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Trump Praises Manafort; GOP Faces Test; Mueller Could Speak with Cohen; Republican Reacts to Trump being Implicated in Crime. Aired 1:00-1:30p ET

Aired August 22, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer. 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

The stunning turn of events putting the Trump presidency at a crossroads as Michael Cohen implicates the president in hush money schemes, questions grow over whether a sitting president can be indicted.

Plus, the president responds praising convicted felon Paul Manafort for, quote, not breaking like Michael Cohen. Did President Trump just open the door to a pardon?

And the deafening silence from Capitol Hill. So many Republicans refusing to comment as talks of impeachment become a reality among Democrats.

All that coming up.

But up first, a tale of two felons. President Trump praises Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, now convicted on eight federal counts of tax and bank fraud. The president tweeted this, and I'm quoting him, I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. Justice, and he puts the word justice 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. Closed quote.

The president took another swipe at Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and personal fixer for more than a decade, who pleaded guilty to eight charges and implicated the president of the United States in a hush money scheme. The president tweeted this, quote, if anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen, closed quote.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Abby Phillip.

Abby, is this part the president's plan to discredit Michael Cohen and possibly set the stage for pardoning Paul Manafort?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. The president's allies and the president himself engaged in what can only be an effort to discredit Michael Cohen and to call him a liar who simply can't be trusted. You saw a preview of that message from President Trump this morning on Twitter. He accused Michael Cohen of breaking but said that he is -- implied that he was a bad lawyer, implying also that anything that Michael Cohen might have offered up in exchange for his plea deal could not be relied on.

However, it's clear that this is not going to be a case of Michael Cohen's word against the president's. There would also have to be proof. That's something that the president did not discuss at all in his morning tweet about Cohen.

BLITZER: Abby, what's the mood over there inside the White House right now? How did staffers react when this really significant, historic news broke about Manafort and Cohen?

PHILLIP: That's right, Wolf. So double barreled bad news day for the White House yesterday. Left so many White House staffers simply stunned by these developments.

Earlier in the day, when these aides saw that the jury came back with a question about one count, about not being able to reach a conclusion on one count, sources say they were pretty buoyed by that. They thought maybe that this would be good news. Later in the day, clearly that jury came back with eight guilty convictions for Manafort. Then later the Cohen news, according to this source, really completely blindsided them. They were not expecting that in the slightest. And, of course, President Trump, according to another source, was even surprised to find that he was directly implicated in Michael Cohen's guilty plea, really raising the stakes for the president in a case, that Michael Cohen case, that we know that he's been extremely worried about for many, many months now. This is a case that could simply touch on his businesses, his family and also his presidency, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, good reason for him to be deeply concerned right now.

Abby Phillip over at the White House, thank you.

Republicans, meanwhile, in Congress, for the most part, they failed to act as a check on President Trump, but will these guilty verdicts plea -- and guilty plea serve as a moment of reckoning for a party hoping to stay in control in November? At the same time, can Democrats use this to their advantage to try to stall Brett Kavanaugh's nomination for the United States Supreme Court.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly. He's up on Capitol Hill.

So what are you hearing from both sides, Phil?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, as you would expect, Republicans not exactly rushing out to talk about this. And those who are, certainly not willing to do so in a critical way.

You just look at where Republican leaders are. I ran into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier today. He chose not to respond when I asked him about this. Speaker Paul Ryan said they need more information. John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, said that while things were serious, this had nothing to do with Russia.

Take a listen also to what Senator Orrin Hatch had to say, basically saying that, yes, there are issues here, but we're not really sure what else we can do. Take a listen.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE: Those are serious charges and they can't be ignored.

QUESTION: Do you think it's high crimes and misdemeanors?

HATCH: I wouldn't go that far to (INAUDIBLE).

QUESTION: Do you -- do you think this opens up the president to being indicted while sitting in office? It's never been done (ph).

[13:05:02] HATCH: No, I don't, because I don't think he can be indicted while sitting in office. But we'll just have to see where this all works out.


MATTINGLY: Wolf, it's somewhat of a familiar refrain up here where something happens at the White House, some Republicans have concerns, others don't want to weigh in on it at all. I can tell you, behind the scenes, aides I've talked to made very clear, they know how serious this is. They just aren't really sure what their bosses should do about it.

Now, on the Democratic side, you've seen Democrats, led by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer coalesce around a single strategy. Take a listen.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: A president identified as an unindicted co-conspirator of a federal crime, an accusation made not by a political enemy but by the closest of his own confidantes, 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.


MATTINGLY: Wolf, Senator Schumer referring to Brett Kavanaugh, the president's Supreme Court nomination pick. His first scheduled hearing is supposed to happen September 4th. And what you've heard from Democrat after Democrat after Democrat this morning is not impeachment. In fact, many of them don't want to touch the issue at all. It's all about that nomination, saying that as long as this is an issue that's hanging out there, those hearings should be postponed.

Senator Mazie Hirono, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said she has canceled her one-on-one meeting with Brett Kavanaugh. Wolf, you know this well, the reality is Republicans control the

chamber. Republicans have the votes if they are unanimous to actually move this nomination through. But right now Democrats hoping this issue helps their push, not just to block the nomination on the floor, but to pause the hearings altogether, Wolf.

BLITZER: And I'll be speaking live with Senator Hirono later this hour. So we'll hear what she has to say.

Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.

Michael Cohen is willing to testify before Congress about President Trump and willing to testify without immunity. That according to his lawyer Lanny Davis. Davis also says Cohen has information of interest to the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In interviews with CNN, Davis expanded on what Cohen has to offer and why Cohen turned on the man he once said he'd take a bullet for.


LANNY DAVIS, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL COHEN: His patriotism and love of country caused him to recognize the danger of this particular president, his lack of suitability to be president of the United States.

It's my observation that Mr. Cohen has knowledge that would be of interest to this special counsel about the issue of whether Donald Trump, ahead of time, knew about the hacking of e-mails, which is a computer crime that was the subject of the indictment of the 12 Russians.


BLITZER: All right, let's discuss this and more with our experts. CNN political analyst Molly Ball is with us. CNN legal analyst Ross Garber and Carrie Cordero are with us as well.

Carrie, do you think Michael Cohen has enough information that would be worthwhile to Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor, the special counsel, to go ahead and bring him in for questioning and maybe work out some sort of deal with him?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's the big question. What information of value does Michael Cohen have? I have tended to think over the last few weeks as his public messaging continued to go along the same lines as Lanny Davis just said, that Michael Cohen has information to tell, I've tended to think that if he really had information that the investigators need, that they would have already been talking to him. And so I'm inclined to think that the investigators have -- may not need Michael Cohen as much as Michael Cohen needs a deal to lessen his jail time sentence when he comes up for sentencing.

BLITZER: He could get five years in December. That's when he's scheduled to be sentenced. CORDERO: According to his current plea, he could get five years. And

so I think that it's in his interest and that's why we're seeing his lawyer out front arguing that he has information of value.

But all this time, the special counsel investigators could have been talking to Michael Cohen. And if they haven't, then I'm inclined to think that maybe they don't need him as much as he might need them.

BLITZER: Very interesting, Ross, because the president, you saw those tweets that he posted this morning, he said Paul Manafort, now a convicted felon, stealing millions of dollars from American taxpayers in these various schemes he was up with, he calls him a brave man who refused to break and make up stories to get a deal. And he contrasted that with Michael Cohen.

So you think the president is setting the stage for a pardon for Paul Manafort?

ROSS GARBER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It seems hard to read it otherwise. That's the message. The message is, hang in there, buddy. Hang tough. It's going to be OK.

And to me the extraordinary thing is that it was communicated in public over Twitter. You can -- you can potentially see something like that communicated with winks and nods, you know, through intermediaries. But it's hard to read that any other way than, look, if you hang in there, there's a pardon waiting for you.

[13:10:05] BLITZER: Because I remember it was not that long ago Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona, he was found guilty of criminal contempt on July 31, 2017. Within a month, August 25, 2017, the president issued a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio, even though his scheduling hadn't even been set -- scheduled until October 5th of 2017. Could you see a similar kind of scenario unfold now?

GARBER: Yes, I really think the only questions now are, number one, when will the pardon happen? And I think there are lots of reasons it should happen sooner rather than later if you're Donald Trump. You know, second is, who else gets pardoned at the same time? Does he also pardon Michael Cohen and others? And I think those are really the big issues right now.

BLITZER: Here's the one problem, and I'll get to you in a moment, Molly. But the one problem if he does issue a pardon, then he could be subpoenaed to come before -- we're talking about Paul Manafort -- testify before Congress. He no longer can plead the Fifth, right, if he has a pardon from the president of the United States?

GARBER: Well, maybe and maybe not. Remember, some of the charges were tax fraud charges, which may also expose him to consequences -- criminal consequences in state court. And so his equivalent to the Fifth Amendment right is available in that context.

And it's very rare for a judge to say, no, you can't invoke the Fifth. You have to testify.

I think, as a practical matter, he probably still could decline to testify.

BLITZER: Molly, how do you see all this unfolding?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think with all due respect, there are -- there is a way to read it that is not just as a signal that Trump is going to pardon Cohen. I think if he did intend to pardon him, he --

BLITZER: Pardon Cohen you're talking about?

BALL: No, sorry, to pardon Manafort.

BLITZER: Manafort, yes.

BALL: If he -- if he intended to do that, he has had a lot of time when he could have done that and he hasn't seen fit to do it so far. And his insistent all along, including after the verdict, has been, this case has nothing to do with me. This is stuff that Manafort did long before I ever knew him. And, you know, there is a point to him announcing this in public, on Twitter, to your point, rather than simply sending a private message.

He is speaking to the public. He is speaking to his base and his supporters and to Republicans. He is sending a message about the whole narrative he's been shaping of this investigation. The narrative of the witch hunt. The narrative of loyalty and disloyalty. These characters that he's created in the public imagination to say, here is a good man who's been loyal to me. Here is a bad man who's not loyal to me and we can't trust him. He's continuing his ongoing campaign to discredit anything that Michael Cohen says by creating this contrast with the character of Manafort.

GARBER: I agree. I think the fact that it's happening in public and that we all get to see it is -- you're exactly right, it's still fascinating and I think extraordinary.

BLITZER: Some have suggested, Carrie, that if he were to issue a pardon for Manafort, that could be seen potentially as obstruction of justice. Do you believe that?

CORDERO: Whether or not it could be obstruction, I think is an open question.

I tend to think that his language that he's using for Manafort really does track the language that he has used to exercise his pardon authority already. If he pardons Manafort, one way that it could be interpreted as part of the obstruction chain is that -- does that then signal to other individuals wrapped up in the broader Russia investigation that pardons are going to be handed out. That anybody that he deems in his own personal capacity to have been treated fairly or he thinks the person's a good person, or whatever it is that Donald Trump has a problem with law enforcement because -- and the justice system because, remember, a jury of peers, an actual federal jury found Paul Manafort guilty. It wasn't -- it's not that he's just been charged at this point. He's been found guilty by a jury after a trial. And that's the way that our justice systems work. So the question really, for Congress, from a political perspective is,

how far are they willing to watch the president use his pardon authority before they observe that it is not just an exercise of that authority but an abuse of his constitutional authority.

BLITZER: And the problem the president might have, and I'm anxious, Ross, to get your thoughts, is that Paul Manafort now, over a period -- he's been convicted, eight counts -- over a period of many years was cheating U.S. taxpayers of millions of dollars, refusing to pay taxes that he was supposed to be paying, and the president calls him a fine person, a decent guy, a wonderful guy and all of this. Somebody who was -- who was betraying the country for so many years, why would the president be praising him along these lines?

GARBER: Well, he seems to have great affection for Paul Manafort. He may honestly believe that Manafort was treated unfairly. I mean but for his association, Manafort's association with the president, the odds are pretty good that Manafort would not have been prosecuted and tried and convicted of these (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: Well, we wouldn't have known about his crimes.

GARBER: No. Exactly. And --

BLITZER: But now that we know about his crimes, the president is still praising him.

[13:15:02] GARBER: And still praising him. And, you know, the president might also think that it was unfair that he was jailed, you know, pretrial. So the president may actually believe that Paul Manafort was treated and has been treated unfairly.

BLITZER: All right, we've got a lot more to access. Guys, thank you very, very much. Everyone stand by.

All eyes now on House Republicans, how they'll handle this news. I'll speak live with one of them who also happens to be a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Plus, the sheer number of people in the president's orbit who are now convicted criminals or in serious legal trouble. That number is growing. We'll break it down for you.

And one Democratic senator is standing by to join us live after she just cancelled her meeting with the U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh since the president is what she calls an unindicted co- conspirator.

Stay with us. This is CNN's special coverage.


[13:20:13] BLITZER: It's a very dramatic conclusion to a month-long scandal. The president's former personal attorney and fixer admitting in federal court that he paid off a porn star and a playmate to prevent their alleged affairs with Mr. Trump from becoming public during the 2016 campaign and that he did so under the direct direction of Mr. Trump. Michael Cohen's admission is shocking on its face, but also because it exposes the alarming number of lies voters were led to believe by the president and those closest to him.


BLITZER (voice over): January 12, 2018. "The Wall Street Journal" reports Michael Cohen arranged a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels just one month before the 2016 election to keep her from going public about an alleged affair with Mr. Trump. In a statement, Cohen called the allegation about the affair outlandish.

Then, on February 13th, Cohen told "The New York Times" he used his own personal funds to pay off Daniels, saying neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction and neither reimbursed me for the payment.

On March 5th, "The Wall Street Journal" reported Cohen wired the money to Daniels' lawyer just 12 days before the election. Cohen responded with a two-word e-mail statement, fake news.

Two days later, the White House weighed in.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, I've had conversations with the president about this. There was no knowledge of any payments from the president, and he's denied all of these allegations.

BLITZER: On April 5th, President Trump broke his silence on the Stormy Daniels payments, denying involvement.

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


QUESTION: Then why --

TRUMP: What else?

QUESTION: Why won't -- why did Michael Cohen make this if there was no truth to her allegations?

TRUMP: Well, you'd have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael's my -- an attorney and you'll have to ask Michael Cohen.

BLITZER: But a few days later, he acknowledged Cohen did represent him in the deal with Daniels.

TRUMP: He represents me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me. And, you know, from what I see, he did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds going into this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then why is he pleading the Fifth?

TRUMP: Which would have been a -- BLITZER: On May 2nd, Mr. Trump's current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, took it one step further.

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: No campaign finance violation. So --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They funneled it through the law firm.

GIULIANI: Funneled it through a law firm and the president repaid it. But he did know about the general arrangement that Michael would take care of things like this.

BLITZER: The following morning, in a series of tweets, Mr. Trump added that Cohen received a monthly retainer.

Then, on July 24th, Cohen's lawyer released a secret recording between Cohen and Mr. Trump discussing the logistics of another payment. This time to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

MICHAEL COHEN, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S FORMER ATTORNEY: When it comes time for the financing, which will be --

TRUMP: (INAUDIBLE). What financing?

COHEN: We'll have to pay (INAUDIBLE) --

TRUMP: (INAUDIBLE) pay with cash.

COHEN: No. No, no, no, no, no.

BLITZER: On August 21st, Cohen officially flipped on his former boss and plead guilty to campaign finance charges stemming from those payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. He also told the federal judge the McDougal payment was for the principal purpose of influencing the election.


BLITZER: We should note that President Trump denies these affairs with these two women.

Joining us now, Utah Congressman Chris Stewart. He's a Republican. He's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.

It's very nice of you, congressman, to join us today. So many of your Republican colleagues are sort of run away from TV cameras right now. But thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: I want to get your reaction clearly to Michael Cohen, the president's longtime personal attorney and fixer. What he told this federal court yesterday about the president's direct coordination, direction in these payoffs to these two women.

STEWART: Well, wolf, it's a mess. And, look, I honestly don't know what to believe at this point. Mr. Cohen has been very inconsistent in his statements. The president hasn't been terribly consistent in some of the things that he has said. I think we're going to -- it's going to take a little while for us to really understand what really happened here.

I do want to say this, though.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

STEWART: And that is that, well, there's this -- there's this allegation or this pleading that he made these payments. And that would -- that would only be legally effective if it was -- if it was an illegal campaign contribution of some kind. And FEC law is a very kind of a -- a click margin -- I mean click area of -- it's very complicated, but I talked with an FEC attorney this morning and he said I don't think that would be illegal. And now there are others who clearly think it would be. I'm interested to see what the FEC has to say about this and what their findings would be.

[13:25:09] BLITZER: Well, would it be illegal if you, as a -- you're running for the U.S. House of Representatives, gave someone else money to pay off, only days before an election, these kinds of allegations from emerging? Would that be illegal?

STEWART: Well, I mean, if I use my campaign funds, it clearly would be illegal. If I use my personal funds, I don't know that it -- that it would be. And I'm -- look, I'm not trying to defer, I'm not trying to protect, I'm just saying, I genuinely don't -- I genuinely don't know.

BLITZER: No, because it -- but you're making -- but if that money was being used as a what they call an in-kind campaign contribution, the money that you're giving someone else being used as an in-kind campaign contribution, and it isn't disclosed to the FEC as an in-kind campaign contribution, wouldn't that be illegal?

STEWART: I honestly don't know that. I mean and John Edwards, as you know, was tried on something very similar. He was not convicted on that. I think this is, as I said, it's a -- it's --

BLITZER: John Edwards.

STEWART: Yes. It's a very niche -- a niche area of law and there's not much expertise in this.

But, you know, if I could draw one other comparison, if I could. And I know, Wolf, you may not agree with this. You may not like it. But I think it's a -- it's fair to do this. And that is, the American people hope that, two things, one is that no one is above the law. Mr. Manafort, though he was a friend of the president, he should be held accountable for his illegal activities. I hope the president doesn't pardon him. I don't think that he's considering that. But it would be a terrible mistake if he did just to pardon someone because they were a friend of the president.

We -- the American people want everyone to be treated the same. They don't want anyone to be above the law. But I think you could ask the question, was it illegal for the Hillary Clinton campaign to hire Fusion GPS and foreign agents to dig up dirt on Mr. Trump? I mean, this is an area that, again, I don't know we know the answers to these questions. They're -- they're something we're going to have to look at and see what the FEC has to say.

BLITZER: Well, we know the Justice Department spent, well, more than a year looking into all of these allegations against Hillary Clinton. We know what the result of those allegations were, what they concluded at the time.

But let me basically get your thoughts on this. It's a very sensitive issue right now. And I want to be precise. Are you saying you would be upset, you would be disappointed if the president were to issue a pardon for Paul Manafort, who was convicted yesterday on these eight counts of tax fraud and bank fraud?

STEWART: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, I'd be -- I'd be upset by that and offended by that. Why should he be issued a pardon for something that had nothing at all to do with Mr. Trump? These were transgressions that took place years before they -- he was working as his campaign chief. He should be held accountable for that.

And for the president to pardon him -- and, by the way, I want to say, once again, I have no indication at all that he's considering that. I don't know that anyone has suggested that. Anyone close to the president certainly hasn't. I'm just speculating that if he were, that would be a terrible mistake. There would be no reason to pardon him just because he's a friend of the president's.

BLITZER: Because I saw his tweets this morning about Paul Manafort. He said I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family.


BLITZER: Justice -- and then he puts justice in quotes -- took a 12- year-old 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.


BLITZER: The president is praising someone who has just been convicted by a jury of his peers of stealing millions of dollars from American taxpayers. Is that appropriate?

STEWART: Well, look, I think the president considers Paul Manafort a friend. They worked together. If you have a friend or an associate, a family member, someone that you -- you know, you have liked or had a relationship with and they're going to prison, I can understand why the president feels badly for him.

But I don't consider Mr. Manafort a brave man. I don't consider him someone that I would hold up as in high esteem. Look, he broke the law. He should be held accountable for that, just like anyone else should be. BLITZER: In the aftermath of these convictions, the plea deal and

everything else we've learned over these past several weeks and months, do you think it's appropriate for your committee, the House Intelligence Committee, to reopen your investigation and, for example, re-interview Michael Cohen? He says -- his lawyer says he's willing to come back without immunity and testify in open session. Would that be appropriate to do that with the House Intelligence Committee?

STEWART: You know, Wolf, as you and I have talked about many times, the House Intel Committee's focused primarily on counterintelligence, it's on intelligence issues, protecting national security. When there are allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign or others and Russia, that clearly falls under our purview, under our area of responsibility. This is something quite different. This is FEC law. This is, you know civil law and --

[13:30:01] BLITZER: Well, let me -- let me rephrase the question. Would it be appropriate for another committee in the House of Representatives, the Oversight Committee, the Judiciary Committee, for example --


BLITZER: To take a close look at what has just happened?

STEWART: Well, and that was the point I was