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Report: Sessions Hits Back at Trump and Says He Won't Be Improperly Influenced; Session Says He Won't Make the Justice Department Political; National Enquirer Boss Granted Immunity in Cohen Case; Trump Says If I Am Impeached Everybody Will Be Poor. Aired 2- 2:30p ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Ana Cabrera in for Brooke Baldwin. Another afternoon, more breaking news involving the president and the man he chose to lead the justice department. Here's Attorney General Jeff Sessions arriving moments ago at the White House, scheduled to talk prison reform with the president and happening as Sessions is firing back, responds to the president's criticism of his during a television interview. Here were the president's harsh comments about Sessions.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Jeff Sessions, never took control of the Justice Department and it's sort on an incredible thing when everybody sees what is going on in the Justice Department. I always put justice now with quotes. It's a very, very sad day. Jeff Sessions recused himself. Which he shouldn't have done. Or he should have told me. Even my enemies say that Jeff Sessions should have told you that he was going to recuse himself then you wouldn't have put him in. He took the job then he said I'm going to recuse myself. I said what kind of a man is this?


CABRERA: Moments ago, Sessions releasing his statement in response, "I took control of the Justice Department the day I was sworn in which is why we have had unprecedented success at effectuating the president's agenda. While I am the attorney general the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: I demand the highest standard. Where they are not met, I take action. However, no nation has a more talented and more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States."

CABRERA: Let me turn now to CNN's Laura Jarrett at the Justice Department. Laura, the president has ripped Jeff Sessions on multiple occasions, without Sessions hitting back. Do we know what led to this statement today?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: You're right, Ana. He has hit him on multiple occasions but this one I think was different because it struck at the core of his authority. As you played that sound, he said he never took control of the Justice Department. I'm told by a source familiar with the attorney general's thinking is that's what struck at the core of him. That was a macro criticism that's different than his, perhaps, more granular daily gripes on Twitter where he's talking about former FBI employees, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok or Bruce Ohr, someone who's currently at the Justice Department who he's threatened withdraw his security clearance.

Those are individual cases. The Justice Department doesn't comment on those. Today it was different because it was about the attorney general's control over the Justice Department and he felt like it was time to push back and this, this of course, is pretty rare. He rarely does this. He always, as every single event, Sessions goes out of his way to praise the president. To talk about furthering his agenda. But the one time that he did push back was back in February where, again, the president questioned his integrity.

He said what the attorney general had been doing at the Justice Department surrounding Carter Page, and surveillance and FISA, those issues that have become also familiar to us now, when the president attacked him calling him a disgrace, it's, again, the time when Attorney General Jeff Sessions hit back and so I think that's what we're seeing. He's not going to react every single day to every single tweet. But when his integrity is questioned, he will have something to say, Ana.

CABRERA: Laura Jarrett, we know you're continuing to dig into this. Thank you. Joining us now to talk more about it all, Caitlin Huey- Burns, national political reporter for "Real Clear Politics." CNN legal analyst and former prosecutor Paul Callan. And Robert Bianchi, former prosecutor in Morris County, New Jersey. First reaction from everyone, Paul.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: This is cowardly back stabbing by the president of the United States against an attorney general who has shown enormous integrity and backbone in standing up to Mr. Trump. The president's been trying to force a resignation of Jeff Sessions when he, the president, has the right to fire him if he wishes to do so. But the president is too fearful of doing that because it may subject him to obstruction of justice charges. So instead, he's trying to use this backdoor effort of constant berating and attacks on the attorney general, so the attorney general will resign. And I think Sessions deserves enormous credit for standing up to the president, showing backbone, and integrity by remaining in office.

[1405:00] CABRERA: Your reaction, Robert?

ROBERT BIANCHI, FORMER PROSECUTOR IN MORRIS COUNTY, NEW JERSEY: I agree with my colleague here. And I'm surprised that I am. Not that I agree with you. But he is doing what he's supposed to be doing and not letting politics influence what the Justice Department is supposed to be doing. Now it's interesting to me, when I was appointed to head prosecutor, and you know this, by the governor, I can only be removed for cause. I can't be browbeat out of that office. I think they need to do something so this can't happen again. Nevertheless, I'll say one last point, it's interesting to me that the president is so upset about what he's doing with the justice department, because I handled criminal defense cases and when they pass policies that that you have to plead to the most readily provable offense and the draconian sentencing and plead guidelines, I wish the president would be concerned about the little guy who's going to jail for a lot less than the policies of this administration.

CABRERA: Notable to me that the president used the word, loyalty, when he was talking about why he's so upset with Jeff Sessions and his response, clearly, says, I am not loyal to you.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER FOR "REAL CLEAR POLITICS": Right. And absolutely interesting about this, too, is the way in which the president is continuing to use justice, in quotation marks. I think what you're seeing kind of across agencies, quite frankly, when you were talking about agency heads coming out in public and defending their own agencies, I think it's really striking, considering that they must stick up for the work of everybody in these agencies. Remember, just after the Helsinki conference, we saw the heads of the national security and intelligence communities come out and try to stake their own ground on here. Here we see Jeff Sessions doing exactly that as well and the president has berated Jeff Sessions for months and months without taking that step of firing him. I think it's also notable that we've seen reporting from capitol hill, people like Lindsey Graham questioning whether Jeff Sessions might be fired after the midterm elections. And what the appetite for that would be on capitol hill. And this is part of the president's efforts to undermine his own justice department and appearing to be so corrosive at this point.

CABRERA: Paul, how unprecedented is it? Just take the names out for a second. To see an attorney general of the United States essentially rebuking the president of the United States in such a public way.

CALLAN: Well, it's totally unprecedented. And, you know, you have to really go back to the Nixon administration and during the Saturday night massacre, of course, at that point in time when Nixon was trying to give the order to Elliot Richardson, who was the attorney general at that time, to fire the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, Richardson stood up to Nixon and said, no, I'm not going to do it. So, Nixon fired him. Ruckelshaus was the next person in line and went to the third person in line, Mr. Bork, who issued the order. It's unusual to have this kind of fight between the attorney general and president of the United States.

CABRERA: Everyone, stay with me. There's much more to discuss.

More breaking news, the "The Wall Street Journal" reporting a longtime crony of President Trump has been granted immunity in the case. David Pecker, head of the publishing company that owns "The National Enquirer" the latest to make a deal with the feds.

Also, President Trump making the case against his own impeachment. Warning what would happen to the financial markets and personal finances if he were to be forced out. We'll discuss.

[14:10:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK) CABRERA: More breaking news this hour. This time involving the investigation of the president's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleading guilty to multiple crimes. The "The Wall Street Journal" is now reporting that a longtime crony of the president, David Pecker, was granted immunity in that case against Cohen. Now, Pecker is the chief of the publishing company that owns the "National Enquirer" and Cohen told a judge he worked with Pecker in paying off a former playboy playmate to silence her about her alleged affair with Trump. An offense Cohen said he committed at the direction and in coordination with Trump to influence the 2016 election. Now, remember, that secret audio of Cohen and Trump's conversation, David Pecker is at the center of it. Listen.


MICHAEL COHEN, TRUMP'S FORMER LAWYER: I need to open a company for the transfer of all that info regarding our friend, David.


CABRERA: My analysts are back with me and joining us now, CNN's Kara, you reported David Pecker was subpoenaed by the southern district of New York. Do we know what he told investigators?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, sources tell myself and my colleague that David Pecker was subpoenaed and when he testified he told prosecutors about these payments that he had arranged with Michael Cohen and he also said that Trump had knowledge of the deals. We don't know exactly the breadth of what he said in that but he said he told him about these payments and as the "Journal" is reporting as part of an immunity deal and Trump had knowledge of the deal.

[15:15:00] That's where we are now. We're continuing to report this out. Pecker is a longtime friend of Donald Trump's. This is a big deal for him to be in there and testifying and telling the government what he knew about these deals.

CABRERA: Your take, Robert? How big of a deal is this?

BIANCHI: I think it's a big deal. They're putting all the dots together. That tape is the thing that is the thread through this. Basically, going through shell companies moving the money around, pushing the money back to Cohen saying it's for legal bills then they're going to this guy and David and he's telling you I know what is happening here. And you go ahead and do that with David. Now, listen, whether you like Trump, don't like Trump, the bottom line, if you can't smell conspiracy to violate laws and hide this from people based upon everything that's going, you're being completely blinded because, again, I go back to the regular guy, the regular guy did this, nobody would even bat an eye. They'd be like are you kidding me? Of course, they're all in on it.

CABRERA: There is a little bit of just common sense here. Caitlin, when you hear Pecker now saying Trump knew about it, Cohen saying Trump knew about it, how many people need to say Trump knew about it? Not to mention the president's own words on that tape we just played. HUEY-BURNS: On the tape, exactly, which the White House wouldn't

respond to yesterday. Interestingly enough. The question that I've had, too, is how, you know, how credible of a witness, of course, is Michael Cohen? Right? We've seen the president try to downplay his role in his own life, and, you know, think there is a question about his credibility. If you do have these other people corroborating what he is saying, I think that could speak to that. That's beyond my legal purview, but --

BIANCHI: Of course.

CABRERA: As far as Paul, do you think that we're going to now see more potential investigations here in New York given that this is where all of it's happening, but this is a federal case that was open against Cohen. Could there be a state prosecution or investigation at the very least moving forward?

CALLAN: Well, that's an interesting question because state attorney generals have been making noises about going after Trump on charges across the country, and, obviously of course, New York has been particularly hostile to him. So much of the media is in New York. Now this David Pecker thing is very, very interesting because Pecker, of course, was the deal that he used to do with Trump was he would have these catches and kill arrangements. Where if somebody like one of the Playboy playmates had a bad story about Trump, that Trump wanted to kill, the "national enquirer" would go to the person and say we're going to put you on as a columnist for "X" amount of money but we're going to buy your story. So that they could never tell the tale of a relationship with Trump. It's called a catch and kill arrangement. But federal prosecutors have now come up with a theory that this really is kind of a campaign contribution. It's aiding and abetting a gift in kind to prevent embarrassing information from being disclosed. The same theory that they're using against Cohen. So, they're being -- they're being very thorough in this investigation. And now it's really gone to another level when they're starting to look at the press and how the press or at least the "National Enquirer" helped the Trump campaign.

CABRERA: It begs the question, too, as we learn more and more, I'm recalling there were more than a dozen women who came out and had allegations against then-candidate Trump, Kara. Could there be more hush payment we don't even know about?

SCANNELL: I think to Paul's point, exactly, the "Enquirer" is in the business of catch and kill and the relationship David Pecker has with Trump goes back decades. I was doing some research and David Pecker, you know, attended Trump's wedding, they have this long, rich relationship. And, you know, so if everything stands to reason the way that it's been, I think it makes sense that there possibly could be more payments. I mean, even after the story of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal broke, we had, you know -- and after the raid of Michael Cohen, the "Enquirer" ran a story about Michael Cohen, Trump's fixers, secrets and lies.

At the time, everyone was saying that David Pecker would never have allowed that cover story to run, which is favorable to Trump. You know, that would not have happened without David Pecker's signoff. That was at least as recently as may where we saw the "National Enquirer" writing a story about Michael Cohen here, a negative story, so it certainly I think their loyalty extended up until this point, American media and David Pecker might have been put in a situation where they were going to be forced to testify before a grand jury and forced into this up munity immunity deal. It would stand to reason to your question that there could well

be other women out there because of the allegations you referred to and the catch and kill history of American media.

[14:20:00] CABRERA: Guys, got to leave it there. Thank you so much. Back to our breaking news. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sending a stinging response to fresh attacks on his Department of Justice from the president. What CNN just learned about why he's hitting back.

And smack in the middle of a wild interview, President Trump offers a frightening warning on why he shouldn't be impeached. Saying the markets would crash. You'll hear it, next.


CABRERA: Back to our breaking story this hour. The president has been berating attorney general Jeff Sessions for months about his decision to recuse himself from the special counsel Robert Mueller's rush is an investigation. Today, Sessions hit back issuing a statement that reads in part, "while I am attorney general, the actions of the department of justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations." with us now, CNN political director David Chalian, and David, a lot of people have said this is a long time coming. We know the president doesn't take criticism well. How is this going over with Trump, do you think?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I would imagine not too well. Although, the president, as you know, believes very much in the philosophy that when you're punched, you punch back. So, he may have some respect here that attorney general Sessions is actually standing up for himself and pushing back a bit. Where can the president go on this? Right? Either he's going to fire Jeff Sessions or not. John Cornyn, the number two Republican senator, said do not do now, we couldn't get a replacement confirmed. Lindsey Graham says not until after the election, if you do it before, it's a bad idea. We'll see if that has sway, what the president's thinking on this. It's amazing to watch him trapped in by himself on this because he, of course, has the full right to fire Sessions at any time that he wants.

CABRERA: The president's comments about Sessions leading to the response from Sessions is just one of many comments that have caught attention from that interview Trump gave to fox news. We know Republicans are grappling with how to handle the fallout of Michael Cohen's guilty plea. The president has a warning for lawmakers. Listen.


TRUMP: You know, I guess it's something like high crimes and all, I don't know how you can impeach somebody who's done a great job. I tell you what, if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash. 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.


CABRERA: This is where we are right now. The president of the United States arguing against his own impeachment, David.

CHALIAN: Yes. I've heard lots of arguments against impeachment, actually, on both sides of the aisle. I never heard one that said the president, any president, shouldn't be impeached because the country, everybody, will be poor. That seems to be a bit grasping at straws there, to me, but what I do think you hear the president formulating there is a political argument against impeachment. His former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is out there urging every Republican to run on this issue, on the threat of impeachment and it's actually also why, Ana, you see some Democrats concerned about bringing up impeachment on the campaign trail as an issue and a message because it could backfire on them. It really could rally the Republican base to come alive in an election season where they've been a little apathetic than we've seen in the primary season in terms of turnout. If the idea that the entire Trump presidency is on the line, that could awaken some Republicans which Democrats fear.

CABRERA: Trump also said flipping should be outlawed. Listen.


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. He makes a better deal when he uses me. I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years, I've been watching flippers. Everything's wonderful then they get ten years in jail and flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed.


CABRERA: David, what does this tell you about how the president's mind works and his view on the rule of law?

CHALIAN: Yes, well first of all, I don't know what almost ought to be outlawed is, either it's outlawed or not. I'm not quite sure about his words choice there, but, Yes, it makes your ears perk up. The chief law enforcement officer of the land, the executive who oversees the execution of the laws of the land, is now saying there's this tool that law enforcement uses to get criminals behind bars that take lower-level people, get them to flip and share information, that he's saying almost should be outlawed. It just is mind-boggling and all you have to do is look at his attorney, Rudy Giuliani's record as a prosecutor, about the people he's flipped. The president, himself, indicates he's seen this a lot and is a commonly used tool in law enforcement and, of course, now the president thinks, perhaps, it should be outlawed because it's working to his personal disadvantage.

CABRERA: David Chalian, thank you for your take.

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