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The President Blasts His Former Personal Attorney and Fixer, Michael Cohen, Following the Release of Secretly Recorded Tape. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired July 25, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. This violence began in April, demonstrators took to the streets to protest the government changes to their Social Security system.

President Daniel Ortega is calling the protests terrorism. He's rejected demands to step down. Yesterday Vice President Mike Pence called the Ortega regime to end the violence in opposition to these groups. We will keep you posted.

All right. Top of the hour. 10:00 a.m. Eastern. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. So glad you are with me. Quote, "So sad," says President Trump that his long-time lawyer and problem solver recorded a conversation that was seized by the FBI in April and now broadcast to the world right here by CNN.

It was made, this recording, in September 2016 two months before the election. It was made by Michael Cohen who is no longer the president's lawyer, and who now is under federal investigation himself and who may conceivably testify against the president in the Mueller probe.

The talk is about an ex-Playboy model who claims she had an affair with Donald Trump back in 2006. The "National Enquirer" had purchased her story. Her name is Karen McDougal. The "National Enquirer" paid her $150,000 for the apparent purpose of getting her story and then keeping it under wraps or killing it, preventing it from showing up anywhere else.

Trump and Cohen were considering buying the rights to the story themselves from the head of the "Enquirer's" parent company, a man named David Pecker, to whom the president is close. Listen to this.


MICHAEL COHEN, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S FORMER PERSONAL LAWYER: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David. You know, so that I'm going to do that right away. I've actually come up --


COHEN: I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with funding -- TRUMP: So what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?

COHEN: Yes. And it's all the stuff, all the stuff.

TRUMP: Yes, I was thinking about that.

COHEN: All the stuff. Because, you know, you never know where that company, you never know where he's going to be.

TRUMP: You never know if he gets hit by a truck.

COHEN: Correct. So I'm all over that. And I've spoken to Allen about it when it comes time for the financing which will be --

TRUMP: Wait a sec, what financing?

COHEN: We'll have to pay for this.

TRUMP: So pay with cash.

COHEN: No, no, no, no, no. I got -- no, no.

TRUMP: Check?


HARLOW: All right. Let me go Kara Scannell. She joins me now with more.

There are a lot of interesting and important points in there, including this discussion, Kara, of, quote, "all the stuff." What do you know?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, Poppy, you're right, there is a lot in this tape that we are now examining. I mean, for the one hand you hear that Cohen and Trump discussing this potential payment to buy the rights to that story. At the time during the campaign when Hope Hicks, Trump's campaign spokeswoman, was asked about him, she said they had no knowledge about it. So we now know that Trump did know about the fact that AMI had paid Karen McDougal to buy her story because he and Michael Cohen were discussing buying those rights.

We also heard from playing the tape, it's a bit muddy so it's hard to make out exactly everything they're talking about. But, you know, there is this dispute over whether Trump was saying let us pay for cash or saying don't pay for cash, pay for a check.

Let's take a listen to what Rudy Giuliani, his attorney, said last night about this dispute and this discussion.


RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: What I urge people to do is just go on -- go online, listen to your broadcast. You played the tape. Play it three times. The third time you play it, it will become pretty clear. I've played tapes even longer than Alan Dershowitz. About 4,000 hours of mafia people on tapes. I know how to listen to them, I know how to transcribe them. This tape is crystal clear when you listen to it. I've dealt with much worse tapes than this.


SCANNELL: And, Poppy, the Giuliani and Trump team have been trying to get ahead of this story spinning that this is completely exculpatory. You know, that is something that I think the prosecutors investigating Michael Cohen will ultimately decide. But also to your earlier point, in I mean, in this tape they're discussing the other stuff. And so it appears as though that we don't have full information, we just know what's on that tape, that they are talking about other things that AMI might have. And you hear on that tape Donald Trump saying, you know, right, what if he got hit by a bus?

You know, it looks like they're trying to tie up loose ends of what AMI might know. Of course, David Pecker, the publisher, is good friends with Donald Trump -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Right. Which explains -- I was just going to say, can you explain to people why, you know, AMI would want to pay 150,000 grand for a story and then never run it, would be ostensibly to help the president.

SCANNELL: That's a theory out there, right? I mean, Ami is involved in these -- called catch-and-kill deals where they buy stories to get them out and never -- so they never see the light of day.

HARLOW: Right.

SCANNELL: But the question here on the campaign finance issue was David Pecker doing this as a benefit to the president during the election. And that's something that prosecutors will be studying.


SCANNELL: You know, it's not been an isolated event. We do also know that Michael Cohen had paid Stormy Daniels around the same time period.

[10:05:01] HARLOW: Thank you, Kara. Appreciate the reporting.

Let's talk more about all of this. With me now is White House Correspondent, Abby Phillip. And I was wondering this morning what the reaction would be from the president directly to the American people on Twitter. And now we have it.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We do. And it's clear that what the president is doing is making this a conversation about Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer, and not about what he is hard saying on that tape. He says what type of lawyer would tape a client? So sad. Is this a first? Never heard of it before. He also questions whether there are other clients of Cohen's who are taped and other journalists taped on some of these tapes. But what's critical here is what is said on this tape, which seems to

be the president acknowledging that there is some kind of payment being made and some kind of discussion of a potential reimbursement. This is important, in part, because at the time, the president's aides were denying that he knew anything at all about this.

The president here in his tweet this morning, this response is not at all addressing any of the underlying questions about this alleged affair, about the payments, and about what exactly he had Michael Cohen do on his behalf. And so these are the questions that are going to dominate the story going forward beyond just whether or not Michael Cohen ethically was allowed to do this.

We know legally he could have in the state of New York. President Trump today has several meetings on his schedule on a bunch of other subjects, talking to lawmakers. He's meeting with the president of the EU Commission on Trade. And he's been tweeting a lot about that. But we'll also have some potential opportunities to talk to him. 1:30 this afternoon he is supposed to have a spray, an opportunity for reporters to be there in the room with him as he's meeting with that EU commissioner. And you can bet, Poppy, that this is going to come up as well.

HARLOW: It will. Abby, thank you very much.

With me now for the legal perspective on all of this, Criminal Defense Attorney, Caroline Polisi, and also CNN Legal Analyst and former federal prosecutor, Michael Zeldin.

Nice to have you both here. Michael Zeldin, the read from the Trump legal team on all of this is, essentially nothing to see here. I mean, Rudy Giuliani on Fox last night after Chris Cuomo aired this tape for the first time, Rudy Giuliani says there is no indication of any crime being committed on this tape. What do your prosecutor ears hear?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So the only criminal activity that could be relevant here is Federal Election laws, as far as I can determine. And that would be whether or not American Media International, the parent of the "National Enquirer" that purchased this Karen McDougal story and then killed it did so to influence the outcome of an election, and whether or not Donald Trump worked in coordination with them to complete that undertaking because the Trump Organization really couldn't pay for it themselves. That would be an illegal contribution.

So the whole issue here is, was this a willful and knowing violation of federal election laws? Should this AMI payment to McDougal been reported? And was the Trump campaign any way complicit with it? And the tape itself doesn't answer really any of those questions, but it's something that will be of value to the prosecutors as they evaluate this case.

HARLOW: Caroline, you know, when you look at whether money actually traded hands, there is no evidence that the money that was discussed here actually was paid out. You had Rudy Giuliani also saying on FOX, this is at most an attempt to do something. I don't know of any attempt in this category of crime that they are looking at. So end of story?

CAROLINE POLISI, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: No, not end of story. Michael's right that, you know, this could end up being more politically damaging than legally damaging because the federal election law violation, you know, it's not the crime of the century. The Federal Election Commission rarely prosecutes cases, and in order for the DOJ to prosecute a case, there would have to be a knowing and willful violation of the law.

But it sheds some light on one payment we do know that was made, Poppy, to Stormy Daniels. Not the $150,000 payment that they are talking about in this tape, but a $130,000 payment was paid to Stormy Daniels. So this could go to the knowledge element of that. He doesn't sound surprised if you listen to the tape. President Trump, then candidate Trump, does not sound surprised that they are sort of engaging in this type of behavior. So I think it could go to that element.

HARLOW: What about this part of it? Beyond the cash or check, he said-he said debate that is raging this morning, and it will certainly continue as these two sides dig in, what about the fact, Michael Zeldin, that Hope Hicks, who was the campaign spokeswoman, told the "Wall Street Journal" four days before the election on November 4th, about this payment, alleged, you know, payment.

"We have no knowledge of any of this." This is when she was asked about the payment that AMI made to Karen McDougal to basically squash the story.

[10:10:006] ZELDIN: Right. So Hope Hicks testifies before Congress and said that sometimes she had to do little lies for Donald Trump. So I guess this is one of those little lies that she did for Donald Trump.

HARLOW: Or she didn't know.

ZELDIN: Or she was lied to. Exactly. Or she was lied to. But Donald Trump, at the same time in October, 2016 also said directly that he had no knowledge of this. And so in terms of politics, people will say, this is further evidence that Trump himself is not truthful, that he puts people out as surrogates who aren't truthful, or he misleads them and they end up unwittingly being untruthful. And so it plays into that narrative. It's not legally significant to me. But, you know, the political people will make a lot of hay of this.

HARLOW: What about this exchange? This is beyond the cash or check issue here. Right, Caroline? And here's what it is on the tape recording. Quote, Trump, "So what are we going to do? " Cohen, quote, :"Yes. And it's all the stuff. All the stuff because, you know, you never know where -- at that company you never know where he's going to be."

They're talking about David Pecker, the head of the company, AMI. But it's the "all that stuff" that is a big question this morning. (CROSSTALK)

POLISI: Right --

HARLOW: What question does it raise for you?

POLISI: So obviously, Poppy, the implication is that AMI, which is, you said is the parent company to many publications, not just the "National Enquirer," that they have more information beyond the Karen McDougal story, that there may have been a pattern or practice here on the part of AMI to use this catch-and-kill practice, which there is nothing illegal about in theory. But when you get to using it in a pattern or practice for the purpose of influencing the campaign, now that could become a legal issue. So it sounds like there is more to the story here.

HARLOW: So we know of these 12 tapes that Michael Cohen reported, only one of them has the president on it. And that's what we just heard.

All right. Thank you, both. Caroline, Michael, appreciate it.

Still to come, much more on that tape. We're going to take a closer look at the politics, potential political fallout, what this is actually going to mean for the president.

But first, the attorney for the accused Russian spy, Maria Butina, says this morning she will be vindicated just moments before she's set to go before a judge for the first time. What we can expect from the hearing today.


[10:16:49] HARLOW: The president this morning is blasting his former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, following the release of that secretly recorded audiotape.

Let's talk about the politics of all this. Our Political Commentator, Errol Louis is here. Our Senior Political Analyst, John Avlon joins us, and Politics Reporter for "The Guardian," Sabrina Siddiqui.

Nice to have you all here. Hello, good morning. A lot of news.

So, Errol, let's remind our viewers what is happening in the country in the context around which the president is having this conversation about a potential payment to make sure that a story about an alleged affair doesn't get out there right before the election.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think the most important thing to do is sort of the tick-tock. The reality is, although lots of politicians lie, and Donald Trump has done more than his share of not telling the truth, but we had a direct denial from the White House that this never happened.

HARLOW: Four days before the election. LOUIS: Right before the election. And so we now know that that

wasn't true. Natural follow-up question to the president, which someone will ask, they'll ask Sarah Sanders, they'll ask the president, they'll shout it to him as he walks across the tarmac or something, why did you do that Why did you lie? What else might you be lying about? What else does Michael Cohen know?

And then of course, there is this legal question in the background about whether or not this rises to the level of a campaign act, a campaign contribution that wasn't recorded. And the whole reason this has come up is that, you know, there could have been a felony committed here. It's not a small matter. It's an important kind of a question. $150,000 that you quietly spent on your campaign and never disclosed? That's serious stuff.

HARLOW: It raises the same question the Stormy Daniels payment raises.

Let's listen to something the president said yesterday before this tape was aired right here on CNN that is really germane to this conversation. Here's what he said about what the American people should and shouldn't believe.


TRUMP: And just remember, what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening. Just stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people.


HARLOW: John Avlon? So, I mean he's saying -- and this is before he, you know, even knew the tape was out there because his team found out about 6:00 p.m. yesterday, it aired here at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. But he says don't believe it, don't believe anything that you're seeing or reading.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And it makes you wonder if that's almost a kind of prevent defense because essentially what his team is saying about the tapes that were released last night on "CUOMO PRIME" are don't believe your lying eyes or ears, listen to me. And that kind of rhetoric from a president is jarring, even from this president who I think has had such a litany of lies that he's devalued the idea of truth or at least the expectation that a president would tell the truth. Because that language he used really closely mirrors language from frankly George Orwell's 1984 where the party's line is, don't believe what you see and hear.

So to hear that from the president is jarring and it does really kind of telegraph the Trump team's response to that tape because they're going to have a hard time spinning their way out of it. And it ultimately will be just don't listen. Don't believe it. Listen to me.

HARLOW: You have an issue here. You have an issue here, Sabrina, and the issue is that neither of these men have a lot of credibility or are known for always telling the truth.

[10:20:01] So you have the American people I guess sort of having to decide, well, who's more credible in this, President Trump and his legal team or Michael Cohen and what his lawyers say?

How do you see it?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICS REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: Well, certainly neither Michael Cohen nor President Trump have been forthcoming with respect to either of these payments, be it the one made by the "National Enquirer" to Karen McDougal or of course the payment that Michael Cohen says he personally made to Stormy Daniels. I think certainly for the White House, it's far more troubling that their narrative has been contradicted at every turn. Hope Hicks had vehemently denied having any knowledge of the payment to Karen McDougal, even when it's been raised.

Sarah Sanders has denied that the president had knowledge of the payment from the White House podium. We have now learned of course the opposite, that the president in fact discussed this very payment with Cohen. And I think that what you have is a pattern emerging where if not the president being directly involved himself, at a minimum there are people close to him, be it Michael Cohen or be it David Pecker, who's the publisher of the "National Enquirer," who have engaged in a practice of trying to intimidate or pay women into silence. And so the question now is what exactly did the president know and when did he know it.

HARLOW: A very apropos question decades ago, John Av.


HARLOW: I mean the comparison to the Nixon tape parallels, I mean it's different but --

AVLON: Well, look. It's not an accident perhaps that Nixon is Donald Trump's favorite president. He identifies with him. He campaigned on a lot of similar slogans. And I think relevant to this tape is that on one of the most infamous Nixon tapes, John Dean and Nixon are talking about cash payments, $1 million in that case, and Nixon is caught on tape saying, I know where you can get that kind of money in cash. It's not easy but I can do it.

So it's reminiscent of that. And that kind of skullduggery by a president, which is really beneath the office, it brought down Nixon, this may resuscitate memories of that in ways that are both inappropriate and not helpful to the president.

HARLOW: Skullduggery.


HARLOW: That's the --

LOUIS: The demeanor is --

AVLON: Word of the day.

HARLOW: Top that or --


LOUIS: The demeanor and the tone are very important. I mean, we're on television but, you know, audio is very, very powerful and it was. And I remember vividly hearing those Watergate tapes for the first time.

HARLOW: But what about the president's loyal supporters? And Trump voters? If the "Access Hollywood" tape didn't move the needle on that, should anyone think this will?

LOUIS: It's interesting. I think the relevant metric with loyal Trump supporters is how many of them are left. By definition, a loyal Trump supporter, as he famously boasted, would forgive him if he shot somebody on 5th Avenue. Well, fine. But maybe there is a shrinking number and there are reasons to believe that. When you look at some of the polling numbers and you see that fewer people are identifying as Republican, that's their way of saying I'm not part of this. You know?

The remnant will always be there and they'll forgive or explain or what about the whole thing -- what about Hillary Clinton, what about Millard Fillmore, you know, what about Abraham Lincoln. That's not relevant. What is relevant is how many people actually are going to swallow this, this kind of hypocrisy and falsehood.

HARLOW: From John's hand gestures, I think he has something to say here.

AVLON: Yes. I mean, look. The reality is that Donald Trump remains extraordinarily popular among the Republican Party.

HARLOW: In the party.

AVLON: He's got approval ratings that are higher at this point in his term than anyone except George W. Bush.

HARLOW: Right. 88 percent.

AVLON: In the wake of 9/11, 87 percent, 88 percent. Now the question Errol's raising is how many -- how much is that artificially inflated by people no longer associating as Republican. But you shouldn't look past the fact that this president has been able to gain and attract enormous loyalty from a significant number of Republicans who see him as a Teflon Trump and are unwilling to break with him over policy and principle violations they would have castigated any previous president. Certainly a Democrat. But also past Republicans.

HARLOW: Sabrina, final thought.

SIDDIQUI: This is precisely why the president's comments yesterday to not believe anything that you read or see are so striking, if not predictable. The only way, frankly, that his presidency works is if he is able to create this alternative narrative for his supporters to live with in, and part of that involves seeking to discredit or erode trust in our public institutions. Those comments also came, of course, after he faced a great deal of criticism over his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, weathering the fallout from his tariff policy. So it's not just a matter of personal controversy. It's also an issue of public policy.

HARLOW: Thank you all, Sabrina, Errol, John, appreciate it.

The hearing is expected to be under way or underway shortly for the accused Russian agent, Maria Butina. What can we expect today. More on that next.



HARLOW: The hearing for the accused Russian spy, Maria Butina, is under way right now. It is her first appearance before a judge since she was indicted last week on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent.

Our crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz joins me now.

So she's in front of a judge, she's facing these two very serious charges. What can we expect from the hearing today?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, Poppy. So her lawyer just walked into court about 20 minutes ago. He says this is expected to be a status conference, sort of scheduling issues, discovery issues. He's certainly unhappy in that he feels he's not gotten enough production of what the government has, the evidence. So he's hoping to get that moving so that he can see exactly what evidence they have. Clearly he's saying that she's going to be vindicated.