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Trump Rips Cohen; Trump Open to Putin Invitation; Trump Denies Knowing of Trump Tower Meeting. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired July 27, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:10] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Wolf Blitzer. It is 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

A new denial. President Trump disputing Michael Cohen's claim, as first reported here on CNN, that the president knew of and approved of the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians before that meeting happened. So, in a battle of credibility, who are we to believe?

Plus, Vladimir Putin invites President Trump to Moscow and accepts his invitation back here to Washington. This as we learn that Russians attempted to hack a senator's office this year.

And, the U.S. economy growing at the fastest rate in some four years. And the president vows that 4 percent growth is not a one-time shot.

Up first now, President Trump firing back and once again denying that he knew in advance about the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. The president's latest denial in response to CNN's reporting. According to sources, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen says that then- candidate Trump not only knew about that meeting, but also gave the green light to go ahead with it and that he is willing to make that claim to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The premise of the meeting was that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Earlier today, the president tweeted the following, quote, I did not know of the meeting with my son Don Junior. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam. He even retained Bill and crooked Hillary's lawyer.

Let's bring in CNN White House correspondent Abby Phillip.

And so, Abby, as this story broke, you've been speaking to people in the White House. What has been their reaction to this? Any nervousness behind the scenes?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, this morning you saw a president fairly upbeat on another subject, about the economy. But behind the scenes, the president has been angry. He's been stewing about a series of stories that are quite negative about some potentially damaging legal troubles on the horizon.

The Michael Cohen story continues to unfold, and the president has been watching, being briefed by his advisers, and has been growing angry, an administration official tells us. And the president yesterday, as he was traveling, watching some of that coverage on Air Force One, stewing about it.

But we saw him really explode this morning on Twitter, complaining about the coverage, complaining that his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, might have betrayed him. And as you just read, retained a lawyer who is working actively in a way that the president finds to be confrontational.

He's also complained about reporters asking him questions about it. This week the White House tried to punish a CNN reporter for doing that. Today, in the Rose Garden, the president gave a news event but did not take questions, even as reporters asked him about some of these very issues. The president clearly agitated about a series of stories that he thinks are stomping on otherwise good news on the economic front that he would much rather tout, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, not the first time he's complained about reporters or about former staff.

The White House, as we were reporting earlier, has -- had postponed the invitation for Vladimir Putin to visit Washington, but now today Putin says that he's, in fact, ready to come to the states and reciprocate with a visit to Moscow.

I'm just curious, who is running this show? Is the White House in control of this? Is Vladimir Putin surprising the White House with these public statements?

PHILLIP: Well, that's a really good question, Jim. I think one of the dynamics coming out of the Helsinki meeting was this feeling in the White House that Moscow was really the one running the show. They were putting out announcements about the deals that the president supposedly made in his one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin. And so they announced, by surprise on Twitter, that they had invited Vladimir Putin to Washington.

He sort of brushed back that invitation, saying maybe we can meet at the G-20, prompting the White House to then turn around and rescind the invitation, saying they're going to push it back until the first of next year, of 2019.

Now we're hearing from Moscow again that Putin is ready to meet, either in Washington or in Moscow, with President Trump. And Sarah Sanders issued a statement through the press pool this morning saying that President Trump looks forward to having President Putin in Washington after the first of the year and he's open to visiting Moscow upon receiving a formal invitation.

The White House here clearly trying to keep relations warm, but there is tension, obviously, in this back and forth about when a meeting can happen feasibly between these two leaders. And, frankly, here in Washington, the prospect of Putin coming to the United States just before a midterm election was not warmly received. So the White House is having a little bit of trouble back home making the environment something that would work for them in order to have a productive meeting with Putin and the United States, Jim. SCIUTTO: Imagine that, a Democratic senator confirmed just yesterday

that she was the subject of an unsuccessful attack from Russia in an election year.

Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks very much.

[13:05:01] Today's Twitter denial from President Trump on the Michael Cohen news just the latest in a long line of pushback from this president, his allies, and some changing stories, we might note.

CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza, he is here.

So, Chris, how do we get to this point? I mean one thing that struck me is there have been a thousand different stories about this from denials to different explanations to denials again. Not exactly a consistent line from the president or his team.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: That's exactly right, Jim. And I think that's what makes it so hard to just say, oh, well, what Donald Trump has said must be right. So I don't think there's any way I can tell you how many times the Trump world has denied this. It's better to show you.

Let's play some sound of the many denials.


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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When did the president learn that that meeting had taken place?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I believe in the last couple of days, is my understanding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One key point of this, this is not a situation where the president was involved in this meeting, was not aware of the meeting, did not attend this meeting and he --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he really never -- he didn't know about this meeting until a few days ago?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He did not. Yes, that's correct.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you tell your father anything about this?

DON TRUMP JUNIOR, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S SON: No. It was such a nothing. There was nothing to tell. I mean, I wouldn't have even remembered it until you start scouring through the stuff. It was literally just a waste of 20 minutes, which was a shame.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you know at the time that they had the meeting? TRUMP: No, I didn't know anything about the meeting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you didn't --

TRUMP: It must have been a very important -- it must have been a very unimportant meeting because I never even heard about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No one told you a word, nothing? I know we talked about this on the plane a little bit, but nobody --

TRUMP: No, nobody told me. I didn't know -- it's a very unimportant -- sounded like a very unimportant meeting.


CILLIZZA: So we have that. But then, Jim, as you mentioned, we also have so many conflicting narratives here. I want to go through a few things of what was said and what we know now.

OK, Donald Trump Junior first said that that meeting in June 2016 at Trump Tower was about a relatively obscure adoption law that Russia wanted done differently. OK. President Trump dictated that initial response about adoption. That in and of itself is a changed narrative.

Remember that Donald Trump and his lawyer said he had nothing to do with that statement that Don Junior made to "The New York Times" when it was initially revealed. He didn't know anything about it. Well, it turns out not only did he know about it, he dictated it.

We learned later, not from Don Junior, but from e-mail exchanges that were released that Don Junior knew it wasn't first about adoptions. The reason the meeting happened between these group of Russians, Don Junior, Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort is because dirt was promised on Hillary Clinton by Rob Goldstone, a music promoter for a Russian artist that Trump -- and Trump Junior had known.

And, finally, they've basically said, OK, well, our initial story wasn't right, but their -- nothing happened. This meeting was a nothing burger. So no need to pay any attention to it.

The problem, Jim, so much of what we initially were told from Don Junior, Donald Trump, Donald Trump's lawyers, about this meeting was not accurate. And now they are saying, well, that stuff might not have been accurate, but this time we're saying it is. Now we have Michael Cohen saying it isn't. Two unreliable narrators. The question is, who do we believe?

Back to you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Of course. And, listen, part of their explanation apparently is that, well, if they had offered the dirt on Hillary Clinton, it would have been a worthwhile meeting and I might have told my father about it. I mean, that's the thing, it's just hard to find the consistency there.

CILLIZZA: That's right.

SCIUTTO: Chris Cillizza, thanks very much.


SCIUTTO: Joining me now is former federal prosecutor Seth Waxman, CNN political analyst Karoun Demirjian, and CNN national security analyst Mark Mazzetti. Mark, who also works for a newspaper call "The New York Times."

Mark, this is an unusual way for a willing witness to present himself to a special counsel in public, in effect. Is this something that the special counsel would take seriously as an offer? Because I imagine -- listen, if Mueller was interested in his knowledge of this meeting, which would be natural because of Cohen's proximity to the president, wouldn't he have already reached out to him?

MARK MAZZETTI, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I mean it does appear that Cohen is, you know, actively seeking a deal. And, you're right, if Cohen -- you know, Mueller -- Mueller acts in ways that, you know, sometimes they're mysterious, but they're very purposeful. And so clearly this would be something he would want to know.

This has been -- Chris brought me back to this, you know, over a year ago, this long and painful weekend of trying to figure out what the truth on this meeting was. And where we ended up was that they, you know, knew it was coming from the Russian government. They knew it was dirt. The big unanswered question, of course, still is, did Donald Trump know? And that's why the Cohen story is very big, if true. If Cohen did have knowledge and he can prove is, it's a huge story. So that's really the missing -- big missing piece of this story so far.

SCIUTTO: And I should remind viewers that in our story about this, Cohen claims that he was in the room when president -- or then- candidate Trump was informed about this meeting by his son, Donald Trump Junior. So he's claiming first-hand knowledge of that.


[13:10:11] SCIUTTO: Karoun, Michael Cohen has been, it seems, asked about this before in an environment where it matters because he appeared before the -- before House and Senate committees. Now, it's CNN's reporting that someone with knowledge of his House testimony has told us that he did not testify in that context, that the president knew of this meeting in advance.

Do we know if he was -- do you know in your reporting if he was specifically asked about it? And what problem would that pose for Michael Cohen? If in that environment, where your testimony is required by law to be truthful, and in another environment, you know, what does that do to his legal situation but also to his credibility?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's exactly the word I was going to use, that there's a credibility problem here when you're telling one story to one group of people who have a legal reason to expect you to tell the truth, and another story when your back is more up against the wall because you're now a subject of an investigation yourself.

Look, Michael Cohen is not the first person in this entire affair to change his story. He's not the first person to give an incomplete or incorrect record of events to House and Senate investigators as part of this story. We saw that happen when Eric Prince's testimony kind of went back and forth as well. So that is not good but it's not unique in this whole narrative.

The question is though really, does he have proof of these things? Is it just his word? Because then, of course, there's a question of how much weight that word has given that his story has changed and he does have his own problems right now to think about. But he and his lawyers seem to be saying that, no, they do have -- if not proof of this specific thing, then tapes of other interactions that would go towards establishing his credibility and the question is really, is it enough to meet -- well, to convince the special counsel if there's something there's he's trying to convince him of and also to meet a legal threshold as to what they need, that they're actually going to take this case forward and have it go and apply to anybody else.

SCIUTTO: I should note that in our reporting it's our understanding that Michael Cohen does not have an audio recording of this meeting to corroborate it.


SCIUTTO: Seth, criminal defense attorney, former federal prosecutor. You've been on both sides of the legal dance. Let's talk about the president's legal liability here because it's two paths, is it not, because it's -- it's both -- it's both on foreknowledge of a meeting that would involve illegal foreign help to his campaign, but also on trying to cover up that meeting potentially later, right? So that's two avenues of potential legal liability?

SETH WAXMAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Sure. That's the obstruction on the one hand and the underlying crime on the first part.

But with regards to that underlying crime, it's always been my opinion at the heart of the Mueller investigation is this quid pro quo, this offer of dirt for Hillary in exchange for reducing or eliminating sanctions on Russians. And if you look at the federal bribery statute, that's what the prosecutors use to combat public corruption most often.

You know, when he was inaugurated or sworn into office, we can all agree that, you know, he's subject to federal bribery law. But if you look at that law specifically, what it says is it applies much, much earlier. It applies as of the date the person is nominated or officially notified that they're going to be nominated. That is in the heart of this time frame when the Trump Tower meeting occurred and all of this other material.

And the other big point about federal bribery, it is a 15-year maximum prison sentence associated with it. And it also can be a predicate to RICO and other charges. All the charges we've heard about thus far are campaign finance violations, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Those are two and five-year maximum sentences. The federal prosecutors use hammers to go after people in the inside of conspiracies, like the Jared Kushner's, like the Don Juniors. So it's always been my opinion that it's this federal bribery law that's at the heart. And now Mr. Cohen, putting Mr. Trump at the center of this quid pro quo, kind of lends evidence to that underlying legal theory.

SCIUTTO: Mark, it struck me that listening to the president's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, last night that he floated about 15 different defenses on this, right? On the one hand, he said that, yes, a meeting took place, but other people will contradict Cohen on this. On the other hand, he said, all I have to do is create a reasonable doubt. On the other hand he said, he has no credibility, whereas two months ago he told George Stephanopoulos that he was an honorable lawyer. So a little inconsistency there.

Is it your sense that this White House is nervous about what Michael Cohen knows about the president's activities on this and other issues?

MAZZETTI: Well, in this case, you know, they might need to be nervous, right, because if, in fact, Cohen can prove that Trump had foreknowledge of this meeting, then it's significant in the narrative. And the narrative of a case, if Muller were to build one, of possible collusion, you know, whatever crime you want to call it, the -- you know, the mantra from the White House has been, there's no collusion, there's no collusion, there's no collusion.

The reason why the Trump Tower meeting, for people who have lost the thread in this whole thing, the reason why the Trump Tower meeting is important is because it shows that the top tier of the Trump campaign wanted to collude.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes.

MAZZETTI: They knew that there was a Russian government attempt to give dirt on Hillary Clinton, and they were disappointed that it didn't deliver. So it's significant, and if the president knew about it, it would be significant.

[13:15:05] SCIUTTO: It's a great point, is it not, Karoun, and we were saying this a little earlier, is that, you know -- and Trump himself has said this, is that, listen, any campaign would want this kind of dirt. They're kind of defending what they wanted the meeting to be and then saying at the same time, well, it didn't turn out to give us what we wanted, and therefore there's -- you know, there's no crime here. You know, there's no collusion here.

DEMIRJIAN: It's almost a philosophical legal question, right? If you had the intent to commit a crime, but you didn't actually do it, how bad is that really when you're talking about both a legal process and public opinion? And they both matter, especially when you're in an election year, which granted the president's not on the ballot, but the Republican Party kind of is in Congress right now, or whether it's going to have full power on Capitol Hill or not.

SCIUTTO: Well, I'm sure this Republican Party would much prefer the economic figures to be the story rather than this, but it keeps going. Seth, Karoun, Mark Mazzetti, thanks very much.

The president, today, doing a victory lap, as we were mentioning, as the economy grows at its fastest pace in four years. We're going to look -- take a look at what's behind that growth this quarter, as well as how sustainable it is.

Plus, will the president accept Vladimir Putin's invitation to Moscow? It comes as we learn that the Russians just tried to hack a Democratic senator's office. That's right, this year, in 2018.

And the North Koreans releasing the remains of American soldiers after the president's summit with Kim Jong-un. I'll speak live with a man who's negotiated directly with the North.


[13:20:48] SCIUTTO: It is certainly a big number for the U.S. economy, 4.1 percent. That is the rate that the gross domestic product, that is a measure of the entire U.S. economy, grew in the last quarter. That is the fastest economic growth for a quarter in almost four years. President Trump, of course, touting the achievement earlier today.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are the economic envy of the entire world. When I meet the leaders of countries, the first thing they say invariably is, Mr. President, so nice to meet you, congratulations on your economy. You're leading the entire world. They say it almost each and every time.


SCIUTTO: Let's bring in Mya MacGuineas. She is president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

So certainly a lot of numbers here. The headline number, 4.1 percent. Is this a sustainable rate as we look back -- these are the quarters going back to, well, one of the last quarters before the -- well, the last quarter of the last election.

MAYA MACGUINEAS, PRESIDENT, COMMITTEE FOR A RESPONSIBLE FEDERAL BUDGET: Right. So there's no question this is a really strong top line number, but just about everybody, probably with the exception of those in the White House, think that this is a temporary blip, that the --

SCIUTTO: And why is it -- why is it temporary?

MACGUINEAS: So there are a lot of things going on here, but there's more of a sugar high story than the really important question, which is, can you get sustainable growth? We have a lot of headwinds against us in the economy, mainly the ageing of the population. But this quarter what we have was deficit finance tax cuts, deficit finance spending, and a huge kind of bump up in demand for our goods, soybeans in particular, because of the impending possible trade war. SCIUTTO: So selling now. Let's go -- here are some of the numbers that

make it up. And you said, so nearly 10 percent growth in exports. Consumers also giving it a bit of a boost.

But let's dig down a little bit on that export number. You say that this is responding, in effect trying to get it in under the wire before the tariffs come in.

MACGUINEAS: Right. So that's what happens. There was a huge demand for our goods, and soybeans is a big piece of this whole story.

SCIUTTO: And check that figure, 9,400 percent.

MACGUINEAS: That's a massive amount of soybean purchases. But basically people wanted to get them from other countries before the tariffs hit. So it's in anticipation of a trade war. It's not that there's a great new demand for soybeans. And basically this is not going to last. So the demand came up this quarter, but we won't see it in the subsequent quarters.

SCIUTTO: Does that -- and because the tariffs are beginning to take effect, does that mean you see the end of that sugar high in the next quarter? I mean does it get into the numbers that quickly?

MACGUINEAS: Yes, again, there's two things going on. There's this export, the demand for soybeans, and then there's the stimulus that came from spending and tax cuts that ran up the national debt. Both of those are projected to start to fade in the next quarters. And overall, for this year, we're assuming GDP growth will be significantly lower than it was for this big quarter.

SCIUTTO: OK, the president, as you know, likes to tout things as the biggest ever historic --


SCIUTTO: Never seen before, 4.1 percent. But if we look back even to, well, Barack Obama, a name that President Trump doesn't like to mention, you've had bigger growth in past cycles. I mean why -- why are these peaks higher than this peak as you look back to these years?

MACGUINEAS: Well, the real thing is that quarterly GDP growth isn't a number you want to focus on. Where we are right now, what we really want to think about is, how long can the economy, how high can the economy grow for the next decade, or at least couple years.


MACGUINEAS: Certainly annual growth matters more. Quarterly growth, you have all sorts of things changing them from the seasonality to these demand timing shifts. These are not the big numbers to think about. The numbers are the trends. And President Trump does have a challenge, not of his own making, and that is these demographics that are working against us. But the sugar high, the stimulus that he put into the economy, when the economy was already strong, isn't going to lead to sustainable growth. And that's really the big name of the game here.

SCIUTTO: Well, he may be hoping and waiting for it to last at least into the midterm elections.


SCIUTTO: But, we'll see.

MACGUINEAS: That would be long. That would be longer than I think these temporary blips are going to be able to last.

SCIUTTO: Interesting, because that's only four months away.


SCIUTTO: Maya MacGuineas, thanks very much.

More than a week after the president sided with Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community, the Russian president invites Trump to Moscow. We're going to discuss the fallout of that if Mr. Trump accepts.

[13:24:57] And, 65 years since the Korean War, North Korea returns what could be remains of American service members. Now that the North has made good on at least one promise from that summit, could this lead to more substantive breakthroughs on denuclearization? We're going to ask a former ambassador -- U.N. ambassador, I should say, Bill Richardson. (INAUDIBLE). He'll be next.


SCIUTTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin has extended a counteroffer to President Trump for a second summit between the two leaders.

[13:30:08] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): We are ready to use such meetings. We are ready to invite President Trump to Moscow to be my guest. He has such an invitation --