Return to Transcripts main page


Michael Cohen Pleads Guilty, Implicates President Trump; Paul Manafort Found Guilty on Some Accounts; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 22, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: -- cemetery in Detroit.

All right. Top of the hour. Let's get started. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

Two of the president's right hand men this morning are felons. But this morning one very clear message from the president, tweeting moments ago, quote, "I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. Justice took a 12-year-old tax case and, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him. And unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to break and make up stories in order to get a deal. Such respect for a brave man."

A brave man? Keep in mind, the president's former campaign chairman was just convicted on eight counts -- eight felony counts -- in his federal fraud trial. Now compare that to what the president said about his former attorney, Michael Cohen, minutes earlier. The president wrote this morning, quote, "If anyone's looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest you do not retain the counsel of Michael Cohen."

And then the president wrongly claimed this, quote, "Michael Cohen pled guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime." They are a crime. This one day after Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, including campaign violations, saying then- candidate Trump just before the election directed him to pay off a porn star and a former Playboy Playmate to influence the election.

The White House strategy this morning -- paint Cohen as a liar. And that is where we start.

Kara Scannell joins me now with the latest.

You were one of the few people in the courtroom yesterday when Michael Cohen pleaded guilty. You heard him in his own words. And now you see this strategy from the president and from the White House. Walk us through what's happening now.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean Michael Cohen was very clear in court yesterday. He said very forcefully and directly that he paid these women at the direction and in cooperation with the president. So Cohen has now put the president as one of his -- he's not -- you know, he's alleged to have -- he's not alleged by prosecutors to have done anything but he has basically said he was his co-conspirator in this campaign finance violation. And now the president is saying it is not a crime. And it is. You

know, but it is.

HARLOW: But it is.

SCANNELL: I mean, Michael Cohen just pled guilty to it. And if he had not, this would have been an issue of would prosecutors have taken that to trial and gone to court with it. But that's now off the table. Michael Cohen admitted that he did it and he's saying that he did it to influence the election, which is a key element of this crime.

HARLOW: Is there any reason why Michael Cohen would have stood up there in court yesterday afternoon, as you witnessed, and said, I did this at the direction of the president? Is there anything he got out of saying that and pinning part of this on the president?

SCANNELL: Actually no. I mean he did not have a cooperation deal with the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, which is one of those deals where you get credit for flipping on someone and you give them, you know, the bigger fish in the investigation.

HARLOW: Right.

SCANNELL: That is not the type of deal that Cohen had. I mean, and they didn't even have a proffer session with Cohen which is where -- it's also known (INAUDIBLE) where you come in, you admit what you've done wrong but it can't be used against you. The prosecutor's posture in this case is that they had enough of their own evidence, that they didn't even want to hear from Michael Cohen.

HARLOW: They don't need Michael Cohen perhaps is what this indicates.

SCANNELL: Exactly.

HARLOW: And that is bad for the White House?

SCANNELL: Well, I think, you know, now Michael Cohen's lawyers are suggesting that he has information that maybe Robert Mueller would want to use. So, you know, we'll have to see what that is because at this point it's not clear what that is.

HARLOW: OK. Kara, important reporting. Thank you. Nice to have you.

Now to Paul Manafort, the president's praising this morning his former campaign chairman on Twitter moments ago. The president highlighted that Manafort refused to, quote, "break."

Let's go to Jessica Schneider in Washington. She has been all over this trial.

Look, eight counts, eight guilt counts, facing up to 80 years in prison. Another trial ahead of him in just a few weeks, and the president this morning lavishing him with praise. JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. These two

tweets from the president trying to really downplay the significance of the fact that Paul Manafort was found guilty on those eight charges. You know, the president saying the charges involved taxes from 12 years ago, also calling this a witch hunt because the jury couldn't agree on 10 counts. But here is the reality.

Just because the jury couldn't come to unanimous consent on those 10 counts, look, they still found him guilty on eight. But it doesn't mean that those other 10 counts will be erased. The prosecution has until next Wednesday to decide if they'll bring a retrial on those 10 counts. And of course the eight counts that the jury did find Manafort guilty on, those carry up to 80 years in prison. With the sentencing guidelines, he'll likely be sentenced to about a decade or more. But really the charges, the prison time, it is all still significant.

What Paul Manafort was found guilty of, five counts of tax fraud, one count of hiding a foreign bank account, and two counts of bank fraud. And of course, Poppy, on top of all this, Paul Manafort, who's facing several other charges of money laundering, failure to file as a foreign lobbyist, and those charges are pending right here in Washington, D.C.

[10:05:04] The trial is scheduled to start in just about one month. So a lot still to come here for Paul Manafort. We'll see if his attorneys might file an appeal in the Virginia case. But now they've got the Washington, D.C. case that they have to rev up for, as well. So a lot happening.

HARLOW: Right.

SCHNEIDER: And the president trying to downplay it here -- Poppy.

HARLOW: That they've said they have three times the amount of documents in that case.


HARLOW: Than in this one. And we know how complex this one was.

SCHNEIDER: Could last a lot longer, too. Exactly.

HARLOW: Don't go on vacation, Jessica.



HARLOW: You're going to be busy. Thank you.

The president tweeting this morning -- we're also learning more about the strategy that the White House as a whole has to play in this.

Sarah Westwood joins me at the White House.

We've learned that this has trickled out, staffers at the White House stunned after yesterday's news. And now they have strategy.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN White House CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, President Trump's team is still scrambling to respond to the legal meltdown that happened yesterday. And President Trump is clearly stewing on what happened to his former campaign manager and his former fixer, on the one hand, expressing what seems like sympathy toward Paul Manafort whom he hasn't ruled out pardoning, and on the other hand, expressing what is clearly anger towards Michael Cohen, his former fixer.

Now Cohen obviously pleaded guilty to campaign finance violation that implicated the president. Trump is arguing, though, that the crimes Cohen admitted to committing somehow aren't crimes. Sources told CNN that Trump up until yesterday afternoon was feeling good about the chances of a mistrial or an acquittal happening in the Manafort case which would have allowed him to go after the Special Counsel Robert Mueller more aggressively.

But the strategy that Trump's aides are now devising is to discredit Michael Cohen, arguing that people can't trust the word of someone who is an admitted criminal. They also plan on making this a feature in the midterm strategy. Obviously with the control of the House hanging in the balance, impeachment implications are now in the air and so this is going to drive President Trump on the campaign trail to keep Republicans in power because now obviously there are implications for President Trump's future with this news -- Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. Thank you, Sarah. Important reporting from the White House this morning.

Let's talk about all of this, with me, CNN legal analysts Jennifer Rodgers and Joey Jackson.

Good to have you both. Quick yes or no on one thing for you, Joey, this morning. The president just said campaign finance violations are not a crime. Are they?



JACKSON: Could I just -- I know it is a yes or no but I just want to be clear on the planet we're living on.

HARLOW: Thank you.

JACKSON: Rudy Giuliani goes on television and says the truth is not the truth. Right?

HARLOW: Right.

JACKSON: That happened I believe Sunday. Now today we have the president of the United States after a plea in the Southern District of New York saying a crime is not a crime. What is going to be next? The sky's not blue? Red is not red? An apple is a banana? It's just a bizarro world. And if that's a defense and that's what they're going to put forward we are in for a crazy ride ahead. HARLOW: We may already be in one.

Jennifer, to you. I just had last hour on a former law school classmate, good friend of Rudy Giuliani. He's a former assistant prosecutor in Watergate. He was just with me on, Jon Sale. And he said that the fact that there is not an official cooperation agreement, at least that we know of, maybe it's under seal, between Michael Cohen and Mueller's team in the Southern District on this suggest that maybe the Southern District and Mueller's team don't even need Michael Cohen's testimony and that could be a problem for the White House. How do you see it?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it is very interesting that Michael Cohen doesn't have a cooperation agreement here. It means that they haven't been able to reach that agreement, either because Michael Cohen in the end decided that he didn't want to be a cooperator, or because the prosecutors decided they didn't want to use him because maybe credibility issues or they didn't need him. So that could be it.

It's very unusual for someone to plead guilty with a regular plea agreement, and then become a cooperator later.


RODGERS: So I really don't expect at this point that he will. I think he's pled guilty and he's going to take his time and move on with things. You know, they still could subpoena him for his testimony if they want, but it sounds like he won't be joining team USA.

HARLOW: How, Joey, likely is it do you think -- if you ascribe to the belief that a sitting president, if not a written law but precedent, that a sitting president can't be indicted. How likely is it that the Southern District of New York will not challenge that assumption and try to indict him?

JACKSON: No, I think it's likely. Just backing up just a minute. I think that he is a cooperator. I just want to be clear about that point because I think it's critical here. Implicit in his allocution, that is when you allocute --

HARLOW: Yes. In court.

JACKSON: Absolute. When you allocute to a crime, what you're doing in court is you're giving an indication of what you did wrong. The element of finance -- campaign finance doesn't involve an element of someone directing or coordinating. That would be a conspiracy which he did not plea to.

[10:10:04] So I think implicit in his actual plea agreement, right, is the cooperation because that's how he pled. Now having said that, in terms of what the Southern District would do, I think that we already know from Mueller regarding the Department of Juice guidance that you're not going to indict a political -- you know, because of the political process, a sitting president, they'll leave it to Congress. So the question, Poppy, becomes will Congress now have the will, given

the development of events -- and yesterday was historic. Make no mistake about it, right? You have Manafort down eight counts. You now have this information that he supplied. Right? Cohen said basically that the president is a criminal, the president committed crimes. Will Congress now have the stomach to go and otherwise investigate in the midterm election will have a lot to do particularly if control changes to the Democrats with what happens and if he is actually impeached.

HARLOW: Just to be clear, Jennifer, if the president did do what Michael Cohen said in his allocution yesterday which is that at the direction of the president I carried out these hush money payments, didn't disclose him, by the way, which would be the crime in it, to pay off a porn star and a Playboy Playmate. Not to say things to influence the election.

If the president directed him to do that, what kind of crime would that be?

RODGERS: Well, it's the same crime. I mean, the same crime that Michael Cohen admitted to would be the crime that the president could be charged with. You know, as you mentioned, you're not allowed to take contributions to your campaign that are unreported. It's not the crime of the century, but it is, as we've been talking about, an actual felony offense and that's exactly what the president would be guilty of, the same thing.


JACKSON: In addition to, right, what Jennifer says, which is spot-on, but in addition to that, conspiracy. When you agree with another person to violate a law, you have conspired. That is a separate offense under federal law which carries significant jail time. So there are multiple crimes we're dealing with. And what I want to know, Poppy, is how long could Congress sit by and do nothing and at the least, there has to be an investigation into this.

Now my big problem here is this going to be Republican talking point, as well, this is Cohen's word. This is Cohen's word. He says that this happened. If there is documentary evidence and proof, information --

HARLOW: Which Lanny Davis says there is.

JACKSON: Because of the president's own lawyer speaking, I think it needs more.


JACKSON: That's subject is --


HARLOW: Right. We haven't seen.

JACKSON: If there's hard-core evidence, it's a problem.

HARLOW: On Manafort, OK, because the president this morning is playing it the way that I -- all of us thought that he would, Jennifer. Cohen, yes, found guilty on eight very serious felony counts, 10 of them mistrial on those. The president this morning writes, "A large number of counts, 10, could not even be decided in the Paul Manafort case. Witch hunt."

I mean who won yesterday? Mueller on the Manafort case? Or the president who sounds like he thinks he did on this.

RODGERS: Well, Mueller won resoundingly yesterday. There's no question. You know, the sentence will be the same regardless of how many counts of conviction there were, as long as they got some of those more serious counts, the bank fraud counts, which they did. So there a he no question this was a huge victory for the Mueller team here and a huge loss for Manafort.

You know, Trump can try to play the numbers any way that he wants and, you know, yes, there were 10 counts that hung. They could retry them. I don't think that they will, in large part, because of what I said, this is 100 percent a victory for the Mueller team. Paul Manafort is going to prison. We have to wait out the pardon question kind of hanging over all of this. But, yes, definitely a win for team Mueller and not team Trump.

HARLOW: Is the language, Joey, you're hearing from the president this morning praising Manafort, calling him a brave man, is that pardon language?

JACKSON: That is absolutely pardon language and it's also the narrative that's being spun which is that this is a witch hunt, it's just terrible, it's ridiculous. Because the end of the day we're going to go into the political process. And if the American people believe that this is all a witch hunt, it's all bad, it's all horrific, then he survives. If they believe that there are serious crimes there, then it becomes problematic.

And very briefly, Poppy, on the issue of who won, this is how it works. The federal government hits you with 25 charges. Right? In this case, 18. If one of those charges you are convicted of, it's a loss for you. It is a serious felony. So the fact that he was convicted eight times over, these 10 other charges -- not to say they're not significant, but they are irrelevant in the grand scheme of declaring this a victory for the White House. This is a victory for Mueller, as Jennifer said, true and true, over and over.

HARLOW: As you said the --

JACKSON: Without question.

HARLOW: You know, just this week, if the truth is not the truth, a crime is not a crime, the sky is still blue.

JACKSON: And you're not in front of me.



HARLOW: Joey, thank you. Jennifer, thank you so much.

JACKSON: Always.

HARLOW: All right. If the president is about to give his ex-campaign chairman a break, what will the political fallout be?

Plus, it is a case that stunned and saddened an entire community and this entire country. Today we could get answers on the death of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts. We're live from Iowa.

[10:15:00] And will he stay or will he go? The fate of Ohio State's football coach, Urban Meyer, is being debated right now. The university looking into what Meyer knew about domestic claims against a former assistant coach, ahead.



SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: Going forward, it seems to me that if the president were to pardon Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort, that would constitute an assault on the rule of law.


HARLOW: Pretty clear statement there. That's from Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Let's discuss with senior political analyst Ron Brownstein and CNN political analyst Julie Pace.

What a news cycle, guys. It's only been about 17 hours and a lot has changed. But a lot hasn't changed because it is the same message from the president, as well.

Ron Brownstein, what do you make of the reaction that we're getting from the president this morning, slamming Michael Cohen and calling Paul Manafort a good man, a brave man?

[10:20:14] RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look. It is consistent with everything we have seen from him both in the Mueller investigation itself and more broadly, in his presidency. It is about mobilizing and consolidating his base and keeping Republicans in line. And, you know, ultimately as you talked about in the last segment, we talked about a lot in the last 24 hours, unless the special counsel or the Southern District of New York want to challenge the judgments of the Justice Department under Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton -- so they had some self-interest in both cases --

HARLOW: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: That a sitting president cannot be indicted, this ultimately goes back to Congress. And I think what this does, Poppy, above all is it sharpens the issue for November. Because I think the odds are very low that Republicans in Congress are going to do anything meaningful between now and then to seriously investigate this. I think it kind of really calls -- you know, it puts --


HARLOW: Well, I mean -- hold on.

BROWNSTEIN: Defense they are making.

HARLOW: But you had --


HARLOW: But you have Burr and Warner on the Senate side yesterday, you know, who head the Intel Committee, they want Michael Cohen to come back and testify.


HARLOW: And answer questions.

BROWNSTEIN: About on that side. On that side. But I think on the question of campaign finance violations, which now -- you know, we now have the situation we have not had since Watergate where the president for all intents and purposes is an unindicted co-conspirator. And I think it just raises the question if the House in particular is unwilling to investigate this issue, is there anything that the president could do that could cause them to perform serious oversight?

HARLOW: And the president is that, if you believe Michael Cohen in his allocution yesterday, there are credibility issues, of course.


HARLOW: But I hear you.

BROWNSTEIN: That's why he was investigated.

HARLOW: Julie, to you. So something really struck me this morning from the "New York Times." Let me read you this quote, "Even the president's staunchest defenders acknowledge privately that the legal setbacks that he suffered within minutes of each other could open fissures among Republicans on Capitol Hill and expose Mr. Trump to the possibility of impeachment." how much do you buy that? Have the last 17 hours really moved the needle for Republicans in the House if they would --


HARLOW: -- ascribe to Articles of impeachment?

PACE: If you look at the initial response from Republicans, I think you have to say it did not move the needle. Now we are still in the early hours after both of these back-to-back legal decisions. But Republicans pretty much seem to be where they were which is that they are looking to the Mueller report and looking to questions of collusion, saying there is no collusion, trying to make the case that if there's no collusion, then there should be no impeachment.

They're trying to distance Trump from Michael Cohen. Privately certainly Republicans express a lot of concern about the political situation that Trump puts them in for the midterms. But at this point they still look at polling and until that polling shows that there is a significant break among Trump voters, I don't think you're going to see much of a shift from Republicans.

HARLOW: Right.

PACE: I don't think you're going to see them pull away from the president right now.

HARLOW: Yes, Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. I was going to say, Poppy, you know, you've talked a lot this morning about Republicans are reluctant to move on the president because they are afraid of the base and afraid of his voters. And there is truth to that but that's not the whole story. Congressional Republicans have bought into the political strategy that the president is pursuing for the midterm, which we saw again last night with his talk about undocumented immigrants, that the best way to avoid losses is to maximize turnout among the Republican base.

And in the process of doing that whether it's on policy or on this kind of circling the wagons around the president, they are taking the risk of sending the message to voters who are even ambivalent about Trump that they will not provide any constraint or oversight and that I think is why the past 24 hours matters because it really puts that into relief. That the Republican Congress is basically putting all of their chips on the idea of maximizing Republican turnout by maximizing unity and taking the risk that voters who find this uneasy or a threat to the rule of law or just they want more of a check on a volatile president either won't turn out or will be willing to kind of bite their lip and accept this kind of deference to the president.

HARLOW: Well, you know, Julie, to exactly Ron's point, Alan Dershowitz, right, constitutional law professor at Harvard, he's written a book, "The Case Against Impeaching the President." Here's how he put it. Here's what he posited last night on FOX News.


ALAN DERSHOWITZ, HARVARD LAW PROFESSOR: Some stations are already playing the funeral music for President Trump. But this is much more complicated, much more nuanced.


HARLOW: To that what do you say, Julie?

PACE: Well, it's perhaps more nuanced politically. Look, Ron is right, this really is going to come down to a question for Congress. And I think what Democrats are debating right now is what their strategy is going forward. You have people in the party who want to take a really aggressive approach on this question of impeachment and essentially run on that. What you are seeing Democratic leaders do is try to thread the needle a little bit, be a little more indirect and talk about trying to tamp down a culture of corruption that Trump has fostered in Washington, try to make this a question of checks and balances.

[10:25:14] That's an argument aimed at independent voters, it is an argument aimed at moderate Republicans but there the left flank of the party that really aggressively wants to run on impeachment.

HARLOW: Right.

PACE: And I do think if Democrats take back the House they're going to face this debate over whether they have to follow through on that promise if that's one of the reasons that they do take back control.

HARLOW: What would be the straw for Republicans, Ron? Would it be a pardon of Manafort?

BROWNSTEIN: I don't think there is a straw in things that Trump can do. I think the straw would be the loss of the House.


BROWNSTEIN: I think the -- the predicate to any kind of serious Republicans reconsideration in their relationship with Trump is evidence that his approach is hurting the party electorally because as long as it seems to be delivering the things they want in judicial appointment, in taxes, in regulatory like repealing the clean power plant, you know, this week while the west is burning with wildfires, as long as that's happening, I think the critical mass of Republicans will not challenge him and that is the indispensable I think predicate for all of the Republicans who are quietly uneasy about the direction he's leading the party, both in terms of morality and in some cases in terms of policy.

HARLOW: Right. And remember, we're just a few weeks away from, you know, the Kavanaugh hearings, as well. Another huge, huge thing. So thank you, both, Ron, Julie, nice to have you.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

HARLOW: Republicans dodging talk. At least right now. About these two bombshells that dropped in the last 17 hours. Democrats are digging in. Is it the right move for them, though?


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: We're in a constitutional maelstrom. It's a Watergate moment. Now is the time --