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Selling the Presidency; Israel and Iran Exchange Fire; President Trump Announces North Korea Summit. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired May 10, 2018 - 15:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And it could really backfire on them, as you point out.

Christine Brennan, thank you so much.


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

And we begin with new details on how Michael Cohen tried to profit from the Trump presidency using an aggressive sales pitch. We now know that Cohen, the president's personal attorney, earned close to $2 million from four businesses, including the first one listed there, Columbus Nova, which has ties to a Russian oligarch who's now sanctioned by the U.S.

And what did the companies get from Cohen? Well, it ranges from help with -- quote -- "health care policy matters" to business and legal advice. Multiple sources say that Cohen sought out the firms, many of them caught flat-footed by the surprise election of Donald Trump.

And Cohen leveraged that by offering his services.

This is how one Republican strategist described Cohen's approach -- quote -- "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."

And joining me now, we have CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash, and Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to President Obama and an authority on federal election law.

So, before we do get to Cohen, Dana, I want to talk to you about some new reporting that you have about the president and when it comes to the special counsel. You actually spoke to Rudy Giuliani, right? What did he tell you about potential prep for this?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what he said was that they are not doing any lengthy prep yet.

They haven't done it at least since Giuliani has been on board. CNN was the first report that they had Started it back with the previous legal team. But at least in recent weeks, it hasn't happened. And what Giuliani told me is that it's not -- he's not discussing it because necessarily they're going to agree to an interview, because I reminded him, which I don't think he needed reminding, that the president has said he wants to do an interview.

But most people around the president or probably lawyers like you who are familiar with this think that would be a terrible idea. And what Giuliani said to me, it would not be a terrible exercise to go over things with him when the president is done with the North Korean summit, when they have gotten through some of the sticky situation that they're in dealing with how to unravel and then -- and then put back together any kind of Iran deal.

But Giuliani said, look, you never know. It sharpens all -- sharpens up all our answers. Then we're not guessing on what the president knows. We know whether to say things or not.

So, that's why they will go over things he said, but right now they're not doing it. And at least the really intense conversations with the Mueller team about scheduling an interview and, if it happens, what it would be, is on ice for now, for that reason, for the reason that they don't want to do it right away and, Giuliani says, because the Mueller team is tied up with the Manafort case in Virginia, although I should say that there's no evidence that that is keeping the Mueller team busy.


So Giuliani's inside voice is so much his outside voice now. That's what I was thinking as I heard you describe your great reporting there.

Bob, what do you think about that, that they're not doing prep right now?

BOB BAUER, FORMER OBAMA CAMPAIGN GENERAL COUNSEL: I suspect probably they've tried a few times. And one of the reasons they're spinning their wheels right now or pausing on this periodically, saying that they are not sure they're going to make him available for an interview, is that they may have had a difficult experience with the president in these preps.

Also, I noticed, for example, that they're emphasizing all the hard work the president has to do on North Korea and Iran. And this fits into the argument they're going to make if he in fact is subpoenaed and defies a subpoena.

They're going to argue that the special counsel is intruding on executive authority, interfering with the operation of the executive branch, in a way that's impermissible, and that he in fact is not amenable to judicial process. He is a very busy man.

KEILAR: And, Dana, back to Michael Cohen now. You spoke with Rudy Giuliani. He says the president didn't know that Michael Cohen was, as CNN's reporting has now taught us, pitching himself so aggressively as this conduit to the president. BASH: That's right.

Giuliani said he spoke to the president one time about this when the -- the first day it came out that Cohen was aggressively pitching himself. And, according to Giuliani, the president was not aware of what Cohen was doing, and Giuliani had also said that, although it's clearly a potential sort of -- he didn't say this -- these are my words -- that it's a potential political issue for Michael Cohen and the president, the guy who said drain the swamp, from Giuliani's perspective, from a legal perspective, he said, I'm not going to worry about it until somebody says the president was involved.

And so far, that hasn't happened.

KEILAR: Bob, Cohen has not at this point been targeted for any wrongdoing when it comes to this. But I wonder if you think that that might change. Could he be facing legal jeopardy for this kind of influence peddling, or is this just the norm?

BAUER: Well, the operation of this LLC raises all sorts of issues. The focus, by the way, has been on sort of domestic side engagements.


But let's not forget the half-a-million dollars that a company affiliated with a Russian oligarch put into the LLC. It's not at all clear what that Russian oligarch wanted, what that company wanted. It's not clear what Mr. Cohen offered them.

So it ties into the other concerns we have about the president's legal position at the moment.

KEILAR: Because take us through that. What should Michael Cohen have done in that case, if he is dealing with foreign entities?

BAUER: Oh, I think there are range of things he should have done.

Let's assume, for example, they wanted his representation on public policy matters. Then Michael Cohen would have had to comply with the registration and reporting requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That's just one example of the complications, particularly where you are, in effect, putting yourself across as having special access to the president, the complications of dealing with foreign nationals, not to mention a foreign national associated with a foreign regime.

BASH: And foreign nationals, and then there's just the basic registering as a lobbyist, right?

BAUER: That could be.

BASH: Which he didn't do.


BAUER: If in fact he was contacting elected officials, if he was talking, for example, to Donald Trump, then that raises the question of whether he should been registered under the federal lobbying laws.

I should note we ought to be careful about all the facts that may or not -- may or may not have come to light. Mr. Giuliani made a whole host of representations about what Mr. Trump knew, what Mr. Trump at least said with Mr. Cohen about what Mr. Trump knew about the LLC payments to Stormy Davis (sic).

So what Mr. Trump did or didn't know about Michael Cohen's business activities is something I think is still to be determined.

KEILAR: And so we also know that the special counsel, that Mueller spoke to at least one company who was paying Cohen, Novartis. And Novartis quick to say, as far as we understand, this is now behind us, we cooperated, and there's no more -- nothing to see here anymore.

But what does that mean for Cohen that the special counsel spoke to this company?

BAUER: Well, this again goes to the point that so many of us who read the press on this and think about what we know might mean are far behind Robert Mueller, that he's collecting facts and developing information leagues beyond what has shown up on the public record.

Clearly, there's something about Michael Cohen and the activities that he's been engaged in -- by the way, Essential Consultants may not have been the only LLC that he used for these purposes. And the one team, if you will, that knows more than we do at the moment is Robert Mueller and his supporters, I mean, his team.

And the likelihood is, he asked them these questions for a reason. So, clearly, he's not simply just asking out of curiosity.

KEILAR: Bob Bauer, Dana Bash, thank you so much to both of you.

BASH: Thank you.

KEILAR: And next: Israel's prime minister says Iran has crossed a red line after an unprecedented exchange of fire between the two countries.

We will break down what it means just days after President Trump pulled out of the Iran deal.

Plus, Senator John McCain urges his colleagues to vote no on the controversial nominee for CIA chief. But at least one of his oldest friends in the Senate is ignoring his advice.

And, later, Monica Lewinsky publicly scolding "Town & Country" magazine after they disinvited her from a charity event. The reason? President Bill Clinton decided to RSVP yes.



KEILAR: Vice President Mike Pence is the target of a merciless new op-ed.

Conservative columnist George Will has been steadfast in his never- Trump stance.

But, today, he writes -- quote -- "Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing securities and not at all compensating vanities, which is pathetic. Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying."

Will also says, "Because Pence in the authentic voice of today's lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year's elections. Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing."

Pence often expresses his adoration for the president on camera and an unusual appreciation for his broad shoulders.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm deeply humbled, as your vice president, to be able to be here.

Because of your leadership, Mr. President, and because of the strong support of leadership in the Congress of the United States, you're delivering on that middle-class miracle.

He's got broad shoulders. He's got high energy.

I have my faith in this president's broad shoulders and big heart, in his vision.

He's my friend. He's a man who loves his family. He loves this country. Boundless energy and optimism, broad shoulders and a big heart.


KEILAR: And Jake Tapper, who also has a big heart, is joining us now.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: What about the broad shoulders?

KEILAR: You have broad shoulders. You're very nice, also very good at writing, right?

TAPPER: You need -- you need to talk about me the way -- find yourself a man who will talk about you the way that Vice President Pence talks about the president.

KEILAR: Right. That's a good point.

TAPPER: OK. Sorry. Go ahead.


Well, look, I'm about to really flatter you here, because you're the author of the new novel "The Hellfire Club," which is on "The New York Times" bestseller list and my nightstand for the second straight week.

TAPPER: I'm glad that you're into it.

KEILAR: I am into it.

TAPPER: That's exciting.

KEILAR: So, when you read this op-ed by George Will...

TAPPER: Oh, it's brutal.

KEILAR: -- the word choice is just -- it's wow, right?


KEILAR: It's something. And you can just see by those excerpts that we put there.

What's your reaction to it?

TAPPER: Well, I mean, I think that George Will is speaking for a lot of Republicans who don't like President Trump, in that they are really surprised at how Vice President Pence has been reacting.

Look, it's a tough line to walk, right? If you are one of these individuals who has had concerns about President Trump, but you want to serve him, you want to serve his agenda, you want to serve the American people, it's a -- there's a line to walk up.

You want to be supportive, but you don't want to lose yourself. You don't want to become obsequious. You don't want to say things that normally you wouldn't believe.

There have been people who have been able to achieve it. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of Defense Mattis, former National Security Adviser McMaster, and on and on.


Vice President Pence is serving the traditional vice presidential roll by being rather complimentary of the president and his physique.

KEILAR: Saccharine, even.

TAPPER: However you interpret it.

But there are things that he has done that seem to go over the line for a lot of Republicans who had belief in him. I think, today, when he said that it was time for the Mueller investigation to wrap up...

KEILAR: Well, let's listen to that, so that we get a real sense of it.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PENCE: In the interest of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up.

And I would be very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.


KEILAR: What do you make of him saying that today and the timing of this?

TAPPER: Well, when James Comey announced that he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails in October 2016, Vice President Pence, then Governor Pence, said that he welcomed it and applauded it because nobody is above the law.

That's not the same message that he's delivering right now. I mean, if you think that nobody is above the law, then you think an investigation should be able to continue until it's finished. And this investigation has not been going on as long as, for instance, the Benghazi investigation, investigations, plural, went on.

So this, I think, is not just Pence running on his own towards President Trump and abandoning his personal views on investigations. I think this probably signals a departure from just the president being critical, to a point where now we're going to have the entire administration being critical.

KEILAR: Senator John McCain, who is battling brain cancer, speaking from afar. He spent, of course, more than five years as a POW in Vietnam.

And he has weighed in on the nomination of Gina Haspel to head up the CIA. She, of course, oversaw that black site in Thailand were one detainee was tortured repeatedly, reportedly nearly killed.


KEILAR: Our Capitol Hill reporters just caught up with his longtime friend Lindsey Graham, who's going to vote for Haspel. Let's listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, I respect his decision very much. We have been fighting this fight. I think John McCain won the argument. She said that torture doesn't work, that the programs of the past did more harm than good, and going forward, she's not going down that road.

That's all I wanted to hear.

We had a great visit. He's stronger than I thought he would be. We talked about our time together. We talk about the Mideast. We talk about the future. We watched "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," his favorite Western and mine.


KEILAR: But Haspel, when asked, would not say that torture was immoral. That's something that is disqualifying for John McCain.

But how much influence is he really going to have, if he's not swaying Lindsey Graham?

TAPPER: Well, first of all, I know that Senator McCain watches a lot of CNN.

So, if he's watching, we're all thinking about you and we're all praying for you.

I think that the days of Senator McCain being a moral leader on this issue, torture, which he knows firsthand, have sadly come to an end, not because of him, not because of his illness, but because the Republican Party is now the Trump Republican Party.

And President Trump is very clearly pro-torture, and his CIA nominee would not say that torture is immoral. And now we have -- I think, five years ago, 10 years ago, Senator McCain saying that, this person is -- the answer was disqualifying, would have impacted many, many Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham.

I think we're now in a different era, because we're now in the Trump era and the top Republican Party. As President Trump has said, he thinks torture works, which, of course, obviously, there are lot of experts who say, no, it does not.

KEILAR: Including his defense secretary, right?

TAPPER: Including Mattis, yes.

KEILAR: All right, Jake Tapper, thanks so much. And we will see you at the top of the hour on "THE LEAD."

TAPPER: Thanks, Bri.

KEILAR: All right.

Next, Israelis -- the Israeli prime minister says that Iran has crossed a red line after an unprecedented exchange of fire between the two countries. Now there are fears of war.

Plus, just hours after greeting three Americans release from North Korea, President Trump has announced his summit with Kim Jong-un is going to happen next month in Singapore. We will explain why that location is significant.



KEILAR: A barrage of rockets and missiles and pictures showing them streaking across the sky here, it's just marked the most direct confrontation to date between Israel and Iran. And it comes less than two days after the U.S. withdrew from the deal to curb Iran's nuclear program. Israel has released this map. They claim they destroyed these targets representing almost all of Iran's military capabilities in Syria, this after what it says was an Iranian missile attack on the Golan Heights, a disputed area that's considered Israeli occupied territory.

Standing by in the Golan Heights is CNN's Oren Liebermann. We also have Frederik Pleitgen, our CNN senior international correspondent, following the other side of this conflict from Tehran.

Oren, tell us what's happening right now. It seems like things may be pretty quiet. What are you learning?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, it is almost bizarrely and deceptively quiet here across the Golan Heights, even looking into Syria.

In fact, we have seen people picking apples not all that long ago, a sign that things have returned to life here -- or returned to normal here. And that is a far cry from what we witnessed standing in almost this exact same spot last night.

That's when we heard and saw Israeli surface-to-surface missiles, heard artillery fire from Israel into Syria echoing across the valley here, saw Syrian anti-aircraft fire, as well as what appeared to be a Syrian anti-aircraft missiles or rockets of some form, in a volatile, violent few hours here overnight.


That all played out, as you pointed out, the first direct confrontation between Israel and Iran playing out overnight here.

Israel blames Iran for firing some 20 rockets shortly after midnight last night. Israel's response, as I have just described there, played out over the course of the evening. Israel says it hit dozens of Iranian targets, including intelligence compounds, command and control headquarters, as well as rocket launchers in Syria.

Today, a very different story, this largely as the international community has stepped in to try to make sure this de-escalates. No surprise here, the U.S. has sided firmly with Israel, the White House releasing a statement saying Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself and condemning Iranian aggression.

Russia, meanwhile, which effectively has control over Syria and Syrian airspace, taking a much more measured approach, speaking with both Israel and Iran, and urging restraint. It is the Russians that have the influence and the power to de-escalate this.

And that's what they're urging, essentially, a step back, a breather here, so that this doesn't escalate and dissipates more and doesn't continue. It's still very early here. This all happened less than 24 hours ago. So, although it is perhaps deceptively quiet here, that could still change as tensions are still sky-high across the region here -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And, Fred, this came just after President Trump's decision to pull out of the Iran deal.

Did this play into Tehran's actions?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm not sure whether it plays in.

So far, the interesting thing is, Brianna, that Iranians haven't even acknowledged that they were involved in any of this. We have been trying to reach Iranian officials. Also, we have been monitoring Iranian state media. They said that, yes, there was something going on in the Golan Heights and that the Israelis conducted strikes on Syrian territory.

But there were some Iranian media outlets who portrayed as if it was something between Syria and the Israelis. There was one outlet that said, yes, Israel holds Iran responsible, but there has not been a single official statement.

In fact, the only thing that could be seen as coming even close to speaking about the situation was a phone call between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, where Rouhani apparently said that Iran does not want any further escalation in that region, of course, talking about the greater Middle East.

It's unclear whether or not he was talking about the situation around the nuclear agreement or also the situation around what happened in the Golan Heights. It's no secret, however,that tensions there have been boiling between Iran and the Israelis.

Of course, the Israelis have conducted several sorties over the past couple of weeks. And the Iranians have vowed retaliation. But, in this case, there has not been anything official that has said by the Iranian government or by the Iranian military.

And, Brianna, that's also strange, because there have been Iranian generals of the Revolutionary Guard who had public speaking engagements today who spoke about the nuclear agreement, did not say anything about any sort of skirmishes that went on in the Golan Heights.

We're monitoring that situation. We're waiting to see what's going on, but right now it seems as though the Iranians have not come up with any sort of statement to talk about what happened there in that area that Oren is standing in right now -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Very interesting.

Fred Pleitgen, thank you so much in Tehran, Oren Liebermann for us from the Golan Heights. And for a deeper diver, I want to bring in CNN military analyst and retired Air Force colonel Cedric Leighton out with us here.

So, colonel, explain why these targets were significant in this exchange.


The basic issue here for the targets really depends on what we see here. We have got the Golan Heights, which the Israelis occupied since the 1967 war. This is high ground. And high ground is very important for controlling all the valleys that are around this part of Syria, also this port of Northern Israel.

So the reason that this part becomes important, there's a political part of it, and there's also a military part. If you don't control the Golan Heights, you don't control anything. That's why these targets are critically important.

KEILAR: The Israeli Defense Forces put out a map. It's got the Iranian targets that they hit inside of Syria.

What types of targets would they be hitting? What is the level of destruction, do you think?

LEIGHTON: So, the level of destruction really depends on whom you ask at this particular point in time.

What the Israelis say is that they had a very high level of confidence that they hit the targets that they needed to hit, and that they got rid of command-and-control nodes that the Iranians have in Syria, they hit logistics installations, particularly the area around Damascus.

There's a logistics area right there that is critical to the Iranian supply effort for their fight to preserve the Assad regime.

Other things that they did, in addition to the logistics areas and the command-and-control areas, were intelligence sites. The Quds Force, which is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, has several intelligence areas around here, and they are particularly keen on occupying the ground that is close to Israel.

This map in particular is interesting, because, since it's from the IDF, it shows this area as being part of Israel. The international community does not recognize that the Golan Heights is part of Israel at this point.