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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Catastrophic Wildfires; Cohen Says President Trump Knew About Trump Tower Meeting; CNN: Cohen Claims Trump Approved 2016 Trump Tower Meeting. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 27, 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 ANCHOR: The fixer has now become the problem that needs to be fixed.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, now says the President Trump knew that that inner circle group of his on the campaign was about to meet with Russian operatives. Today, I will ask another former Trump aide, what did the president know and when did he know it?

The breakup from the guy who once said he would take a bullet for Trump to the man seemingly ready to expose all the secrets, a look at what years of loyalty got Michael Cohen after the FBI came knocking.

Plus, catastrophic wildfires supercharged by record heat, one fire so big, it's creating its own weather, destroying homes, killing a firefighter in its path.

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

We're to begin with the politics lead and one of the biggest bombshells to date in the Russia investigation reportedly coming from the man who once said he would take a bullet for President Trump.

Now, this bombshell goes right to the heart of this question, which I cannot say any better than the late Republican Senator Howard Baker said in 1973, as Watergate was consuming the nation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HOWARD BAKER (R), TENNESSEE: What did the president know and when did he know it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What did the president know and when did he know it?

In this case, the question is, what did President Trump know about Russian offers to help him when his election in 2016?

Sources now telling CNN that his former fixer, Michael Cohen, claims that then candidate Trump, despite his many denial since, knew in advance about that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former campaign chair Paul Manafort, in which a Russian government lawyer, one with ties to the Kremlin, was expected to offer dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The president's former fixer is prepared to share those details with special counsel Robert Mueller, we're told. That's if Cohen statement's -- and given his past, this is still a considerable if -- if his statement is credible.

But when debating who is telling the truth about all this, it is also worth pointing out that the American people have already been lied to time and time again about this meeting and about the greater question of Russian election interference.

Let's start with Donald Trump Jr.'s contradictory statements about this meeting. He said originally he'd never met with any Russians. And then, when confronted with evidence, he said -- quote -- "It was a short introductory meeting. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children."

Of course, we now know that that statement is false. And it was courtesy of President Trump. And we know that the reason for the meeting was Donald Trump Jr. had been in fact promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

Now, as for whether or not he told his father about the meeting:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Did you tell your father anything about this?

DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: No. No. It was such a nothing. There was nothing to tell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Michael Cohen is now saying, of course, according to sources, that that's not true.

Now, we should point out that Cohen is not the first to raise doubts. Former Trump campaign executive Steve Bannon told "Fire and Fury" author Michael Wolff -- quote -- "The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these Jumos up to his father's office on the 26th floor is zero."

Now, those investigating what the president do and when he knew it have always been intrigued by a particular moment during the 2016 campaign.

When Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with the Russian lawyer was in the works, members of the Trump team were under the impression they were going to get dirt from the Russians on Hillary Clinton. And at that time, out of the blue, then candidate Trump said this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.

I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Candidate Trump going on to say at that campaign event that he would show how the Russians, Saudis and Chinese had given money to the Clintons to get preferential treatment.

Those remarks that he just made, you just saw him making, coming two days before the Trump Tower meeting. Now, attendees at the meeting say that dirt didn't materialize. Guess what? That major speech Mr. Trump promised, it never happened.

And that was June 2016. The next month, exactly two years ago today, candidate Trump made this shocking request to Russia about e-mails that Hillary Clinton had deleted.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP SR.: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: We now know through Mueller's indictments that the Russians targeted e-mail accounts used by Hillary Clinton's personal office for the first time that day, that day, that same day that that candidate Trump invited the Russians to hack a political opponent.

[16:05:05]

Now, it's all food for thought when you in the public are trying to decide who to trust in this current state of affairs, which resembles the final scene in "Reservoir Dogs," except with folks firing B.S., instead of bullets.

CNN's Manu Raju joins me now.

And, Manu, People are interpreting all of this as Michael Cohen trying to make it clear, raising his hand to the special prosecutor, to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District he wants to make a deal.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it, Jake.

And it's also a very stunning public fallout between the president and one of his closest confidant, who, of course, is facing his own criminal investigation. And now his willingness to testify to the special counsel and contradict the president about a meeting so central to the Russia investigation could have major ramifications for both Trump and his son. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU (voice-over): Sources tell CNN Michael Cohen is ready to tell special counsel Robert Mueller that President Trump knew in advance about the now infamous Trump Tower meeting, in which Donald Trump Jr. was expecting he would get dirt from the Russians on the Clinton campaign.

Cohen has privately asserted that he and others were present when Donald Trump Jr. informed Trump of the Russian offer and that Trump gave the go-ahead to have the meeting. The bombshell claim directly contradicts what Trump Jr. told congressional investigators last year.

Asked by the Senate Judiciary Committee, "Did you inform your father about the meeting or the underlying offer prior to the meeting?" Trump Jr. responded, "No, I did not." He also said he did not know the identity of the person he called three times before and after the meeting and whose number was blocked.

The news also calls into question Cohen's own testimony before Congress and his past public statements. A source tells CNN that Cohen did not tell the House Intelligence Committee last year that Trump had advance knowledge of the meeting.

After Trump Jr. said he did not tell his father about the meeting...

DONALD TRUMP JR.: There was nothing to tell.

RAJU: Cohen tweeted: A"So proud of Donald Trump Jr. for being open, honest and transparent to the American people."

Today, Trump also took to Twitter to push back on his longtime personal fixer: "I did not know of the meeting with my son Don Jr. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam."

Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani also denied Cohen's claims and accused him of lying.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: I expected something like this from Cohen. He's been lying all week, I mean, or -- he's been lying for years.

RAJU: But that is not how Giuliani characterized Cohen just weeks ago on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION."

GIULIANI: I do not expect it Michael Cohen is going to lie. I think he's going to tell the truth. And if he does that, we're home-free.

RAJU: Democrats said this opens a new front in the Russia probe.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: It effectively brings the issue of collusion or conspiracy right to the president's feet.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU: And, Jake, capping this very turbulent weekend in the Russia investigation is this bit of remarkable news.

Politico's Playbook reported this afternoon a photo of Robert Mueller waiting to board a flight at Reagan National Airport in D.C. And look behind him, at that same gate, Donald Trump Jr., wearing that green T- shirt and baseball cap.

Now, Mueller's office says if the other person in the photo was indeed Trump Jr., than -- quote -- "Mr. Mueller was not aware of him and had no interaction with him."

And, of course, Jake, now the question is, when will Trump Jr. have any interaction with the special counsel? And will that testimony stray from what he told lawmakers about that meeting with Russians, Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju, thank you so much.

That picture of Trump Jr. and Robert Mueller at the same gate. Welcome to Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: So, Amanda, let me start with you.

By CNN's count, the president and his White House denied that he had known about that meeting at least 15 times. I guess just a question for you. I wonder what you think. Who do you believe?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think if Michael Cohen were to start lying now, that would be the worst time, considering that there's court cases involved.

But, to me, I think we get so caught up in this. And the question of what happened at that meeting wasn't just about who knew and when. It's did people associated with the Trump campaign knowingly accept or solicit stolen information?

We get caught up in this whole thing, is a collusion a crime or not? Well, that would be -- I think, at this point, everyone seems to be confirming who's interested in telling the truth, Cohen, Bannon, that they knew the game then they walked into that meeting, and, as Bannon described it, as treasonous.

TAPPER: Yes.

You -- who do you believe between Michael Cohen and President Trump?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, although Michael Cohen did work for President Trump, President Trump is a known liar in this case.

And I know that seems harsh to say, but he had lied about so many things. People can say he plays loose and fast with the truth. They can call whatever they want. But at the end of the day, it's a lie.

And so why should we believe the president now? And that is the issue when he tells so many false truths, so many lies about very small things, from crowd sizes to the tie he wore yesterday.

[16:10:07]

In this case, I believe Michael Cohen. Now, the facts will, the truth will eventually come out. What is done in the dark will always come to light, Jake.

But I don't believe the president here.

TAPPER: Jeffrey Toobin?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think the key issue that we need to focus on is one of corroboration.

You know, one of the interesting things about the report yesterday that CNN broke is that Michael Cohen apparently says there were other people present besides the candidate Trump and Michael Cohen when Trump was informed about and approved this meeting.

What do they have to say about what went on here? Are there any e- mails or texts or tape recordings that corroborate or refute what Michael Cohen said? I mean, that's how these things generally get resolved.

You know, two people swearing at each other never -- rarely resolves itself, but other proof, that tends to be what's usually dispositive.

TAPPER: And, Jackie, take a listen to Rudy Giuliani last night with Chris Cuomo talking about corroborating witnesses. It's kind of an interesting, if not contradictory statement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI: So, it would have to be people in the room with the president...

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Right.

GIULIANI: ... that can corroborate Cohen, which there won't be because it didn't happen.

He didn't know about it. I know that. I have been over this in great detail. I have talked to the corroborating witnesses. This guy is walking into a trap.

CUOMO: You've talked to the other people that were in the room?

GIULIANI: Of course I did. Months ago. A month ago. Two months ago.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I'm very, very confused meeting.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I thought the meeting didn't happen. How can you be in a room for a meeting that didn't happen? (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: First he says it's impossible to corroborate because it didn't happen. And then he says he talk to the corroborating witnesses. That's a term he uses.

KUCINICH: Right.

So it seems like if we're talking about who's lying, it doesn't seem like Mr. Giuliani is really telling the truth there. And he also had a whole series of things, saying Michael Cohen is the greatest guy ever a couple weeks ago.

And now he's a rat and a liar. So, Rudy Giuliani has rarely served his client well. And I feel like that's happening again right now.

TAPPER: I want you -- well, Olivier, let me play some sound, because Jackie was just referring to what Giuliani has said about Michael Cohen, all but nominating him for an award, and then also what he said about him last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI: The man is an honest, honorable lawyer.

I expected something like this from Cohen. He's been lying all week, I mean, or -- he's been lying for years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That was May. He's honest and honorable in May. In July, he's been lying for years.

OLIVIER KNOX, SIRIUSXM: Rudy Giuliani says a thing in an interview, I mean, it's not that surprising at this point.

But it's been interesting to watch this rollout, because this is -- if this all accurate, this is Michael Cohen signaling his value to all the different parties in this case, right?

He's rolled it out very steadily. In the interview with George Stephanopoulos, he very sort of noticeably declined to answer whether he knew about the meeting, whether Trump knew about the meeting and the rest of it.

And then he sort of -- he's been edging towards this point for the last month-and-a-half, I want to say. And now one of the questions, to Jeffrey's point, one of the questions is, does Mueller already know all this? And if so, what does that mean for Michael Cohen's value in this case?

CARPENTER: Yes, and if Mueller can learn that information from someone else that was not Trump's attorney, where you run into attorney-client privilege, Mueller is going to get it from someone else. But what I do think is strange about what Michael Cohen is doing right now is that he is locked up in the case in the Southern District of New York with the hush payment and Michael Avenatti.

And yet he's making these outright appeals to Mueller. And so I wonder if he's being strategic, that he thinks these things will eventually merge together on the financial end. I don't think it's a mistake that the tape he put out specifically mentioned Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg.

TAPPER: Jeff?

TOOBIN: I don't think those are contradictory.

I mean, I think what Michael Cohen recognizes is that he is under serious congressional -- criminal investigation in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan. He needs to get out from under that. The best way to get out from under a criminal investigation is to become a valuable witness, is to become someone whose testimony is so valuable, that they give you immunity, rather than they prosecute you.

Undoubtedly, the Mueller office and the Southern District will have to coordinate on this. They both -- they can't deal with him separately. So it's essentially one decision. And he is trying to prove his value by advertising it.

Now, usually, the way it's done is that is done privately in what's called a proffer session or a queen for a day agreement. That is not -- Lanny Davis, who is now his adviser, believes in doing a lot of things publicly. He's sort of advertising his value publicly.

We will see whether the prosecutors think it's worthwhile deal. But that's, I think, clearly what's going on here.

TAPPER: Everyone, Stick around.

He's the former Trump campaign official who has admitted -- quote -- "Trump may have very well done something during the election with the Russians" -- unquote.

What does he think now? We will ask him next.

Plus, ahead, a deadly inferno engulfing homes, destroying tens of thousands of acres.

[16:15:03] And this is just one of dozens of major fires across the United States right now. What is happening?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And we're back with our coverage of one of the most damning accusations yet in the Russia probe. Joining me now is Sam Nunberg. Sam was a political adviser for the

Trump campaign and for Mr. Trump and is infinitely familiar with Mr. Trump and the Trump world.

Sam, thanks so much for joining us.

You've been by the president's side. You were with him from 2011 to 2015. You know him very well. You know the interworkings of his office.

SAM NUNBERG, FORMER POLITICAL ADVISER, TRUMP CAMPAIGN: Yes.

TAPPER: When it comes to Michael Cohen's claim that Mr. Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting ahead of time --

NUNBERG: Right.

TAPPER: -- do you believe Michael Cohen or do you believe President Trump?

NUNBERG: Well, under normal circumstances, if you had told me that the Trump Organization, even though it was the campaign here was going to host someone connected with the Agalarov, if I'm pronouncing the name correctly, I would say -- I would say likely, the president, now president then Mr. Trump would have been made aware.

[16:20:10] With that said, Jake, it's important here that Michael also says he doesn't have a tape of this conversation according to the CNN reporting. So, it seems a little that we're not going to know. It's one word against another word here.

TAPPER: But you know both people.

NUNBER: Right.

TAPPER: And you're familiar with the dynamics of the two men. What's your take? What's your guess?

NUNBERG: My best guess is that the president certainly was made aware after the fact that this meeting was a complete bust and it was because if you look the lawyer Natalia, the Russian lawyer who previously wasn't even allowed into the country by Preet Bharara, who's now a CNN contributor, she was representing -- she was representing somebody connected to the Magnitsky Act, right? And she's representing this issue where she's representing the person who even Putin had spoken about in directing with Bill Browder.

So, she basically I think scammed both sides and offering up information and even in the e-mails that we have seen with Goldstone and Don Jr., Goldstone is talking about giving Don Jr. a sealed indictment from a Russian court against Hillary Clinton.

You know, campaigns are a dirty business. I know a lot of people have said that have worked on campaigns and watched them on your show said I wouldn't have taken that meeting. I would have taken that meeting, as long as it wasn't about a meeting we're getting illegally hacked e- mails that were stolen from a server, I don't know if that's the kind of information that the American public shouldn't have seen.

TAPPER: You worked for Trump. It does seem like the Trump Organization consists of a system built around a lot of different orbits, a lot of different planets of going around the sun of Donald Trump.

NUNBERG: Right.

TRUMP: Trying to please the boss.

NUNBERG: Certainly, certainly.

TRUMP: You heard Steve Bannon say he doesn't think it's possible Donald Trump Jr. Didn't tell his dad about the meeting if not before. You think that maybe he did but it would have been after?

NUNBERG: I would be surprised if -- when you have Paul Manafort, you have Jared Kushner and you have Don Jr. in this meeting if the president wasn't made aware about it sometime after the fact, if not before. With that said, I can't -- I'm not in Trump Tower, Jake. So, you understand, I haven't been in there since 2015. And I have no direct knowledge that would be able to conflict with what Don said.

But the important point once again is, when I see Adam Schiff in your lead and he says this puts collusion right at the president's feet, that's nonsensical because that's -- does not talk about there was no -- from the e-mails we've seen, never discussed anything about getting those 30,000 e-mails that the president publicly called for, Jake.

TAPPER: Right, no, that's true. But I guess the question is, and it's all hypothetical now because we don't know --

NUNBERG: Right.

TAPPER: -- what exactly were the Russians offering when they promised dirt and Donald Trump Jr. said, if it's what you say, I love it. While I have you here, because you know both Michael Cohen and President Trump, I want do get your response to the Trump/Cohen tape that was released this week that CNN broke and which Cohen is talking about a payment to allegedly buy the silence of former playmate of the year Karen McDougal who claimed she had an affair with Mr. Trump, let's just play a little bit of that tape.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: So I'm all over that that. And I spoke to Allen about it. When it comes time for the financing, which will be --

TRUMP: Wait a second, what financing?

COHEN: We'll have to pay him something --

TRUMP: Pay with cash.

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

COHEN: Hey, Don, how are you?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: Just as a general note, Sam, how common was it in the Trump world to the best of your knowledge that there were payments made to women with whom Mr. Trump allegedly had an affair so that they wouldn't tell their story?

NUNBERG: I never knew of anything specific. I wouldn't have known if this -- of any specific deal that was done. With that said, I think it's obvious and it's already public that Michael would handle issues like that and Rudy Giuliani has even said that these were done in the normal course of Trump organization business. So, therefore, this isn't really a campaign violation, an FEC violation.

And one thing, Jake, I was very surprised about, it would be one thing if Michael had taped a conversation that he had with then Mr. Trump or the president by phone but I was surprised that he had a tape -- remember, he has that phone on him, you've been in Trump's office on the 26th floor, he has that phone on him and he's taping him sitting across from him on the desk. When I heard that, It felt like I was back on the 26th floor and the more important point here or one of the -- very important point is Michael is not doing himself a favor if he's trying to negotiate a plea deal. He's almost negotiating against himself.

And I don't know what motives Lanny Davis has with him right now, because this does not serve his client's interest. I could tell you having dealt with these prosecutors -- they do not like information leaked out.

[16:25:03] They don't want to negotiate in public. So how is this really serving Michael's interest by doing this?

TAPPER: It's a good question.

Sam Nunberg, thank you so much. Have a good weekend. We appreciate your coming here.

NUNBERG: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Even after the FBI raided his apartment, Michael Cohen reportedly said he would jump off a building before turning on Mr. Trump. So, how in the world did the former fixer become one of President Trump's biggest potential legal problems?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)