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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

President Trump Parroting White Nationalist Propaganda?; American Media President Reportedly Granted Immunity in Cohen Investigation; Jeff Sessions Hits Back at President Trump; Washington Post: Giuliani Says Trump Sought His Lawyers' Advice Weeks Ago on Possibly Pardoning Manafort. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump says he would grade his performance an A-plus so far. Presumably, Vice President Pence says, that's not high enough.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news, just hours after President Trump said flipping almost ought to be illegal, another major Trump loyalist is granted immunity in the Michael Cohen case, and he's ready to talk to inquiring minds in the Mueller probe.

More breaking news. The president's favorite punching bag punches back, the attorney general standing up to President Trump after another public humiliation. What could possibly happen next?

Plus, with his White House in peril, President Trump chooses to send his first tweet about Africa as president -- why some are calling what he said something you would hear from white nationalists.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with politics lead. Another longtime friend of President Trump's is telling all to law enforcement. David Pecker, chairman of American Media, Inc., which publishes the pro-Trump supermarket tabloid "The National Enquirer," the latest to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a better deal for himself.

This after the president's former attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to federal crimes and implicated the president in the commission of two of those felonies. This afternoon, "The Wall Street Journal" is breaking the news that Pecker was granted immunity by prosecutors and he's corroborating Michael Cohen story.

Pecker saying, according to "The Journal," that then candidate Trump knew about the payments Michael Cohen made the porn star Stormy Daniels and playmate of the year Karen McDougal. President Trump is also heard on a September 2016 tape discussing a potential McDougal payment of $150,000 and in a tape released by Cohen.

This all comes right after the president sat down with his favorite channel, FOX News, bashing those who cooperate with authorities, AKA, those who flip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everything's wonderful, and then they get 10 years in jail, and they -- they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go.

It almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Let's get right to CNN's Brynn Gingras.

Brynn, now it's two against one implicating the president on these accusations.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, two against one and two very good friends of Trump's, or at least we're very good friends of the president.

It's clear from court documents Cohen and Pecker had an alliance to catch and kill stories right before the 2016 election to Trump's benefit, but now it seems only Cohen will be the one taking the fall for the illegal scheme.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS (voice-over): Another Trump ally cooperating with investigators, and this one's gaining immunity for doing so.

"The Wall Street Journal" reporting David Pecker, who runs "The National Enquirer" and is a longtime friend of Trump's, worked with federal prosecutors in the Michael Cohen investigation and discussed the deals the two men brokered to quash bad press about the president prior to the 2016 election.

Details of Pecker's immunity deal coming out just hours after Trump complained to FOX News about people flipping.

TRUMP: Everything's wonderful, and then they get 10 years in jail, and they -- they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair.

If you say bad things about somebody, in other words, make up stories, if you don't know, make up stories. They just make up lies.

GINGRAS: Pecker was the subpoenaed by the feds in April, shortly after the raid of Michael Cohen's home office and hotel room, and like Cohen, Pecker reportedly told investigators the president knew about payments made to two women who alleged affairs with Trump.

Pecker and Cohen's alliance is laid out in great detail in documents from Tuesday's court proceedings. And Pecker's testimony to investigators is supported by documents and audio recordings seized from the raid, according to "The Journal." Court papers show investigators found one conversation regarding the payout to porn star Stormy Daniels on an encrypted phone app. Pecker tells Cohen -- quote -- "We have to coordinate something on the matter attorney one is calling you about or it could look awfully bad for everyone."

This isn't the first time we're hearing about the deals the two men made and the fact the president knew. It's referenced on the tape released by Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, last month.

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

TRUMP: Give it to me and...

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

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

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

TRUMP: Yes, I was thinking about that.

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

TRUMP: Maybe he gets hit by a truck.

COHEN: Correct.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS: And that conversation obviously referencing David Pecker, as well.

Well, we reached out to AMI for comment on "The Wall Street Journal" reporting and Cohen's admissions in court, and we haven't heard back just yet, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Brynn Gingras, thanks so much.

[16:05:00]

Let's chat about this with our experts.

Another ally of the president's talking to authorities. The walls do seem to be closing in a bit.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, and it gives you a little bit of indication of why that document, that charging document in the plea agreement against Cohen was so thorough.

They had the cooperation of David Pecker, right? They knew they had all of these details laid out. And we don't know what more that means, how much -- what other information Pecker has that Cohen wasn't aware of, deals that might predate the campaign.

TAPPER: A Trump friend reportedly told "Vanity Fair" -- quote -- "Holy S. I thought Pecker would be the last one to turn."

And I have to say, this is a powerful guy, and the fact that he's cooperating with authorities, I find hard to believe that he's doing it out of the goodness of his heart.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it almost makes you think that they may have put their own pressure on David Pecker.

We don't know. But as you pointed out, he is a powerful guy. He is covered as a media organization. So you could put up a big fight and decline to cooperate and turn this into a battle, if you want. And it's safe to bet the president would have been on his side in that. So it is so telling to see people who are so friendly to the president, so amenable to the president over so many years turning on him like this.

And it does make you wonder. This is a small slice. We're learning a small slice of what these people are willing to share with investigators. We don't know the parts that didn't come out in these court documents. We don't know what they're not cooperating about or what investigators have agreed to push to the side in exchange for their cooperation.

TAPPER: Are you surprised? You have Cohen. Obviously, he was in hot water, but now David Pecker. I mean, are you surprised that these longtime Trump associates, cronies are turning on him?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": No, because the Justice Department is a very different thing from resisting hostile media inquiries or resisting political pressure or even standing up to Congress.

I think that's been sort of underestimated throughout the coverage of this in a sense, which is, we're so used to Trump, bad news cycle, good news cycle, tweet here, one congressional critic there. Oh, it doesn't anywhere. He misbehaves horribly, Charlottesville or something like that. But two or three weeks later, what are you going to do about it?

He behaved terribly, but he's still president. Right?

Justice Department investigations are different. They have a huge amount of leverage. You don't choose whether to cooperate. Ultimately, they indict you or they don't. They offer you a plea bargain or they don't. They have all the information. It's not just Mueller. It's not just the special counsel.

That is to me the most interesting thing. The Southern District of New York stuff, it is the entire Justice Department. It is Rod Rosenstein managing a complex investigation with two extremely effective, experienced and able prosecutorial teams.

And that just changes everything. And we need to start thinking about the implications of that when one thing happens. It's not as if, oh, they got this guy to flip, and then it's just well, OK, it's like a new story. Move on to something else the next day.

No, they now know who they now have to go after and say, well, here's the evidence we have from these e-mails. Are you willing to tell us what happened? And, yes, you better tell us the truth.

So I think the Justice Department is just a whole different kettle of fish from all the normal stuff that goes on.

TAPPER: And, Karine Jean-Pierre, one of the things that's interesting is there's been a lot of talk about whether or not Michael Cohen is credible, whether or not he's reliable.

Well, it turns out, according to the Justice Department at least, there's -- there's another source. It's not just Michael Cohen.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes. Yes.

And it's actually really -- it's interesting news that we found this out, because on Tuesday when he was under oath and he was pleading guilty, we were wondering, why doesn't -- is there a deal, what's going on?

And now we know that they were also talking to Pecker, and they had another piece of the pie, as you were saying. And every day, I think we're going to get more and more pieces.

And so I think that what Cohen and Pecker are learning is that there is no loyalty. Loyalty is really one way with Donald Trump. And they have to watch out for themselves. You can't lie to the FBI. You just can't lie.

MURRAY: You can see why the president is so frustrated to see all of his friends turning on him like this. And he does -- he makes his point poorly, but I think his point is sort of that campaign finance violations are very hard to prosecute. It's very hard to take that to court and to win in a court of law.

And so the fact that the president is implicated in this campaign finance violation is not the same thing as being found guilty. But when you have your personal lawyer go out there, plead guilty to this, agree to a plea deal, implicate the president in open court, the president looks pretty guilty.

And I'm sure he would have wished that Michael Cohen said, OK, I'm going to try to fight this, because you will talk to and they will tell you that it is harder to prove this in court. And that's probably part of the reason prosecutors wanted Cohen to sign a plea deal.

TAPPER: And so there's one other thing I want to bring up, which is, it's hard to underestimate the dirty work that "The National Enquirer" did for Donald Trump during the 2016 campaigns.

Here's some of the campaign -- some of the coverage they chose during the campaign. They falsely, bizarrely linked Ted Cruz's dad to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They claimed that Ted Cruz had affairs, again, no evidence for this. Ted Cruz denies it.

They published a number of covers on Hillary Clinton, one reading Hillary's hit man tells all. They had a circulation of 350,000 in 2016.

[16:10:03]

How many votes did he went by, 80,000?

LIZZA: I mean, well, yes. And if you flip half of those, right, Hillary would have been president.

They have a close long-term relationship, predates the campaign. And I think this -- one of the mysteries of this prosecution is, they had Cohen pretty dead to rights on tax evasion and bank fraud. Those are easy -- as we saw with the Manafort trial, those are easy, document- based prosecutions, and they had to make a decision on the campaign finance violation.

This is not a clear-cut, easy case, right? They tried to do a similar campaign finance case against John Edwards. The jury didn't buy it. It was a mistrial, and the Justice Department decided not to retry it.

So they had to make a pretty serious decision here to go forward with this, and knowing that they were going to implicate someone who the Justice Department says they can't indict, the president.

So why did they do that? Why didn't they just nail Cohen for tax evasion and the easy stuff and the bank fraud? Why did they throw this slightly more complicated campaign finance violation? That gets into tricky First Amendment issues because it's a media company.

TAPPER: Yes.

LIZZA: And it clearly makes the president look like a criminal conspirator.

I don't think we know the answer to that.

KRISTOL: Because they think Michael Cohen knows a lot about other issues.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Trump's instinct was always right, once Mueller was appointed.

Given what Trump -- the way Trump has lived his life pre- presidentially, and I would say as president, both in terms of his private life, his financial dealings, Russia-related things, he knew that once this got going -- or he had the sense that, once this got going, once this rock was turned over, oh, my God.

And now we are seeing what happens, as I say, with a serious prosecutor and a serious Justice Department. And I give the Justice Department a huge amount of credit for this. Really investigate something.

JEAN-PIERRE: Yes.

And Cohen sent that signal, right? He said, I know a lot more. He was telling that to the Justice Department. Yes, come to me. I have more information for you.

MURRAY: And now we're down a rabbit hole looking at all of "The National Enquirer" covers that happened during the presidential campaign, and wondering what might be those covers have looked like if David Pecker and Donald Trump and Michael Cohen hadn't been trying to strike up these backroom deals, because Donald Trump has been a man about town in New York for quite some time.

You have to imagine that there were a couple stories out there, even ones we still haven't heard, that might have been interesting cover for "The National Enquirer" that just died.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: One wonders if David Pecker only knows of two such women who were paid off.

Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

What was keeping President Trump up so late last night and causing him to tweet at 1:00 in the morning? Was it how to turn that A-plus grade into an A-plus-plus?

And this is awkward. Jeff Sessions fires back at President Trump's insults just minutes before heading into the White House.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:46] TAPPER: And we are back with more on our politics lead.

President Trump downplaying and distancing, saying of his former personal attorney of more than a decade, and now a convicted felon Michael Cohen that he was just one of his many lawyers, doing only small deals for him, working, quote, more or less as a part-time employee, unquote. That's a totally new characterization of Cohen than what we've been told before.

Cohen acknowledging arranging hush money payments to women who alleged affairs with Trump, payments made weeks before the 2016 presidential election.

Let's go to CNN's Kaitlan Collins. She's at the White House. And, Kaitlan, we just learned that Rudy Giuliani told "The Washington

Post", President Trump has asked recently about possibly pardoning Paul Manafort.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. Despite just yesterday, Sarah Sanders telling reporters there have been no discussions of the potential pardon for the former campaign chair, "The Washington Post" is now reporting that weeks ago, the president went to his legal team and talked about the prospect of pardoning Paul Manafort. He was in the middle of his trial which he was convicted, found guilty of eight counts of tax and bank fraud on Monday, and the president was complaining that he believed that Paul Manafort was being treated unfairly by the prosecutors.

In this interview, Rudy Giuliani tells "The Post" that he convinced the president to wait to make decisions about pardons until after the special counsel Robert Mueller finishes his investigation and that the president agreed. But what we do know, Jake, is that even today, the president refused to rule out pardoning Paul Manafort.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump arms folded and biting his tongue today, staying quiet when it came to questions about whether he is considering pardoning his former campaign chair Paul Manafort, found guilty this week on eight counts of tax and bank fraud.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you, everybody, very much.

REPORTER: President Trump, are you going to pardon Paul Manafort?

COLLINS: Trump expressing sympathy for Manafort when he was asked the same question the day before.

TRUMP: I have great respect for what he has done in terms of what he has gone through.

COLLINS: The president's praise for Manafort coming along side his scorn for his former personal attorney Michael Cohen after Cohen implicated him in a crime this week, claiming under oath that Trump directed him to pay two women who claim they had affairs with him.

TRUMP: Well, it turned out he wasn't a very good lawyer, frankly.

COLLINS: Trump downplaying his relationship with Cohen today.

TRUMP: He has been a lawyer for me, didn't do big deals, did small deals, not somebody that was with me that much. You know, they make it sound like I didn't live without him. But he was somebody that was probably with me for about 10 years and I would see him sometimes.

COLLINS: Cohen served as the president's attack dog for the last decade, even earning an office next to him on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in New York.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: The next president of the United States --

(CHEERS)

COLLINS: But sources say the president was blindsided when Cohen turned on him and he has spent the days since fuming over it, even staying up late at the White House to send a 1:00 a.m. tweet. No collusion, rigged witch hunt.

With impeachment talk accelerating in Washington, Trump saying this.

TRUMP: I don't know how you can impeach somebody who has done a great job. I'll tell you what, if I ever got impeached I think the market would crash.

[16:20:02] I think everybody would be very poor because without this thinking, you would see -- you would see numbers that you wouldn't believe in reverse.

COLLINS: Adding if he were to give himself a grade --

TRUMP: I would say I would honestly give myself an A plus.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: And, Jake, of course, an impeachment could likely rattle investors, but hearing the president on the White House grounds talk about his potential impeachment here in Washington this week is just stunning in and of itself, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with our legal experts.

Jeffrey, you have interviewed David Pecker. He seems to be a witness to corroborate Michael Cohen's testimony, which implicates President Trump and federal crimes.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, the one thing that David Pecker was very open about with me was his enormous affection for Donald Trump and his determination to use "The Enquirer" to help Donald Trump get elected president.

Now, there is nothing wrong or improper about that. "The Nation" is a magazine that supports liberals. "The Weekly Standard" is a magazine that supports conservatives. So, magazines can support candidates.

The issue here is, can they use money to subsidize their campaigns? And that's -- that would be unlawful. And David Pecker did admit to me that he did give money to one of the president's or then candidate's alleged former lovers to help Donald Trump get elected. So, I think there is potentially some legal problems for him.

TAPPER: Very interesting.

And, Laura, let me --

TOOBIN: There was until he got immunity.

TAPPER: Right, for David Pecker.

TOOBIN: Right.

TAPPER: And, Laura, the president suggesting that it should almost be illegal, he said, for someone facing jail time to become a cooperating witness, to flip. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Everything is wonderful and then they get ten years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair. You get ten years in jail, but if you say bad things about somebody, in other words, make up stories if you don't know, make up stories, they just make up lies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: How common is flipping? And what is there to prevent people from lying as President Trump suggests Michael Cohen is doing in order to get a better deal?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, flipping is a generalized term for giving information to the government that would not otherwise be privy to that is corroborated, that is verifiable and is truthful. It's not about just giving an answer that you think that the person wants to hear.

I can't withdraw information from you as a prosecutor that is not truthful that I know I cannot verify because it would support my case and it would be nice if that fact would fit into this little jenga box here.

You actually have to it verifiable. So, the idea of the safeguards that are in place, corroboration. You want to have other people or other objective information available to you to say this is actually what happened.

TAPPER: And, Jeffrey --

TOOBIN: And it happens all the time. All the time.

TAPPER: I was going to say, didn't Rudy Giuliani make his name by flipping members of the mob?

TOOBIN: I was -- long ago, I was a summer intern in Rudy Giuliani's U.S. attorney's office. And I worked on the commission case which was the case that brought down the heads of the five families. It is one of Rudy Giuliani's greatest triumphs.

And it was built on the testimony of cooperators. I mean, every case against mob leaders, against drug kingpins, against the top insider traders, they're all based on people who plead guilty and flip. If you want to stop that, you stop prosecuting the leading criminals in America.

TAPPER: And, listen --

COATES: And just because --

TAPPER: Yes?

COATES: -- you are flipping does not mean it is not factual information. It could also -- it should be truthful. Flipping is not synonymous with lying, Mr. President.

TAPPER: Right. And today --

TOOBIN: To say the least.

TAPPER: Today, Rudy Giuliani from a golf course in Scotland tried to make a case that Cohen's implication against the president cannot factor into grounds for impeachment. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, PERSONAL ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDNET TRUMP: Impeachment would be totally horrible. I mean, there's no reason. He didn't collude with the Russians. He didn't obstruct justice. Everything Cohen says has been disproved. You only impeach him for political reasons and the American people would revolt against that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What's your reaction to that, Laura?

COATES: Which American people are revolting on your behalf? If you are somebody who has broken the law, the revolt is the impeachment process itself, saying, we don't want the person to be in office if you are, in fact, not worthy of the office and you're not the executive branch holder who can say, look, we cannot have crimes in our world. This is really hyperbole and bolster and really a little bit of gaslighting people to suggest that this is the only mechanism in which we can have trust in the system. Impeachment is there to prevent people from being able to have these sorts of incidents.

TAPPER: Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: It's also true that the choice here is not Michael Cohen is a terrible person or Donald Trump has to be impeached.

Let's have an investigation.

[16:25:00] Let's have a public investigation and see what happened here. We have -- we have Michael Cohen who has said in open court that his illegal acts were coordinated with and directed by Donald Trump. But what does that mean? I mean, I -- it is certainly very suggestive and important, but it doesn't mean he's going to -- the president is going to be impeached.

But certainly given that statement and everything that has gone on here, there should be some investigation of like whether Donald Trump actually did violate the law.

TAPPER: All right. Jeffrey Toobin, Laura Coates, thank you both.

Well, that was brave. Just minutes before heading to the White House, Attorney General Jeff Sessions firing back at President Trump's insults. The punching bag's punch back, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)