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Mueller Investigation Looks into Russia Oligarch's Payments to Cohen; West Virginia GOP Rejects Controversial Candidate in Primary; Tim Kaine: Withdrawal from Iran Deal Makes U.S. Less Safe. Aired 7- 7:30a ET
Aired May 9, 2018 - 07:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: President Trump, he's taking action now to make sure that we're safe.
[07:00:10] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think that we're more safe. If we're not seen a reliable partner, we're going to have a hard time moving ahead.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: The administration offered no plan for what comes next.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY.
Legal troubles could be mounting for President Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen. And they could not be. Why is it so unknown? Because the information raises lot of questions. But we don't know the answers.
CNN exclusively learned that Bob Mueller is also interested in the same body of thought. That his team questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments that a company here in the U.S. that is affiliated with him made to Cohen after the election.
Stormy Daniels's lawyer claims to have evidence of a series of payments to Michael Cohen's consulting company, the same one that he used to pay off Stormy Daniels to stay silent about her alleged affair with President Trump.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump making good on his campaign promise to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Leaders from the other countries in the historic accord vow to stay in it. So what happens next?
And President Trump's Iran decision is raising the stakes on North Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is there right now ahead of President Trump's historic summit with Kim Jong-un.
So let's begin our coverage with CNN's Abby Phillip. She is live at the White House. What's happening there this morning, Abby?
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Alisyn.
Just yesterday President Trump made one of the most significant foreign policy decisions of his presidency. But just hours later, it was already overshadowed by a new revelation, this time about his personal lawyer's ties to a company linked to a Russian oligarch who had been sanctioned for election meddling.
Now that oligarch we are now learning has been questioned by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. And we also know a little bit more about what Mueller wanted to know from him.
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
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.
Financial records reviewed by Avenatti and "The New York Times" indicate that Cohen's company also received payments from a number of corporations, including nearly $400,000 from a subsidiary of pharmaceutical company Novartis; $200,000 from AT&T; and $150,000 from Korea Aerospace Industries.
Novartis's chief executive was one of 15 business leaders invited to have dinner with President Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.
AT&T is currently engaged in a legal battle with the Justice Department over a proposed merger with Time Warner, CNN's parent company. In a statement, AT&T said, "Essential Consulting was one of several firms we engaged in 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration. They did no legal work or lobbying for us, and the contract ended in December 2017."
Korean Aerospace Industries is currently working to secure a defense contract with the U.S. Air Force and declined to comment to the "New York Times."
PHILLIP: Well, all of this is happening as the president's newest lawyer, Emmet Flood is, according to source, starting his first day on the job today -- Alisyn and Chris.
CUOMO: All right, Abby. Thank you very much.
Let's bring in our political panel. CNN political analyst David Gregory and the man wearing two hats, political but also chief legal analyst, former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Toobin.
Jeffrey Toobin, Michael Avenatti, he's got him. He's got Michael Cohen. He showed that he has proof that Cohen was on the take from Russians and was doing all kinds of shady types of banking transactions. Do you accept that?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I certainly -- it's intriguing and information that needs to be followed up on. It's not conclusive proof. It's just a memo that his -- his staff put together based on documents that they'd seen.
But I think the most significant information here is that this was a pot of money that Michael Cohen controlled access to. At first, we only knew that it was used to pay off Stormy Daniels, and it was used to pay off Stormy Daniels. But the sources of that money are now even more complicated than we thought.
You know, one possibility, based on the Avenatti documents, is that Russians put money in, and Cohen used that money to pay off Stormy Daniels. I mean, money is fungible. So it's not clear which money was used for what.
But, you know, if you had Russians paying off Stormy Daniels to help the Trump campaign, that is explosive information. And that's suggested but not proved by the Avenatti documents.
CAMEROTA: But David Gregory, aren't we just connecting too many dots here? I mean, the -- what the explanation thus far has been is that this is for a real-estate investment. We know that Michael Cohen invests in real estate. He's made a lot of money investing in real estate. Why are we connecting a Russian oligarch with Stormy Daniels? He didn't need a Russian oligarch's money to pay off Stormy Daniels.
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, but I think it's a larger question. And it's still a question. Because we don't know how the special counsel may be connecting these things. We know that there's potential leverage against Michael Cohen, if they're investigating him for other crimes, like bank fraud that they can use as leverage based on whatever else he may know that may be connected to the core of the investigation.
The other question is what is it that the Russians had, potentially, on President Trump or others in his orbit that would have led to the kinds of statements that President Trump as a candidate made glowing reviews of Vladimir Putin at a time that cried out for American officials and candidates to be criticizing the Russian government? This perhaps provides some answers.
We know in another context how the campaign was open to damaging information against Hillary Clinton, whether it came from Russians or anyone else. So if they were open for business on the political front, maybe they're open for business as we know the Trump Organization has been in the past, as Jeffrey has reported, to -- to Russian money.
So all of that becomes potentially very important if you're an investigator looking at this.
CUOMO: Right, but Jeffrey, let me --
TOOBIN: Alisyn --
CAMEROTA: Go ahead.
TOOBIN: Well, Alisyn, I'd just like to push back against the idea that, well, Donald Trump had plenty of money, so what did he need this for?
CAMEROTA: Michael Cohen did. Michael Cohen had money.
TOOBIN: We don't -- you know, we don't know that Donald Trump or Michael Cohen had plenty of money. I mean, you know, this idea --
CAMEROTA: He had $130,000 to pay off Stormy Daniels.
TOOBIN: Exactly. And where did that money come from? I mean, Avenatti suggests, well, some of it came from these Russian -- this Russian-affiliated company.
CUOMO: Well, he doesn't even know that that Russian gave any money to Cohen, by the way.
TOOBIN: That's right. But you know, all we know about Trump paying for the money is Rudy Giuliani's nearly incoherent explanations to Sean Hannity about, you know, some retainer that came in, $35,000 a month.
Here we have at least one plausible explanation of where the money came from.
CUOMO: Well, why isn't Cohen's explanation plausible, the idea of it coming from his home equity line of credit? And that was a payment that predated what we understand about this Columbus relationship, which is where the Russian is supposedly connected to. So the payment was done before he got the money from Columbus.
TOOBIN: Well, maybe -- maybe that's true. But you know, there's no proof of that. I mean, you know, the idea that just because Michael Cohen or Donald Trump, through Rudy Giuliani, made an explanation and that that explanation is true, I think we should be highly skeptical, given how much the Trump --
[07:10:09] CUOMO: I'm fine for skepticism. I just believe that there's a lot of smoke going on, David Gregory, about what Avenatti put out. And he's got a lot of explaining to do.
Forget about where he got the documents. He's had no discovery in his case. So this doesn't come through the legitimate means of discovery in his litigation, as far as I know.
But look, we get information all the time from different sources. Somebody obviously thought Avenatti could be helpful to their cause, and they were right.
But the only thing we know that puts Russian money in this latest batch of information to Trump is this Russian oligarch who's being called Vekselberg, putting money into the inaugural committee, 250 grand. That was money that was directly to benefit Donald Trump. That's something they have to explain.
I don't know what that has to do with the guy who just popped up on your screen, Michael Cohen. I don't know that any of that money is in any how relevant to anything. But I do know that 250 from the Russian to the inaugural committee is relevant.
GREGORY: Right. And I -- there's a lot that we don't know. And this is a point that I think we have to keep coming back to. We're trying to put together shreds of information that we get about what the special counsel is looking at. But there is certainly a lot of information here that's worth following up on. It may not come to anything.
But I also think it's worth emphasizing again there may be more potential leverage that the special counsel has against Michael Cohen that he uses to get at whatever else he might know. That's how these investigations can work in the same way that they -- they're apparently putting the squeeze on Paul Manafort.
TOOBIN: And just to state the obvious, you know, we are trying to find bank records and we're trying to find financial transaction records. You know, Robert Mueller's team has subpoena power.
TOOBIN: They can get these records tomorrow. Or they probably got them months ago. So, you know, we are, you know, looking at little pieces of the elephant. They have the whole elephant there. And they're able to put it together.
CUOMO: And they decided to stop --
TOOBIN: However the chips may --
CUOMO: -- stop this Russian guy in the airport and talk to him about it. So clearly, there is relevance to it. I'm just saying that what Avenatti put out is a list of transactions that supposedly were affected by Michael Cohen, we don't know if any of that's true.
And that the payment that supposedly puts Cohen with this guy, the company came out and said it had nothing to do with the other guy. We're an American-owned company.
CAMEROTA: Right. But David Gregory, it is also interesting to just know what's happening in the world during this time, during this time that this payment was made through these different companies to Michael Cohen.
This was when President Obama -- so this was at the end of 2016, OK, in January 2017. And it was when President Obama had been trying to impose different sanctions on Russia. This is when Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn had been having meetings with Sergey Kislyak. This is when Jared Kushner was reported to have tried to set up a back channel through the Russian embassy to have whatever communications they were going to have or whatever deals they were trying to hatch.
So there was a lot of stuff brewing around the time. Again, doesn't connect any dots. It's just interesting context.
GREGORY: Right. Unless it's not. I mean, you have -- you have an incoming administration that's trying to establish a relationship with Russia. Nothing is untoward about that. But it's -- some of the financial transactions, some of the business dealings that Trump had had as an organization with Russia that predate that, it's what we know now about what Russians were doing to try to influence the election. And overtures that were made to the campaign, to figures in the campaign to spread damaging information. So all of that just got way too close for comfort, which is why it's being investigated.
CUOMO: Jeffrey, one of the things that we're all learning here now, something that you know very well, there's a reason prosecutors follow the money. That's because it's one of the clearest lines of proof that they can show about things. It's why so many of the Mob guys wind up getting caught up on tax evasion charges. Can't prove what you were doing and why you were doing it, but I can prove you didn't pay taxes on the money.
We're seeing that here also, that Mueller seems to be following the money. Significance?
TOOBIN: It's very significant, because it's not just the tax implications. The other issue is, you know, were -- was Michael Cohen truthful with the banks he was dealing with when it comes to, you know, what this Essential Consultant's account, which is where all this money went through, you know, was he honest with the banks about what this account was used for?
Again, if -- even if you can't prove that the money was used for a crime, if you lie to a bank about what an account is used for, that's potentially bank fraud. That's another way of using a financial transaction, like a tax prosecution, that allows a prosecutor to get leverage over someone even if they can't prove that the underlying conduct is a crime.
[07:15:03] CUOMO: Right. And look, also, I mean, more to your point, this keeps being called a shell company. It couldn't be less of a shell. It's a consulting firm set up as a legit LLC. Cohen put his name on it. And millions and millions of dollars went through it for supposed consulting activities, David. So it's certainly no shell. I mean, this is a real company that he was doing business with. Why and for whom and with what implication, we're going to get the answers to.
GREGORY: Right. And if there's bank fraud, and if he's -- you know, this is what prosecutors do. I mean, they'll charge the crimes that are available and perhaps use that as leverage against him for what else he may know. And that's the -- that's the squeeze that Michael Cohen may be facing right now.
CAMEROTA: OK, so David Gregory, one last thing. We have to talk about Iran. How do you see what the president did yesterday in terms of pulling out of the Iran deal and the rest of the country staying in?
GREGORY: You know, I think it's risky. And I think there's a big bet. But this is Donald Trump's ultimate campaign promise, which is to position America more forcefully in the rest of the world and to get better deals.
Remember that that was ultimately his promise in the campaign is that I can negotiate better deals with bad actors around the world. He's got the potential to do that in North Korea.
And the gamble is that -- that Iran, so economically hurt right now because of sanctions before and then because of their own economy even now wants to do a different deal, even if they say they don't, even if the Europeans say that they don't, as opposed to running back toward restarting a nuclear program.
There's a lot of "ifs" in this, and there's a supposition, too, or perhaps a desire to break the Iranian regime. Something that I think everyone should scrutinize closely and be very concerned about if it ultimately leads to A military confrontation.
CAMEROTA: All right. Jeffrey Toobin, David Gregory, thank you both very much.
Now to this news. Primary results are in for four states. And it is good news for President Trump and Republicans. West Virginia voters rejecting the race-baiting conspiracy-laden candidacy of Don Blankenship, who finished third in the GOP Senate race.
CNN's Joe Johns is live in Charleston, West Virginia, with more on the results. So that was a win for Donald Trump.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely that was a win for Donald Trump. I want to give you a quick view of three different races around the country, starting here in West Virginia, which was perhaps the marquee.
The president expended some of his own political to get anybody but that Trump-like candidate, Don Blankenship, over the finish line. It worked, apparently. Blankenship himself admitting that it was the president's Twitter account that was at least a big factor in his loss. Blankenship placing third here in West Virginia. The state attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, is the nominee, will go up against the Democratic incumbent, Joe Manchin, this November.
Turning to North Carolina, the 9th District, this was a rematch from two years ago, conservative Southern Baptist minister running against the incumbent Republican congressman. And Mark Harris unsets the congressman, Robert Pittenger. Pittenger, of course, the first congressman to lose a primary election in this cycle.
Turning also to Indiana. Another very interesting race there. The brother of the vice president of the United States, Greg Pence, wins the race there very handily. Of course, he is expected to be the favorite this November.
Back to you.
CUOMO: Thanks, Joe Johns. Appreciate it.
The president's decision to quit the Iran deal has some lawmakers fighting mad. Senator Tim Kaine said it makes us less safe and could bring us closer to war. What's his case? He's going to make it to you next.
[07:22:46] CUOMO: President Trump making good on one of his biggest campaign promises, to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Now leaders from the other countries in the historic accord are vowing to stay in it. What happens next? What is the plan here that will make you safer?
Joining us now is Democratic Senator Tim Kaine. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee.
Good to see you, Senator.
SEN. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: Thanks, Chris. Good to be here.
CUOMO: All right. So let's flip that question for the purposes of you making your own case. The president says, "Lousy deal. Does not keep Iran quiet on nukes. Does not keep Americans safe. I will get a better deal, which means I have to get out of this deal." He just did Part A, which is get us out of the deal.
KAINE: Well, look, the president is wrong. His own secretary of defense, James Mattis, who is no softy, who is in fact, an Iran hawk, has told the Armed Services Committee in open hearing that Iran is complying with the deal to stop its nuclear weapons ambitions. And staying in the deal is is America's best interests.
The first sentence of the first paragraph, Chris, as you know, says Iran reaffirms that it will never seek to purchase, acquire or develop any nuclear weapons. Why would the president want to relieve Iran of that obligation? We should be enforcing the deal, not blowing up the deal.
CUOMO: Well, they say the International Atomic Energy Agency has its own protections. And the president's argument is, true or untrue, you can now tell the audience, is that in just a few -- a few years, the deal would allow Iran to get back in the nuke business.
KAINE: The president is wrong. Again, the deal, if it sticks, the U.S. having blown it out, has a permanent pledge by Iran not to purchase, acquire or develop nuclear weapons. It also has enhanced inspections of Iran, making them the most inspected nation in the world for 25 years.
And then after year 25, Iran is obligated to comply with what's called the additional protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that continues to allow intense inspections in perpetuity in Iran. They agree to that as part of the deal.
And I suspect that what you'll now see is them start to not allow certain kinds of inspections that they agreed to, because the U.S. blew up the deal. That will give us less transparency about what Iran is doing.
[07:25:07] CUOMO: All right. So now the harder part of the argument for you is Iran lies, and Iran is doing terrible things in the region. You knew it at the time you made this deal in the Obama administration. You thought that they would come to the table and work on that. They didn't. It's gotten worse. You can't allow it. And the only leverage you have is busting up this deal and squeezing them with sanctions again. And that's what Trump is going to do. KAINE: That is -- that's not a hard argument at all, Chris. We gave
the White House sanction tools a year ago to go against Iran on all the nonnuclear activity. Their aggression in Yemen, there are human rights violations. There are violations of missile protocols.
None of that was part of the nuclear deal. We wanted to put the nuclear deal on ice, their nuclear program on ice so that we could go after and target these activities. And we gave the White House sanctions tools a year ago that they haven't used. They should have been using the sanctions power we gave them to go after these activities instead of doing nothing and then blowing up the one part of this that's working.
CUOMO: They say the money is fungible. You can't squeeze some of the pockets. You have to squeeze all of them. And that's the only way to ensure that Iran won't put money into its activities. And if you choke off the cash, hopefully, it slows down the efforts.
KAINE: If they believed that, Chris, they would have been using the sanctions power that we gave them against Iran, which they haven't been.
This has been one of the big mysteries. We did a bill last year that gave the administration intense sanctions power against Iran, Russia and North Korea. And they have been asleep at the switch. They haven't even used these tools against Iran meaningfully in any way.
They should have immediately, if they were worried about these Iranian activities -- and I am, too. They should have immediately used the sanctions tool against them but allowed this deal to continue to suppress Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.
CUOMO: What is that -- what is that tool? What's it called? Where is it? How do we find it?
KAINE: Just -- just go look at the sanctions bill that the Senate and House passed in 2017 that put Iran, North Korea, and Russian sanctions power together and gave it to it White House. And it was to deal with exactly the issues that you raise, which are issues we've always been concerned about.
We knew when we did the nuclear deal that we were going to have to then focus on other activities. That's when, when I'm in the region, for example, talking to Israeli military and intelligence agencies, they say the nuclear deal is good, because it puts that in the deep freeze. And it enables us to focus on other activities where Iran is doing bad stuff.
What President Trump has done is he's now taken the focus off of Iran's behavior, and he's put it onto the U.S.'s bad faith in backing out of a deal that we negotiated, that the international community says is being complied with. His "America first" is really "America alone." And that is now driving a wedge between the United States and our best allies, the European nations that worked with us on this deal. CUOMO: Well, it is interesting that the president now is relying so
heavily on the ability for sanctions to be the difference in Iran. There's a tweet of his from 2011. I know it was a long time ago. But these same issues were just as extent then as they are now.
CUOMO: We want to put it up on the screen. We can. This was Donald Trump back then. Again, it is 2011, it's a long time ago, but they were the same issues.
"American sanctions alone cannot stop Iran's nuclear drive. Barack Obama cannot get China and Russia to agree on new Iranian sanctions."
Now, the irony is, let's see if Trump can, because it will be interesting to see if Russia and China want to put a move on Iran when he's just blown up this deal, because they both seem to want to cut their own deal with Iran right now.
Let me ask you about something else while I have you.
KAINE: Yes. Absolutely.
CUOMO: Gina Haspel is going to have her confirmation hearing today. She has received Democratic support. She also has Democratic detractors. But you've got Michael Hayden and others who have come forth from the community, not known as Republicans, saying she's good for this job. Where do you stand, Tim Kaine?
KAINE: Chris, I never declare on a nominee until after the hearing, unless it's somebody I personally know, because the hearings are very important. I'm not on the Intel Committee, but I'm going to be watching the hearing with interest.
There are two principle issues with Gina Haspel. One, the torture programs at the CIA and her participation in them, even her leadership in some of those programs. That's going to be analyzed carefully today.
And second, did she participate in the destruction of records while at the CIA to try to hide what the CIA was doing with respect to torture programs? Those are my two great concerns. And she's going to have to go a long way to satisfy me on those two issues.
CUOMO: She's got a tough spot. Because she wants to make the case to you guys that, "Look, this is what was legal. This was what was accepted by the American people through their proxy of the government and the president after 9/11. So that's what we did. When that changed, we changed."
But now she's got a boss, the president, who seems to want to reintroduce these same methods. So she's going to have to convince you guys that she doesn't want to go back there. But she has a president who may tell her to go there.
KAINE: That is tough. And look, in her trying to persuade us that what was done was right and accepted by the American public, the natural question is, if you thought it was right, why were records being destroyed to block the American public from knowing what was going on?
CUOMO: All right.