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Three American Detainees In North Korea Released; CNN: Mueller Team Questions Russian Oligarch About Cohen Payments; Family Of Detainee Reacts To His Release; Soon, CIA Pick Gina Haspel Faces Tough Congressional Hearing. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 9, 2018 - 09:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

[09:00:17] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. Major breaking news this morning.

The three Americans detainees in North Korea have been released. President Trump in a statement just moments ago said they're on their way back to the United States on a plane as we speak with the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He also says that a time and place had been set for his upcoming meeting with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un.

HARLOW: Let's go straight to our Abby Phillip. She joins us from the White House.

This is significant, this is remarkable, incredible news for the families of these detainees. What do you know?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John and Poppy. Two pieces of significant breaking news broken by the president on Twitter this morning.

The president is really making this announcement weeks away from a potential meeting with Kim Jong-un that has -- that would be historic in nature and he says this morning, "I am pleased to inform you that the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the three wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong-un, time and place set. Pompeo and his guests will be landing at Andrew Air Force Base at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. I will be there to greet them. Very exciting."

Now this development is really significant in part because the White House had been asked for quite some time what would it take to get the president in that room with Kim Jong-un. The issue of the detainees had been hanging over the situation and last week we got the first indications that it was eminent that these three men would be brought home but after days we heard nothing and then Pompeo was sent to North Korea yesterday, the president announced, really under the cover of secrecy and now he's on his way back.

Two of these men were detained in the last year in the first few months of President Trump's administration in May of 2017 and April 2017. They were associated with Pyongyang University. A third man was detained in 2015, accused of espionage by the North Korean regime. All three of them are Americans of Korean descents who are now on their way back to the United States.

The president also saying that the time and the place for this much anticipated meeting with Kim Jong-un has been set, but has not yet been released. It will be a huge deal for this meeting to happen really. The president has said we could do this meeting or we could not do this meeting. Pyongyang has to show that they're willing to do some things and clearly right now they have. They've released these three hostages. They have also halted missile tests and closed up a nuclear missile test site, so there is progress being made here but clearly there's more to be learned about this situation and we'll bring it to you as soon as we have it -- John and Poppy.

HARLOW: Again just phenomenal news for this country that they're coming home and for their families.

Let's go straight to Will Ripley, he joins us from Tokyo.

Will, you have spent significant amount of time in North Korea. You've had access like really no one else and you've interviewed the detainee, the American citizen who has been held the longest.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. Kim Dong Chul in early 2016, we went into North Korea after they conducted a nuclear test. We were there shortly after that nuclear test and we were actually taken by surprise when Kim was presented to us. At that time there was no indication that any U.S. citizen had been arrested in North Korea. That was also around the time that Otto Warmbier was taken into custody which we learned about later.

But when Kim Dong Chul was brought into the room in handcuffs, he sat down with me, he described in detail the espionage he basically did an on-camera confession. We had no idea at that time and I still don't know whether that confession was made under duress or whether he actually was smuggling material out of North Korea to activists groups in South Korea as he said that he did. We never do know.

It was also noteworthy that even though he had lived in the United States previously and did speak some English he had to do the entire interview in Korean. We believe that was actually the case with other detainees of Korean descent. We believe that might be because the North Koreans were in the other room listening. Obviously the rooms are bugged there, writing down every word that he said.

But here we are now. He's been in custody more than two and a half years, such a grueling time for his family, for his wife who we spoke with shortly after he was detained, and she was obviously very, you know, just shaken back then and now this is certainly a very welcome news. But these last few days when we heard that the release was imminent

and then there was no news and each day passed, it must have just been excruciating for their families.

BERMAN: Will Ripley for us in Tokyo.

We do want to add one of the things the president wrote as he announced this on Twitter was that the detainees seemed to be in good health --

HARLOW: Very good. Right.

BERMAN: -- which is also wonderful to hear given some of the history here.

[09:05:05] HARLOW: Otto Warmbier, right, who passed away shortly after returning from North Korea.

Thank you, Will.

So joining us now, Rear Admiral John Kirby, our military and diplomatic analyst, and Samantha Vinograd, CNN national security analyst.

Sam, to you first, the significance here.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think that this is incredibly positive news any way that you cut it. We have three Americans coming home and we have removed what Donald Trump and other presidents have called a bilateral irritant in our relationship with an adversarial power.

Donald Trump has been on record in saying that hostages or detainees in North Korea or Iran should be part of any negotiation on malign activities. So in that sense that has been taken off the table when it comes to North Korea. In Iran, unfortunately, as we've discussed there are still many hostages and prisoners which unfortunately I don't think are going to be released any time soon.

The truth is, these prisoners in North Korea have traditionally represented human bargaining chips. They have been used by the regime to try to get concessions from the United States. That is now off the table. We don't know how this will actually impact the nuclear negotiation, however, but overall this is a positive development.

BERMAN: Admiral, to that point, where do you think this fits in to this march toward this meeting where President Trump now actually says they do have a specific time and a specific date?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes. It certainly appears to me, John, that this was sort of the last -- the last step in the very delicate kabuki dance that two governments go through before you lead to a summit. We had Trump -- remember, Kim Jong-un didn't react to the exercises that we did recently with our South Korean allies. He hasn't committed any launches since the talks about the summit were sort of -- you know, moving along and of course now he has agreed to shut down sites and stop testing.

So all of this is what we call CBMs, confidence building measures that the State Department is looking for to show that the North is serious about sitting down. So what this tells me, this is a very transactional thing. It tells me that Kim and the North Korean government are serious about having a meaningful summit. It does not mean that the summit will be successful, that we're going to have denuclearization as a result or a direct result of it. It simply means that they're serious about the summit and they did get a big concession from us in return. They got to sit down with the president of the United States which no North Korean dictator has yet been able to do.

HARLOW: Sam, there's no question that these are points on the board, if you will, for the president. Remember, Otto Warmbier came home under President Trump as well. Two of these hostages were taken while President Trump was in office. One of them while President Obama was in office. But is there any way to look at this other than big wins for President Trump on his watch?

VINOGRAD: Well, I have been very disheartened by the fact that President Trump has been pointing out when these prisoners were taken. Whether it's under President Obama or President Trump, they're Americans. And they went to North Korea and the North Koreans knew that again they were human bargaining chips, which is why they were taken.

I think that this is most definitely a win for the president. And I also think to John Kirby's point, this is transactional. I think that the North Koreans are definitely trying to show some measures of goodwill in the run-up to a summit but again this is not denuclearization. This is the de-escalation and the president has been successful in that regard but to date we have not heard anything about what steps North Korea's actually taken to do what we want which is, in Donald Trump's words, to get rid of their nukes. So that we have to stay tuned on.

BERMAN: Well, we do know they are doing everything, though, Admiral, to get to that table with the president. Poppy was pointing out to me this morning, this is the second time that Mike Pompeo has met with Kim Jong-un, right? First as CIA director now as secretary of State.


BERMAN: Two --

HARLOW: In a few weeks. In a few weeks.

BERMAN: That's extraordinary. Kim is doing everything he can to get this meeting.

KIRBY: Yes. He is. I mean, but he is also -- and this gets lost in the discussion, John. You know, this is part of his plan, too, to get to the nuclear capability so that he can then pivot to work on his economy and normalization with the United States. He knows he wouldn't be as credible negotiating with the United States if he didn't have the bomb and he has the bomb, he has the capability so to some degree we are playing to his song sheet.

This is his sort -- his playbook that he's running and that we're going along with it. So I give the president great credit, I give Pompeo credit. I mean, absolutely. And we need to understand that to some degree Kim Jong-un is calling the shots here, and we're moving along at sort of his pace.

HARLOW: Sam, this comes in the shadow that is less than 24 hours old of the president pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement. Now many of the critics of that say, look, that in no way helps us come to an agreement over nukes with North Korea. That hurts us because they won't believe that we will as a country stick in the deal from president to president to president. How does that change the calculus at all here?

VINOGRAD: I don't think that Kim Jong-un is going to buy the argument from this administration, believe me this time. I think that when the United States aggregates its responsibility, and violates the deal, the whole world sees that.

[09:10:04] So in my mind, that will leave Kim Jong-un to hedge on his end in any negotiation with the United States because he's deeply aware that we don't keep our word or that the president changes his mind.

And I also think it's worth noting, Poppy, that pulling out of this deal in my mind makes the United States -- the Iran deal much less safe and the Iranians in some respect safer because now the Iranians are on one side of the line with our allies and with Russia and the United States is more isolated.

BERMAN: Admiral, impact, as far as you see it, Iran and North Korea, what's the connection?

KIRBY: Yes, look, I want to go back -- for something that you said before, John, about relationships. You talked about Pompeo building these relationships and have meetings. Do you remember a couple of years ago when we had nine American sailors that were taken by Revolutionary Guard naval forces in the Persian Gulf? John Kerry was able to get them released within one day because he made a couple of phone calls to Foreign Minister Zarif in Tehran and Zarif worked their release.

And all that was possible because of the relationship that those two men formed over the course of those nuclear talks. Now Pompeo has the same advantage here, he's worked in that relationship and now we got three Americans coming home. All that's good.

But back to what Sam said and I think it's valid, because we broke up the Iran deal, now all those relationships that we had, that might have been -- we could leverage with Iran going forward are now not there and we're not going to be able to -- you know, to get Americans out as quickly and easily as we were before.

HARLOW: Yes. At least five Americans in Iran still. BERMAN: Indeed. All right. Admiral Kirby, Samantha Vinograd, thanks

so much for being with us. A momentous day for these three families having their loved ones now on the way home.

Just minutes from now, what could be a very tense hearing for the president's pick to head the CIA, Gina Haspel facing the Senate Intelligence Committee, expected to face tough questions over her ties to the controversial torture program. And things just got more complicated for the president's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, what CNN has learned about payments made to him from a U.S. company linked to a Russian oligarch tied to Putin. Follow the bouncing $500,000, a CNN exclusive next.


BERMAN: The question surrounding the president's personal attorney just got bigger, the circumstances just got stranger and the alphabet perhaps just got Cyrillic.

HARLOW: CNN has exclusively learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators have questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments his company's American affiliate made to President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen after the election.

Following? What are the payments for? Our Jessica Schneider joins us now with the latest details. What can you tell us?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy and John, a lot of big questions that are lingering this morning. So, what were those payments for? And really, what is the relationship between Michael Cohen and this Russian oligarch.

So, all of these details that the special counsel's team is really trying to get at. So, what we know now is that the special counsel's prosecutors, they have interviewed Viktor Vekselberg. He's a Russian billionaire with very close ties to Vladimir Putin.

And prosecutors, they want to know about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments that were made to Michael Cohen through a US affiliate of Vekselberg's company.

So, these payments allegedly occurred in the first half of 2017. And the company that distributed these payments is Columbus Nova. So, of course, hundreds of thousands of dollars went right to Michael Cohen.

Columbus Nova is actually run by Vekselberg's American cousin Andrew Intrater. But, of course, this morning, Columbus Nova is distancing itself from Vekselberg.

And, in fact, Eric Kosta released this statement. He said, "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." Now, it is important to note that so far prosecutors have not accused Michael Cohen of any wrongdoing in regard to these payments or any other business dealings, but, of course, his finances have come under increasing scrutiny, all as part of the investigation that's now being handled out of New York.

So, at the same time as we're learning about these payments, hundreds of thousand dollars, it turns out Stormy Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, he's also disclosed some documents that appear to show a shell company that was set up by Michael Cohen before the election to pay off Stormy Daniels.

That shell company, allegedly received money from several companies, multi-national companies, including companies like AT&T. We heard from AT&T last night. They say that it did pay the president's personal lawyer for what they called, "insights into understanding the new administration."

So, John and Poppy, all of these threads, the hundreds of thousand dollars that came through this company that might be linked to Viktor Vekselberg, as well as these other payments from these multi-national companies, these are all threads that prosecutors are following as they continue to, in the words that they've put it in some proceedings we've seen, of course, follow the money.

But still a lot of big lingering questions here, but all of it going back to the president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Guys?

BERMAN: All right. Jessica, just stick around for a minute here. I want to bring in CNN national security and legal analyst, Susan Hennessey.

Susan, when you look at this, what are the questions that jump out to you?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. I think, as Jessica noted, there really isn't quite enough information yet to really speculate on whether or not there are crimes here.

The questions that immediately come to mind, is there some kind of quid pro quo. There's also sort of related questions about whether or not particular transactions were structured, so as to circumvent financial reporting requirements. It's often illegal if you lie about either the source of the money or its intended purpose.

So, there are lots and lots of reasonable questions here, but we don't have nearly enough yet to sort of speculate as to what the answers might be. I think that does make it sort of incumbent on Michael Cohen and potentially the president and certainly these companies to come forward with a really clear explanation and articulation. What was this money used for and where did it come from?

[09:20:07] HARLOW: Stormy Daniels' attorney Michael Avenatti is speculating about this quite a lot. Here's what he just said on "New Day."


MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' ATTORNEY: I also think that it's patently improper for Michael Cohen to be selling access to the president of the United States. We're talking about the president of the United States here. And here you have Michael Cohen, his right hand attorney, who appears to have been selling access to the Russians, to other foreign entities and to multi-national corporations.


HARLOW: OK. So, Alisyn responded there in the rest of the interview saying, well, that's just lobbying. He's not a registered lobbyist and there is a difference there.

But, I mean, it's not a good look if that is the case, but would there be anything illegal with that if it is what Avenatti just asserted, Jessica?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I mean, that's the big question here. Prosecutors, they have said this, whether it pertains to Michael Cohen, whether it pertains to Paul Manafort, right now, they are continuing to follow the money here.

So, of course, these companies - including we heard from AT&T last night, they said that this money was given to the shell corporation setup by Michael Cohen to gain, as AT&T called it, "insights into understanding the new administration."

But the question here is, why was this money - I think in the case of AT&T, it was about $250,000, why was it given to one real estate attorney - of course, the president's personal attorney - in New York City? Is that really the most effective way to get into the insight of the Trump administration? So, that's a bit murky there.

Prosecutors have a lot of digging to do. I'm sure they've done a lot of it, as we've seen from their interviews of Viktor Vekselberg.

So, yes, a lot of questions here. Why exactly was this money put into the hands of Michael Cohen through this shell company?

HARLOW: We do need to note that AT&T is in the process of trying to acquire our parent company, Time Warner.

BERMAN: Perhaps not coincidentally, by the way, in this case.

Jessica, you used the word murky there. Another word to you is swampy.

We have this flow chart. And to go back to the Russian matter here, Susan, we have this flow chart of Viktor Vekselberg, this Russian oligarch. He gives money to this Russian conglomerate, Renova. Renova funds Columbus Nova, which is a US based company. And then, that $500,000 goes to Michael Cohen. That's one flow chart.

Another bizarre chart, which we don't have, but if you can imagine it in your head right now, Michael Cohen sets up Essential Holdings LLC to pay off Stormy Daniels. That's why he set up this company. He says he set it up with a home equity loan. He did that in October of 2016.

Then all of a sudden, starting in the winter of 2017, millions of dollars start flowing in -

HARLOW: After the Stormy Daniels' payment.

BERMAN: Well, after his Stormy Daniels' payment. What we don't know, Susan, I suppose is that money was used to reimburse the Stormy Daniels' payment, correct?

HENNESSEY: Well, I think that's right. I think this gets to sort of the notion that, look, this stuff is deeply improper. It's probably not illegal. This is one of the reasons why people don't like Washington, D.C. This is the precise swamp that Trump promised that he would drain here.

The underlying questions about the crimes, that is going to be important, but I'm not sure that we see evidence on that yet that what Michael Cohen has been up to, however improper, is all that different from someone like, say, Corey Lewandowski setting up a lobbying shop that looks a lot like influence peddling.

SCHNEIDER: And John and Poppy, perhaps the bigger question here, this Viktor Vekselberg blink, he was sanctioned by the Trump administration, has a lot of ties by the Russian government. So, that's the big one for prosecutors as well.

HARLOW: Yes. Sanctioned after these payments were made, but it's significant nonetheless. Jessica, Susan, thank you both very much.

Also, we have just received a statement from the family of Tony Kim, one of the detainees just released from North Korea. Let me read it to you. "We are grateful for the release of our husband and father, Tony Kim, and the two other American detainees. We want to thank all of those who've worked toward and contributed to his return home. We also want to thank the president for engaging directly with North Korea. Mostly, we thank God for Tony's safe return. We appreciate all of the support and prayers of friends and even strangers during this challenging year. You are dear to our hearts. We ask that you continue to pray for the people of North Korea and for the release of all who are still being held."

That is the statement from the Kim family this morning.

All right. Moments from now, Gina Haspel will face tough questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee about her history with torture during interrogating suspected terrorists as she looks to become the first woman to possibly lead the CIA. You'll hear that live next.


[09:28:45] BERMAN: We have some live pictures now from inside the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. You can see demonstrations, people protesting Gina Haspel, currently the deputy CIA director. She's been nominated to be CIA director. The protests are over her role back in 2002 through 2005 in offsites that engaged in waterboarding, some people consider torture. Also destroying tapes. She's expected to face some tough questions about all of this.

And the CIA did release a statement from Haspel guaranteeing that if she is confirmed, the CIA will not restart any such detention or interrogation programs.

HARLOW: Let's go straight to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju. Look, this is going to be a tough vote no matter how you cut it.

But, Manu, can you hear us?


Sorry. Audio is a little hard here in the hallways here, but we're talking to some members coming into this hearing. The real question for a lot of these members is what exactly will Gina Haspel be able to discuss about her three decade tenure at the CIA, particularly during the Bush era and the aftermath of 9/11, overseeing that black site in Thailand where those harsh interrogation techniques did take place as well as her role in the destruction of those tapes, showing harsh interrogation techniques actually taking place.