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Michael Cohen Pleads Guilty in New York City As Manafort Jury Delivers Partial Verdict in Virginia; Interview With Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; Interview With Stormy Daniels Attorney Michael Avenatti; Paul Manafort Found Guilty on Eight Count. Aired 6- 7p ET
Aired August 21, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: Cohen pleads guilty.
The president's longtime fixer admits to multiple crimes that could land him behind bars for more than five years. What did Michael Cohen reveal to prosecutors before striking a deal?
Link to the president. One of Cohen's guilty pleas on campaign finance charges is directly tied to his efforts to protect Mr. Trump in the Stormy Daniels saga. This hour, I will ask Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, about Cohen's plea and how he implicated Mr. Trump in court tonight.
Manafort found guilty. President Trump's former campaign chairman convicted tonight of tax fraud and bank fraud, jurors delivering their verdict on eight counts against Paul Manafort just a little while ago. What will it mean for the president and the Mueller probe?
And Russians busted. Microsoft says it disrupted attempts to influence the midterm election linked to Vladimir Putin's military spies. Why are the Russian hackers behind the 2016 attacks on Democrats now targeting conservatives?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world? I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following major breaking news. Two men tied to President Trump now both convicted felons, as legal cases hanging over the White House come to a dramatic close at the same time.
Mr. Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen pleading guilty to eight counts tonight, including campaign finance violations related to hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, Cohen implicating President Trump in the Daniels payoff, this as a jury finds Mr. Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty of eight felonies in his fraud trial.
This hour, I will get reaction from Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, and Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our national correspondent, Brynn Gingras. She's outside the federal courthouse in New York City.
Brynn, this plea deal for Cohen all happened very quickly.
BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And in dramatic fashion, Wolf.
As you said, eight counts that he pleaded guilty to, one of those, tax evasion, failing to pay the IRS more than $4 million in taxes for his various businesses, one, filing false statements to a bank in order to obtain alone, and then the real stunner, two counts of campaign finance violations.
The reasons those were such a stunner, because Michael Cohen details in a little bit exactly what those campaign finance violations were, one, a $150,000 payment to the CEO of a media company for a contract, which we know from our previous reporting has to do with Karen McDougal, who accuses President Trump have an affair, which he, of course, has denied.
And then the second, $130,000 payment which he facilitated, which we know again from previous reporting has to do with Stormy Daniels, a porn star that alleges an affair with the president. Again, their names not mentioned in court, but we know who they were talking about.
And then we got a little bit more detail when the U.S. deputy attorney came out of court after these guilty pleas and talked about all of the charges in general. Take a listen real quickly.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT KHUZAMI, DEPUTY U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Guilty to two campaign finance charges, one for causing an unlawful corporate contribution and a second one for personally making an excessive personal contribution, both for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.
In addition, what he did was, he worked to pay money to silence two women who had information that he believed would be detrimental to the 2016 campaign and to the candidate and the campaign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GINGRAS: And when the judge did ask Cohen about those two campaign finance violations, he said he -- quote -- did it to keep information to the public from becoming public -- quote -- "in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office," who, of course, we know is President Donald Trump.
Of course, again, his name was not mentioned in court, but such a stunner inside the courtroom. I can tell you, Wolf, that when Michael Cohen walk out of this courtroom, and quickly into an SUV that was waiting for him, the entire street was filled with people, many of them screaming "Lock him up." It is just something that has captivated this area in Lower Manhattan. And I also want to mention that he is tonight out of the courtroom, as I said, on $500,000 bond. He is going to be back in court in December.
His arrangements for this plea deal don't necessarily mean that he won't be talking to Robert Mueller. It's not necessarily part of this deal that was made that he has to cooperate, but it's definitely not off the table.
And he also will be facing up to five years in prison and a hefty fine -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Hefty fine, five years in prison, a huge, a huge setback for Michael Cohen.
Unlawful campaign contributions, the deputy U.S. attorney saying he will pay a very serious price. Indeed he will.
Brynn Gingras, we will get back to you.
I want to bring in our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.
Shimon, you're going through all of this as well.
Five years in jail, a half-a-million dollar fine, he's out on bail right now.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: He's out on bail.
But, Wolf, I mean, when you -- yes, the tax problems and the other issues in this, that's sort of important from Michael Cohen. But what's more important here is what the government and what he's basically admitted to doing here, and what the government says he was doing here.
When you read these documents, the president is all over these documents. I mean, they refer to him as Individual One. They call Michael Cohen his personal attorney. They say to Individual One, who at that point had become the president of the United States.
He's in these documents. The president of the United States is in these charging documents. They say that Michael Cohen, the defendant, this is reading from the document, caused and made the payments, these payments, obviously, to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal described herein in order to influence the 2016 presidential election.
In doing -- in so doing, he coordinated with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls about the fact, nature and timing of the payments.
So here the government is essentially saying there are other people who knew about this, who were involved this besides the president, so we don't know who those other people are.
But, really, Wolf, when you think about -- we have talked so much about influence in the 2016 election of the Russians, but think about what was going inside -- going on inside his campaign outside of the Russians and the efforts that they were going through to keep things quiet, to keep things from the public, from the public knowing.
And we talked a lot about, well, is hush money illegal? Well, clearly, the FBI has laid out a pretty strong case for why an elected official should not be doing this. And if they do this, they're going to bring charges. And the president here, quite frankly, Wolf, is lucky that he is the president.
Trump is lucky that he's the president of the United States, because chances are the U.S. attorney's office probably would have indicted him in this case.
BLITZER: Because of the coordination and the direction that Michael Cohen alleges.
PROKUPECZ: Yes. And he would have been probably a cooperator in their in the end, if they had the permission, if the guidelines would have allowed them to perhaps indict him.
BLITZER: Very important point.
Shimon, stand by.
I want to bring in our chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.
What about that specific point? If Donald Trump, let's say, had lost the election, was a private citizen right now, what would have happened?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: He would have been indicted.
I mean, this is what's so significant about today. There are many things. But, to me, by far, the most significant news development of the day is that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a crime in which he implicated Donald Trump as a co-conspirator, a fellow felon in committing that crime.
This is the first time since Watergate and perhaps even before Watergate that we have had a president of the United States while in office implicated in committing crimes. That's something that is very rare in American history.
I mean, this has not happened very often. And the fact that we now have on the record in federal court the president of the United States declared by a confessed felon to be a fellow conspirator is a pretty extraordinary thing.
What its implications are legally, politically, I don't know. I mean, I think there's a lot that needs to be sorted out. But the mere fact of this -- of the fact that the president has been accused by a confessed felon as another felon is a pretty extraordinary piece of news.
BLITZER: It's truly extraordinary.
Michael Cohen says he made that payment, facilitated that payment to Karen McDougal -- quote -- "for the purpose of influencing the election."
That was all done through American Media, the parent company of "The National Enquirer." And Cohen says President Trump repaid him for the Stormy Daniels $130,000 payment as well.
Those comments from inside this federal courtroom today about the president of the United States. Go ahead and give us your reaction.
TOOBIN: Well, remember, who's benefited from all this? Who benefited from the fact that these two women were silenced?
It wasn't Michael Cohen. Michael Cohen wasn't the one who was running for president. It was Donald Trump. So if you wanted to look at the way prosecutors generally view culpability, they look at who benefits? Who made the money? Who was at the top of the pyramid?
Here, there's not even close to a debate about that. This was something done for the benefit of Donald Trump, who, according to Michael Cohen, directed the entire illegal conspiracy.
Remember that phrase, at the direction of. He's -- Cohen said that this whole illegal activity, these illegal campaign contributions, was done -- were done at the direction of Donald Trump. Now, we haven't heard from Trump or his lawyers. Perhaps they will say Michael Cohen is lying. Perhaps they're saying there was no crime here.
But at least what went on in federal court today was a statement that Donald Trump directed an illegal conspiracy to commit felony campaign finance violations. That's pretty extraordinary.
BLITZER: The president had a chance to speak about what Michael Cohen was alleging when he spoke with reporters upon his arrival in Charleston, West Virginia, decided not to do so.
And just to be precise, I want to read the words of what Michael Cohen said in this federal courtroom today. He said that the payments to these two women were done -- quote -- "in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office."
This was done only days before the presidential election in November of 2016, that candidate being Donald Trump. And it was all done -- quote -- "to influence the presidential election." That that's also a quote.
When you think about this, could Michael Cohen still cooperate with the special counsel, Robert Mueller? And does Mueller want Cohen's cooperation right now?
TOOBIN: Well, I -- certainly,he could.
There is apparently no formal cooperation agreement. But Michael Cohen is going to want as low as sentence as possible. The way convicted felons in our system get points from judges and thus lower sentences is by cooperating.
And that certainly seems to be a possibility for Michael Cohen, to cooperate with Robert Mueller. However, now that he has pleaded guilty, there is also the possibility that Robert Mueller will simply give him what's called use immunity, which means he will have to testify in the grand jury, or go to jail for contempt.
Same thing with Congress. If there is a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, as there may be, there may not be, after the midterm elections, the House Judiciary Committee could vote to give Michael Cohen immunity and force him to testify in public about what went on in this campaign and whether Donald Trump did, in fact, coordinate or direct these illegal campaign contributions.
So I think the important point is, we have almost certainly not heard the last from Michael Cohen. What forum that statement, that testimony takes is, I think, uncertain at this moment. But I suspect, one way or another, we're going to hear Michael Cohen elaborate on what he said in court today.
BLITZER: Yes, we certainly will. I totally agree with you.
We're just getting in a statement from Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney. Let me read it to you, get your reaction, Jeffrey.
Quote: "There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen. It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen's actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time."
What do you think of those words?
TOOBIN: Well, there's a key word in that statement, which is charges. He said the government's didn't charge any illegal activity by the president.
But what Rudy Giuliani does not say is that Michael Cohen in open court implicated the president. So it is true in a narrow, technical sense that the charges themselves did not implicate the president.
What Michael Cohen said in pleading guilty to those charges very much did implicate the president. And people can draw their own conclusions about that.
BLITZER: We're also getting a statement from Lanny Davis, who is one of the attorneys representing Michael Cohen.
He's just tweeted this. Let me put it up on the screen. There you see it: "Today, he stood up and testify under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime from Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?"
What's your reaction to the statement from Lanny Davis?
TOOBIN: Good question.
TOOBIN: Why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?
I mean, this is such an unusual situation, because you have an underling pleading guilty to a crime where he implicates the higher- up. The higher-up is the real beneficiary of the crime. But because he's president of the United States, at least according the Justice Department policy, he can't be charged with the crime.
It's an unusual situation. Lanny Davis' tweet, I think, makes very clearly the peculiarity of this situation.
BLITZER: I assume we're going to be getting a lot more reaction coming in from all of the principals on this historic day.
Jeffrey, I want you to stand by.
We're going to be speaking with Stormy Daniels' attorney, by the way, Michael Avenatti -- there you see -- in just a moment.
Michael, stand by.
I quickly want to go to our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider. She's got more on the verdict against the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Jessica, tell us more about the verdict.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, if it took four days, two notes and several questions from this jury, but their partial guilty verdict will now send Paul Manafort to prison for what could be up to 80 years.
Now, to be clear, this jury deadlocked on 10 counts. In that deadlock, prosecutors will now have to determine by next week whether or not they want to go to a retrial of those 10 counts for Paul Manafort. But this jury finding Paul Manafort guilty of eight counts.
And they break down as follows: five counts of tax fraud carrying three years for each count, one count of hiding foreign bank accounts, and two counts of bank fraud. Now, the judge told Paul Manafort of his guilt as Paul Manafort stood before him, Paul Manafort showing no emotion, not smiling, and flanked by his defense attorney Kevin Downing.
After the proceedings were over, the jurors released, Kevin Downing came outside the courthouse, and he said that Mr. Manafort was disappointed that he didn't get an acquittal on all counts, and he said that Mr. Manafort is now considering his options moving forward, of course, that relating to any possible appeal that this defense team might file.
But as it stands now, Wolf, Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, has been found guilty on eight counts. He now faces many years, if not decades, in prison -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jessica, I want you to stand by as well, Jessica Schneider over at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington.
I want to get back to the bombshell news of Michael Cohen's plea deal today.
Joining us now, the attorney Michael Avenatti, who represents Stormy Daniels in her legal battle against Michael Cohen and President Trump, for that matter.
Michael, thanks so much for joining us.
How do you and your client, Stormy Daniels, feel today? What's your reaction when you hear Michael Cohen plead guilty and hear him say he committed campaign finance violations, in coordination and at the direction of President Trump?
MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: Well, I spoke to my client about an hour ago. We feel incredibly vindicated, Wolf.
There's a lot of people, like one of your next guests, Richard Blumenthal, who've taken unnecessary shots at me and my client about our legal strategy and how we have gone about this.
We have been absolutely vindicated. People like Richard Blumenthal and others have proven to be wrong. We have been proven to be right, which is always a good thing. But, more importantly, Wolf, we have got a lot of work to do.
We're going to get to the bottom of what this president knew and when he knew it and what he did about it, and the details of this cover-up. On September 10, the court is going to lift the stay, I anticipate, in the civil case. We're going to march forward with our efforts to place the president under oath and get a deposition, where I'm going to be able to ask him questions and he's going to be forced to answer those questions under oath about his own conduct.
We're also going to get a chance to depose Michael Cohen and get to the details of this. So I'm very much looking forward to those moments. And I'm very much looking forward to uncovering the evidence and the facts, so we can demonstrate them to the American people.
BLITZER: So what do you think this means, legally and politically, for that matter, for the president right now?
AVENATTI: The president is in a lot of trouble, Wolf, and we're coming for him. I'm telling you flat out we're going to come for him. We're going to get this deposition. The president has created an alternative universe on many, many fronts. He thinks that he can lie, lie his way out of situations and create this universe, and everyone else is going to live in it.
Well, guess what? That alternative universe sooner or later is going to come crumbling down. And I think we're on the precipice of that happening.
BLITZER: The president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, he just issued a written statement. And I will read it to you once again.
"There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen. It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen's actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time."
What's your reaction to Giuliani's statement?
AVENATTI: Rudy Giuliani has absolutely zero credibility, Wolf.
You know, just the other day, he said, truth doesn't mean truth, which is one of the most bizarre and ridiculous statements I have seen on television in a long time. That statement that you just read has absolutely no credibility.
It's clear as day, if you read the charging documents from the Southern District this afternoon, who they're referring to. Donald Trump's fingerprints are all over the crime scene in connection with this, Wolf.
We're going to prove it. It's clear as day. And I'm going to say it again. The president is in trouble.
BLITZER: Do you think this is an impeachable offense? Will you call on Congress to begin impeachment proceedings?
AVENATTI: I think Congress needs to seriously consider it.
But I will say this. The GOP and the Republican Party has shown absolutely zero backbone. They have been spineless as it relates to keeping this president in check. They have placed party over country, which I think is a disgrace.
So I don't have a lot of confidence in their ability to get the job done.
BLITZER: You say that you have zero doubt -- your words -- zero doubt that Michael Cohen is cooperating in all of this, but this deal doesn't include cooperation, as far as we know.
We have gone through the documents. Robert Mueller handed this off to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in the first place.
Is it possible Mueller doesn't need Cohen's cooperation?
AVENATTI: Well, that's possible, Wolf.
But I want to be really clear about something. All because these documents don't state a cooperation agreement or a requirement for cooperation does not in any way, shape or form mean that there has not already been cooperation -- and I know for a fact that there has been, by the way -- or that there will be additional cooperation in the future.
Very often, you will have an agreement such as this that will not include a written cooperation requirement, and yet the defendant will cooperate because, as Jeffrey noted, the defendant wants to limit the sentence, wants to cooperate, and wants to remain in the good graces of prosecutors up through and including sentencing.
BLITZER: So just elaborate on what you mean when you say that this cooperation is already taking place.
AVENATTI: Well, I know for a fact that they have been in discussions for a number of weeks relating to how to resolve the potential criminal charges against Michael Cohen.
And I know for a fact that there's been information provided by Michael Cohen to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. Now, what those prosecutors determine should be done with that information, that's an entirely different question.
BLITZER: Were you surprised when you heard that he could face, let's say, five years in prison, Michael Cohen, right now and a half-a- million dollar fine?
AVENATTI: No, I wasn't surprised in the least bit. I have been saying for five or six months now, Wolf -- I said it before the warrants were executed -- that too much faith and confidence had been put on the shoulders of Michael Cohen by Donald Trump and others, and that, ultimately, he would be charged with serious crimes, and, ultimately, he would roll over on the president.
And I think today each of those predictions have been proven to be true.
BLITZER: What does this mean, this deal mean, as far as you're concerned, for Cohen's claim that President Trump knew about that very controversial June 2016 Trump Tower meeting that his son, son-in-law, campaign chairman had with Russians, that he knew about this ahead of time?
AVENATTI: Well, it's tough to say, Wolf, but I will say this.
Each time that Michael Cohen makes a statement that ultimately is proven to be true regarding Donald Trump, I think that boosts his credibility as it relates to various issues. BLITZER: If there's no trial -- and there won't be a trial -- he has already pleaded guilty -- will the public see the evidence against Cohen?
AVENATTI: Well, I think they may very well see the evidence against Cohen and Donald Trump in connection with our case, because this does not have a bearing as to whether our case proceeds or not.
Our case is going to proceed. We're going to proceed with the civil case. And I think we're going to be entitled to all, if not close to all, the information and the evidence relating to that count eight concerning the $130,000 payment to my client.
And I want to bring your viewers back to that moment -- and I'm sure they're going to remember it -- that statement that the president, the statements the president made on Air Force One, the people's plane, where he denied any knowledge of that $130,000 payment, and directed everyone to his attorney Michael Cohen.
Well, guess what? We have now heard from Michael Cohen. We have begun to know the truth, and we have determined that the president of the United States lied to the American people while standing aboard the people's planes.
BLITZER: Michael Avenatti, thanks so much for joining us.
AVENATTI: Thank you.
BLITZER: President Trump was asked about the Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort convictions a little while ago as he headed to a campaign event.
Our White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is joining us right now,.
Kaitlan, a very troubling day for the president of the United States. So tell our viewers what he had to say?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president got off Air Force One after that hour-long ride, where he watched cable news coverage of these events unfolding, both his former campaign chairman and his former attorney becoming felons within one hour of each other.
And as the president got off the plane, he greeted the people there at the airport, he shook some hands. And then he came over to reporters to say this about the Paul Manafort news:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I must tell you that Paul Manafort is a good man. He was with Ronald Reagan. He was with a lot of different people over the years. And I feel very sad about that. It doesn't involve me, but I still feel -- it's a very sad thing that happened.
This has nothing to do with Russian collusion. This started as Russian collusion. This has absolutely nothing to do -- this is a witch-hunt and it's a disgrace.
This has nothing to do what they started out, looking for Russian involved in our campaign. There were none.
I feel very badly for Paul Manafort. Again, he worked for Bob Dole. He worked for Ronald Reagan. He worked for many, many people, and this is the way it ends up.
And it was not the original mission, believe me. It was something very much different. So, had nothing to do with Russian collusion. We continue the witch-hunt. Thank you very much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COLLINS: So, Wolf, I don't know you caught it, but there at the beginning, the president said, I feel bad. I feel badly for both.
That was in response to shouted questions not just about Paul Manafort, but also about Michael Cohen. But the president didn't say anything else about Cohen as he spoke to reporters. He only wanted to talk about the Manafort, even though he made, himself, the point of coming over there to speak to reporters about this.
That was the first reaction we got from the White House, because, in the hours before that, Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, had said nothing about the Manafort verdict and nothing about Cohen either.
But now we do have a statement from the president's legal team, from Rudy Giuliani, the president's lead attorney representing him in this Russia probe, on Michael Cohen.
And in that statement, he says that: "There is no allegation of wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen. He said: "It's clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen's actions reflect a pattern of life and dishonesty over a significant period of time."
Wolf, what Rudy Giuliani doesn't mention in that statement is that Michael Cohen himself, who has known the president for over a decade, worked as his longtime fixer and attorney, came into that courtroom today and implicated the president in committing a crime.
Rudy Giuliani makes no statement of that, no mention of that or anything that Michael Cohen said. So all this goes back to something is what we're waiting is for the true reaction from the president on Michael Cohen. He's happy to distance himself and Paul Manafort, but the White House and the president himself truly cannot distance themselves from Michael Cohen, because, of course, if it is a campaign finance violation which he says the president directed him to do, they cannot distance themselves from that.
So, really, Wolf, what all this gets to is Michael Cohen is the president who is the person who for so long was there to fix the president's problems. But, Wolf, today he became one of the president's biggest problems.
BLITZER: Yes, accusing the president of the United States of committing a crime in engaging in campaign finance violations.
Kaitlan, thank you very much for.
Joining us now, Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a Democrat. He serves on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees.
Senator, thanks so much for coming in.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let me get your reaction, first of all, to the Michael Cohen guilty plea.
BLUMENTHAL: Today is going to be historic. We will all remember what we were doing when we heard this news about Michael Cohen implicating the president in a very, very serious crime.
If Donald Trump were anyone except president of the United States, very probably, he would be charged today with a crime. And the White House is looking increasingly like a criminal enterprise.
BLITZER: Do you believe Michael Cohen?
BLUMENTHAL: I believe Michael Cohen, and I believe the United States of America, which charged Michael Cohen and is responsible for the plea agreement.
They could not accept Michael Cohen's plea agreement unless they believe Michael Cohen too, which means they have evidence to corroborate it.
BLITZER: So do you believe this is an impeachable offense?
BLUMENTHAL: What the remedy is going to be will depend on what more is found as a result of continuing investigation by the special counsel.
And here's what I believe is most important, Wolf, on this day. The Congress of the United States has to protect the special counsel. We're likely to see a firestorm of resistance from the president of the United States.
And the Congress of the United States itself has to investigate through the Judiciary Committee of the Senate.
BLITZER: Well, do you think anything is going to happen between now and the midterm elections? You only have a few legislative days. And you got a lot of other stuff to do, including the confirmation hearings for a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: -- to investigate through the Judiciary Committee of the Senate.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think anything is going to happen between now and the midterm elections? You only have a few legislative days, and you've got a lot of other stuff to do, including the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court justice.
BLUMENTHAL: We need to begin. The Senate Judiciary Committee is composed of senators who are going to be there after the midterm election, two-thirds of us. So I think the beginning has to be set and marked right now. And Wolf, we're in a Watergate moment, where the two parties have to come together. We need bipartisanship now more than ever to protect the special counsel and to stop, and I must underscore, stop any consideration of pardons which undoubtedly will be another --
BLITZER: The president has a right to pardon Paul Manafort, for example, if he wanted to.
BLUMENTHAL: He has the power to pardon Paul Manafort. But he would be screaming to the world, I am guilty. And he would so undermine the credibility of his office that it would be a disaster for the nation. And it would very possibly be an obstruction of justice because he would be misusing that power to protect himself as a target of that investigation.
BLITZER: Because we did hear the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, top Democrat, Mark Warner. They came out and read a joint statement saying they would like Michael Cohen to come back to the Senate and answer questions. I assume you would like to see that, as well.
BLUMENTHAL: Not only Michael Cohen, but also Donald Trump Jr. There are a series of potential witnesses who still have not testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as well as the Intelligence Committee and Congress has to reassert itself as a force for democracy.
BLITZER: What do you think Robert Mueller, the special counsel, will do with all of this information that was collected by the U.S. attorney and the southern district of New York and including the FBI and the IRS agents?
BLUMENTHAL: The Justice Department is one prosecuting entity. And that information is going to be shared. Michael Cohen hopefully, for his sake, as well as the country's, will cooperate. And whatever testimony he is able to offer could be used by the special counsel in a prosecution of other officials, including relatives of the president and the president himself. And I just want to emphasize, as I've said to you before, I believe the president of the United States can be indicted. There is a serious legal issue about it which is very likely the reason that he was not named to additional culpability today. There is a serious legal issue, but I think he can be indicted and the trial can be postponed until after he's finished serving.
BLITZER: As you know, Michael Cohen has made the claim that the president knew in advance of that controversial June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, that his son, son-in-law, campaign chairman, had with Russians who were offering, quote, "dirt on Hillary Clinton." The Senate Intelligence Committee is looking into all of that. Is that something you think Robert Mueller should also pursue?
BLUMENTHAL: He should be pursuing it very directly and immediately, the possibility that the president's son and son-in-law and campaign chairman went to that meeting after Donald Trump Jr. said, I love it. He was offered dirt on Hillary Clinton. That will be one of the epitaphs of this administration, along with Rudy Giuliani saying truth is not true.
BLITZER: What was your reaction to the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, being found guilty on eight felony counts in Alexandria, Virginia, today?
BLUMENTHAL: In a way, not surprising because the evidence was so overwhelming. The government still has the option to retry him on those 10 counts, where the jury hung. But he faces a second trial in the District of Columbia on eight additional counts of very serious felonies. So he already potentially faces the rest of his life in prison, and I think that he has a real incentive now to cooperate, to put it mildly.
BLITZER: Well, the president, you just heard him say on his arrival in Charleston, West Virginia, Paul Manafort is a good man, very sad thing happened to him. This had nothing to do with Russian collusion. It's a witch hunt. It's a disgrace. I feel badly -- very badly for Paul Manafort, and he said remember he used to work for Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan. The way he was speaking about Paul Manafort suggests to me he is seriously thinking of a pardon.
BLUMENTHAL: And that's why the Congress has to act right now. In a very bipartisan --
BLITZER: What can Congress do? The president has the authority to pardon anyone he wants?
BLUMENTHAL: The Congress can direct that it is the will of Congress that there be no pardon.
BLITZER: But you don't think the Republican majority in the House or the Senate is going to do that, do you?
BLUMENTHAL: I believe that at some point my Republican colleagues have to join in a bipartisan effort to save our democracy, which will be increasingly threatened if the president puts himself above the law.
[18:35:04] No one is above the law. We're in a Watergate moment.
BLITZER: Finally, very quickly. I want you to react. Michael Avenatti, you just heard him, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, he was very critical of what you had said about him, Stormy Daniels, their procedures over these many months. I'll give you a chance to react.
BLUMENTHAL: All I did, Wolf, was decline to endorse him for president of the United States. I think his legal strategy is his own decision, and whatever works for his client, he should pursue.
BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thank you so much for joining us.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
BLITZER: Appreciate it. Just ahead, there's more breaking news. Donald Trump's one-time lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleads guilty to eight counts and implicates the president and campaign finance violations, including hush money payoffs. Cohen faces potentially five years in prison, a huge fine. What's the impact on President Trump? How much more did Cohen reveal to prosecutors before making his plea deal? We'll be right back.
[18:40:36] BLITZER: Breaking tonight, the hammer drops in two legal dramas with huge implications for President Trump. His former fixer, Michael Cohen, pleading guilty to eight counts, including campaign finance violations directly related to his work for Mr. Trump. Cohen telling a federal judge that he violated campaign laws for the, quote, "purpose of influencing the presidential election and that he broke the law at the direction of Mr. Trump." This as the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is found guilty of eight felonies.
Let's go back to the White House. Our correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, is standing by. Kaitlan, the president hasn't tweeted, but he did speak briefly to reporters and I want you to update our viewers.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Wolf, he did speak to reporters, but it's interesting what the president said when he came over to speak to those reporters. He didn't say anything to any reporters as they flew in that hour flight from Washington, D.C., to West Virginia, where he's holding that rally tonight. But then when he got off the plane in front of the cameras, he went up, spoke with reporters and had this to say.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I feel badly for -- I must tell you that Paul Manafort is a good man. He was with Ronald Reagan. He was with a lot of different people over the years. And I feel very sad about that. It doesn't involve me, but I still feel -- you know, it's a very sad thing that happened. This has nothing to do with Russian collusion. This started as Russian collusion. This has absolutely nothing to do -- this is a witch hunt and it's a disgrace. This has nothing to do what they started out, looking for Russians involved in our campaign. There were none. I feel very badly for Paul Manafort.
Again, he worked for Bob Dole. He worked for Ronald Reagan. He worked for many people. And this is the way it ends up. It was not the original mission, believe me. It was something very much different. So I have nothing to do with Russian collusion. We continue the witch hunt. Thank you very much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COLLINS: So, Wolf, those were questions not just about Paul Manafort, but also about Michael Cohen. But instead the president came over. He denounced the special counsel's investigation. He said he feels badly for Paul Manafort, but he had nothing to say about his long-time attorney Michael Cohen, someone who knew the president much more -- for a longer time and much better than Paul Manafort did. And we know, Wolf, that is something that has irritated the president for months. Way more than the special counsel's investigation ever did. It was the Michael Cohen investigation that really bothered the president. Back in April, you'll remember when the president was in a meeting on Syria, and he's flanked by military officials when reporters came in the room, the president went off about the Michael Cohen raid, the fact that the FBI had raided his house, his hotel, calling it a disgrace and an attack on the country.
Now we know that in recent weeks the president has been complaining about Michael Cohen, because in his opinion, he feels stunned by all of this, because he feels that he has done just so much for Michael Cohen. And now when he learned that Michael Cohen had recorded conversations they had about paying women that is something that infuriated the president. And now that Michael Cohen walked into a courtroom today, implicated the president in a crime, he is surely going to have something to say, but so far he's being silent. But, Wolf, he's just a matter of minutes away from having an entire audience and a stage to himself in West Virginia to a very, very friendly audience.
BLITZER: We'll see what he has to say, if anything else about all of this. Kaitlan, good reporting, as usual.
David Chalian and our analysts are here but let me - I've been anxious to get your reaction to this day. Very, very quickly, give us your thoughts.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Clearly, it's the worst day of the Trump presidency, so far. I think there's little doubt about that. It's coming at him from every direction. And you heard just there when you were listening to the president's remarks under the wing of Air Force One, where he said this doesn't involve me, talking about the Paul Manafort case.
But the Michael Cohen case so directly involves the president. He is listed everywhere in this document. There is no saying -- not even Donald Trump, who stretches the truth constantly and dissembles and lies. He could not even come up and say this doesn't involve him. He understands that it does.
So this is a terrible day for the president. But, Wolf, I will just say, listen to the silence right now from Republicans on Capitol Hill. We have not heard from Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy or Steve Scalise, the leaders of the Republican Party up on Capitol Hill. How this is going to play politically I think is still uncertain. I would not expect, obviously -- we're not seeing a rush to the microphones to denounce the president or tell him to get in line in some way. We may see more of the same, despite the drama of today. We may see more of the same of what we have seen from his fellow partisans up on Capitol Hill.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Anne Milgram, I'm anxious to get your thoughts and I'll read a couple sentences from this document that the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York released. And let me read it to you.
Michael Cohen, the defendant, caused and made the payments described herein in order to influence the 2016 presidential election. In so doing, he coordinated with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls about the fact, nature and timing of the payments.
And in court, he said he did all of this in coordination, and at the direction of a candidate for federal office, designed to influence the election. That candidate for federal office being Donald Trump.
ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, it's extraordinary. I mean, usually the word there would be conspired with. You know, we would have expected if he wasn't the president of the United States to have seen Donald Trump named as a co-conspirator here.
There is no question that he is deeply implicated in this, and that essentially he is the mastermind of the cover-up and that Cohen was the one who implemented it and who did it. And that's what he acknowledged in open court today before a judge and before, obviously, the American public.
BLITZER: And Rudy Giuliani, Jeffrey Toobin, in his statement -- I'll read it once again for our viewers. There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen. It is clear that as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen's actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.
I want you to tell us what you make of that.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYS: Well, the key word there is charges, as you point out, because, yes, it is true that the president is not charged in the crime. But in the statement by the defendant, Michael Cohen, of the crime, he makes clear that the instigator of this crime, and the leader of the cover-up of this crime was the president who was the beneficiary of this crime.
So, you know, I think it's -- you know, that is parsing the legal document very carefully, to say charges, as Rudy Giuliani did. But I don't think anyone is going to be misled that this crime was one done at the service of and, according to Michael Cohen, at the behest of Donald Trump.
Now, what's going to be interesting is what Rudy Giuliani and the president's other defenders say about Michael Cohen at this point. Presumably, they're going to say, he's just lying about the whole thing. That he did not do this at the direction of Donald Trump. And that will certainly call -- will lead to whether there is any corroborating evidence of Michael Cohen. Are there e-mails? Are there tapes?
And, you know, I suspect one way or another, through the Mueller investigation, through congressional investigations, or simply with interviews to the media, we have not heard the last of Michael Cohen defending what he said in court today.
BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure you're right.
Sabrina Siddiqui, the president I'm sure has been stewing all day. I'm sure he's really angry. But he's about to go on a stage in Charleston, West Virginia, big political rally.
What do you anticipate? What do you expect we might be hearing from the president?
SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: Well, it was notable that when the president landed in Charleston, he would not comment on Michael Cohen, and I think what we can glean from his attorney, Rudy Giuliani's statement, is that there will be an effort if he does speak publicly on Cohen to try and discredit his account to undermine Michael Cohen's credibility. And that's why it's so important to put back into context the role that Michael Cohen has played in Donald Trump's career.
For years, he acted not just as his personal attorney, but as his self-described fix-it guy. And he was so intimately involved in handling both the president's personal and professional dealings. And he stood in court today and directly implicated the president in a crime. This is precisely why the president and his legal team were far more concerned in recent months over the case involving Michael Cohen.
And we're not entirely sure, of course, whether he's going to address in tonight's rally. He seems to be redirecting this to Russia. But as Jeffrey pointed out, I don't think this is the last we're hearing of Michael Cohen and the president and his legal team are well aware of it.
BLITZER: David Swerdlick, the pressure is clearly mounting on President Trump right now.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, Wolf, I agree with David and Sabrina, that the pressure is mounting at least today more so on the plea of Cohen rather than Manafort, because the president seems to be so directly implicated in this. You had one of his long- time henchmen going into open court and say that he directed hush money over an alleged mistress and then tried to cover it up.
[18:50:09] And the president when he was in that clip you just played didn't even address it because it's very hard to address it. I think the things to watch for are, one, what he says tonight at this rally and where the polls go in the next couple of days. Right now, in the Real Clear Politics average, he's 43.4 percent, basically right where he was the day he took office. We'll see if it moves in the rest of the week.
BLITZER: You know, the whole notion David Chalian, right now of the Michael Cohen eight counts guilty pleas, felony potentially going to jail for five years, paying a half a million dollar fine, coming on the same day at Manafort was found guilty of eight counts, potentially -- 69 years old. He could spend the rest of his life potentially in jail as well unless the president goes ahead and issues a pardon.
It's pretty extraordinary when you think about it.
CHALIAN: It's unthinkable.
Wolf, you're a really astute observer of Donald Trump. You have been for years. We know how he consumes media and headlines and coverage.
Imagine being him today, watching these headlines ripping across the screen of these people who, yes, he had a much closer relationship to Michael Chen than Paul Manafort, but this was the chairman of his campaign through its most tricky period in getting through the convention and becoming the nominee and moving on to the general election. And this longtime consigliere and fixer and he had seen these people who have been just attached to him in these last few years in very big ways, see them go up in flames legally and understand that the political walls start moving in for him when that happens.
BLITZER: You know this president of the United States as well. You've seen him when he gets attacked. He fights back.
So, what is he going to do now? He's got options presumably. He's the president of the United States.
CHALIAN: Well, you see in his comments today, he's not giving up this line of a witch hunt and going after Mueller and saying that there's no Russian collusion. I imagine he's going to keep up that verbal combat against the special counsel, probably more so than we've seen before.
BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, yesterday, he told White House correspondents for "Reuters" that if he wanted to, he could take over for Robert Mueller and run the investigation himself.
TOOBIN: Yes, I mean, that's part of the Donald Trump parallel universe where he thinks he can do that as a practical matter. I mean, he is still the head of the Justice Department and he is the ultimate supervisor.
But the idea that he could run the investigation is simply not something that could happen in the real world. What he can do is direct the firing of Robert Mueller which has always been a possibility and I suppose remains a possibility. You know, he would have to direct some Justice Department official to do it and that Justice Department official would have to agree to do it, presumably Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who is the current supervisor of Mueller would not agree to do it. So he'd have to fire -- he'd have to fire Rosenstein and then there would be a "Saturday Night Massacre" like a series of dismissals until somebody agreed to fire him. I don't think that's likely to happen either.
I think it's likely to be this continued rhetorical attack on Mueller. But Mueller now has something very different than he did earlier today, which is a conviction, a jury conviction of someone extremely close to Donald Trump, his campaign chairman. That's something that is very hard to argue against. It's very hard to argue that that's a witch hunt. But that doesn't mean the president won't do it.
BLITZER: Go ahead.
CHALIAN: Wolf, what Jeffrey said about the firing of Mueller or directing someone to do that. You heard Richard Blumenthal say that to you. Chuck Schumer has been talking about this. Elizabeth Warren was out talking about this today, Mark Warner.
The Democrats are circling around this notion of readdressing this about how important they see it to protect Mueller. You heard in Lindsey Graham's statement, a nod to this as well. So, this is I think where the political conversation on Capitol Hill is going to move from the Democrats to put pressure on the Republicans to speak up about the need to protect Mueller.
BLITZER: You agree, Sabrina?
SIDDIQUI: Yes, you know, the president and his legal team were hoping the verdict in the Manafort case would go their way so that they could make the case that Mueller should shut down his investigation and amplify the political pressure on Robert Mueller. They did not get that, obviously, with Manafort being found guilty on eight counts.
I think it's important to note as they're trying to frame this as no evidence of collusion, part of why Mueller retained the case with respect to Manafort was in order to gain leverage on charges that were unrelated to the election. That's part of how he was able to compel Rick Gates, Manafort's deputy, to cooperate and one of the open questions raised from this trial is why did Manafort offer his services to the Trump campaign for free at a time when his firm was reporting losses in tens of thousands of dollars for a month.
Was there a quid pro quo there? We don't yet know. So, the investigation with respect to potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow is not yet over, despite what the president and his allies are saying today.
BLITZER: How does this change the ramifications potentially, David Chalian, for the midterm -- for the midterm elections, David Swerdlick?
SWERDLICK: So, I think, again, what matters for Democrats is, yes, they are putting pressure now on Republicans to do something to protect Mueller. But also they are looking down the road and saying, this really changes significantly if they win one of the houses of Congress and get control of the committees and, therefore, get subpoena power. If Chairman Nunes becomes Chairman Schiff, that's when you see the
Democrats having additional leverage that they don't have now. Right now they're relying on people, like Senator Graham, to do the right thing in their view, whereas if they have committee control, they can do whatever they want.
BLITZER: You know, Anne Milgram, you are an expert of this area, you're a former attorney general in New Jersey. When the FBI and the U.S. attorney, the prosecutors raided Michael Cohen's home, his office, his hotel room, his safe deposit box months ago, it was a pretty extraordinary move. The attorney for the president of the United States, the longtime fixer, you don't easily make a decision like that to raid the personal property of a lawyer, first of all, who is involved in this.
My assumption always was that they knew then basically what has come out today. But I want your thoughts.
MILGRAM: Well, it's very likely. In order to get a warrant like that which essentially lets them take everything and access computers and cell phones and all those types of records, they have to prove to a judge that there's probable cause that a crime was committed by Michael Cohen. So they are already getting to this sort of higher legal standard than we often think about when the police just stop and talk to someone, for example.
So, they had a fair amount of evidence going in to get that kind of search warrant on Cohen. What we now know from a lot of reporting is that they got a considerable amount of evidence, including tapes Cohen had made of conversations with Trump and with others. And so they were already pretty far down the road when they got into those rooms and got that evidence. It's clear that what they found as part of those search warrants let them really make a case against Cohen and then ultimately convince him to plead guilty, meaning he didn't want to test their evidence in court. He just decided to acknowledge in court at this very, very early point in time that he was guilty.
BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, what should President Trump be most concerned about right now?
TOOBIN: Whether there is evidence that we have not yet seen to corroborate Michael Cohen's statement that Donald Trump committed a crime. I think that is the heart of the problem for -- that was exposed today is that we had the president's personal lawyer, someone very close to him, say in open court today the president of the United States committed a crime.
Presumably, the president -- Rudy Giuliani and other defenders of the president are going to say that's a lie. The question now becomes, what is there to support what Michael Cohen said or to contradict it? That corroborating evidence or the lack of it, will be something that Donald Trump will probably spend some time worrying about.
BLTIZER: David Chalian, take a look at this. We'll put it up on the screen. These are five people close to Donald Trump now either convicted or plead guilty to various charges. Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos and now Michael Cohen who for the last decade or dozen years was the president's personal attorney and fixer.
What does that say to you?
CHALIAN: To say nothing of the two members of Congress who were first to support his presidential campaign, Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter who are both under indictment right now for matters unrelated to Donald Trump. So, it's not a good gang to be hanging around with.
But it says that there's been a lot of cooperation from people who have a lot of information about Donald Trump's 2016 campaign who are now cooperating with authorities. And that should probably give Donald Trump some pause.
BLITZER: David Swerdlick?
SWERDLICK: Yes, I agree with David. I mean, this is -- this is not only legal jeopardy for him, but political jeopardy in the basic sense that when President Trump came in, part of his appeal was that he was going to have a dream team, the best people. It turns he's got a bunch of people who are now either have plead guilty or been convicted of serious federal crimes.
BLITZER: This is turning out to be a real nightmare for the president.
SIDDIQUI: Absolutely. It's important to keep into context that Mueller has brought indictments against 32 individuals, three companies and we've seen five guilty pleas. And that's before the events of today which are, of course, I think are up until today, the biggest turning point in this entire investigation so far.
BLITZER: What an historic day. Truly significant day, the bombshells, they fell on this day.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much for watching.
CNN's coverage of the breaking news continues with Poppy Harlow hosting "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" right now.