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Trump Slams Cohen Deal, Says Flipping Should Be Illegal; Trump Gave Sessions Attorney General Job Because of Loyalty; President Trump Tweets About South African Land Seizures; John Bolton Unable to Reach Agreement With Russia on Meddling; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:10] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. So glad you're with me.

From loyal fixer to flipper, the president falsely says Michael Cohen's crimes, quote, "weren't crimes."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What Michael Cohen pled to weren't even campaign related. They weren't crimes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: They were. But he says his betrayal should be illegal. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: He made a great deal because he was in another business, totally unrelated to me where I guess there was fraud involved and loans and taxicabs and all sorts of things. Nothing to do with me. So he makes a better deal when he uses me.

I know all about flipping for 30, 40 years. I've been watching flippers. Everything is wonderful and they get 10 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: A lot of headlines to get through in this interview. Let's go to the White House Jeremy Diamond joins me there this morning.

Good morning to you. A crime isn't a crime this morning, according to the president. And he was up late not happy about a lot of this.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right. Poppy, you know, it's been a whirlwind nearly 48 hours since we got the guilty verdict in the Paul Manafort case, the guilty plea from Michael Cohen. And we know that the president was up late last night tweeting, just past 1:00 a.m., about this, quote-unquote, "rigged witch hunt." But now we're getting a better sense of what the president has been thinking about all of this. And in this interview with FOX News, the president talks about

flipping, saying it should be illegal, clearly expressing his concerns that some of these phones who have been -- who are now convicted felons who have been close to him might flip on him. It is quite remarkable to hear the president of the United States, the head of the executive branch, talk about a tactic that is commonly used in federal prosecutions in such a negative way.

The president also being asked about impeachment and whether or not he sees that as something that he is concerned about. The president making clear that he doesn't think he should be impeached as long as he is doing a great job. Kind of focusing on the economy, saying that he believes the stock market would crash if he were to be impeached.

But all of this comes as Paul Manafort is about to head for his second trial, of course. And Paul Manafort clearly not flipping as of yet. And the president, of course, praising those comments. But he wouldn't quite say whether or not he would be willing to pardon his former campaign chairman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AINSLEY EARHARDT, CO-HOST, "FOX AND FRIENDS": Are you considering pardoning Paul Manafort?

TRUMP: I have great respect for what he has done in terms of what he has gone through. You know, he worked for Ronald Reagan for years. He worked for Bob Dole. He worked -- I guess his firm worked for McCain. He worked for many, many people, many, many years. And I would say what he did, some of the charges they threw against him, every consultant, every lobbyist in Washington probably does.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DIAMOND: And Popp, we're quite a long way there from drain the swamp, here it seems to be well, drain the swamp but let's unless you're Paul Manafort and you do what everybody else in the swamp also does.

The president was also asked about Michael Cohen, his longtime attorney, somebody who worked for him for more than a decade. But he is trying to distance himself now from Michael Cohen, who has pleaded guilty to eight felony charges and implicated the president in the campaign finance violations to which he pled guilty.

This comes, of course, as the Specter of Michael Cohen and what he could possibly say to prosecutors further, if he could possibly talk additionally with the special counsel Robert Mueller, that is still looming. And it was notable that the president made very few disparaging comments about Michael Cohen in this interview, trying to be perhaps a little bit nice to a man who could flip on him as the president is saying -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. It's an interesting point. Jeremy thanks for the reporting from the White House this morning. Let's talk about all the legal aspects. Here with me CNN legal analyst Shan Wu, and Anne Milgram. Good morning to you, guys. And Anne, let me begin with you, Trump. So according to the president

this morning, Michael Cohen's admitted crimes, felony, weren't crimes.

ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, there's no question they're crimes. No federal judge would take a guilty plea unless they're pleading guilty to a crime. No prosecutor would prosecute these cases.

HARLOW: Right.

MILGRAM: But the bottom line is that we all know that they are crimes. There's no question here that there are campaign finance violations. And what makes these campaign finance violations very clear is that Cohen is saying that the president intended do this to protect himself in the political campaign. That's what matters here. And so for the president to say there's nothing wrong is just -- I mean, it's beyond absurd.

HARLOW: Shan, he's talking about and he's downplaying the crime of campaign finance violations. Right? But there's actually a bigger crime that Michael Cohen is alleging here in what he said in court, and that's a crime of conspiracy against the president.

[10:05:07] SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's right. The president is now what we call an unindicted co-conspirator. And it's perfectly clear that it's him and that Cohen was acting at his direction. So he is completely implicated in the crime.

HARLOW: What about Paul Manafort? Your read on the language, Shan, that the president used to describe Paul Manafort in this interview this morning, echoing really what he was tweeting right after?

WU: Yes. The language is striking, particularly in conjunction with his later talk about flipping. I mean, he is using the language of mafia mob prosecutions, saying that Manafort didn't break. I mean, it's one thing to express sympathy for, you know, a colleague or someone you've been friends with, but he is basically saying it's a completely unjust prosecution, even though he's been convicted. And clearly, a continuing signal that he's trying to dangle the pardon possibility in front of him.

HARLOW: You think a pardon is likely, Anne?

MILGRAM: It's hard for me to imagine that we can even be talking about a pardon. And even the language he's using, it is stunning to me that we now have Manafort convicted as a felon of stealing millions of dollars essentially from the American government, from the American people and Donald Trump is out there saying, but he is a great guy. And so it is really -- it's hard for me to even imagine that we could be talking about a pardon. That said, I think it's possible the president does it.

HARLOW: Let's listen also to the explanation on the payments here, Shan. Because the president wants to have it always. Not just one way or two ways, always. And the issue is, he says such contrasting things on tape. So let's listen first to the Cohen payments, to pay off, you know, Stormy Daniels and also Karen McDougal, to keep stories of an alleged affair with the president silent. Here is what he said this morning about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EARHARDT: Did you know about the payments?

TRUMP: Later on I knew. Later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did and they were not 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: OK. Well, here is what he said on tape with Michael Cohen about arranging a deal to pay $150,000 to keep Karen McDougal's story of an alleged affair with the president, this former Playboy Playmate, to keep that silent. Here is the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP LAWYER: When it comes time for the financing which will be --

TRUMP: Listen, what financing?

COHEN: We'll have to pay --

TRUMP: Pay with cash.

COHEN: No, no, no. I got it. No, no, no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: What is he trying to do here, Shan?

(LAUGHTER)

WU: That's a good question.

HARLOW: It's just all there. It's all right there.

WU: He is trying to deflect as is usual. I mean, I got to say, I think Anne is probably agree with this. He really needs to consult with lawyers before he talks about this stuff. I mean, his deflection makes no sense. He's talking about it wasn't campaign resources. That's not what the crime is here. So it's completely off base with that. And then his statement that he didn't know about it until later or something, I mean, that's sort of collaborated because the question is, what is the later there?

But he obviously is aware of it before it's paid. So I just don't see how this helps him at all besides opening up to more false statements were he actually to get interviewed or testify under oath. HARLOW: Do you think, Anne -- who or what do you think is putting the

president in the most jeopardy right now? By that I mean, Cohen and, you know, the very likely possibility of a -- you know, a potentially very consequential plea agreement and cooperation agreement or Manafort who also could reach a deal with Mueller's team before his D.C. trial?

MILGRAM: So I would be skeptical that Mueller -- that Manafort will reach a deal. I think it's possible. But he should have done it earlier. It's sort of a strange thing to do at this point. Again it's possible. The Cohen piece, I think the two biggest issues for the president are Michael Cohen's guilty plea which directly implicates the president in commission of a crime. And then the ongoing Mueller investigation into questions of whether he conspired with Russia during the election. And so those two things, and of course Manafort is out there as well. So he just has a lot --

HARLOW: Is Cohen's very problematic issue with the truth and credibility going to be a factor, though, that could be helpful to the president?

MILGRAM: Sure. I mean, look, the president surrounded himself by -- with people who are not truthful. I mean, the kind of lawyer that would tape someone, the kind of people that would steal millions of dollars from the U.S. government and even steal from the transition and inauguration. Right? I mean, the president surrounded himself -- he did not surround himself with Mother Theresa, let's say that. And so the people all have issues. They're all going to be found to have lied and cheat and stolen and to have done so.

And look, you have the president of the United States essentially saying that Paul Manafort was stealing money and doing these things but everybody in Washington does it, so it's OK. I mean, how is that possible?

HARLOW: From the drain of swamp president.

MILGRAM: Right.

HARLOW: We'll talk about that political side of all that next. Thank you, Anne. Good to have you.

Shan, nice to have you as well.

[10:10:04] So President Trump also taking another shot at his own attorney general this morning. He says there is only one reason that he gave Jeff Sessions that job. What is it? You'll hear from the president next.

Also, facing legal battles back here at home. The president sends a late-night tweet about South African land reform? South Africa is firing back this morning. But was this really about policy or just a distraction tactic?

And National Security adviser John Bolton moments ago saying he and his Russian counterpart did not see eye-to-eye on election meddling. So what now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARLOW: Well, yet again the president of the United States is ripping into his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying he gave Sessions the job based on loyalty.

[10:15:05] Solely loyalty. Apparently instead of qualification. Listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: He took the job and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this? And by the way, he was on the campaign. You know, the only reason I gave him the job because I felt loyalty. He was an original supporter. He was on the campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: All right, David Gergen is with me, CNN senior political analyst and former adviser to four presidents, and Jackie Kucinich joins me as well, our political analyst and the Washington bureau chief of "The Daily Beast."

There's so much to parse through from this interview this morning. But let's begin on this, David. The attorney general only hired because of loyalty. Loyalty above all else. A theme for this president. For a man who has paid for and works for the American taxpayer.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And it's important to go back to fundamentals here. The president of the United States is the ultimate guardian of our rule of law in the United States. The attorney general is the appointee of the president to carry that out. And to protect the rule of law. And Donald Trump now has been on a tear to violate all the norms that we normally associate with protecting the rule of law, going after his attorney general like this is one more example.

But also, the way he's praised now a convicted felon, Paul Manafort, for essentially resisting any cooperation with the Justice Department, with various investigations. And at the same time, he's attacked his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, who agreed to cooperate and tell the truth under oath.

HARLOW: Right.

GERGEN: And yes, it didn't reflect well on the president, it implicated him. But you know, that -- he, the president, is our guardian. And if we can't -- if we can't expect, you know, protection from the guardian, where can we turn? We've become a nation without a rule of law.

HARLOW: Well, you can turn, Jackie, to the co-equal branch of government, right? You can turn to Congress because that's a big part of their mandate is to check the executive branch. But you know, we heard from Republicans even this morning.

Mike Rounds was on -- with John Berman and Ali on "NEW DAY," and it's mum, pretty silent from House Speaker Paul Ryan's team, from Mitch McConnell's team. Where is the check?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's a really good question. And you're right, it should be with Congress. But they're being quiet because they don't want this election to be about President Trump. And he's very good about turning the entire functions of the government into being all about him. I mean, he just said that with the Justice Department. It's all about -- you know, it's all about loyalty, it's all about him, it's all about protecting him.

And that's what you heard from Senator Rounds. That's what you heard from people on the Hill this week, saying that, you know, he is the president. What do you want us to do? Well, you could launch investigations. You could do this. You could do that. But we are ahead of a midterm. They want to talk about the economy. They want to talk about taxes. And right now, all they're doing is spending their time talking about President Trump. And that in a lot of -- and particularly we're talking about House congressional districts, could be very problematic.

HARLOW: Can I -- David, let me ask you about the voter, right, and what this is going to do to the Republican voter and the staunch Trump voter. Fascinating Josh Dawsey and Bob Costa piece in the "Washington Post" this morning, and they quote a man named Dan Eberhart. He's the guy that I have interviewed for years, made a ton of money in the oil boom in North Dakota. A big Republican donor.

Fascinating because he has stood so closely with the president on everything until now. Here is what he says. Quote, "This Cohen stuff is an earthquake. Cohen is admitting that Trump told him to commit a crime. A lot of people in Trump world have been spinning and spinning. How do you spin a fact? This is a hard fact in a formal setting that is unavoidable."

Is he an anomaly? Or are we going to see more of that?

GERGEN: Well, I think that's one of the big, big questions because if people like that begin to turn, you will see the numbers begin to crumble, support for Trump begin to crumble. Some in his base. And I think he is more protected in the rural parts of the country where his base is very strong.

HARLOW: Yes.

GERGEN: But I think a danger point for him is in the suburbs. And you have a lot of people in the suburbs who are still open minded and haven't quite made up their mind necessarily. They like what Trump has done for the economy.

HARLOW: Right.

GERGEN: But they're probably aghast by all the rest. And which way will they go in the midterms? HARLOW: Well, that --

GERGEN: One of the things that can't be --

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: The Republicans, after Watergate, in the next midterm, which is just a few months later, they lost 49 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate. They could do that again, unless this Republican wakes up and is tougher and is less cautious and some would say cowardly about the way they're dealing with the president.

[10:20:04] HARLOW: The counterpoint to that, though, Jackie, again in the same "Washington Post" piece, this from Josh Holmes, you know, advises Mitch McConnell, Republican strategist, here's what he says. "I don't think anybody who is a Trump supporter has been sitting around for the past six months baking their -- banking their support on the president's denial of his relationship with Stormy Daniels." Is this baked in?

KUCINICH: So I don't -- the president hasn't really moved, right, with his supporters.

HARLOW: No.

KUCINICH: They don't -- they don't necessarily care what he does. They think he is under siege and he's been under siege this entire time. And in the president's defense, there really hasn't been a whole lot of consequences for him personally of all of these scandals unfolding. Now we bring us to the midterms. If they lose the House, if they lose seats, sure, the president is going to try to blame it on other things. But he will be a very large presence of that.

That will be a real-life consequence. We'll just have to see if that happens. If not, I think you'll see a very emboldened president, if the Republicans managed to keep control.

HARLOW: David.

GERGEN: I think that's absolutely right. But I come back to this, Republicans, by tying themselves as tightly as they have to Donald Trump, are going to face more and more problems unless they change course. From my point of view, I know they won't do this. I know they will be against it. But I think they ought to draw three red lines for the president. Do not shut down the Mueller investigation. Second red line is, do not start pardoning people like Paul Manafort. And third red line is, when and if Mueller subpoenas you, go and testify.

HARLOW: Talk. Those are three stark red lines.

GERGEN: Yes.

HARLOW: We will see if it comes to any of them.

Thank you all very much, Jackie, David, good to have you this morning. KUCINICH: Thanks, Poppy.

HARLOW: So the follow-up now to the Helsinki summit between the president and Vladimir Putin. The president's National Security adviser John Bolton just moments ago met with his Russian counterpart. Here are the cliff notes. They do not agree on a lot when it comes to election meddling.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:26:53] HARLOW: This morning, South Africa wants some clarification for what it is calling, quote, "hysterical comments" from President Trump. What were those comments? Let me read you what the president wrote last night. Quote, "I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations, and large-scale killing of farmers."

Trump's tweet appeared to be in response to a FOX News report which alleged that South Africa's government was, quote, "seizing land from white farmers."

David McKenzie joins me this morning from Johannesburg.

What is the president talking about?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's talking about a FOX News report and a lightning rod often for white nationalists, Poppy, around the world. Let me start off by saying there are two factual inaccuracies in that tweet and then the report. One being there are no farms being seized right now by the government. The other being that while there are -- there is a broad issue with crime, of course, in South Africa, Poppy, there isn't some high level of farm murders specifically right now. In fact, at least one farm organization saying it's at a 20-year low.

The issue broadly is this issue of land in South Africa, which is a deeply emotional issue in this country with a racist past. Some 70 percent of people owning private land here are white South Africans. And then you look at the demographics. That's something that the government and others are trying to change. But here's the response from the South Africans. "South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past."

So, Poppy, a very swift response because of that tweet, which mentions the secretary of State. So it takes on a whole official kind of air about it, even beyond the fact that it was the president of the United States wading into this issue -- Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. And no response yet back to the South African government from the White House on it this morning. We'll keep an eye on that.

David McKenzie, thank you for the fact-check this morning from Johannesburg.

Meantime, National Security adviser John Bolton talking tough with his Russian counterpart on election meddling. They just met. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We weren't able to reach agreement on that so we decided to go ahead and we'll each speak individually, which is what I'm doing now. But on the whole, I would say we made considerable progress. I made it clear that we wouldn't tolerate meddling in 2018 and that we were prepared to take necessary steps to prevent it from happening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: So this meeting that just happened today was a follow-up to the Helsinki summit between President Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Let's go to the State Department, our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski joins us this morning.

Look, I mean, these two men not on the same page. And Bolton made that very clear. It was so different than what we saw in Helsinki.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, but, I mean, the U.S. and Russia are it seems never going to be on the same page, at least any time soon, on election meddling. Russia denies it, calls it fake news, say it's a big hoax, sounds a lot like language we hear in other ways relating to Russia on the part of the U.S.

But on election meddling, National Security adviser John Bolton has been tough on Russia. Some consider him to be a Russia hawk. He has spoken out harshly against the Russian bad behavior many, many times in the past.