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Reports Indicate Donald Trump's Lawyer Michael Cohen Received Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Payments from Russian Oligarch; Trump Pulls Out of Iran Deal. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 9, 2018 - 8:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: We'll see. Christiane, we'll come right back to you when we learn more because nobody will help us more. Congratulations on the new additional duty for you at PBS. Congratulations.

We're following a lot of news, my friends. What do you say, let's get after it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael Cohen should not have been accepting money from anyone with Russian ties.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They questioned him about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payment 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, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It will 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They don't have a real plan here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He did campaign on this and he is following through on it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, May 9th, 8:00 in the east.

Legal troubles could be mounting for President Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen. CNN exclusively learning that Robert Mueller's team questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments that his company's U.S. affiliate made to Michael Cohen after the election.

CUOMO: Stormy Daniels's lawyer Michael Avenatti has brought out a lot of this new information. CNN has its own reporting as well, and what we're dealing with is evidence of a series of payments to Michael Cohen's consulting company, the same one he used to pay off Stormy Daniels to stay silent about her alleged affair with Donald Trump. Michael Avenatti will join us here on NEW DAY in just minutes.

So let's begin our coverage with CNN's Abby Phillip live at the White House. Abby?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris. We are learning some new details today about Michael Cohen, the president's personal lawyer, and his finances, his ties to a company that's linked to a Russian oligarch who was sanctioned by the U.S. for election meddling. That oligarch CNN has learned has been questioned by the Mueller investigative team. And we also have some new details about what the investigators asked him about.


PHILLIP: CNN has learned that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators 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, TREASURY SECRETARY: I can't make any comments as it relates to our sanctions or any specifics.

PHILLIP: "The New York Times" confirming details initially made public by Stormy Daniels's lawyer, Michael Avenatti, that these payments amounted 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 that he has evidence that Vekselberg was involved before making this unsubstantiated charge.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS ATTORNEY: 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.

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 Korean Aerospace Industries. Korea Aerospace Industries is currently working to secure a defense contract with the U.S. Air Force and declined to comment to the "The New York Times."

[08:05:00] 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 early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration. They it no legal work or lobbying for us, and the contract ended in December, 2017.


PHILLIP: So just this morning we've received a new statement from Novartis about this arrangement with Cohen. They say that their new CEO had nothing to do with it and they stressed that the arrangement was focused on U.S. health care policy matters.

Now Novartis also revealed that they were cooperating with the Mueller investigation in November of 2017. They say they fully cooperated with that. They found the matter to be closed from their perspective. All of this is also happening on Emmet Flood's first day on the job. He is the president's newest lawyer joining the legal team to deal with this Mueller investigation, Chris and you know.

CUOMO: Better to be busy than be bored. Thank you, Abby.

Let's bring in CNN political analyst John Avlon and CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Jeffrey, legally, what are the troubling questions slash issues based on this new CNN reporting and other information in the air?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the real question that at the core of all this is where did the money come from to payoff Stormy Daniels? Think about how many evolving explanations we have heard for that.

The first explanation was that Michael Cohen used his own money. He got a line of credit from his house and that was where the money came to pay off Stormy Daniels. Rudy Giuliani in his incoherent explanation with Sean Hannity said, well, it came from Cohen originally but then he was paid back through a series of transactions with Donald Trump personally.

Now we see that Michael Cohen had a lot of money coming in and out of this -- of the account that went to pay Stormy Daniels, including, he alleges, his lawyer, Avenatti, alleges from Russia. It remains a key question, who paid off Stormy Daniels and where it that money come from? That question was not answered, but it became more complicated yesterday with these documents Michael Avenatti released.

CAMEROTA: John, beyond Stormy Daniels, do you see a host of other questions, which is what was that half a million dollars for paid to Michael Cohen? Is there some sort of -- I don't know -- he I guess set this up so he could be a consultant, but are there other questions about what he was getting --

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think there are clearly a set of other questions, a whole host of them that are going to need to be answered. We know that Mueller's team pulled over Vekselberg when he landed in the United States in a private airport to ask him, the Russian oligarch who the dossier that Avenatti released indicates paid him a half million dollars. Obviously the question is, for what?

That was through an American investment vehicle known as Columbus Nova, but that in FEC filing and others is very clearly delineated as an investment vehicle for Vekselberg, the Russian oligarch, and his company Renova. So this is a big problem for Michael Cohen. It isn't just the politics of the matter of perception. This is, with all the questions about Russian influence, the president's private lawyer taking half a million dollars from a Russian oligarch who's been sanctioned over the course of the first year of the Trump presidency, that looks bad, and it's probably looks bad because it is bad. There's a lot of explaining to do.

CUOMO: There's a lot of explaining to do, fair point. And it looks very swampy, at least. You have big amounts of money coming in to somebody who's close to the president of the United States. Not illegal. It's wrong, Trump said he would clean it up. If anything it seems the swamp is murkier than ever. We've been hearing that from FOX News. However, the idea that he was paid by a Russian, do you think that we have proof of that at this point?

AVLON: I think we have evidence that a payment occurred. We have "The Daily Beast," we had a source confirm the Avenatti report. Single source, and clearly we aren't the only runs returning this reporting down and have found confirming evidence. I think that the fact Mueller team interviewed Vekselberg when he landed in the United States is also not definitive but a sign of deepening trouble around this.

I think given that Cohen says he wasn't doing legal work and lobbying, some of the corporate clients say that, the question is, what was he doing? Is it simply insight or is it influence peddling? These are one of the many questions that is going to need to be answered.

CUOMO: Even if it is influence peddling, is that illegal, Jeffrey? TOOBIN: No, it's not illegal. I think we need to be clear about

that. This is a sleazy business, someone close to the president getting $200,000 from AT&T, which is trying to acquire our parent company in a controversial transaction.

[08:10:10] That's a sleazy business, but it is not illegal as far as I'm aware under any circumstances for people close to the president selling their access. And the Korea transaction with Michael Cohen, the Novartis transaction, the AT&T transaction, these part of what people don't like about Washington, but I do think it's important to emphasize that it is not illegal as far as I am aware.

CAMEROTA: So what's the legal snafu that you're most interested in, Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: What I'm most interested in is where the money came from in this account, the same account, Essential Consultant, to pay off Stormy Daniels, because there has not been a clear explanation of that --

CAMEROTA: Wait a minute. Hold on. Didn't Michael Cohen say that that's from his home equity line on his house, that's where he got the money to pay Stormy Daniels? He said that.

TOOBIN: That's what he said, but how are we in any position to trust that. Did he say what this account was used for otherwise? The fact that Donald Trump and Michael Cohen have an explanation for where the money came from, I think that's hardly the end of the story given their record of credibility. And the fact that this account was used so extensively it turns out by Cohen raises more questions about where the money came from.

CUOMO: Here's one thing that we know, I don't know if it's good for Cohen or bad for Cohen. It's being called a shell company. It ain't a shell company. And it clearly wasn't established just for Stormy Daniels because he's had millions of dollars go through it from all kinds of corporate clients --

CAMEROTA: Right. But hold on one second. He did say it was for real estate. I think that on his document setting up --

CUOMO: And other consulting.

CAMEROTA: He did? Real estate and other consulting, and Stormy Daniels is consulting?

AVLON: It also appears that the first major transaction seems to have been the Stormy Daniels' payment to the extent that Especially consulting, which happened before.

CUOMO: Which happened before the money from Columbus, so it would be about being repaid or remuneration or some type of -- because obviously that money wasn't used to pay Stormy because she was already paid.

AVLON: I think Michael Avenatti has got to make the case that the subsequent dollars that flowed through this consulting company were connected to Stormy Daniels in any way. What we do know is even beyond the perception, and because of the constantly shifting stories out of Trump and Cohen and their associated camps, their a fundamentally credibility problem, and now there seems to be a significant dollar trail which leads reasonable people to ask why and what for? Why is the president's personal lawyer self-described and by the president taking a half-million dollars from a Russian oligarch? That's a question the American people have a right to know the answer to.

CAMEROTA: Jeffrey, when you follow the money that's where -- that's the question you ask.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. And we are aware of these transactions. Remember, there is also involving Michael Cohen and essential consulting the $1.6 million payment to the woman who had the affair with the Republican fundraiser, also money that -- did that go through the same bank account? It was used --

CUOMO: What if he it did?

TOOBIN: The question -- again, where did that money come from? Where was the $1.6 million -- where it that come from? Did it come from this Republican fundraiser? That's what he says --

AVLON: Is it a consulting company or hush money factory? I'm confused.

CUOMO: That is a form of consulting. I'm just looking at it -- you've got two ways to look at all of this. Do we like this? Is this what we want to see in the people surrounding power? That's one angle. I'm just saying, is it illegal? Because he's under federal investigation, this guy, and I'm telling you right now they're not looking for proof that politics is dirty. That's not what they're looking for.

CAMEROTA: It's also always a fun exercise to say, and if Hillary Clinton's personal fixer had taken a half-million dollars from a Russian oligarch affiliated company to pay a porn star or whatever, in connection to an account that paid a porn star, then what would have happened?

AVLON: It's a worthwhile exercise because it's the way you can detect whether people are simply spinning and the situational ethics, which is really disgusting. You apply the same standards to both sides.

CUOMO: Go ahead, Jeffrey, please, last word.

TOOBIN: Chris, we talk about this every morning, and I think it's a very important point that you always are making. All of this seems sleazy, all of it seems swampy, people selling influence. But is it illegal? Those are very separate questions. We can find this all distasteful, but was there any crime here? And there is no evidence as far as I am aware so far that Michael Cohen actually committed any crime in connection with this account. And that is a very important distinction.


AVLON: As the president is fond of saying, we'll see.

CAMEROTA: Stay tuned.

AVLON: Stay tuned.

CAMEROTA: Thank you very much, Jeffrey and John Avlon.

CUOMO: And we're not applying the Trump standard here. We're applying what we can show through facts and what the prosecutors act on.

All right. President Trump has made a very big and factual move. He has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal effectively. Was it a wise move? He did fulfill a campaign promise.

Our next guest is going to make the case that things will only get better.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The agreement was so poorly negotiated that even if Iran fully complies, the regime can still be on the verge of a nuclear breakout in just a short period of time.


CUOMO: President Trump making the case for why the U.S. is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Leaders from U.K., France, Russia, Iran are all vowing to stay in the deal, despite Mr. Trump's announcement.

So, what does this mean for the administration's effort to broker a new deal?

Joining us now is Andrew Peek, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran.

Good to have you on, sir.


CUOMO: Now, let me jump topics just for one second, because frankly it matters to me more in the moment.

Do you have any information that we can share with the audience about the chance that those Americans that are held in North Korea are going to come home with Mike Pompeo?

[08:20:08] PEEK: I don't, I'm sorry. CUOMO: Is that because there is no development or you're just being

sensitive to the situation?

PEEK: You know, I'm the Iran official. I can't speak to the North Korea developments.

CUOMO: All right. I got you. Thanks. I just -- I wanted to ask because that matters. I get that it's being used as a political device, there's good and bad reason for that. But you just wanted to ask. Thank you for going on the record about it.

All right. Now, back to what your bailiwick is. Why are my kids and Americans and their children more safe because of what the president just did?

PEEK: Well, I think reimposing the sanctions that were lifted under the JCPOA allows us to better counter the totality of Iran's maligned behavior in the region. Not just get to a place where we have better nuclear safeguards, but hopefully roll back Iran's support of terrorism, push back on its support of proxies and reduce Iran's proliferation of missiles. All of these activities are contributing to a situation that's making the region less safe since the deal's been signed.

CUOMO: Understood. But if the concern is their other activities why take away the protections in place right now against their arguably most dangerous potential, which is the nuclear deal. You have protections on that now.

Why take those away in order to address their other nefarious activities in the region?

PEEK: Well, because the problem with the nuclear deal as the president laid out was it decoupled consequences from Iranian behavior, right? It broke that basic dialectic whether the Iranians would act one way and the international community would effectively push back on that. It essentially cordoned off this huge of the Iranian economy, whereas whatever else it did, it was essentially unsanctionable because of Iran's nuclear behavior.

And so because of that, you saw Iranian behavior steadily get worse.

CUOMO: If you wanted to sanction them for their other behavior non- nuke-related, let's say, Tim Kaine, you had that authority. You were given it a year ago in the bundle sanctions for Iran, Russia and North Korea. You could have sanctioned them for what they're doing in the region. You chose not to.

PEEK: That's preposterous. We sanctioned about seven times as many entities in 2017 as 2016.

CUOMO: In Iran?

PEEK: Iranian entities. Yes.

We have used our sanctions authority aggressively to push back on Iranian influence. Our predisposition at this point is to push back on those activities but the problem is there are entities that are essentially what I would consider dual use. They have ties to the nuclear sector but also ties to, let us say, the IRGC.

And worse than that, the nuclear deal actually in effect mandated a top line of investment in the Iranian economy, almost regardless of its other behavior. That's the decoupling that so concerns us.

CUOMO: If sanctions aren't enough because Tim Kaine says you had the ability to sanction. You're saying you sanctioned more than was ever done before in this regard --

PEEK: In 2016. Yes.

CUOMO: Maybe then in 2016 -- maybe President Trump was right back in 2011 when he tweet that had sanctioning Iran is not enough to stop them with their nuclear capabilities or now as an extension of that logic or their nefarious activities in the reason, that sanctions isn't enough?

PEEK: Well, I think the president's right that we need a really comprehensive political and economic sanctions effort with our allies to combat Iran, to reduce Iranians malign influence. Where we are in the 2013 with the crushing economic pressure on Iran, we saw that that was effective, the Iranians would bargain when that was applied. The idea was to reapply that and frankly get a better deal across the totality of Iranian behavior than what we had -- than we eventually settled for in the JCPOA.

CUOMO: All right. So, there are obstacles to that. The first one is that the other parties say they don't want to go along with you on that. They want to stay in this current deal and they're going to rework it with Iran themselves without the U.S. Does that concern you?

PEEK: Look, this is an iterative process. This is kind of diplomacy 101. We have had about two decades of experience with secondary sanctions. That is sanctions under entities not under U.S. jurisdiction.

The best way to reduce foreign investment in Iran and designated entities and sectors of the Iran economy is by cajoling, encouraging, at times prodding. We're confident we'll get there and Ric Grenell, our new ambassador to Germany said the same thing just yesterday. We're going to reduce investment in Iran in problematic entities in its energy sector. It'll take some diplomacy.

CUOMO: Big part of the president's argument is you can't trust Iran, Iran's going to have nukes just around the corner and they're not keeping the deal. The IAEA says that's not true.

[08:25:01] Secretary Mattis said in congressional testimony that that's not true.

Is that a good basis to go into this move by having the president make statements about Iran's noncompliance that are contradicted by his own secretary of defense and by the monitoring agency involved?

PEEK: Well, you know, I'll let the secretary of defense do his own interviews. I'll say it is the administration's position that there were grave flaws in the JCPOA. The president was quite right --


CUOMO: Not in the deal, in the compliance -- in the compliance, sir.

PEEK: Well, for access to military sites. That was a gaping hole that we need to see filled and frankly, I think we're going to get to a place where we can do that.

CUOMO: But the IAEA says they're in compliance with the deal as it stands. They have more monitoring, they have more eyes on the ground in Iran than we've ever had before?

PEEK: But again that's not sufficient, because of the lack of access to the military sites, because of the sunset provisions, because of the lack of ICBM provisions. It was -- it was not a sufficient deal, even what we have.

CUOMO: So, we heard the president's cite Israeli intelligence as a basis of this understanding of what we have to worry about with Iran. No citing of U.S. intelligence and no echo effect of any of the other allies who have their own capable intelligence apparatus. Nobody shares the opinion that the president put out there. Why?

PEEK: The president's getting information from all U.S. intelligence agencies.

CUOMO: He only cited the Israeli intelligence, Bibi Netanyahu's case. Why?

PEEK: Again, I can tell that you the president's getting information from all U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies and a range of foreign ones.

CUOMO: Why would the U.K., France, Germany, other allies in the area, with the signatories or not, why would they not want to step up and affirm this? This is a threat to everybody, not just the United States.

PEEK: Again, I can only repeat what I just said. I would defer comment on those countries what they share publicly from their intelligence communities to them. I will say that the president's fully aware of the relevant information on the Iranian nuclear program.

CUOMO: So here's where it stands. Right now until you get something better, assuming they can't salvage this deal among the remaining signatories in Iran, we have nothing. Should we be concerned?

PEEK: First of all, Iran's behavior across the spectrum concerns me every day. I mean, that's what I do for a living. It concerns many of our regional allies and many of our European allies as well. CUOMO: Right, but freeing them from the current constraints doesn't

make them more safe --


PEEK: No, it certainly makes us more safe.

CUOMO: How so?

PEEK: Look, this is going to be a cost benefit decision and analysis at multiple iterative points, in three months, in six months, in 12 months, but, you know, going forward in the future. We have every confident that by making this decision, that we are imposing sufficient leverage to get Iran to reduce its activities, to put better pressure on Iran to get to a better place with regards to the balance of power in the region, and Iran's nuclear activities.

CUOMO: But until you do that, we will be left with nothing if the remaining allies and signatories can't keep the deal intact?

PEEK: We certainly wouldn't be left with nothing because Iran would be reducing its activity.

CUOMO: How do you know that?

PEEK: If we see it, then we'll be positive about it.

CUOMO: Right. I understand your wait and see analysis. In the instant situation that we're in, assuming they can't salvage the deal themselves, you would have no extra monitoring, you would have no extra checks on their nuclear capabilities until you put something else in place? That's just a matter of fact.

PEEK: Well, that's not what the Iranians have said that. They haven't said that's where they're going. They've been ambiguous about that. Frankly, there's --

CUOMO: You got people in the streets burning the American flag and chanting death to the United States, is what you're banking on is the good faith of Iranians --


PEEK: That's nothing new. That's nothing new in the last 24 hours.

CUOMO: That's a little bit of a specious premise, no?

PEEK: Well, that's not new in the last 24 hours, the Iranian are burning flags and chanting death to America. I think, frankly, that's one of the reasons that any sort of good faith deal with the Iranians in 2015 was so problematic to take on the face of.

CUOMO: Well, that's why it wasn't based on good faith. It was based on bad faith. I remember that rhetoric at the time.

A troubling situation, appreciate you making the case, Mr. Peek. Very helpful to the audience. You're always welcome back.

PEEK: Thanks so much.

CUOMO: Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: OK. So, Stormy Daniels' lawyer says he has evidence that Michael Cohen received payments from a U.S. firm that is tied to a Russian oligarch. Michael Avenatti joins us live coming right up.