have very legitimate answers to these questions.

But when you bring up the point or when the point is brought up that, you know, this is irregular, you know what, it's interesting.

This $500,000 amount is exactly what Bill Clinton was paid by a Russian company to give one speech in Moscow for which he was thanked by Putin. So please spare me the righteous indignation that we have never seen the Russians try to influence American politics before.

LEMON: I'm going to let Dan handle that one.

CORTES: But I'm not excusing -- I'm not excusing, by the way if Michael Cohen was trying to sell influence, number one, he failed, because it didn't influence Trump. But if he was, it was wrong.

It is equally wrong for the way the Clintons did it. And they did it to a level, by the way, that would actually make -- listen, I'm from Chicago. It would make a Chicago...

(CROSSTALK) CORTES: ... blush the level of corruption.

LEMON: Dan, I will let you handle that. Go on.

PFEIFFER: One thing we should know, Bill Clinton is definitely not president.

LEMON: He's not?

PFEIFFER: Definitely not president.

LEMON: Is Barack Obama president or Hillary Clinton? Are they president?

PFEIFFER: We have one president. His name is Donald Trump. And let's take a step back from Michael Cohen's corporation -- Shell Corporation, right? Which is interesting that he created it for this purpose.

But is when it comes to Trump and Russia, you have maybe nothing awry happening here, but you have to look at the facts, right? So Trump's son, son-in, law and campaign manager met with agents from the Russian government, promising it during Hillary Clinton.

At least two Trump advisors are reportedly knew about the hacks into the Hillary -- into the DNC, in Podesta e-mails in advance. Donald Trump ran a cash heavy real estate business which his son Eric said is where they get their money from the Russians.

You have Michael Flynn, you know, R.T. man of the year. You have Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's campaign manager would basically have been out American politics for two generations, shows up to work for Donald Trump, and happens to be a long time adviser to pro-Russian oligarchs, and deeply in-depth to the Russian.

And then at the same time you have the RNC passing the most pro-Putin platform in the party history. So you take all of that. Maybe all of those things are coincidences. Maybe. Maybe they're just smoke. But, maybe they're just smoke.

CORTES: What has Trump done as president?

LEMON: Let him finish.

PFEIFFER: Maybe they have smoke. But there maybe has never been this much smoke with no fire in the history of the world.

LEMON: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

CORTES: And to answer your question, missiles raining down upon Syria near Russian jets. This man -- the President has been anything but...

(CROSSTALK)

[22:55:02] LEMON: One at a time, please. One at a time. Dan, finish your point, and then Steve.

PFEIFFER: The point here is the ties between Trump, his aides, his advisors, his family, and the Russians are incredibly deep. We know the Russians intervened in the election with the expressed purpose of helping Donald Trump.

In office, Donald Trump has done some things tough on Russia. He's done other things where he refused to implement other certain sanctions when he kicked out Russian intelligence agencies -- intelligence assents over in response to the poisoning of London.

He then said they could just bring them back right after that. So the record is mixed here. And -- but I think to try to pin this down as just some Russian -- American cousin by Russian oligarch buying access -- potentially buying access through Michael Cohen is to miss the forest through the trees like Trump and Russia.

LEMON: Steve, I know you want to respond. If you can do it in 10 seconds, I have to get to the top of the hour, please.

CORTES: Listen, I met a lot of voters in Wisconsin and Michigan who tipped this election. They were minors, and cops, and factory workers, none of them were Russian. They didn't care about Russia. Russia didn't tip this election for Donald Trump. The American people did.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: That's not what we're talking about. That one does not...

CORTES: Doesn't mean they didn't try. Doesn't mean the Chinese didn't try. Doesn't mean many people didn't try.

LEMON: Yes, OK. Thank you all. I appreciate it.

PFEIFFER: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: When we come back, Michael Avenatti is here, Stormy Daniels' attorney to talk about all this breaking news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)