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THE SITUATION ROOM
Trump Changes Story on Payments to Women; White House Denounces Impeachment Talk; Dems Say Delay Kavanaugh Confirmation; Questions About Contact Between Accused Russian Spy and NSA John Bolton. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired August 22, 2018 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Happening now, breaking news. Changing his story: in an astounding new interview, President Trump spins a new version of his story about Michael Cohen's hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. But it contradicts audio and videotapes of what he said before.
Did the president just unknowingly admit he broke did law?
Duck and cover: the White House insists the president did nothing wrong and hasn't been charged with a crime as President Trump takes to Twitter to attack Michael Cohen and praise Paul Manafort.
How long can Republicans up on Capitol Hill dodge questions about impeachment?
Discrediting Cohen: CNN learns details about the White House strategy to distance Mr. Trump from Michael Cohen, a strategy already playing out on the Twitter account.
Will attacking the man who once said he'd take a bullet for Mr. Trump end up backfiring?
And prosecutors' duty: in the wake of Cohen's guilty plea, will federal prosecutors in New York deliver a report accusing the president of breaking the law and calling him an unindicted co- conspirator?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news as the Trump White House dodges hard questions about the president's former personal attorney, implicating him in a crime. In a new interview, the president acknowledges the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, quote, "came from me," end quote. In doing so, he appears to be admitting his own role in violating
campaign finance laws. The president also changed another part of the story, saying he only learned about Cohen's payments, quote, "later on." I'll speak with Democratic congressman Mike Quigley, he's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
And our correspondents, experts and analysts, they are all standing by. But let's begin with CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House.
Kaitlan, there weren't many answers from the White House briefing today but an astonishing new story directly from the president.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. As the president is facing enormous political and potentially legal pressure here, he's attempting to rewrite history of when he knew about those payments that Michael Cohen made to the two women who claim that they had affairs with the president.
That's causing a headache for his aides back here at the White House, who are rattled by the news that Michael Cohen made yesterday and are still struggling to mount a defense of any kind in response to this.
COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump under siege tonight, as one aide's conviction and another ally's guilty plea engulf the White House.
The president commenting on Michael Cohen for the first time since he said under oath Trump directed him to pay two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.
QUESTION: Did you know about the payments?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Later on, I knew. Later on.
COLLINS: Trump claiming he didn't know about the payments until later on, even though he's on tape discussing how to pay one of the women.
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: 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.
COLLINS: Trump also claiming the payments weren't illegal.
TRUMP: 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. 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.
COLLINS: The White House defenseless today.
(on camera): In his interview today, the president said he found out about those payments that Michael Cohen made later on.
But he's on tape discussing how to make one of the payments with Michael Cohen, so before the payment was made. So how do you explain that?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Once again, I have commented on this pretty extensively. What I can tell you about this that the president did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. There is no collusion. For anything beyond that, I would refer you to the president's outside counsel.
COLLINS (voice-over): Sarah Sanders unable to say anything but this:
SANDERS: There are no charges against him.
There are no charges against him.
There are no charges against him.
COLLINS: Sanders referring all other questions to the outside counsel.
(on camera): Mayor Giuliani is not a taxpayer-funded spokesperson for the president. You are.
(voice-over): All this as Cohen's attorney says his client is prepared all to Robert Mueller.
LANNY DAVIS, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL COHEN: It's my observation that Mr. Cohen has knowledge that would be of interest to the special counsel about the issue of whether Donald Trump ahead of time knew about --
DAVIS: -- the hacking of e-mails.
COLLINS: The man who once insisted he'd take a bullet for Trump now refusing to even take a pardon from him.
DAVIS: His answer would be, no, I do not want a pardon from this man.
COLLINS: But a pardon isn't off the table for Paul Manafort, found guilty on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. The president expressing sympathy today for his former campaign chair, saying he had such respect for a brave man who refused to break.
(END VIDEOTAPE) COLLINS: Now, Wolf, the president's allies tonight are readily
admitting he is in his most vulnerable point of his entire presidency and they're still trying to figure out a way to boost him. But what they'll say is that right now President Trump is backed into a corner and it's hard to predict what he's going to do next -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good point. Kaitlan, thank you very much.
While President Trump lashes out and the White House dodges questions, we're now learning new details about the possible legal problems the president may be facing. Our justice correspondent Evan Perez is here.
What legal trouble is the president in right now?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if Donald Trump was not the sitting President of the United States, there's no doubt there would be a high likelihood that the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York would be bringing charges against him.
If you look at what -- the paperwork and Michael Cohen -- criminal information, what he pleaded guilty to.
Look. The president and his legal team, though, they have already made defense here. They can say that, even if Donald Trump authorized these payments to these women, he was doing it simply to avoid embarrassment to his family, that he just wanted his wife not to know about these alleged affairs.
Really, that's like the John Edwards defense and it could very much help him from a legal standpoint. That would be a good and a legitimate legal defense.
The problem, obviously, it doesn't help with an impeachment proceeding if that's what comes to pass after the midterms. That's one of the issues that the president and his legal team faces that, you know, it may help with prosecutors and avoid that issue. But it probably wouldn't help if there was an impeachment proceeding.
BLITZER: Even if he can't be indicted on campaign finance violations, does the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York have a responsibility still at this point to refer some of these allegations, some of these charges, up the chain of command?
PEREZ: Absolutely. They have to send some word to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who's now overseeing all of this, and then, I think, you know, I think the Justice Department does owe an answer to the American public.
The Southern District of New York, the prosecutors in Manhattan, just made some serious allegations against a President of the United States -- they call him Individual One -- the person who became the President of the United States.
And so they owe an answer to the public. And I think the deputy attorney general knows exactly what to do about that. He has to probably report it to Congress. You know?
That's going to be something that's going to come to pass, I think, after the midterms.
BLITZER: Yes. I think that's a good point.
On Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, convicted yesterday on eight felony counts, bank fraud, tax fraud, stealing literally millions of dollars from American taxpayers, not reporting income on tens of millions of dollars.
Is there a chance he'll still cooperate with the special counsel, Paul Manafort?
He has another trial coming up next month.
PEREZ: Right. Look. If you're Paul Manafort, I mean, you're looking at possibly some serious jail time. There is an incentive.
But I think what you are seeing is the president telegraphing directly to Paul Manafort, if you stay put, if you do not -- as he said, if you refuse to break, if you see that tweet that he -- and he contrasts Paul Manafort with Michael Cohen -- it's very clear that he's telegraphing to Paul Manafort that, if he doesn't break with him, that perhaps there's a pardon in the offing.
And you can see, also, by the way, that Paul Manafort's legal team is hearing him. Here's a little bit from his lawyer, speaking to the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was your reaction to the president today?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was very happy to hear from the president and that he's supporting Mr. Manafort.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PEREZ: It's very clear that Paul Manafort's legal team is sending word back to the president. "Look, we hear you. Everything's going to be OK." I think that's exactly what is going on the there in plain sight between the tweets and the response from Paul Manafort.
BLITZER: That was Paul Manafort's lawyer last Friday, leaving the courthouse, saying he's thankful for the president for tweeting nice things about Paul Manafort and today once again the president tweeted, "I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. Such respect for a brave man," even though this brave man, that the president calls a brave man, was convicted of stealing millions and millions of dollars from American taxpayers.
Thanks so much, Evan, for that report. Let's get some more now. Joining us from Chicago is Democratic congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, thank you for joining us. Let's get right to these sensitive issues. After denying --
BLITZER: -- knowledge of the hush money payments back in April, to these two women, President Trump now says he did know about them, just, quote, "later on." And he argues that since the money came from him it's not a campaign finance violation.
Do you believe that argument holds up?
REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-ILL.), MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Not at all. Part of it's at least because of the fact that the president's story seems to be changing all the time.
But let's remember which account we're talking about. The shell account used to pay off the porn star was also the same account that the Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin paid $500,000.
I tell folks, when they look at this investigation, there are no coincidences. And everything is tied together. Give it time. The American public will find out what really took place.
BLITZER: Yes. Even though the president today in this interview says he only learned about all of this, quote, "later on." We do have that audiotape and Rudy Giuliani confirms it is the president's voice in which he and Michael Cohen are discussing in advance payment to Karen McDougal, the former "Playboy" Playmate.
Is Cohen's admission in his plea deal, that he committed a felony at the direction, the coordination with President Trump, enough to begin impeachment proceedings, in your view?
QUIGLEY: This is what I have told folks for months. Let the Mueller investigation take its course. Some of my Democratic colleagues wanted to go forward with impeachment months ago.
I would tell them now, look, if you did it then and you maybe get one shot at this, you wouldn't have all the information we learned about yesterday.
At the same time, I tell my Republican colleagues, who shut down this investigation and who want to continue to shut down the Mueller -- want to continue to try to shut down the Mueller investigation, look at what happened if we had done this.
The American public wouldn't know. Let it take its course. In the middle of any investigation, if you find criminal activity, you don't stop. You go forward to see if there's more.
Frankly, I think the president obstructed the investigation and I do believe what Mr. Cohen said in court yesterday is the truth, when you couple it with the totality of all the other evidence, these recordings and the video evidence that have taken place.
Let's let it keep going because we still haven't completed the investigation as to conspiracy, obstruction or money laundering. There's a lot more information out there. I think the second Manafort trial could be instructive on that, as well, given the money laundering issues.
BLITZER: But did the president in this interview today just admit to committing a crime with Michael Cohen?
QUIGLEY: I think he put it in totality of circumstances; if Mr. Cohen committed a crime, then the president did.
BLITZER: Was Cohen honest with your committee, the Intelligence Committee, giving an interview behind closed doors in October of last year?
QUIGLEY: I don't think so. I think that, months ago after his interview and before yesterday, there was enough new evidence, documents, circumstances and things we have learned from other witnesses, that made us all on the Democratic side want to bring Mr. Cohen back.
Yesterday you saw the bipartisan leadership on the Senate Intel Committee basically say, after yesterday, does your evidence still stand?
I think he was alluding to the same points that I am today. Before yesterday, there was reason to call Mr. Cohen back. Right?
Was he in Prague in '16?
Was he an intermediary through Ukraine in 2017 to pass a message with General Flynn and the Ukrainian contact with Russia about lifting sanctions?
Of course, now, what was that $500,000 payment for?
And did the president have foreknowledge of the Trump Tower meeting?
Did the president have foreknowledge of these attacks and the information that his son had of constant contacts, direct contacts with WikiLeaks?
Again, it's obviously all connected. It's just going to take time to get this information together.
BLITZER: Cohen, as you know, claims that President Trump knew about that controversial Trump Tower meeting in New York ahead of time. And his lawyer, Lanny Davis -- and I'll be speaking with Lanny Davis shortly here in THE SITUATION ROOM -- has indicated that President Trump may have some advance knowledge of the Russian hacked e-mails.
Do you believe Michael Cohen?
QUIGLEY: I think he's -- yesterday, he's under oath and his whole life was on the line. He's aware of what the investigators have after the raid on his office and what hundreds of thousands of documents that were put together during the raid.
So clearly, with his back --
QUIGLEY: -- against the wall and all the circumstances already out, I'm far more likely to believe Mr. Cohen yesterday than the president today.
BLITZER: Congressman Quigley, thank you so much for joining us.
QUIGLEY: Thank you. Any time.
BLITZER: Still ahead, the political fallout of the president's latest version of the story about the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.
Will Republicans in Congress investigate anything?
And will Democrats' talk of impeachment gain any traction?
BLITZER: We're following breaking news. President Trump in yet a new interview, changing his story once again and saying he only learned, quote, "later on" about his former attorney Michael Cohen's arranging payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.
This afternoon --
BLITZER: -- over at the White House, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, dismissed questions about whether Michael Cohen's guilty plea, implicating the president in federal crimes, could lead to impeachment.
Let's bring in our congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty.
Sunlen, how are Republicans up on Capitol Hill reacting?
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Politically speaking, Wolf, Republicans just do not want to touch this right now and that is reflected clearly in large part from the fact we have not heard much at all from Senate Republican leaders or House Republican leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today ducked CNN's question; he remains radio silence in response to this huge news.
Similarly from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, responding only through his spokesman, saying, only, quote, "We are aware of Mr. Cohen's guilty plea to these serious charge. We will need more information than is currently available at this point."
And today, up here on Capitol Hill, many Republicans, one after another, provided something of a nonresponse. Here's what they said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: All we know about it is that he's pled guilty and everything else that you're asking me is speculation and I don't think I should be speculating.
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENN.: I don't know enough about it to, again, the process is just beginning and I think we ought to let it.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Naturally, it makes you very concerned. But the president shouldn't be held responsible for the actions of people that he's trusted.
SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Mr. Cohen's credibility's going to be challenged, is my best guess.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SERFATY: And among the Republicans who are speaking out with any sort of substance they're in large part taking the White House talking points on all of this, attempting to downplay the significance of the news, calling into question the credibility of Michael Cohen, essentially trying, in large part, to look the other way.
And certainly those calls from many Democrats up here on Capitol Hill for investigations have gone nowhere fast -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Sunlen, are you hearing calls for the president to be impeached up there on Capitol Hill?
SERFATY: This is something that Democrats we have seen be very careful in large part about, especially over the last 24 hours. Yes, there are indeed some Democrats saying every option is on the table, including impeachment, but in large part coming from the Democratic leadership up here on Capitol Hill, they are saying let's have some restraint here, hold all talk of impeachment.
Let Mueller's investigation play out, try not to muddy the waters essentially with the politics of calling for impeachment.
Look no further than the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, who today sent out a "Dear Colleagues" letter, she's saying hold your fire on impeachment talk leading to November. We as a party need to be focused on the economy.
And similarly here in the Senate today, we saw a very coordinated strategy to attempt to link this Cohen and Manafort news instead to the Supreme Court justice nominee, Democrats saying that Kavanaugh's nomination is tainted because, in their words, he was chosen by a president who's been implicated in a criminal conspiracy. And they want to postpone his nomination hearings.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-N.Y.), MINORITY LEADER: The president, identified as an unindicted co-conspirator of a federal crime, an accusation not by a political enemy but by the closest of his own confidants, is on the verge of making a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, a court that may someday soon determine the extent of the president's legal jeopardy.
In my view, the Senate Judiciary Committee should immediately pause the consideration of the Kavanaugh nomination.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SERFATY: And while that was the Democrats' attempt at messaging today, that's falling on deaf ears up here in a Republican-led majority. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee saying that, of course, the hearing will continue on as planned on September 4th -- Wolf.
BLITZER: September 4th. We'll be watching. Sunlen, thank you very much.
Coming up, there's more aftershocks from President Trump's latest change in his story about when he knew of hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.
And what legal troubles could the president be facing?
Michael Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, will be joining me live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Back to our breaking news, the president and his allies coming to grips with stunning revelations from Michael Cohen's plea deal and struggling to contain the fallout. Our legal and political experts are joining us now with more analysis.
Laura Jarrett, the president, according to a lot of people, he was essentially named as an unindicted co-conspirator yesterday.
So what obligation does the U.S. attorney for Southern District of New York, have right now?
Must he report all of this up the chain of command, to the top officials at the Justice Department, who will then have to make a decision what to do with it?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So there are a couple of different Justice Department guidelines all in play here and they're a little bit tricky but the number one is to realize the Southern District of New York prosecutors aren't operating in a vacuum. They're been coordinating closely with main justice here in D.C. We
reported yesterday that the deputy attorney general's office was consulted on the charges originally, was consulted on the plea deal.
So he's been involved, which means he knows the evidence in the case. He knows what's happening.
But the other thing --
JARRETT: -- of course, is that there is an old 1973 memo under the Justice Department guidelines, you're not supposed to indict a sitting president.
Now that doesn't mean that when President Trump is out of office and a private citizen that he can't be indicted for what happened. And it also doesn't mean that state prosecutors can't go after him right now if he commits a crime -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Could he prosecuted, do you think, Laura, at the state level?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He could. And the reason why is because essentially the president is the overseer of the executive branch of government. That doesn't have anything to do with the state level attorneys general or the people who are not a part of the federal U.S. attorneys' offices.
And they don't serve at the pleasure of the president. They serve because they're a state level official. Some are elected, some are actually career attorneys.
So he has no power over them. Therefore, they actually could do so. But there is still the same argument that Laura was talking about, about not wanting to indict a sitting president, because the theory is if you arrest the head of the executive branch, you arrest the executive branch of government.
And there is a distinction about how a state level official is able to essentially overtake the federal government and arrest it. So there's still a lingering doubt although there's state level autonomy.
That underlying question you talked about is still going to be very, very relevant, even at the state level. Now in terms of Michael Cohen and people who are not the President of the United States, they can do the state level prosecutions, provided they don't already have one in the federal court that's going to cancel it out.
BLITZER: Mark Preston, the president clearly lied today in that latest interview with FOX News when he said he didn't know about the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal until, quote, "later on," after the fact.
But here he is on this audiotape with Michael Cohen, talking about the payment in advance before the payment was made. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: When it comes time for the financing, which will be --
TRUMP: Listen, what financing?
COHEN: We'll have to pay this --
COHEN: Oh, no, no, no. I got this. No, no, no.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So the White House clearly has been lying about this for months now.
Why can't they finally come up with the truth, the final version, and move on?
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Because the truth in this case is not going to set them free. That is clearly the case in the situation we're looking at right now.
It is interesting. We talk about living in a bizarro world, like how does every day we wake up and something new happens that would totally take us off track and befuddle us, how this could even be happening in our country?
That is going on when Donald Trump lies every day. When he comes out and says something -- and his lies aren't even good because there is tape, audio, video of him saying something that contradicts it.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, when does the American public look at the executive branch and say, we need a little bit more moral authority than seeing right now?
BLITZER: Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, said that audiotape of the president discussing a payment for Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal, with Michael Cohen was authentic. It was the president on that tape.
Sabrina, we've heard a lot of Republican lawmakers; they're clearly uneasy about all of this. But so many of them are following White House talking points, saying the president hasn't been charged with any crime. This doesn't prove Russian collusion.
Is that really the bar they want to set right now?
SABRINA SIDDIQUI: Well, a lot of the Republican leadership aides I spoke with said they're essentially in a bit of a wait and see mode and don't want to jump the gun while the investigation is still playing itself out. But at the same time you did hear that line that there's no collusion proven yet from rank and file Republicans, which is far more telling because it underscores once again the many ways in which they are reluctant to break with the president, particularly nearing midterm elections.
That ignores that they could, if they want, launch their own investigation through the powers of congressional committees into whether or not the president was co-conspiring with Michael Cohen to break campaign finance laws.
But what they're making is a play, recognizing that the base is overwhelmingly behind the president. The question, of course, when it comes to the political ramifications, are they then, by refusing to act as that check and balance, bolstering turnout on the Left among Democrats, who are very energized, perhaps even more so after yesterday?
BLITZER: On Twitter, Laura, the president is slamming Michael Cohen but he's praising Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. "Such respect for a brave man."
Is he setting the stage for a pardon?
JARRETT: It certainly seems like he's at least giving him a little bit credit for staying loyal. Right?
Of course, Paul Manafort can flip. If, for whatever reason, he decided to cooperate, he still has another trial he's facing in September.
But to take a step back, it is somewhat ironic to see the president praising someone who is now convicted by a jury, when this is supposed to be the law and order administration.
They regularly tout that they want to follow the rules. Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department, regularly says we are here, we are here to enforce the law. But yet the president is praising somebody because he had his back.
BLITZER: Praising someone who's now been convicted of stealing millions and millions of dollars from American taxpayers --
BLITZER: -- and the president is saying, "I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family."
That's very, very strange. Everybody, stick around. There's more news to follow. The White House dodging hard questions about the president after the president changes his story about when he learned of the hush money payments Michael Cohen arranged in the 2016 campaign.
And what legal problems may be ahead for the president? I'll ask the former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. There you see him. He's standing by live.
BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories tonight. Let's get some more on all of the news with some analysis from former federal prosecutor, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, our senior legal analyst, Preet Bharara.
Preet, thank you for joining us. Let's get to the questions.
If Donald Trump weren't the sitting President of the United States, would you have tried to indict him, giving his alleged involvement in this scheme that Michael Cohen was involved in?
PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I'm not prepared to declare that because I don't know all the evidence that the prosecutors have.
Certainly, it was a devastating blow to the credibility of Donald Trump and his story. And in a showcase of what his legal jeopardy is, when his former personal lawyer, someone who he's called his fixer, someone he called a great person, someone who's been loyal to him for many, many years, gets up in open court in a serious proceeding in which he incriminates himself, in which he's assuring himself that he's going to prison for some period of time, says under oath that he did those actions for which he's pleading guilty in coordination with and at the direction of the president.
So we all know that there's a debate about whether a sitting president can be indicted or not.
But the other question for prosecutors is, going to your question, how much evidence do you have corroborating what Michael Cohen says?
If you look at the documents in connection with the case, those documents don't recite the most devastating thing that Michael Cohen said in open court, that those actions were directed by Donald Trump.
Now the other reporting is that investigators, during the searches of, in particular, the electronic devices that belonged to Michael Cohen, extracted a lot of material, including e-mails, text messages, encrypted text messages.
And if some of those things corroborate what he's saying about this being done at the direction of the president, then I think you're closer to bringing a criminal case. Not knowing what all the other evidence is and what the assessment of Michael Cohen's credibility to an average jury would be, it's hard to say. BLITZER: Yes because in the proceeding yesterday, the U.S. attorneys, they went and through specifically -- they went through and backing up right after what Cohen was pleading guilty to in terms of this -- in terms of the payments, the hush money payments, they referred to the April 9th series of search warrants on Cohen's properties, his premises, hard documents, seized electronic devices, audio recordings made by Mr. Cohen.
We also offer text messages, messages sent over encrypted applications, phone records and e-mail. They seem to be saying there they have a lot of backup evidence.
BHAHARA: So maybe they don't need Michael Cohen in order to bring cases against other people. What has been perplexing people generally and people from my old profession in particular is why Michael Cohen, without having seen, you know, charges brought against him first, trying to fight them, maybe have some motion practice to try to dismiss some or all of the counts, as often happens, pled straight up to a plea agreement without having the opportunity to engage in a -- to accept a cooperation agreement.
And one reason could be prosecutors have what they need to do other cases. Another reason could be they don't find him credible and they can't use him in a way that would substantially assist in the prosecution of someone else.
But as you point out, one reason they may not need him for whatever other case they're going to bring is because they have a lot of material that speaks for itself.
BLITZER: If a sitting president can't be indicted, what options and obligations do federal prosecutors have if they do uncover evidence of a crime?
BHAHARA: Well, that's not a situation that's presented itself to me, even though I had a lot of years as the U.S. attorney. The options are you can -- people think this is feasible. You can indict a sitting president under seal and then wait to proceed on those charges after the president has left office because the bar is only while he's, in fact, in the office of the presidency.
The other option here, where you have a special counsel, is to turn that information over to the special counsel. And then there are other places where, potentially, criminal cases could be brought if there's concurrent jurisdiction with respect to the particular conduct at issue.
BLITZER: Do you expect other individuals, unnamed individuals, named in all of this yesterday, possibly executives at the Trump Organization, to face charges?
BHAHARA: You know, again, it is hard to predict with any degree of certainty. But certainly, given how many surprises there have been so far and given a lot of things that were said in connection with Michael Cohen's allocution in open court and what some of the documents suggest, that there were other people involved in this payment, there was consultation with other people in the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign in connection with this payment for which Michael Cohen is pleading guilty.
So, you know, common sense tells you, there are other people involved. Whether or not they'll be charged, you know can never know to a certainty. But I would not be surprised, no.
BLITZER: So you wouldn't be surprised if other shoes drop?
BLITZER: Preet Bharara, thanks very much.
BHAHARA: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Coming up, Democrats have questions for the president's national security adviser, John Bolton.
Did he have any contact with an accused Russian spy?
[17:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, there are new questions about whether the President's national security adviser John Bolton had any contact with accused Russian agent Maria Butina.
CNN's Brian Todd is here. Brian, what are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the White House and John Bolton are feeling a lot of heat over this. They're receiving a lot of inquiries about this matter. Democrats in Congress, in particular, are pressuring the White House for John Bolton's security clearance documents.
[17:50:03] The Democrats are focusing on a key question. Did this young woman accused of being a Russian spy get anywhere close to the man who would be one of President Trump's most important advisers?
MARIA BUTINA, FOUNDER, RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS: I would like to present Russia.
TODD (voice-over): She infiltrated American conservative groups with her looks, charm, and aggressive flirtations. According to court filings, in one instance, allegedly offering sex in exchange for a position in a special interest group.
She posed for glamorous photos in Russian "G.Q." touting gun rights, even got a question into then-candidate Donald Trump at an event in 2015.
BUTINA: I'm visiting from Russia. So my question --
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ah, good. TODD (voice-over): A far cry from this mug shot of Maria Butina at
the federal jail in Alexandria, Virginia. That's where she's awaiting trial tonight on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent. Her goal, according to prosecutors, to push Russia's agenda in the U.S. She has pleaded not guilty.
But tonight, Democrats on Capitol Hill are asking questions about a possible connection between the accused Russian spy and President Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton.
JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much.
TRUMP: Thank you.
BOLTON: You're engaged --
TODD (voice-over): Bolton appeared in this video in 2013 promoting gun rights in Russia.
BOLTON: Should the Russian people have the right to bear arms? I can share with you a word about what this particular freedom has meant to Americans and offer you encouragement as you consider embracing that freedom.
TODD (voice-over): The video was featured at a roundtable forum arranged, CNN is told, by Maria Butina.
Now, two Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have written a letter to the White House, asking for documents related to John Bolton's application for a security clearance for his White House job. They want to know whether Bolton disclosed if he ever had any contact with Butina.
REP. STEPHEN LYNCH (D-MA), MINORITY MEMBER, HOUSE COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM: We need to know whether he reported that, first of all, and then we can determine how damaging his contact with that Russian spy might have been and may still be detrimental to the United States.
TODD (voice-over): Bolton had done work for the NRA at the time he appeared in that video. Butina allegedly tried to make inroads with the NRA.
But the video is not the NRA's. The roundtable in which the video aired was sponsored by a group Butina led called the Right to Bear Arms.
BUTINA: I'm a representative of Russian Federation here, and I am a chairman of the Right to Bear Arms. It's a Russian non-profit organization.
TODD (voice-over): Even though the video is not the NRA's, Butina's lawyer told CNN Bolton made the appearance in the video at the personal request of former NRA President David Keene.
Keene has not responded to CNN's requests for comment.
Eric O'Neil, a former FBI counterintelligence agent who brought down Russian mole Robert Hanssen, says Butina's done damage, even if she had no contact with Bolton.
ERIC O'NEILL, NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGIST, CARBON BLACK: What the Russians want to do is create these situations, get Butina as close to as many important officials as possible, and maybe she can further those connections and maybe learn something compromising or just put someone in a situation like Bolton is in today where people are going to see it on the news and maybe not trust our political leaders.
TODD (voice-over): Despite repeated requests, the White House is not commenting on the Democrats asking for Bolton's security clearance application records or on the question of any contact Bolton might or might not have had with Maria Butina.
Maria Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, told CNN Butina had no significant contact with John Bolton and called this a non-story.
TODD: The NRA would not comment for our story or explain why the former head of the NRA would ask on his own for John Bolton to make that video. We should note that John Bolton then and now has often been a very harsh critic of Russia -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good point. You know, Brian, this woman is also accused of working with a top Russian banker who is close to Vladimir Putin, right?
TODD: That's right. The banker's name is Alexander Torshin. He is a top banker in Russia linked with the Kremlin. Prosecutors say Torshin and Maria Butina worked together, trying to make inroads with conservative political organizations in the U.S. to curry more favor for Russia.
Now, the NRA has not commented on any of this. Torshin has dismissed the entire investigation as a bunch of rumors.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you very much.
Coming up, President Trump changes his story once again about when he learned about the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.
And what else does Michael Cohen know? And what could he tell the Special Counsel Robert Mueller? Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, he'll be joining me live right here in the SITUATION ROOM. Stand by for that.
[17:54:47] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Conflicting stories. The President comes up with a new version of what he knew about hush money payments hours after Michael Cohen implicated him in a campaign finance crime.
Tonight, Mr. Trump is speaking out and lashing out about his former fixer's plea deal.
Nothing wrong. The White House dodges questions about whether the President is lying, arguing that he hasn't been charged with any crime. I'll ask Michael Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, about the legal peril for Mr. Trump as his client offers to tell all to Robert Mueller.
[17:59:55] Pardon potential. The President is praising his former campaign chairman turned convicted felon. Is he laying the groundwork to give Paul Manafort a get out of jail free card?
And Russians attacking again. Facebook shuts down hundreds of sites linked to Moscow as the Democratic National Committee uncovers a sophisticated --