Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Welcomes Home Three Americans Freed by North Korea; Sources: Cohen Aggressively Pitched Access to Trump. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired May 10, 2018 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:59:19] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is your NEW DAY. It is Thursday, May 10, 6 a.m. here in New York. And we begin with breaking news of a good kind.

President Trump welcoming home three Americans. Look at this. A hero's welcome for the men freed by North Korea after more than a year in captivity. The president and the first lady emerging from the plane that came in the middle of the night with the former prisoners. It was just before dawn. Their release marks a high point in Mr. Trump's turbulent presidency.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: It is nice to have breaking news of a good time.

So President Trump offered praise for Kim Jong-un, of course, the leader who had imprisoned the Americans. All this comes ahead of the president's upcoming summit with the North Korean dictator. CNN is learning some new details about where that historic meeting could happen.

So let's get right to CNN's Jeff Zeleny. He is live at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland with all of the breaking details.

Give us the color, Jeff, of what happened here.


It was an extraordinary moment overnight as that plane arrived in the dark of the night. It was about 3 a.m. Eastern Time. The president, the first lady, the vice president, Mrs. Pence were waiting for this plane to arrive. The president stepped onto the plane to have a moment with those three Americans who were freed and had been flying for nearly a day or so.

The moment when they walked off the plane, they waved a "V" for victory side. Yes, it was a photo op rich in symbolism, no question. But it also paved the way for what the president hopes is new diplomacy with North Korea.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY (voice-over): An emotional homecoming for three Americans freed after being imprisoned in North Korea. The men walking off the plane and onto American soil, flashing a victory sign with President Trump and first lady Melania Trump at their side.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just want to say, this is a special night for these three really great people. And congratulations on being in this country.

ZELENY: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un releasing the Americans as a show of good faith ahead of a landmark summit with President Trump.

TRUMP: Well, we're starting off on a new footing. This is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early. That was a big thing. Very important to me. And I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful.

ZELENY: It's the biggest milestone yet toward the president's quest for diplomacy with North Korea. President Trump telling reporters that releasing the prisoners shows that Kim is serious about nuclear talks.

TRUMP: I really think he wants to do something and bring that country into the real world. There has never been a relationship like this. And we're starting from here. But I really think a lot of progress has been made.

ZELENY: It was a made-for-TV moment with the president and first lady leaving the White House in the middle of the night and arriving at Joint Base Andrews before boarding the plane for a private moment with the three Americans.

Newly-minted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ushered the detainees home, following his second secret whirlwind trip to Pyongyang.

North Korean state media releasing these photographs of Pompeo with Kim Jong-un during a 90-minute meeting about the upcoming summit, toasting with red wine and smiling.

The three detainees were all Americans of Korean dissent. The longest held prisoner, Kim Dong-chul, was arrested in October 2015 and accused of spying for South Korea. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years hard labor in April 2016.

Tony Kim was an accounting teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. He was arrested in 2017 while boarding a plane to leave the country and charged with hostile acts against North Korea. Less than a month later, Kim Hak-song was detained, as well. He was also a Pyongyang University employee and was also charged with committing hostile acts against North Korea.

President Trump paying tribute to Otto Warmbier, who was detained in North Korea in 2016 and was returned to the United States in a coma last June. He died days later.

TRUMP: A great young man who really suffered. And his parents have become friends of ours. They are spectacular people. And I just want to pay my respects.


ZELENY: With the president paying his respects to Otto Warmbier's family certainly pointed out the very high stakes here now going forward.

We have learned that Singapore is the likely location for this historic summit, likely to happen in about a month or so. There's so much work to be done getting to that point. We do know the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who had that extraordinary meeting with Kim Jong-un himself, will be briefing the president. And they are going to begin making preparations.

What this does clearly is open the door for serious conversations. But it also, Chris and Alisyn, raises the stakes for what could happen at that meeting, what the U.S. is willing to give up, if anything.

So certainly, it frames it. The president wanted that moment overnight. That's what he got. But now the hard work actually begins.

CAMEROTA: Jeff, thank you for setting the table for us. Let's discuss it. We want to bring in CNN international correspondent Will Ripley, who has traveled to North Korea 17 times and previously met with one of those freed prisoners. And "Daily Beast" columnist Gordon Chang. He's the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World."

Gordon, I want to start with you, because you have sat here at the table with us so many mornings, talking about how intractable and tense and ominous the situation was between the U.S. and North Korea. What was it like for you to watch this goodwill gesture play out?

[06:05:02] GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN": This really is a joyous moment. You know, any time that an American is released from a tyrannical state, it's a good day, especially when they can walk on the plane.

And really, what we have here is Kim Jong-un trying to create a good atmosphere for those talks. Because these three detainees were in very good condition, as opposed to Otto Warmbier, released last June in a vegetative state. That's when North Korea had a different attitude towards us. So this is at least, I think, a good sign for what will happen next month.

CUOMO: All right. Let's look at some video that the president just released. I think he tweeted it out. Let's see.

CAMEROTA: We're just seeing it for the first time, too.

CUOMO: Yes. We haven't even reviewed it yet. But we figure if it comes from the president, it's worth watching. And this --

CAMEROTA: Oh, this is on the plane. CUOMO: Yes. This is the private moment that he had with the first

lady when the men first arrived here. It's about 3 a.m. in the morning or so. Literally, it was just before dawn when they went in there. So obviously, this has been put together to capture that moment.

Now, this is also a moment from North Korea, Gordon. One more beat on this. It is believed that the North Koreans, you look at the charges: "hostile acts against North Korea." Very vague for a reason. They take targets of opportunity and hold them as chits. And that now would be a good time for the North Koreans to show goodwill, so they release some people. An this wouldn't be the first time they did this.

So is there a measure of skepticism? Guaranteed 100 percent awesome to have these men home. But the motives for doing it.

CHANG: Yes. I mean, this is North Korea. So you can assume the worst motives on their part.

You know, when you look at a regime like this, it hasn't changed. But this, I think, is an issue of what President Trump can do. Because he can use American power, even short of the use of force, to disarm Kim. We can push those guys in directions they don't want to go, in directions hat they think they would never go.

So is it's really up to us to do what is necessary not only for the American people but the rest of the international community. I thought it was a good thing when Trump talked about not just America but everyone in the world has a big stake in what happens with these talks with the North Koreans.

CAMEROTA: Will, as we've said, you interviewed one of the detainees. You have been to North Korea reporting 17 times. So what was it like for you to watch this all play out?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, obviously, it gives you goosebumps to see those men walk off the plane, and be able to walk off the plane.

Otto Warmbier immediately jumped into my mind. I wish he would have been able to walk off the plane. His -- his death was such an astronomical setback for U.S.-North Korea relations. And it appears as if, at least for the time being, that is now slowly starting to recover. Of course, we'll have to wait and see what happens at the summit.

I thought it was unfortunate that none of their families were able to be there. Kim Dong-chul's wife, Kim Hak-song's wife, who we interviewed just days after he was detained, who was devastated. Tony Kim, you know, he had a grandbaby born while he was in prison. None of them were there. We hope that their families get to see them very soon, if they haven't already.

You know, to see these men put on camera like this after the isolation that they endured, especially Kim Dong-chul, who I interviewed in early 2016. I mean, he spent day in and day out in a labor camp, digging holes, carrying, you know, heavy rocks, being fed meals that had bugs in them, according to, you know, other people who have been held in North Korean labor camps and have described the conditions.

And so to go from that isolation for two and a half years to then you're face-to-face with Donald Trump, and you have dozens of photographers taking your picture. I do worry that these men were being exploited a bit. But nonetheless, they're home. Or at least they're on their way home. And hopefully, they can begin the process of healing and rebuilding their lives.

CUOMO: Kenneth Faye (ph) is going to be on the show later this morning. He shares some of your insights, obviously, having lived it and says, you know, he was moved when high-profile American leaders were coming and that otherwise, his life was really hard. And that's why these men are understanding as they're going to be transferred over to Walter Reed, get assessed, reunite with their families. Just because they're home doesn't mean everything is OK.

CAMEROTA: And we also understand there was medical support and psychological support with them on the plane coming home, because as you point out, it's surreal. To go from it's just as stark a contrast as you could ever imagine in one lifetime in 48 hours.

CUOMO: True. So Gordon, in terms of what this means, how it's being received, Donald Trump taking it as an unqualified positive for what this means going forward, not just for the three men. Let's take a listen.


TRUMP: We want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people. We very much appreciate that he allowed them to go before the meeting. It was sort of understood that we would be able to get these three terrific people during the meeting and bring them home after the meeting. And he was nice in letting them go before the meeting.


CUOMO: Look, obviously we're in the play nice phase here. And you understand that the president should be trying to play to advantage. We're trying to make some progress here, from his perspective. Obviously, the North Korean regime was not excellent to these three men. But it was excellent to have them released. A meaningful distinction.

[06:10:06] The idea that this shows that good things are to come. What's the bet on that?

CHANG: You know, I'm actually an optimist. I know most people aren't. And there's a lot of reasons not to be optimistic. But you do have Kim Jong-un. He's afraid of the United States right now. He is unnerved. You know, there's the sanctions; he needs relief. He doesn't want John Bolton to authorize strikes on his missile and nuke facilities, which sometimes you get the impression he might want to do.

And also, you know, the North Koreans do want to get some sort of distance from China. You know, the United States is a far-away country. We can be a guarantor. And we have no territorial claims on Korea. So, you know, Kim Jong-un might see that, as well. So there's a lot of reasons for him to want to come to the table with us.

And I think President Trump, if he's skillful and if he's disciplined and if he's a coalition builder. In other words, if he's like a Reagan and an Obama, he can actually push the North Koreans into a great deal.

CAMEROTA: All right. Obviously, we will be talking about this throughout the course of the program. Will, Gordon, thank you very much.

Now to this story. New revelations about Michael Cohen and the apparent money trail involving President Trump's longtime lawyer and fixer. According to multiple sources, Cohen aggressively pitched himself to potential clients, emphasizing his access to Donald Trump. CNN's Evan Perez is live in Washington with all the details.

What have we learned, Evan?


Talk about the D.C. swamp. We're getting new insight this morning into the ways that Trump's embattled longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, sought to profit off the connection to the president.

This as CNN learns about efforts that one of the companies who worked with Cohen has taken to distance itself from the ties to a Russian oligarch.


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 is say he aggressively pitched himself to potential clients as having access to the most powerful men in the world.

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

PEREZ: One source describing Cohen's sales pitch as, 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."

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, quote, "The U.S.-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 U.S. 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: 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, quote, "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: 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 -- necessarily illegal.

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

[06:15:07] CUOMO: All right, Evan. Thank you very much.

And obviously, we're looking along two lines here. What Michael Cohen did: swampy, smelly, reek of access and the money in politics that we don't like that we said would change with this administration, that that's what we were told. Of course. But is it illegal? We're going to make the case on both sides next.


CUOMO: We're learning more about how President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, may have used his relationship with the president to land several lucrative consulting deals. Sources tell CNN Cohen pitched access to land clients.

Let's discuss with CNN political analyst John Avlon and CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin. He worked with Special Counsel Robert Mueller at the DOJ. Let's start with the law and cascade into politics.

Michael Zeldin, if true, Michael Cohen said, "Don't hire anybody else. Hire me. I'm Trump's personal lawyer. And no one knows him the way I do. You should use me. Pay me." And these companies did exactly that. Did he break a law?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think so, unless he lobbied on their behalf.

CUOMO: What would that mean, by the way? Explain that. What would lobbying -- what would lobbying be?

ZELDIN: Well, advocating positions that they want to take before decisionmakers in government, as opposed to what he said he did and what AT&T, for example, did which was to pick his brain, to receive insight into the new administration.

[06:20:11] So the difference is between advocating on behalf of the company and receiving insight from a man who's close to decision makers and can, if you will, tell this -- tell the companies what the decision maker is thinking about particular topics.

CAMEROTA: So Michael, it's not -- it's not pay-for-play? I mean, it's not what you would call pay-for-play, in your mind?

ZELDIN: Well, it is -- they're both forms of a pay-for-play. One is, if you think about lobbyists as going to Capitol Hill, or going to the White House and saying, "I represent somebody and they would like you to consider new legislation on X, Y, and Z."

The other is "Pay me and I will tell you what the administration's pre-existing or to be determined future position will be on issues so that you can formulate your own going forward strategy."

CAMEROTA: Yes. We just don't know.

ZELDIN: The both pay for play -- one -- JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Pay-to-play is a specific accusation. We don't know if he's registered his lobbyists. We don't believe he has. Some people will say they hired him for legal lobbying; other folks say they didn't.

Here's what I think we need to be cautious of. Let's not try to --

ZELDIN: Legal advice.

AVLON: Legal advice, right? And who else is --

ZELDIN: But Michael, the point I'd like to make, Michael, is I don't think we should normalize this particular arrangement. We're still finding out information. But this is not simply a campaign aide goes to K Street story. This is about a foreign power, Russia, who we knew in October was trying to influence the U.S. election in some way on behalf of a candidate. And a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin then, at the beginning of the administration appears to have given the president's personal attorney a half million dollars.

Now, we don't know what for at this point. It's through an American subsidiary. But this is not a typical "I'm going to hang out a shingle and, you know -- and make a little cash off my campaign success story. This is not that.

ZELDIN: I don't know -- I don't know that it isn't. And I think the company, the American company is an affiliate and not a subsidiary.

AVLON: That's a fair -- that's a fair --

CUOMO: Gentlemen, let's put some meat on the bones of that. Because we have some new information about this, as well. And it is not good information for Michael Cohen's perspective or for Columbus Nova's, because Columbus Nova is a new name. That company was renamed. The "Nova" is very much like "Renova," which is where the Russian sanctioned oligarch's money goes for investment in the United States and elsewhere.

They have tons of ties. Renova is the biggest client. You could argue it is prohibitively the biggest client. The one who -- the man who runs Columbus Nova is the cousin of the sanctioned Russian oligarch. The ties are all over the place. They've scrubbed their website, but they can't hide their SEC filings.

So here's my question. If it does look that there's such a close connection between this sanctioned Russian oligarch and his money and this group that gave so much money to Michael Cohen, Michael Zeldin, why did Mueller shift this case to the Southern District? Because it seems to fall right in line with his mandate, these questions we're having about potential coordination, collusion, conspiracy, with those trying to enact Russian interference. Why did he shift the case?

ZELDIN: Well, we don't know what he shift and what he retained. It could be that he retained an aspect of it. Remember, he has interviewed many of these companies. And he has also referred Cohen's medallion and other business-related activities to the Southern District. So they each could have a piece of it. We don't know that.

And let me just be clear about one thing, which is I'm not defending Michael Cohen. I don't like pay for play. I'm just saying it's normative here in Washington. And I'm not sure yet that he did anything that's illegal that distinguishes him from any of the other former government people or, you know, hangers-on to government people that do the same thing day in and day out.

AVLON: One relevant distinction is, though, Michael, people who served in government have expertise, not just contacts and context, but real expertise an issue, it makes sense that they might say, "Look, I'm a health care expert, Novartis. I'm a reasonable person to bring on board to give you insight into the minutiae of health care policy as well as the administration's trajectory."

That is not this. This is a guy simply saying, "The president's former -- I'm his personal attorney, maybe active, and I'm a good guy to have on your side." And that's enriching yourself off your boss's --

CUOMO: Right. But we don't know that it is a crime. And the jails would be full if you went after every man and woman that does it.

AVLON: I agree some degree of confidence is a baseline.

There's real questions about how this document was gotten, as well.

CUOMO: Sure. Avenatti's got to answer with that. And what he's calling the sunlight project -- we're out of time, but this has to be said this morning. The entire last page of this sunlight project put out by Michael Avenatti. He won't say where he got the information, and I think that's his right at this point. But he does call it work product.

[06:25:09] And all of these standard chartered back -- bank transactions that really do look stinky: getting money from Singapore, Hungary, Malaysia, Canada, Taiwan, Kenya, Israel. Why is Michael Cohen cashing all these checks from these places? They are all the wrong Michael Cohen. That's something Avenatti has brushed aside. He needs to explain it. What vetting he did. How he managed to get the wrong Michael Cohen. And imagine being these other Michael Cohens with your personal banking records now out in public air.

CAMEROTA: Moving on. Thank you. I'm sorry, Michael, we're out of time. We will get you next time.

Meanwhile, Israeli defense forces retaliating against Iran. We need to tell you about this story, too. These two countries edging closer to war, it seems. One day after President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal. What does all this mean? We have the late-breaking developments.