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North Korea Releases Three American Detainees; CIA Director Nominee Under Fire Over Torture History; Mueller Questions Russian Oligarch About Payments to Michael Cohen. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired May 9, 2018 - 15:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: One year, a special counsel investigation and a book deal later, today, James Comey tweeting his praise for the men and women of the FBI, whom he led for more than three years before his abrupt firing.

Top of the hour now. I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Brooke Baldwin.

And we begin with a CNN exclusive about the Russia investigation.

A source says special counsel Robert Mueller's team of investigators has questioned a Russian oligarch, a billionaire, this billionaire right here, about whether he's connected to a half-million-dollar payment that was made to President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, after the election.

The payment to Cohen came to light by the attorney representing porn star Stormy Daniels. Daniels' attorney says the $500,000 went into the same account that was used to pay off his client.

And this isn't all. Daniels' attorney also claims that at least three other companies have poured money into Cohen's account since the election totaling more than $1 million. He is also making this big accusation.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: I also think that it is 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 the multinational corporations.


KEILAR: CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz helped break this story. And Kim Wehle is with us as well. She served as associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation.

OK. So, Shimon, explain this connection. You have got a Russian oligarch, a company that he's associated with, this company making payments to Michael Cohen.


So, the company that we're talking about is Columbus Nova. And that's a management -- financial management company in New York. It is linked to Viktor Vekselberg, the man whose video you showed earlier.

The cousin, his cousin runs this New York company, Columbus Nova. Now, that company is the company that made payments to Michael Cohen, about $500,000 or so, to Michael Cohen.

The connection here really is that they are linked through this relationship. SEC filings call Columbus Nova an affiliate of Renova Group, which is the management company that Viktor Vekselberg owns.

And Viktor Vekselberg, as we now know, has been sanctioned by the U.S. government because of Russian interference in the election. He has close ties to Vladimir Putin.

So, all of that, and Viktor Vekselberg was stopped by the FBI when he came to the -- to New York a couple of months ago.

KEILAR: But this company is trying to make a distinction, right? They are saying that he didn't have anything to do with this? What do they say?

PROKUPECZ: Well, that's right.

So, they issued a statement. I guess they -- this will be probably the third statement that we have gotten from them. And this one says that -- essentially that they're a management company solely owned and controlled by Americans, and that reports today that Viktor Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen are false.

"The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova's engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue. Neither Viktor Vekselberg, nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova's owners were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement."


Kim Wehle, what do you think of that?

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSOCIATE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: Well, it looks like we're in a situation where, to claim that the Russians didn't somehow influence this election is -- we're beyond that.

I mean, we don't know all the facts. It's -- that -- in listening to that, it's really hard to wrap my brain around it as even being kind of a rational distinction. We don't know what's underlying that.

But we do know Mr. Mueller's looking into it. So there's two questions here. One is the political one, which is to the extent to which the American public is seeing that there's potentially a pay-to- play situation going on here with Mr. Cohen, it's certainly something that happens in Washington.

And it is a problem for our democracy that maybe we need to think about. The second piece is, what does this have to do with respect to criminal liability? And the Trump -- Mr. Trump at this point is one hot mess, with all these people that are so close to him, his own lawyer, having relationships, financial relationships with people or entities that are, whether tangentially or directly, they're connected to the Russian government.

The question is not so much whether there's something here, but what and what's going to happen to it.

KEILAR: So, it's important to note, as we did it in the introduction there, that it wasn't just this company that was giving money to Michael Cohen. And you say this is how things are done in Washington.

And that's why it's called the swamp, right? So there were other companies, AT&T, Korea Aerospace, that have been all -- that have been linked to Cohen. Why were they giving him money?


PROKUPECZ: So, we have been digging into this today.

And Novartis, they had issued a statement earlier today. But then we have done some more digging. And we have learned from a person who is familiar with the agreement, this person says Novartis engaged Cohen because Cohen promised them access to the White House with respect to health care policy.

The source described -- since the new administration wasn't using traditional channels, sort of people known around Washington, Novartis became interested in Cohen's promised access.

KEILAR: And they basically throw him under the bus, and say he didn't deliver, but they had to keep paying him, right?

PROKUPECZ: Well, they say the agreement ended around -- so it started some time between the election and February of 2017 is when the agreement ended, is according to Novartis.

KEILAR: So, is it -- in your estimate, is it a conflict of interests?

I mean, I know these things are done in Washington, but is it a conflict of interests that the president's personal lawyer, even though he had not been brought over, importantly, for an official position in the White House, that he had these clients?

WEHLE: Well, it's -- whether it's ethically a conflict of interests, potentially, whether there's a violation of law, that's a possibility as well.

And we have seen this with the Stormy Daniels payment, the question as to whether that's a violation of campaign laws. I mean, these are complex legal questions. What people need to understand is, there are laws in place to do a number of things, to make information public so that, when we're voting, we know we have all the cards on the table, so we can make informed votes as voters. That's number one.

Number two is, of course, when we talk about financial crimes, money laundering, bank fraud, wire fraud, we don't know at this point if any of this is involved in this particular transaction. But there are laws that prevent hiding assets and moving stuff around, so that you don't really know where it comes from.

Now, I don't have access to the facts as an attorney. The public, we don't know what Mr. Mueller knows. We don't know -- we're just uncovering this stuff. But the bottom line is, this is not stuff that's good, that is, information that we didn't have, money being moved around, potentially in these accounts that were created.

For what reason? To pay off Ms. Daniels? This is a problem. And it's -- the next question is, what will happen? Are we talking about a political ramification? Are we talking about legal ramifications, and for whom?

KEILAR: Kim Wehle, thank you so much. Shimon, really appreciate your great reporting today.

Now, just into CNN, a key swing vote. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has announced he is going to vote yes to confirm Gina Haspel as the new CIA director. The president's nominee has been on Capitol Hill all day facing some really tough questions about her past within the department and what role she played concerning controversial and now banned torture techniques.

At one point, her testimony was interrupted by protesters. And when asked if she thought torture was immoral, a big misstep, even according to supporters of Haspel's.

Here some of the highlights.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: The question is, what (INAUDIBLE). Bloody Gina. Bloody Gina. Bloody Gina. Bloody Gina. You are a torturer.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: As a candidate, President Trump repeatedly expressed his support for water-boarding. In fact, he said we should go beyond water-boarding.

So, if the CIA has a high-value terrorism suspect in its custody, and the president gave you a direct order to water-board that suspect, what would you do?

GINA HASPEL, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: Senator, I would advise -- I do not believe the president would ask me to do that.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: If he asked you to do something that you believe is morally questionable, even if there isn't an OLC opinion that, in effect, gives you a get-out-of-jail free card, what will you do in that action when you are the director of the CIA?

HASPEL: I support the higher moral standard that this country has decided to hold itself to. I would never, ever take CIA back to an interrogation program.

First of all, CIA follows the law. We followed the law then. We followed the law today.

What I believe, sitting here today, is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: Can you please answer the question?

HASPEL: Senator, I -- I think I have answered the question.

HARRIS: No, you have not.

Do you believe the previous techniques -- now armed with hindsight, do you believe they were immoral, yes or no?


KEILAR: Joining me now is John Nixon. He is a former CIA senior analyst.

You met Gina Haspel several years back. Is that right?



KEILAR: You say -- and just recently, you were at headquarters talking to a lot of your friends. And they are rooting for her to win confirmation.


KEILAR: You are not. Tell us why.

NIXON: Well, it's -- she had -- Gina has had a very long career and a very distinguished career.

But when it comes to this issue of torture and the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and her role in it, I think this is a disqualifying issue. And one of the things in this confirmation hearing, she had an opportunity to express candor and to actually address this head on.

And I don't think she even came close today. I saw a very scripted candidate and somebody who is not willing to deviate from that script.

KEILAR: That answer to Senator Kamala Harris' question about whether that...

NIXON: Oh, the -- yes.

KEILAR: ... the enhanced interrogation techniques, the torture, was immoral, even -- we had a guest on last hour, David Priess, who -- he supports her nomination. NIXON: Right.

KEILAR: And yet even he said that was not the answer that he was hoping for with that question.

NIXON: Right.

KEILAR: Tell us why that was something that you really did not like to see.

NIXON: Well, there was a number of things.

She -- under hostile questioning, she really was, I thought, a very poor candidate, and especially when Kamala Harris was asking. She could have hit that ball out of the park, you know? While she had...

KEILAR: Just said it is...


NIXON: Exactly.

KEILAR: Made a mistake.

NIXON: Exactly. Exactly.

And, instead, she just refused to kind of answer the question. And also Senator Harris was also asking her, well, did we ever get information from -- out of torture? And the thing is, we really never did get information from torture.

We got it from debriefing detainees. But when it came down to the torture, torture is usually counterproductive for getting real information.

I have firsthand experience in dealing with the counterproductiveness of this. I debriefed a lot of foreign fighters in Iraq in 2006, dozens. And they all said they came to Iraq to fight the Americans because they saw the images of torture, and they heard that Muslims were being tortured.

And so really the work of using torture made our job in the field in Iraq more...

KEILAR: It created terrorists, in your belief?

NIXON: Exactly, and made the situation worse.

KEILAR: So, she pledged not to run restart an enhanced interrogation program. That's not enough for you. Why?

NIXON: Well, no, it's great, but it's not really -- it's a no- brainer.

I wouldn't start it either. The time to really think about this was back in the early 2000s. There was a body of literature and knowledge out there that said these methods, these methodologies don't work.

And I don't think that anybody at CIA ever consulted this. And I don't think they even thought twice about it. I think they just went ahead and did it. And that was the time to really start thinking about it.

And, a lot of times, when -- at the agency, when somebody disagrees with a policy or if they disagree with instructions, they will write a member for the record, just to kind of cover themselves. And I don't believe that she ever did, which means that I think she was very much a supporter of these policies.

KEILAR: She does come off in this hearing -- I know you were very dissatisfied with her answers when it comes to the big issue of torture.


KEILAR: But she comes off measured. She comes off as someone with tremendous institutional knowledge.

I know you agree with that statement. She, according to people who support her, is actually someone who they feel will backstop President Trump and will learn from a mistake.

Do you -- do you believe that argument?

NIXON: I think that she's very well-qualified to become DCIA.

However, I have this one problem. And it's that -- that's a problem of judgment. And if there's that flaw in judgment, as there was back in the early 2000s, that flaw in judgment can arise again.

And we have a president now, that we really have to have somebody very, very good, who does have the judgment. And I'm not sure that Gina Haspel is that person.

KEILAR: John Nixon, thank you so much. We do appreciate it.

Also, this interview following up on one we did last hour with someone similar experience at the CIA who supports Gina House. So, we're glad to get all the perspectives in.

John, thank you.

NIXON: No, thank you.

KEILAR: And breaking news. We have three American detainees who have been released by North Korea. They're on their way back to the U.S. right now.

What's behind this stunning diplomatic shift, as we get new details on the location of Trump's face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?

Plus, shocking video of Iranian lawmakers burning an American flag after President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran. Hear the new warning that the president has for that country.

All of those topics and much more expected to come up at the White House press briefing. This is going to be starting in minutes. And we're going to bring it to you live.



KEILAR: Right now three American detainees who you see there on your screen, they'd been held in North Korea for months. And they are now on a plane heading home to the U.S..

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is with them. And when they arrive, they're going to be greeted by President Trump, their plane touching down on American soil overnight tonight, 2:00 a.m. tomorrow.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: People never thought a thing like this could happen and can. People never thought you were going to have a situation where we're having serious and positive communication with North Korea.

And we are. What happens? Who knows? We have a chance at something really great for the world and great for North Korea and great for everyone.


So, I want to thank you all for being here. And we will see you at 2:00 the morning. Be very exciting.


TRUMP: We're going to announce that in three days, within three days.

QUESTION: Within three days?

TRUMP: We're just working arrangements, but...


QUESTION: Will it be the DMZ?

TRUMP: It will not be there.


KEILAR: All right, you might not have heard the question there amid the shouting, but that was the president after his Cabinet meeting responding to questions about that historic summit between him and Kim Jong-un.

He said the official date and location is going to be announced within three days. He also said that the meeting between the two leaders will not be at the DMZ. That was the question. Will it be at the DMZ, that border between the North and the South. He said it will not be there.

And there had been some question about that because of really what a spectacle that would have made, which does play to sort of the playbook for President Trump.

For more on this now, I want to bring in Joseph Yun. He is CNN global affairs analyst. And he's also a former State Department official who met with these three detainees last year.

First off, I just want to get your reaction to this, because you were very involved in the release of Otto Warmbier. You actually were with him when he came back. And he passed away just days after returning from North Korea.

You wanted to also get these three detainees out.


KEILAR: So, what's your reaction now?

YUN: Well, I'm delighted. Really, kudos to Secretary Pompeo and his team for getting them out.

They've been there well over a year in very, very difficult situation. So I'm delighted they're out. I know my former colleagues at State Department have really worked hard at it. So this is good news.

KEILAR: What does the release of these detainees, what does it mean in the context of this upcoming meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un?

YUN: I think it removes one of the issues that was there previously.

So, now, to some extent, one thing is cleared. But, of course, there remains many other things. And I think now very soon we will hear the date and the venue of the summit. And so let's see where we go.

KEILAR: Do you see this as any kind of indicator about the president and the kind of leverage that he has or the influence that he's having right now in these discussions with North Korea? Or does it tell us anything about where Kim Jong-un is on what he's willing to budge on?

YUN: I think both, Brianna.

I mean, to be frank with you, let's face it. North Korea has nuclear weapons. They have gotten to the place they want to get to. So, it's a new game. And I would expect, as a result, price has gone up. And it's going to be difficult negotiations.

And what I am concerned is expectations on the outcome of those negotiations in Washington and Pyongyang are quite different. So let's see what happens. I think they will need patience.

And also, remember, it took us a long time to get here. It's going to take a long time to resolve this issue.

KEILAR: Meaning the expectation in Washington is to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.

YUN: And soon and quickly. That is not going to happen.

KEILAR: It's just not realistic.

YUN: No.

KEILAR: OK, so when you have been listening with a trained eye on the rhetoric you have heard lately, Rudy Giuliani, the president's -- he's supposed to be dealing with the Russian -- the special investigation stuff.

But he did sort of freelance and talk about North Korea. He teased really the fate of these detainees. He said stay tuned. Then, yesterday, we saw the president sort of saying, we will wait and see. Some folks thought that was actually him using restraint and trying not to get ahead of something that was in progress.

But when you look -- as someone who's been so intensely involved in the release of detainees, what did you think about this playing out almost as like a teaser for a show?

YUN: Well, I mean, this is not good to have this kind of announcements and teaser, as you say, and saying they will be released soon, because that -- then they become the center of focus, and they become a bigger issue and, quite frankly...

KEILAR: A bigger prize for North Korea to give up.

YUN: Bigger prize, absolutely.

Quite frankly, I would have expected the three gentlemen to be released some time ago., actually before the summit was set up, you know? That's how I would like to have seen it, so that that is removed from the beginning, rather than it becomes a part of summit negotiations.

KEILAR: As a precondition even to schedule...


YUN: Exactly.

KEILAR: That is very interesting.

All right, Joseph Yun, thank you so much. We really appreciate your insights.

YUN: Thank you very much.

KEILAR: President Trump next warning of severe consequences if Iran restarts its nuclear program -- insight on the fallout from his decision to pull out of the Iran deal from a woman who has negotiated directly with the Iranians.




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