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Trump Expresses Sympathy for Paul Manafort; President Trump Responds to Michael Cohen Plea Deal. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired August 22, 2018 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:23]

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. I'm Ana Cabrera, in for Brooke Baldwin, on this busy Wednesday afternoon. You're watching CNN.

President Trump just responding to his former lawyer implicating him in campaign finance violations. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to those federal crimes Tuesday.

In his plea hearing, Cohen never said Trump's name, as a court transcripts shows, but Cohen did tell 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's response a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Did you know about the payments?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Later on, I knew, later on.

But you have to understand, Ainsley, 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 have tweeted about it. You know, I put -- 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 they weren't. That's not a -- it'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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: That, of course, appears to contradict what the president himself said on Air Force One when he was asked about this in April.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

TRUMP: No. No. What else?

QUESTION: Then why did Michael -- why did Michael Cohen make this, if there was no truth to her allegations?

TRUMP: Well, you have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you will have to ask Michael.

QUESTION: And do you know where he got the money to make that payment?

TRUMP: No, I don't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: The president's statement today also appears to contradict what we heard in the audio recording that Michael Cohen released a few weeks ago. Listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David, you know, so that -- I'm going to do that right away. I've actually come up and I've spoken...

TRUMP: Give it to me and

COHEN: And, I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with...

TRUMP: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?

COHEN: ... funding. Yes. And it's all the stuff.

TRUMP: Yes, I was thinking about that.

COHEN: All the stuff. Because -- here, you never know where that company -- you never know what he's...

TRUMP: Maybe he gets hit by a truck.

COHEN: Correct. So, I'm all over that. And, I spoke to Allen about it, when it comes time for the financing, which will be...

TRUMP: Wait a sec, what financing?

COHEN: Well, I will have to pay him something.

TRUMP: (INAUDIBLE) pay with cash... COHEN: No, no, no, no, no. I got it.

TRUMP: ... check.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

CABRERA: Still, the White House press secretary calling it a ridiculous accusation to suggest the president has lied about this.

Let me bring in our legal experts, Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, an office Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani used to run, CNN reporter Kara Scannell, and former federal prosecutor John Lauro, who is now a criminal defense attorney.

I don't even know where to begin, guys, with all of these different stories that continue to muddy the waters.

I will start with you, Elie, though, because we just listened in to Sarah Sanders at that White House briefing over and over and over again say the president did nothing wrong, and specifically she says that's the case because there are no charges against him.

Is he in the clear?

ELIE HONIG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Not by a long shot. I think we just saw why the position of White House press secretary is such a difficult one.

They send her out there that day after two of the people closest to the president were convicted of a whole slate of federal crimes. And this repeated reframe of the president did nothing wrong, it's harder and harder to swallow.

And, of course, the key moment yesterday was when Michael Cohen was allocating (ph), giving his plea -- plea allocution to counts seven and eight, the campaign finance counts. And the president can say it's not a crime, but I will tell you a couple entities that officially now are on record as saying it is a crime, his own Department of Justice.

They would not have put that plea in if they did not believe that it was a crime. And an independent Title 3, Article Three judge, William Pauley, who's the judge. I know Judge Pauley. I have appeared in front of him. He is very careful and he will not accept a guilty plea if the person -- if the defendant does not state the elements of a crime.

I have had cases that were trying to plead guilty, and he has said, what you just said is not a crime, it's not enough, I'm not accepting your plea.

And, yesterday, he heard Michael Cohen, what he said, said that is a crime, I accept your guilty plea.

CABRERA: So when they say that he wasn't even implicated in the Cohen plea deal, John, I mean, is that a lie?

[15:05:06]

JOHN LAURO, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, here, he was -- actually, the president was not named in the indictment or in the plea agreement.

Michael Cohen did an audible during his allocution. He said the president directed me to do it, which was not in the actual documents that were signed. So that came as a big surprise.

But the bottom line is that Michael Cohen has admitted to a crime. Rather than taking a bullet for the president, he just shot a searing missile at the president, and they need a defense. Right now, the White House is not articulating a defense.

Rule number one, don't allow your client to speak. The more that President Trump speaks, the worse it gets.

CABRERA: Well, he is defending himself. And what do you make of his defense that we just played?

LAURO: It's not a valid defense. There's three defenses the White House has to make. Number one, Michael Cohen is not credible, because the Southern District did not give him a cooperation agreement. Number two, the president should say, listen, I relied on my lawyer to take care of all this legal mumbo jumbo and Cohen screwed it up.

And, third, what they have to emphasize, this was not political, it was not related to the campaign, it was personal, Trump wanted to keep it secret because he didn't want his family. It's the John Edwards defense.

The White House is doing none of this. They need a defense.

CABRERA: And, Kara, Cohen may not be done yet either. I mean, he has put himself out there. His attorney, Lanny Davis, has suggested that he has more to tell to the special counsel and to Congress.

In fact, he's even talking about testifying without immunity in front of Congress.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Lanny Davis today coming out of the gate this morning, hitting all the talk shows, saying that Cohen has information to share with the special counsel, that he has -- he alleged that Cohen knows that Trump knew about the hacks of the DNC before they became public.

We don't know that there is anything to substantiate that, but the Cohen team is kind of making this day two for themselves. He settled his personal score with the government for not paying his taxes by pleading guilty, but now there seems to be this new offensive, saying, we want to come talk to you, special counsel. We have new information.

Now, it's not clear if the special counsel has anything that this corroborates or fits into, but they're certainly throwing up a flag, saying, we have some information, we want to talk

SCANNELL: Let's play the sound that we have with Lanny Davis suggesting that Cohen has something that could be useful in the investigation into Russia collusion. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LANNY DAVIS, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL COHEN: It's my observation that Mr. Cohen has knowledge that would be of interest to this special counsel about the issue of whether Donald Trump ahead of time knew about the hacking of e-mails.

And we will just have to see what Mr. Cohen is able to say from direct knowledge when and if he discusses this with the special counsel.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Elie, what's your reaction to that?

HONIG: So the biggest question that came out of yesterday is, will Michael Cohen cooperate with the Southern District of New York and/or the Mueller team?

It takes two. Both sides have to be willing. Clearly, Lanny Davis is more than signaling. He's outright saying, we are ready, he wants to come in, he wants to cooperate.

The question is -- there's two questions. One, does the Southern District want to cooperate him? If I was in their shoes, I would certainly hear him out. Let's hear him out.

But the big issue is what you said, Ana. Can they corroborate him? Can they back him up? It's one thing to have Michael Cohen saying the president knew about the hacked e-mails beforehand, but you cannot bank a criminal charge on the uncorroborated word of a problematic cooperating witness like Michael Cohen, who has a lot of baggage himself.

What is going to determine this whole -- this whole ball of wax here is, can the Southern District find something, an e-mail, another independent witness, some other recording that will back him up. And if they can, we're going to see the whole landscape change.

CABRERA: I mean, they said that they do have proof and evidence to back up these charges of campaign finance violations that Cohen was directed by then candidate Trump. And, in fact, they point to all of the things that the FBI was able to confiscate when they raided his properties previously, from recordings to e-mails to text messages, even encrypted texts that were sent, an exchange.

So they seem to think they have quite a bit of ammunition.

I have to wonder, John, bigger picture, if I were to step back for a second, in the Southern District, if Trump were not the sitting president of the United States, would he be indicted right now? LAURO: I don't think right just yet. I mean, the Southern District

is very careful. They're not going to bring a case until they do a full investigation.

One of the areas to look at are the executives in the Trump Organization, who apparently approved of these payments. That's a fruitful area of analysis. We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg right now. We don't know what the Southern District investigation is in its totality.

But one thing, if I was President Trump and his team, I would be very concerned.

CABRERA: And, Kara, real quickly, because Cohen is saying he has more he could tell Mueller, one, I guess, why hasn't Mueller already talked to him if he already has all this extra information?

[15:10:00]

But, two, what could Cohen know that Mueller would find useful?

SCANNELL: Well, I mean, one reason that we think that Miller never spoke to Cohen was because Cohen was a target, and the target of the Southern District investigation.

And so it would have been legal jeopardy for him to go in and talk to him. And he probably wouldn't have. And he certainly wouldn't go before a grand jury.

But Mueller could be interested in Cohen for a number of reasons. Cohen was one of the people at the Trump Organization who floated the idea of building a Trump Tower-branded hotel in Moscow. He had many conversations or attempts at conversation there. He's been with Trump for over 10 years. He knows sort of where the bodies are buried.

He said he was -- he defined himself as Trump's fixer, that he solved his problems. But he knows a lot about Trump and a lot about how the Trump Organization works and how the money flows and the real estate deals.

So if Mueller had any information that would lead him down any of those paths, but particularly the Trump Tower Moscow, that would be an avenue you would want to talk to him about. And then there's also been reporting that Cohen implying Cohen knew that Trump knew about the meeting with the Russian lawyer at the Trump Tower.

And, of course, the statements about that meeting are now in question. I mean, that would be another area that they would be worth probing. Whether Cohen has any of the goods on any of these things remains to be seen. But these are some of the flag that have come up of areas that we could see Mueller be interested in talking to Cohen, and at least seeing what -- what's in those documents, what is in those recordings, see if he has anything that could corroborate what he's saying.

CABRERA: Let me pivot to Paul Manafort. It's not just Cohen that we're talking about in the last 24 hours of news that's been so earth- shaking.

Our legal analyst Renato Mariotti is joining us now.

Trump tweeting today about Manafort, this morning. And he writes this: "I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. 'Justice,'" which he puts in quotes, "took a 12-year-old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him. And unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to break, make up stories in order to get a deal. Such respect for a brave man."

Renato, based on the tweet, let's say he pardons Manafort. Is that obstruction of justice?

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, whenever you pardon somebody, you're undermining the judicial process, you're undermining a prosecution. It's certainly a sign that the president is trying to do what he can to undermine Mueller's investigation.

I think it would be evidence of his intent, but I don't think the pardon itself would be used by Mueller as an act of obstruction. So, in other words, to be certain, there's plenty of acts that I think Mueller could and will point to as obstruction by the president, for example, the firing of James Comey, his orders to -- for example, to fire Mueller himself, or to try to get Sessions to un-recuse himself, et cetera.

So I think he will be focus on those as the obstruction acts, because I think they're more clear, but he will use this to show Trump's intent. And certainly what you see here is a man, the president, who claimed to be a law and order candidate, sounds more like a criminal who is pleased that one of -- one of his henchmen remained silent, rather than a president who's concerned about law and order.

CABRERA: And, quickly, Renato, Manafort could still make some kind of a deal to get his sentencing down, right, if he were to start cooperating with Mueller's team if he had something useful for them?

MARIOTTI: No question. If there was not a pardon on the table, and I represented Paul Manafort, I would tell him, you need to cut a deal right away, get that D.C. case wrapped up, the case that's coming up in the District of Columbia, get that wrapped up into the Virginia case, and try to get up -- get some sort of deal to get Judge Ellis to handle the whole thing and get some sort of reduced sentence.

CABRERA: All right, everyone, thank you.

And stand by. Up next, one of the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal is going to join us live. I will ask Carl Bernstein how this compares and whether impeachment could be a reality for this president.

And we are expecting to see President Trump minutes from now at a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. We will take you there live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [15:18:33]

CABRERA: Sources tell CNN that White House staffers are stunned by Michael Cohen's implication of the president's in his plea deal.

"The New York Times" also reporting that people close to the president are now worried about impeachment as a tangible possibility.

Let's talk about this more with one of the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon's resignation. CNN political analyst Carl Bernstein is joining us now.

Carl, you have said this is worse than Watergate. But the difference here is the political climate.

Let's listen to Senator Bob Corker today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I can't imagine people who are familiar with what's been going on at the White House are particularly surprised.

But I realize the actual statement of yesterday is -- it makes it real.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Carl, what is the responsibility of Republicans in all of this?

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, certainly, the Republicans on Capitol Hill have been craven, and they have enabled Trump's cover-up.

They have enabled his continuing lying, without calling him into account. And they may or may not pay dearly in terms of their political lives.

But this is a moment of truth for the Republican Party. They do not have to condemn or come to the aid of Donald Trump. The people on Capitol Hill in the Republican Party need to say, we are for the rule of law, and this president has shown, in the last week particularly, his utter contempt for the rule of law.

[15:20:20]

CABRERA: I know the viewers at home see these developments, these legal cases, and are asking, where do we go from here?

BERNSTEIN: I think that it's not a time to be crystal balling.

I think that we in the media particularly, as well as people watching at home, need to be focusing on the actions and words of the president of the United States, and particularly in regard to the Mueller investigation. It is important to this country and its future that the Mueller investigation, which is a by-the-book, non-leaking, credible, law- abiding operation, be permitted to finish its work. And then the American people can know much more about the underlying facts.

But what we are seeing now is a kind of sewage seeping up from the White House swamp, particularly in what we are watching from Donald Trump holding out and dangling a pardon possibility in front of Paul Manafort.

It's unspeakable to watch this.

(CROSSTALK)

BERNSTEIN: I can't remember anything in our history -- well, let me let me finish, if I may.

His words about brave Paul Manafort and the offense that has been committed against Paul Manafort and his fine family and all the rest is extraordinary. And I don't think any serious person and certainly no serious lawyer or Justice Department official that I know of thinks that it's anything but an attempt to dangle a pardon.

And a speaker on our air a few minutes ago said he doubted it was part of an obstruction of justice. I'm not sure that I would agree with that, that the act of offering and signaling a pardon at this moment -- he has every right to pardon any person he wants to. But the act of signaling it at this point might well be a real part of a pattern of obstruction, as well as an obstruction in itself.

CABRERA: And apologies for stepping on you there, Carl, but there's a little bit of a delay with our transmission here.

BERNSTEIN: No problem. Not to worry.

CABRERA: When you talk about the president's reaction this morning, he did put out that tweet really praising Paul Manafort, showing that he has empathy for his case, calling him a brave man.

We also heard him try to explain the Michael Cohen situation and virtually sweep it under the rug -- under the rug, saying, I paid for it and there was no campaign finance violation.

Is this what you expected in terms of a reaction from the president?

BERNSTEIN: I have come to expect nothing but evasion and untruth from the president of the United States in response to anything having to do with the Mueller investigation.

The whole assertion that he continually makes, no collusion, no collusion, no collusion, there seems to be considerable evidence of collusion, perhaps by his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, perhaps by his son in the Trump Tower meeting, which was an invitation to collusion extended to his son and accepted with relish by Donald Trump Jr. The question is, does collusion envelop Donald Trump himself or just

members of his circle and campaign? And, again, we have a long way to go here in terms of knowing the facts. Let's wait for Mr. Mueller to give us the facts.

But it's very important to realize that those of us who are reporters, talking to people in the White House, know that, right now, Donald Trump is raging, that people around him are regarding his rages as bizarre at this point, and also that he is determined that the Mueller investigation in some way be shut down, so that there can be no chance that his presidency is shut down.

CABRERA: Carl Bernstein, great to have you with us. Thank you so much for being here.

Up next, I will be joined live by a White House reporter who was on Air Force One as all this news was breaking less than 24 hours ago. Hear what it was like to be inside the Trump bubble.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:29:36]

CABRERA: Picture this.

The president had just boarded Air Force One, the plane throttling for takeoff, when news breaks on two criminal cases involving people who were once in his inner circle, Trump's former attorney and longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, pleading guilty to eight charges and implicating the president in a crime, and Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort found guilty on eight counts.

As this news sinks in, the next 100 minutes unusually quiet on Air Force One.