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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Stormy Daniels Attorney Michael Avenatti; White House Tries to Shift Blame to Media in Roseanne Controversy. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired May 30, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The White House takes the occasion of Roseanne's racist rant to discuss the serious problem of racism in America.

Just kidding. They listed all the entertainers who offended President Trump.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Rage, regret and Russia. President Trump unloading on his attorney general, saying he wishes he'd hired someone else over Jeff Sessions' refusal to stay involved in the Russia probe.

He's calling it Nixon 2.0. Really? Stormy Daniels' attorney claiming that there could be recorded conversations between President Trump and his fixer, Michael Cohen. What might these tapes reveal and how much of this might just be what a judge today referred to as the Michael Avenatti publicity tour? Well, we will ask Michael Avenatti live this hour.

Plus, some critics call it Trump's Katrina. A new study claims to have the real death toll in Puerto Rico, and it will make you sick to your stomach.

Welcome to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with the politics lead and a key conservative Republican disputing President Trump's trail of lies about that confidential FBI source who talked to some Trump campaign staffers in 2016.

Now, as you may recall, the president and his minions have painted this as the Obama administration having sent political spies to gather political dirt on the Trump campaign.

But Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the House Oversight Committee chairman, who also serves on the House Intelligence Committee, he was briefed by Justice Department officials about the confidential source, and Gowdy's description of what he saw was a politely phrased rebuke of the president's latest conspiracy theory.

Gowdy says he believes the FBI was acting entirely appropriately in its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, those facts notwithstanding, President Trump continues to spread this false conspiracy theory about this all, including last night at a rally in Tennessee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So how do you like the fact they had people infiltrating our campaign? Can you imagine? Can you imagine?

(BOOING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Can you imagine? Imagine seems the correct word there, given than Gowdy and many other informed officials say none of this is true.

And yet just minutes ago the White House brushed off Gowdy's rebuttal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president feels that there's cause for concern and it should be looked at. There are a number of things that have been reported on and that show I think not just for the president, but a number of Americans, a large cause for concern.

And we'd like to see this fully looked into, and we will continue to follow that matter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Today on Twitter, President Trump highlighted some of Congressman Gowdy's remarks, except for the relevant ones.

Instead, he tweeted out a quote from Congressman Gowdy noting that President Trump could have picked another person for the job of attorney general, instead of Jeff Sessions, to which President Trump added -- quote -- "I wish I did."

Sessions, we should note, recused himself from the Russia investigation because Justice Department protocol require it, since Sessions was an active member of the Trump campaign which is under investigation.

"The New York Times" today reports that the president asked Sessions to reverse that recusal after he had recused himself because, "The Times" says, Trump needed a Trump loyalist overseeing the inquiry.

And that now is something that special counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating to see if that qualifies as attempted obstruction of justice.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny starts us off today with more from the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump venting new frustration at his own attorney general today, saying he regrets ever hiring Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department.

The president, long furious at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, blasted him again today. He seized on this remark from Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy.

GOWDY: If I were the president and I picked someone to be the country's chief law enforcement officer, and they told me later, oh, by the way, I'm not going to be able to participate in the most important case in the office, I would be frustrated too. That's how I read that is, Senator Sessions, why didn't you tell me this before I picked you?

There are lots of really good lawyers in the country. He could have picked someone else.

ZELENY: On Twitter, the president adding five extraordinary words: "And I wish I did."

At the White House today, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders did not defend the attorney general or discuss his fate.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president's made his viewpoint very clearly known, and I don't have any personnel announcements at this point.

ZELENY: Yet once again the president's well-known fixation with Sessions stopped well short of firing him. The attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president, in this case, uncomfortably so.

[16:05:02]

It's the latest turn in Trump's souring on Sessions, who was the first Republican senator to support his candidacy.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We need to make America great again.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ZELENY: But the president has been boiling mad for more than a year, after Sessions said he should not oversee the Russia investigation.

SESSIONS: I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.

ZELENY: The president has repeatedly voiced his anger with Sessions and accused him of being disloyal.

TRUMP: So, he made what I consider to be a very terrible mistake for the country.

ZELENY: But the president has never said why he demands loyalty from the attorney general of the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: And that has been a central question and a theme for all of this for more than a year. Why would you need a loyal attorney general to lead the Russia investigation?

And, Jake, as for the president not firing him, a central reason is this. He's gotten the word from many Republican senators, including the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to not fire Sessions. They said they do not want to and will not confirm a replacement -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

My political panel joins me now.

David Urban. let me start with you.

Is that the reason that the president won't fire Jeff Sessions, with whom he's clearly unhappy, because Republicans on Capitol Hill have said, we're not going to replace him?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. No, Jake, I don't think that's the reason at all.

Look, I believe that the president believes that Senator Sessions is doing a -- or Attorney General Sessions is doing a great job on a wide range of fronts, immigration just to be one of the .

TAPPER: Mary Katharine Ham, "The New York Times" reports that President Trump -- quote -- "told aides that he needed a loyalist overseeing the inquiry." That's a quote of "The Times"' story, not of the president.

Why? Why would the president need a loyalist overseeing this inquiry?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's partly because he thinks about everything that way. And he wants a loyalist everywhere.

And he doesn't care that it sounds improper if you're talking about an investigation that you're involved in. But some of this is just like, so what else is new? Like, the improbable campaign to make Jeff Sessions sympathetic to all parties in America continues apace.

And it feels like watching a soap opera where you tune out for a while and then you come back and you're like, oh, nothing has changed. Stefano is still kidnapping Marlena. Like, this is -- it doesn't change. It's not going to change.

And, by the way, cheers to checks and balances if the Senate is indeed saying, hey, hold up, we're not going to do this for you.

TAPPER: Van Jones, I want you to listen to another part of what Congressman Gowdy said about President Trump and the FBI's confidential source who looked into what was going on with the Trump campaign.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOWDY: I think when the president finds out what happened, he's going to be not just fine. He's going to be glad that we have an FBI that took seriously what they heard. He was never the target. Russia is the target.

QUESTION: It sounds to me--

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I find that a very curious way to describe this, Van, the idea that Gowdy is suggesting that President Trump hasn't found out what happened yet, like he has no idea.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

Well, I mean, I feel sorry for Trey Gowdy in so many ways. He's trying to be rational and reasonable in a completely bizarre situation and circumstance.

It is, in fact, true, that the president himself said that if there's somebody that ever got involved with my campaign that was dealing with the Russians, I want to know about it. And so, as Trey Gowdy pointed out, the FBI is going about its business trying to figure it out.

And the president is flipping his wig. And, by the way, brother Urban was saying earlier that he hasn't fired him because he's doing such a great job. He's not tweeting saying he's doing a great job. He's not -- Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn't come out today and say he's doing a great job.

She refused to defend the great job that he's doing. And so I feel sorry for Trey Gowdy or any political professional trying to function in this environment, where it's just -- it's nuts all the time.

TAPPER: Well, David, let me get you to respond to that.

URBAN: Sure.

TAPPER: Because I don't doubt that you -- I don't doubt, David, that you think Jeff Sessions is doing a great job, but there's really no evidence that President Trump thinks it. The only stuff he says about him publicly is criticism. And, in fact,

in that "New York Times" story, it describes President Trump giving him the silent treatment.

URBAN: Yes. Look, I think we have seen when the president doesn't like a Cabinet member, they are dismissed. You saw that with secretary of state and with others.

And so I don't think that the president is pulling any punches here. I think on balance he believes the attorney general is doing a great job. I think that he wished that he wouldn't have recused himself in regards to the Russia investigation.

Look at why the attorney general, if you go back and rewind the tape and think about why the attorney general recused himself, it was because of a handful, I think, three or four, meetings with the ambassador, the Russian ambassador. And I don't mean meetings. I mean he shook his hand at a reception at the Republican Convention.

Ambassador Kislyak may or may not have been present at a speech that Attorney General Sessions gave, and I think he made an office call to him one time during 2016.

[16:10:07]

Those are the reasons, I believe, the attorney general recused himself. And I think that the president was frustrated by that.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine, President Trump must know that there was no spy embedded in his campaign. Now Trey Gowdy is supporting the truthful decision of this. It's not a spy.

Even people like Judge Napolitano, who is generally a Trump supporter, has been saying it's not true. Why does he continue to say this? Is it just about getting his supporters to believe that he is the grievous -- the grieved party here, the aggrieved party?

HAM: No. I think he believes it.

And I think he knows that it winds people up as well.

TAPPER: Oh, OK.

HAM: And, look, I think the truth is somewhere between the idea that federal law enforcement never goes too far and never does anything wrong, as we have seen by some of the I.G. reports that have come out through this, and the idea that they were undermining politically a political campaign with political spies.

I think it's a little bit deliberately obtuse to pretend that a confidential informant meeting up with a presidential campaign isn't a thing. That's a thing.

And we should be a little concerned about why it happened and what were the reasons, but the fact that Gowdy, who cannot be accused of being any kind of squish and who knows a lot more about it than many people do, as he's been briefed on this, is saying this, I do think this is really important.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Right.

TAPPER: Van Jones?

(CROSSTALK)

JONES: I don't usually disagree. But, on this, I don't get it. If, in fact, it turned out that in any campaign there was a credible rumor even that there was foreign interference, and the FBI goes, nah, we don't care, we're busy eating our popcorn, and -- that would be the thing.

The FBI investigate -- hold on a second. The FBI investigates all kinds of stuff all the time.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: And you allege that they do that correctly all the time and don't overstep?

(CROSSTALK)

JONES: No, no, no.

(CROSSTALK)

JONES: No, hold on a second. I never said that.

But the idea which I don't understand is that an investigation of a credible allegation that a foreign power has penetrated a campaign, that the FBI looked into that is a bad thing or is a scary thing or is a weird thing, that, I don't understand.

The FBI has done all kinds of stuff I'm against, but that, I can't understand how anybody would think it's a bad thing.

URBAN: No, no, Van, I agree with you. I think it's a good thing. The FBI should be on the watch for those types of things.

But, as Mary Katharine points out, specifically when it involves a political campaign, when you have seen all these types of things being done on this campaign back and forth, the ball being knocked back and forth by Comey -- depending on what said you're on, you either love Comey one day or hate him -- and you think about Ted Stevens, you think about Curt Weldon and some others who have had their campaigns submarined by the FBI, only--

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Only to be then exonerated months and years later after they lost their campaigns, I mean, I think deserves further scrutiny. And that's all I'm looking for. I don't think that there's a spy involved. (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Van Jones, final word?

JONES: Yes.

I just wonder, what would you actually want the FBI to do if they heard about something like this?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: No, Van, I agree with you. Listen, I say I agree. Go and investigate.

But I think there needs to be further scrutiny, more transparency. I think Mary Katherine's statement about it's in a little bit -- it's in the middle someplace there between nothing and something, I think there needs to be sunlight shown on this, and until there is, I think the American public is going to be very skeptical.

JONES: I'm pro-sunshine.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: -- because there was some rumor a bunch of people would be mad in the opposite direction.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

Coming up, release the tapes, that's the demand Stormy Daniels' attorney is making after lawyers for the president's fixer, Michael Cohen, confirmed that there are audio recordings of Michael Cohen talking to other people. Are those tapes really that important? Is this just a stunt?

We are going to talk to Michael Avenatti next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:51] TAPPER: In our politics lead, stunning news out of a New York City courtroom today. Michael Cohen's lawyers confirming in court that Cohen had audio recordings of conversations he'd had. We don't know with whom. They are recordings Stormy Daniels' attorney wants to get his hands on but Cohen's team says they're in under lock and key possession of law enforcement.

Michael Avenatti made a public plea that the tapes be released. He compared them to the Nixon Watergate tapes.

CNN's Brynn Gingras filed this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL AVENATTI, LAWYER FOR STORMY DANIELS: We now have what I will refer to as the Trump tapes.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Strong claims from Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels.

AVENATTI: Second version of the Nixon tapes from years ago.

GINGRAS: Michael Cohen's attorneys confirmed for the first time today that recordings do exist. Avenatti claiming the tapes are in the trove of materials seized from Cohen's home, office, and hotel room last month.

Lawyers weren't clear exactly who is on the tapes or what is said. Avenatti claims he knows. He says they include conversations between Cohen and Keith Davidson, Stormy Daniels' former attorney, discussing an agreement to silence Daniels about her alleged affair with the president.

And Avenatti is demanding the tapes be released to the public.

AVENATTI: Mr. Cohen and his attorney, Mr. Ryan, should release all of those audio recordings to the American people and to Congress so that they can be heard by all and people can make their own determinations as to their importance.

GINGRAS: Those remarks outside the federal courthouse came moments after the judge warned Avenatti about his, quote, publicity tour, if he wanted to be part of current court proceedings. Avenatti has since withdrawn his motion to appear on the case. At one point, he also wanted to have access to the seized materials.

His demands to release the tapes a side show to the government's criminal investigation into the Cohen's business practices. Judge Wood telling Cohen's lawyers they have until June 15th to review all seized documents, including data on several cell phones and computers. A special master working on the case has already viewed much of the material to determine if any of it is restricted by attorney/client privilege. Already, more than a million items were turned over to the government and that just comes from three of Cohen's cell phones.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:20:07] GINGRAS: And we know there's other possible evidence that hasn't even been viewed, yet including materials from a shredder, Jake. One thing is clear, though, today in court -- the judge really wants to move this process along quickly.

TAPPER: All right. Brynn Gingras, thank you so much.

Joining me now is Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti.

Michael, thanks for joining us.

What's on these tapes that the public needs to know?

AVENATTI: Jake, our understanding is, is that there are countless hours of recordings of conversations between Michael Cohen and others, including Mr. Davidson. We also understand that the conversations include conversations with Mr. Trump. These recordings were seized by the FBI in connection with the raids.

A copy is still in the possession of Mr. Ryan, Mr. Cohen's attorney. He admitted to having possession of a copy of those recordings in court today as a result of our efforts. Our position is very simple, Jake, these recordings should be released to the American people, not tomorrow, not next week, but and not next month but now.

These recordings have a significant bearing on Mr. Cohen's potential criminal liability as well as the culpability of the president of the United States. It's not our fault Mr. Cohen was so dense as to record these conversations, many of them illegally I might add, and then retain copies of them. But the truth needs to be laid bare.

TAPPER: But, Michael, obviously people are allowed to have conversations. Do you know for a fact that these conversations describe anything inappropriate? Much less illegal?

AVENATTI: I know for a fact that one or more of these conversations do describe things that are inappropriate. People are allowed to have conversations but they're not allowed to tape or record those conversations unless they have permission, unless you're in a single party state.

A number of these recordings were made illegally. They should be disclosed now to the American people. And if they're not going to be disclosed, and if Mr. Ryan is actually claiming that none of the recordings include recordings with the president, then he ought to come out publicly and state it.

TAPPER: Wait. So you just said a minute ago it's your understanding that President Trump is on some of these recordings. So you don't know that for a fact?

AVENATTI: No, I know that for a fact.

TAPPER: You know that for a fact? What is Cohen saying to President Trump on these records?

AVENATTTI: I'm not going to get into details of the recordings. The American people should demand that Mr. Cohen and Mr. Ryan immediately release these tapes. And if Mr. Ryan wants to come out and refute what I've said, then he can do so.

TAPPER: But, Michael, doesn't law enforcement have these tapes? Wouldn't it be up to them to decide what material and what isn't material? I don't understand why you want them released to the entire public. I mean, there are just conversations in there one assumes that has no bearing on this case.

AVENATTI: Well, we'll let the American people decide, but law enforcement --

TAPPER: But that's not how it works, right? Law enforcement should make the decision. AVENATTI: No, no, I disagree with you, Jake. There's two copies of

these recordings. One is held by law enforcement. That relates to their criminal investigation, and they can do whatever they want if their copy. The other copy is being held by Mr. Cohen and/or his attorney, Mr. Ryan.

And if there's nothing here to hide, then they ought to go ahead and disclose the tapes.

TAPPER: But I don't understand. Why won't -- why don't you think law enforcement should be in charge of this decision? That's how it normally happens. They have the tapes. And so the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York and the FBI and others are deciding what's material.

I just don't understand why the American people should be up to it. I mean, that doesn't make any sense to me. There might be conversations between Michael Cohen and his wife, Michael Cohen and his friends, stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with anything.

AVENATTI: Well, Jake, I think you would agree that conversations between Michael Cohen and Mr. Trump are highly relevant under the circumstances, and at a minimum, Jake, conversations relating to my client are highly relevant, including conversations that took place between Michael Cohen and Mr. Davidson where attorney-client privilege information was disclosed by Mr. Davidson to Mr. Cohen.

Look, the people are clear in what they want. They want information. They want access to the recordings. And they should get it, period.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question. Federal prosecutors say they're putting together papers that had been shredded by Michael Cohen. Do you know anything about those papers?

AVENATTI: Well, from what I've gathered, Michael Cohen was so cheap that he didn't invest in a cross cut shredder which would have made it impossible for investigators at Quantico, forensic specialists, to refabricate or reconstitute these documents. Evidently, he had a different type of shredder. So, they're in the process of going through it from what we heard in court today.

TAPPER: But beyond the fact that he's frugal, you don't know about what they might be, the documents?

AVENATTI: I don't know anything about the content of the documents.

TAPPER: OK.

AVENATTI: But I know that they're attempting to constitute those documents.

TAPPER: The judge was kind of tough on you today. She said you can't be a party in the courtroom and also continue what she called your "publicity tour".

[16:25:04] You ended up withdrawing your motion to appear in the New York federal court case against Cohen. Why do that? Why is that in the best interest of your client?

It seems to a layman that the judge said you can either be on TV or you can be in this courtroom. You can't be both, and you chose to be on TV. Am I wrong?

AVENATTI: You are wrong. That's not what the judge said.

First of all, we withdraw the motion, Jake, because it's not necessary at this point, because our motion to intervene has been tabled by agreement between us and the government. The motion to intervene may never be heard. So, I may never need to be admitted into her courtroom. So, that's first of all.

And second of all, look, we're going to continue to disclose facts and evidence the American people, people overwhelmingly have supported what we've done in huge numbers. They're continuing to support what we do, and we're not going to stop, and we're not going to change our approach, period.

TAPPER: Michael Avenatti, thanks for your time. I appreciate it, sir.

AVENATTI: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: President Trump can insist that down is up and up is down and really seem to believe it. Does that make him a liar, a fibber? A boaster? Or something else entirely?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)