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Avenatti Gets Bank Information about Cohen; CNN Sources: Cohen Pitched Himslef Promising Acess to Trump; Three American Detainees Freed by North Korea Flying to Joint Base Andrews; McCain Calls on Senate to Reject CIA Nominee Gina Haspel; Meacham on President Trump's America. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired May 9, 2018 - 22:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: The latest from the Big Island there. That's all for me tonight. I'm John Berman. Thanks for watching 360. Time now to hand it over to Don Lemon. "CNN TONIGHT" starts now.


CNN is learning a lot more tonight about how Michael Cohen turned his relationship with Donald Trump into a big bucks business. Multiple sources telling CNN that Cohen, the man who describes himself as Donald Trump's fixer, aggressively pitched himself to potential clients after election.

According to one Republican strategist saying quote, "I'm the guy you should hire. I'm closest to the president. I'm his personal lawyer." Well, apparently the pitch worked. The money came rolling in. More than a million dollars in the months following the election, including from a company linked to a Russian oligarch, with close ties to the Kremlin.

All of this raises a lot of questions for Cohen who is already under criminal investigation related to his business dealings. But we're not getting any answers tonight from the White House.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Don't you think the public has a right to get some answers about these questions that there are payments coming from a Russian-connected entities, or Russian individuals connected with the Kremlin through a shell company that is controlled by Mr. Cohen to pay off whomever? I mean, doesn't the American people have the right to have some information about that?

SARAH HUCKABEE-SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think there are appropriate venues and channels in which to do that. And I've encouraged you to reach out to them to do exactly what you just outlined?

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: So as the White House dodges inconvenient questions about the man the president just last month told us was still his personal attorney. Remember what candidate Trump said on the campaign trail charging Hillary Clinton with, wait for it, pay for play.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form for themselves.


TRUMP: They've made hundreds of dollars selling access, selling favors. It's called pay for play. And some of these were really, really bad and illegal. If it's true, it's illegal. You are paying and you're getting things.

We've just learned she tried to get $12 million from the king of Morocco for an appearance. More pay for play.


LEMON: Pay for play. It is also worth remembering that today marks exactly one year since President Trump abruptly fired FBI director James Comey. The very next day, meeting with Russians in the Oval Office and telling them he quote, "faced great pressure because of Russia," which was now taken off with the firing of Comey.

And the day after that, telling NBC's Lester Holt, he fired Comey because quote, "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."

The Special Counsel Robert Mueller began his investigation just days later. And the years since then has been full of one bombshell after another after another after another. Within weeks, the president reportedly attempting to fire Mueller. Only backing down when his own White House counsel threatened to quit.

There is a revelation of Donald Trump Jr.'s Trump tower meeting during the campaign with a Russian attorney who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. And all the shifting stories about that meeting in the days and weeks that followed. The repeated whispers from sources saying the president was about to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, guilty pleas from former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort's business partner Rick Gates. All of them agreeing to cooperate with the Mueller investigation, not to mention Manafort, himself, indicted on five counts of money laundering, conspiracy and lying to federal authorities about his lobbying work.

We've learned all that in the years since James Comey was fired. But tonight, we still have a lot more questions than answers.

So let's get right to it. Our breaking news, and it's on Michael Cohen, joining me now, CNN Political Correspondent, Sara Murray, CNN Political Reporter, Kara Scannell, and CNN Political Analyst, Carl Bernstein. Good evening. Good to see all of you.

Carl, a lot has happened in the past years since they fired Comey. I read off some of it. We are learning even more now. You are an expert on following the money. You always tell me, follow the money, so put this into the largest context of the Mueller investigation.

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Truth is, follow the money and follow the lies, particularly even the lies come from the President of the United States and the Office of the President of the United States and those around him.

And what we have seen, take what you just said up at the top of the show, and turn it around and say it was Hillary Clinton who was the president-elect and then the president. And it was her personal lawyer and fixer we were talking about and her Papadopoulos, her Mike Flynn's and her officials from the campaign that were under investigation for what they did or might have done with Russians and her dealings with Russian.

[22:05:08] There would be a human cry from the Donald Trump's and Republicans that she should be in leg irons by now and that there should be a special prosecutor whose investigation of Hillary Clinton should be sacrosanct and not touched and should go to its condition. It's logical conclusion and follow whatever the evidence is.

That's why we would be instead of an instruction and every attempt by the President of the United States and those around him, to demean, undermine and obstruct, particularly Republicans who have enabled this president to do that.

A legitimate investigation in which so many facts are in front of us about relationships with Russians that we need to be terribly concerned about what happened in the campaign.

LEMON: Kara, and you have new reporting tonight about one of the companies, right, that paid Michael Cohen. What can you tell us about that?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Right. So Columbus Nova is the company that paid Michael Cohen money after the election. And now what we are learning tonight is that they are working hard to distance themselves from the Russian oligarch who they've had long ties with, including scrubbing its web site.

The oligarch is Victor Vekselberg, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin who was placed last month on sanctions list by the Treasury Department.

The CNN reported yesterday that investigators working with the special counsel Robert Mueller stopped and questioned Vekselberg at a New York are airport earlier this year about payments Columbus Nova made to the president's personal attorney Michael Cohen.

Now Vekselberg and Columbus Nova founder Andrew Intrater are cousins. Sources told us that Intrater was also questioned by investigators and some of the attention on Columbus Nova is also coming because Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for adult film star Stormy Daniels made allegations that Mr. Vekselberg and his cousin, quote, "routed eight payments to Mr. Cohen through Columbus Nova."

Vekselberg's Russian company is the biggest client. But the company itself is fully owned and operated by U.S. citizens and has never had any foreign ownerships. Don, it also says the oligarch had no role in the decision to hire Michael Cohen.

LEMON: And that's a lot and we want to make sure that we got it right and you did that perfectly.

The company has previously portrayed a closer relationship. What do you know about that, Kara?

SCANNELL: That's right. I mean, the company until recently included its ties to Renova on its Web site but that information has since been removed. In archived copy of Columbus Nova's Web site describes Intrater as a partner of Columbus Nova and describes the American company this way.

As the, quote, "The U.S. investment vehicle for the Renova Group which is a multinational Zurich-based international holding company." It also describes Intrater as a, quote, former director and current member of the executive board of Renova Group. It's the same description Columbus Nova has used on its web site for years.

And in filing with the FCC regulators in 2007, Columbus Nova said it was the U.S.-based affiliate of the Renova Group of companies, one of the largest Russian strategic investors. When it was founded, it was called Renova U.S. Management and its since changed its name to Columbus Nova.

And Renova Group as recently as April listed Columbus Nova as one of the companies out of two dozen on its web site that it include under its group structure.

Now a spokesman for Columbus Nova says the web site changes are being made because the ties to Renova are being misunderstood. The spokesman also told CNN the company is trying to make sure people don't mistake the American company for a subsidiary of Renova.

Now Renova has not responded to our request for comment on why they included the Columbus Nova on their web site as the company, and you know, that's kind of where we are now. We're waiting, you know, what remains to be seen if they adjust their relationship with Renova further on their web site.

But I think a bigger picture at play here is that Renova and Vekselberg have been put on a sanctions list. And that took a lot of implications for companies and that's probably another reason why they're distancing themselves.

BERNSTEIN: Isn't Columbus run by Vekselberg's cousin?

LEMON: His cousin.

SCANNELL: That's right, yes.

BERNSTEIN: I just want to be sure.

LEMON: You also have new reporting on how Michael Cohen allegedly pitched himself to -- Sara has a new reporting. Pardon me, I thought it was kara has a new reporting. Sara, you have the new reporting on how he pitched himself to perspective clients, or allegedly did, he promised access to the president.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, we live in a very interesting time remember when the president won the election, where no one really thought that coming. A lot of people missed it. And that certainly was true of corporate America. And I'm told by sources that CEOs were freaking out. They didn't know who to go to make inroads into this new administration.

And Michael Cohen we're told was pretty aggressive in courting a number of these clients, he would go and say whoever is representing me, you should fire them, you should hire me, I'm the closest one to the president, the incoming president. I'm his personal lawyer.

And in Novartis this is one the companies that end up hiring Michael Cohen actually said that they met with him, they thought that he could give them access to the White House when it came to health care policy, that's what a source told us.

[22:10:07] And it turns out that Michael Cohen apparently could not deliver for him or for this company all that he had offered. That did not stop them from paying him a whole lot of money though, Don.

LEMON: Here's the quote that you're mentioning. "I don't know who's been representing me but you should fire them all. I'm the guy you should hire, I'm closest to the president. I'm his personal lawyer." These companies that have paid Michael Cohen, Sara, are they defending their relationships with him?

2MURRAY: Well, yes. I mean, a lot of them have put out statements essentially saying, look, this is a legitimate business relationship. We hired him for a legal advice. We hired him as a business consultant.

And it's worth noting, you know, this wouldn't be the first time that happened in Washington, D.C., paying for access is pretty common around this town, but obviously, Michael Cohen is someone who is already under criminal investigation. And we know as Kara has been pointing out that special counsel Robert Mueller has been interested in a number of these payments.

And it goes on beyond just this question about Columbus Nova and what's going on with this Russian oligarch. AT&T also said today that they cooperated with inquiries from the special counsel about their payments to Michael Cohen.

Novartis said the same thing. That they got inquiries from the special counsel about their payments to Cohen and also cooperated. So, you know, that is an indication that there could potentially be at least more legal problems ahead for Cohen.

LEMON: So, as I thought about this more today, Carl, and I don't know if people have pointed out as much, how unusual it is for the personal attorney of the president of the United States to be involved in any business like that.

Usually that is what companies hire lobbyists to do. Or you call the White House an adviser and you set up a meeting and you say we need to talk about this and figure out where we meet, where we don't meet on issues and what have you.

But to have the personal attorney be involved in issues like this and the money being sent through, an LLC set up to pay hush money to a porn star.

BERNSTEIN: I think, first of all, we got a look at Michael Cohen as an entity unto himself and historically, we haven't seen anything quite like him, and particularly the relationships with Russians. And what they might mean.

Secondly, in terms of pay-to-play, it is an equal opportunity game in Washington.

LEMON: Right.

BERNSTEIN: The Democrats have been as up to their necks as the Republicans in this, including former White House chiefs of staff, to Democratic presidents and others. It is what the way the game is played in Washington.


LEMON: It's an indictment in our system, people are finding it -- finding now.

BERNSTEIN: But what we -- what we need to be focused on right now is this investigation by a special prosecutor into the most serious thing that can happen to our democracy, which is it being undermined through our electoral process by a hostile foreign power, and every appearance, despite what Donald Trump keeps saying about no collusion, no collusion, no collusion, people all around him appear to have been involved in some kind of nefarious relationships with Russians that may or may not involve quote, "collusion" and may or may not involve the president in possible collusions.

That's what this is all about. As I said, when we started, let's just turn it around and think if Democrats were the ones involved in this, there would be hell to pay. All we, I believe, in the press are trying to do as day after day Donald Trump attacks us, is to follow the money, follow the lies, and see what the meaning of the facts are that we are able to obtain while he tries to undermine a duly constituted and legal investigation to get to the bottom of things.

LEMON: Carl, Kara, Sara, thank you very much. I appreciate your time. When we come back, Michael Cohen has reportedly been raking a big

bucks based on his closeness to the president. But will all this get him in even more hot water legally? We'll talk about that.


LEMON: Lawyers for Michael Cohen are accusing Stormy Daniels's attorney of publishing information about the wrong Michael Cohen. But what does it mean for the investigation of the president's long-time personal attorney and fixer.

I want to bring in now CNN Contributor, Walter Shaub, a former director of the Office of Government Ethics for the Obama administration of President Barack Obama and President Trump, and also Michael Moore, a former U.S. attorney.

Good to have both of you on, gentlemen. Good evening. Michael, I'm going to start with you.


LEMON: Attorneys for Michael Cohen firing back at Michael Avenatti, accusing him of circulating false information by releasing private bank records from a different man named Michael Cohen. So help us sort this out. Does this take away from Avenatti's credibility?

MOORE: You know, I think it's always hard to come and try to litigate your case and put your evidence out in the media. It makes for good news stories. It gives us a lot to talk about, but the bottom line is if you do get into a situation where you have some back and forth and people question the validity of the documents.

I will say this. We heard about these Suspicious Activity Reports or SARS reports dealing with the bank records. Those things are typically very secretive. And they go to a financial crimes unit. The U.S. attorney's office usually has a representative looking over these documents to find out have there, in fact, been suspicious activities with financial institutions and banking accounts and such as that.

So, it would be unusual and really unheard of for someone outside of that investigative loop to have access to those SARS reports.

LEMON: So, Walter, Avenatti for his part has fired back on Twitter and he's what he's saying. He's saying, "Mr. Reince (ph) submission on behalf of Mr. Cohen is baseless, improper and sanctionable. They fail to address, let alone contradict 99 percent of the statements in what we release, among other things, they effectively concede their receipt of the $500,000 from those with Russian ties."

So is Michael Avenatti starting to really get under the skin of Cohen and his team?

WALTER SHAUB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think they're upset about it. I'm a little confused about how Avenatti got this material or why he released it publicly before really having an opportunity to vet it or put it through the judicial process, where he gets to conduct some discovery and question people. So I'm a little confused about what we have and how he got it.

MOORE: Let me throw this out--


[22:20:00] LEMON: Go on.

MOORE: Let me just throw it out. He has laid, Avenatti has laid traps for the Trump team from the beginning and they've stepped in every trap, you know. And so my guess is that he got some information. He decided he'd take a chance and see what they did.

In fact, you know, here they come. They've made other statements now that he'll use later on in litigation that they'll have to either back track or stand by. But he always gets them to talk. They don't know how to button it up.

LEMON: I just want to read this, and it's from -- I want to read it from my phone, because it's someone who has knowledge of the system and it's actually from a family member. And she says, the law makes disclosures of a SAR, a criminal violation, in fact, the bank should not admit or deny the existence of one being filed. Correct?

MOORE: I think that's right. And you know, there is a reason for that and that is that you can have banking activity that may look suspicious on its face but in fact is nothing. And that's one of the reasons we keep even the grand jury investigations in the federal system secret. That's because something might be suspicious.

You may be looking in a case its conduct, it may turn out to not be a crime. But you don't want to have marred the reputation the business opportunities, the business itself of people who were involved in it. So there is a reason to keep those things quiet until there is a full investigation.

LEMON: And that's from my cousin Tonya who works on banking.

MOORE: Tonya gets an 'a' in defense in all of that.

LEMON: So listen, a source tells CNN that Cohen pitch to these entities went along these lines, he says, "I don't know who has been representing you. But you should fire them all. I'm the guy you should hire. I'm closest to the president. I'm his personal lawyer."

Walter, does that sound like selling access to you?

SHAUB: It sure does, and it's repugnant behavior on the part of Michael Cohen. So far, though, I don't think we've seen a direct link to the president in the sense of the president endorsing that kind of behavior or encouraging people to go along with that. So I think we need to reserve judgment until we hear more.

But you know, in terms of Michael Cohen. He's not covered by the ethics rules, but it is really despicable behavior.

LEMON: So Michael, CNN has learned that special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his team they looked into the AT&T and the Novartis payments to Cohen, it was six months ago.

MOORE: Right.

LEMON: And they questioned the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg earlier this year. How do you see this playing out in the Mueller investigation?

MOORE: You know, I've said from the beginning that this is a case about following the money. And I think that's really what they've done. And when you look back and see that they were already into these financial investigations almost a year ago, and that tells me that they are already well on the money trail.

A lot of these questions could be answered. We could get to the bottom of this. This investigation could be brought to a much hastier conclusion if the president would give us his tax return.

And so, I will simply throw out if in fact he's watching, I'm sure he's watching your show, Don, that, you know, Mr. Trump, let us have your tax returns. And that may bring this thing to a conclusion, you wouldn't need Giuliani or anybody else to go to try to negotiate that. We can get on about people's business if we can see those things.

So you know, I think that's where we're at. Mueller has known this is a money trail case. And he's telling us about we're finding out that he has been on it for many, many months.

LEMON: As you reminded me, I forget that he watches every night, hello, Mr. President. How are you doing?

So, listen, does this incident, Walter, serve to point out just how far ahead all of us, how far ahead than all of us that Mueller is?

SHAUB: Well, yes. I mean, I think that's startling news that he had this information long ago. So, whatever he had then, he's months ahead beyond that at this time. And we don't know and his investigation has shown incredible discipline unlike the White House team in holding tight information and not leaking it out.

LEMON: Not leaking, right.

SHAUB: So, yes, I think it's hard to speculate on what he has or where he's going. But I think it's safe to assume, he's got a lot more than we know.

LEMON: And someone said to me today that if Michael Avenatti is able to get, you know, these sorts of documents and records, imagine what Robert Mueller has.

But moving on, Michael, President Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday that they are waiting to see what happens in Paul Manafort's case in Virginia before deciding whether the president is going to speak to Robert Mueller. What is the strategy there? What exactly are they waiting to see happen?

MOORE: You know, I think that the president's team has probably taken a little too much comfort with some off the cuff remarks that some judges have made in a couple cases that are going on. And let me tell you that that's probably a mistake and I think that at the end of the day it will not serve them well.

I think Giuliani is thinking because he's got a judge there who wants to say, well, this may be exceeding Mueller's scope, I'm not even sure why you are looking at Manafort. You know, you really want the president I know what you are looking for.

[22:24:53] Those things come out sometimes in courtrooms between judges and lawyers, but at the end of the day, when have you an indictment, the federal grand jury has heard that, there are crimes that have been alleged, and I don't know that I would sleep well at night if my lawyer is telling me, let's just wait on the judge and don't worry about it.


MOORE: What's interesting is that he can get a subpoena. And the president will have to come forward and there are very strict Department of Justice rules that would say because he's not been named as a target, that he may in fact be subject to a subpoena even though he wants to play in the Fifth Amendment.

LEMON: I don't want to unduly impugning anyone's reputation, so I just want to get this in. Quickly, Michael, if you can answer it for me. Because this is from an attorney who appears here on CNN. He says, it's so much -- it's so much more likely that he received the goods from some other plaintiff. Someone who may have received the settlement. Avenatti can release with no regrets as not really essential to his case one way or the other." Can you respond to that?

MOORE: Are we talking the documents, the financial documents you're talking about?


MOORE: You know, he may have in fact gotten those somewhere. I just don't know that it's a good tactic to get that kind of information out until you've personally vetted it.

And so while I can appreciate the fact that he's been very resourceful and good about getting his media bites out there and he's been able to sort of lead the president's team along and get them to fall into his traps, I just don't know when you have this kind of information, especially information which is otherwise typically considered in the federal process to be secret, that you ought to be putting it out in the public meeting.

LEMON: Thank you, Michael. Thank you, Walter. I appreciate your time.

When we come back, the former Director of the National Intelligence, James Clapper weighs in on the many different payments made to Michael Cohen and how they may factor into Robert Mueller's investigation.

[22:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK) LEMON: The White House is dodging questions today about President Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen. As we are learning more about how he aggressively fetched himself to potential clients promising access to the President.

That in the midst of what's turning into a very busy week for the Trump administration in some of the world's hot spots. I want to talk about all of this with CNN National Security Analyst, James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence. Director, it's so good to have you on. Thank you, good evening.


LEMON: I would like to hear your thoughts on Michael Cohen, the President's trusted attorney, who we know received $500,000 from a U.S. company linked to a Russian oligarch, as well as other companies. Give us you intelligence assessment here. What is this all about you think?

CLAPPER: Well, it looks to me like Mr. Cohen saw an opportunity to sell access, and apparently was fairly successful at it. And he wasn't too picky about who would fan him for access to include a concern that apparently has a connection with the Russians.

Now here -- at this point, I have to mention a caveat, that whatever we think we know about what is going on here, I think Special Counsel Mueller and his team know more.

And secondly, there just seems to be this curious repetitive pattern of some connection to Russia, and hopefully, when the light is finally cast on all of this, we'll have a better understanding of what's going on here.

LEMON: Yes. The Special Counsel's team has interviewed that oligarch is Viktor Vekselberg, and the last month, the Trump investigation place some list of sanction on Russians for activities, including election interference. So talk to us about how significant that is.

CLAPPER: Well, it's potentially quite significant. Particularly given the fact that the administration itself sanctioned this guy, and that they have been a little reluctant to impose sanctions, so you know, it makes me wonder whether Mr. Cohen got the memo. So again, I don't know here about the ins and outs, and intricacies of the final dealings of Mr. Cohen. But it certainly is once again very curious.

LEMON: The United States company Columbus Nova is linked to Vekselberg insists adamantly that he had nothing to do with these payments. And Vekselberg does own or exercise control of the company. How do you think investigators are going to determine the truth of that?

CLAPPER: Well, I don't know. This is a little out of my field of knowledge. So I don't know. I do think, though, that the composition of Mueller's team, they do have the expertise to understand I believe the implications of what's afoot here.

LEMON: So they'll be able -- they'll be able you think to trace where all the money ended up after it went to Michael Cohen's account...



LEMON: Right.

CLAPPER: Because I think they have ready accessed. They've got subpoena power.


CLAPPER: ... to get access to bank records.

LEMON: A year ago on the start of the show, the former FBI Director James Comey was fired, and looking back at all of what's happened in the year since, what stands out to you?

CLAPPER: Well, what I think this is emblematic of, and this is, for me, a very stark example of the assaults on our -- one of our key institutions.

Regardless of the motivations here, this really strikes at the heart of the independence of the FBI as an institution, and the independence of its director.

And that to me was, you know, kind of a part of a pattern that we've seen. But that to me was a very stark, and dramatic, and egregious example of assaults on our institutions.

LEMON: Director Clapper, I want you to stick with me. We've got lots more to talk about. When we come back, I want to talk about the three Americans on a plane home right now after being detained by North Korea.


LEMON: Well, tonight, three Americans released by North Korea after being detained in that country on their way home. They are due to arrive at Joint Base Andrews some time in the middle of the night. And President Trump promises to meet them there. Back with me now is James Clapper. He is a National Security Analyst.

You know, it is hard not to see the impact President Trump is having on the world. So let's start with today's release of the American prisoners from North Korea. They are on their way home tonight. And the President deserves credit for orchestrating it, right?

CLAPPER: I agree, Don. And of course, I was traveling there in Erie, Pennsylvania this morning, and I turned on CNN, of course, and learned of the release through the President's tweet, and a credit -- where credit is due and particularly to Secretary of State Pompeo.

And of course, it conjured up my own memory of the last time we did that when I went to North Korea on November 2014, brought out two of our citizens who had been in similar hard labor conditions. LEMON: They were Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, right?

CLAPPER: Exactly, right.

LEMON: And then in 2009, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were released, thanks to treaties from Obama and former President Clinton as well.

CLAPPER: That's correct. That's correct.

LEMON: So, this president deserves credit for at least getting these folks home, right?

CLAPPER: Well, yes.

[22:40:00] But I do think that Kim Jong-un realized that if he was going to have any prospect of the successful summit -- and I don't know the definition of successful for him that he was going to have the clear the decks here.

And of course, this is a long-standing practice of North Koreans to have a small stable of hostages that they can use as bargaining chips or brownie points depending on the situation, that's kind of what they did here.

The more interesting thing here is what is it that brought about this change -- an apparent change in Kim Jong-un's behavior? And I would submit who reasons -- two major reasons, there are probably several.

One, I believe the North Koreans have achieved what they believe is a credible nuclear deterrent, so when they do enter into a negotiation with us, it will not be as a supplicant, which has been the case in the past.

And secondly, if anyone is going to get a Nobel Peace Prize for this, it ought to be President Moon of the Republic of Korea, who in my view, being a long student of the Korean Peninsula, maybe the -- perhaps the most astute president the republic ever has, because he's managed his account if will you up north.

And he's certainly managed his account in Washington to bring this together. I think sanction could have had some part in this. But I don't think that's the primary -- the primary reason.

LEMON: Yes, let's talk about Iran now because the President scuttled the deal and re-imposed sanctions. Tonight our team is in the Golan Heights, seeing heightened activities in the area, some rockets being intercepted. Are you concerned?

CLAPPER: I am very concerned about this. I know I fail to see backing out of this deal on the part of the United States unilaterally is going to promote peace and stability in the Mid East. And I don't see how it promotes more security for Israel.

You know the question I always ask rhetorical question. I always pose, which would you rather have, a state sponsored terrorism with a nuclear weapons of responsibility or a state sponsored without a nuclear weapons capability? And my choice is the latter.

What I would have preferred is to build on the JCPOA, the deal, the joint comprehensive plan of action. Use that as a starting point, and as leverage to incentivize the Iranians to, you know, attenuate some of this other objectionable behavior that they're famous for.

But now that incentive is gone. And what we're doing, of course, is playing to the hard liners within Iran where there is, you know, great tumult right now among the young people particularly for reform what this does is strengthen the regime's hand.

LEMON: Senator John McCain, you know, is sick now, dealing with brain cancer, but just a short time ago, he urged the Senate to reject Gina Haspel's nomination as CIA Director. What do you think of that?

CLAPPER: Well, first, I have great, great respect, and admiration for Senator John McCain. He and I have had our innings together. We both have a lot in common, and we appeared together on the Hill because we're both Southeast Asia veterans, we are both old and both crotchety, so we get along pretty well.

But I don't agree with him on this particular issue. And I think Gina acquitted herself under pretty intense environment. Acquitted herself very well today at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.


CLAPPER: A very contentious thing, but one thing I would note that she did, and I thought that -- and she stuck to her guns was not to condemn people who did something at the CIA that they thought was right, and was legitimate, was authorized by the President, blessed by the Department of Justice, and approved by those who are concerned in the Congress, although you will have a hard time finding anybody that will admit to that.

LEMON: But listen. I'm going to get this in there. Because you mentioned Haspel, because the hearing, it was contentious today because in her role in that enhanced interrogation program, the post- 9/11. She insisted she would not restart the program under any circumstances. Just listen to them, and I will get you to respond.


GINA HASPEL, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: I would never ever take CIA back to an interrogation program.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: My question is this, on a going forward basis, if this president asked you to do something that you finds morally objectionable, even if there is an OLC opinion, what will you do? Will you carry that out, that option, that order or not?

HASPEL: My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertaking activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal.

[22:45:03] I would absolutely not permit it.


LEMON: So she was at the heart of the program that people now call torture. McCain said that that disqualifies her. Why is he wrong about that?

CLAPPER: Well, it's hard to say. You know, it's a value thing, what's right and wrong here. I will just -- I will just share with you my view on this.

At the time of the program, and I was a director of another intelligence agency, I wasn't directly involved in this, the director was now a GA.

And I recall well the fear and paranoia about another attack. So the CIA has often ask to do undesirable things, they did this, but again under the auspices of direction from the President, sanctioning by the Department of Justice, although Jim Comey, if you read his book, you know, said the legal basis was weak.


CLAPPER: And it was approved by the Congress. So now as Gina -- I thought very astutely characterized it, you know, our moral -- our moral standard has since changed over what it was then. And I do worry, I'll just offer this as maybe gratuitous.

But I do worry that some future administrations on future people in the Congress are going to decide that killing people with drones is illegal, and immoral, and unethical. So, I think, Gina is -- I know her, and I've worked with her, and I think she would be -- she would be a superb.

LEMON: A director.

CLAPPER: I just -- I think she'll be a superb director. I hope she gets confirmed.

LEMON: Thank you, I am out of time. Thank you so much, director. A pleasure as always.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: We'll be right back.


LEMON: We are now 16 months into the presidency of Donald Trump, and it seems like a never ending tsunami of breaking news, and bombshell, but what have we really learned about America in the age of Trump, and what does our history tell us about what comes next.

I want to talk about with Mr. Jon Meacham. He's a historian, and he was also the author of the new book, "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels." Thank you very much. Our Better Angels. JON MEACHAM, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: Better Angels. It's hard to even say it.

LEMON: It's hard to even say it. It's such a profound, and big book. It's hard to even say it. I enjoy reading it. I started reading it last night, and fell asleep to it. And I like that you started the book, one of the quotes you used in James Baldwin book.


LEMON: And you said that we are at every moment -- he says that every moment is a living history. So let me talk about his moment now, which is a living history, which is this craziness and everything that's going on with Russia and Michael Cohen, what's your take on that?

MEACHAM: My take is if Stormy Daniels' legal team with all respect can come up with this material, lord knows what the former Director of the FBI, Bob Mueller, can come up with his team of lawyers.

All of this may have been legal with the letter the law, but these are pieces of a puzzle that we haven't been able to put together yet. And I think what Director Mueller is going to do is ultimately put it all together.

I was very skeptical of the Russia thing in part because, I think, most conspiracy theories fall apart because usually the simplest answer is usually the right one. Not so sure anymore. There's a lot of money slashing around, there are a lot of oligarchs running around.

LEMON: And a lot of Russia -- this many Russian connections, it just seems odd.

MEACHAM: It's an unusual confluence of oligarchs in the presidential campaign.

LEMON: The title of your book came from you were witnessing what happened in Charlottesville with the neo-Nazis, right? So, how -- everything that is playing out, how does that -- how did that get you to your title?

MEACHAM: Well, I think that the soul of the country is an eternal struggle between light and dark, and good and evil. And there is now one good America and one bad America. There is one America, and if we pretend that somehow or another, Trump is a total operation.

We are in a way from closing the possibility of learning from the past, because there is room in the soul that has been historically for the clan (ph), and for Dr. King. And a given era is defined by which side wins for a given period of time.

I think to act as though this has never happened before is unilaterally disarms. So we're going to pretend that history just began when he came down the escalator or when he won.

He is a manifestation of a number of forces in American life that are not attractive, but that have been curbed in the past when we listened to voices of protest, when we've listened to those who resisted.

LEMON: To our better angels.

MEACHAM: And to our better angels in Lincoln's phrase. And widen the definition of what Jefferson meant when he wrote that we are all created equal.

LEMON: So he was asked if he thought he should get the Nobel Peace Prize for at least having the North Korean dictator agree to a meeting. Here's what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you deserve the Nobel Prize, you say?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it. But you know what I want to do, I want to get it finished. The prize I want is victory for the world. Not even here. I want victory for the world. So that's what we are talking about, so that's the only prize I want.


LEMON: Now that's modesty. What credit do you think he should get or does, or doesn't deserve.

MEACHAM: Well, let's see. I mean, we're giving him a trophy for being President. You know, this is kind of one-on-one, right? What do you do? You deal with foreign policy. We want to reward him for putting down his phone for a few minutes, and actually addressing an issue of nuclear proliferation?

LEMON: You sat down with him one-on-one, right, in 2016 -- May of 2016. What did that tell you about him and the presidency to come?

MEACHAM: An unabashed sense that he was not only going to be not only bound -- not bound by history, but not particularly deal in reference to it. He talked quite openly that he was a gut player, he was intuitive.

You know, one of the things been on your show and other places, there's a scene that shows what might have been, the meeting after Parkland with the senators, on gun issue, and Diane Feinstein sitting next to him, and Pat Toomey is at the end of the table, and Pence is giving the NRA talking points, and Trump is like this.

LEMON: Right.

MEACHAM: And he says no, no, no, we're not going to do that way. And he gives this kind of reform speech. And he points down to Pat Toomey, and he says right, Pat, that will be in the bill.

[22:55:01] And Pat Toomey looked like someone has kicked him in the head, and remember Senator Feinstein is doing this. And that was a moment which shows a tragic element of the era, because there has been this long time American fantasy that someone would go in there, and not be tethered to special interest, and would make common sense decisions.

LEMON: There is, you know, the message -- your message in your book is about hope, and also there's something that you wrote in USA Today, we could put it up, but I don't -- I'm not going to read it because I want you to respond to, just talks about how polarized we are in this country. Do you -- do you see us coming to any common ground because we are so far apart now?

MEACHAM: We are far apart, but, you know, we were far apart in the 1850s and 1860s. We were far apart in the 1870s. We were far apart over the question of isolationism versus interventionism in World War II.

Often analyzing what the historian used to say that the battle over whether we should get involved in the struggle against Nazis tyranny was even more ferocious in the battle over Vietnam.

Now, I'm not saying things have worked out in the past, so relax. What I'm saying is things have worked out in the past, so let's get to work.

LEMON: Right. Hope -- there's hope in this book, I hope.

MEACHAM: Well, there is.


MEACHAM: Because as Winston Churchhill once said -- over period have said, you always count on Americans to do the right thing after we have exhausted all other possibility.

LEMON: It's always a pleasure.

MEACHAM: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: Thank you so much.

MEACHAM: Thank you.

LEMON: I can't wait to read more. It's really fascinating. Here is the book, John Meacham's new book. It's called "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels." When we come back, how is the White House responding to question about payments made to Michael Cohen, ducking and dodging. Why we can't get a straight answer, that's next.


LEMON: This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon. It is 11:00 p.m., right on the nose right now on the East Coast.