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Facebook Takes Down Hundreds of Russia-Linked Sites as DNC Detects "Sophisticated" Attempted Cyberattack; Interview With Lanny Davis; Interview With Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes; Trump Expresses Sympathy for Paul Manafort; President Trump Responds to Michael Cohen Plea Deal. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired August 22, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Is he laying 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 new attempt to hack into voter information. We're following the growing threat to the 2018 midterm election.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news.
President Trump trying to confuse, downplay, and distract from the fact that his former lawyer implicated him in a federal crime. Tonight, the president is changing his story again, claiming that he learned about Michael Cohen's hush money payments to women later on, his words, later on.
That contradicts the evidence and Cohen's assertion under oath that he was acting on the directions of Mr. Trump.
The White House insists the president has done nothing wrong. But the Cohen plea deal, along with Paul Manafort's criminal conviction, have escalated a legal and political crisis being likened to Watergate.
This hour I will talk with Michael Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, and House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins.
Kaitlan, we heard from the president in a new interview. We also heard from him on Twitter.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president's first public remarks since Michael Cohen implicated
him in a crime yesterday, and the president is attempting to rewrite history about when he knew of these payments that Michael Cohen made to these women who allege they had affairs with Trump, which contradicts a tape that says otherwise.
And, Wolf, that comes as the White House is struggling to mount a defense of any kind in response to Cohen's claims.
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:
HUCKABEE 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 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.
COLLINS: Now, Wolf, over the next few days, we're going to see the presidential and his allies and even his White House aides attempt to discredit Michael Cohen and his claims by painting him as a liar who isn't a credible person.
But, of course, it's hard for the White House to distance themselves from Cohen because he's someone that the president hired, that knew the president for over a decade and did a lot of work for him. And the president's on tape saying that he likes him and saying that he is a good guy.
So look for that strategy from the White House, but, Wolf, this comes as those who know the president best are admitting that he is backed into a corner at this point and it's pretty hard to determine what it is the president is going to do next -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Especially when he is backed into that corner. Kaitlan, thank you very much.
As the president tries to spin the Cohen plea deal, he's getting multiple facts wrong. He's falsely claiming, for example, that his former lawyer's campaign violations don't amount to a crime. They do. And he's trying to bolster his argument by stressing that he paid back Cohen, not his presidential campaign.
Let's bring in our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.
Shimon, the president told FOX News that the hush money payments to the women did not come from the campaign. Does that mean that they're OK?
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: No. Quite frankly, no, it doesn't mean it's OK, Wolf.
He says it's a little dicey. It's a little more than just a little dicey. Right? I mean, it's still a big deal. The fact that this was not initially reported. The fact that they did everything they could possibly to essentially cover this up. They did not want this information out there.
And if you look at the way government has looked at this, the prosecutors and the investigators, they say this was all done in an effort to influence the 2016 election. So that's a pretty big deal. Right? Essentially, Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to this. He's pleaded to campaign finance violations.
All of this obviously does not mean that the president is simply OK now that he says, well, I -- sort of this came from my own personal money and not the campaign. In fact, legal experts, if you talk to them about this, are trying to say now that the president here is admitting to committing a crime.
So it's a bigger issue than the president is trying to spin. He's trying to spin it in all sorts of different ways, initially saying, you know, I didn't know anything about this payment, now completely changing his story.
And we will see where this goes. But the bottom line, and I think the president and his people realize this, is nothing can really happen to the president at this point, because the Department of Justice, it seems at this point, has made it clear that they have no intention to try and go outside the guidelines in bringing charges, Wolf, against him.
So we will see. It's really going to be up to really probably members of Congress to start looking at this and see what they can do about it.
BLITZER: That's a good point. So what's next for Robert Mueller, the special counsel? PROKUPECZ: Look, there's still a lot going on, Wolf, and the bottom
line is, we just don't know. Right? We know some things. We know that Roger Stone is still in the crosshairs. There are people that are still supposed to appear before a grand jury.
We know that there was one person who has been fighting a grand jury subpoena. So, that much, we know. We know something's going on with Roger Stone. But there's still so much that we don't know. Michael Flynn, for instance, we know his sentencing was delayed at least through November. So what's going on there?
He's still cooperating. Rick Gates, who just finished testifying, he's still cooperating. That came up during the trial. Remember, at a bench conference, they talked about -- the government and the defense team talked about his cooperation. The judge did not want it out there publicly. He sealed that bench conference.
So what is Rick Gates still working on with the government? So, Wolf, clearly, in all honesty, what we don't know is probably more concerning and should be more troubling in this investigation for the president and the people close to the president than anything else.
BLITZER: What are you hearing about Roger Stone and any possible legal involvement affecting him?
PROKUPECZ: Well, Wolf, quite frankly, we also -- we have some idea that -- we know that the former madam was in to see the grand jury. We know that there are two other people, a person who was close to Roger Stone, Andrew Miller, who worked with him on the campaign, who did some other personal work for him, has been fighting the subpoena.
We don't exactly know why. All of that is sealed. So we don't know why he's fighting the subpoena. A judge held him in contempt when he didn't show up. So that is still ongoing. And there are probably other parts of this investigation, financial, the whole Russia collusion thing, we believe, is still ongoing. There are grand juries that are still active and hearing from witnesses.
So there's really, really a lot that's still ongoing, and we really don't have any idea about when this is going to end. And then the big question really, Wolf, is in the end, what will the president finally do? Will he go and meet with Mueller, sit down with investigators and answer their questions?
BLITZER: All excellent points. Thanks so much, Shimon Prokupecz, with that.
Let's talk about all of this and more. Michael Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, is with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
Lanny, thanks very much for coming in.
DAVIS: Hello, Wolf.
BLITZER: And I know you have been busy over these past several days. Let's talk about the president's latest statement in this new
interview, which I'm sure you have seen the excerpts, and with FOX News. The president says he only learned about the hush money payments to those two women, and he says he only heard later on. But he also says they weren't campaign violations because they came, he says -- quote -- "from me."
What's your reaction?
DAVIS: It's an incorrect understanding of the law.
The law pertains to whether it comes from him as a personal donation, which is what the interpretation is, or as a campaign fund donation. The law has limits and requires disclosure.
What the prosecutors found is that the money was paid two weeks from the election, motivated by a fear and a threat from Ms. Daniels that she was going to go public right before the election. So the finding of the prosecutors, subject to a jury in a trial, is that the motivation as a principal political purpose made that donation illegal and a felony.
And if it's a felony for Michael Cohen, my client, who pled guilty, it's certainly a felony for the man who, according to the prosecutors, directed and coordinated the payment of that illegal campaign contribution.
BLITZER: That's the way he phrased it, Michael Cohen, in court yesterday.
BLITZER: That he was directed to do so, it was coordinated by the then presidential candidate Donald Trump.
DAVIS: Just so you understand, that's true. He did use those words.
But those words were worked out and collaborated with the prosecutors. That's their view of the case. And they did not indict...
BLITZER: So, the U.S. attorneys for the Southern District of New York, the prosecutors, they knew he was going to say that?
BLITZER: Did they have backup evidence to support what he was going to say about the president?
DAVIS: Yes, they put out an information -- it's called an information -- which explains the case, referred to unnamed individuals from the campaign that provided evidence and individuals from the Trump Organization with wire transfers and documentation of the transfer of the money that Mr. Trump knew about, and indeed Rudy Giuliani admitted, even after Mr. Trump lied about it on Air Force One, when he said, I don't know anything about it.
Giuliani said, Mr. Cohen was reimbursed for what turned out to be a loan.
BLITZER: But was there any other person who heard, directly heard the president coordinate, direct Michael Cohen to go ahead with these payments to these two women?
DAVIS: Well, the information filed by the -- the answer is not explicitly named in the information filed by the prosecutors, but the prosecutors leave anonymous the individuals from the campaign and the individuals from the organization who would have been aware of Mr. Trump's knowledge, if not direction.
And making it illegal -- his distinction between personal and campaign funds, somebody's given him bad legal advice. Maybe it's Rudy Giuliani.
BLITZER: But who are those individuals that you suggest knew about all of this that could back up what Michael Cohen said in court yesterday?
DAVIS: We don't know, because the prosecutors chose to name them Individual One, Individual Two.
And I assume that those names will be either revealed or not revealed depending upon what the prosecutors decide. But for Mr. Cohen, he certainly agreed that Mr. Trump directed him to do this.
BLITZER: But has your client, Michael Cohen, told you who those two individuals are?
DAVIS: No. And he's not actually sure. It's hard to guess because there's a lot of people who were involved and aware about the Stormy Daniels issue, her threat to go public, the concern about the impact on the presidential race, and the decision for him to do the financing from his home to pay her the $130,000.
But the individuals, we can guess who they might be. But the prosecutors did not share that.
BLITZER: But I just want to be precise. You're saying a lot of people knew about this in advance?
DAVIS: Certainly, according to the information, there were several people. Mr. Cohen would say a lot of people, because in the Trump Organization, it was pretty commonly known.
As you know, President Trump has a doorway that lots of people are in and out of. And the culture around Mr. Trump was that most people knew most everything.
BLITZER: So when the president said in that FOX News interview today that he only learned about the payments, the hush money payment to Karen McDougal later on, was he lying? DAVIS: I don't know whether he was lying. It's not plausible to me
that he didn't know about this arrangement. But that would be up to a jury to decide.
On credibility, I would respectfully suggest that a president that lies so much is not exactly going to make a credible witness.
BLITZER: But there is that audio recording that Michael Cohen made that you released to CNN that shows the president talking about the payments in advance. And he says now he only learned about it later on.
DAVIS: Well, as I said, President Trump's record on telling the truth, he has a lawyer who says the truth is not the truth -- I would not take his credibility at a high level.
But the other thing in that tape you should listen to is the way the conversation began was a discussion about the polls, that the polls were looking better in the middle of October, which they were for Mr. Trump. So the context of the conversation was politics.
Then the decision to pay Ms. Daniels -- and maybe a jury would believe Mr. Trump that he never thought about the impact on his campaign if his affair with a porn star came out right before Election Day. There may be some people who believe that.
BLITZER: But I'm a little confused. Why are you not saying that the president today lied?
DAVIS: Well, I do think the president lied.
But that would be a redundancy, because this president has lied thousands of times, beginning with the biggest inauguration parade in American history, or Barack Obama not being an American citizen.
It is a problem for Mr. Trump that even his supporters laugh about. They know he's lying. He knows that they know he's lying. And in this case, were the prosecutors to bring a case against President Trump, as an incumbent president, unlikely, they would not have a hard time convincing a jury, I think, of the inference that he was motivated to make an illegal contribution for political purposes, which makes it a crime.
BLITZER: Let's go through some of the specifics. The prosecutors say the invoices that Michael Cohen submitted for reimbursement for the hush money payments to those two women, the prosecutors say that was all a sham.
To whom did Cohen submit those invoices?
DAVIS: I don't know. I think the invoices for -- are you talking about the technology contract? BLITZER: The invoices to get reimbursed for the $150,000 for Karen McDougal, the $130,000 for Stormy Daniels, plus the -- it was also bolstered because he wanted to make sure that Michael Cohen, who had to pay taxes on that money, would get a lot -- I think it came to around $400,000 total that the prosecutors say he was reimbursed.
DAVIS: So, the Trump Organization -- he borrowed the money based on an equity line on his house, way overcovered by the equity in his house.
He used that money, $130,000, at the direction, according to the information, of Mr. Trump and paid the hush money to Ms. Daniels. So, no came out.
BLITZER: And he worked with American Media to get the $150,000 to Karen McDougal?
Then, after the election, he was paid $35,000 a month, according to Mr. Giuliani, as well as the record, over the course of a year, so that he was paid the gross amount, then after taxes, down to $130,000, plus additional money for some services that he provided to the company.
So the answer to your question, he was paid by the Trump Organization.
BLITZER: Who did he send those invoices to, to get reimbursed?
DAVIS: To the Trump Organization.
BLITZER: I know, but who there? Which individuals?
DAVIS: I don't know. I actually forget the man's name who was the controller, the individual, the chief financial officer.
BLITZER: The chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who has now been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury.
DAVIS: I'm guessing, and I don't know that the invoices were sent to Mr. Weisselberg.
DAVIS: Weisselberg. I always have a problem with...
BLITZER: You have suggested that your client, Michael Cohen, has information that would be very useful to the special counsel, Robert Mueller. What is that information?
DAVIS: Well, I pick my words carefully. I'm not quibbling. I said would be of interest, that I believe that he observed and saw Mr. Trump being aware of the use of e-mails to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign that could only have been derived from illegal hacking from a Russian agency called WikiLeaks.
I believe that there is some information Mr. Cohen could provide to Mr. Mueller that would be of interest to Mr. Mueller. I don't know if it's a smoking gun or how decisive it is.
What I'm suggesting is that Mr. Cohen was an observer and was a witness to Mr. Trump's awareness of those e-mails before they were dropped, and it would pertain to the hacking of the e-mail accounts.
BLITZER: Has your client, Michael Cohen, already sat down with Robert Mueller or his special counsel team?
DAVIS: So there are certain questions as an attorney I can't answer. I hate not answering your questions after all these years, Wolf. But I cannot answer that question.
BLITZER: Why? Why is that so sensitive?
DAVIS: Because if the answer were either no or yes, it would violate a confidentiality understanding with the special counsel, whether you see him or not. And the last thing we want to do is violate confidentiality understandings, whether it's with the prosecutors, who Mr. Cohen greatly respects.
He wanted me to mention especially on your program that when he was booked and processed, he was treated very courteously. Even when he was raided by a massive search warrant, even his children's telephones on a Sunday, he thanked the FBI agents for their politeness.
So the answer is that Mr. Cohen took his responsibility, pled guilty, and now he's committed to one thing and one thing only, which is to tell the truth and to tell the truth about Mr...
BLITZER: So he's ready now? He's already pled guilty. He's ready now to cooperate with the special counsel Robert Mueller, assuming that Mueller wants him to get some more information?
What would he anticipate receiving in return? A reduced sentence?
DAVIS: Nothing has been offered. Nothing is on the table. There was no deal.
He will serve time based upon the guidelines on sentencing. He's without resources, owes a lot of money, and we have set up a GoFundMe site calling -- called Michael Cohen -- excuse me -- Michael CohenFactFund.com -- or TruthFund.com. Excuse me. MichaelCohenTruthFund.com.
As a way of asking people who supported his commitment to tell the truth, especially about Mr. Trump. He does need the help.
BLITZER: But you understand that by not saying whether or not he's already met with Mueller and his team, you're leaving open the possibility that he already has met with them. DAVIS: I am leaving open that possibility.
BLITZER: So we have to assume that it's likely that they did meet.
DAVIS: Possibility isn't likely. But I have to say I'm leaving open the possibility.
BLITZER: Yes, but you can't tell us? Is that what you're saying? Because of, what, attorney-client privilege? Is that what you're saying?
DAVIS: Both that and the confidentiality understandings. When we're dealing with people doing investigations, we don't talk about any meetings, yes or no.
BLITZER: Because there are a lot of other people who have met with the special counsel and done extensive Q&A. They have already announced it. It isn't a secret if you go ahead and answer questions from the special counsel.
DAVIS: Well, for a good period of time, Mr. Cohen was under criminal investigation. Now he's awaiting sentencing. And he is not going to discuss his conversations with the prosecutors or if he had any with Mr. Mueller.
But I am telling your audience that Mr. Cohen hired me when he decided to turn to the truth and to declare his independence from Mr. Trump. I never would have taken him on as a client if I didn't believe he meant what he said.
He has a big heart and a great family, and they're under great distress.
BLITZER: All right, yesterday was very interesting. In the courtroom, the judge said this to Michael Cohen.
He said: "Mr. Cohen, when you took all of these acts that you have described, did you know you that were doing -- that what you were doing was wrong and illegal?" And Michael Cohen responded, "Yes, Your Honor."
So when he was making these hush money payments, arranging these hush money payments for the then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, he knew he was acting criminally.
DAVIS: So, that's what he said, and that's what he meant. And he did it under oath.
My question is, Mr. Trump is still fencing with talking to Mr. Mueller not under oath. Would Mr. Trump have his interview, instead of with FOX, would he do it under oath and then see whether he tells the truth under oath?
Mr. Giuliani claims that that would be a perjury trap. We all know that when you tell the truth, there's no perjury. BLITZER: So when the president was, in Michael Cohen's words,
directing and coordinating with him to go ahead and make these hush money payments, do you believe the president knew this potentially could be illegal?
DAVIS: There's no question, or why would he keep it secret? He did it through Mr. Cohen, $130,000, with Mr. Cohen having to borrow from his equity line. If he didn't want to keep it a secret, why didn't he write a check and sign the check himself?
BLITZER: Well, he could make the John Edwards argument, he was trying to keep it secret so his wife wouldn't know about it.
DAVIS: But your question is, why did he do it? Was he trying to keep it secret? The answer is, if he wasn't trying to keep it secret, he wouldn't have used Mr. Cohen as a conduit, and rather than doing it openly and say, I'm not doing it for political purposes, I'm doing it to protect the information from my wife.
But that could be reasonably argued before a jury. It looks like it was motivated two weeks before the election by political purposes, and that's what the prosecutors found. And it would be up to Mr. Trump, if he's willing to testify under oath to say, no, I did it for other reasons.
BLITZER: Did Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential candidate, admit to your client, Michael Cohen, that he was having these alleged affairs with these two women?
DAVIS: I don't want to answer that question, because I think the private conversations about his personal life with Mr. Cohen is not what I was hired to talk about.
He broke the law, in my opinion and in the opinion of the prosecutors, by making a contribution that was politically motivated. Doesn't matter whether it was from campaign funds or personal. He got that wrong in the interview. But when he breaks the law, that's a corruption of the democratic process by making that campaign contribution to avoid the news coming out, just as the Russian meddling was a corruption of our democracy.
BLITZER: Here's what I don't understand, Lanny. Your client has just pled guilty. He's facing potentially five years in jail, half-a- million-dollar fine.
He says he wants to fully cooperate. He wants transparency. He wants to testify before Congress even without a subpoena. You have said he doesn't even want any pardon from the president, he wouldn't accept a pardon from the president of the United States.
So why are you reluctant to answer these kinds of sensitive questions right now? What does your client, Michael Cohen, have to lose if you answer these questions? DAVIS: Well, you're asking me whether Michael Cohen and Mr. Trump
discussed Mr. Trump's personal activities with women. And I don't think that's the issue.
I think the issue is the black letter law that he violated, which is a felony, and a corruption of the democratic process, by paying $130,000 to prevent news from coming out that would hurt his candidacy. The election laws are to keep democracy clean. He made it dirty, according to the prosecutors.
If he disagrees, then he can offer to testify under oath, the way that Mr. Cohen voluntarily accepted responsibility under oath.
BLITZER: So Michael Cohen testified under oath yesterday that he was involved, together with the president, in directing and coordinating the hush money payments for these two women.
BLITZER: Has your client, Michael Cohen, told you that similar hush money payments were made to other women?
DAVIS: I have not discussed that with Mr. Cohen, and it's not a subject that I would be interested in discussing.
DAVIS: I'm interested in illegality.
And what makes this hush money check of $130,000 directed by Mr. Cohen illegal under the black letter law, not the law made up by Mr. Trump, is that it was, according to the prosecutors, principally for the purpose of avoiding the bad publicity that would come from disclosure at the end of the campaign of this affair with Ms. Daniels.
BLITZER: Will Michael Cohen testify, whether before the special counsel, or if he testifies before Congress, the House or the Senate, that President Trump had advanced knowledge of the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's e-mails?
DAVIS: So, I can't answer that question, and I'm not sure what his answer would be.
But I have given you my intuition that what he knows would be of interest on that subject to Mr. Mueller. Whether he would testify exactly as you stated, I just can't answer, as his lawyer.
BLITZER: What evidence does Michael Cohen have that the president knew in advance about that controversial Trump Tower meeting that his son, his son-in-law, the campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, had with these Russians leading up to the 2016 election?
DAVIS: So, again, at this juncture, I can only say that he was present during a discussion with Jr. and dad.
And beyond that, his testimony to the Senate Intelligence and House Intelligence Committees was accurate.
BLITZER: As you know, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance today subpoenaed your client, Michael Cohen, to be part of their investigation into the overall Trump Foundation.
Will he testify? Will he go forward and cooperate with this New York state investigation?
DAVIS: So I haven't talked to him today specifically, but I will say, based on everything he's told me about not only cooperating, but wanting to tell the truth, especially about Mr. Trump and questions concerning his foundation that have been published and are widely known, he would cooperate with that investigation.
But that's my guess.
BLITZER: Well, we have got a lot of questions, as you know, and you were very generous with your time to come in.
DAVIS: Thank you.
BLITZER: We'd love to you come back when you have a follow-up conversation with Michael Cohen. Maybe we can get some answers to some of these sensitive issues you really didn't want to discuss.
But it is always good to have you here in our SITUATION ROOM.
DAVIS: Thanks, Wolf. Great to be here. Thank you.
BLITZER: Thank you very much, Lanny, for that.
DAVIS: Thank you.
BLITZER: Appreciate it.
Joining us now, Congressman Jim Himes. He's a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Good evening, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's go through some of these sensitive issues.
As you know, President Trump says he learned of the hush money payments now only later on, his words, later on. But they came from him, not the campaign, so they weren't necessarily campaign finance violations, he says. What do you make of that argument?
HIMES: Well, I don't know what he means by later on.
I do know that there is a tape of the president saying he knows nothing about these payments, and then, of course, now he says he does know about those payments, but later on.
But I have been around the campaign world long enough to know that his interpretation of the law -- that is to say that if I use my personal money to -- and I almost hate to reiterate this -- to buy the silence of a porn star two weeks before the election, that's not an FEC, Federal Election Commission, violation.
It is. There are disclosure requirements. Anything you do that contributes to the -- to a campaign must, at a minimum, be disclosed. And there are limits and there are all sorts of rules around it.
So, the president is just plain wrong that that is not a violation of law.
Now, this gets us into the fine points about whether the president will be indicted. I'm not a lawyer, but I doubt it very much. The remedy here is political which is particularly frustrating for somebody like me. I mean, we sort of lose the forest for the trees here. You know we're arguing about whether this particular indictment had to do with conclusion -- sorry, collusion. We're sort of forgetting the fact that what we're talking about here is alleged but credible violation of the law by the president to pay off a porn star and a playmate around an affair that he alleged to have -- I just - you know if this had been Barack Obama, who I think the most serious charge they could level at him was that he wore a khaki suit, you know, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, they would have been impeached 50 times over by now and be rotting away in the subbasement of Fort Knox. So it's just -- to somebody who plays in the political realm it's just -- it's mind-boggling.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So if the Democrats, and you're a Democrat, become the majority in the House of Representatives following the midterm elections in November, do you think it would be appropriate to immediately begin impeachment proceedings based on what you've just learned, for example, from Michael Cohen?
HIMES: No, Wolf, I do not. And I feel very strongly about this. No forward motion should be made on impeachment until Special Counsel Mueller has had a chance to finish his work and to tell us what the truth is. Impeachment proceedings or anything else that happens outside of the completed investigation, and I put emphasis on the word completed, because a day does not go by when my constituents don't ask me whether Donald Trump is going to stop Mueller's work, fire Mueller, stop that from happening. The president needs, if he believes he's going to be cleared, that investigation to finish and certainly the American people need that to be finished. And Congress shouldn't start throwing around the concept of impeachment until we have all the facts.
BLITZER: What are the chances, Congressman, that Republicans, the majority members of your committee, the House Intelligence Committee, will bring back Michael Cohen to testify?
HIMES: I don't have to think too hard about that to tell you the chances of that happening are zero. You know, sadly, our investigation was ended by Chairman Devin Nunes. This comes after a year of Chairman Nunes using that investigation largely -- or using the resources of the committee largely to defend the president. And by the way, that's basically his words. There was that tape of him at a fund-raiser in California saying that you know we are all that stands between this president and impeachment or the Democrats going after him.
And so we're back to our regular work of oversight of the Intelligence Community. I don't think we'll take this up. We Democrats continue to try to talk to witnesses because we think that the truth must come out. Of course the Senate investigation continues. And most importantly, most importantly, of course, Bob Mueller's investigation continues. And as we have seen dramatically yesterday, far from being anything but a witch hunt, it is a very carefully done, competently executed investigation that has produced a lot of results.
BLITZER: Michael Cohen says the president knew about that Trump Tower meeting ahead of time. How credible do you think his claim is?
HIMES: Well, you know, I can only answer that question in a general sense in the way that Lanny Davis talked about it. I don't know exactly what the president knew or didn't know. That's why he should go before the special counsel for an interview. What I can tell you is what everybody knows, which is that the president is incapable of telling the truth on just about anything. And again that's not a debatable proposition. There is videotape showing him on all sides of this particular issue. And it's interesting.
Again, from the political point of view, as Lanny Davis said when you were talking to him, that doesn't seem to matter to his supporters. And I think his supporters, not just out there but in the United States Congress, really need to look themselves in the mirror and say we've got a president of the United States who is a serial liar, who apparently was covering up affairs, violating federal law, whose top people, Manafort, Gates, Flynn, Papadopoulos, his two biggest supporters in Congress, Collins, Duncan Hunter, are going to jail, or at least have been indicted.
Do I really want to hitch my wagon to that? And I understand the political realities for Republicans. It's a scary, scary thing to oppose the president of your own party, certainly going into an election. But you'd like to believe that integrity and honor require something other than political calculation.
[18:35:08] BLITZER: The president today praised Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman who was found guilty yesterday on eight federal counts. The president saying unlike Michael Cohen he refused to break, make up stories in order to get a deal. "such respect for a brave man." those are the president's words. If the presidential goes ahead and pardons Paul Manafort, what will you do?
HIMES: Well, we'll have a long conversation that is irrelevant as to whether the president can pardon. Of course the president can pardon. The president has an unconditional right to pardon. However -- and I would say two things about it. Number one, a pardon can be part of obstruction of justice, which is a crime. So if the president pardons somebody for the purpose of stopping an investigation or interfering with an investigation that can be a crime.
Secondarily, and again, I keep saying this. The remedy to this problem at the end of the day is political. If the president were to start pardoning convicted or admitted felons, all of whom happen to be his guys, you know, what's the difference between the Oval Office and the mafia? How are Americans to think differently about the president than they would from some sort of kleptocratic mafia boss or Vladimir Putin. We have rule of law in this country. So I would expect that if the president starts pardoning those people who have admitted to committing crimes on his behalf, if he cancels the Mueller investigation, you are going to see a level of anger in this country that will have one heck of a lot of political force.
BLITZER: I'll just point out to you, I did some research. Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona, as you know a close political ally of the president, he was found guilty of criminal contempt on July 31st, 2017. The president issued a pardon of Sheriff Arpaio on August 25th, 2017, less than a month later. His sentencing had been scheduled for October of 2017 but he went ahead with the pardon. I wouldn't be surprised, and I want your reaction, honest reaction, if the president does the same thing for Paul Manafort.
HIMES: Well, again, I am not very good at climbing into the president's head and understanding what goes on in there. But I can speak with a little bit of authority on the political repercussions of such a move. Again, if the president starts pardoning people who broke the laws in his service or who were very closely attached to him and try as the president might, Paul Manafort was his campaign chairman. Rick Gates was the vice chairman of his campaign. If he starts saying that if you're associated with me and you're a criminal you're OK.
I think an awful lot of Americans are going to realize that that's not the country that we are, that's not the president that we want, that is not a precedent that we want to establish in the country. That is gangsterism. There's no other way to describe it. And I do think that that will cause a reaction that would be stunning, frankly, in its political impact.
BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes thanks so much for joining us.
HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, Michael Cohen once said he'd take a bullet for Donald Trump. Now he's the target of the president's attacks on Twitter. So what kind of legal troubles could he make for the president? And does Cohen have anything to tell the Special Counsel Robert Mueller?
[18:43:15] BLITZER: We're following all the breaking news on the fallout from the Michael Cohen plea deal after the former Trump fixer implicated the president of the United States in campaign finance crimes. The White House sticking to the mantra that Mr. Trump did nothing wrong, even as the president changes his story yet again.
Let's bring in our analysts to assess. Joey Jackson, the White House says the president did nothing wrong. Those are the words that Sarah Sanders kept saying. I want you to listen today to how the president explained the hush money payments to those two women during an interview with Fox News. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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. 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 -- it's not even a campaign violation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. So what's your reaction to that? Because so many people, experts have said it is a campaign violation. What's the president's strategy here?
JOEY JACKSON, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: So Wolf, it's very difficult for me to discern the president's strategy when I don't think he knows what the strategy is. You cannot say one thing on Monday, I did know, another thing on Tuesday, I didn't know, another thing on Wednesday. I could only guess that his strategy is to develop a narrative that fits and comports with his point of view and what he thinks the evidence is. That's not how it goes.
There's something in law called a prior inconsistent statement. What does that mean? It means you instruct the jury that if someone says something different one, two, three, four different times it goes to their inability to tell the truth. And at the end of the day you have to wonder. It's a timing issue with me. Why is he changing his story the day after his fixer was in court speaking to the issue of this guy, right? A person for federal office, the president, coordinated and directed me to do something.
And so, it smacks of perhaps Cohen is the reality and has spoken the reality and the president doesn't like that reality, so he has to tell all the people that follow him something different. And I think it's a loser of a strategy.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: You know, Susan Hennessey, the president acknowledging, yes, he did know about the payments. Is he acknowledging a crime was committed?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY ATTORNEY: So the president actually seems to be confused about the law. So, he's insisting no campaign funds were used, no campaign funds were used. Well, actually, if campaign funds were used, that probably wouldn't be a violation of the law assuming they properly reported it to the Federal Elections Commission.
The crime here is facilitating a private individual to make a campaign contribution in excess of the limit and also facilitating a corporation making a campaign donation here. So, I think he's actually sort of potentially incriminating himself by what he appears to be mounting as his defense. You know, beyond that I think we have to acknowledge it's just not credible at this point that the president was not aware of this at the time that these payments were made. Michael Cohen has now stated this under oath. He has audiotape that appears to corroborate his story.
You know, this notion that Michael Cohen was acting on behalf of the president to bind him in these non-disclosure agreements without his knowledge or consent, you know, strained belief from the outset. I think at this point we're beyond the breaking point.
BLITZER: April -- April Ryan is with us. You were there at the White House today --
APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.
BLITZER: -- when the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, she kept repeating the words "no charges against the president, he did nothing wrong". What's going through your mind as you hear repeatedly time -- in almost response to every question on this subject she said no charges?
RYAN: Well, what's going through my mind is the fact they had tried to work on a message that they worked since yesterday on. And I wanted to see how, one, how they were handling it. They tried to operate from a stance of strength. But it didn't work so well.
Granted, the president is not charged. But this man who was in his inner circle has evidence which could be damaging and damning for the president. And the president could also be named as an unindicted co- conspirator in this.
And it's not just about this. This White House is shaken and in shock from the way I'm understanding. And if you look at the president, how he handled the ceremony today, he was not his same self. And they're trying to operate from a stance of strength.
But this isn't it. These tapes and this plea deal, this is not it. They've got the issue of June 9th and what happened at Trump Tower.
There's more to come. And they're trying to figure out how to deal with it, trying to get their base to understand, hey, you know, we're still good, we're still good, when indeed it's not. They are in crisis mode.
BLITZER: From a legal standpoint, David Swerdlick, how worried should the president be right now?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think it's evident from that interview with Ainsley Earhart. I agree with everything Joey and Susan said.
But to your point, April, about the president trying to operate from a position of strength, when he was in that interview, it's either that he didn't understand the law or that he's counting on the public not to understand what a campaign finance violation is. And by saying this money didn't come out of the campaign coffers, it's possible that what he's trying to say is, if it didn't come out of the campaign coffers, why is anybody even making a big deal out of it even though, as you said, Susan, what it is is that his campaign gained something of value from these payments. BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Joey Jackson. Yesterday Michael
Cohen, you know, he pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, but Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, he was found guilty of eight felony counts, financial crimes, tax evasion, bank fraud.
On Twitter, though, this morning the president tweeted this. And I'll read it to you.
I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. Justice -- and the word "justice" is 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.
It sounds like the president is setting the stage for a pardon.
JACKSON: It certainly does.
So, let's review a couple of things, Wolf, to be clear.
Number one, let's review our judicial process. We have a jury, and we've talked about how the jury spent so much time deliberating over these 18 counts, coming up with eight. The president is assailing the jury process, right, because you have members who served and who focused and paid attention and they reached a conclusion. Not convicting him of everything but convicting him on what they thought was appropriate.
Number two, the president is making a reference to now a convicted felon. So this is who you feel bad about, after a jury made a determination about?
Number three, what I think the president's doing is sending a signal, A, that certainly he's going to pardon him but any and all of you out there who are with me who would be as loyal as Manafort was, you will be pardoned, too.
[18:50:09] And I think that's the overall message from what the president said.
BLITZER: You know, David, there was a bizarre sound byte from the president last night in his campaign rally last night, he was talking about getting a deal with North Korea and then he noted that people were complaining it was taking too long.
Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Sir, can you get this done immediately? I said it doesn't work that way, I don't want to go too fast, the deal is not going to be any good if we do that. We got to take time. It's got to gestate, right? The word gestate. It's like when you're cooking the chicken on time. Turkey for
Thanksgiving. My mother would say, oh, eight hours. I said, eight hours? She made the greatest turkey I ever had.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So people are wondering, you know, what was all that about?
SWERDLICK: Two things going on there. One is that these campaign rallies serve as sort of an opportunity for the president to just throw everything at the kitchen sink, hope there's something for everybody in the crowd, everyone will like at least one thing they hear. So, if people want to hear about North Korea, he is going to talk about it.
The other thing, Wolf, though, is that he likes to -- the president likes to portray himself as the ultimate deal maker. And since there's no deal, he's got to have a narrative. And that narrative is it's cooking, it's simmering, it's in the background. Wait and see.
BLITZER: He was clearly in a fowl mood.
BLITZER: No doubt about it.
Just ahead, Democrats say they've been targeted again in an attempted cyber attack that's frighteningly sophisticated. Was it the Russians? We're going to tell you what we're learning.
And as concerns about interference in the midterm elections keep growing, why has election security bill hit a wall in Congress?
[18:56:25] BLITZER: We are following new evidence of Russian interference ahead of midterm elections. Facebook shutting down hundreds of fake disinformation accounts, and the Democratic National Committee detecting a sophisticated attempt to hack its voter database.
Let's bring in our senior national correspondent Alex Marquardt.
Alex, senators, they were briefed on election security throughout this day.
ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, all these news briefing as these senators on Capitol Hill were getting a briefing on election security from federal agencies today. One (INAUDIBLE) in South Carolina said that his take away is that the Russians are, quote, still at it to an extent it is unnerving. This as we learned, also today, that hackers who have still are unidentified targeted the DNC in another attempt to gain access to Democratic voter files.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MARQUARDT (voice-over): The Democratic Party's voter database targeted with a sophisticated hacking attempt. A bogus website designed to look just like the access page used by Democratic Party officials and campaigns across the country. A so-called spear phishing attack, trying to get Democratic officials to use the fake login page to capture their usernames and passwords.
The DNC told CNN it doesn't think the plot was successful, and is still investigating who is behind the attempted attack.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We know they're attempting to manipulate us through a variety of means. So any attack on a political party or campaign is important for us all to take seriously.
MARQUARDT: With fewer than three months before midterm elections, the Department of Homeland Security today gave a rare look at the nerve center where it monitors the country's critical infrastructure, including elections.
The room filled with members of different federal agencies and the private sector who would coordinate their responses during an emergency.
NIELSEN: Every day, we get new reminders the threat to our democracy and our election is real and it's not unfortunately going away.
MARQUARDT: This as Facebook announced removal of over 650 dubious pages and accounts linked to Iranian and Russian state actors. Global disinformation campaigns targeting the Middle East, Latin America, the U.K. and the U.S. that reached 1 million people. In many cases, accounts linked to Iranian state media, posting pro-Palestinian, anti- Brexit, anti-Trump memes, among other things.
Then, Twitter following suit, kicking almost 300 accounts off its platform, also from Iran, an emerging cyber threat.
This week, Microsoft said it uncovered evidence of a new Russian attempted hack, announcing it had taken control of six phony spear phishing websites created by hackers, backed by Russian military intelligence, the sites targeting the U.S. Senate and two conservative think tanks critical of Russia.
BRAD SMITH, PRESIDENT, MICROSOFT: There's no doubt they were responsible for these six sites. There's no doubt they were responsible for really the most serious attacks in 2016 and the attacks we saw in France in the presidential election there last year.
MARQUARDT: They were from the same group of Russian hackers known as Fancy Bear behind the attack on the 2016 presidential election, indicted by the special counsel's investigation.
MARQUARDT: Microsoft said this most recent attempted attack on the conservative think tanks is evidence of Russia broadening their attacks. And while big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft are getting praise for recent actions, one group that isn't tonight is the Senate. Republicans today pulled their support for the bipartisan Secure Elections Act that has been worked on for months, postponing the vote, and infuriating Democrats -- Wolf.
WOLF: Understandably. This is a sensitive, sensitive issue.
MARQUARDT: Many feel they should be taking more action.
WOLF: Alex, thanks very much for that report.
That's it. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.