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Phone Conversation Tape By The President's Former Lawyer And Fixer Michael Cohen Was Recovered; Director Of National Intelligence, Dan Coats Caught Off-Guard On The President's Invitation To Putin. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired July 20, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:15] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you are watching from around the world, thanks you for joining us.

ANNOUNCER: This Is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We start with a bombshell involving President Trump and discussions about potential hush money for a former playboy play mate. A source familiar with the matter says, the information comes from a phone conversation tape, yes tape, by the President's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. It is one of the items seized by authorities when they raided Cohen's office, home, hotel room and safe deposit box. It involved the former playboy playmate Karen McDougal who claims she had an affair with Donald Trump back in 2006, around the same time, by the way, allegedly had a relationship with Stormy Daniels.

Joining us now from New York is Maggie Haberman, CNN political analyst, White House correspondent for the "New York Times" who was among the "New York Times" reporters who broke this story.

Maggie, thanks very much for your excellent reporting. First of all, walk us through the latest information you are getting.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Sure. So this was a recording that was among the many, many documents and audio recordings that were seized by the FBI from Michael Cohen's hotel, his home and his office. And it is our understanding that it is a brief recording. I think it was early September, in which they can be heard discussing, it was a conversation between the two. They can be heard discussing the payments that were made by AMI which owns the "National Enquirer" to Karen McDougal for the rights to her story in which she claimed that she had an affair with President Trump long before he was a candidate for office.

They never ran that story. And the discussion appeared to be about an additional payment for her silence. Apparently on the audio, you can hear Mr. Trump saying that it should be done through a check, meaning -- and not by cash. What his lawyer said to us, Rudy Giuliani is that shows that he wasn't trying to hide it, that this was above board because he knows that a check can be requisitioned or subpoenaed or they can be, you know, bank records can be subpoenaed. And our understanding is that payment was never made. But it does raise questions as to why it is that the Trump campaign in

October 2016 when the "Wall Street Journal" asked about these payments, asked about AMI and Karen McDougal, we are told by the campaign, we know nothing about this. The President obviously did know something about it a month earlier.

BLITZER: It was a $150,000 payment From AMI, the parent company of the "National Enquirer" to Karen McDougal. And at the time, as you point out in our story, Hope Hicks who was then one of the top communications aides to Donald Trump said we have no knowledge of any of this. She said Ms. McDougal's claim of an affair was totally untrue which now seems to be the case that either she was lying or given false information.

HABERMAN: Right. It's very possible that she was given false information because as aides to Mr. Trump will tell you privately or many of them will tell you privately, they are often told to go say something that later proves not to be true. So it is impossible to know what, for us anyway, to know what her conversation was with then candidate at that point.

But what is clear is that this audio was recorded about, I think a month after this deal was struck. Our understanding is that Mr. Donald Trump did not know or allegedly did not know about this payment being made in real time. He was learning of it during this conversation.

Again, the conversation was very brief. It was -- I think the recording is under two minutes. But, you know, it raises all sorts of questions about what he knew and when.

BLITZER: Maggie, I want you to stick around, we have a lot to assess. We are getting additional information. I also want to bring in CNN legal analyst Carrie Cordero, CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

You guys are getting more information.

Dana, let me start with you about this conversation. And I know you also had a chance to speak to the President's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.


First is that the President had no idea, that his long time lawyer and fixer was recording him. And that when the President found out about it, which I'm told was this week, his response was, I can't believe Michael would do this to me. So as you can imagine, as somebody who felt that he had the most loyal of aids in Michael Cohen, and attorneys of Michael Cohen, you know, had this recording that the FBI as Maggie was saying seized in a raid earlier this year.

The second thing is that because this -- the information that was seized, any information that was relevant to Donald Trump has been shared with Donald Trump's attorneys on this case. They believe that there are other recordings of Michael Cohen and Donald Trump, but as far as they know when they have seen the transcripts, this is the only one of substance, that there are other recordings between Michael Cohen and Donald Trump that are talking about meeting times and things like that. That's what we are told as of now, you know. There are a lot of transcripts that they are going through.

But the other thing is separate from Donald Trump, that is new is that apparently Michael Cohen recorded a lot of people, not just people -- not just the now President, not just people around the President. And that there are recordings of, I'm told, significant individuals, people who are powerful, my source wouldn't tell me who they are, but that they exist, the FBI has them and that whatever it is, would and could be embarrassing for Michael Cohen and these individuals that have also been recorded in addition to the President.

[13:06:01] BLITZER: And Gloria, you are working your sources too?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And my source is confirming what Dana's source is telling her. And I was told that there are quote "definitely all kinds of tapes out there," including other tapes with the President. My source would not characterize the substance of the Presidential tapes as significant or insignificant and wouldn't talk about the other people. But -- who were recorded.

But what we do know is that there's this trove of tapes that now the FBI has gone through, the attorneys have gone through. And clearly, you know, there's a -- I think there's a move afoot for everybody to protect themselves here. And I'm also told that my source said that there could be some real ethical issues about Cohen, and Carrie you are nodding, about Cohen taping his own client without his client's knowledge. But I was told that's the least of Michael Cohen's problems right now.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's probably right. I mean, I think that was one of the things that first came to mind was that this potentially raises some legal ethics issues for Michael Cohen, although given the professional federal criminal charges that it seems like he might be facing, him worrying about the New York bar right now probably isn't sort at the top of his list, but it's definitely an issue.

BLITZER: You know, Maggie, I want to get back to you because I know you in your story in the "New York Times" you had an opportunity to get reaction from Rudy Giuliani, the President's lawyer. Tell us briefly what he said about this. He obviously knew that there was a recording, there was at least one recording probably a whole lot more between Donald Trump and Michael Cohen.

HABERMAN: To be clear on that, there is probably not a whole lot more in this cache of what might have been seized. There might be other stuff that Michael Cohen has, another documents. They might be assuming that there are -- people close to the President might be assuming that our reporting and we asked a lot of people about this was that from what they have gone through from what was seized, this is it. I think people are speculating because Cohen was known to tape, this is something that he did constantly, as Dana said.

But as far as we know, this is it. I think there were a lot of other than issues talked about on that one recording that we reported about. It was not the only subject that came up. But I don't believe that there are multiple tapes that came up in that trove of seized documents.

In terms of what Rudy Giuliani said, he described this as "exculpatory," quote-unquote. He believes this shows or he said he believes that this shows that the President, you know, was trying to do things above board. That he was certainly wasn't aware that he was being taped, which he told us as well. And that he was, you know, he was trying to basically handle things the right way when he was told of this information that he was unaware that AMI had been paying Karen McDougal until he was told during this conversation.

Again, I don't know whether he actually believes that, but he says he believes that, you know, this is not bad information for them when it comes to the President's credibility versus Michael Cohen's.

BLITZER: But the legal issue here, for the President is potentially, Maggie, I want Carrie to weigh in on this as well, the legal issue is whether it was a campaign finance violation only weeks before an election, having a friend of the President's paid Karen McDougal to remain quiet.

HABERMAN: Right. Well, that was an issue before the tapes or not. And the President's lawyers don't believe from what I understand it, from people who have spoken to them that this does anything to that case, there is a case that this is damaging politically. It is damaging personally potentially, but that it doesn't do much for the legal case.

BLITZER: Carrie, what does it do to the legal case?

CORDERO: Well, so there's a couple of potential issues that are on campaign finance. Like one is whether or not these types of payments, this one as well as the others that have been alleged are loans to the campaign. And from that perspective, I do think that timing matters. So if this was September, only a couple of months before the election, the closer we get to the election where Donald Trump is personally involved in knowing or in some way being involved in these types of payments, the closer it gets to that election, that raises a bigger questions about whether it was some type of loan to the campaign to help affect his chances in the election.

The other is whether or not there is some kind of reporting violation, reporting in terms of election finance responsibility.

So those are the two campaign finance issues. But again, it also calls into question credibility, ongoing with this White House, it's just another area where again they say one thing and then it turns out to be another. And it really raises issues regarding what other things, whether or not this is the only issue that Michael Cohen recorded, what other information that Michael Cohen might have that could potentially affect the President's issues.

[13:11:01] BORGER: You know, and the context of all of this is sort of Michael Cohen right after July 4th, what we were reporting declaring his independence of Donald Trump.


BORGER: And kind of advertising that he's going to go his own way. And that he clearly wants to talk to prosecutors or that we are told that that has not occurred. So I think if you put all of this sort of in the context of now the Trump team and the Cohen team really squaring off at this moment point and Michael Cohen hiring, of course, Lanny Davis. You know --.

BLITZER: Who was Bill Clinton's special counsel.

BORGER: Yes, he was. So you know, I think what you see here, two sides here are going to be up against each other.

BLITZER: And he has been tweeting the most recent tweets from Michael Cohen, clearly he takes a very different stand than the President of the United States. Yesterday, he tweeted freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy, quoting Walter Cronkite and as we know, the President does not like the so-called fake news media and goes out, it is the real enemy of the American people. The President tweeted that yesterday.

It's a serious development.

I want to bring in Michael Avenatti right now. He is the attorney for Stormy Daniels. And get your reaction, Michael, because I know back in May you were suggesting very, very strongly that there are what you called Donald Trump tapes?


Back on that May 30th, I stood outside that federal courthouse and I demanded what I termed at the time the release of Trump tapes, plural, and we are making that demand again today. If Michael Cohen in fact is a true patriot as he wants the American people to believe and as Lanny Davis wants the American people to believe, then Michael Cohen should release all of the audio recordings. And I will tell you for a fact there's more than one, there's multiple recordings and all of them should be released for the benefit of the American public.

You know, Wolf, the problem for the President is, he has got multiple problems relating to his relationship with Michael Cohen. But a very big problem is that Michael Cohen will go down as one of the world's great evidence hoarders over the years. I mean, this is a guy that never threw away an old cell phone, did not delete text messages and emails, kept recordings and documents and that is a very bad thing for this President.

BLITZER: The fact that Karen McDougal got $150,000 payment from American media, the parent company of the "National Enquirer," your client, Stormy Daniels got a $130,000 payment through Michael Cohen. Is that just a coincidence that those numbers are roughly the same?

AVENATTI: I don't have knowledge, Wolf, as to whether McDougal's payments of $150,000 had any connection to the $130,000 payment that was made to my client. But what I will tell you is this is the tip of the iceberg, the very tip of the iceberg. And when all of this evidence ultimately comes to light, and I hope that it will all come to light and it will ultimately be released, this is going to spell a significant problem for Michael Cohen and a larger problem for the President.

BLITZER: Tell us why you think that.

AVENATTI: Well, I think it because I know it. And if you look at my track record over the last six months, Wolf, relating to statements I have made and predictions I have made, I have been fairly spot on.

BLITZER: So do you think there are more than this one two-minute audiotape between the President and Michael Cohen? There are more tapes involving the President?

AVENATTI: No. I don't think that, Wolf, I know that. There are multiple recordings between Michael Cohen and the President of the United States and they all need to be released today.

BLITZER: And clearly, they are not going to be released. This -- the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York is going through this. Doesn't he determine what, if anything, should be released publicly in the middle of an investigation that is ongoing?

[13:15:06] AVENATTI: No, not at all, Wolf. Because after the FBI seized this information, this evidence, these documents, these recordings, a copy was turned back over to Michael Cohen. Remember, he was originally in possession of all of this. There is nothing stopping, I want to be really clear about this, there is nothing stopping Michael Cohen from releasing the information and the recordings that were seized by the FBI.

Michael Cohen and the attorneys they have possession of this information. The FBI hasn't told them not to release them. The evidence the justice department has not told them not to release the evidence. There's nothing stopping them from releasing this to the American public. It is within their right and I would assert it is now their obligation.

BLITZER: Well, potentially though, as you well know, you are a lawyer. There is one thing that's stopping Michael Cohen potentially from releasing these kinds of tapes or other documents, his own lawyers might be saying to him, you know, Michael, you are under criminal investigation from the U.S. attorney of the southern district of New York. Just stay quiet. Don't do anything. Cooperate with the prosecutors and let's see what happens. That would presumably be good legal advice, right?

AVENATTI: Well, most of the time yes. But this is an unusual situation. And you would also tell your client not to be making any statements in the press. But that is not what has happened now. Now, we see Michael Cohen and his counsel effectively teasing the American people with potential tidbits of information. He should come clean. He should disclose this information. And I will assert that if he does that, that the truth will set him free and the American public will look differently upon him if he does the right thing.

Wolf, this is serious does business, I mean this isn't some games. The stakes are very, very high as everyone knows. The American public deserves this information and they deserve it now.

BLITZER: Bottom line, what is going to be the impact, assuming the tapes are not released, that Michael Cohen doesn't release the tapes, his lawyers tell him don't do it. What's going to be the impact in the short-term and the long-term?

AVENATTI: Well again, I think that the amount of evidence and information that the FBI and the attorneys in the southern district of New York have at their disposal is significant. And I think all of this is going to ultimately harm the President. I'm going to stand by what I have said in the past. I don't think he is going to serve out his term. I think this is going to be the Achilles heel, if you will. And look, if this information is not disclosed in full, we are going to continue to push as hard as we possibly can and we are going to continue to be aggressive, because I'm in the interest -- or we are interested in full disclosure to the American people of these recordings. This is a big deal. It needs to happen now.

BLITZER: I just want to point out, Michael Cohen is under criminal investigation, but he has not yet been charged with any crime.

Michael Avenatti, thanks as usual for joining us.

AVENATTI: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Still to come, there is more news we are following, President Trump's legal team scrambling after the President's Helsinki summit performance. Why they think it may benefit the special counsel Robert Mueller.

And why the U.S. intelligence community is deeply concerned they may soon experience and I'm quoting now, "another Comey moment."


[13:20:32] BLITZER: Now to the President and Putin and the summit sequel, President Trump has invited the Russian leader to the White House this fall even as the administration deals with the fallout from their meeting in Helsinki earlier this week. It's still not clear what happened when the two leaders went behind closed doors for two hours and ten minutes at the Helsinki summit.

In the stamen, the senate Democratic leader, the minority leader Chuck Schumer says, and I'm quoting now, "until we know what happened in that two-hour meeting in Helsinki, the President should have no more one-on-one interactions with Putin in the United States, in Russia or anywhere else," close quote.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent Evan Perez.

Evan, the President's invitation to Putin are caught at least one member of his administration way off-guard and not just any member, we are talking about the top intelligence chief, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.

What do we know about who was involved in the decision, how it was actually rolled out.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you are right. It was a very awkward. It was an extraordinary moment here at the Aspen security forum. You have the director of national intelligence being interviewed live on television. My understanding is that all three cable television networks were carrying this. And then suddenly, this tweet comes from Sarah Sanders, the White House spokesperson saying that -- announcing that President Putin is coming or is planning -- the White House is planning for President Putin to come visit President Trump in Washington. The DNI learns this from -- during this interview essentially that this has gone out on twitter. And take a listen to his reaction.


ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: The White House has announced on twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.


MITCHELL: Vladimir Putin --

COATS: Did I hear you?


COATS: OK. That's going to be special.


PEREZ: And Wolf, that was not a joke. I mean, the DNI was asked later on during that interview by someone else whether indeed this was a surprise to him, and he said absolutely. My understanding is that the director of the national intelligence office was in touch with the White House. They knew that he was going to be here. They made sure that everybody was on the same page. And then suddenly Sarah Sanders sends out this tweet.

So clearly there was a little bit of miscommunication. There was certainly a lack of information that was being provided by to director of national intelligence before he had this public appearance here in Aspen.

BLITZER: I want to bring in our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta who is also working this story for us.

You are getting more reaction from sources over there, elsewhere. What are you hearing about this invitation now to Putin to come to Washington, have a formal reception, a meeting at the White House in the fall?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, essentially White House officials are beginning the process of setting up that meeting with Vladimir Putin in the fall. Remember, before that summit in Helsinki, White House officials were saying don't call it a summit, don't call it a summit, but then it ended up being called a summit by the President. So my sense is, Wolf, is that the President is going to roll the red carpet out somewhat for Vladimir Putin when he comes here in the fall. If that all of that pans out.

And we do know that the national security adviser John Bolton did extend the invitation to Vladimir Putin on behalf of the President. And that that is already in the works.

In terms of why Dan Coats was not brought into the loop on all of this, and I think it goes to show you some of the independents that Coats has and how he is somewhat outside of the President's orbit to some extent. We do know that John Bolton, the secretary of state Mike Pompeo are a little bit closer to the President, who are at little bit more in the inner sanctum, if you will, in terms of the President's national security team and his thinking in all of this. So I don't think it's a great surprise that Dan Coats had what was probably the most genuine and candid reaction I have ever seen from anybody in Washington in some time when he was told that news yesterday.

But I will tell you, Wolf, having talked to a number of sources outside the White House, people who are close to this White House, this morning, they have said that there is some irritation inside the White House, maybe not from the President, but from some stuffers as to how candidate Dan Coats was in his comments yesterday. Some of the remarks he made I don't think were received all that well inside the west wing.

Wolf, one other thing I want to point out. I did talk to Michael Avenatti earlier just as this Michael Cohen news was breaking. And I just want to point out something that I think is very interesting, could be somewhat critical in all of this.

Michael Avenatti says that he and Michael Cohen actually ran into each other at a New York City restaurant on Monday night. It was the restaurant's (INAUDIBLE). And this was a total happenstance according to Michael Avenatti, I just spoke with him about this on the phone. And he said that he and Michael Cohen ended up having a brief conversation about essentially things that are happening in the news right now. Avenatti didn't want to get into details in terms of what they talked about. But he called it a very productive meeting.

So I think it's interesting, Wolf, that you know, despite the fact that Avenatti and Michael Cohen were somewhat at odds with each other before, I guess, the last several weeks, but Michael Cohen has indicated he may be willing to cooperate with federal authorities, it is interesting that these two men ran into each other at a restaurant Monday night had a conversation with one another. Avenatti told me he thinks that that conversation may end up being critical down the road. Watch away and see, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, he challenged Michael Cohen to release all the tapes, publicly, even though Michael Cohen certainly doesn't have to do that. But you just heard him say on the show. He thinks he should go ahead and quickly released everything. Jim Acosta, we will get back to you.

Evan Perez in Aspen, we will get back to you as well.

Joining us right now is Leon Panetta, the former CIA director, former defense secretary.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you have a problem with President Trump inviting the Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House for a second summit in the fall?

PANETTA: Well, it races a lot of concerns. First of all, we don't know what went on in that one-on-one meeting between President Trump and President Putin. And I think the President owes it so the American people to explain just exactly what they talked about and whether or not any agreements were made.

Unless that is cleared up, I don't quite understand why he would again invite Putin to this country, particularly at a time when we are aware that the Russians are interfering with our election process. And this meeting would take place just weeks before the midterms. So it just doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of the kind of diplomatic strategy that most presidents would implement at this point in time.

BLITZER: It was pretty shocking that the director of national intelligence Dan Coats didn't know about this invitation, didn't know that there was a second meeting in the works in the fall, but I would argue it was maybe even more shocking that three days after the summit and the private meeting between the President of the United States, the President of Russia, he also didn't know what happened during that two hour and 10-minute meeting. It's pretty extraordinary, isn't it?

PANETTA: Well, we are living at a crazy time when there are few surprises just because of the way this President operates.

The fact is that in most administrations, when you're talking about inviting an adversary like President Putin and Russia to this country, that that would be discussed with the national security council, of which Dan Coats would be a member. And you would have the secretary of state, secretary of defense, you would have the national security advisor, you would have your key intelligence people around the table. And they would be able to present views to the President as to whether or not that ought to happen.

That didn't take place here. This was obviously President Trump making a decision on his own. He might have talked to his national security advisor. He might have talked to his chief of staff, we don't know. But he issues this invitation without sitting down and determining what are going to be the consequences of having another meeting with Putin.

This last meeting was a disaster. Does he really want to repeat another disaster in the fall? That would really be harmful, not only to our country, but to our relationship with other countries in the world.

BLITZER: Dan Coats the director of national security also said this about the President's private one-on-one meet with the Vladimir Putin. Listen to this, Mr. secretary.


COATS: I don't know what happened in that meeting, I think as time goes by and the President has already mentioned some things that have happened in that meeting, I think we will learn more. But that is the President's prerogative. If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way. But that's not my role. That's not my job. So, it is what it is.


[13:30:12] BLITZER: He seems to be suggesting a lot of people suggest --