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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Mueller Scouring Trump's Twitter Feed?; Trump Organization Finance Chief Subpoenaed; NYT: Mueller Looking at Whether Trump Intimidated Witnesses. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired July 26, 2018 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: He knows where the financial bodies are buried.
THE LEAD starts right now.
Breaking news: following the money.
The Trump Organization's finance chief, the gatekeeper to the proverbial Trump vault, reportedly called to testified in the Michael Cohen case.
And more breaking news -- more potential legal trouble for the president. Robert Mueller now reportedly going through President Trump's Twitter feed looking for evidence of obstruction of justice. Could the president's itchy Twitter finger put his presidency in danger?
And deadline day. The Trump administration now has less than two hours to reunite all the remaining families who were separated at the border. As one expert warns, actually, some kids may never see their parents again.
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We begin with breaking news in our politics lead today.
The longtime chief financial officer of the Trump administration (sic), Allen Weisselberg, linked to payments to women who claimed to have sex with President Trump.
Weisselberg has been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury, the -- quote -- "ultimate nightmare scenario" for Trump, according to a Trump Organization employee, who says that Weisselberg knows -- quote -- "anything and everything" about Mr. Trump's finances.
The story breaking this afternoon in "The Wall Street Journal" coming as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York tightens the screws in the investigation into former Trump fixer Michael Cohen. And it seems a clear sign officials are moving closer to the president's closest inner circle from his old company.
Let's bring in CNN Brynn Gingras. Brynn, in the Trump-Michael Cohen tape that CNN broke earlier this
week, the two men, the president and Michael Cohen, discuss Mr. Weisselberg in regards to how to set up a secret payment to keep quiet a former Playboy playmate of the year, Karen McDougal.
BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, yes, and that's why his name may sound familiar to you.
Jake, Weisselberg is actually the Senator to the Trump Organization, and he really has been for decades. As CFO, Weisselberg has controlled the movement of money for Trump. And it's clear he has information that investigators wants to discuss.
GINGRAS (voice-over): Michael Cohen mentioned his name in the secret recording between himself and then candidate Donald Trump.
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER SPECIAL COUNSEL TO DONALD TRUMP: And I spoke to Allen about it. When it comes time for the financing, which will be...
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wait a sec. What financing?
GINGRAS: The Allen that Cohen is referencing is Allen Weisselberg, the financial chief of the Trump Organization, who has now been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in New York in the criminal investigation of Cohen, according to "The Wall Street Journal."
"The Journal" describes him as the most senior person in the organization that's not a Trump, adding that he's handled the president's financial matters for years and -- quote -- "has also been linked to payments made to two women who alleged they had sexual encounters with Mr. Trump."
TRUMP: Replacing George this week is my chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.
GINGRAS: He even once appeared as a judge on Trump's reality show "The Apprentice."
TRUMP: Can we use him anymore?
COHEN: Oh, yes.
GINGRAS: The recorded conversation by Cohen just one of more than 100 tapes seized by the government in April as part of the ongoing federal probe into Cohen's business dealings. Sources tell CNN many of the tapes include discussions with reporters and conversations relating to President Trump.
Cohen's legal team appears to have released the most significant tape in terms of hearing his conversations with Trump. COHEN: 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 and I've spoken...
TRUMP: Give it to me.
GINGRAS: In the recording, the two men are her discussing a payment to Trump's friend David Pecker, who heads American Media, Inc., the company that owns the rights to Karen McDougal's story, the woman who alleges a 10-month-long affair with Trump.
Attorneys for the president and Cohen don't dispute that part of the tape, but disagree on the method of payment discussed.
COHEN: Well, I will have to pay him something.
TRUMP: (INAUDIBLE) pay with cash.
COHEN: Oh, no, no, no, no, no.
LANNY DAVIS, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL COHEN: So everyone out there listened to the tapes. Whatever spin this Giuliani is trying to invent, it says cash and Michael Cohen says, no, no, no, no, no.
RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: There's no way the president is going to be talking about setting up a corporation and then using cash, unless you're a complete idiot. And the president is not an idiot.
GINGRAS: And so now the question is, will Cohen be hurt more by the very public release of that audio?
Sources tell CNN Cohen's lawyers didn't tell the Southern District they were releasing the audio, possibly fracturing Cohen's chances of striking a deal with the office that's currently investigating him -- Jake.
TAPPER: And he seems to want to deal very much.
Brynn Gingras, thank you so much.
Let's bring in our experts to chat about this.
Anne, I will start with you.
Weisselberg has been with Trump literally for decades. He's the most senior person in the Trump Organization who doesn't have the last name Trump. How potentially dangerous is this for President Trump?
ANNE MILGRAM, FORMER NEW JERSEY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I mean, this is an extraordinary thing. I mean, this is the person who we know has controlled the money. And
what prosecutors are doing here really is following the money. And we have got an indication that there were at least two payments that came out of the Trump Organization.
And so having the individual who controlled the checkbook, essentially, is going to be enormously important for the prosecutors, and I think potentially devastating for the president.
TAPPER: Bakari, if you could take out your Democrat hat for one second and just keep on your lawyer hat, what does this say to you about the direction of the investigation into Michael Cohen?
BAKARI SELLERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's definitely wide-ranging.
And I think that one of the things that Mueller is doing -- or -- excuse me -- the Southern District of New York is doing is tightening the screws. Regardless of the public display that Cohen is putting on, the fact that he's had the proverbial come to Jesus, that he wants to now be the saint that saves America, that he's releasing the tape, it means that they are breathing down his neck.
And Michael Cohen is doing a lot of talking that I wouldn't advise my client to do. I'm surprised that he's out releasing tapes, that his lawyer is speaking so freely, because it looks as if he has a great deal of peril ahead of him. They're following the money, as was said earlier, because that is what investigators do.
Usually, it's drug dealers and mobsters when you're talking about cash. Here, you have the president of the United States and his lawyer talking about cash payments. He's in a world of trouble.
I just wish the best for him and his family at this point.
TAPPER: Joseph, "The Wall Street Journal" also reports that President Trump loves Weisselberg, and one of the reasons is because Weisselberg has been for decades really loyal.
But it bears mentioning that he wants thought that about Michael Cohen as well.
JOSEPH PINION, CHAIR, THE CONSERVATIVE COLOR COALITION: Look, I think that what's happening is that the reality that we face is that, evidently, many times, when people step out onto a limb for President Trump, people around him suggest that he take a chain saw to the branch.
I have said it before and I have said again that ultimately I think that what we're facing right now is a Michael Cohen who is -- as you said, had the screws tightening around him, but, at the same time, possibly sending off a flare, trying to say that, look, I understand that I have been there loyal to you, but that loyalty does not come at an unending pace.
And so I think -- realistically, I think the Trump administration might need to look at ways that they can get engaged on a level that actually makes it easier for individuals who are supportive of the president's agenda to actually remain loyal to him.
TAPPER: Ana, I want to read something to you from this "Wall Street Journal" article. It says -- quote -- "Mr. Weisselberg didn't know about the payment to Ms. Clifford, who goes professionally by the name Stormy Daniels, when he agreed to a $35,000 monthly retainer for Mr. Cohen, according to a person familiar with Mr. Weisselberg's thinking."
So there is somebody, whether it's Weisselberg or somebody in the Weisselberg orbit, saying that he didn't know why he had he was signing off in this 35 grand a month to Michael Cohen that was ultimately going to help pay for these payments to women.
Now, I want you to keep that in mind when you listen to Michael Cohen talking with then candidate Trump about making a payment to Playboy playmate Karen McDougal.
Take a listen.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
COHEN: 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 and I've spoken...
TRUMP: Give it to me and (INAUDIBLE)
COHEN: And I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with...
TRUMP: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?
COHEN: ... funding.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
TAPPER: So, Cohen says, I have spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set up the whole thing with funding.
Do you buy that Weisselberg likely didn't know what this retainer was being paid for?
ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Of course I don't buy it.
Look, I take everything I hear from Trump world as a lie ab initio, because what we have seen from this president and people working for him is that they lie and they lie and they lie.
That is the one revealing fact from this tape. You can argue back and forth and debate whether you heard that he was going to pay cash or not. What you can't argue is the fact that the man lied to the American public and had the people working for him lie to the American people.
Look, I think this a nightmare scenario for Donald Trump. He has got two guys who were deeply ingrained in his organization, who handled not only personal issues, but also financial issues and business issues.
You have his moneyman and his fixer, his personal fixer, who are now under legal scrutiny, Michael Cohen under more than legal scrutiny. You have seen the guy go from, Michael Cohen used to be the guy who would take a bullet for Donald Trump. Today, he's the guy who sings like a canary to save his own skin.
So I think what you have seen in the last few days is that loyalty can turn into self-preservation very quickly when people feel that the screws are being tightened around their own necks.
TAPPER: Anne, how do you interpret Michael Cohen's behavior? Do you see it more in the context of desperation? Or do you -- do you think maybe he's just kind of raising his hand and saying, U.S. attorney for the Southern District, Robert Mueller, whoever wants to make a deal, I'm here and I'm ready to make a deal?
I mean, so, first of all, his behavior is not normal in this situation. I mean, as it was said, a lot of people in this situation would just be quiet, right, and be working behind the scenes with the U.S. attorneys in the Southern District to basically try to strike a deal.
I think you're right saying that he is looking for a deal. There are challenges with that. I mean, first of all, is he going to provide truthful information? Second of all, who's he going to cooperate against? I mean, here, we assume it's the president. Are there other people that he could cooperate against? Or is he the person for which the investigation currently has the most evidence?
And so there are a lot of pieces, I think, that have to play out. To me, it's particularly dangerous to start releasing tapes like this and having this really public, sort of litigating his case in the public vs. having these quieter conversations with the U.S. attorney's office if he is thinking about cooperating.
TAPPER: Bakari, you said that you would not be advising Michael Cohen to be doing what he's doing.
What would you advise Mr. Weisselberg right now, if he has in fact, as "The Wall Street Journal"'s reported, been subpoenaed to testify? This man did Trump's taxes. He worked for Fred and Donald Trump. He was the treasurer of the Donald J. Trump Corporation -- Foundation, rather, which, of course, is also under legal trouble for alleged extensive and persistent violations of state and federal law.
We're all talking about Michael Cohen wanting a deal. Should Mr. Weisselberg possibly be seeking a deal?
SELLERS: Well, yes, he should be.
But I think the first thing that you do is, you sit him down and you debrief him yourself. You want to know everything that he knows before he goes into his grand jury testimony. The last thing you want to do as a lawyer is be surprised by your client's testimony.
So you will spend 10 hours, 20 hours debriefing him, understanding the ins and outs of this Trump Organization, what he knows, and then you want to get some understanding from the Southern District of the parameters they want to cover.
The problem that he has -- and by releasing this tape, I mean, what it sounds as if, you have money laundering, you have mail fraud, you have wire fraud, and that's before you get to anything campaign violations. And so he also is in a world of trouble.
But the blessing that he has is that he's very low on the totem pole. It's very easy for him to roll up. They're looking at Michael Cohen, they're probably looking at Donald Trump Jr., they're probably really looking at Eric Trump. All of this is presumptuous. And, of course, the president of the United States.
But he has the ability to roll up, so his exposure is not that great. And the last thing, this is the honest point. This I the biggest problem with the Trump administration, Trump Org. He has to learn how to tell the truth.
He has to be honest, because I remind people all the time, Martha Stewart did not go to jail for insider trading. She went to jail for a 1001 violation, which means that she lied. Do not lie to the federal prosecutors or the grand jury. You will cause more trouble than it's worth everyone.
TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.
NAVARRO: I got to tell you, if you haven't learned how to say the truth by the time you're 71, you are a hopeless cause.
TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.
We also have some more breaking news. It now seems that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is playing the there's a tweet for that game with President Trump's Twitter feed -- the new report that could spell more legal trouble for the White House coming up.
Plus, it's deadline day for the federal government to reunite thousands of children, migrant children who have been separated from their parents at the border. But what happens to those children who cannot be returned to their parents? Will they ever see their moms and dads again?
Stay with us.
[16:17:36] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back. From the investigation into Trump in New York to the investigation
into Trump in Washington, D.C., more breaking news now. "The New York Times" reporting that as part of his investigation into whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice in the Russia probe, special counsel Robert Mueller is analyzing President Trump's disparaging tweets and statements about his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions and, of course, fired FBI Director James Comey. The focus whether, quote, the actions add up to attempts to obstruct the investigation by both intimidating witnesses and pressuring senior law enforcement officials to tamp down the inquiry, "The Times" reports.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly expressed his frustration with Sessions decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. In July of last year, the president tweeted Sessions was, quote, very weak and told "The Wall Street Journal" that same day, quote, I'm very disappointed in Jeff Sessions.
This past April, the president again lamented his choice.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this and when he recused himself or he should have certainly let us know if he was going to recuse himself. And we would have used a -- put a different attorney general in.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: The president also took aim at former FBI Director James Comey, asking the then FBI director in March 2017 to publicly state that he was not under investigation which Comey refused to do according to Comey. Weeks later, the president fired Comey, claiming he had been disappointed by his actions in the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. The president later admitted to NBC News when he made the decision to dismiss Comey, he was thinking about the Russia probe. In a statement to "The Times", President Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, responded, quote, if you're going to obstruct justice, you do it quietly and secretly, not in public, unquote.
Let's discuss this.
Anne, do any of the single actions constitute obstruction or is it more about establishing a larger pattern of behavior? And do you think a tweet could be part of that?
ANNE MILGRAM, FORMER NEW JERSEY ATTORNEY GENERAL: So, I think there's two things. I mean, one of the key lines I think in the article that you just referred to is that whether all the action adds up to obstruction of justice and here I think we're really talking about things like witness tampering, was Trump trying to influence people not to testify or to cooperate with the investigation. And so, it's -- I don't think we are looking at one single action. I think we're looking at all the actions we've discussed before, things like, you know, Trump's efforts to influence Comey, efforts to influence Sessions behind closed doors, as well as now we're talking about public efforts, both to try to potentially influence them and maybe to discredit them.
[16:20:06] What's fascinating to me about the tweet question is, look, we live in a brave new world where when we looked at obstruction under Nixon or under Clinton, people weren't tweeting. And so, to me, I think, the president we know he personally tweets and it's fair game for Mueller to ask these questions, but it also reinforces to me why it's so important for Mueller to actually sit down with the president and to get the answers as to what he was doing and what he was thinking as he was doing this entire course of conduct.
TAPPER: Joseph, let me ask you, President Trump's lawyers have stated that President Trump is consistently under attack and these tweets and statements are him just simply defending himself. Do you agree?
JOSEPH PINION, CHAIR, CONSERVATIVE COLOR COALITION: I mean, look, the reality is that every president comes under attack. That's just the nature of the beast. It comes with the job.
Having said that I think this is what many people, even people who are fully supportive of the MAGA agenda talk about when they say the president has placed himself in unnecessary political peril. Words matter when you're the president of the United States, even when they come 280 characters at a time. And I think the hard truth is that, unfortunately, we end up having discussions and having to deal with unnecessary evils when the president unfortunately can't just put down the twitter fingers and have a conversation about the agenda.
ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, roosters are coming home to roost. You know, I keep thinking if I had a dollar for every time I've heard a legal expert on TV talk about the legal peril that Donald Trump is placing himself on and that he should not be tweeting, that it is going to come back to hurt him, I could probably have enough money to buy myself a really nice pair of shoes right now, and they ain't cheap.
You know, he's been doing this for such a long time now. We have seen him treat Jeff Sessions like a human punching bag over and over again and express his frustration. And I think what this entire, you know, all of these things that's happening this week, the Cohen tapes, the tweets, the money man, it shows us just how wide the scope of this Mueller investigation is.
And we saw it coming when we saw that he was hiring folks that were experts in flipping witnesses. We saw him hire folks that were experts on public corruption. We saw him hire experts on financial crimes. It's all now beginning to make sense and the puzzle is getting filled up.
TAPPER: Bakari, Rudy Giuliani has a point in one sense that I think most lay people, not necessarily prosecutors or attorneys, but lay people think of obstruction of justice as some thing that is done secretly and not very, very public tweets.
BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I guess. I mean, Rudy Giuliani having a point is where you threw me off. The first thing is I can't be an expert on Donald Trump's tweets because he blocked me about two years ago. So, I am blessed and fortunate enough not to have to read them every single day.
But what I can tell you is that this case of obstruction of justice is compiling everything from tweets to his own words to his interviews with Lester Holt, to his actions of firing Comey, to his words when he talks about wanting to get rid of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It will be compiled with all of this.
You know, I do think that most people think, most lay people believe that in order to obstruct justice, you have to kidnap a witness. But that's not the case here. You can be very public in this obstruction.
I think that there is a case of obstruction of justice against Donald Trump. The larger question that no one has really wrangled with is whether or not you can indict a sitting president which is a whole other can of worms which I'm not sure has been answered yet, which is why I believe Mueller won't do that.
We are going down the path to show -- I think Mueller is going down this path to show people that Donald Trump has trampled on the law many times on Twitter, in words, in firing and actions. I think that's what we will see whenever he issues his report. I remind people that it's going to be a report. It's highly unlikely that it's going to be an indictment.
TAPPER: Bakari, very quickly, why did President Trump block you on Twitter?
SELLERS: I think he had a problem with how handsome I am, Jake. That's the only thing --
TAPPER: What had you said? You must had said something to merit a block.
SELLERS: It was during the South Carolina primary and I'm sure I was talking about his lack or his allergy to the truth. And it -- I have no idea. I woke up and he blocked me. And then he later criticized me. So, there we have it.
TAPPER: All right. I'm going to see what I can do to remedy that for you.
Everyone, stick around. We got more --
NAVARRO: I'm having -- I'm having Twitter blocking envy.
TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We got more to talk about.
NAVARRO: What do I have to do?
TAPPER: President Trump's chief of staff is about to reach a major milestone in this White House. But does former Marine General John Kelly have the same influence that he used to have?
Stay with us.
TAPPER: Welcome back.
Sticking with our politics lead, we have long known that Donald Trump likes chaos and likes to pit underlings one against each other. This was apparent on the hit TV show "The Apprentice", obvious in his corporate life and we have seen it play out many times in the West Wing.
Now, we are being told as White House Chief of Staff John Kelly approaches his one year mark on the job this Saturday that a new rival is gaining stature in President Trump's orbit, former Fox News president Bill Shine, who of course left that company amidst allegations that while at Fox, he helped cover up the sexual harassment and abuse committed by Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly.