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Mueller's Team Questions Russian Oligarch about Payments to Cohen; Controversial Candidate Places Third in West Virginia GOP Primary; Trump Pulls Out of Iran Deal, So What's Next? Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired May 9, 2018 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael Cohen should not have been accepting money from anyone with Russian ties.
[05:59:22] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They questioned him about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments that were made to Michael Cohen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't know if Michael Cohen did anything illegal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're paying him for access to the president.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very swampy. This is the swampiest of swampy behaviors.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We'll end up isolating the United States. Iran is complying.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had limited ability to do inspections. We couldn't go to military bases.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: They don't have a real plan here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He did campaign on this. And he is following through on it.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Wednesday, May 9, 6 a.m. here in New York. Here's our starting line.
Legal troubles could be mounting for President Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen. CNN exclusively learning that Robert Mueller's investigators have questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments that his company made to Cohen after the election. What was that money for?
And Stormy Daniels's lawyer claims to have evidence of a series of payments by Michael Cohen's shell company, the same one he used to pay off Stormy Daniels over her alleged affair with President Trump. "The New York Times" corroborating those claims.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. President Trump making good on his campaign promise to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Leaders from the other countries in this historic accord are vowing to stay in. How's that going to work? What is the next step?
The big missing piece so far is that President Trump has offered no alternative. What is the point of the brinksmanship?
The president's Iran decision is certainly raising the stakes on North Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the country right now. A report that he has already secured the hostages who are being kept there are not verified. We do know that he is there to help set up this historic summit with Kim Jong-un. The question there is, can the North Korean dictator trust any deal with the U.S., given Trump's track record now on tearing up the Iran deal.
Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Abby Phillip, live at the White House -- Abby.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris.
The president's major decision to pull out of the Iran deal, has already been overshadowed. But some new information that we're learning about her personal lawyer's finances and, specifically, his ties to a company that is tied to a Russian oligarch, who was sanctioned by the U.S. for election meddling.
Now, that oligarch was questioned by Special Counsel Mueller's investigators on the tarmac last year. And now we're learning a little bit more about what they asked him about.
PHILLIP (voice-over): CNN has learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigations questioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg about hundreds of thousands of dollars. His company's U.S. affiliate, Columbus Nova, paid to President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, after the 2016 election.
Vekselberg is close to Vladimir Putin and is one of several oligarchs sanctioned by the U.S. government last month. Vekselberg's company, Renova Group, was also hit with penalties in retaliation for Russia's interference in the election.
STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: I can't make any comments as it relates to our sanctions or any thoughts (ph) on the specifics.
PHILLIP: "The New York Times" confirming details initially made public by Stormy Daniels's lawyer, Michael Avenatti, that these payments amount to nearly half a million dollars and were paid by Columbus Nova to Cohen's shell company, Essential Consulting, between January and August of 2017.
Columbus Nova is run by Vekselberg's cousin, Andrew Intrater, who sources say has also been questioned by Mueller's team.
In a statement, Columbus Nova's general counsel stating, "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."
Avenatti telling CNN he has evidence that Vekselberg was involved before making this unsubstantiated charge.
MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: It appears that this may be your typical pay-to-play type scenario, where you have someone close to a politician, in this case close to the president of the United States, which is highly unusual, selling access, potential access to the president of the United States.
PHILLIP: Cohen did not respond to CNN's request for comment about the payments.
A source tells CNN that Mueller also questioned Vekselberg about his cousin's generous campaign contributions to Mr. Trump, including a $250,000 donation to the president's inauguration fund.
"The New York Times" reports that both Vekselberg and Intrater attended President Trump's inauguration, where they met with Cohen before setting up the consulting arrangement.
PHILLIP: Now, all of this is happening as sources tell CNN that Emmet Flood, the president's newest lawyer, brought in to deal with this Mueller probe, is starting with his first day today, Alisyn and Chris.
CUOMO: Good day to start.
CAMEROTA: Yes. Very good. Abby, thank you so much.
Let's bring in CNN political analyst David Gregory and CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin. Michael was Robert's special assistant at the Department of Justice.
So in addition to this Russian oligarch paying this money to Michael Cohen's LLC, we have some other information. Here are other payments that are linked to Cohen. We'll pull them up for people. Five hundred thousand dollars from Columbus Nova; $400,000 from Novartis; $150,000 from Korea Aerospace Industries; $200,000 from AT&T.
[06:05:00] Michael, is this just what happens in Washington? People pay for consulting. They pay for access?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It could be. It does happen all the time. We don't know yet what the true purposes of these payments were. On the surface, there are two things that are clear. One, it's a terrible appearance. And two, it may well be a pay-for-play proposition, which in and of itself isn't illegal unless, of course, the effort here is some back-door lobbying, you know, scheme that is related in some way to the Russia investigation. But we haven't been able to put those dots together yet.
CUOMO: All right. So let's just -- this is all new reporting, David. Michael Avenatti was supposed to be on the show today. He isn't. There are some big questions for him. One is a curiosity point of how he got this information. It's got nothing to do with the Stormy Daniels case. Of course, he's on TV so much, as he suggests, maybe somebody just leaked it to him. That's how he got it, because he's had no discovery in his cases. So he did not come through this in the process of his own litigation.
Michael, that would make sense to you, as well.
But the bigger question is, what does any of this mean, David? For instance, we have zero proof, even offered by Avenatti, that any Russian gave any money to Michael Cohen.
Let's put up on the screen what we know about Vekselberg with relation to that. Vekselberg owns this Russian conglomerate that is a -- somehow a client of, according to "The New York Times," Columbus Nova. Columbus Nova paid Michael Cohen. But if you look at those boxes, there is no connection between Michael Cohen and the first box. We don't know that Vekselberg gave him any money. We know Columbus Nova did, which does a lot of business other than the business it does with Renova. So is this just smoke?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It very -- very well may be. And let's also remember that, if there are charges pending against Michael Cohen for bank fraud and other potential crimes, he may have information that incriminates the president or others close --
CUOMO: They don't even have any charges yet, just to be clear.
GREGORY: Yes, there's no charges yet, but they're being investigated. So if he's being investigated for charges that could include bank fraud related to Stormy Daniels or perhaps relates to this, these are all leverage points that a special prosecutor could use to get more information in the same way that he's presumably using that against Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman.
I think, you know, you go back to the campaign, you go back to the curiosity that was Trump's fascination and adoration of Vladimir Putin. Why was that connection there? Did the Russians have something on Trump, as has been suggested by the former intelligence officials?
Perhaps this shows that opening. But it just -- it's an area of inquiry for the special counsel. We don't know that anything is there at all, other than -- you know, the more benign explanation is perhaps the Russians were trying to get the line of influence, and they were trying through people close to the president. Maybe it went that far, maybe it didn't.
CUOMO: I mean, the 250 grand from Vekselberg reported to the inauguration committee, that's something they have to answer for. But we don't know that Cohen ever took any money directly from the guy, not that it would be illegal, but we just have to be clear about it.
CAMEROTA: OK. But the Russian-linked company, Michael, says that these were investment -- real-estate -- real-estate investments that they were looking for from Michael Cohen. So you know Robert Mueller. Where do investigators begin to try to unwind this?
ZELDIN: Well, if you look at the formation documents for Essential Consultants in Delaware, it was a limited liability company. Michael Cohen put his name, you know, transparently on the limited liability company. He set the purpose of the company as real-estate investment and other related matters. indicated there would be wire transfers coming in and out of that account.
Now, the amounts of wire transfers that we've seen here exceed that which he indicated to the bank were that which he expected.
But I'm not sure, beyond that, what is so nefarious about setting up a limited liability company, being a consultant, capitalizing on your connections with people in power in the hope to make an individual profit for you.
What you need to look at, if you're Mueller, is was there anything untoward about any of these investments by any of these participants? Do they tie back in any way to his particular mandate? Or are they just people making payments to gain access for business interests that they may have.
You know, many of these companies, AT&T is and aerospace and others all had business, or expected to have business before the Trump administration, and there's nothing illegal about these companies making those sort of payments to gain, you know, insight into what the Trump administration position on matters might be.
And so I think we have to be very, very careful of accusing anyone of bank fraud or other illegal activity. Mueller will look at it and make determinations whether things are benign --
[06:10:11] CUOMO: Right.
ZELDIN: -- or not.
GREGORY: And I think we do have to go back and remember --
ZELDIN: And Michael Avenatti --
CUOMO: Go ahead. Finish your point.
ZELDIN: Michael Avenatti is making -- Michael Avenatti is making assumptions and conclusions about facts that we just don't have evidence of yet. CUOMO: Right. And he's a big fan of, you know, keeping himself
relevant. Again, this has nothing to do with Stormy Daniels. He's supposed to be sitting -- he could have been sitting right between us this morning, answering these questions. He was supposed to be on the show; somehow changed his mind. David, go ahead.
GREGORY: So I just think, you know, there are circumstances here that the special counsel will look at. Maybe they add up to something. This has always been a problem with us on a daily basis, trying to divine what these thing add up to.
What we know, we know, from an information standpoint, right, when it came to dirt on Hillary Clinton, that the Trump campaign was open for business. That's what that meeting at Trump Tower with Don Jr. was all about. They wanted dirt on Hillary Clinton. The Russians came forward. They would be open to that.
We know that the Trump business team has, in the past, taken advantage of credit and money that came from Russian sources.
GREGORY: In this particular context, I mean, the Trump campaign didn't need any money. So it's much more likely that there were people trying to gain access, if that had a real Russian connection that got all the way to president.
CUOMO: And again, look, why did Vekselberg -- why would that 250 be taken for the inauguration committee? That's a real question for them.
CUOMO: I don't know that it's a real question at this point for Michael Cohen. And yes, it's new information. You know, Michael, even calling this company a shell company, you know, Michael Cohen may, for political reasons, wish it were a shell company. But there's nothing shell about it. He's had millions of dollars of the exact type of work and consulting that is promised in the formation documents of this limited liability company going through it. How is it a shell?
ZELDIN: Well, it's not a shell. And people use limited liability companies and shell companies interchangeably. And in some cases, a limited liability company is a shell company whose purpose it is to disguise the identity of the true parties and interest.
CUOMO: That's not what this is.
ZELDIN: Here -- here that is not the case. Here is a regular, it appears, a regular Delaware limited liability corporation, which are set up every single day. That's what Delaware does. And he is transparent about it.
What is different is that the information that the bank received in the establishment of the company, the so-called know your customer, KYC, information, is inconsistent with a lot of the transactions which went through that company. It will be interesting to see whether the banks filed suspicious activity reports on these transactions, because they felt there was something suspicious or business that they couldn't make sense of, in light of what Cohen told them.
CUOMO: It had been reported that one transaction was flagged. There was reporting that one had been flagged, I believe. I don't know if it was ever substantiated.
CUOMO: But those can often be about amount.
CAMEROTA: The Stormy Daniels payment.
ZELDIN: Well, there were -- what we -- has been reported is that each -- Republic and City National filed suspicious activity reports. SARs, as they're referred. We don't know what the underlying basis for the SAR is. Usually, it is when the bank can't exactly figure out what the true purpose of the transactions are or it's inconsistent with the KYC. But we don't know what those SARs represent.
CUOMO: Or it's the amount.
ZELDIN: Or kept secret for good purpose.
CUOMO: Sometimes the amount can flag it. But you know, it's not against the law, last time I checked, to make more money and have more money coming in and out of your bank account than you thought you would when you form the company. So they're provocative questions. The answers matter.
ZELDIN: The answers do matter. The facts matter.
CAMEROTA: Facts do matter. Thank you very much.
CUOMO: Very catchy, Michael.
CAMEROTA: Yes. We should use that.
ZELDIN: I like that.
CAMEROTA: Yes. Michael --
ZELDIN: I'm going to bring an apple next with me.
CAMEROTA: Please do. We're hungry. David Gregory, thank you. ZELDIN: Yes, yes.
CUOMO: It was a big night of politics. Officially, it was the first Super Tuesday of the primary season. We have results in four states. Good news for President Trump and for Republicans hoping to save the Senate in November. West Virginia voters rejected the race-baiting conspiracy-laden candidacy of Don Blankenship. He finished third in the GOP Senate race.
CNN's Joe Johns live in Charleston, West Virginia. What did you see, Joe?
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you know, Chris, that was a problematic race here in West Virginia, especially for Washington establishment Republicans. So much wringing of hands, concerned that Don Blankenship, the former coal executive, would pull it up and end up earning the right to run against the Democratic incumbent here in West Virginia, Joe Manchin.
[06:15:11] That will not be the case. Don Blankenship ended up coming in third in this race. The winner of the primary is Patrick Morrisey, the West Virginia attorney general, setting up a big event here in West Virginia in November.
In the Republican primary in the Tar Heel State, North Carolina's 9th District, the conservative high-profile Southern Baptist pastor wins the race there, Mark Harris. And that is a first for the 2018 midterms. He, effectively, unseats Mark -- Robert Pittenger, who is the congressman currently holding that seat.
A big issue in that race, government spending.
And in Indiana, the 6th District, something of a family affair there. Greg Pence, remember that name? He is the brother of the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence. He goes on to win the primary in the state of Indiana.
This is a man who has never run a race before but wins it handily in Indiana, now earning the right to run in November. Of course, he's considered at this time the favorite.
Back to you, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: There you go. That is the start of a family business. Thank you very much, Joe.
So, now that President Trump has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, what's next? What is Plan B? We talk about it.
[06:20:21] CAMEROTA: President Trump delivered on his campaign promise to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal but offered no plan for what comes next. The other countries part of that historic deal are vowing to stay in it.
So let's discuss with CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger and CNN global affairs analyst Aaron David Miller.
Aaron David, what do you think happens now?
AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think it's clear that the Europeans, the Iranians, and the Russians and the Chinese will work together to try to create a JCPOA, a joint comprehensive plan of action minus.
The Europeans have already come out with a tough statement indicating the U.S. has violated the deal. They intend to stay in it. The Iranian reaction has been low-key so far.
And I suspect the Europeans, if they can get the E.U. as a whole to act together, will try to come up with a set of political and economic incentives to order to keep the Iranians in the deal. So long as the Iranians continue to apply with the terms of the JCPOA on the nuclear deal.
I just don't think, frankly, over time that this is sustainable. American sanctions are going to bite against the Europeans, against the Iranians, hard liners. Conservatives are going to run to the fore.
And my friend David Sanger, I think, wrote a terrific piece this morning, which indicates that the administration has no Plan B; but it does have a change in strategy. And that is to move toward a campaign of pressure, perhaps even military confrontation against Iranian activities in the region, to begin to set the stage for the weakening of the regime and perhaps -- Mr. Bolton speaking here -- a change of the regime.
CUOMO: So David, reading your piece this morning, it seems like the Trump administration's position is don't need a Plan B. Plan A is brinkmanship. Get out of this deal, apply the pressure. The Europeans can be upset about it. But they're going to need something different as much as Iran will. Because these sanctions, even American concerns, will be affected by the sanctions. Businesses that have gone in looking for opportunity. And Iran will fold. And they will give us a better deal. Trump wins.
DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That is the plan as far as we can tell it. And certainly, that is what Mr. Bolton was saying yesterday when he did a briefing for us after the president spoke.
The problem with that approach is three-fold.
First, it's not clear that the Iranians are in a weak enough position right now, that that will work. It's possible that internal dissent within Iran would rise up. But people have bet on that before and failed.
The second is that the pressure worked the last time, Chris, only because it was the U.S. And the Europeans together. And the Russians and the Chinese helping. Clearly, in this case, as Aaron has pointed out, the Europeans, it was remarkable, turned out a statement yesterday signed by the prime minister of Britain, the president of France, and the chancellor of Germany, all saying, essentially, that the United States was in violation of the U.N. resolutions that embrace this and that those U.N. resolutions are still the international law around constraining Iran's nuclear ambitions.
I think the third problem they're going to run into is you could do this, I think, as an administration if you paid no attention to how much damage you do to the rest of the alliance. And we're going to need those European allies for a number of other things unrelated to Iran in the near future.
CAMEROTA: So Aaron, let's talk about the chess game that you see happening here and the connection between President Trump's announcement about Iran yesterday and then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to North Korea.
MILLER: I mean, it's not -- I think there are three points worth making.
It's no coincidence that the president of the United States decided to mention and made some news that Pompeo was on his way en route to North Korea to plan for the summit.
The reality is the JCPOA was Obama's deal. The North Korean business is Trump's ride into the history books. If he succeeds, it will refrain his foreign policy presidency.
And I think he made the point, basically, in mentioning this yesterday to send an unmistakable signal to Kim that there won't be any more JCPOAs. No more creative ambiguity. No more loopholes. We're going to get an agreement that deals with nukes and you have decisions to make.
The problem with that is you raise expectations which right now are fairly reduced. If you essentially eliminate the JCPOA as a possible model, and there's no creative ambiguity with respect to any deal with North Korea, you make the prospects of success very difficult.
[06:25:08] So one last point. I used to believe that, in essence, if Trump walked from the JCPOA, the North Koreans wouldn't trust us, and Kim would basically shut down. I don't think that's the case. I think North Koreans have many reasons not to trust us. I think they'll look at what Trump proposes, weigh it on its merits, and decide whether or not they want in.
If this deal goes South with North Korea, they will probably use his walk from the JCPOA to demonstrate that the U.S. can't be trusted.
CUOMO: Help us with something, David. Reading the editorials this morning, they're really heavy. And they're really heavy on, "Boy, this is reckless." You know, perception of a risk and ignoring it anyway. Getting out of this deal. Not having another plan.
But are people putting the cart before the horse? I mean, you know, even to ADM's point, the issue isn't whether North Korea trusts us. It's really whether they can be trusted, right, to do any deal. And if the president doesn't like this deal, plenty of people didn't.
We relied on you and ADM very heavily during the negotiation of it, the understanding of it. There were a lot of people that didn't like it. It was just seen as better than the alternative. They don't like the deal. They get out. All the interested parties have to make something work. How does this go terribly wrong?
SANGER: It only goes terribly wrong, Chris, if we end up in some form of large confrontation with Iran at a moment that we could also run the risk of being in a confrontation with North Korea.
And there was a gamble that was -- that lay underneath the Iran deal in the Obama years, which was that once you got the nuclear issue out of the way, you could build a bigger, more constructive relationship. The Iranians were the first ones to walk away from that gamble. They didn't do anything after the deal was signed to work with us on ISIS or other things that suggested they wanted a bigger relationship.
Now, we're engaged in the same process with the North Koreans. And I find it interesting. I was -- as you know, I've been quite skeptical about the North Korean negotiations.
But everything you're hearing from the North Koreans, including the toast when Mike Pompeo had a lunch a few hours ago at Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, were all about the North moving toward a new era of economic development following the Chinese model.
Do I think they can do it? Probably not. But if, in fact, they've decided to make that turn, there is the one chance here now that they're willing to give up big parts of their nuclear program.
The only thing that Iran informs us about that is that President Trump has got to walk out of the North Korea agreement with an agreement that is even stronger than what Barack Obama got out of the Iranians. And that means not one gram of uranium, not one gram of plutonium. That was essentially the message yesterday. And I don't know whether the North Koreans are really willing to give all of that up. It's a big risk for them.
CAMEROTA: Kim Jong-un just this morning said, "I have high expectations the U.S. will play a very big role in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula." Then he toasted Mike Pompeo.
Gentlemen, thank you very much. Aaron David Miller, David Sanger, thank you.
Now the president's pick to replace Pompeo at the CIA is just hours from her confirmation hearing. We already know how Gina Haspel plans to reassure her critics. The question is, will it work? We'll take you through what the area of sensitivity is and a little bit of a tough spot that Haspel finds herself in, next.