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President Trump Welcomes Home Three Americans Freed by North Korea; Israel, Iran Exchange Rocket Fires at the Golan Heights; Sources: Cohen Aggressively Pitched Access to Trump; Pence on Mueller Probe: Time to "Wrap It Up". Aired 9-9:30 ET

Aired May 10, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:19] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.


It's like a dream. Some of the very first words we are hearing from three Americans who were detained in North Korea now back on American soil this morning after being freed.

BERMAN: And you can see the pictures here. Remarkable seen at Joint Base Andrews. This happened in the wee hours of the morning. The men emerging from the plane, even hugging the secretary of State right there, Mike Pompeo, who brought them home.

President Trump thanked the North Korean leader as we have learned new details about their upcoming meeting.

Our Abby Phillip live at the White House this morning with the very latest -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John and Poppy.

It was a triumphant moment overnight for those three detainees, Americans, who are finally free and back on American soil but also a triumphant moment for President Trump who views this as just one step forward in what he hopes to be a historic moment, denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, and finally peace between the North and the South. But before then, the president is looking toward a potential meeting with Kim Jong-un and he's talking a little bit about what he thinks is bringing the North Koreans to the table.

Take a listen to what he had to say last night.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I really think he wants to do something. I think he did this because I really think he wants to something and bring their country in the real world. There's never been a relationship like this. We're starting from here but I really think a lot of progress has been made.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PHILLIP: Well, it will truly be a test for that relationship in a mark of how the rhetoric has changed so dramatically here. The president went from calling for fire and fury to thanking Kim Jong-un for releasing the three men from detention, two of whom have been held for over a year and a third who has been held since 2015.

Now those three men are headed to Walter Reed Medical Center this morning for a further medical evaluation, but by all accounts they were in good health, able to walk on their own, happy to be free again.

Their family members were not at Joint Base Andrews for their homecoming this morning. An official tells us that's because they will need to be debriefed by intelligence officials before they can be reunited with their family members.

And as for that meeting with Kim Jong-un that is hopefully on the books according to the president in the next couple of weeks. We're learning that it's likely that that meeting will be held in Singapore. The president had said in the last several days that a time and a date was set. He did not announce where it would be but he did rule out the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South, and Singapore, according to our sources, is looking like the most likely location someplace in the Asia region close enough for Kim Jong-un to reach by plane -- John and Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. And our new polling shows that many, many Americans are very supportive of that meeting happening.

Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you very much.

With us now Gordon Chang, the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World," and David Rohde, CNN global affairs analyst.

Gentlemen, good morning to you. And David, let me start with you.

You were detained in Afghanistan for more than seven months. You know better than any of us sitting here and most Americans what that is like. Talk about what these men may be going through right now and what their families are feeling.

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Sheer joy. There's just nothing better. There is no way to -- you know, I'm just so grateful for them and the transition's crazy. You don't think you're going to ever be out and suddenly this happens, they're put on a plane and they're home. So I'm just so happy for these men and their family.

BERMAN: You can see the joy in their faces. But they did look a little stunned, I have to say, as they were getting off that plane.

ROHDE: It's a very strange transition where -- and I'm sure they were very isolated where they were held. It's great they're in good health. But their heads are spinning. They are just -- some people said, oh, it must be really jarring and a strange transition. It is wonderful. HARLOW: So, Gordon, one of the things that we just heard President

Trump say it right there, I really think he wants to do something here, speaking of Kim Jong-un. So what is the significance of these three detainees coming home in the larger picture? If the goal here is denuclearization, does it take you a step closer to that?

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: NORTH KOREA TAKES ON THE WORLD": Well, it certainly takes us a step closer and the significance is that these three individuals were released in good health. They could walk on the plane and that shows that Kim Jong-un wants to create a good atmosphere for the meeting with President Trump. Contrast that with last June, you have Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student, he was in a coma when he left North Korea. He died shortly afterwards. That's when there was a very different relationship we had with North Korea and you can see it in the treatment of the two sets of individuals.

HARLOW: The president, David, also said this morning -- I believe we have it. Let's play this.


TRUMP: We want to thank Kim Jong-un who really was excellent to these three incredible people.


[09:05:08] HARLOW: So the word excellent, they were excellent to these three people. These were Americans detained against their will in North Korea. Excellent?

ROHDE: No. And so here's the danger and as a former captive it's hard for me to speak about this. But it's very tricky these kind of hostage situations. So currently there are five Americans citizens jailed in Iran.

HARLOW: Right.

ROHDE: Two green card holders as Robert Levinson has been missing in Iran for --

HARLOW: 2007, yes.

ROHDE: So by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal they are doomed. They will not be released. Who knows for years. There's -- Austin Tice, he's been missing in Syria for six years. There's two Americans held by the Taliban as I was, Paul Overby and Kevin King. You can't let these hostages kind of dictate your policy. You can't reward regimes too much and so there's a danger of going to the plane and making it this big moment because hostage-takers see this and think, ha, you know, I can -- that these hostages are worth a tremendous amount so let me take more of them.

BERMAN: Gordon, when you look at this, does this keep on raising the stakes for this meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un? You know, everything seems to be pointing toward a successful, at least, meeting. We'll get there but what then?

CHANG: Yes. I mean, the stakes are really high. And because you have the United States insisting on the North Korea giving up all its nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, President Trump pledged to bring back the Japanese abductees. That was when he was with Shinzo Abe last month.

There's a whole bunch of things there and people are going to hold the president to that and, by the way, David, there's possibly a fourth American in North Korea, David Sneddon. So, you know, there's a lot going on here and certainly President Trump has created a very high bar for himself with all of these comments.

HARLOW: When we look at the approval ratings for North Korea, let me pull up what our CNN polling is telling us and you've got -- even the majority of Democrats who are very supportive of the president on this, very supportive -- the jump, a 10-point jump in just two months from overall American approval of how the president is handling North Korea.

The significance, David?

ROHDE: I mean, it's -- look, the president deserves credit. He used a lot of this tough rhetoric and for whatever reason Kim Jong-un is now talking to him. So I want to praise him for what we have so far on North Korea. You may know more. You're more of an expert than me, Gordon, but so far so good.

BERMAN: The pace here is pretty extraordinary.


BERMAN: Mike Pompeo has made two trips over there in how many weeks?


BERMAN: Just a few weeks.

HARLOW: Yes. Less than six.

CHANG: Easter.

BERMAN: Kim meeting with President Xi again, two meetings there. The flurry of diplomacy is happening at really break neck pace?

CHANG: Yes. And this creates a sort of situation where leaders can get swept away by the momentum. I'm sure Kim Jong-un has game planned this out in ways that we don't like but it may not matter because he's created markers by himself by making all these pledges to give up his nukes. You know, President Trump may think he's powerful but there's a whole bunch of other forces on him including South Korea which is not necessarily helpful to us at this particular time and then you have China trying to reassert itself into the process.

We saw Kim Jong-un going to North -- to China twice in a row which is unprecedented, a break in protocol. So there's a lot going on here and I don't think that leaders here can control what's going on. That can be dangerous.

HARLOW: It's one thing, David, for the president to meet with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. It's another thing for the president to step foot in North Korea but when a reporter asked the president last night if that could happen, he said it could happen.

What would it take to make that happen? Meaning, what would North Korea have to show before the U.S. president walks there?

ROHDE: And this is what's so important. The goal here is for North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. That has to be the bottom line and there's concerns that President Trump wants a deal so quickly that he won't get that guarantee. He should not step in North Korea until he has some iron clad agreement.

HARLOW: Until that happened.

ROHDE: The North Korean regime has agreed to agreements in the past and not enforced them.


ROHDE: So this all has to go very carefully. But I want to be fair. We all criticize Trump sometimes. You know, he has done well. It's wonderful these three people have been released today.

HARLOW: Gentlemen, thank you both very much. A great morning for those men and their families.

Another major development overseas, a barrage of rockets and missiles marking the most direct confrontation that we've seen in a long time between Israel and Iran.

BERMAN: Yes. It comes less than two days after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

CNN's Oren Liebermann following the conflict for us. Oren is in the Golan Heights.

What's the latest, Oren?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John and Poppy, it was shortly after midnight here that the IDF, the Israeli military said some 20 rockets were fired from Iranian forces behind me here in Syria, across from the occupied Golan Heights, towards Israeli military positions not far from where we're standing.

Israel responded very quickly with a combination of surface-to-surface missiles, air strikes and more. We were standing in this spot overnight watching all of that unfold. Antiaircraft fire hosing across the sky. On the Syrian side we heard some of those surface-to- surface missiles and we heard the loud bang, the explosion of artillery echoing across this valley here.

[09:10:03] Israel says they struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria. That was part of their response, a response they had planned because they were expecting Iranian aggression. That's because Iran and Syria blame Israel for a number of strikes in Syria taken against Iran.

The White House, and this is no surprise, has come out firmly on the pro-Israel side here, saying Israel very much has a right to defend itself. Here's a statement from the White House. It reads, "The United States condemns the Iranian regime's provocative rocket attacks from Syria against Israeli citizens and we strongly support Israel's right to act in self-defense. The Iranian regime's deployment into Syria of offensive rocket and missile systems aimed at Israel is an unacceptable and highly dangerous development for the entire Middle East."

Again no surprise there that the U.S. has come out squarely in Israel's corner on this one. The question is, Poppy and John, what happens from here? It is deceptively quiet here behind me especially after what we saw overnight which was just a few hours ago. Does this dissipate or does this continue to escalate? Perhaps the answer there comes from Russia. It is Russia that has the military influence over Syria. It is Russia that has relations and influence over Iran and Israel and it is Russia that is now calling for both sides to de- escalate and to think long and hard about what happens next here.

HARLOW: Oren Liebermann for us reporting from the Golan Heights. Thank you very much for that.

Still to come, President Trump seizing on a chance to change the conversation. Can his foreign policy win or quiet the scandals plaguing his administration here at home? Case in point, Michael Cohen, we're learning more about his aggressive and lucrative pitch promising access to the president.

BERMAN: And she was hailed as a hero for safely landing a Southwest plane after a deadly engine explosion, and now we're finally hearing from pilot Tammie-Jo Shults about what she says helped her get through that life-changing experience.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: This morning, new insight into how Michael Cohen pulled in clients to profit off of his close relationship to President Trump.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Sources tell CNN he used a very aggressive sales pitch that promised access to the president who ran on running this country on draining the swamp. No question the pitch itself was swampy, but was it illegal? Evan Perez is in Washington with the details. It's remarkable what we've learned.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John and Poppy. This definitely does sound very swampy. We're talking about the new insights we're getting into the ways of President Trump's embattled, longtime personal attorney. Michael Cohen sought to profit off his connection to the president. This as CNN learns more about efforts that one of the companies who worked with Cohen has taken to distance itself from ties to a Russian oligarch. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)


PEREZ (voice-over): After President Trump was elected, sources tell CNN that his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, quickly got to work, attempting to cash in on the victory.

Multiple people familiar with Cohen's behavior say he aggressively pitched himself to potential clients as having access to the most powerful man in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He'd say, " Mr. Trump's pit bull." That "I am his - I'm his right-hand man."

PEREZ: One source describing Cohen's sales pitch as, "I don't know who's been representing you, but you should fire them all. I'm the guy you should hire. I'm closest to the president. I'm his personal lawyer."

Those efforts landing Cohen a number of lucrative consulting deals with companies like Novartis, AT&T, Korea Aerospace Industries and the investment firm Columbus Nova.

In a 2007 SEC filing, Columbus Nova described itself as "the US-based affiliate of the Renova group of companies, one of the largest Russian strategic investors."

Renova Group is run by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who is cousins with the founder of Columbus Nova.

Vekselberg was sanctioned by the US government last month and questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators earlier this year about the payments Columbus Nova made to Cohen.

Columbus Nova is now attempting to distance itself from Vekselberg, removing this information about its founder's ties to Renova Group from its website.

A spokesman for Columbus Nova says the website changes are being made because the ties to Renova are being misunderstood. Cohen now facing accusations of engaging in the very behavior the president slammed his opponent for in 2016.

TRUMP: Access and favors were sold for cash. It's called pay-for- play.

Pay-for-play. It's illegal.

PEREZ: Press Secretary Sarah Sanders refusing to comment.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As you know, due to the complications of the different components of this investigation, I would refer you to the president's outside special - outside counsel to address those concerns. PEREZ: This, as both AT&T and Novartis confirm that they have

cooperated with Mueller's investigators about their business agreements with Cohen.

In a court filing, Cohen's lawyers confirming the payments from Novartis and AT&T, but accusing Stormy Daniels's lawyers, Michael Avenatti, who initially published the details of the transactions, of publishing other information about the wrong Michael Cohen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have a response to Avenatti?


PEREZ: Cohen's lawyers also accusing Avenatti of illegally obtaining Cohen's bank records.

Avenatti firing back on Twitter, calling the court filing, "baseless, improper, and sanctionable."

The Treasury Department's inspector general announcing Wednesday that they've opened a review into whether Cohen's bank records were improperly disseminated.


PEREZ: Now, the type of consulting work that Cohen engaged in is not uncommon here in Washington. And while it raises ethical questions, it's not necessarily illegal.

However, Cohen was not a registered lobbyist when he was doing all this work. And John and Poppy, these details are also a reminder that despite the repeated claims from the president that there's no evidence of collusion, Mueller's team clearly is still pursuing angles that the public knows so very little about.

[09:20:00] BERMAN: Nothing about. Evan Perez, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

Joining us now Laura Coates, CNN legal analyst. Laura, you heard Evan's reporting there, the quote from Republican strategist saying that Michael Cohen's sales pitch was, I'm your guy, I'm closest to the president.

That is, to an extent, selling access here, but where's the legal line? What's allowable and what would be illegal?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, as disturbing as it may seem to the American people to see that you can pay for access to the president of the us, to pay for play, it's not necessarily illegal to do so.

You can have access be paid for, but it doesn't turn into criminal activity until it seems more like a bribe and there's a quid pro quo. Essentially, I'm going to not just pay for the access and the influence I may be able to exert to otherwise regular lobbying activities, I'm actually going to pay for a particular outcome that's going to then personally benefit the politician.

Now, this is a very hard sort of case to pursue. Many jurisdictions have different laws about what it would take to be a lobbyist, whether it takes to be bribery and crime.

But it gets murkier because the Supreme Court members a few years ago had that now infamous case with the former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell on an issue - well, hold on a second, we're going to be very, very narrow in our definition of what's going to be the quid, the payment, and the quo, the official act. And they narrowed it in a way that makes this seem very disturbing, but probably not criminal at this point.

HARLOW: We still don't know, Laura, why Columbus Nova, this company, was paying Michael Cohen. And now we do know, though, as Evan just laid out in his piece, that the company has been scrubbing itself of any reference to Viktor Vekselberg, right? Any reference at all to the head of Columbus Nova's company, his Russian oligarch cousin. How does that factor in?

COATES: Well, it is very curious as we're looking at this. Vekselberg was one of the two men who were stopped when they came into United States air space and landed outside of New York and it was Mueller's team who seized on the opportunity to have somebody who otherwise would not be under their jurisdictional power of the United States to search phones and electronic devices and a whole host of items including interrogation, discussions with the person.

So, you know that this person was already on the radar. He's also somebody who's already been put on the sanctions list. For what? Election interference. And to have this person only now at the 11th hour essentially, and really probably the next morning, if you think about it, to have this person now be scrubbed makes it all the more curious and suspicious about why and what he was doing initially.

BERMAN: Laura, the fact that AT&T, Novartis spoke to the special counsel, what does that tell you besides the fact that Robert Mueller is doing things here that we know nothing about?

COATES: This is like the iceberg here, what Mueller is doing. We've seen through indictments and discussions and that one time that Rod Rosenstein gave the press conference about the 13 Russian nationalists, you're seeing that most of the work that's being done is under the surface.

And that's what the grand jury subpoena power is about. I look at this and see the grand jury subpoena power as being used to obtain financial records and documents and to do all the things that won't even require you to get an absolute witness to testify.

You can glean a lot from the documents you're getting, which is one of the most powerful tools of a grand jury, and they are exercising it here. And it allows you to go under the radar without having a witness, then go back and talk about what they have said. The documents are to speak for themselves.

HARLOW: Laura Coates, thank you very much for the legal expertise. We appreciate it.

So, will the president's foreign policy win? A big one overnight bringing those detained Americans home overshadow the controversies that he faces here.

BERMAN: Also, moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. The market expected to open slightly higher as a new report shows a slower-than-expected rise in inflation. That may calm some investor fears.


HARLOW: Vice President Mike Pence this morning saying it is time for Special Counsel Bob Mueller to finish the investigation - in his words, wrap it up.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In the interest of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up. And I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.


BERMAN: He does it very respectfully. The president does it a little differently. Joining us now CNN political analyst Molly Ball and CNN political commentator Matt Lewis.

Matt Lewis, it's very interesting. I wouldn't expect anything different from the vice president, but he says it needs to be wrapped up in this week when we're learning still new information about Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney, possible connections to Russian oligarchs and you hear it from Republicans in Congress as well.

It begs the question, is there any development that could happen that would keep them from saying it's time to wrap this up?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, no. They've been saying that all along. They used to say it's going to be wrapped up by Christmas. They're wrapping it up now.

So, this is actually a change in a way. It's a walk back to say they should wrap it up rather than that they are going to wrap it up.

But I think that this is a story that is - in one way or another, these scandals have plagued the Trump administration from day one.

Look back at the Nixon administration. And there were times when the public was - tuned it out. Tuned out Watergate. Tuned out the scandals. And they looked at things like the foreign policy victories and opening up China that Nixon did.

And I think right now, when you juxtapose the scandals versus some of the apparent successes, it's a snapshot. But, today, I think that Donald Trump is looking a lot better than he was a couple days ago.