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CNN TONIGHT

Mueller's Team Questions Russian Oligarch About Payments A U.S. Investment Firm Linked To Him Made To Michael Cohen; Columbus Nova Statement On Michael Cohen; Three Americans In North Korea Expected To Be Released; Trump Withdraws From Iran Nuclear Deal. Aired 11-12a ET

Aired May 8, 2018 - 23:00   ET

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


[23:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon. It is 11:00 p.m. here on the East Coast, live with all the breaking news tonight and a CNN exclusive. Sources saying Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators have questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to U.S. investment firms linked to him made to President Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, after the 2016 election.

Now this development raises all sorts of questions. Where did that money go? Where did that company -- where did that company get in return for the payments? And why were funds directed to a shell company that was set up to pay hush money to a porn star?

Also breaking tonight, Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels alleges that Cohen received $500,000 from the U.S. Company linked to the oligarch after the election. And that is where we're going to begin this program on the hour head with Michael Avenatti.

Good evening. Thank you for joining us. So this is the information that you got today. We know that inspectors for the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller have questioned this Russian oligarch about payments to Michael Cohen. You have information regarding these payments. What are you alleging here, Michael?

MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIEL'S ATTORNEY: Well, we're alleging that there is about $4.4 million in suspicious transactions that flowed through this essential consultant's LLC bank account at first republic bank that Michael Cohen first established in October of 2016. And that this -- that these $4.4 million worth of transactions occurred from October of '16 up through approximately January of this year and in the executive summary that we posted, we provide details relating to those transactions.

LEMON: OK. This is what the general counsel for -- statement from Eric Costa, the general counsel for Columbus Nova sent to us just a moment ago. Not long ago. As a General Counsel of Columbus Nova, I can confirm that company is 100 percent owned and controlled by Americans. Any suggestion that at any point in time Victor Vekselberg or any of his companies owned or exercised any control over Columbus Nova is patently untrue. So what -- this leads me to ask, what evidence do you have that Victor Vekselberg ordered instructed or urged Nova to make any sort of payment?

AVENATTI: Well, first of all, his cousin was Mr. Intrater, was the CEO of the entity at all relevant times. That is A. B, Mother Jones I think did extensive reporting about a year or two ago relating to the connection between the U.S. subsidiary and the Russian entity. So that is B. C, what's interesting about the statement that has been made, Don, is they still haven't told anyone truly what the arrangement was with Michael Cohen, what it was for, why did they hire Michael Cohen to undertake this effort -- to this effort and what they haven't said is that there was absolutely no contacts whatsoever or connection between their entity and this oligarch or Russia.

LEMON: But -- how do we know that this came from Russia or Vekselberg or that -- was it just Nova acting on their own?

AVENATTI: What do you mean how do we know that?

LEMON: How do you know that?

AVENATTI: Well, I am not going to disclose every aspect of what we know. But here's what I will tell you. As I sit here right now, "The New York Times" has confirmed the accuracy of our executive summary. NBC news has confirmed the accuracy of our summary. And I was just on a competing network, they had an individual from Mother Jones that confirmed the accuracy of the relationship between the Columbus Nova and the Russian entity.

So, look, I feel very confident and I feel very comfortable in what we've come out and said. And look, I want to challenge the CEO of Columbus Nova, why don't you come on to CNN, tonight or tomorrow and tell the American people how much money you gave Michael Cohen and provide all the correspondence and details as to what exactly he did for you.

Because from my perspective, if he certainly didn't represent you in any legal matters. And what were you doing paying this guy this much money, half a million dollars from January of 2017 until September of 2017 unless you were buying access to the President of the United States.

LEMON: But we don't know for sure why Columbus Nova hired Michael Cohen. Is that what you are asking him to come on and explain?

AVENATTI: Yes. I want him to come on and explain it, provide the documentation. And did they attempt to buy influence with the President of the United States and access to the President of the United States? Because if they did that, Don, that is improper on a number of different levels including the fact that Michael Cohen was never registered as a lobbyist, made no disclosures as a lobbyist. Was not subject to the various disclosure or would have been subject to the various disclosure requirements of being a lobbyist.

[23:05:10] And look, again, are we talking about selling access to the President of the United States? Because, that is what it looks like. If you go through -- if you go through all of the pages of this report and you look at all the companies that were paying money to Michael Cohen, immediately after the election, it looks like Michael Cohen is selling access to the President of the United States.

LEMON: Listen, I think American people would have questions about that and have questions about consulting, would have questions about lobbying and will have questions about any of that, right? But is that illegal? Do we know if that is illegal?

AVENATTI: It may be. It may be illegal. Depending on the circumstances and what was disclosed and wasn't disclosed. And look, Bob Mueller is not picking this guy up off his private jet at Teterboro or wherever it was, in the area and taking his phones off of him and imaging the phones unless and asking him about the payment, if there is no connection between him and this U.S. subsidiary.

LEMON: Why would anyone who wanted to hire Michael Cohen go through LLC and not just hire him straight out?

AVENATTI: Well, because Michael, if they came to Michael Cohen and they wanted to hire Michael Cohen or Michael Cohen solicited them as a client, Michael Cohen would have instructed them on how to make the payments.

LEMON: Yes. In your report, you write that Cohen quote, inexplicably accepted these payments. Do you know if Michael Cohen approached these companies or did they approach him?

AVENATTI: We don't know one way or the other as to who solicited who. But I would find it very hard to believe that the companies would have come to Michael Cohen. I mean, I want to take a step back, Don. And just think about this for a moment. So immediately after the election in 2016, Michael Cohen, who is an attorney, who has had a business on the side relating to the Taxi Cab Medallions. OK, so these are his two claimed areas of expertise. Taxi Cab Medallions and being an attorney. Although we already established that he was a terrible attorney to say the least.

But immediately after the election, all of the sudden, he developed an expertise in the following areas. Business consulting. Insight into the administration. Capital raising on behalf of businesses and enterprises. And, you know, one or two other areas. I mean, this guy all of a sudden became like Leonardo Da Vinci, he all of the sudden became the Renaissance Man. I mean what exactly is this guy selling?

LEMON: Let's talk about some of that. Because the money from this company isn't the only payment that was made to Michael Cohen, OK, and his LLC. According to reports, the pharmaceutical to your report, the pharmaceutical company, Novartis, paid Cohen $399,920 in four separate payments in late 2017 and 2018. And here's what they say. In the agreements with the central consultant were entered before our current CEO taking office in February of this year and have expired. Do you know if there is anything improper about these payments?

AVENATTI: Well, you know, again, what is that statement? That is a piece of trash that statement. It doesn't tell us anything. So what, if the agreements are expired and so what if it was the prior CEO. In fact, that calls into question -- that raises suspiciousness even greater. 2Why not just tell people what the agreement was, what it was for,

what did you pay the guy for? And if you look at those payment amounts, they're exactly I think $20 less than even $100,000. It looks like they're structured payments that were design at that amount to avoid some reporting requirement or something --

LEMON: So they wouldn't trigger something.

AVENATTI: So they wouldn't trigger the $100,000. But look, the CEO, Novartis, you need to get with your communications people and you need to issue a separate statement that actually tells people something about what these payments are for as opposed to hiding behind the fact that your predecessor, the prior CEO is the one who came out or made this agreements. I mean, that tells people nothing. And in fact, that seems to suggest that there was something wrong with the prior agreement.

LEMON: All right. Let's talk about AT&T now, because Cohen's LLC also received $200,000 Michael, from AT&T in four separate payments on 2017 into 2018. All right, AT&T released a statement confirming the payments saying this, "A central consulting -- central consulting was one of several firm we engaged in early 2017 to provide insight into understanding the new administration. They did no legal or lobbying work for us and the contract ended in December of 2017." What more can you tell us about that? What do you think of that statement?

AVENATTI: Well, I mean, I don't know. What is insight into the new administration? I mean, what does that mean? Because the American people that want insight into the new administration, you know what they do, Don? They don't pay $200,000. They tune in to Fox or MSNBC or CNN. That is how they get insight into the new administration. So why does AT&T have to pay $200,000 to get insight into the new administration. That sounds like, what they're buying is access.

LEMON: Let me just say this, AT&T is trying to, you know, make a merger or complete a merger between our parent company Time Warner and it's in the courts now. As you know, judges are deciding on that now. But the question is, if Donald Trump has no political background and people don't know anything about his political leanings or there is no history, what is wrong with trying to gain information?

AVENATTI: Wait a minute. I don't buy into that. I don't buy into this whole concept of that he had no -- he may not have had a political background. But I think that during the debates and during the campaign people learned a lot about who he was and what he stood for et cetera.

[23:10:10] And this whole idea of buying access for $200,000, I mean, you know, personally, I don't think that is appropriate. But even if it was appropriate, there is a mechanism by which that is handled. It is usually done through a lobbyist or some other -- some other form where it is regulated. I mean, it looks like Michael Cohen, was selling access to the President of the United States to multinational corporations and he certainly wasn't doing legal work for them. That we know from the prior representations made in the Southern District of New York. LEMON: Do you think any of these companies were aware that they were

depositing money into an account that was created to pay hush money to an adult film star?

AVENATTI: I don't think so. But, you know, as some of the statements that we've seen from some of these companies that in my view are pathetic tonight and tell us nothing. Who knows? I mean, nothing will surprise me anymore.

LEMON: Have you been in contact with the Special Counsel about any of this in the administration?

AVENATTI: I'm not going to get into details about what I may or may not have communicated with the Special Counsel.

LEMON: There seems to be something that you reveal every single week or something. What is next?

AVENATTI: I mean, Don, there is a lot of information out there. And look, this whole idea that we're, you know, structuring the disclosures or it is drip, drip, drip, I mean, you know, I take a little bit of offense to that, because this isn't ongoing active piece of litigation. OK?

When you start a case, you don't have all the information that you necessarily will acquire during the case. And let me say this, people have criticized me -- some people criticized me for the number of times I've come on this network, the number of times I have appeared on cable television, the fact that I'm on TV a lot. Well, guess what? We're not changing. And I'm going to tell you why. Because it's working. It's working. It's causing the other side to make error, after error. We saw that over the last four or five days with Giuliani.

And let me tell you the other aspect in which it's working. People with information and knowledge about these players and about the transactions are coming out of the wood work. They're approaching us with information. They are helping our case, because they see how active we are and how aggressive we are and how out front we are and they have confidence in our abilities. And that is another reason why we're not going to stop.

LEMON: We got one more question. Do you -- you're on television a lot. You answer all -- you come on and you answer all the questions. Right, you put yourself out there. The main person beside the President who, you know, that you're in litigation with is Michael Cohen. Do you think his attorneys are doing him a service or disservice? Because we don't hear that much from them and we don't hear their side of the story.

AVENATTI: Look, I think they're doing him a disservice. I mean, the fact of a matter is we're in a very technologically advanced age. Information is power. People expect to have information at their fingertips not just by way of the remote, but by way of the phone and otherwise. And I think they're doing him a disservice. I mean, they brought out Michael -- you know, Michael Cohen brought

out David Schwartz. I mean, he was a disaster. And then now we see Rudy Giuliani. Rudy Guiliani actually makes David Schwartz look competent when I never thought I would say that. But that is basically where we are now.

You know, they still can't find somebody to deliver a concise message. They come on the shows and look people in the eye and answer questions. Maybe we'll get a third person next week and maybe that will be the charm. I don't know.

LEMON: Michael Avenatti, thank you. 2

AVENATTI: Thank you.

LEMON: I appreciate you again.

AVENATTI: Thank you, good to see you.

LEMON: Just ahead, more of our exclusive breaking news. Robert Mueller's investigators set questioned to Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments. A U.S. investment firm linked to him made to the President's attorney, Michael Cohen.

[23:15:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Breaking news. A CNN exclusive, the source saying that Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, has questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to U.S. Investment firm linked to him made to the President's attorney, Michael Cohen. I want to bring in now CNN Crime and Justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, Legal and National Security Analyst, Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent and Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor also with us, CNN Global Affairs Analyst, David Rohde.

Good evening everyone, thank you so much for joining us. Shimon, I want to start with you, because I want to get your reaction to what you just heard from Michael Avenatti, about these payments and put this in some context for your own CNN reporting.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Right. And Don, look, these payments have certainly come up before with the Special Counsel with the FBI. We have reported last month that the FBI and the Special Counsel have stopped a Russian oligarch turned out to be this guy Victor Vekselberg and when they stopped him, there were questions asked about money that went into the inauguration, perhaps into the Trump campaign. Money that came from Russians, but were -- the Russian were using Americans to make some of the donations.

It had seen for quite some time based on the people we talked to and a lot of our reporting that there was concern that money was being moved into this campaign and into people in the Trump world. And though the Russians were not able to do it, they were perhaps using Americans to do it. So, you know, certainly when we started hearing about this stuff, it certainly fell in line with our previously reported story. LEMON: And Renato, I should also point out that CNN has reviewed

Avenatti's document, but has not been able to independently authenticate it. From a legal perspective, what stands out to you about these payments?

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I'd say a couple things, Don. First of all, Avenatti and his report that he issued today detailed a number of false statements that Michael Cohen allegedly made to the bank. And, you know, in and of themselves, those statements don't constitute a crime. But I'll tell you, he is moving awfully close to the world of bank fraud.

So, you know, bank fraud is where you make false statements to a bank in order to trick the bank out of their money. The false statements that Avenatti listed don't go that far, but they are, you know, material false statements to a bank. That helps explain why the Manhattan prosecutors are looking at bank fraud.

And the other issue is campaign finance. You know, the Stormy Daniels payment came from this shell company that Cohen created. And then we have all this money pouring into the shell company. One thing that viewers should know is that it is illegal for foreigners to contribute to a U.S. election and if essentially what was happening is that the oligarch or one of his companies was putting this money into the account to pay for the Stormy Daniels payment, that could be a problem, because Mr. Giuliani, you know, the President's lawyer suggested that the timing of that payment was related to the election. So there is some potential exposure for Michael Cohen there as well.

[23:20:07] LEMON: So, David, why would Cohen take this money while he was the President's lawyer knowing that there is all this talk around election interference? It doesn't seem to make sense.

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: That is what is so extraordinary, the timing of all of this. This isn't some sort of early in the campaign. This is in the middle of the Russia investigation. People talk about this already, you know, there is this pattern already of Michael Flynn, Don Jr., Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Papadopoulos, all these people with ties to Russia, all this coverage, all the bias CNN unfair coverage of Trump-Russia. And he is doing business, he is receiving this money, you know, through a cousin, but from this oligarch who now has been sanctioned by the American government.

LEMON: Yes.

ROHDE: It's extraordinary. I mean it's, you know, if Donald Trump wasn't aware of this to put it mildly like, Michael Cohen accepting this money is not serving Donald Trump well.

LEMON: Timing, coincidence, connections, there is a lot of --

ROHDE: And this keeps it all going. This makes it harder for Donald Trump to fire Robert Mueller.

LEMON: Right. Asha, I want to bring you in now, because this oligarch, his name is Viktor Vekselberg, had connections to Vladimir Putin and to Oleg Deripaska, that is according to NBC News. Vekselberg attended the 2015 Russia Today Dinner, R.T. Known as the R.T. channel where fired National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, also appeared alongside Putin. Does that tell you anything?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it tells me that from an intelligence standpoint, this is as David just mentioned, one more Russian in the mix. And it's gotten even closer to Trump. I mean, this would have been a connection directly with Trump's lawyer and so far all of the other people in the campaign were a little bit more distant. It going to be harder for him to distance himself from this.

I think also here we have a potential issue from a counter intelligence perspective of possible compromise. If these payments were being made and they were known to -- they were being concealed, this is potentially leverage that you can have. And I think that this is why Mueller is inquiring into it. And it is going to be yet another line of inquiry that Mueller will want to ask Trump about, if Trump sits down for an interview which complicates that aspect of the White House strategy also.

LEMON: I wonder if, Asha, because I think the way from listening to all the legal experts that we have on, is that whether people wittingly or unwittingly became involved or had influence over or Russians had influence over them, the unwitting part is interesting to me, because I wonder if these people realize, maybe they may had been being played or used or manipulated by forces that they weren't even aware of.

RANGAPPA: Right. I mean it is a part -- the part of intelligence trade craft is to essentially get people to do what you want them to do without them not necessarily knowing it. I do think that it becomes harder to suggest that people weren't doing it knowingly when you start getting into things like accepting financial transactions and payments. And this is what where you see some of the financial issues with Paul Manafort and Rick Gates coming into the picture. I think, that ties in why Mueller is interested in comes business dealings, because they do have a relationship with the counter intelligence aspect of this investigation.

LEMON: Back now to Shimon. Shimon, the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller has already interviewed Vekselberg. What more do we know about him and what the FBI wanted to know from him?

PROKUPECZ: Well, something urgent. I mean, the minute he came to this country, they got a warrants for his electronics. They stopped him at a New York airport. They spoke to him. I was told by one source that he wasn't very cooperative. So, you know, the information that they want certainly has to do with money, perhaps some interaction with other people close to the campaign, close to the President.

But he hasn't really been cooperative with investigators and certainly they don't expect him, especially now that he sanctioned to cooperate and he is fighting some of the sanctions. That seems to be one of the things that he is focused on. He does have an attorney here who has been dealing with the Mueller team. And that attorney is not responding to any of our questions. You know, his camp, Vekselberg's camp, has been pretty quiet throughout this.

LEMON: Rudy Giuliani has been out doing interviews about the President, about Michael Cohen, the Russia investigation, Comey, you name it. David, do you think we're going to hear from him on this?

ROHDE: I think we will and we'll see how it goes. The last time it didn't go so well. And what fascinates me about this is that Michael Cohen was already the closest person to Donald Trump. He dealt with his negotiations. He negotiated this building he built in Georgia. He handled the Stormy Daniels payment. This is not some, you know, bit player that, you know the President doesn't know. For years and years he has trusted Michael Cohen to take care of his most sensitive problems.

[23:25:03] And why would Michael Cohen do this? He is a multimillionaire. He is a very wealthy man. He doesn't need this money. It's something is wrong here. Either terrible judgment or something worse.

LEMON: Asha, before we go, I want to ask you. There's been speculation for weeks about Michael Cohen, whether he is going to flip or not, does this push him in any one direction?

RANGAPPA: Well, I think the pressure is on, and you can --

LEMON: I should say could flip.

RANGAPPA: -- Michael Avenatti uncovered -- what's that?

LEMON: I said, I should say could flip.

RANGAPPA: I think the pressure -- he could flip. You know, if Michael Avenatti, uncovered this much, Mueller has uncovered much more before this and the Southern District as well. So, at this point we don't know what he is looking at. I suspect that it is not a good picture for him. And I would expect that he would start cooperating at some point.

LEMON: Thank you. Appreciate the conversation, everyone, and your time. When we come back, everything we know about who paid Michael Cohen and when. Plus, what else investigators could have learned about his and the President's business dealings when they raided Cohen's offices, or his home and office.

[23:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: We are learning tonight that American corporate giants also paid fees to President Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen. I'm joined now by CNN Contributor, Norm Eisen, a former White House ethics czar, and David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter and the author of "The Making of Donald Trump."

Good evening, gentlemen. Good to have you on. Just before I get more specifically, as an ethics czar, right, what do you see here?

NORM EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Don, thanks for having me back. You know, it is a plague on American policy making that corporations, the super rich, have the money to spend and the -- at a minimum, if we take this at face value, the ability to gather insight intelligence and possibly the questions being raised about access and influence.

You know, it's a plague in our system. There is too much money in the system and too much secrecy.

LEMON: OK, let me ask you then, because nothing that we see is illegal. Do you see anything illegal? It may be impossible suspect. But nothing is illegal. Michael Avenatti says he believes he's paying for access to the president. What do you say to that?

EISEN: Well, we don't know yet, Don. And I think it's very important when we get potentially sensational news. And this is sensational allegations --

LEMON: Right.

EISEN: -- to take a breath. The country is in good hands with Bob Mueller with the parallel investigation that is going on in the southern district of New York. They're attentive to this. They're looking at it. Let's give them a chance to assess what it is. And even with the many dubious activities of Michael Cohen, he still is entitled to let that investigation play out.

LEMON: He is still entitled innocent until proven guilty. He has not been charged yet. So David, why do you think -- or not been charged at all. I shouldn't say yet because we don't know if he will.

Why do you think the company linked to this Russian oligarch entered a relationship with Cohen in the first place and reportedly ended up paying him through his LLC that none of the rest of us even knew existed until recently?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, AUTHOR AND INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: You know, it's probably easier to find a New York real estate lawyer or consultant than a cab. And so why would they go to Michael Cohen? I think the answer to that is rather obvious. It's his connections, his close connections to the president who just described him as his lawyer.

And the documents Michael Avenatti has put out today make it clear. He has got banking records. They've been substantiated by other people. The question they raise is, was this as we all may be presuming some sort of pay to play scheme, a bribery sort of scheme?

But it also could be an extortion scheme, which is the other end of the very same crime. That is you want something from this administration. You will pay through Michael Cohen. And this is certainly, Don, not everything that has gone on. I'm not sure this is even a tip of an iceberg. There is a lot more here. I think Avenatti himself has said, there is a lot more coming.

LEMON: So Norm, you say that, you know, we should take a breath and let the investigation play out. But, you know, you have gone through things like this before. You've been around. Does any of this pass the smell test to you?

EISEN: I have taken witnesses and negotiated a deal in Mueller's U.S. attorney's office. So, yes, Don, it does reek. It does smell funny. But -- and the questions that David asks are legitimate questions and there are many more questions to ask.

If Cohen was taking these large sums of money, did he consider registering as a lobbyist? What conversations did he have with the president, with others around the president? What did he know?

Let's also be cautious because Columbus Nova, the company that is associated with Vekselberg, has made a statement. You showed it saying this was a purely American transaction.

LEMON: Yes.

EISEN: So there are hard questions to be asked. It all comes in the context. This is why I'm -- I agree with you, of course, he hasn't been charged yet. But DOJ is not going to allow under its internal rules these search warrants to be served on an attorney unless there is very strong evidence of criminality. So I think Michael Cohen has some big problems and we'll just see if this new evidence makes them worse or not. It smells, yes. It smells funny.

LEMON: OK, so, you mentioned the statement, so I think it is fair to put it up. He says, as 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.

[23:35:05] So let's move on, David. In response to the claims made by Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, AT&T confirmed, they confirmed that they had retained Cohen for, quote, insights into understanding the new administration. But that he did no legal work nor did he do any lobbying work.

I should point out that AT&T is currently involved in a lawsuit filed by President Trump's own Department of Justice over its bid to acquire CNN's parent company which is Time Warner. So if Cohen didn't do any legal or lobbying work, then what did he do?

JOHNSTON: Well, that's exactly the problem here. AT&T is in a very difficult position. I'm somebody who is, as you know, believes very much in competition. I'm not happy about the concentration of media ownership in this country.

But given the other media companies and what they own, AT&T is at a competitive disadvantage unless and until it is able to obtain CNN and the related properties to CNN that would tend to level a too small playing field.

So, from AT&T's position, the prospect that somehow they could get fair treatment if they respond to some requests by Michael Cohen, they funneled money to Michael Cohen, is something you can expect to see. And everybody at AT&T who touched this deal, even if you're the secretary who took the phone message, it's probably going to have to hire a lawyer at some point because they're going to be questioned about what was going on.

And these other companies, Novartis and the others who are making regular payments, these absolutely reek and suggest that this was a pay for play scheme. What we don't know is, was it initiated by all these companies who found their way to Michael Cohen on their own or were they being effectively held up?

LEMON: And investigation done by CNN shows that Cohen himself has at least six different shell companies. The news tonight only relates to one of those companies, Essential Consulting, which is an LLC. Does that raise questions about --

JOHNSTON: Don, remember, this LLC was created specifically for the benefit of Donald Trump a couple weeks before the election.

LEMON: Two weeks before the election. And two weeks -- I should say two weeks before the deal was done with Stormy Daniels. It was created. Go ahead, Norm. You want to respond to any of that?

EISEN: Well, you know, I -- David's questions are legitimate ones, I will tell you, and I condemn the role of big money in politics. But for any large corporation to be able to bounce ideas off of someone, someone who knows the president, to be able to formulate arguments, you know, I think we need to let the process work out and determine whether -- as we all might fear, there was something illicit here.

Or on the other hand, it was the kind of contract for to get information and insight that is not unusual in every administration of both parties.

I have confidence that Bob Mueller and the southern district of New York are going to get to the bottom of it. And David is right. Everybody is going to need a lawyer. So that is good news for my profession, Don.

LEMON: Yeah. I don't fear that there is something -- I'm the one here covering it and asking questions and it's confusing. There is so much going on with this particular story. Thank you all. Thank you both. I appreciate it.

Up next, more breaking news tonight. Three Americans detained in North Korea may be on their way home shortly. We have all the late developments, next.

[23:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Here's the late breaking news tonight on another front. A South Korean government official saying he expects Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to return home from North Korea with three Americans detained there.

Secretary Pompeo is on his second trip, a surprised trip to North Korea at the invitation of Kim Jong-un's government. Joining me now to talk about this, CNN National Security Analysts, Samantha Vinograd and Shawn Turner, and CNN Political Commentator, Scott Jennings.

Good evening to both of you. This is good news for some family members and the folks there. According to what South Korean government official has said, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expected to return home with those three American detainees. What is your reaction?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: My reaction is definitely a positive development and very hopeful that it goes forward. But I think we have to keep in mind that returning these hostages is a pretty low cost initiative on behalf of the North Korean government, particularly what we think about it in the context of their nuclear program and the denuclearization discussion that are ongoing.

So very positive, but we can't take our eye off the ball in terms of actually getting rid of North Korean nuclear weapons. We haven't heard much about that in recent days. We heard a lot more about when and where the summit is happening and the logistical details. I hope the administration is spending just as much time on the substance.

LEMON: You remember when last week Rudy Giuliani talked about this and there were concerns that maybe he risked some sort of sensitive negotiation somehow by talking about this. I'm sure these families won't rest until these folks are home, until their loved ones are home.

VINOGRAD: Exactly. Honestly, Don, I think that Giuliani's performance should be called exactly that. It seemed like improv (ph). I have no idea what he was basing that off of. It was kind of like improvisation to me. This is not the sort of thing that you just want to wing on television when three American lives are hanging in the balance. So let's hope that this report is more accurate.

LEMON: Shawn, Pompeo is also there to prepare for a meeting with the country's leader, Kim Jong-un. And President Trump, he is expected to finalize details on a location and time. What are your predictions for this meeting?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think, Don, that the North Koreans are going to come into this meeting really understanding this administration in a way that some of the administration may not anticipate.

[23:45:00] Look, you know, I think Sam made a very good point. You know, getting these hostages home is a very good move. I think the North Koreans are going to come to the table in a position where they're going to be able to talk about what they've already done ahead of this meeting.

I think that this negotiation is going to be much tougher than the president and the administration are expecting because we still have questions over what exactly it means to be a -- to give up their nuclear weapons. We still have concerns over exactly what approach we will take with regard to whether or not we will get complete verifiable denuclearization versus we will get a phased approach.

So, I think that as Pompeo prepares for this meeting, you know, he needs to be absolutely certain that he is talking to the North Koreans and South Koreans behind the scenes to make sure that they understand that the United States is coming to the table in order to make an offer.

And that there is not going to be a lot of negotiations with regards to what the North Koreans get up front, which is about getting rid of their nuclear program. If the North Koreans are of the mind that there is room for negotiation here, this may be over before it even gets started.

LEMON: So Scott, this was the second surprise trip to North Korea for the Secretary Pompeo. Is Pompeo making progress here with North Korea?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think so. And I like that we're getting the people back. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that North Korea was holding an American, torturing him and murdering him and sending him back to us. And so, this is progress that we're actually going to get some of our people back.

But it is vital that this government, the Trump government, have some interactions with Kim before the president sits down with him. What I love about this is that Pompeo has the full trust of the president.

So the president trusts his new secretary of state to have these interactions which means he's going have really good sort of interpersonal intelligence before he goes and has this summit.

So this is encouraging on a lot of fronts. I still think the Kim regime is trust but verify and we have to treat them that way. But it's hard to look at this as anything other than a real positive especially for the families that are waiting for their people.

LEMON: All right. I want everyone to stay with me. When we come back, President Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and vowing to impose new sanctions on Iran, straining America's relationships with its closest allies.

[23:50:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: President Trump following through on his pledge to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. now going against its allies and imposing new sanctions on the Iranian regime.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail. We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction. And we will not allow a regime that chants "death to America" to gain access to the most deadly weapons on earth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Samantha Vinograd, Shawn Turner, and Scott Jennings, back with me. So Scott, Trump said throughout the campaign that he would tear up the Iran deal. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: The Iran deal, which may be the single worst deal I've ever seen drawn by anybody.

The nuclear deal is a disaster.

My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran. I've studied this issue in great detail. I would say actually greater by far than anybody else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: So he followed through and his campaign is saying that this is a promise kept. Do you think the president understands the international and security implications of his decision?

JENNINGS: Yeah, I do actually. And I think we all understand the international implications of what Obama did. Remember, the only reason we had a deal in this format is because the American people didn't support this. Over 60 percent of the U.S. Congress didn't support the idea.

So Obama was not able to submit it as an actual treaty. They had to come up with this thing called the JCPOA. But all it really gave us was a JCPOS. And everybody knows this was a terrible deal. Even Democrats were oppose to this thing. So I think Donald Trump made a promise, kept a promise, and now can get us a better deal.

You can't trust the Iranian regime who supports terrorism. And now they say, oh, we'll start enriching uranium within the next few weeks. The next few weeks. What kind of a deal allows them to put a plan and place to have uranium enrichment on hold? This was terrible from the beginning. And I think most people are glad the president took action.

LEMON: Isn't that in part because we're withdrawing. Here's the thing. When you said the American people didn't like it. This is what CNN's recent poll shows. Sixty-three percent of Americans think that we should not withdraw from the deal and that the question is, is Trump only talking to his base? Do you want to respond to what Scott said?

VINOGRAD: I have a lot of comments on what Scott said. First of all, there isn't widespread support for Trump withdrawing from this deal. We actually heard a lot of statements including from Republicans today indicating that withdrawing from this deal made us less safe. So it is a viable argument that we could have tried to negotiate to get a better deal, but now we have no deal.

LEMON: Jeff Flake said that.

VINOGRAD: Yeah, we have no deal. And so the question is, is no deal better than the deal that we had? From a national security perspective, the answer to me is just no. Iran is safer today because we withdrew from this deal. At this point, Iran can play the victim card. They can rightfully say that they kept their agreement, we broke ours, and now they're the victim.

By the way, Don, they are now on one side with all their allies and Russia, and we're on the other isolated as the one that again broke our word and is untrustworthy. So that doesn't set us up for success. It helps Iran in my book.

LEMON: Shawn?

TURNER: Don, I just got to point out something about what Scott said. A lot of people have been out on the networks saying this. Everybody is talking about how the president makes a promise and he's keeping his promise. The president said today, when I make a promise, I keep a promise. On the surface, that sounds great. But here's the problem with that. On the campaign trail, a lot of people who are running for president make promises.

The problem is that when you become president of the United States and you have the benefit of full knowledge, particularly as it relates to national security and foreign policy issue, intelligence issues, when you have the benefit of full knowledge, then that's the point when you realize that those promises that you made on the campaign trail may not be in the best interest of U.S. national security. And so when people are out saying hey, the president is keeping his promises, that's great to say that.

[23:55:00] But the question is, is the president simply keeping promises because he made promises? Or is the president evaluating and assessing these decisions and making the decisions that are in the best interest of our national security? And I will tell you with this decision, the president did not make a decision that is in the best interest of national security.

LEMON: Scott, I think you should respond.

JENNINGS: Yes. Look, I agree with you, the president does have the full knowledge and you have full intelligence. And that's what Barack Obama had when he made this deal. And so if he had all in knowledge and all this insight, why was he not able to convince the American people at the time? Why was he not able to convince the Congress at the time to do this in treaty form?

There's a real constitutional answer to this. If you don't want the sands taken out to sea when the next administration comes in, you put this in a treaty and you submit it to the Congress. The reason is, it had no political support. He did not build public support for it because people knew that it was a bad deal at the time.

So, you can be mad at Donald Trump, but you really need to take a deep breath and remember, Barack Obama put you all in this situation of having to defend this deal being thrown away today because he couldn't sell it as a treaty at the time.

VINOGRAD: Scott, why are we finger pointing between presidents here though? Isn't the question whether we are safer with or without --

JENNINGS: You're finger pointing. You're finger pointing.

VINOGRAD: I'm not finger pointing.

(CROSSTALK)

JENNINGS: Scott, let me talk for a second, please. I'm asking the question as to whether we are safer today than we were yesterday. And from a national security perspective, I think that this was a net win for Iran when the United States withdrew. I'm not here to be an apologist for the Iran deal. I am here to say that I think that this gave a benefit to Iran because we look untrustworthy and put ourselves at more risk.

LEMON: OK, I got to go. Thank you. I appreciate it. That's it for us tonight. Thanks for watching. I'll see you right back here tomorrow.

[24:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)