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Report: Trump Says He Knew About Cohen's Hush Money Payments Later On; Trump Rips Cohen After the Ex-Lawyer Implicates the President; White House Says Nothing Done Wrong Despite Cohen Allegations. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 22, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Thank you, hello to you. I am Ana Cabrera this afternoon in for Brooke Baldwin. We begin this hour with breaking news.

Just moments ago, President Trump responding to his former lawyer, implicating him directly of campaign finance violations, Michael Cohen just pleaded guilty to 8 criminal counts, including campaign finance violations. In his plea hearing, Cohen never said Trump's name as the court transcript shows. Instead Cohen told the judge he worked, quote, "in coordination with and at the direction of the candidate."

When he arranged a couple of six figure payments to keep two women quiet about their alleged affairs with Trump before he became president, here was the president responding moments ago.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you know about the payments?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Later on, I knew. Later on. But you have to understand, what he did and they weren't taken out of campaign finance, that's a big thing, that's a much bigger thing, did they come out of the campaign. They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me. And I tweeted about it, I don't know if you know, but I tweeted about the payments. But they didn't come out of campaign. In fact, my first question when I heard about it was did they come out of the campaign because that could be a little dicey. And they didn't come out of the campaign, and that's big. But that's not even a campaign violation. If you look at President Obama, he had a massive campaign violation. But he had a different attorney general and they viewed it a lot different.


CABRERA: Let's get reaction to the president's response with our legal experts. With me now, Kim Wehle, associate independent counsel for the Whitewater investigation of the Clintons, and CNN contributor Norm Eisen, former White House ethics saw and a former ambassador, he belongs to a government watchdog organization that filed multiple lawsuits against the Trump administration, and also with us CNN legal and political commentator, Ken Cuccinelli, also a former Virginia attorney general. Ken, I'll start with you. The president in his own words admits to making the payment. Your reaction?


CABRERA: Kim, go ahead. Ken, we'll go to you next.


CABRERA: Go ahead, Kim.

CUCCINELLI: Who do you want to start? I think this is going to come down to whether or not this is deemed campaign efforts. The president long before his campaign had been in negotiation periodically with a couple of these women without keeping their stories private so it does predate the campaign, that's helpful to him. I think that's the way the president will approach it, along with what you heard him say is no campaign dollars were used for this. I think that's the sum of it. And it will be where does that fall, inside or outside the campaign finance line.

CABRERA: Here we just had Michael Cohen plead guilty to a federal crime that the president said was never a crime to begin with. Kim, your reaction?

WEHLE: Ana, you put your finger on it. We've got a statute passed by United States congress, article 3 judge that accepted the plea, Southern District of New York U.S. attorney's office, not even in the Mueller probe itself, all agreeing this is a federal crime. The notion the president can do an interview and somehow wipe out the federal election laws in this regard is really irrelevant here. The laws, there are some technicalities with every law. Here the question is were there contributions made that influenced and helped the campaign to pay off women to not tell their story in a way that could influence the electorate? The United States Congress made the determination if facts give rise to that kind of course of action, that's a violation and we have a judge that accepted the plea here.

CABRERA: Ambassador, this is the president changing his story again about this payment and about what he knew of this payment, but legally what changes now that Trump claims payments to women shouldn't be a campaign finance issue because they didn't come from the campaign, came from me.

NORM EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS CZAR AND A FORMER AMBASSADOR: On the campaign finance violation, it is whether you believe Cohen or the president. This is a president who has lied over 4,000 times, according to "The Washington Post" who has motive to do it. We'll see if there's corroborating evidence of that campaign finance crime, Kim is right, as Cohen put it.

[14:05:00] But the striking thing about the video we just watched, Ana, is that the president in his usual clumsy way stumbled into another federal crime because he signed his federal financial disclosures under false statements penalty. Guess what. If you owe somebody money, he just said I knew about the payments, he repaid Michael Cohen, he had to list that on the forms. He omitted it. There's already been a criminal referral by my watchdog group, it resulted in a complaint from the office of government ethics to the department of justice and President Trump just stumbled right into that second federal offense. So, we're seeing, it may not be the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning, and of course the big issue is yet to come, Mueller's obstruction of justice report. Far more powerful evidence there.

CABRERA: Ken, do you agree with Ambassador Eisen that the president may have opened himself up to a different crime?

CUCCINELLI: It depends what he filed and depends on when he knew compared to when he filed so I don't necessarily agree with norm, though I appreciate his comments about the filings themselves. That will be a consideration. I think we're seeing on the collusion front as norm referenced that there's nothing there in terms of collusion. This stuff may come back and bite the president, but I think Michael Cohen is a pretty weak read for those that want to get after the president to stand on. He established a terrible reputation for himself in the time America has come to know him, and I don't know that that's going to hold up. If the president was facing off with any person in his circle that would turn on him, Michael Cohen is the least credible among them and that's what we're going to have to face here. Someone as well reputable as Alan Dershowitz talked about how one witness is used against another, he wrote about it this week, one person's plea deal, Michael Cohen has incentive to make it sound good because the better it sounds, the better his deal. And that's at the disadvantage of the president and possibly the truth.

CABRERA: But if the truth is that Michael Cohen wasn't involved in all this and that the president paid for it directly, it just doesn't make common sense that he would have pleaded guilty to a crime he didn't even commit. As you talk about credibility though, you do bring up a good point. Michael Cohen has said a lot of different things about this payment. But I also want you to take what we just heard from the president admitting he knew of the payments, and what he said months ago. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

TRUMP: No. No. What else?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why did Michael Cohen make this if there was no truth to the allegations?

TRUMP: He is my attorney and you have to ask Michael Cohen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?

TRUMP: I don't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CABRERA: Ken, back to you, does that lie after lie after lie not concern you?

CUCCINELLI: Oh, there's no question that the evolution of the story on this is harmful to the president. My point about Michael Cohen is that Michael Cohen does not sit across this line from the president and look like a credible witness. He gave an interview this summer where he said my top priority is saving my tail and protecting my family and how you structure a plea deal can be part of doing exactly that just as Alan Dershowitz wrote about earlier this week.

CABRERA: Kim, if a sitting president can't be indicted, what are the options? Charges after office?

WEHLE: I think there's ambiguity whether a sitting president can't be indicted. It is not clear one way or the other in the constitution, there are competing experts on this. I view the constitution is all about accountability, there's no one branch above the law, including the president of the United States. One possibility theoretically would be indictment under seal that would hold the statute of limitations on any crimes so he could be prosecuted afterwards. But I do think the cleanest clearest resolution here is a political answer to this.

[14:10:00] On one hand, the president gets a pass because of the question on indictment in terms of criminal liability. On the other hand, he should be held to a higher standard, for purposes of impeachment, you don't need a crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury to justify impeachment. There's a political judgment. I think that the American people held to a higher standard, for purposes of impeachment, you don't need a crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury to justify impeachment. There's a political judgment. I think that the American people need to start keeping an eye now, putting some real pressure on congress to start looking into this because at a minimum we're at that red line where these are really, really serious charges here and things that have come out of the president's own mouth that implicate him, not only in crimes but in lies to the American public. That undermines the rule of law and integrity of our democracy, a more important issue than politics now.

CABRERA: There's also the question about what Trump might do next, whether pardons could come into play at any point. Cohen's attorney Lanny Davis this morning said he doesn't believe Cohen would accept a pardon, but Paul Manafort who was just convicted on 8 charges yesterday around the same time Cohen was pleading guilty, his situation could be a different story. Trump tweeting about Manafort this morning, praising him for not breaking. If Trump pardons Manafort, Ambassador Eisen, is that obstruction of justice?

EISEN: Here at Brookings, we published the second edition of the obstruction of justice report. We explain in there as we go through the incredible amount of substantial evidence of obstruction that yes, if the president issues a pardon with corrupt intent, if it is part of a pattern we saw, starting with demanding Comey's loyalty, firing Comey, urging Sessions to do his legal obligations, not to recuse, dictating false statement at Trump Tower, all these tweets attacking Mueller and the investigation, and now issuing pardons to block justice, to obstruct justice, if you use a power, American law, many cases have held and we go through them. If you use legal power as an American official with corrupt intent to try to impede an investigation for wrongful reason, like by issuing a corrupt pardon, yes. That is part of obstruction of justice. And that is as we study what happened yesterday, the one, two punch, two bomb shells of Cohen and Manafort, the question is what comes next. We know Mueller is focusing on obstruction of justice. I think these hints of pardons hold more peril for the president.

CABRERA: Everyone stand by. Thank you. Much more to discuss as we await a White House briefing, scheduled to get under way within the next few minutes really.

And just in, reaction from members of Congress. What Republican leadership are saying and not saying about Michael Cohen's plea, including his offer to testify before lawmakers without immunity. I'll talk with a member of the judiciary committee.

And moments from now, what we believe will be Sarah Sanders' 100th White House briefing. Should be a notable one, no doubt. We'll bring it to you live.


CABRERA: As we await the White House response to the most pivotal 24 hours of Trump's presidency, Republicans on the hill are mostly mum on news. Those that are commenting say the president is not implicated whatsoever in the felony convictions of his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and former campaign chief, Paul Manafort.


SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY, (R), IOWA: He's pled guilty. That's the way the constitution works. So, what else?

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY, (R), LOUISIANA: Mr. Cohen's credibility will be challenged. I think the full story hasn't been written yet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think this opens up the president to being indicted while sitting in office?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, (R), UTAH: No, I don't. I don't think he can be indicted while sitting in office.


CABRERA: Joining us now, a Democrat who is speaking out about what can be next for President Trump. Congressman David Ciciline, he is a member of the House judiciary committee. Thank you for being with us. First, your reaction to the president just saying that hush money for two women with alleged affairs came directly from him and it is not a campaign violation.

REP. DAVID CICILINE, (D), MEMBER OF THE HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, I think Ambassador Eisen is right, he may have admitted to another crime on air. The president changed the story several occasions. First denied knowing about it, knowing where the money came from, then indicated he provided the money. It is a sad day for the country. The president has now been basically an unindicted co- conspirator in a criminal offense. Michael Cohen testified under oath at his plea hearing, he was directed to do this by a candidate. Obviously, that was the president of the United States, to commit a federal offense. It is very serious. There's conviction of paul Manafort, his campaign chair. There's now 35 indictments, pleas or convictions related to this investigation. I think this is a very, very serious development.

CABRERA: As you know, Congress has important responsibility in terms of oversite of the executive branch. Let me read House Speaker Paul Ryan's statement, reacting to the Michael Cohen news. We are aware of Mr. Cohen's guilty plea to serious charges. We will need more information than is currently available at this point. How do you respond to not only that statement but relative silence from many other members of your committee, judiciary committee, Republicans like Trey Gowdy, Jim Jordan?

CICILINE: It is very disappointing. We tried on the Democratic side to really press the committee, the chairman and the Republicans on the committee to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities. We have very serious oversight functions we should be performing. We have written letters, motions in the committee to try to force the committee to do oversight, and in a disappointing way Republicans on the committee often act like Donald Trump's defense team than individuals that are constitutionally required to provide meaningful oversight against this president and his administration.

[14:20:00] I think we have a lot of work to do to bring members of the administration before the committee to do our oversight, but unfortunately have had no cooperation from our Republican colleagues. It is very sad. This should be an American priority. It shouldn't matter if you're a Democrat, Republican, independent. We need to get to the bottom of this. The president needs to come clean. Americans have the right to know the truth. We have to protect Robert Mueller and his investigation because the president has been engaged in a campaign to undermine the department of justice, the FBI, the special counsel. We have legislation pending to protect Mr. Mueller from being fired without cause. We need to move forward on that. The president, it is closing in. I think the president is feeling the pressure. We need to protect the investigation so the American people can finally hear the truth to know exactly what happened.

CABRERA: Let me put the question this way. If this were a Hillary Clinton presidency or any other Democratic presidency for that matter, how would your Republican colleagues be reacting now?

CICILINE: As someone said, we would have to peel them off the ceiling at this point. Look how they behaved on an investigation relating to Hillary Clinton's e-mail that went on for months and months and months and there was nothing there. You can only imagine how they were behaving. Look, I understand he is there, it is their team. I understand they support the president. But you ought to be able to do what's right for the country, put your country over your political party, and this is serious. It is a very sad day when the president is implicated in a crime, lied about it to the American people, when his campaign chairman has been convicted, and part of that case related to a relationship with Russian oligarchs. We all ought to be concerned about an adversary of the United States, a foreign adversary, we saw the president in Helsinki, he sided with those that attacked our democracy. It was disgraceful. We need Republicans to add their voices, put the interest of our country and preservation of our democracy ahead of their own political ambitions or political preservation. I hope we'll see some Republicans speak out. I know there are good men and women in that party, we need them to speak out in this moment. Their country needs them to do that.

CABRERA: We are all trying to figure out the truth. Michael Cohen's attorney says Cohen is willing to testify before congress without immunity. Is your committee going to act on that?

CICILINE: I hope Michael Cohen will come before the judiciary committee. We'll certainly press the chairman to invite him. Michael Cohen is prepared to testify truthfully and share what he knows. He hasn't gotten a deal. He is not getting anything for it. I take him at his word he wants to put his family and country first and tell the truth. He has a lot to tell as counsel has said. He has information that would be valuable to the special counsel. I know this is uncomfortable for some people, but we need to get to the facts. We need to understand exactly what happened and make sure it never happens again and to be sure those responsible for this attack on our democracy are held accountable.

CABRERA: There is a little bit of who is to be believed, whose credibility is better than the other, congressman. If you didn't find Michael Cohen credible back in January when he had a different story regarding payments to Stormy Daniels and to AMI for Karen McDougal, why is he now credible?

CICILINE: I think Michael Cohen is not getting anything for his admission. He's pleaded guilty without an agreement so he's acknowledged that. He also has a tape recording. We listened to it, of a conversation he had with the president in which they discussed the payments. The president said he didn't know about them, he didn't provide the money. We know there's actually evidence to corroborate Mr. Cohen's story, and he doesn't really have incentive to makeup a story to land him in jail, so I think we need to examine the facts, allow Mr. Mueller to finish his investigation and present his report to congress, and then we need to take appropriate action. What we need to hear from Republican colleagues is some commitment to the rule of law. These are serious offenses committed against the United States. These are serious convictions of Trump's inner circle. And they ought to be expressing disappointment and concern rather than trying to act like their responsibility is to put a good spin on it or say nothing in order to protect their own political future or the president's.

CABRERA: Thank you for being with us.

CICILINE: Thanks for having me. [14:25:00] CABRERA: All eyes on the White House press room as we

await the first briefing since yesterday's two bomb shells, Michael Cohen's guilty plea, paul Manafort's conviction. We'll take you there the second it starts.

Happening now, the man accused in the murder of Iowa College student, Mollie Tibbetts, facing a judge the first time. We will monitor what the suspect has to say. Back in a moment.


CABRERA: Let's take you straight to the briefing and Sarah Sanders. And as soon as she gets to the podium, we will do just that.

A new attempted attack on a voter database. CNN learning the Democratic National Committee contacted the FBI yesterday after detecting what it believes was the beginning of a sophisticated hacking effort. Here is Sarah Sanders.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: -- a category four storm expected to have a significant impact on the state of Hawaii. Homeland security secretary, Kirsten Nielsen, briefed the president on the hurricane this morning. We encourage all those in the path of the storm to listen to the instruction of state and local authorities as it relates to evacuation orders and shelter locations. The president is deeply concerned for the well-being of all Hawaiians, and has directed FEMA and administration officials to remain in close coordination with the state of Hawaii and stand to support them in whatever they need.

Also, this morning they president had a phone call with Prime Minister Abe from Japan. They committed to maintaining strong sanctions on North Korea. The two also expressed they look forward to seeing each other later this year. And to continue the important conversations with allies.

Lastly, on behalf of our entire administration I want to extend prayers to the family, friends, loved ones of Mollie Tibbetts. The nation has watched over 30 days as local, state, federal officials searched for Mollie. Sadly, the individual believed to be responsible for the murder is an illegal immigrant making this an unfortunate reminder of why we need to strengthen our immigration laws.

The Bible tells us the lord heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds. The Tibbetts family is hurting and they are in the hearts of all Americans. And we are grieving with them.

I will take your questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael Cohen under oath pleaded guilty to among things paying Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal during the campaign, said he did it at the direction of the president of the United States. Did President Trump commit a crime?

SANDERS: As the president said, we stated many times, he did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him and we have commented on this extensively.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why not report the payments?

SANDERS: Again, I'm not getting into the back and forth details. I can tell you as the president has stated on numerous occasions, he did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him in this. Just because Michael Cohen made a plea deal doesn't mean that implicates the president on anything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You came here to today to say the president has never lied to the American people? So many people now look back at the tape of him on Air Force One saying he knew nothing about the payments, when in fact we now know he knew everything about the payments. So, has he lied?

SANDERS: I think that's a ridiculous accusation. The president in this matter has done nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. John?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president said to Fox News in an interview this morning this could not have been an illegal campaign contribution because he paid the money for it. He put more than $60 million of his own money into the campaign. So how do you draw the line between maybe it didn't flow through the campaign, how do you draw the line between what was a campaign contribution and might have been a payment to somebody for other purposes?

SANDERS: Look, I am not going to get into the back-and-forth --